Friday, 18 January 2013

Holidaying in the Maldives - General

Over the past few years my wife and I have holidayed in the Maldives at least six times. For a man that is easily bored that is pretty regular so why do we do it? This is a summary of our trips and will hopefully go some way to explain our fascination with these islands.

Firstly it is not what you could call the real world. In fact it is pure escapism and the amount you ‘escape’ can be measured by how much you pay. The islands are pretty well perfect and the sea surrounding them vibrant with life and beauty. Everything there is imported (mainly from Asia and Australia) and you will be unlikely to return much the wiser about local cultures and lifestyles as it is extremely rare for any island to house a resort and a local village or township.

The vast majority of locals live on the main island called Male. This is where all the politics and local life goes on and very few visitors go there unless they are on business. It is very Muslim and, as such considered too restrictive for many westerners.

Alcohol is not permitted and any that tourist try to bring is politely confiscated and are rarely returned once you are leaving the country. This is rather strange as the resort islands are permitted alcohol and most holidaymakers are in direct transit to these places. Be under no illusions, if you bring alcohol they will find it as they will sexy films and magazines which will not be given back!

The main airport of Male is not actually on Male. It is built next to it on a separate island of its own. If you want to go to the capital you need to take a boat. The airport island has three ‘terminals’. One is the main international airport. Across the runway is a seaplane terminal which takes visitors to the further islands. Next door to international arrivals/departures is a boat terminal where people are taken to resorts in the close-by atolls.

Approaching Male from the air is always a breath-taking experience as the views of the atolls are awesome. You only really need to avert your eyes once, which is when you fly over the island that they dump all their rubbish on. You can spot it by its ugliness and the pall of dirty smoke coming from it.

Some people are a bit wary of what to expect when arriving in Male and having to connect onward by say seaplane to their final destination. They need not concern themselves as all the resorts arrange for staff to meet international arrivals. Once you have cleared immigration and customs you will then have your cases x-rayed for contraband, booze, magazines etc before being cleared. As you step outside you will find a sea of boards and booths with the name of all the different resorts and you just walk across to yours.

If you are flying onward to an island you will be put straight into a small air-conditioned bus and transported around the runway to the seaplane terminal. Here they will take your bags up to the check in counter, weigh them and give you your boarding pass. They may sometimes charge you for excess baggage but often this depends on how busy the flight is. Your experience at this terminal can depend on what resort and how much you spend. Some of the most luxurious resorts maintain their own lounge and you can sit in the cool with a drink watching the activity around you and filling in your resort check-in details. If not you sit outside and wait although, if you are lightly dressed this is not too unpleasant. Drinks and snacks can be bought with US dollars as well as quite funky T shirts.

They do not operate their planes to a strict schedule. They probably sit down the day before and work out how many people are going to which resorts at what time. They then compute how to use their available aircraft to cause the minimum of delays and ensure they are busy in both directions. I would not like to try this myself and most of the time they get it spot on for the majority of passengers who spend as little as 20 minutes waiting. Some few are less fortunate and they can wait over 3 hours.

There are two local airlines (Maldivian Air Taxi and Trans Maldivian Airways) and the majority of aircraft used are Canadian De-Havilland Twin Otters. These highly versatile 20 seat aircraft have floats attached to their undercarriages. They operate all over the world using wheels, skis and of course floats depending on where they are landing! They are not terribly sophisticated but very sturdy and reliable twin engine planes. They fly pretty low so your ears will not pop but you might need earplugs to mute the engine noise. Sitting furthest forward id best and probably cooler as a draft comes through from the cockpit and it is quieter.

Flight times range depending on where you are going and if they are dropping off and picking up on the way. Usually 20 to 40 minutes is likely. The views are stupendous so be ready with your camera. Often they circle your island before landing if you want to take a snap of it. Taking off and landing on the sea is quite a thrill (to me anyway) and you almost feel like Indiana Jones! Fortunately the lagoons are usually sheltered and calm but it can be ‘fun’ if you arrive in a squall. Again, depending on the resort the plane taxis up to a floating pontoon or a fixed pier attached to the land. If you disembark onto a pontoon a boat will make the short journey to collect you and drop off returning passengers.

If you need to make the onward journey by boat your reception agent will walk you across the road to a line of pontoons which usually have their boat waiting for you. Sometimes you may have to wait for it a short while as it brings in their departing guests. We used a boat once going to Cocoa Island and it was far more fun than I initially expected.

The harbour where you board is reasonably calm. If you get seasick I suggest you wait on the quayside until the bags are loaded and you are ready to go. These ‘power’ boats are usually quite big carrying about 16 guests and their escort. They travel very fast which is both exhilarating and easy on the stomach. My wife gets seasick but was OK on these boats. If you are lucky you may get joined by dolphins and flying fish along the way for part of the journey. Again they usually take up to around 40 minutes and you all get cold towels, cold water along with a safety briefing and lightweight life vest before setting off.

