Tour 17 – SAii Lagoon

SAii Lagoon Tour

SAii Lagoon is the most lush, opulent resort in the mid-market Maldives.

We’ve not seen a resort more packed with colourful landscaping which complements the colourful décor of the villas. And this rich visual aesthetic is carried inside the rooms themselves inviting décor filling the space. So many resorts slap a perfunctory print on otherwise barren walls, but SAii Lagoon rooms are filled with detail. The resort reminded us of Velaa in its opulent aesthetic (but a fraction of the price) and of Cocoon or Finolhu in its funky vibe.  SAii Lagoon describes itself as the “chilled” sibling in The Crossroads resort complex to Hard Rock Maldives’ more active vibe.

I found the resort a masterclass in product marketing. They know who they are. They are not afraid of people to not like them them because the that is the price of being distinctive enough that many people adore you.

Like The Crossroads, itself we felt transported to a version of the Maldives that was current, cosmopolitan and still in keeping with the aquatic and tropical aesthetic that has been drawing us to this paradise destination for decades.

COVID PROTOCOLS – SAii Lagoon (and all of The Crossroads complex) is taking COVID prevention extremely seriously including the following measures:

  • Health form completed on entry
  • Temperature check on arrival and departure
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers distributed liberally throughout
  • “This Table Has Ben Sanitised” signed
  • Hilton “Clean Stay” protocols
  • Sanitising floor mat (see photo below) – I haven’t seen this measure before either in the USA or the UK!

SAii Lagoon - tour 2020

Tour 17 – KIHAA Maldives

KIHAA Tour

KIHAA is simply one of the best resort *islands* in the Maldives. No wonder people have been flocking to it for decades. I have coveted a visit for years for this classic property. It started as a simple divers’ haven, grew into an Italian “Club Vacances” and some refurb a few years ago. But it still retains a classic Maldives resort feel.

KIHAA achieves the rare island trifecta (the closest comparison is Anantara Kihavah):

  • House Reef – One of the best house reefs we have seen in recent years. CORAL! More than half of the reef was live coral (the “lumpy” coral varieties, eg. massives like favia or prorates, seem to be thriving better than the “branchy” varieties, eg. staghorn, fan, table). Dramatic topology. Easy access. Colourful schools of yellow striped convict tangs, sergeant major fish, Moorish idols. So good, that one of our Amilla dives came over to dive the Kihaa house reef.
  • Beaches – Big, white, wrap around beach not seen since Kihavah. Flour soft sand especially by the water’s edge. An active beach duo is cleaning it constantly. Great for sunset circumambulations. Beach dining every night (partly due to low occupancy).
  • Lagoon – Millpond calm lagoon with turquoise vistas and easy swimming (which was useful as the property’s pools were just being brought back on line after lockdown).

Furthermore, the island scale is pretty much as Goldilocks size – big enough to support good amount of infrastructure but small enough to walk around in under 20 minutes.

A resort like KIHAA demonstrates how difficult it is to pin a star-rating on a property. The island itself is a 5-star deluxe with its exceptional “trifecta” of beach, reef and lagoon. The resort also boasts exceptional sports facilities including two smart tennis courts and two first-rate squash courts as well as finely kitted out gym. The lodging is more the 4-star category with handsome styling (recently spruced up).

The operations are difficult to assess at this time given the COVID situation. After 10 months of mothballing, it is like re-opening a resort with lots of cleaning, maintenance, supplying, etc to get up and running. Like all Maldives resorts, the staff are scrambling to provide the best experience possible for the intrepid and anxious early post-lockdown guests, but they face intractable constraints on availability of personnel (who have to quarantine) and even supplies.

With the resurgent coral and the vintage villas, our visit very much felt like going back in time to our first magical visits to the Maldives years ago.

COVID PROTOCOLS – Take your temperature on arrival, all staff wear masks and sanitising stations are found throughout the island.

