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For today’s Destination of the Week, we travel to one of the world’s far-flung yet most dreamworthy destinations, a chain of tiny islands off the southern tip of India that’s gaining popularity with tourists by the day thanks to a pristine environment, world-class luxury resorts and an end-of-the-earth tropical ambiance. Our destinations is: the Maldives. We asked TPG contributor Ola for her insider tips on what to do and where to stay since she recently traveled there on honeymoon. Here’s what she had to say.
ABOUT THE MALDIVES
The Maldives are an archipelago located about 600 miles southwest of Sri-Lanka. They consist of nearly 1,200 islands which are the tips of a huge submarine mountain belt in the Indian Ocean, spreading across over 50,000 square miles of water. Located across the equator, the islands are warm year round; the low monsoon season starts in May and ends in October. Some rain and wind may occur, especially during the months of July and August, but it only lasts five minutes before it clears up perfectly. We went there at the end of July and we hardly felt it, it was definitely worth the lower prices of the season.
Even though water is predicted to overflow most of the islands in the next 20 to 30 years due to climate change, this predominantly Muslim republic has a history dating back hundreds of years. Only less than 300 of the islands are inhabited, and around 88 of them are resort islands. The most populated island is the capital Malé, and this is where international flights arrive and depart.
WHAT TO DO
In Malé: The Capital Island
Since Malé is adjacent to the international airport, some people pay it a short visit either before they take off to their resort or on their way home. You can ask the resort you’re visiting to arrange a private tour of Malé for you if you are interested. My husband and I stayed at the Conrad and were able to arrange a tour through them with a trusted person from Malé for a reasonable price.
Malé is a small island – only 2 square kilometers in area – so just a couple of hours is sufficient to explore its attractions, and you definitely don’t need a car. There are a few landmarks to check out if you like sightseeing; the Grand Friday Mosque, known as the Huskuru Miskyii, is the biggest mosque in the Maldives. Built in 1656 and located near the main jetty, it is intricately decorated with a big gold dome and minarets that you can spot from the airplane; woodcarvings and beautiful Arabic calligraphy decorate the interior coral walls. Non-Muslims might need prior permission to get in. The National Museum is also located in the same compound. Nearby is Independence Square, a little park with a big Maldivian flag, which serves as the center for political demonstrations. Close by on the north shore is the Fisher-Market where fishermen line their boats on the island deck delivering fresh fish for locals to sell; if you’re lucky you can see huge tuna and other types of fish delivered. Right beside that is the Malé Market, where you can buy fresh local fruits, vegetables and yams.
If you can’t wait to explore the underwater world, or you’re not a diver, you can ride a 30 minute submarine from Whale Submarine Maldives, though don’t expect to see whales due to the misleading name. However, you will get to go underwater and see beautiful coral reefs. For divers, snorkelers and water sport enthusiasts, there are unfortunately no beaches on the island except for a little artificial beach, which still hosts events and some water sports. If you want something more upscale, you can pre-arrange an excursion to one of the nearby snorkeling or diving spots.
In terms of shopping, the biggest shopping channel is on the main street, Majeedhee Magu where you can find all types of things from clothing to electronics. For souvenir shopping Chaandhanee Magu Street is a more popular option. If you want some cheap snacks that are not available on resorts, State Trade Organization is a high-quality supermarket.
Keep in mind that restaurants on resort islands are top-notch compared to the ones in Malé; however, spending a good amount of time in a restaurant is the best way to rest and get away from the humidity. One of the most recommended restaurants in Malé is Sala Thai Restaurant, formerly located close to the Fisher-Market, and which has recently moved and expanded into a B&B. My husband and I spent an evening in the old location and really enjoyed it. It’s known for its authentic food, atmosphere and excellent service. Aioli is another option popular for its contemporary design; serving a mix of Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. Other top-rated places to eat are the restaurants at the Trader’s Hotel in Malé operated by Shangri-La Hotels; the nicest of them, due to its amazing views, is the rooftop Azur restaurant located on the 14th floor. For a nice café with free WiFi, Shell Beans café, situated close to the Jetty is a nice option.
