Maldives 2009 - Thudufushi, Ari Atoll

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Review of our holiday at Thudufushi Island resort in Ari Atoll, Maldives.  This was our tenth visit to the Maldives and our third to Thudufushi.

Getting There

We originally booked to go to sister-island Athuruga, but a month after we booked, we were told that Athuruga was going to be closed for refurbishment, and we were asked if we’d go to nearby sister island Thudufushi instead.  We were disappointed at the closure of Athuruga, but decided to accept the substitution of Thudufushi, as we’d enjoyed previous visits there.

We booked the holiday with Kuoni via Thomas Cook, as it was cheaper than going direct.  However, Thomas Cook let us down badly by not getting our flight tickets and itinerary to us in time – in fact they never arrived, despite increasingly urgent phone calls from us as our departure date drew nearer.  Thomas Cook promised us that the tickets had already been despatched, but showed no urgency in providing duplicates, continually telling us to phone back the following day.  They really didn’t seem interested in helping us. 

In desperation we finally contacted Kuoni, who were wonderful.  They couriered duplicate tickets and itinerary to us which arrived just four days before we were to leave.  We shan’t be using Thomas Cook any more if we can help it.  Well done Kuoni.  Also, on the way home, our Kuoni tickets gave us free entrance to the VIP lounge at Male airport – this was very civilised, with comfortable seats, free (if slow) internet access, and free snacks and soft drinks.  Well done again, Kuoni.

The usual eleven-hour Sunday overnight Monarch flight from Gatwick, direct to Male.  Monarch’s in-flight prices get ever more expensive – and they no longer give you a free small bottle of wine to drink with your meal.  Quick and efficient check-in and transfer over to the seaplane terminal – we escaped paying excess baggage charges, even though we were each well over the seaplane luggage allowance of 20kg including your hand baggage.  Only an hour or so to wait before the first highlight of the holiday – the 25 minute seaplane flight over the beautiful coral reef-strewn Indian Ocean to the southern part of Ari Atoll, landing next to Thudufushi Island.

Thudufushi

The Island

Just 400 metres or so across, the island shows further evidence of the shifting sands on the south-western side.  Reception now looks increasingly threatened, with sandbags piled up around the jetty entrance.  Rooms 1 to 4, next to it, have no beach, and a wall of sandbags in front of them.  The watersports centre has lost the beach in front of it, and customers now have to go to the back door, rather than the serving hatch at the front.  See Photos.

Meanwhile, on the other, northern and eastern, side of the island, the beach is wide and beautiful, with overhanging coconut palms waving in the tropical breeze.

We arrived in early June, when the south-western monsoon was well under way.  There had been strong winds from the south-west the previous week, with waves coming into Reception, further eroding the beach round the jetty.  We were very fortunate with the weather – the south-west monsoon usually means wetter, stormier weather, but we only had a couple of short, torrential rainshowers during our fortnight, and the wind varied from Force 2 to a maximum of Force 4.  Otherwise the sun shone strongly, with puffy white cotton-wool clouds occasionally providing some shade.

The meteorology station in Reception showed that temperature was always 31°C in the shade during the day, and about 25°C at night, and with humidity high at 81%, you needed the steady breeze to make it comfortable.

Every morning half a dozen staff sweep up the night’s fallen leaves from every single square meter of the island.  Several times a week they wheel round a fogging machine which gives off huge white clouds of insecticide smoke which drift through the trees and really help to keep down the mozzies – I had few bites this time.

The sandy surface is comfortable enough to make the Maldives tourism motto “No news, no shoes” true – you really don’t need to take shoes with you.  The “No news” bit is however, not strictly true – there’s a eight-page news sheet available in four different languages every morning at Reception and in the restaurant.

One very welcome change this time round was that there is now free Wi-Fi internet access in Reception.  At any time of day you could find one or two people sitting here hunched over their laptops.

Our Room

We were given room 17 on the northern side of the island.  This wasn’t ideal, as the room lay in the lee of the island, so there was little breeze on the beach, making it feel hotter.  There was just about enough shade under trees to keep out of the sun all day, but it meant you had to move your sunbed occasionally to keep in the shade.  During the south-west monsoon, the best rooms were to be found on the eastern side of the island, where there was plenty of beach and a cooling breeze.  Around room 10 on the western side there was also plenty of beach and breeze.  If you’re not happy with your room, you can always ask to be moved – you might have to wait a couple of days for one to become available.

The room had a king-size bed and plenty of hanging-, shelf- and drawer-space.  There was also a dresser, bedside tables with drawers, plenty of lights, and a cupboard containing a minibar fridge, extensive tea and coffee making kit, and a small room-safe.  There was a rather noisy ceiling fan and very quiet and efficient aircon unit. 

A sliding door at the back led through to the open air bathroom, with two washbasins, loo and bidet under cover, and the open-air shower area.  There was always plenty of hot water, though it took a minute or so to warm up.  The quality of the woodwork was rather better than our previous visit in 2006.

