Booked via Kuoni, with the usual Sunday evening Monarch flight from Gatwick. We'd read the weather forecasts for Male with mounting alarm as our departure date approached – the forecasts were for gale-force winds and thunderstorms. Fortunately the worst of the weather had passed through the Maldives as we were taking off from Gatwick, and it just turned out to be showery when we eventually landed in the Maldives after the ten-hour flight. A quick transfer to the seaplane terminal (the road now passes the long way around the south end of the runway instead of going straight across it). Then, after a mercifully short wait, an entertaining low-level seaplane flight through stormclouds and rain before touching down on the sea next to Athuruga island.
We'd stayed on Athuruga 2 years ago, and we'd asked the resort for the same room we'd had then, room 35, but it wasn't available, and we were put into room 11 instead. This turned out to be a good thing, as the beach around room 35 was much eroded since last time, whereas room 11 had plenty of sand. Any room between about number 4 and number 19 was good for beach this time – but beware, as the sand shifts around the island with the seasons and long-term, so there's no guarantee that these rooms will have a good beach when you go. It also was west-facing with good sunset views. We were given a chilled bottle of bubbly in an ice-bucket plus some plates of sandwiches and cakes on the day we arrived - a nice touch after such a long journey.
The room has a large sliding patio door opening onto the covered verandah with seating and a table and the magnificent beach.
The room had masses of hanging and drawer space, and a small room safe. There were two basins in the open-air bathroom. This time there was no in-room seating – last time we had a table and two chairs in the room. Just one spare European-style electric socket, and a minibar. You can ask for this to be stocked with your choice of drinks – Coke, Fanta, beer, etc.
The woodwork in the room was badly put together – the cupboard and bathroom doors were poorly fitting and needed a good shove in order to shut properly.
The Monday we arrived and the Tuesday were cloudy and grey, with torrential showers. After that, the weather was perfect, with a moderate breeze to keep you cool on the beach.
The Entertainment staff insist on providing a singer singing Italian songs along to his karaoke machine before, during and after both lunch and dinner. When we come to the Maldives, we like to hear the Indian Ocean waves splashing on the white coral sand beach. We like to hear the tropical breeze rustling the leaves in the palm trees. We don't want intrusive live music at full volume. We can get live music in our local pub back home. To be fair, the singer wasn't bad – indeed, he was technically far better than the singer in 2006, but he was just out of place, unnecessary, unwanted – at least by all the Brits we spoke to. The Italian guests quite liked him, however.
Transfer to Reethi Beach Resort (RBR)
This didn't work well. We knew we had to catch a seaplane back to Male, and then another one on to RBR. We also knew that the two flights were with two different internal airlines – Maldivian Air Taxi and Trans Maldivian Airlines. Kuoni had booked the flights, but we had no air tickets, or instructions from Kuoni what to do. When we got back to Male there were no Kuoni staff to greet us at the MAT terminal, but the MAT staff kindly drove us round the corner to the TMA terminal, where we checked in with no problems.
We'd hoped to spend no more than an hour between flights, but the weather had other ideas. After having several days of good weather in Athuruga, the weather turned nasty as we arrived at Male. We then spent five hours twiddling our thumbs at the TMA terminal, while our flight was delayed further and further as big tropical squalls swept across either Male airport or our destination, Baa Atoll. Finally in the late afternoon, they relented, and we had a rather hairy low-level flight at 500 feet under the stormclouds before a bumpy landing on the choppy sea, and a wobbly walk across the small pontoon to the dhoni for the final few hundred yards to the jetty at RBR. One of the other passengers was distinctly green by this time.
We'll think twice before doing another two-centre holiday in the Maldives – all the packing and unpacking, and the hanging around at Male, effectively wasted a day of our holiday. It also makes you wonder what happens if there's bad weather at your holiday's end. You could easily miss your flight home…
Before we arrived we'd emailed RBR to ask for a room between 110 and 135, where the best beach had been the last time we stayed six years ago. So where did they put us? In room 181 – as far away from the good beach as you can possibly get. Thanks RBR - not. This time the good beach stretched a lot further up the west coast, to about room 165. There was no beach at all at high tide above room 165.
We asked for our sunbeds to be moved down to one of the spare sun-shades near the beach bar (around room 118), and this worked well, apart from the rather tiresome 500m trek between our room and the sunbeds several times a day. Also, there's no loo near the beach bar – the nearest is 300m away in the main bar. The white sand beach near the beach bar was beautiful, and the beach bar man very helpful.
We were pleased to see that RBR have dropped the annoying rule from six years ago that meant that drinks from the beach bar, sunset bar and pool bar were not included in the all inclusive deal. However, they have tightened up on the rule which prevents you from taking drinks back to your room. This was intensely annoying. Our room was only 30m or so from the sunset bar, and it would have been great to sit on our verandah with a drink while it was raining, or while the sun was setting, or to have a nightcap, but RBR said we couldn't.
Our standard beach villa room was fine, with satellite TV (BBC World Service News etc), a nice big room safe, some rather awkward shelves and plenty of hanging space. Nice big partially open-air bathroom, but only one basin, even though there was plenty of room for two. There were a couple of free standard UK 13A three-pin sockets for recharging stuff. Our mozziecutor had a European two-pin plug on it, but RBR reception were happy to lend us an adaptor. This plus the regular but unobtrusive spraying carried out by Athuruga and RBR meant that neither of us got a single itchy bite the entire holiday – a first!
Much more low-key than Athuruga. Background music is unobtrusive. There were nightly presentations and competitions in the main bar, which you could join in or ignore as you wish.
