Maldives 2004 - Athuruga, Ari Atoll

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Resort Report for our holiday in Athuruga, Ari Atoll, Maldives in March 2004. 

Athuruga

A fantastic fortnight on the rather up-market island of Athuruga in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Our sixth visit to the Maldives. 

Just 300 metres or so across, the attractive island of Athuruga is located in the middle of Ari Atoll, Maldives and is fringed by a powdery, white coral sand beach and a stunning coral reef teeming with fish.  The buildings are almost hidden by coconut palms and other trees. 

The resort island has all the usual facilities, including a water sports centre, dive centre, bars, restaurant, shops, spa, and even a medical centre.  Great diving and snorkelling was promised.

We had booked our holiday through Cosmos, and the ten-hour, non-stop flight was by Monarch on an Airbus A330.  Although still basic cattle class charter flights, I have to credit Monarch - they have improved greatly since some of our previous Monarch flights to the Maldives.  The flights left on time, arrived early, the seats were comfortable, they didn't run out of wine or food. 

Once through the slow customs and baggage reclaim process at Male International airport, we were whisked over to the seaplane terminal for a 25 minute flight by Maldivian Air Taxi to Athuruga.  The Twin Otter seaplane flights are an experience in themselves - the pilots (usually South African, Australian or New Zealanders) fly in shorts and bare feet, and you have a stunning view of the coral reefs and islands from low altitude.  The seaplane touches down in the lagoon next to the island and is tied up to a small pontoon moored a few hundred meters from the island.  You then walk across the pontoon and climb aboard a dhoni for the trip round to the jetty, and walk up the wooden jetty to reception.  Some form-filling over a welcoming fruit cocktail, then you walk under the palm trees to your room on the beach.  Have a couple of bucks ready to tip the staff who carry your suitcases. 

The Island

The island is roughly circular, just 300m across and flat, ringed by a white coral sand beach varying in width round the island from just a couple of meters to a huge open area in front of the main buildings, big enough for a beach football pitch and a beach volleyball court.  There were no sunshades on the beach, plentiful shade was available under the trees and bushes behind the beach.  Once in the water outside our room, there was about 15-20m of shallow sandy bottom, suitable for cooling off in the heat of the day, before the coral started.  There was generally about 40 or 50m of coral before you reached the drop off.  At high tide you could snorkel over the coral, but at low tide you had to use the cut-through to get out to the drop-off, where the seabed fell away to about 30m. 

There were about 20 baby black-tip reef sharks, about 70cm long, which circled endlessly round the island in the shallows next to the beach (they don't bite).  There were also about 3 or 4 small stingrays, frying pan size, with meter-long tails, which were also often to be seen in the shallows next to the beach.  Also a nurse shark about 1m long.

In the shallows, the water was often like a warm bath - maybe 33°C.  Out by the drop off, there were patches of warm (30°C) and cooler (27°C) water. 

The gardens were well tended, fallen leaves swept up every morning.  Gardeners were often in evidence digging and planting.  There was little undergrowth, which helps to keep down mozzies.  It was possible to walk around the island in the shade of the palm trees and bushes almost everywhere.  There were quite a lot of big ants on the veranda and under the trees which were quite annoying.  The hotel sprayed against the ants a couple of times during our stay, but with only temporary success - within a couple of days the ants were back.  We saw one huge cockroach on the veranda during the holiday.  The ants didn't bite us - although another Brit staying a few doors along said he was bitten once.

There were often pretty-coloured lizards to be seen in the gardens.  A large fruit bat was often to be seen patrolling over the island, and there were jackdaw-sized speckled brown birds flying about with loud fluting calls. Every day a grey heron sat in the shade a couple of doors up at high tide, drinking fresh water from the foot baths, and flying off to sit on the exposed reef as the tide dropped.

The main building complex consisted of the jetty leading to the reception area, Internet room and offices, then the beach bar with the dive centre behind it.  In the centre of the island was a large sandy courtyard surrounded by shops, a tailor and the medical centre.  The shops were a clothes shop, souvenir shop, jewellers, and the dive centre boutique.  Beyond the beach bar was the entertainment area with a stage and huge PA system, then the main bar and the restaurant. 

There were about 50 rooms, mostly beach villas spread around the edge of the island, and a few "garden" villas just behind them.  The entire resort island is all-inclusive, so you don't have to wear a plastic bracelet. 