KIHAA Tour 2

Tour 17: Flying the COVID-Free Skies to Paradise

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to escaping to paradise is getting there. With the “Tier 4” lockdown announced in the UK, that will scupper possibilities for many. But for those living in areas still able to do international travel, the flying is the first, and perhaps most stressful aspect of getting there is the flying. And our trip was no exception as we grappled with impediments from 3 major carriers:

  • QATAR AIRWAYS – I purchased my ticket through British Airways where I had a bunch of “vouchers” accrued from COVID cancelled trips. BA did not have any flights available, but they did present “One World Partner” options for me to use including some flights from Qatar Airways which worked well enough. What they don’t tell you (and it took hours for me to figure out) is that you cannot purchase extra legroom seats on partner flights. A big concern for me because I am so tall. BA said contact Qatar because Qatar controls seat allocation, and Qatar told me to call BA because BA issued and controls the ticket. As I have experienced in the past, these “partnerships” like “One World” are more gimmicks and be aware that if you get drawn into them, you are likely to face huge complexities in your travel. As if COVID isn’t introducing enough complications at the moment. Also, their “Privilege Club” has probably the worst customer service of any airline I have ever dealt with. I spent 6 weeks and countless communications to get a typo fixed in my profile (which is critical because if your booking name doesn’t match your passport name exactly, they can prevent you from boarding).
  • EMIRATES – I give Emirates credit for a great booking experience including and easy refund when the UK Lockdown II required us to cancel our first trip booked. The biggest problem is that when we tried to re-booked we learned that the required stop-over in Dubai violated the “travel corridor” requirements and meant we would have to quarantine in the UK on return. That provision has since been modified to allow certain stop-overs, but at the time we didn’t want to face the possibility of paying for two weeks of freedom in paradise with a fortnight of sequestration (little did we know).
  • BRITSH AIRWAYS – BA turned out to be really the only option not wanting to quarantine over Christmas And yet, shortly after booking our flights, Sir Lankan offered direct flights and Qatar/Emirates got an exemption from the stopover constraint. The prices were better than usual for this time of year, but not the super discounts of November. The booking was smooth as well as a steady stream of travel advice from BA to help preparations.

Off we go. Yes, the trip there was more complicated, but in fairness matters were no worse than travelling to the Maldives a decade ago. Back before online check-in, airport kiosks, efficient boarding, rich shopping options and in-flight amenities. I know all of us living through 2020 dream of turning back the clock, but this might have gone too far back. In fairness, aside from a few temperature checks and squirts of hand sanitizer, the primary COVID imposition was the PCR test required for the Maldives (and many other destinations)

No online check-in as they had to check PCR certificates and the Maldives QR code (you get when you complete your Maldivian arrival Travel Health Authorisation). So for the first time in years, we arrived at Terminal 5 confronted by snaking queues as agents did check-in the “old fashioned way” (boarding passes, baggage check and passport port check all done by the far-too-few overworked agents at the desks). The agents were especially exasperated by so many people trying to travel and not really having a clue as to the requirements (One family of about 8 took 45 minutes to check-in, if they succeeded. We know because we were in the queue for 90 minutes and watching this one hapless family occupy one of the precious few gate agents was one of our bits of entertainment to pass the time).

The flight itself was very well managed with lots of safety protocols. Chief among them were mandatory mask wearing at all time (except for when you were “actively eating”, ie. take a bite and put the mask back on to chew). Frankly, in the spectrum of possible airplane discomforts, this added one was pretty trivial.

We arrived to Male airport facing arrival queues also not seen for a decade since the agents were coping with the other side of PCR tests, health declaration paperwork and a generous helping of tourist confusion. Our flight had been delayed a few hours and the long lines meant that our PCR test was literally about to “expire” (ie. be beyond the 96 hour requirement). We made it through with 10 minutes to spare, but in fairness, the authorities I approached about the issue seemed pretty understanding about the delays and I don’t think they would have turned us away because we got to the desk a bit after the official expiry.

