Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Maldives - A Tale of Four Islands - Complete

In my first report I tried to give you general detail about holidaying in The Maldives. I told you I had been 6 times visiting 4 islands and how I planned to write a consolidated report my experiences with them. Well here it is!
Rather than reproduce the individual Tripadvisor critiques I wrote soon after each journey I am going to write afresh with the benefit of hindsight but the risk that possibly some detail might be historic. So please bear with me as I wade through my rapidly dwindling memory banks.

Hilton Rangali/ Conrad Rangali

We stayed there three times in rapid succession. It was our first experience of the Maldives and, like with most people they not only take your breath away with their beauty but also beguiled one into returning. We stayed on the following dates:

10th – 24th April 2005 25th August – 09th SEP 2005 20th April – 4th May 2006

All of these dates are outside the peak ‘dry’ season yet we only saw rain on the second stay and that was mainly at night. In saying that it got quite windy at the end of August which, whilst cooling the air, made the waters a little choppy. When it is both windy and choppy some people in the water villas were disturbed by some movement in their structure. To be honest, we liked it!

You will see I have given two names in my heading. The reason is that Hilton had the management contract when we first went there but their parent company decided to upgrade the resort to their more expensive ‘Conrad’ status around this period. We ended up not going again because we felt they increased their prices just that little bit too much when turning it into a Conrad.

We were there during the period of transformation and was given the opportunity of watching how they did it. The resort consists of two islands that are linked together by a narrow bridge. In the middle of the bridge they built a seaplane pontoon and a small reception/departure lounge. This handles all the transfers and replaced the original disembarkation point on the beach of the smaller island. In fact when we first arrived the bigger island was empty and being converted.

We could see the main island conversion was taking place rapidly. A large workforce consisting of hired foreign workers were putting together villas at a rapid pace. Restaurants, reception areas and a pool were springing up and we could see that ultimately it would have a big impact on the resort. They constructed their underwater restaurant and we were thrilled to join them eating the inaugural dinner under the lagoon’s turquoise waters. We were even given a little pearl to mark the occasion!

The palm trees arrived next. I was like many people who thought that properties were built between trees but it is the opposite out there. Most of these palm trees come from other islands. They are dug up by bulldozers, root ball and all, and then ferried elsewhere to be replanted. It was strange seeing it for the first time as palm trees appeared to be floating across the beach and then replanted.

Eventually the work finished and the new part of the resort opened. Most of the beach villas looked splendid. A lot had outdoor bathrooms which, whilst romantic, did not feel terribly practical. The baths were huge and, on occasions, filled with flower petals but it was still damn hot outside, you could hear you neighbours and the few mosquitos around just loved the easy meal! Apart from teething problems most of the guests staying in these villas had a wonderful time. If you stay in these villas now try to avoid being put in one on the lagoon side as the beach in that area is small at the best of times and tides.

The guest ‘balance’ changed with the construction of these villas and particularly the pool. Families with young children started arriving as did small groups and honeymooners. We kind of liked our barefoot paradise to be quiet and initially that was how it remained and we got completely spoilt. As visits progressed the resort did too as noisy kids played in the pool and couples groped each other on daybeds in the bar area. The resort eventually almost split in two where the ‘mature adults’ kept to the small island and the fun loving families stayed on their bigger one.

By the time our third visit came the split became three-way. Conrad as it was now called had built a new string of spa water villas at the end of the big island. I think this was built mainly to capture the East Asia market who take honeymoons of just a few days and enjoy spa breaks. A dedicated restaurant and spa was opened at the beginning of the pier selling small quantities of excellent food at a pretty high price. Again, aimed at those healthy dieters among us. The majority of these spa dwellers stayed put in their sector of the island.

So that is the history of this resort as I know it. What about our experiences during our three holidays? It was wonderful….with future forebodings.
Rangali Small Island is beautiful in every way. There was no pool (there is now) but who needs one when you have a vast crystal clear wave- less lagoon in front of you. It was all water villas and people tended to use their private sun decks. This meant the beaches were practically empty apart from staff bringing you drinks and cleaning your sun glasses! We were actually hugely surprised if we saw any other guests on ‘our beach’.