The weather was consistently sunny and hot, with only one night and morning with a deafening thunderstorm when it poured with rain.  The temperature was between 32°C and 35°C in the shade during the day (and much hotter in the sun), with 65% relative humidity, dropping to about 28°C at night.  There was usually a warm breeze blowing steadily night and day from the west, giving some relief from the heat.  About two thirds of the way through our fortnight the breeze tailed off to nothing for a couple of days, meaning it felt swelteringly hot, however as the sea went flat calm like a mirror, the upside was you could spot dolphins miles away.  On several occasions we saw small groups of dolphins swimming past - once right at the drop-off, and a couple of times further out. 

Although there are no nearby islands, you can make out a dozen or so other islands away on the horizon. 

Athuruga is run by a Swiss-based Italian company.  The holidaymakers were mostly Italian and German.  There were few Brits.  Amazingly, your mobile phone works here.  There is a GSM mobile phone mast on the island serving central Ari Atoll.  You get a solid four-bar signal sitting on the beach on this dot in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Entertainment

The only other thing we didn't like about Athuruga.  When we come to the Maldives, we like to hear the waves on the beach.  We like to hear the breeze rustling the palm leaves.  After the tropical night falls, we like to hear the geckos calling to each other up in the roof.  We don't like to hear fat Italian singers murdering a wide variety of songs at lunchtime and in the evening. 

Pavarotti would put on a backing track using his laptop, then groan into his microphone in a voice that sounded like he'd been gargling with Harpic.  He clearly couldn't speak English, and phonetically mangled the words to English songs read from his ring-bound notebook balanced on his music-stand. 

At 10pm each night was an "entertainment".  At least this meant that Pavarotti shut up.  Unfortunately the entertainment that replaced him was so dire that we usually drifted off to sit on our veranda after ten minutes.  The entertainment staff enjoyed themselves immensely, organising karaoke evenings, doing comedy skits and variety shows in three languages simultaneously (you can imagine how hilarious this was), running crab races, a casino evening and so on.  The Italians and Germans seemed to like it. 

There were far too many "animation" staff - we'd have preferred it if they sacked the lot and reduced the price of the holiday. 

Serena spa

Didn't use this.  Two Indian ladies with wickedly mischevious grins ran this in a large wooden building in the centre of the island. 

Trips

The usual Fishermans' island and sunset fishing trips were available.  We didn't bother, having done these in the past. 

These were supplemented by The Robinson Crusoe Experience, and the Desert Island Experience.  These were basically the same trip - half a day on an small uninhabited island 50 minutes away near Thudufushi, with a picnic etc.  The only difference was that on the Robinson Crusoe experience, you have the island to yourself.  We had a go at this (at USD80 per couple) and it was remarkable - first for the sheer amount of food and non-alcoholic drinks that the hotel put in our picnic, enough to feed a Maldivian village for a week, and secondly for the way that the three and a half hours just flew by.  We paid a USD15 supplement for a bottle of wine.  Fortunately there was a large shelter on the island to provide shade.  Good reef for snorkelling. 

Our Room

Our beach villa (number 35) was semi-detached, with a good sized room with plenty of space.  High ceiling, lined with rush matting.  The room was situated about one minute from the shops, reception, and beach bar, and two minutes from the main bar and restaurant.  It faced north-east. 

Furniture was: King-size double bed, two bedside tables, one with radio built in (which remained turned off for the whole holiday!), both with bedside lights, two suitcase stands, tall wall mirror, hanging wardrobe with built in safe deposit box and four drawers, dressing table with four drawers and minibar, cane glass-topped table and two chairs.  Multi-speed ceiling fan and aircon with remote control.  No TV, CD player or tea/coffee-making facilities. 

The dressing table contained a minibar fridge which was stocked with beers and soft drinks.  It was re-stocked each morning, and after a day or so the minibar man asked us what we'd like it mainly stocked with.  We asked him always to give us six bottles of beer amongst the water and other soft drinks.  The Lion brand bottled beer was better than the canned version.

A lockable door led into the clean, tiled bathroom with two washbasins and a big mirror, loo and bidet, towel rails, opening out into the outside shower in a small garden surrounded by a 2m high wall.  Bags of hot water.  Good quality towels replaced daily.  A bottle-opener on the wall right next to the toilet-roll holder !

Large window at the sea end of the bedroom, heavy opaque curtains and sliding patio door out onto covered veranda.  The veranda had a small raised garden container with a shrub or two, two cane easy chairs, a coffee table and a small footbath at the edge to wash the sand off your feet before stepping onto the wooden decking.  Good quality beach towels replaced daily.  Two sunloungers per room on the sand next to the decking. 

Stepping off the decking onto the sand, you were under palm and other trees/bushes, under which was plenty of shade to relax on your sunlounger.  The beach was only 10 metres in front of the veranda.  You can pull your sunlounger out onto the beach if you can stand the heat. 