One final moan on my soapbox. My wife Lori works in an NHS-supported care facility and as such get COVID tested every week as a matter of SOP. But the results that she gets back are not PCR certificates and simple electronic messages saying “test negative”. It would seem to me that in addition to rounds of applause, a simple and pretty cost-free gesture that would save NHS staff some money would be to adapt the weekly COVID test results to be PCR “Fit to Fly” ready. Then, NHS staff wouldn’t have to pay considerable amounts for extra tests (on top of the many they already take) if they want a well-earned break.

   

Tour #9–Arrival Male Airport

Bunyamin picture

#BucketList.  No not a trip the Maldives (that bucket is overflowing now).  But getting my picture taken with the legendary Bunyamin Ahmed. Being Friends on Facebook, I anticipated the encounter with my own twist on his iconic pose (see below).

The meeting was the sunniest part of a very inclement arrival. Rain was pelting down on Male airport so hard that the Turkish Airlines flight had to divert and wait for it to settle. But like most rainstorms in the Maldives, this was just passing through. In fact, when we passed the airport into the adjacent South Male atoll, the weather was quite sunny. The pilot took a 15 minute loop and tried again for a much smoother landing that we would have had otherwise.

Thus begins Maldives Complete’s 9th annual tour of resorts (our 15 visit to the Maldives overall).

I will also be doing my traditional micro-blog report on the TripAdvisor Forum with a snapshot profile of the following key points of each resort and stay…

  • Ambience (first impressions and overall feel)
  • Snorkel Spotting (what I saw snorkelling)
  • Favourite Food (served)
  • Weather (always a popular topic)
  • First World Problem (the most petty criticism I can find)
  • Most Reminded Me Of (comparing it to another resort)
  • Learned Something New (fun fact of the day)
  • Welcome Drink
  • Pina colada test (one of our acid tests as this simple treat varies so much from place to place)

Bring on paradise!

Bunyamin picture 2

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 8: Safari Island

Safari Island - tour

Many Maldives aficionados complain that all of the best islands are being snapped up for building (or re-building) super-luxury properties out of reach from the average pocketbook. Safari Island bucks that trend being a value priced 4 star resort on an exceptional 5 star island. In fact, Safari has actually gone in the opposite direction as the island that used to be the super exclusive Dhoni Migili. The lagoon is still filled with the fleet of 12 elegant dhoni yachts from its Dhoni Migili legacy. You can’t book these, but you do get an experience or stay on one if you stay for 7 or 14 days respectively.

With Maldivian prices challenging guests’ wallets so deeply, visitors need to choose what they want to pay for and what they don’t. What you are not paying for at Safari is fancy food, fittings and furniture. Safari villas have simple bamboo furniture with the palm weave ceilings that embraces a simpler, rustic vibe.

The small island means that villas are pushed right up close to the water’s edge. Ours was a Beach Villa and the water was lapping at our deck at high tide. Safari has another room category called a “Semi Water Villa” which are situated right over very shallow water right on the lagoon/beach edge.

The food is a good basic buffet victuals, but in the Maldives is it hard to go too far wrong with this option. Fresh tropical fruit like the ripe papaya that melts in your mouth (the best of our trip). Grilled reef fish caught that morning just yards away, local curries, with occasional chef special treat like the banana chocolate cake with vanilla sauce. How much more do you really need from a resort kitchen?

But the island itself is a remarkable patch of sea and sand. The beaches have some of the finest talcum powder soft grains I’ve ever wriggled my toes in (in the Maldives or anywhere else). And the house reef has to be a contender for one of the top 10 in the Maldives.

If you want 5-star Maldives “the landscape” without paying 5-star Maldives the luxury resort prices, then check out Safari Island.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 6: Taj Exotica

Taj Exotica - tour

“Taj Exotica”…more like “Turquoise Extremica”.

Taj Exotica is imbued with an Indian aesthetic and enveloped in an expanse of cyan shallows.