The restaurant and bar (Vilu) were superb One could flop into deep and comfortable settees overlooking the lagoon and eat by candlelight on the decking. The staff were kind and the food good. It was heaven. We made some good friends with the people we met including the waiters who we got to know quite well. The barmen were good and mixed great drinks. Unfortunately one had his contract terminated when he drank some alcohol and drove a buggy straight through a glass wall in reception!

You could walk around the small island in under 15 minutes and we did frequently. It was most odd because there were no really noticeable corners yet you suddenly found yourself where you started. There are pontoons off the island in at least four places to the various water villas which I understand have now been fully renovated.
We had villa 331 and it was perfect for us. It was not overlooked; it had a Jacuzzi and its own little clump of coral full of fish directly in front of it.

They are all made of wood with grass thatch roofs. Each has its own bedroom, bathroom and outside decking. There are three main types which are standard, superior and deluxe and they are all good. We preferred the superior villas because they are well positioned and had their own Jacuzzi sunk into the decking. The deluxe villas are bigger but are all in a line fairly close to each other. The only water villas I personally would avoid are at the end of the island towards the bridge as there is a current around them that can be quite strong.

There is also a Sunset Villa which is quite spectacular with its huge space, plunge pool, rotating circular bed and glass lounge floor. It also contains a kitchen area where staff can prepare your meals. We were moved into it for a few days as they tend to offer it if new guests arriving and there are no water villas available for a few days. I think they considered it better to upgrade existing guests for the end of their holiday than downgrade new arrivals. Perhaps one could mention one’s willingness to go there if necessary?

The Spa villas on Main Island are another place you may be offered. Again we were offered this on one of our stays. They are huge and absolutely beautiful inside. They were having teething troubles when we moved in with the plumbing and dangerous slippery decking but I am sure that this has been fixed by now. We ourselves were not too keen as they were rather isolated from anywhere serving my kind of food portions! Also the beds had hardwood surrounds that I kept on crunching my legs on and there was not enough curtains in the sleeping area.

Rangali is wonderful for swimming purposes but there is one little snag for small island dwellers. The house reef is the other side of the main island. They have all the other services you would expect from a high range resort like a Japanese restaurant intriguingly sunken in the sand, a Sunset Grill in a beautiful over-water setting, two good bars, underwater restaurant (quite unique) and a thriving dive centre.

Now, if it is so perfect (and it was) why have we stopped going there? The price hike is the main thing. This company has really pushed their prices up, and arguably beyond, an acceptable limit. At the same time they have diluted its exclusivity and made it crowded in comparison. We look at it as a dream island that we remember very fondly. We worry about risking these memories going again and paying a premium to do it. It worries me too that an island that was number one in the Tripadvisor ranking has dropped to number 31 today.

Perhaps one day?

Mirihi Resort
24th July – 12th August 2010

How on earth do we compete with our Rangali experiences? Especially when the Maldives is well into the ‘rainy’ season. We decided to look for a small island away from it all in the same southern atoll where I had heard there was a chance of better weather. We studied Tripadvisor reports and found Mirihi. It seemed to fit the bill in so many ways but did not seem to have any UK tour operators using it. We ended up booking direct although now it has ascended to number 2 in the Tripadvisor ratings it is easier to book a package even in the UK.

Our first impression was how tiny it was. How do you get both guests and staff on such a tiny island? It really is that small. Probably the smallest we have been on. It probably takes as little as 5 minutes to walk around it. Our reception was great. The seaplane taxied up to a pier from the shore and there was the new GM with two very attractive young German ladies (guest relations) to meet us and arrange bag transportation.

We walked towards the shore and the first thing you came across was something that looked like a graveyard. There were all these posts and crosses standing next to the tree line and we began to wonder if previous guests had been buried there. On closer inspection at a later date it turned out that these were in fact monuments to those that had reaffirmed their love for each other on the island before flying home. Not at all ‘British’ we thought which just about described the place.

The island was owned by A Maldivian lady who was not really keen on making any changes and these ‘monuments’ had been implanted in prime beach sun lounger positions for years. Nobody seemed brave enough to move them! This was our overlying impression of our whole stay. A brilliant resort built mainly for the diving market and not very focused on the British or beach comfort.