If you would like a west-facing room with a sunset view from your veranda, ask for a room number between 4 and 21.  At the time we were there (March), this side of the island also got the main sea breeze.  Our room was on the lee side of the island and sunbathing on the beach outside was at times stifling without any sea breeze.  However, the best coral is found outside rooms 25-40, and one of the two channels cut through the coral out to the drop-off was right outside our room, so we were very happy with the situation of our villa.  I wouldn't recommend rooms 1 to 4, since they were right next to the restaurant/bar/entertainment area, and also the beach had been eroded away in front of the rooms, leaving no shaded sunbathing area. 

Unfortunately the old couple next door smoked, so we often had to go indoors or onto the beach to avoid secondary smoking.  The room boy told us that this couple had come twice a year for the last ten years and always had the same room...

Food+Drink

Restaurants

The buffet-style restaurant was a triumph - full marks to Athuruga for the consistently high quality, freshness and variety of food on offer.  There was always a huge variety of fresh salad vegetables either on their own or combined in tempting mixtures with fruits and meats.  There was always fresh pan-fried fish cooked before you, and always at least two curries (one always fish), two rice and two pasta dishes.  Other hot and cold dishes such as cold cooked fish, a roast, and hot vegetables were also available, with a variety of fruits and sweets to finish. 

Every night was themed - Italian, Indian, Chinese, Maldivian (the staff would all dress in what we assumed was traditional Maldivian dress), etc. 

A selection of wines is included by the glass or by the bottle.  We tended to split a bottle of wine between us at lunch and at dinner.  Most wines were South African and very acceptable.  Sparkling wine was also available at no cost, or genuine champagne at considerable cost (Moet at USD100 a bottle, Dom Perignon at USD240).  White wine is brought in an ice bucket.  We also tended to drink a 1.5l bottle of Sri Lankan water between us at lunch and dinner as well to keep the fluid levels up.  Beer or spirits could be ordered from the bar via your waiter as an alternative. 

Breakfasts were also good, though with fruit limited to mango and pineapple rings - melon would have been nice.  Curiously, melon was always available at dinner.  A cook would fry you an egg or an omelette, plus there was scrambled egg and (rather fatty) bacon in a bain marie.  Various loaves of bread as well as sliced bread for the toaster, plus the usual cheese and ham, muesli, yogurt and other cereals completed the picture. 

The waiters were all Maldivian, and all well trained and friendly.  They would offer to set your table up on the beach in front of the restaurant at dinner, and this was quite an experience - dining on the beach by candlelight under the stars.  Naturally they are hoping for a good tip at the end of the holiday, but it's a nice touch. 

If it's your birthday, they will decorate your table with “Happy Birthday” spelt out in coloured rice grains.  In addition, the hotel will (unless you ask them not to) make a birthday cake and have it brought to you by the animation staff singing Happy Birthday at full volume in your choice of language. 

Bars

There were two bars - the beach bar, open from 10:00 to 12:30, and from 15:00 to 18:30, and the main bar open during lunch 12:30 to 15:00 and in the evening from 18:30 to 01:30. 

The spirits were generally not quality European brands - they were mostly from South Africa or Sri Lanka.  Wellington Brandy, Two Barrels whisky, and so on.  The gin, in particular, was pretty dire.  The vodka cocktails were the most acceptable alternative.  There were exceptions - Pernod and Kahlua for example were available. 

Although the Cosmos brochure stated that spirits were available from 10:00 to 01:30, we immediately discovered that this was not the case - we were told that only beer, wine, soft drinks and tea/coffee were available from the beach bar.  So if you wanted a rum'n'coke to sip during the afternoon - tough luck.  We didn't necessarily want to be drinking wine or beer all afternoon, so we complained to Francesca the guest relations person that they were in breach of the contract we had signed up to.  We produced the brochure page as evidence, but the management stated that Cosmos were wrong, that wasn't the deal on offer.  They promised to tell Cosmos to alter their brochure, no help to us, and we made our displeasure at being conned very clear. 

However, something must have been said, because the following day when I ordered a glass of wine at the beach bar the barman leaned forward conspiratorially and asked me in a low voice if I wanted rum & coke.  Thereafter rum & cokes were available provided we were discreet about it and didn't attempt to drink the bar dry. 

We were also told that we were not allowed to take drinks from the beach bar back to our room, but as usual we ignored this.  As long as we were discreet, and brought our empty glasses back to the bar, they seemed to accept this. 

Thanks to Robin, the head barman, from Trivandrum in Southern India, and his staff, who were always cheerful and efficient. 

