Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 8: Royal

Royal Island tour

Budget Baa.

One of the stops I most anticipated was a visit to Royal Island. I knew very little about Ayada, but I knew nothing about Royal. Of all of the resorts I was visiting, it was the only resort that I hadn’t written anything about. And yet, when I mentioned the island to Maldives experts, they would say “Oh yeah, fine island.”

I must say, for everyone bemoaning the escalating prices of the Maldives 5-stars, this well-appointed 4-star property would tick all the basic boxes for a superb Maldives getaway. For rooms, it has smart décor with comfortable air conditioning and outdoor bathroom. For food, it serves fresh reef fish and dishes cooked with local curry recipes including tropical fruit and a range of options. For activities, it offers a stocked sports centre,. For snorkeling, it has an extensive, easily accessible house reef that wraps around the entire island. For diving, it hosts a centre run by Dutch group Delphis diving which is particularly professional and helpful. And this is all on offer for less than half the cost of most 5-stars.

Being in the Baa atoll makes Royal especially distinctive. The entire atoll has been designates a marine bio-reserve to help protect the rich sea life there especially the abundant manta rays. The draw to this part of the Maldives may have contributed to this neighbourhood upscaling significantly so that it is nearly all 5-star properties and Royal is an opportunity to experience on a more most budget.

I even came away from our visit with a few “Best of the Maldives” candidates.

What’s not to like?

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 7: Soneva Fushi

Soneva Fushi tour

Soneva Fushi , a love story. The resort is a heartfelt expression of love for the Maldives by the founders and owners Eva and Sonu Shivdasani. The very name “Soneva” is like two sweethearts’ names carved inside a heart, “Sonu + Eva”. They spend the majority of their time living on the island themselves, in one of the more modest two-bedroom villas, despite owning a number of other exquisite properties.

Soneva has long been a trend setter, not a fad follower. No glass floors, no water villas, no pool. The artistry of the execution is led by the Creative Director Eva. They’ve created a funky barefoot chic vibe that is imbued into every nook and cranny.

Love for guests.  Soneva meticulously tailors that aesthetic to each guest. Everything on offer is an option customized to the individual. When you arrive at the airport lounge, the hostess has you try a number of salt salts and soaps so that your villa would be supplied with your favourite. One of my pet peeves of spa treatments is when they ask where you would like the therapist to focus and then the therapist does a fairly standard treatment. I told the therapist to focus on head, neck and legs…and that was the only areas he really ever touched. I’ve never had a massage therapist so meticulously follow my brief.  Usually buffets are an exercise in quantity and quality. Like its former sibling Gili Lankanfushi, Soneva’s buffet food is near gourmet quality. Not just for a few items, but for most. For example, at their egg station they had prawns as an option for omelets. Now why don’t all resorts have this luxury ingredient on their egg stations (and crab meat too, by the way)?

Love for the unconventional.  “Sea level” is one of the defining aspects of the Maldives. Nothing, not the landscape elevation nor the seascape depth deviates much from the horizon of the sea. Still, I quite welcome the few places which provide a more vertical perspective on this paradise. Sea plane rides, mocktails at Traders Hotel “high-rise” in Male, and the occasional two story structure on a resort. Well, the majority of structures on Soneva – The villas, the spa, the signature restaurant, the observatory – are two stories which lend a more three-dimensional contour to the island.

Love for the planet.  If Park Hyatt Hadahaa is eco-obsessed, Soneva is eco-maniacal. Their reclamation and recycling area covers nearly an acre. They also have a solar panel farm that provides 3% of their electricity with aspirations to build it to 50%.

The combination of a (a) environmental, (b) vertical, and (c) family focus (they are building one of the most stunning kids clubs in the Maldives) makes the entire experience feel like you are in a real life production of Swiss Family Robinson. If the Robinson family hadn’t been rescued, but instead they stayed on their island and built it into a sustainable utopia. There are tree houses everywhere. Peg-in-hole door locks, coconut door closers, tree branch toilet roll holders. They should write a Buzzfeed article “27 Eco-Hacks for your Resort” (eg. use old jars with sand as table candle sconces). Gilligan’s Island if everyone on the Minnow were Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Powell III.