This didn't go well. The evening before you leave, RBR reception advise you what time your seaplane flight will be leaving. We thought we had plenty of time, but then (1) the plane was half an hour late, and (2) it made two stops on the way back, and at one of these we had to wait for 15 minutes or so because the pontoon was already occupied by another plane. The net result was that we got back to the Check-in desk at the International airport with less than an hour before departure. So we didn't get seats together for the return flight.
When the drinks trolley came round, we bought a couple of small bottles of wine to go with the meal. Monarch didn't tell us they'd be giving us a free bottle later when the food came round....
Also beware: Don't try to use any surplus US dollars to buy stuff on the plane - Monarch offer an outrageously poor exchange rate.
Pretty good for such a small island, but the food in some of the tureens was cold. Cold scrambled egg for breakfast is not what I wanted. For two whole days there was no fish to be had at all - a result of the bad weather which meant nobody could go fishing. Still - at least this proves that the fish is really freshly-caught!
Very attentive bar staff - thanks to Jay and Roshan, who took good care of us and who both remembered us from two years ago.
The main restaurant provided a good selection of fresh food, with wine by the glass. Our waiter, Saud, kept the glasses coming.
As repeat guests, RBR offered us a free candlelight dinner on the beach, which was great fun. The food was superb – beautifully cooked and well-presented.
Brilliant. Athuruga is just fantastic for snorkellers. Plenty of fish and coral to be seen just a few meters from the shore. We swam out along the cut-through outside room 35 - at high tide you can float out to either side of it and over the coral house reef. Twice we bumped into a big Hawksbill turtle calmly munching away at the coral just a few yards from the shore in only a few feet of water – you don't need to get out of your depth over the drop-off. He (or she) is a regular – often to be seen in the afternoon, and totally unconcerned by snorkellers floating within a metre of him. I also came across a smaller, much more timid turtle, which made off as soon as I approached. There are also loads of baby black-tip reef sharks to be seen, just two or three feet long, circling endlessly in the shallows over the reef.
Average snorkelling at RBR. The reef coral is pretty much dead. The drop-off is easy to get to, with several cut-throughs marked by buoys. Plenty of fish to be seen, especially Red-toothed Triggerfish. Not as attractive a reef as Athuruga.
The Crab Dive Centre is professionally run by two Germans and an Italian. The atmosphere amongst the dive leaders is quite laid back, with few rules and regulations, but still very attentive. The dive centre staff look after you very well – all you have to do is sign up for tomorrow's boat, and they will ensure that all your kit is on the boat in your crate. On your return to the island after the dive, they take your crate back to the dive centre, and wash off all your kit and hang it up to dry. You only have to dress and undress your tank on the boat. They also offer Nitrox “for free” for qualified divers, and have a portable Nitrox tester on the boat to check the mix just before you use it. All this extra service means that dives at Athuruga are quite pricey – my five dives cost me USD 393, about GBP 40 per dive.
There's a morning and an afternoon boat, each doing one dive. Sometimes there's an all-day two tank dive, in which case there's no morning boat. While I was there, they heard that four Whale Sharks had been sighted near White Sands Resort in the far south of Ari Atoll, so they promptly arranged an all-day trip for the following day, leaving at 0730 to try and spot them. Four hours motoring there, one hour cruising round in circles trying to spot the fish from the boat, then a dive, then lunch, then more circling around, then another dive, and then a four-hour trip back, arriving back at 1900. Since they didn't find any Whale Sharks, I was glad I passed up this opportunity.
The Sea Explorer dive centre run a two-tank morning boat, and a single-tank afternoon boat. Getting two dives in during the morning is good, but it means an early start (0830), and you just get back in time for lunch. You have to sign up for the morning boat by 1800 the previous night.
They expect you to do a lot of the work yourself. You are issued with a crate and a bag, together with any other kit you're hiring. You have to stuff all your kit into the bag and drop it on a marked area of the dive centre decking half an hour before the boat goes. You have to prepare your Nitrox tanks before 1800 the day before. They do not have a portable nitrox tester on the boat, so you have to use the static tester station at the centre, fill out the usual form acknowledging the %O2, and then complete a label and attach it to your tank. The worst bit is that you then have to leave the tank sat on another marked area of the dive centre decking where anybody can tamper with it overnight. This is not good, not safe. I spoke to another diver who found that his tank lost 50 bar of pressure overnight, and he didn't find out until the following morning on the boat. They offered him another nitrox tank, but without a portable tester on the boat, he had no idea what the mix was – he therefore had to tell his computer it was air.
Because of the early start, it means getting up before 0700, and bagging your kit on the way to breakfast for 0730 when the restaurant opens.
Six years ago, I visited the Aquarium dive site three times – a sensational location, packed with sharks and rays. The major disappointment this time was that they don't go there any more. When I asked why, they said that the sharks have all gone – overfished. One of the dive leaders told me that you'd be lucky to see a shark anywhere in Baa Atoll.
The four dive sites I visited were quite nice, but apart from a couple of fantastic Honeycomb Morays at Hiru Faru, were routine. My four dives cost USD 230, ie roughly GBP 30 per dive. A lot cheaper than Athuruga, but you have to do a lot of the work yourself.
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We like Athuruga, because it's so laid back and there's great snorkelling. The staff love working there, too. The only drawback is the loud, obtrusive live music during lunch and dinner.
RBR is almost as good, but they keep inventing annoying rules to suit themselves rather than the paying customers. There isn't the same relaxed air about the place. The staff don't seem to like working there, and mostly move on elsewhere as soon as their contract is up.