In the Water

Snorkelling

Athuruga has fantastic snorkelling.  As described, the coral reef fringed the island close on the eastern and southern sides.  On the northern and western sides, the reef was much further away - too far to snorkel.  At high tide, you could snorkel over the reef, watching the plentiful reef life.  Although the coral was pretty beaten up (I saw one woman standing on the reef chatting to a friend), and was obviously affected by the 1998 bleaching disaster, there is abundant evidence of coral regrowth. 

Apart from the common triggerfish, parrotfish, angelfish, surgeonfish, pipefish and butterflyfish species, we occasionally saw rarer varieties such as Schultz's Pipefish, Picasso Triggerfish and so on.  On one occasion, we came across a spectacular tightly packed group of about 100 Blue Surgeonfish all feeding on the coral together.  On three other occasions we came across Hawksbill turtles feeding on top of the coral reef in just a few feet of water.  These turtles, about 90cm long and 50cm across, were completely unconcerned by us floating alongside them close enough to touch, and just carried on feeding. 

At the drop-off further species such as Blue Fusiliers, Oriental Sweetlips, Titan Triggerfish and Tuna are also in evidence.  I also saw another turtle on the reef 10m below me, with a big stingray swimming past it.  Doubtless bigger sharks could be seen here too. 

Water Sports Centre

The water sports centre is next to the beach bar, and seemed to offer a good variety of equipment: snorkelling kit obviously, a hobie cat, a small dinghy, a few canoes, a few windsurfers, waterskis, etc.  Flotation jackets were also available.  Some of this is included, some extra.  Anna who ran it was quite helpful. 

They ran daily snorkelling trips to reefs far and wide - on one occasion triumphantly claiming to have seen manta rays on a trip to the atoll edge 45 minutes away.

Dive centre

(NB: The Crab no longer operate the dive centre on Athuruga.  Please note that any comments about staff, packages, equipment etc are probably superseded.)

The Crab dive centre seemed well equipped, with a good choice of Scubapro BCDs/regulators in good condition, plus all the usual gear for hire - computers, masks/fins, torches etc.  Steel tanks, with both DIN and International connectors.  The dive crew kept your kit in a numbered plastic crate for you.  All you had to do when you got on the dive boat was to check that your crate was on board and contained all your bits.  You were expected to dress your tank before the boat left.  At the end of the dive you undressed your tank and left your kit in the box, and the boat crew rinsed your kit for you and hung it up to dry in the locked equipment shed next to the rinsing tanks behind the dive centre. 

Outside the dive centre office was a map of the area with all the dive sites marked.  Tomorrow's dives were posted during the day, with a comprehensive description of the dive site.  All you had to do was add your name to the list underneath. 

There were always a morning and an afternoon dive, except that once a week there was an all-day two-tank trip going further afield.  On those days, there might only be an afternoon trip for those not wanting to go on the all-day trip (the two-hour travel time to the dive sites didn't attract me).  Once a week there was a night dive. 

The big dive dhoni had plenty of room, and racks for tanks down the middle.  There were two open fresh-water showers (a major improvement for the Maldives) and a ladder up onto the flat roof for sunbathing.  No special camera table or fresh-water camera rinse tank, such as you might expect in the Caribbean.  After a dive a plate of fresh pineapple rings was passed around, and there was also a coolbox containing soft drinks and bottled water from which you could help yourself.  The boat crew helped you to the boat edge for your giant stride, ensuring your tank was turned on, and were happy to pass my camera down to me afterwards.  At the end of the dive you pass your fins and camera up to the boat crew, and then climb up a ladder.  They help you back to your seat, help you out of your BCD, and put the tank back into the racks to allow you to undress it. 

There were four dive leaders/instructors: Tony and Sabina (Italians, and an item), Boris and Stefan (Germans).  Tony was the boss.  All four spoke English and were highly professional, friendly and experienced.  On one occasion there was only me and one other experienced customer on the dive boat, but we still had two dive leaders - one each.  With a boat-full, they provided three leaders. 

The dive centre office had a small collection of fishy reference books and a powerful PC, which Tony was happy to use to allow me to empty my two 128Mb digital camera cards onto a 256Mb USB flash drive, and eventually to back up the whole lot onto a CD-R I'd brought with me for safety.  I took about 570 pictures in all at 2288x1712, both above and below water, taking up most of a CD. 

I was pleased to see that the coral has continued to regrow rapidly after the 1998 bleaching disaster.  All the dive sites had abundant new hard and soft coral growth, on many occasions all but obscuring the dead bleached coral underneath.  Needless to say all the dive sites had stupendous numbers of reef fish - frequently we found ourselves elbowing our way through dense shoals of fish.  On the reef tops were clouds of small goldfish. 