The first thing you think of when you get to the island your resort is on is, “I don’t want to think about anything!” Each resort is settled in its own private island and typically surrounded by lagoons and coral reefs, long white sandy beaches, sun, turquoise water and palm trees is all you can see around. Mind you, this means that all things to do are confined to the resort. For this reason, resorts don’t only compete through the villas they build or the coral reefs around them, they also compete with the restaurants, spas, and the activities and excursions they offer since once you pick your resort, you’re pretty much stuck there, so they have to do whatever possible to entice visitors.
Activities offered at resorts usually include scuba diving, snorkeling and other water sports and most hotels offer creative excursions such as sunset fishing trips, lunch for two on a secluded island, visits to local islands where you can meet native Maldivians, and more.
Restaurant choices range from casual to fine-dining – though all are expensive – and usually with spectacular views of the sea and other islands. Some resorts also offer unique dining experiences, like private candle light dinner on the beach, or on top of the water or in your own room deck. And let’s not forget the spa experiences each of these resorts invests in – they’re hoping to get guests in for multiple treatments per visit, so you can bet the facilities are looking good and the menus are expensive.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Upon arrival to Malé International Airport (or Ibrahim Nasir Airport) you will be issued a 30-day tourist visa as long as you have a valid passport and a hotel reservation confirmation. Once you pass the arrivals hall you will find counters for all the major hotels in the Maldives. Representatives from your hotel counter should take care of you from there and arrange the transfer to your hotel, which could take some time depending on your arrival time.
Transfers to your resort island should be arranged beforehand, usually through the hotel itself or a travel agent. While waiting for your transfers some hotels offer an air-conditioned lounge to wait in, which might include free snacks, drinks, and even massages. You can also ask them to visit Malé for a couple of hours. A ferry ride to Malé from the airport island takes 15 to 20 minutes for really cheap, and a more expensive speed boat would get you there in 5 minutes. Transfers to resorts are done either by speed boat, an air taxi (sea plane), or a domestic flight; depending on the distance. Sea planes cost around $500 per person; however, a lot of the resorts include the transfers in their packages. One thing to keep in mind is that baggage allowances on the sea planes are lower than the international airline; thus, they will charge you for any extra weight.
There are ways to get to the Maldives using all major airline alliances, flying direct from many locations which gives point collectors many options to choose from.
Airlines that fly direct to the Maldives under Oneworld are limited to British Airways via London-Gatwick. Air Berlin has codeshare flights from Abu Dhabi. In the near future (2013/2014) Malaysia Airlines, Sri Lankan, and Qatar Airways, which all have direct flights from their main hub to the Maldives, are expected to join Oneworld.
There are many airlines in SkyTeam that fly direct to the Maldives including Aeroflot from Moscow, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, and Saudi Arabian Airlines from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Two airlines use codeshare: Aerolineas Argentinas via Colombo and Czech Airlines via Abu Dhabi.
Under Star Alliance, Austrian Airlines via Vienna, Singapore Airlines via Singapore and a recently added Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul fly direct to the Maldives. There is also a codeshare from Swiss International Airlines via Zurich, Switzerland.
Other airlines that fly direct to the Maldives include Emirates via Dubai and Colombo, Fly Dubai via Dubai (starting in January 2013), Bangkok Airways via Bangkok, Etihad via Abu Dhabi, Air India via multiple Indian locations, Maldivian Airlines via India and other Maldivian airports, Meridiana via Italy, Oman Air via Muscat, Thomson Fly via Gatwick, London, and more.
Keep in mind that some alliance airlines don’t fly directly to the Maldives, however a lot of them fly to destinations that have cheap direct flights to the Maldives, this will expand the options for frequent flyers. For instance Colombo has regular cheap flights to the Maldives, so frequent flyers could use airlines that fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka, then go to the Maldives using a cheap ticket from there.