On the dresser is an iPod dock, and Housekeeping will provide you on request with an iPod on loan to go in it.  Unfortunately there was no aux input so I couldn’t plug my own MP3 player into it.  There are no free electric sockets for recharging stuff (apart from one in the cupboard for the electric kettle), but if you unplug the iPod dock you get a UK 13A three-pin socket, and if you unplug the standard lamp next to it, there’s a European two-pin plug.

Out front there’s a picture window with sliding door out onto the magnificent covered wooden veranda on the beach.  This has seats, a table, a bowl of water to wash the sand off your feet, and foam mattresses for your sunbeds.  Beach towels are provided fresh every day.

The minibar is stocked with a variety of soft drinks every day, including essential bottled water, and you can also ring Housekeeping and ask for beer or wine to be delivered.  Indeed, room service is part of the all-inclusive deal, so you can ask for a bottle of wine or bubbly, which will promptly turn up in an ice-bucket with glasses.  Very civilised.

Food+Drink

The main restaurant is set next to the beach, with great views out over the sand to the ocean.  The main bar is right next door, with the entertainment stage area next to that.  There’s also a beach bar near Reception that is open from 10am to 6.30pm apart from lunchtimes.  The main bar is open at lunch and in the evenings until late.

You get your own table at mealtimes, with your own waiter.  Meals are buffet-style, with a reasonable variety of dishes to choose from, some freshly cooked, and some kept warm(ish) in covered trays.

For breakfast there’s fruit such as melon and pineapple, and fruit juices.  The fry station provides fried eggs, omelettes and pancakes made to order.  There’s also scrambled egg, sausages, grilled tomatoes and good-quality (if almost cold) bacon.

At lunch and dinner there was a fresh pasta station, and usually a barbecue station set up on the beach from which you could get fantastic freshly-grilled fish.  My favourite meal was this fish with a big plate of fresh salad vegetables.  There was a curry area, with medium-quality, mild curries, and popadums which rapidly soften in the heat and humidity.  The majority of the guests were Italian and German, so the pasta station was more popular than the curry station.  We have to say that the standard of the food didn’t seem to be quite as good as it has been on previous visits – many of the hot dishes were only lukewarm, and some of the ‘themed’ nights were a bit hit-and-miss.

As you’d expect from an Italian-run resort, the ice-cream station provided a great selection of ice creams and sorbets, and there were also great sweet dishes – little chocolate covered cakes etc.  There was also a deli station, with a variety of cheeses and hams.

You can ask for wine by the glass or by the bottle (including demi-sec Italian bubbly).  Wines were either South African or Italian, and were perfectly acceptable.  Your waiter soon learns your preferences and will rustle up your favourite beverages as soon as he sees you coming.

On my first day I was delighted to be greeted by a smiling Roshan, who was the assistant bar manager at sister-island Athuruga in 2008 – he remembered me from then!  He’s now the main bar manager at Thudufushi – great that he’s got the promotion, but the downside is that to preserve the dignity of this senior position, he can no longer do his brilliant Michael Jackson impersonation on stage (captured on YouTube by somebody here).  Roshan and his staff, including Kholil, were always smiling and attentive.

The well-equipped main bar has a huge range of spirits – only the more expensive stuff (eg single-malt Scotch) are at extra cost.  The mixers all seemed to be Schweppes, which was a good sign.

There’s an elegant and comfortable covered deck area next to the bar, raised up on pilings over the sea, with plenty of tables and chairs. 

Other facilities

Water Sports Centre

Open daily for snorkelling kit, etc.  Also has windsurfers, Hobie cats and a dinghy or two.  They arrange snorkelling trips on the house reef and (at extra cost) to nearby islands and reefs.

Shops

A very expensive boutique (a pair of shorts for US$250 anyone?), a souvenir shop, a tailor, a small TV lounge with satellite TV and a DVD player.

There’s also a doctor’s surgery (open three times a day for minor treatments).  I found this handy when I got a nasty-looking scratch on my arm on some coral while diving.  The doctor dabbed it with mercurochrome antiseptic – coral cuts are notorious for getting infected.  He told me that he was retired (he looked it), and that he was only there for three weeks - he got a free holiday on Thudufushi in return for providing his medical services!

Deep-sea fishing

By the beach bar.  They take you out in a dhoni outside the atoll edge.  Fellow-guest Mark used this moderately pricey service a few times and had some good fishing, although he felt that a dhoni isn’t the best kind of boat to be doing this sort of thing from.

Serena Spa

In the centre of the island.  Massages, etc.  Didn’t use it.

Entertainment

Thankfully low-key.  A singer arrived in our second week, and at dinner sang karaoke style to a backing track played from her laptop.  She had a reasonable voice, and wasn’t intrusively loud.

Most evenings the entertainment staff laid on a variety of things to do – dancing lessons, general knowledge quiz, music quiz, etc.  Once a week there’s a casino with a roulette wheel and a blackjack table.  They supply you with Monopoly money, and the winner is the person at the end of the evening with the most money.  There’s a prize of discounts off normally paid-for activities such as deep-sea fishing.  You don’t have to join in, and it’s not intrusive if all you want to do is sit on the bar deck and chat.