Lots of plankton this time - sometimes the water was like soup - see my pictures of manta rays.  Still, that's what the mantas come for, so mustn't complain. 

Unfortunately towards the end of our fortnight I picked up an ear infection and had to stop diving on dive number 99, and one short of the ten-dive package price.  Rats.  You should always flush out your ears repeatedly with fresh water after every dive, otherwise you WILL get an ear infection.  Unfortunately even if you are careful like me, you still run the risk of the plankton setting up home in your ear.  I always take antibiotic eardrops with me on diving holidays. 

The cost for my 9 dives was USD550, working out at about GBP33.50 per dive. 

Dive Sites

I visited the following dive sites:

Athuruga House Reef

The Crab insisted I did a check dive on the house reef.  Lots of reef fish and some new coral over the rather beaten up reef. 

Degga Tilla

This was the site of my second ever dive, back in 1996.  Nice coral reef and masses of reef fish.  I took my new camera housing down to 30m empty, just to make sure that Olympus had put it together correctly. 

Panettone

This was the site of my first ever open-water dive, back in 1996.  Fabulous coral and fish life.  A fast drift dive in the channel, slowing gradually to finish on the reef top.  Two eagle rays, one white-tip reef shark (WTRS), a turtle and a big tuna.  First dive with the camera in the housing - took 60 pictures! 

Moofushi Kandu

A replay of Panettone - dropped in the water beside the channel, we fin to the edge of the channel, and the current takes over - a fast drift dive in the channel, slowing to end up on the magnificent reef top.  One WTRS, and good pictures of a turtle and a giant moray.  Turbulent current during the drift made buoyancy control difficult. 

Shark Tilla

Notable for a huge, friendly Napoleon which followed us throughout the dive, coming right up close to inspect us.  We heard that some "safari boats" feed him to encourage him to come up to divers.  Masses of life on this beautiful tilla - 3 x WTRS, 3 x big Tuna, 6 x Giant Morays poking their heads out of holes in the reef, several Lionfish and a great turtle on the reef top - completely unconcerned by the four divers clustered around it - just carried on feeding allowing me to get some good pictures.  Also my first Schultz's (or Guilded) Pipefish.  As often happens, once you see one, you start seeing them all over the place. 

Himandhoo Kandu

What a dive!  One manta to start with, then 2 x WTRS, then 2 x eagle rays.  Then after 15 minutes, three huge manta rays at 25m started circling around us.  As we hung on to the reef just to one side of the channel entrance, staying still, their curiosity drove them nearer and nearer each time they circled about us, until finally they were passing just a couple of meters in front of us and above us.  The whole show lasted about 20 minutes before we started to get short of bottom time.  We then had a long drift in the channel, ending up doing our safety stop in the blue. 

The water was thick with plankton, so the pictures are a bit murky.  Even so, they show how close and how huge the mantas were.

Emmas (or Emas) Tilla

Beautiful blue flowery coral hanging down from the underside of the plentiful overhangs on this pretty tilla.  Fish quite often swimming upside down below the ceiling under the overhangs.  Lots of lobsters in holes. 

Kuda Faru Tilla

Another pretty tilla with lots of coral and fish.  One WTRS, and an almost invisible Stonefish discovered by Tony.  I couldn't work out what he was pointing at, even though I was only a meter from it.  He had to draw the outline of the fish on the coral with his finger before the penny dropped. 

Emboodhoo Tilla

Another pretty tilla, with great coral and lots of reef fish.  A couple of nice Nudibranches, and a turtle asleep with its head in a hole, looking really bored.  It pulled its head out of the hole to look at us, then summed up its opinion of us by sticking its head back in the hole. 

Photos

Ninety-odd photos for your delight, roughly ten to a page.  Be aware that each photo is about 60k in size (and the diving photos are around 100k each), so each page will take a while to download unless you've got broadband.

These photos were taken with my new Olympus 750UZ, first time out, so still learning how to use it.  Underwater pictures were taken with it in an Olympus PT018 housing, with a Cyan filter to correct white balance.

  1. Getting there, and views around the island
  2. More views around the island
  3. Yet more views around the island
  4. Our room
  5. Dining on Athuruga
  6. Snorkelling
  7. Diving 1
  8. Diving 2
  9. Diving 3
  10. Diving 4
  11. Mantas !

Conclusion

A fantastic fortnight on a pretty island, with a very comfortable room, wonderful beach, fantastic food, great snorkelling and excellent diving.  Avoid the "entertainment", chat up the barmen to get daytime rum and cokes, ignore the ban on taking drinks back to your room, and enjoy the holiday. 

Would we go again?  Yes, definitely. 

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