Resorts in the Maldives don’t have the typical buildings that we’re used to in other countries, except for the capital and the airport islands. Each resort is settled on its own private island, and has villa-huts either spread around the island, the beaches or over the water. To move around the island; most of the big resorts have golf buggies that chauffeur you where you want to go. Resort prices depend on the season, all prices listed are for each resort’s most standard villas and go up from there; the low season is from May to October/November, and the high season is from November to April.
The Radisson Blu Hotel Maldives will be opening later in 2013 in Hulhumale, and there are plans to open the Radisson Plaza Resort Maldives Naagoshi toward the end of 2013 as well.
Note: There is a promotion going on right now with HHonors where you can save 33% on Asian resorts if you book any weekend until December 31, 2013. Booking has to be done by February 14, 2013 for Asia Pacific properties. Prices shown below do not include this promotion.
Conrad Maldives Rangali Island: This resort is located on a set of two islands in South Ari Atoll, 30 minutes by seaplane from Malé, called Rangali and Rangali Finolhu, connected by a wooden bridge. The resort has a total of 150 modernly decorated beach and overwater villas. Beach villas are located on the main island and have a private garden bathroom with rain shower, ocean view terraces and a private plunge pool in some. Overwater villas are split between the two islands; some have private Spa treatment rooms, decks that lead into the ocean and an over-sized bathtub with ocean views. Others have private wooden sundecks, with a Jacuzzi in some. All villas have king-size beds, an iPod dock, free WiFi, a coffee maker, adjustable mood lighting, and spacious bathrooms with double vanities. You are also given an iPod upon arrival to be able to communicate with the staff throughout your stay. The resort has two outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court, and an open-air cinema on the beach. It also has centers for watersports, diving, and fitness. One of their unique excursions is the 3-peron mini submarine that can take you for a 30-minute underwater ride. There are two Spa options available on the island including an overwater spa which contains 13 treatment rooms, some with glass-bottomed floors and a variety of luxury massages. Guests have seven restaurants to choose from, all with breathtaking views and ambience. Ithaa Undersea Restaurant is the world’s first all-glass undersea restaurant, 16 feet below the surface. HHonors members get a Daily Happy Hour at Vilu from 5 to 6 pm. They also get a bottle of wine, chocolate and fruits upon arrival and the usual global benefits except for room upgrades. Rates range from $530-$2500 for the their standard room types depending on the season. As a Category 7 resort, free nights start at 50,000 points year round. There is also the point + money option which starts at 25,000 points + $200, but the availability for this option is very limited.
Hilton Maldives Iru Fushi Hotel: Located in Noonu Atoll, 45 minutes by seaplane from Malé, the property stretches over 52 acres of land, with 221 beach and overwater villas. Room facilities include private Jacuzzis, sundecks, courtyards with gazebos and rain showers, one or more private pools, a terrace with daybed, large marble bathrooms, an I-spa bath (bathtub with water jets) and iPod connection. Villa sizes range from 1 to 3 bedrooms and all rooms have a 32-inch flatscreen TV, iPod docking stations, free WiFi, a “magic button” used to call staff, and more. There are many recreational facilities in the resort including tennis courts, water sports, a diving center, a small fitness room and two outdoor swimming pools, one of which is an infinity pool. They have a full-service spa with 20 treatment pavilions nestled in tropical foliage. The resort has nine restaurants including Trio which is considered one of the more expensive restaurants on the island, which is built on top of the lagoon, thus it has a beachy ambience and views of the ocean. Flavours, also an overwater restaurant with beautiful views of the ocean and neighboring islands, is contemporarily designed and serves Asian cuisine influenced by Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. This is also a Category 7 resort and rates start at $340-$920 depending on the season. With HHonors points, rates start at 50,000 points per night. For the points + money option rates start at 25,000 + $115.
Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa : This resort is 250 miles south of Malé. To get there you will first take a 45-minute domestic flight via Maldivian Airlines to Kooddoo Domestic Airport, then a 20-minute personal speedboat to the resort. The Park Hyatt is in the North Huvadhoo Atoll, and the resort is fairly small, encompassing a total of 50 villas; 14 are overwater and the rest on island grounds. The villas feature complimentary WiFi, TV with satellite, CD & DVD player, iPod dock, coffee and tea makers, and hair dryers. Other room facilities range from an enclosed outdoor area with private bath and deck leading to the beach, to a private plunge pool, to private overwater decks with lounge chairs, depending on the room type. The resort’s main pool is 40 meters long and is centrally located, while the second pool is spa-adjacent. The Vidhun Spa has 11 villas for treatments and there is also a fitness center and yoga pavilion. This resort is considered the best place to go snorkeling in the Maldives due to its location; it’s known for its pristine, uninterrupted coral reefs and unique marine life. They have a diving center and other watersports available as well. There are two restaurants to choose from on the Island – the signature one is The Island Grill serving native Maldivian cuisine. Rates start in the range of $900 – $1570 depending on the season. Since this is a Category 6 hotel, rates range from 22,000 – 27,000 points per night depending on the room type. You can also upgrade on your paid nights for as low as 3,000 points.This resort is also a member of the Visa Signature Hotel collection.
JW Marriott Maldives Gaakoshibee Resort & Spa: This resort was supposed to open in 2012 (although some reports have put the opening as late as 2015!) and it will be the first Marriott-brand property in the Maldives. It is located in Shaviyani Atoll, which is 55 minutes by seaplane from Malé. The resort will have 106 water and beach villas that will offer varying amenities such as private plunge pools or jacuzzis, spa rooms, and more.
Holiday Inn Kadooma Maldives: This is the only Priority Club hotel in the Maldives at the moment. Rates range from $182-$514 depending on the season. Priority Club Reward Nights start at 25,000 points per night, or with the points + cash options: 20,000 + $40 or 15,000 + $70.
W Retreat & Spa – Maldives: Located on Fesdu Island, this property has 78 private retreats, ranging from the beachfront Beach Oasis to an Ocean Haven suite. The villas feature 42-inch plasma TV’s, Bose sound systems, complimentary high-speed internet access, king-size W beds and a wine fridge. Bath areas have open roofs and standalone bathtub, rainforest shower and Bliss Spa amenities. Guests can head over to Down Under, the hotel’s own diving center, where they will arrange a dive, whether you are a first time diver or an expert. Unwind at the Away Spa with indoor and outdoor treatment areas, as well as four luxurious treatment villas. Dining options include Kitchen, which is the resort’s bistro style restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Guests may also try Fire, with its own Mongolian barbecue station or Fish, their over-water signature seafood restaurant. Rates start from $1,200 per night. This property has limited participation in the SPG program, but it is a member of Visa Signature Hotels (see below).
Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa: All the rooms at this Starwood Resort were designed and built by local craftsmen and feature modern amenities such as 40-inch LCD televisions, high-speed internet access, and air conditioning. Bathrooms feature a tiled shower and generous vanity area. There are cottages and over water bungalows as well. There is a fresh water pool with waterfalls and a Sheraton Fitness center. Guests can relax at the Shine Spa for Sheraton which features a steam cubicle, hydrotherapy pool, relaxation lounge, and individual treatment pavilions. Stay connected at Link at Sheraton which provides complimentary computer and internet access. Dining includes five restaurants, offering Thai, Continental, Mediterranean, grills, snacks and local seafood delicacies. Rates start at $560 per night or 20,000 to 25,000 Starpoints as this is Category 6 property.
AMEX FINE HOTELS & RESORTS
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Below are some Maldivian Resorts participating in this program.