As a General Manager myself, I am intrigued not just by environmentally friendly sustainability, but by business sustainability. So many resorts have come and gone over the years and yet Soneva Fushi goes from strength to strength. The key to their success here is reinvestment. They seem to constantly be refreshing and adding to every part of the island. The villas, the offerings, the décor, the supply chain, and most critically the staff.

Having written more about Soneva Fushi than any other resort that I hadn’t yet visited and the resort commanding a high profile in lifestyle and travel press, I wondered what could be said that hasn’t already been said? Yet, I came upon “Best of the Maldives” potentials as dense as its lush vegetation. I found 4 ‘Best of’ subjects just in the Soneva airport lounge. As it turns out, over my short stay I uncovered 42 potential “Best of the Maldives” topics. Combined with the 22 already posted, Soneva Fushi tops the “Best of” league table with a stunning 64. But, it sort of seems like Soneva has an infinite supply of Best of the Maldives distinctions. Not only did I come across one every time I turned around, it’s clear that the resort has a whole parade of innovations perpetually coming down the pike. Stay tuned.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 6: Jumeirah Dhevanafushi

Jumeirah Dhevanafushi tour

When I visited Jumeirah Vittaveli last year, we were discussing potential superlatives for the “Best of the Maldives” section. The marketing manager asserted that Jumeirah Dhevanafushi was the “Most Romantic” resort in the Maldives. It was not the first time I had heard such an overwhelmingly ambitious claim (eg. Velassaru, Baros). I asked what makes it so much better. Do the sunsets glow more, do the palms wave more languidly, are the ocean blues bluer? ‘Best of the Maldives’ is necessarily the definitive arbiter of such distinctions, but it does do its research and look to have something tangible to for a ‘Best Of’ post to hang its hat on.

The marketer didn’t relent. She pointed to the biggest beds in the Maldives (okay, that is pretty cool and could contribute to some major romance not least of which is providing some acreage between a couple for snoring or tossing and turning). Then, she added that the island is shaped like a heart (well, maybe an anatomical heart, but not so much the iconic shape). I’m not convinced that it is THE most romantic resort in the Maldives (just like I don’t think that there is a “Best Resort” in the Maldives), but it certainly puts forth a compelling case.

What I will concede after a couple of pretty astonishing days there is that Dhevanafushi is a place where fantasies come true. Again, that might sound like a bunch of review palaver, but hear me out. I have the evidence to prove my case…

  • Octopus – I have been looking for one on a house reef for 13 years. Ever since we saw one snorkeling on Coco Palm Dhuni Kholu house reef, I’ve dreamed of seeing another one of these intriguing but shy creatures who are the world champion hide-and-seek players. Like Babe Ruth’s famous called shot, the staff pointed out the favourite hang-out of their house reef resident octoped and there he was when we went snorkeling (though we passed right by him the first time). Anyone who wants to spy one of these elusive creature curiosities, Dhevanafushi is the place to go.
  • Dolphins – Who doesn’t have a dream to ‘swim with dolphins? Not only did we see dolphins every day in Gaafu Alifu, but the dolphins swam by us during our dive from Dhevanafushi. Even the dive master was bowled over by how close they came.
  • Beach dinner – When we started coming to the Maldives, beach dining was an anomaly. People ate in established restaurants. We would ask if we could move our table onto the beach and the ever gracious Maldivians would always oblige. Dining with the sand in our toes, the stars above and the surf to our side is one of our biggest thrills. Dhevanafushi is one of the few resorts which features “in beach” dining. Not “on beach”. But in beach. They literally dig your dining table and settee out of the sand. Fantastic.
  • Beds. The beds in Dhevanafushi are bigger than some bedrooms I have slept in. You could spend days and never leave the bed (that would contribute to a romantic vibe). During the day, reading and hanging out with Lori was like being in our own little bed fort. During the night, my 6’4” frame could stretch out to my heart’s content.
  • Beach House. Lori especially has fantasized about owning a beach house. Why own a beach house when you can come to a place like this? The taxes, community charges, maintenance and utilities would be more than your stay here. While there were plenty of things on offer, the accommodation is so comfortable that you are happy just to hang out ‘at home’ in your villa, taking a dip in the pool or the ocean, lying in the sun, or doing totally nothing. For a couple of days, we felt we were living the dream of residing in our own little beach house.