You enter the resort through a sanded reception area which was a few comfy seats, one desk and little else. One then walks through a lounge/boutique shop area where there is also a PC for guest use (it used to cost a small fee) and on to a crescent shaped bar with sheltered indoor and outdoor seating. Beyond that was the main buffet restaurant and then through to the sand paths that lead to the villas and a very busy and thriving dive shop.

This place is always pretty full but looks mainly deserted except for meal and dive times. The vast majority come from mainland Europe (particularly Germany) and there are regular frequent organised dives during the day and even into the night. It is the perfect place to learn to dive and is located close to some of the best diving and whale shark viewing location in the atoll. The reef around it is also abundant with all kinds of marine life and the resort itself feels very eco-friendly.

I labour on the benefits of the diving as somewhere along the line that is where the amenities seem to have stopped. The small beaches are pristine but they had no permanent sun umbrellas. The only sun beds were made of brittle plastic and positioned only for the few beach villa dwellers. Very strange!

When we told the management we did not want to dive but would rather sit on the beach they could not have been kinder in fixing us up, but we had to ask. We ended up with chairs, mattresses and an umbrella stacked in reception that they ran out with every time we went on the beach which although nice, became rather embarrassing after a while. There were also infrequent rain showers that necessitated frequent removal where a permanent grass rondavel shaped permanent structure would have made so much sense. What made it more weird was that we were again sat next to the ‘graveyard’!

I think the resort had at least two staff looking after every guest. The guests stayed in either a small line of beach villas that were always occupied by regular visitors and a dozen or so water villas. These water villas were mainly built in a tight circle at one end of the island and were comparatively small but well laid out. Positioning is important and you need to weigh up whether you want sun, sunsets, shallow or deep water. There was another small line of water villas but we did not think they were as attractive and at least one was badly overlooked

There is also an extremely delightful but highly under-utilised special restaurant off the flying boat pier. They host sunset drinks there and the water is illuminated to display the many fish that swim around it. The restaurant was superb when we were there but rather like the rest of the island we were the only ones there to enjoy it.
Like everywhere else on the island there is a spa. Within this complex there is also a very large pool like Jacuzzi pool. There are small cubicles for massages that overlook parts of the beach so it is best to look away as you pass! They also have a great library to swap your holiday books.

The island staff soon became our friends and you could not help liking and appreciating them. They have/had a long term GM there who left just before we arrived but came back a few months after we left. We got to know a highly motivated interim GM who listened closely to all my comments and suggestions. I only hope his attempts to implement them did not lead to his hasty departure not long after us. They also had an Australian ‘Executive Chef’ called Tim and he was a fantastic cook and all round great guy.

The bar staff were also great but heavily underutilised. As most people are divers they are somewhat restricted in what they can drink and when they can eat. We had many pleasant but rather lonely evenings sat in the bar talking to the staff or stroking ‘Tiger’ their then VIP permanent cat resident. Tiger is unfortunately no longer with us but at least he lived on that island for over 20 years which is one hell of a holiday!

Mirihi is a wonderful small ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island that would be perfect for honeymooners who also happen to be divers. It could be a lot more and maybe it is now. Mind you I only hope that it maintains its special charm. I am sure it does as it has risen from obscurity to the top ten resorts according to Tripadvisor

We were supposed to be there for 16 days but after 10 I phoned the Lily Beach resort and we transferred there. Why? At that time we found temporarily camping during the day and totally quiet evenings a bit of a drag after our previously hectic lifestyle.
Lily Beach was very different as I will report next!

Lily Beach

06thAugust – 12th August 2010

Lily Beach sent a boat over to pick us up. It all went very smoothly and surprising quickly. One minute we were clambering on board the large powerboat and seemingly whisked over to Lily Beach in a matter of 20 minutes. I was a little puzzled as I had been told it would probably take an hour yet there we were after 20 minutes $386 lighter but hey, this is the Maldives!

As I reported at the time Lily Beach is a bit unusual as it seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. It was clearly a beautiful resort that seemed to be packaged as one yet had a huge range of different guests. It is billed as a 5 star all inclusive but how can you have an all-inclusive that is 5 star? Do people who stay in a 5 star resort eat buffet meals in crowded restaurants drinking lower cost wine and sitting next to a rowdy table of eastern Europeans? But then you go back to your water villa and walk into incredible opulence. How does that work because it happens a lot at Lily Beach.