The subcontinent vibe permeates throughout the décor like the silhouette lanterns hanging from the trees. It prevails with Indian inspired best-ofs like Ayurveda treatments, and yoga courses.  But iit really comes alive in its restaurants. One of the best Indian dishes I have ever eaten was the recommended Chef’s Special Butter Chicken that tenderly melted in your mouth with just the right aromatic glow of piquant spices. All restaurants cater strongly to vegetarians offering a range of Jain, vegan and other alternatives to many dishes. They even serve Indian wine (Fratelli Chardonnay).

An aquamarine landscape frames the entire resort. Not just a large lagoon, but one that seems to stretch from horizon to horizon on both sides of the island. In fact, it actually covers over 200 acres in all. One of the largest lagoons in the Maldives. And Taj has built on this asset extensively. It has an unmatched array of lagoon accessories including lagoon swing and lagoon hammock, a lagoon pavilion, and a lagoon private jetty. One f the downsides to the shallow and sandy lagoons is that they are no very conducive to coral growth, but Taj has addressed this issue by investing in 206 coral frames in the past 4 years as a part of an ongoing reef generation project.  And the resort provides regular boat trips to a nearby coral reef free of charge.

Taj Exotic provides a truly affordable taste of luxury for people who want to immerse themselves in the unique blue seascape of the Maldives.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 5: Shangri-La Villingili

Shangri-La Villingili - tour

There is no reason to not come to Shangri-La Villingili.

The number one reason people give against coming to the Maldives is the myth that “There’s nothing to do there.” Admittedly, some of the smaller islands do have limited activities (but that is actually a draw for some people). But Villingili is a spacious island enabling it to support a rich infrastructure of activities and facilities. The spa is one of the largest in the Maldives and it sports a mini “village” of shops, services, dive centre, photo studio, etc.

The biggest activity “can’t do” complaint about the Maldives is golf. Many affluent travellers are happy to go just about anywhere…as long as they can swing a club. A few golf facilities have cropped up over the years across the Maldives, but only Shangri-La sports a full 9 hole course with independent fairways.  Lori and I played a round during our stay and we were thoroughly impressed. Our home in Buckinghamshire, England has no shortage of world-class golf courses and Shangri-La’s is as challenging and thrilling course as any. They are short holes (maximum hole is just under 200 yards) so no opportunity to practice your 200 yard drive. But, the modern game is all about the approach shots anyway, and as the old saying goes, “drive for show, putt for dough.” The greens and fairways are all as well maintained and manicured as any prime English course. Yes, you can play serious golf in the Maldives…at Shangri-La. Seriously laid out, seriously challenging, seriously beautiful surroundings and seriously fun.

Among Maldives aficionados, the big showstopper to choosing a resort is the “housereef”. And no house reef is adequate without (a) a drop off, and (b) easy access. Shangri-La ticks the housereef box strongly. A special set of stairs on the northern water villas jetty provides a very simple entry (I love stairs because it is so much easier to put on your fins without getting sand in everything).  Given the vagaries of maritime creatures, I am always impressed by resorts’ “called shots” in the sport of snorkelling where they call out “if you go here, you are virtually guaranteed to see this…” In Villingili’s case it was turtles. Several turtles are virtual residents there. And no less than 10 minutes into the water one of them came swimming up to us (see video clip below). Actually, it’s not too surprising as Villingili has its own turtle nesting area (which it has marked off and protected).

Another reason people avoid straying too far from the resorts close to Male is avoiding the seaplane transfers. Seaplane schedules can be quite changeable and timings are especially vulnerable to the weather. Also, some people are bothered by flying in such a small, loud, unpressurized craft, like a seaplane. But the transfer to Gan is by domestic turbo prop planes. The schedules are fixed so you will know your logistics precisely before you set off. And they fly higher over the weather in more comfortable, pressurised planes. And for the well-heeled clientele, the Gan airport accommodates private jets and Villingili provides a special greeting service where you are picked up on the tarmac. Private jets can even fly directly to Gan and clear customs avoiding a Male transfer altogether. An increasing number of charters and commercial operators are looking to expand services here so everyone can have this direct connection convenience.