Welcome to Fantasy Island.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 5: Ayada

Ayada tour

Exotic fusion. Some of the most exciting wines are blends. Some of the most delectable drinks are cocktails, and the most inspired cuisines are fusion concoctions. Ayada fuses two exotic ingredients – the tropical paradise of the Maldives with the storied aesthetic of Turkey – for an exquisitely unique resort. Appropriately enough, Istanbul has a millennia-old tradition of melding various cultures including being the nexus where East meets West.

Ayada is discovery that reminded me of a trip to see a dear friend in France. After an evening of appreciating a broad selection of wines from the region, he goes down to the furthest corner of the cellar and retrieves a most rare bottle that he saves for only the most appreciative connoisseurs. It is a unique chateau blend of grapes making for indescribable taste. It was like someone recognized that I was a particularly keen connoisseur of Maldives resorts and went and fetched this exquisite one for me to sample.

“Ayada”, which means “Moon Island” in Turkish, is a high-end 5-star. Impeccably executed from the coherently themed décor to the meticulous attention to detail and the gourmet quality cuisine on offer. It is another of those resorts (like Huvafenfushi, Soneva Fushi, Nika) who (not unlike my motivation with Maldives Complete) are the product of someone overcome with inspiration by the Maldives. The resort is the product of the owner and developer Ahmet Aydeniz’s affection. He discovered this part of the world and set out on a mission to build a great property befitting of its location in paradise.

I came away from my visit with 17 Best of the Maldives contenders and a whole new slant on the Maldivian experience.

Cennete ho? geldiniz

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 4: Park Hyatt Hadahaa

Park Hyatt Hadahaa tour

As if to trumpet our arrival to one of the most eco-obsessed resorts in the Maldives, the very icon of environmental-friendliness – the dolphin – came out to greet us during our transfer to Park Hyatt Hadahaa. Not just a token welcome party, but a teeming hoard of spinner dolphins jumping, scudding and cruising up to the boat on all sides. I tried to count them, but gave up at 80.

Immediately, Hadahaa’s intimate connection with nature strikes you. The single central byway is completely shrouded from the tropical sun by a dense canopy of palm and other foliage. The resort lets the fallen fronds lay where they fall (most resorts will sweep this debris up) blanketing the surrounding undergrowth with a thick duvet of leaves. But it doesn’t seem unkempt in any way as the main path is clear and tidily edged. When you emerge on the beach, you sink ankle deep in powder white sand (the softest I’d walked since Maafushivaru).

The marquee nature attraction at Hahadaa is the house reef. Reputed to be one of the very best (certainly top 10), it didn’t take long before Lori and I donned our gear and leapt in to explore. Immediately, you could see the how it got its reputation. Hadahaa is one of the rare house reefs where the coral growth extends richly into the lagoon as well as in and amongst the water villas (lagoons and the water villas that are often built on them are often mostly expansive sandy beds). The drop off was readily accessible and teeming with both fish and coral. We came back across the lagoon on return to swim among the coral croppings there. Often such growth gives one the sense of a coral garden. Hadahaa was more like a coral jungle. In fact, a recent marine biology survey assessed that Hadahaa had over 100% coral on its reef. This mathematical anomaly results from the fact that a number of table corals had tumbled down the reef drop off and now there were literally corals growing on top of them. There were corals on top of corals.

General Manager Julian Moore explained why Hadahaa (and many of the other Gaafu Alifu islands) have such excellent reefs. The atoll is the biggest atoll not just in the Maldives, but in the world. It spans about 70 kilometers north to south and 50 kilometers east to west. It is also one of the deepest. This combination brings both a rich flow of nutrients while providing a buffer of protection from storms to islands and reefs inside the atoll.

Welcome to the jungle.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 3: Huvafenfushi

Huvafenfushi tour

Inspired. Huvafenfushi is one of the Maldives’ pioneers in inspired luxury. One of the founding fathers of the super deluxe experience where resorts try to concoct service, facilities, and experiences as jaw-droppingly heavenly as the destination itself.