The island is a kind of oval in shape. At one end are the water villas along a huge double looped boardwalk that goes out quite a distance. In my opinion the best villas to choose for safe and enjoyable swimming/snorkeling are the ones on the spa side. The spa is at the beginning of the boardwalk on the right as you look at the villas. I am afraid I never went there being idle and past redemption!

Before you get to the spa there is one of the alternative restaurants which is popular at lunchtime and right next to the infinity pool. There are sun loungers all around it but these tend to get grabbed by folk pretty early which is another thing not very 5 star. The beach there extends all down that side of the island and is very beautiful albeit open for beach activities and water sports. Bordering this shore are the villas. I never went in one but was told that they were pleasant but not quite as good as the water villas.

Eventually you get to the other end of the island where they have another bar/restaurant called Vibes which is also next to a second pool. They occasionally stage entertainment in this area. Walking from one end to the other takes quite a long time (especially in the heat) and they lay on an intermittent buggy service to ferry people around. Allow plenty of time as this service sometimes waits for a number of people to ask.

Walking back along the lagoon side of the island there are another group of villas. They do not have a beach as such but enjoy direct access to the sea. Beyond them you get to the main structure which is the largest I have seen in the Maldives. There is a huge open- sided reception area full of benches and chairs that house new arrivals and departures while they wait. Beyond that is the main bar, and library/games room. Behind that is a truly vast buffet dining area and further on the dive centre.

If you keep on walking past that you will come to their ‘fine dining’ restaurant which is built over the lagoon. There are inside and outdoor tables and the latter become very busy in season. Most people staying at the resort get one dinner there per holiday so, if you do, book as soon as you arrive. We didn’t and they could not fit us in the rest of our stay. Not very 5 star. Carry on from the restaurant and you end up back at the water villa pier.

So what do we have? Two standards of villa, two pools, a huge restaurant and a beach along one side. But that is not all. Twenty or so feet from the villas and beach is the most wonderful house reef. Very few people seem to swim along the deep exterior of this reef but if they did they would marvel at the myriad of different fishes large and small.

I mentioned the huge restaurant area. Most nights it is set up using a main theme i.e. Chinese, Indian etc. and the buffet and service stations groan under the weight of food from those areas. You still get more generic stuff on some counters and there is a three or four choice table d’hote menu as well. You can order bottles of pretty decent wine too under the all-inclusive tariff. Water, other drinks etc. are also included.

The biggest shock we had were the people staying at this resort. They were not what we expected which sounds awfully pompous but true. Maybe it was the massive difference between a tiny Mirihi and a large multicultural, all inclusive resort like Lily Beach. The first few day got me seething as noisy gangs of people shouted to each other and men in Speedo swimming costumes sat in the pool restaurant. I muttered darkly as Japanese guests snagged their pedalos on the coral outside our water villa and had to be rescued. I had become a snob.

Reflecting on it now I would most certainly go back again. You see you still have your own water villa refuge and the rest can be very entertaining. On reflection it was enormous fun watching the antics in the bar at night. People were drinking huge quantities of premium spirits free of charge whilst pocketing handfuls of cigarette. One man never learnt how to sit down on the seats and catapulted over the back every single evening. The plant behind him died after six days of being squashed. Great fun and I left feeling most of the resort were 5 star but many of its guests were not!

Now what about these water villas? They were wonderful. They were very spacious, had a bedroom with large seating area, a fabulous air conditioned bathroom and fantastic outside decking with shallow plunge pool and steps into the sea. The fridge was stocked with soft drink, crisps and wine and nothing much was left out anywhere. They can get a bit wild when the wind blows hard but, as I said, we liked that. My only worry was the toilet. It had a glass side and floor. How nice you might think until you have a Korean couple in a sea kayak paddling underneath you!

In summary I would say that Lily Beach has something in common with Conrad Rangali. They both do not seem to know what market they want and how they are going to satisfy them. Perhaps Conrad might charge more in the hopes of getting the ‘right’ clientele. Lily is by no means cheap but slightly less prohibitive cost-wise. No doubt neither need worry to much as so many people want the Maldives experience.