You are usually greeted on arrival with a tropical cocktail and introduced to the person who has been assigned to take you to your room and answer any questions. Most of the time the room is ready for occupation as the previous guests would be flying back on the international flight you came in on. The first thing we did was take off our shoes and they never went on again until we left. It really is quite liberating to have pure white sand between your toes although I do admit I had a pair of flip flops left by the boardwalks so my delicate feet did not burn in the sun! It was either that or I would leap about like a demented ballerina shouting OUCH all the time.

Maybe this would be a good time to talk about clothing? Most of ours had an untroubled holiday resting in the suitcase as you really do not need much unless you feel the need/desire to dress up. Very little is needed during the day and the evenings are more relaxed elegant than formal. Do not even think of jackets, ties, heels or similar, they really would look silly.

Cosmetics? Mossie cream? Yes. The resorts have very little apart from basic medicines and expensive lotion. Bring it all with you and save a lot. Also bring plenty of anything you think you might need like paracetomol, Rennies, After Sun , spare glasses etc as you are quite a way from anywhere. If you do need something badly then ask the manager if he has any staff taking the trip to Male and if they could get it for you for a tip. I lost a vital screw off my glasses but a member of staff went to an optician on the main island and got them fixed for me.

The mosquito situation varies by season and island but is usually far better than mainland Asia or say, the Caribbean. Like most of these places the culprits are more likely to be sand flies but usually properties are Fogged (sprayed with insecticide) once a week. The larger the island, the more likely there is some standing water and therefor mosquitos. You may of course get ants, spiders and the occasional large bat fly past but these are more likely in the beach not water villas. In my view nothing to be at all concerned by!

The places we went to were all well-equipped. Even the water villas had full facilities including hair dryer, dressing gowns, soaps and plenty of plug sockets for things like hair straighteners , laptops and similar. Fortunately for the UK most sockets are the same as ours with three square pins and operate at 220 volts. Most resorts have plenty of adaptors and transformers but it is best to arrive with the correct ones. If you are bringing an ipod then I suggest you bring it’s jack cable as you will often find it can plug into the system in your villa. If you are bringing DVDs I suggest you avoid putting them in sleeves that have scantily clad women on them!

So what else of a general nature might you like to know. You need to be aware of the cost of food and particularly drink as it is not cheap. They argue that everything needs to be imported from afar but I have been in more isolated places that cost a lot less. Everything is at a premium so you need to get your head around it now rather than get a shock. The beer is a little more reasonable but premium brand shorts and cocktails are at least twice/three times the price as say in the UK. In saying that they taste gorgeous and the measures are usually larger. There are all-inclusive resorts and we stayed in one called Lily Island which I will report on later. We definitely got our money’s worth there.

What they tend to do is have a general restaurant for those on meal plans and specialty restaurants for those that want a more ‘exotic’ and a la carte experience. Usually people on half board spend at least one evening in another restaurant for the sake of variety as much as anything else. Wherever you eat the food is usually to a good standard although some might find the regional fayre a bit hot!

Wine is again expensive with the cheapest bottles costing US$60 for something you could get at a UK supermarket for 20% of that. They will always offer water but I suggest you ask for local bottled water if you are on a budget. Otherwise they will provide something like Perrier at a premium cost. Food and drink in your room is on the same tariff and of course there is nowhere else to go. No competition equals higher prices I guess.

The people who own, and those that work on the island are a mixed bag of nationalities. All Maldivian islands are owned by Maldivians, it’s the law. These owners are rarely seen as they outsource the management of the resort to organisations such as Hilton, Taj, Banyan Tree etc. These groups share the profit proceeds with the owners and it works well for them. Sometimes there could be dispute over development of the island and the building of new villas which can cause a change in what is quite a delicate Eco structure.

If you build a new breakwater in one place then you lose the beach in another part. Build a new line of water villas and it could wreck a reef system that has been around for centuries. But think of the extra revenue! When you plant a new palm tree, which they often do, it has to be dug up from somewhere else!

The actual island senior management are usually European. The middle management have a lot of Sri Lankans and the occasional Maldivian. The majority of the workers come from India, Sri Lanka and The Maldives. Each hotel resort has to have a certain quota of Maldivians working for them. Are they treated well? Now that is a difficult question. All the best part of any island are for the guests. There is usually no more than a compound in the middle where the entire staff live. Few visitors go in there but I could imagine going ‘stir crazy’ if I lived there. Most staff (particularly senior members) get holiday time off island to regain their sanity.

Lower level staff only go home for visits when they have generated enough in tips and salary to do so. Tips are critical to them but you need to say they are for that staff member alone, particularly the person looking after your room that will depend on your generosity. Tipping is a big issue. I personally tip nothing until I leave but I make sure they know that. Other people I know tip small with everything but I think that is neither helpful on liable to gain better service. You take your choice. I tipped a good room cleaner US$50 for a fortnight.