Actually, Huvafenfushi’s island was our second visit to the Maldives as a family back in 1999. Back then it was called Nakatchafushi and we were drawn to it by its reputation for having one of the best house reefs in the Maldives. Since then Huvafenfushi burst onto the Maldive scene with a virtuosity of style and distinction that was acclaimed as one of the very best resorts not just in the Maldives, but in the world. As its esteem and reputation grew, its prominence on my bucket-list did as well.

When we arrived at our water villa, not only were we treated to the aquatic delights of tropical fish scampering about beneath us, but a quartet of terns were similarly diving and soaring feet away from our deck hoping to make a little sushi snack of those fish.

The marquee feature of the resort is the infamous Underwater Spa. I must confess that both Lori and I wondered what the point would be of creating one of the most spectacular views somewhere where you just end up lying face down with your eyes closed so you miss it all. Well, first of all, positioned under the table beneath the head rest is a mirror which is aimed right at the window so you do watch the fish swimming by. Secondly, the therapist asks you if you want to have your treatment interrupted if she spies something particularly interesting like a shark swimming by (yes, please!!). Finally, after your massage you are treated to tea and they have an expansive lounge bed set up by some of the windows so that you can linger in the glow of your massage watching the aquatic world drift by in front of you.

And frankly, the spa treatments are only the tip of the iceberg of some of the astonishing experiences Huvafenfushi have devised at that innovative sub-marine facility. Stay tuned for some of the 19 Best of the Maldives pieces I came away with from my visit. Combined with the 10 I have already posted, that puts Huvafenfushi up in the elite ranks of the ‘Best Of’ league table. Right where you would expect.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 2: Chaaya Island Dhonveli

Chaaya Island Dhonveli tour

Classic Maldives. Classic in a nostalgic sense. Before the underwater laundry rooms, the Chateau Margaux oatmeal and the hydrofoil transfers, this was the standard fare for the Maldives that people came from around the world to savour. Simple villas with outdoor bathrooms and thatched roofs, sandy paths weaving through lush tropical growth, and the magic of the Maldives maritime just feet away. No Michelin star dining, but tasty food with classic local curries and grilled reef fish, fresh and served with delectable sauces, not tired or overdone. No butlers, but kind and friendly staff always willing the lend a hand or give a smile.

These days, legions of people don’t even consider the Maldives for fears of mortgage busting prices. But in a few special properties such as Chaaya Island Dhonveli you can still relish paradise for a reasonable price tag. In particular its Garden villas are a relatively attractive option. Most ‘Garden’ villas on Maldives resorts are lower priced rooms reduced because they are tucked away in the inside of the island shrouded by foliage from any ocean view. But the Dhonveli “Garden” villas are right on the water for the most part.

Another budget buster for families are…kids.  Yes, in general, but more specifically bringing them on vacation.  Somewhat manageable when they are toddlers and resorts offer considerable discounts with them staying in your room.  Dhonveli offers a number of Family villas where children up to 12 can stay.  The fact is that most Dhonveli rooms have day beds as part of their furnishings and the resort has a considerable supply of beds it can wheel into rooms.  So most of their rooms could accommodate a child or two without having to purchase and extra villa if the resort is willing and able to accommodate.

Dhonveli is like that delectable vin de table you get served at a rustic auberge in the French countryside. It might not be vintage Petrus, but it slakes your thirst with unadulterated authenticity.

I came away from our visit with 4 Best of the Maldives pieces.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 1: Male Arrival

Maldives Complete Tour 5 Male arrival

Tour #5 begins. I’ve set off on my 5th tour, our 13th trip to the Maldives overall. After this tour, we will have visited 55 resorts in total. The focus of this journey across paradise is the Gaafu Alifu (first time) as well as Baa atoll (we have toured here before but there are a number of new resorts as well as a couple we missed last time).

Gaafu Alifu, it turns out, is the world’s largest atoll. It has really come to life in recent years with a number of premium resort developments. It is known to have dive sites that rival the famous Ari atoll.  It is also primarily accesses via a domestic flight (instead of a seaplane or speedboat).  Some people are put off by seaplanes – they are very noisy and they are smaller which can make people ancy about flying more uneasy.  Unfortunately, seeing the Maldives from above, with this mottled tapestry of blues and greens is one of the great thrills of any visit.  If a more conventional flying machine makes this part of one’s journey a bit more enjoyable, then a domestic flight with a more ‘conventional’ aircraft might be just the thing.  It is a full 48 seater turbo-prop.  It flies a bit higher altitude than a seaplane, but you still a treated to a spectacular view of the Maldives seascape.