Next to come…Cocoa Island…Tripadvisor’s number 1

Cocoa Island
22nd November – 6th December 2010

This was our most recent trip to the Maldives and probably the most luxurious of all. Not quite as expensive as Conrad but so much better in many respects. Maybe we just prefer smaller island and this one is definitely in that category.

This was the only island where we transferred to it by high speed launch and we enjoyed the journey thoroughly. Most of the transfer seems to be in calm water travelling between islands and getting the chance to see everything going on around you. The launch flies through the water and, as I said earlier, the flying fish and dolphins sometimes join you.

When you get to Cocoa Island it is like walking onto a superbly comfortable and sophisticated Robinson Crusoe film set. Superb. The GM welcomes and sees off every guest and you are given a very comprehensive briefing on the resort and a quick tour of the facilities. Unlike say Lily Beach we never saw any more than four other couples at any time including meals. Wonderful for some honeymooning couples but a little quiet for other folk.

The main area has an infinity pool and wrapped around that is the restaurant and bar and that is just about it. The boat dock and reception is down one sandy path and the spa including another indoor giant Jacuzzi pool further along. Next to the Spa reception is a relaxation/reading area with a large supply of books to satisfy the most avid reader.

Again, you can walk around the island in 10 minutes and on this one the staff quarters stretch to the edge of the lagoon. Despite how close they live to each other they seemed a very contented crowd which is usually a sign of good management. As usual the staff here were charming and very keen to talk in order to improve their language skills.

The island is surrounded by a sand beach. The flattest sandiest area is where they have put their water villas and this area is vast and good for swimming. Lots of little sharks and rays and we even saw a small marlin leaping out of the water 30 yards from our deck in the deeper water. Like a lot of the island the sands are constantly shifting and they have a little pumping barge in the large lagoon that pumps sand across the island to a place where it is currently needed. This did not disturb us or anyone else I saw.

The water villas have been very well planned and many of them are in the shape of a Dhoni which is the name of the local fishing boats. They are extremely comfortable and well maintained. We spoilt ourselves and chose a ‘loft suite’ which had a lounge, upstairs bedroom hall, bathroom and upstairs toilet. We had a very large sun deck with high quality beds and, best of all, separate decking and stairs to the water leading from the bathroom. There was also an outside shower here which was perfect when you came out of the water.

Inside the lounge there is plenty of seating plus a table to eat any in-villa dinners. We assumed this were where many guests ate because we never saw them. At least in-room you could get more standard (and cheaper) meals. Food actually became a bit of an issue with us. It was perfectly cooked but most was too rich and too spicy for my wife’s taste. 14 days of fusion ‘fine dining’ was too much and we began to hanker for simpler stuff!

Diving from this island is supposed to be very good indeed and there are plenty of places to go. Cocoa is relatively close to other islands which you can see in the distance including the one reserved as for the Maldives prison. I have heard people speak negatively about this but I frankly cannot imagine anyone escaping and heading for a resort. They certainly will not try tunneling out!

Before signing out I must tell you more about the beach . There is a great area around the pool and bar with large straw umbrellas fixed in the sand accompanied by large comfortable sun beds. They were so comfortable that we inadvertently walked past an isolated one to find a honeymoon couple looking like they were about to consummate their marriage. I was not sure whether I should get them a sheet to cover them or a bucket of water!

Further along the beach, past the water villas are some even more isolated sun shades and beds. Here you can enjoy the sunshine and sunsets without having anyone anywhere near you. Next to this area is a sand spit that at low tide stretches out almost half a mile out to sea. A great walk but make sure you beat the tide coming back.

The welcome and service here was excellent. If I had to criticize I would sometimes say they were over-cautious not to disturb you to the point where you had to ask for things you expected like drinks etc. They were also sometimes so keen to get their cocktails right that they were warm by the time they got to you!

Out of all our stays this island was probably the most perfect (bar the food) although I still do miss the magic of our first love Rangali. Maybe I will throw caution to the wind and try it again. Who knows but, if we do, I will be sure to tell you about it!

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