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru: This is another resort my husband and I visited during our stay at the Maldives. Located in the Baa Atoll, transfers to this resort from Malé take 30-45 minutes by seaplane. The resort has beautiful beaches and the water is exquisite shades of ocean-blue. There is a tongue of white sands that appears in the mornings and gets overflowed with water later on the day. The hotel has a total of 102 beach and water villas designed with traditional coral-based Maldivian elements. With amazing ocean views, villas have different features ranging from private pools or plunge pools to spacious backyards to outdoor garden showers and more. The hotel also has specialty two-bedroom villas for families. Room amenities include CD/DVD players, satellite TV, tea/coffee makers, and spacious bathrooms. The resort has a total of four pools, one for children and three for adults. There is also a tennis court, a dive center, a marine discovery center, fitness facilities, watersports, and other leisure activities available. The Ayurvedic Retreat is the resort’s 2.5-acre spa, hidden in the jungle forests of the island. Guests will find four restaurants on the island aside from lounges and bars. Al Barakat is over-water Lebanese/Moroccan Restaurant, which we really enjoyed, and it even includes a Shisha bar (traditional Hookah). Blu is one of the other restaurants serving Italian-inspired cuisine paired with a romantic setting. They also serve pizzas for lunch that you can enjoy down on the Blu beach. Rates start from $1,100 – $2,500 per night depending on the season. Guests going to Malé for a late night flight have the option of visiting the other Four Seasons property, which is close to the airport, until their flight time for around $150 per person. There is also Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa.
Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa, Maldives: This resort is located in the Addu Atoll; to get there you will first take a 70-minute domestic flight to Gan International Airport, and then a five-minute speedboat from there. This Atoll is almost heart-shaped and has a 10-mile road connecting five of its islands. You can also explore Shangri-La’s island trails by bicycle. The resort has miles of sandy beaches to enjoy, along with one of the largest coral reefs in the Maldives. It contains a total of 142 contemporary beach, tree house, and water villas with Middle Eastern and Indian design elements thrown in. Room amenities include one or more of the following: private pool or infinity pool, oval bath tub, indoor and outdoor showers, private terraces leading to the beach, open air terrace, all with uninterrupted views of the ocean. They are equipped with iPod docks, 40-inch LCD TVs, free WiFi and Nespresso coffee machines. The resort grounds also include many facilities such as a golf course, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a diving center, watersports and a health center. CHI, the resort’s Spa, has individual treatment rooms with private gardens and steam rooms, and a yoga pavilion overlooking the ocean. The resort has three main restaurants along with two other lounges and bars. Shangri-La Hotels and Resort have a rewards program called Golden Circle that you can use to redeem for their hotels or convert to miles. Rates start from $950-$1390 depending on the season.
Other hotels participating in the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts in the Maldives include the One&Only Reethi Rah.
VISA SIGNATURE HOTELS
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt Credit Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards,Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Jumeirah Dhevanafushi: One of two fairly new Jumeirahs in the Maldives, this one is located in the Gaafu Alifu atoll. After arrival to Malé International Airport, you can either take a 55-minute domestic flight then a 15-minute speedboat to get there, or you can take an hour-and-45-minute private seaplane. There are a total of 38 beach and water villas. Beach villas are all on the main island, and water villas are on the other, called Ocean Pearls. This resort’s villas are considered one the most luxurious in the Maldives – all re spacious and have their own pool. Some of them have private decks, massage and dining rooms, outdoor rain showers, panoramic views of the ocean and more. Room amenities include an Apple media center, a personal butler, adjustable lighting depending on your mood, and marble plunge baths. There are two public infinity pools, one on each island, and a fully equipped gym and a library on the main island. The spa located on the Ocean Pearls island is called Talise Spa and offers a selection of wellness programs designed by professional therapists. It also features an overwater yoga room with classes. There is a dive center, watersports center, and similar to other resorts, the hotel has its own unique excursions. It has the advantage of being surrounded by one of largest coral reefs in the world. There are three dining options at the resort; each with its own distinctive ambience and cuisine. Azara and Mumayaz are on the main island, and Johara is located on the Ocean Pearls. The Jumeirah Group has a rewards program called Sirius. Rates start at $1040-$2400 per night depending on the season.
Other resorts in the Maldives participating in the Visa Signature Hotel program are Naladhu, Velassaru, Baros, Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa, Jumeirah Vittaveli, LUX*, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru, Anantara Kihavah Villas, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa Maldives, Kanuhura, Cocoa Island, Soneva Fushi, Six Senses Laamu, Huvafen Fushi, and W Retreat & Spa Maldives.