When I arrived, I spent my first day in Male catching up with a number of Maldivians who have been very helpful supporters of my work. I pitched up at the best “remote office” in the world at Traders Hotel with penthouse suite view, delicious food and drink, and a spa to freshen up before my meetings. I’ve yet to try the rooftop pool, though definitely on the Maldives bucket list.

I met with my longest standing industry supporter, Aminath Hudha who is working for a resort broker. She reports that business is strong across all areas (making her life very busy). I also met with people at the Ministry of Tourism who are enthusiastic about the site (so much so that they stayed quite late for our meeting on a Ramadan day when government offices shut at 2:00 pm).

Ramadan greetings, Maldives.

 

What I Haven’t Seen Yet – Honeymoon Package

Maldives honeymoon specials

The most frequently claimed (and most stubbornly reluctant I am to accord) is the “Best of the Maldives” for “Most Romantic”. On this last trip, Bandos pointed to its “Most Romantic” credentials (including its TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards), and Jumeirah made an impressive case for its Dhevanafushi property. Such claims always get me the most sceptical. I try to mask my cynicism when I ask “Are your sunsets more golden, your starlight more twinkling, your palms more rhythmic in their swaying??”

“Best of the Maldives” is is more rhetorical than scientific, but I do try to put some rigour into it. I try to have something objective and specific to hang my hat on as to why one’s feature is a touch more distinctive than another’s. And the more esoteric and specific the better. I will more readily accept that someone has a unique toe nail scrubber in their spa. But the the bar is so obscenely high for “Most Romantic” in the Maldives, I wonder how resorts could possibly stand out from the crowded field.

What does surprise me, and another thing I haven’t yet seen in the Maldives, is really the “uber” Honeymoon package. Perhaps it is the American “OTT” (Over-The-Top) in me, but I wonder where is the resort that has just blown the door off of a honeymoon package.

I don’t know any islands that even do the following which are popular honeymoon treats…

  • Mirrored ceilings (and other Poconos inspiration)
  • Breakfast in bed service (room service tweaked to be in bed with bed trays and the porter letting themselves in, after knocking of course).
  • In room chocolate fountain one evening (chocolate fountain at Kuramathi spa is inspired, but having it in the bedroom even more so).

Lots of resorts offer lots of the usual suspects in honeymoon packages – bottle of champagne, beach dinner, bed/table decoration, couples massage. But I don’t know any that combines them into one big ‘Honeymoon Ultimate’ package. The biggest honeymoon packages probably offer about a third of the list below which lists the most common ingredients in resort honeymoon packages.

  • Different bed decoration every night (most do one night)
  • Deserted Island picnic lunch and then dinner on another day
  • Candlelight beach dinner every night (most do one night)
  • Special couple spa treatment (with Kuramathi’s approach as a role model or perhaps Four Season Landaa Giraavaru’s romantic treatment)
  • Vow repeat/renewal/blessing
  • Champagne sunset cruise
  • Villa with private (secluded) pool
  • Reef generation frame to mark the occasion
  • Wedding photography

Maybe resorts feel that they already offer such a perfect honeymoon destination, certainly renowned as one of the tops in the world, why pour lots of money in gilding the lily. The two primary reasons would be to stand out against the huge competition from the many other resorts which share this uniformly romantic place on earth. The other obvious reason is to make money by charging for the super package.

Even More What I Haven’t Seen

Binoculars

 

And now the third annual “What I Haven’t Seen’. Despite more resorts in the Maldives and more resorts I’ve seen and researched, the list of crazy things one could do in the Maldives (if some venturing soul decided to offer them) just keeps growing. Here is the latest line-up of bizarre possibilities…

 

FOOD

Lobster Ice Cream – As I recently noted, Lobster is the luxury seaside dish which is why you find it prominently in nearly every resort as the special treat meal. And since ice cream is the universal hot weather treat, you have to wonder when lobster ice cream is going to come out of one of the creative resort kitchens.

