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.

Maldives Tour 2015 – Day 8: Centara Ras Fushi

Centara Ras Fushi - tour

The “sweet spot” resort. Centara Ras Fushi sits right where so many Maldives aficionados are crying out for – affordable price, good house reef, convenient to Male, fine diverse food, AI available, well maintained, intimate island, and superb service. Is that too much to ask for?

Centara Ras Fushi delivers all the treats a Maldives lover craves – brand new beach bar (with swim-up pool bar), overwater bar (with loungers and net hammocks, sand floors in reception and restaurants, stylish loungers (in subtle earth colours), comfortable large beds.

The resort has also made an extra effort to cater to the ample snorkelling around the property. They do swim tests before handing out snorkelling gear. Most impressively, they have strung a submerged but floating rope at the reef edge so any snorkelers facing difficulty can grab it for assistance (or just those for whom manoeuvring the water is more difficult). They have also added 4 ladders to their long water villa jetty (second longest in the Maldives) so snorkeler could enter and exit at different points easily (why doesn’t every water villa resort do this??)

So what’s the catch? The only real thing anyone gets concerned about with Ras Fushi is the feared “Rubbish Island” (known more euphemistically as the “Industrial Island”). All sorts of bogey-man tales abound about resorts near this processing facility – that it looks bad, that it smells bad, that trash drifts in. The fact is that if someone didn’t tell you that they processed the Maldives’ trash there, it would just look like a built-up local island save for the thin plume of white smoke constantly rising from it. I’ve stayed in resorts near it several times and I have never smelled it. And Centara Ras Fushi patrols the resort waters every morning to nab and bits of trash that might have drifted over by accident. The resort has actually done a smart job of absolutely minimising the presence of this neighbour on the horizon. They have designed everything on the resort to face north which has a vista as seemingly remote as anywhere.

Ironically, the dreaded back side of the island provided Lori and I with one of the best views of our trip. We had just arrived when a large pod of spinner dolphins decided to stroll past while putting on a non-stop aerial display like some aquatic Cirque de Soleil. We were so mesmerised, we never noticed the Industrial Island in their background.

Even with a bit of distant trash, Centara Ras Fushi is in one of the sweetest spots of the Maldives.

Maldives Tour 2015 – Day 7: Sun Siyam Iru Fushi

Sun Siyam Irufushi - tour

Your waterworld adventure starts from the very arrival at Sun Siyam Irufushi’s extensive welcome jetty. The overwater boardwalks fork, one heading to the over-water dive center and the other to the bustling arrival jetty with its dual seaplane docks, and snake across the azur lagoon Its jetty reception room is in the form of giant dhoni floating on the water. Their tropical coconut mint iced tea was one of the more memorable arrival drinks of the tour (note to self – on future tours, post the different arrival drinks of each resort which vary so widely).

Still Sun Siyam Iru Fushi is not the flashy head-turning Carmen-type, but rather more of the quietly winsome Micaela. The entrance to the island itself is a bit understated. You arrive at the hub of activity from the watersports center on your immediate left to the games areas sprinkled across the grounds. Irufushi hasn’t invested in chic design fashions to catch the eye, but everything is high quality and high standard.

Its spa is one of the biggest in the Maldives and its beach expanse rivals Kudafunafaru and Velaa (what is it about Noonu beaches?). Its huge lagoon is also one of biggest I have seen, but the long jetty to the dive centre makes the house reef relatively accessible. The resort is big without a big feel meaning that no part of it is neither crowded nor overwhelming. Being bigger, Sun Siyam has something for everyone (including adrenalin-packed jet-boarding only found at a couple of resorts). I came away with a warm appreciation for the resort which seemed to grow the longer I stayed and the more I explored.

Maldives Tour 2015 – Day 6: Velaa

Velaa - tour

This is the resort I’ve dreamed about. Anyone who says they have seen it all in the Maldives, hasn’t been to Velaa.

I’ve been writing “Things I Haven’t Seen Yet in the Maldives” for four years where I highlight those things that could work great in the Maldives, but one has introduced them…yet. My very first edition, I lamented the lack of the classic affluent pastime – golf. Velaa hasn’t just featured it, but has created one of the best equipped short courses in the world. I’ve also since wondered when someone would bring the Hotel Jen vista experience to a resort island. Velaa’s “Tavaru” (Dhivehi for “Tower”) is just as sensational an overhead perspective on the Maldives waters as are the much vaunted super-luxury underwater restaurants and spas beneath the surface. And just last week, on my 8th edition of “Haven’t Seen”, I noted the adrenalin ride of Jet Surfing only to find one at the Velaa water sports center.

“Velaa” means “Turtle” in Dhivehi. The name is more than a label, but rather a pervasive theme that imbues the entire resort. The whole island is constructed to evoke the image of a turtle. The round Fushivelavaru island forms the body, various jetties the fins and the water villas are arranged to form a turtle’s head with two huts placed in the center to form the turtle’s eyes. The resort’s logo is a subtle thematic design used throughout the property representing the pattern of a turtle’s shell. Rooms are adorned with black-and-white art prints of hawksbills. But the best highlight is that Velaa itself is a breeding island for turtles which their resident Marine Biologists Tess and Dee work to support. And just when we set foot on the island, several hatchlings emerged and scampered to the sea and a new life ahead (here’s the video!).

It’s not just about dazzling with some “wow” features as Velaa gets all the fundamentals impeccably right. Gourmet food on offer from their menu developed by Michelin starred chef Adeline Grattard. Another expansive Noonu beach (one of the largest in the Maldives) of powder soft white sand. Relatively rare high speed Internet (it’s surprising how many 5-stars have impossibly sluggish connection). And on the more human side of high quality service, our waiter Shiyax (pronounced “Shiyaz”) was one of the most pro-active meal advisors I have had at a restaurant. He really engaged with us with insight and ideas (I wish London waiters were as helpful). Finally, the superpower rivalries of the superpremium resorts, overwater spas are the equivalent of aircraft carriers in the flotilla of luxury. To be a proper superpower, you need to have one and Velaa’s is truly Nimitz class. Its two-story spa relaxation area is available to all the guests free of charge with some truly distinctive features (a few of whom I’ve already written about).

Throughout the resort, Velaa has an unmatched obsession for decorative detail. Someone really went around and decided what would make every nook and cranny consummately inviting. The Velaa villas seem like properly elegant homes that would appear as a showcase in Home Design. Instead of a single obligatory piece of artwork to fill a void on a wall, they have a many pieces throughout the room artfully arranged. In fact, their stylish décor is a cut above from top to bottom. They have colourful arrangements set up in high spaces (like over the closets…who else has decorations on top of tall closets?) and down to the floors’ lovely carpets. Most resorts really opt for a stark Spartan aesthetic. They may be going for a minimalist chic, but you know they are also channelling accountant conservatism.

All those sumptuous accessories don’t come cheap. It’s what a cool $275m buys you (yes, look at that number again…here it is written out – $275,000,000). That’s what Velaa invested not counting the island lease. With 47 villas, it’s like you are renting a $7m house for the week (and that’s not including the service/operational costs).

The Maldive’s latest big budget blockbuster, Velaa, not only stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the super de-luxe titans of the Maldives resort business, but may in many ways is setting new bars. It is for people for whom NV, off-the-peg, and turning right on an airplane is not a consideration. Velaa is less for people who prefer the finer things in life and more for the people who prefer the finest things in life.