If you are thinking of an exceptional stay at Villingili, then there’s nothing stopping you.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 4: Equator Village

Equator Village - tour

Equator Village has been one of the most keenly anticipated resort visits of this tour. It is one of the very first resorts I researched back in the early 90s when I started my whole Maldives adventure. There was very little on its rudimentary website at the time and little has changed.

Kurumba might be the “oldest resort”, but Equator Village is the “oldest” resort property. Its buildings were built in 1960. Its original residents weren’t exactly “tourists” in the strictest sense, but they considered their stay very much a paradise posting. Gan was a British RAF base and historical accounts talk about the officer’s days spent snorkelling the reef and sunbathing on the beach. Not too much has changed in 56 years then!

This aesthetic of the last days of the Empire survives in the current property with rattan furniture, wrought iron lamp posts, and even tin roofs! The resort villas themselves were actually the original barracks for the RAF officers and the main reception building was the officers mess and officers club. Equator Village as kept the property well maintained and it is nicely decorated with fresh paint and a number of other modern upgrades (like in room Wifi).

Equator Village is one of the lowest priced resorts in the Maldives. Not just the room rate, but the Serena Spa there offered massage treatments on special which were the cheapest massages we have ever gotten in the Maldives ($80 for one hour), but as good as any luxury spa (delivered expertly by the ubiquitous Balinese masseuses). The resort can be a very handy option with possibilities for exploring the Addu atoll on a budget and mixing your stay with a bit of history and local culture.

Vintage Maldives drenched in a shared English heritage.

Maldives Tour 2015 – Review

Male Aminath Hudha

Another tour comes to a close. I took advantage of Kurumba’s proximity to Male to pop-in there. I got to see all of the semicentennial decorations that they had put up – flags lining the streets, lights for a night time extravaganza (see below), and some jetty enhancements including the Sydney-esque Jetty 1 (though meant to be modelled on a dhoni’s sails not the opera house – see white canvas in the background of the above picture).

Also in the picture with me is with the very first Maldivian to help with Maldives Complete, Aminath Hudha. She was working with the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (part of the Ministry of Tourism to promote the Maldives) and provided lots of material and guidance since its outset. We caught up and chatted about the Maldives resorts and all my visits (Hudha is a complete authority on all resorts now working for the booking company Hotelbeds).

Over the next week or so, I will be posting my initial “Best of the Maldives” pieces on each of the resorts I visited in order of the visits. Meanwhile, here are a few overall reflections that apply to many if not all the resorts on the itinerary.