Lobster ice cream

Lobster mac & cheese – Quite the trendy dish in posh USA restaurants combing the quintessential luxury ingredient into the classically budget recipe.  Mehan’s Kitchen recipe (below) adds the bonus posh ingredient of truffles.

Lobster macaroni and cheese

 

SPORT

Water Bikes – I’m thinking that Jason at Kurumba will have his eye on this one.  Waiting for the “Tour de Kurumba” peloton.

Water bike

Grass tennis court – On the heels of Wimbledon, the obvious question is where is the ‘grass court’. The ultimate in tennis sophistication. It turns our that One & Only Reethi Rah had one but it was replaced which is not surprising since they are very high maintenance.

Grass tennis court

Ballroom Dancing – With the television rise of the “Strictly Come Dancing” franchise, Ballroom and Latin dancing has made a come back in mainstream popularity around the world, but especially in UK, Germany, Italy, Russia, Australia and China. And we happen to know that one of the top World Ten Dance couples in the world, Richard Still and Morgan Hemphill have been keen to see the Maldives in their world travels. They give dazzling shows, but are also superlative teachers who can get groups of people doing basic steps very quickly.  If I were a resort owner, I would invite them down for a week.

Richard Still and Morgan Hemphill

 

 

Archery – Hulhule used to offer this activity, but no longer.

Beach archery

Water rope swing – Where in the northern hemisphere the best bodies of water we could hope for would be a swimming hole tucked away in the woods, they were invariably dressed up a bit with the ubiquitous rope swing.

Rope Swing

UNDERWATER

Breathing Observation Bubble – Aka “BOB”. Seriously, where are these?

Breathing Observation Bubble

Underwater sculpture garden. I read this story “Trying to Protect a Reef With an Otherworldly Diversion” and thought that this would be an excellent idea for those resorts not amply blessed with great house reefs, but situated in broad sandy lagoons. Four Seasons already sort of does this with Reefscaping topiary that creates a sort of visual interest. As it happens, when we were diving the Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo house reef last week, one of the sights was a sunken mermaid statue which was a fun discovery. After years of coral growing on it, it had developed an aquatic patina like you had stumbled upon some mysterious antiquated relic.

Underwater sculpture garden

Underwater snorkel signs – I read this article “Exploring Nature” writting about the Maldives by Clear Water Surf Travel that mentioned “submerged signage” on the house reef. After some investigation with Shangri-La Villingili, it turns out that they were no longer there. But I thought that it would be a delightful idea. Probably not for an entire house reef, but perhaps a section of house reef. Maybe a weak section of house reef that would otherwise be underwhelming, but adding a few signs identifying coral types could liven it up with a bit of education. Increasingly resorts are adding such helpful guides to the above-water nature.

Underwater snorkel signs

RELAXING

Gondolas – Prior to last week, this seemed like a natural. Gondolas are iconic of relaxing, exotic romance just made for calm water. Maldives is sort of a tropical Venice anyway with a profusion of Italian resorts. It turns out that Nika even has a Venezia theme including palazzos in the lagoon (used as channel markers) so I’m looking at Nika for this idea.

Gondola

EZ Hang Chairs – I see more type of lounge chairs and hammocks in the Maldives than I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Befitting of the indolent lounging ethos of the destination. A resort looking for even more variety of options would be well served to check out the EZ-Hang Chairs line.

EZ Hang Chairs

Ice Cave – Cooling down, especially after intense heat of a sauna or steam, is a great cardio workout. One & Only Reethi Rah has ice fountain, but our favourite local spa Pennyhill Park has taken this concept further with an ice wall that you lay your body against. Brrrr…refreshing!

Pennyhill Park ice wall

Facekinis – We learned more about the line “-kinis” in this world this trip. Reading the resort guidelines at Nika, we saw topless sunbathing referred to as sporting a “monokini”. Kurumba sells its own line of “Burkinis” aka “Burqini (post to follow). So, especially with the rise of Chinese guests, where are the “Facekinis”, ie. a “ski mask designed for swimmers and beachgoers which covers the head and reveals only the eyes, nose, and mouth. This mask is popular in the Chinese city of Qingdao, where it is used by people for protecting themselves from UV rays while tanning and from jellyfish while at the beach.

Facekini