What are you going to do when you finally get there? Very little unless you are a keen diver in which case you have just entered heaven. It is also a great place to learn and receive your certification. Otherwise there is little to do but relax in a ‘desert island’ paradise sitting outside your villa or snorkelling the reef. Most islands have their own house reef where fish are abundant and the water is crystal clear.

You should however expect to see sharks! There are a lot in the Maldives although I have never ever heard of any attack a human. Most are very small juveniles that come inside the reef to avoid being eaten by the bigger ones. It is amazing how easily you become blasé about them. Apart from them you are in your own private aquarium that includes a huge array of coloured fish, turtles and rays.

A big thrill is to swim with Mantas and Whale Sharks. These huge beasts are spectacular and can be enjoyed even with a snorkel kit. Most resorts run boats to take you out to where they cruise. The only thing they do not like you to do (unless they do it themselves) is feed the fish as it makes them dependant on hand-outs. Some places also offer night fishing off the reef where you can catch your dinner using hand lines which can be fun.

Unfortunately some resorts now have fish feeding shows where all the guests gather on a pontoon to watch staff throwing bloody fish guts into the illuminated night-time water. The fish expect it and whilst it is dramatic seeing sharks and the like thrashing in the water. Maybe hinting to sharks that humans provide food is not a great idea in my mind, let alone the injuries they can inflict on each other as they fight over scraps.

What else to do? There is usually a spa on the resort where some fragile little Thai girl will manipulate you into submission in double quick time. I do not like hot stones, seaweed baths or full body massages but those that do think the service at these spas is first class. Very often they will give you treatments above a glass bottomed floor so you can watch the tropical fish as you lie there.
A few of the resorts have water sports including skiing, parascending and tyre riding. I tend to avoid these like the plague as my idea of tropical paradise does not include them, however, they do tend to use them where they are less likely to disturb wimps like me!

Finally there is what is to me their most successful offering which I call maximum chill out. I never read at home but I go through volumes in the Maldives. Using an E book is best or you will end out taking half a library with you. By the way there is always a small library or books left in your villa at these places. I read a bit, then have a splash in the sea, watch the fish, have a cold beer, grab my snorkel and fins, then repeat regularly. Do not expect high activity however, even if you do, you will soon slip into the lazy relaxed lifestyle The Maldives is famous for.

If you want to chill but are worried about keeping in touch most islands have WiFi. If not they have an accessible computer so you can use that. Some even have TV. When I was working I had become so attached to my Blackberry that it never left my side. 2 days into our Maldivian holiday it had disappeared. I was mortified until Judith told me she had wrapped it up in a BA duty free bag and buried it, and there it stayed until the last day when she made me stand with my back to a nearby palm tree and take four paces towards our sun loungers and start digging. After minutes I found the bag, switched on the blackberry and instantly received 124 messages. Didn't stop me attending a few conference calls though!

What about the villas? You tend to get two sorts i.e. the beach villa and the over-water villa. I prefer the latter although it is usually more expensive. They are very clever how they use screening to protect your privacy on the sun deck and many contain both Jacuzzi and lighting underneath for fish watching when the sun goes down. There is nothing like lying at night on your deck sunbed with a drink and a map of the heavens identifying Orion and the big dipper in the starry sky.

Bar life is usually only busy on the big or all-inclusive islands but you usually can find a like-minded couple to talk to. Otherwise the bar staff are very keen to talk in order to improve their language skills. I suggest you do not travel to the Maldives with anyone that you do not enjoy talking to! Like all such places doing nothing can be very tiring and most people are falling asleep early or turning in to be ready for a morning dive. Remember, if you are diving you need to comply with regulations about the timings on when you can or cannot drink.

Time change is another thing to remember. Most resorts operate on a time one hour ahead of the official Male time. This enables the connection services from the island to link better when you depart. They call it ‘Island Time’.
Well that is the generalities as much as I remember them. If anyone thinks I have missed anything important then send me a ‘comment’ using the box below this blog so others will benefit to.

Now to the big issue. What about the weather?! The sole most important thing to most folk is the weather as it could possibly spoil a well organised trip.
The Maldives is roughly on the Equator and as such is very unpredictable as far as rainfall is concerned and frankly it is 'the luck of the draw' whether you have cloudless skies or rain showers.

People always say the dry season is between January and May and it is. However, we have been there in August and November and enjoyed the most wonderful weather. When it rains the heavens open but most of the time this is brief intense showers that soon disappear. They also mainly happen at night which is a blessing. OK you can get days of dull weather with long bouts of rain but these can happen even in the 'dry' season.

Do not get obsessed by weather forecasts. I have met people near to cancelling because they have looked on some general global site that says it will rain in The Maldives. It probably might but The Maldives is a big place and 95% of the islands will never get a sniff of this rain. Believe me forecasts are not worth fretting about and nobody knows what will really happen where you are going.

When I started I told you that I had made a number of trips to The Maldives. I have stayed at the Hilton/Conrad, Mirihi, Cocoa Island and Lily Beach. I will write a consolidated report on these resorts very soon.

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