  • Summer Weather – For some reason, the summer months is classified as low season in the Maldives. The perception is that the weather is not quite as reliably pristine as earlier months in the year. The key thing you don’t get this time of year are the horizon-to-horizon azure blue skies. We used to get them all the time in our February visits, but really never get them in our July visits. You get something from couple of scattered clouds to a hazy sunshine or big, occasionally stormy clouds passing through. Most of the time, the scattered and high level clouds tone down the intense sunshine. The air is a bit more pleasant and mild. More breeze has the downside of stirring up the lagoon hurting visibility, but also the benefit of feeling lovely (especially sipping a pina colada). And there are occasional, pretty much very short-lived (and hour or two) storms, but in February (winter) they are virtually non-existent.
  • IPad Menus–  At first, I was blown away by Hideaway Beach’s iPad menus…only to find them at Sun Siyam Irufushi a few days later. These are so perfect for the Maldives that I can’t believe that I haven’t featured them in “Haven’t Seen” yet. I haven’t even come across these in London eateries yet. They are perfect for the romantically dim lighting instead of fiddling with mini-flashlights in the dark. Not to mention the more mature diner like myself who doesn’t want to bring his reading glasses to dinner. It won’t be long before these become standard equipment for 5-stars the way rainshowers have infiltrated villas in recent years.
  • Accommodating Children – Resorts are growing more and more accommodating for children of all ages. Many are letting 2 or even 3 in stay in a villa with the parents (of course, current day villas are on average twice as big as the original ones). Also, most resorts now allow any age children in water villas with signed disclaimers.
  • 5 Star Segment – The luxury segment of resorts just gets more and more crowded every year. Every refurb typically takes a charming 4-star property into the 5-tar league. The jostling always makes me muse on the subtle differentiators in this Premier League of tropical paradise. 5-Star rating system continues to be stressed as it is not granular enough to cover resorts from $500 a night to $5,000 night. The TripAdvisor “Stars” are no better. They don’t measure absolute nor authoritative standards. They are emotional expressions of whether a property met, exceeded or underwhelmed expectations. So on TA, a cheap hostel that is surprisingly clean can get 5-stars on and a luxury hotel that skimps on lime with their papaya could get 4. The 5-star Championships are a bit like a Gymnastics competition. First, you simply can’t make any mistakes in your routine and you have to execute a number of fundamental skills. Secondly, you need to execute with personality (the “Olga Korbut” factor). Finally, you need to add a bit of sizzle in with a high difficulty-factor 3 triple-reverse-summersault or the like.
  • Signage – One of the things that I noticed walking around Kurumba this time was their elegant signage (stone posts with stylish typography). It drove home for me an observation I made at a number of the other 5-stars that seemed “faded”. First impressions (ie. arrival jetties and reception areas) and cosmetics (eg. signage) are the best investments a resort can make. Elegant signage and common area décor overcomes a few bits of chipped paint in the villas.

Finally, forget putting the “lime with the coconut”, but will resorts please serve lime with papaya (I’m still astounded by how many top flight resorts make this basic oversight as fundamental as not serving sugar with coffee or butter with bread).

Tour 6 At-a-Glance…

  • 8 islands
  • 4 atolls (brief foray to South Male atoll for dive off Velassaru)
  • 4 new Resort Profile pix (at 97% completion, not many missing to get)
  • 37 new Room Type Profile pix
  • 11 Snorkel Spottings
  • 26 pages of notes
  • 5 dives
  • 3 spa treatments
  • 15 pina coladas
  • 55 Dive Sites added
  • 74 Dive Charts added
  • 68 candidate “Best of the Maldives” pieces

 

Male independence day lighting

Maldives Tour 2015 – Day 9: Kurumba

Kurumba tour 2015

Kurumba is the Hotel Cipriani of the Maldives. Nestled on its equivalent of Guidecca Island, the view (on one side of the island) of Male is like gazing out on the Venice of the tropics. A bit of bustle in the distance with you ensconced on your secluded patch of opulence. It may not be the “plot of sand and palm tree in the middle of the ocean” experience, but it is just as enchanting in its own way.

Kurumba is possibly the most unsung resort in the Maldives. Overshadowed by its proximity to Male and the airport, it is one of the truly distinctive properties. The level of luxury puts it in the upper ranks of the 5-star (not 5+ star) league table, but the price is one of the least expensive.

Kurumba is an island that doesn’t coast. No matter how many times I have visited (it is the one exception to my personal rule not to visit a resort more than once…and I have now visited Kurumba 7 times), I still uncover new treats and treasures that they have introduced. Their new New “Thila” restaurant is the best of both worlds – wide open to breeze with a firm floor and fans to cool you, or on the beach tables under a graceful canopy. It may be the oldest resorts in the Maldves, but it is always one of the freshest.

Kurumba continues to build on its coconut motif. Lori enjoyed the “Kurumba Cappuchino” which was cappuccino flavoured with essence of coconut. And they have taken the “Pina Colada Test” to a whole ‘nother level (details to follow in Best Of post).

Aye Kurumba.