Underwater

Snorkelling

Plenty to see on the house reef, though the coral is pretty beaten up.  There are a couple of prepared channels, marked by buoys, cut through the reef to the drop-off.  At high tide it’s possible to pick your way out to the drop-off almost anywhere.  There are now some sea walls covered in wire-netting to protect the beach from erosion on the northern side.

Diving

The dive centre is next to the beach bar.  It’s no longer run by The Crab.  Planhotel, the resort owners, set up the Crab dive centres as a separate division of the company many years ago.  However, they’ve recently decided to divest themselves of this non-core activity, and there’s been a management buy-out of the Thudufushi and Athuruga dive centres.  They were required to choose a new name, and it’s now known as “IDive”.

Italian Davide was in charge, assisted by German Bjorn.  They speak good English.  There’s normally a third dive leader, but he was away in Italy for an operation on his arm.  They have one dhoni, and a staff of half-a-dozen Maldivians to man the dive boat and the compressor.  They do the usual range of PADI courses and dive packages, and nitrox is at no extra charge, which is great.  Their web site says that you have to do a trial dive, but they didn’t ask me to.

The morning dive leaves at 0930, and the afternoon dive at 1500.  Travel times to the dive sites are up to one hour.  All the kit was good quality ScubaPro, and the staff look after you very well.  You don’t have to do a thing – all your gear is ready in your crate on board when you get on the boat, and they take your crate off the boat after the dive, and wash and hang all your kit up to dry.  The dive leader comes round with a portable nitrox meter and shows you the exact content of your tank.  The staff are always ready to help you on and off with your wet-suit, provide you with a weight-belt ready assembled with your weights, carry your tank to and from the racks etc.  There are beach towels and cold soft drinks on board the boat and they come round with fresh pineapple and coconut slices after the dive.  They also supply bottles of warm drinking water for you to wash your ears out with after the dive.  There was no shower on this dhoni, and no loo either, so the boat always waited for a few minutes after we were all back on board in case anybody wanted to go for a short swim.....  There’s a sun-deck on the roof of the dhoni where most divers sat to warm up and chat after the dive.

IDive insist that max dive time is 50 minutes, but if you had plenty of air left, they allowed you to stay down a bit longer – to the full 60 minutes on occasion.  Most of the other male divers were down to 50 bar by 50 minutes, so should have been surfacing anyway.  As usual, the female divers usually make their air last longer than the men.  Coincidentally, most of the other divers were couples, so I often found myself buddied up with the dive leader, or in a larger buddy group.

There was a full moon while I was there, meaning spring tides and therefore strong currents at many of the dive sites.  Of my ten dives, five were drift dives, and a couple more involved finning against the current on occasion.  If you prefer gentler dives with minimum current, so you can see more, then choose a time when the moon will be half full.

By early June the manta season is over on the west side of the atoll, so we didn’t see any, but we were lucky enough to see plenty of other stuff, including eagle rays, stingrays, sharks, turtles, barracuda and so on.  Visibility was reasonable – varying from ten to thirty meters, but there was quite a lot of suspended plankton and sand in the water.  The coral is magnificent – getting back to what it was before the coral bleaching disaster of 1997.  There are simply millions and millions of small and medium-sized reef fish at the dive sites.  Water temperature, even at 30 meters, was 29C.

I did the ten-dive package, which costs EUR480, including all equipment (BCD, reg, computer) and boat charges.  They rather decently honoured my Crab loyalty points from the previous year, and gave me a free dive, so my ten dives came to EUR432, which was converted into US dollars, and then into sterling for a final cost of GBP381.58 working out to a very reasonable GBP38.16 per dive, considering the pound’s low standing against the euro and the dollar at the time.

The sites that IDive visit are shown here (600kb jpg, copyright IDive, and reproduced with their permission).  I suggest you download this file and view it in Windows Picture Viewer, or your operating system's equivalent, so that you can zoom in to read the fine detail.

The dive sites I visited were as follows:

Kuda Thila

Nice reef top at 8m, lots of schooling fish, inc Glassfish; Morays, Phyllida Nudibranch.

Kuda Miaru Thila

White tip reef sharks, lots of Lionfish & Morays, Scorpionfish on reef top, millions of reef fish (glassfish etc) in clouds, with 4 big tuna chasing them.  Fantastic dive site for variety of fish life.

Panettone Kandu (twice)

Slight current inwards on one dive, and strong outgoing current on the second.  Lots to see – white tip and grey reef sharks, turtle, Napoleon, shrimps, barracuda, lots of morays.  I left some skin from my forearm attached to a protruding piece of coral while being swept along at about 3kph by the current on the second dive here.

Moofushi Kandu

Fast drift dive into the atoll, with swirling eddies ("washing machine" effect) made maintaining constant depth difficult.

Himandhoo Kandu

Another fast drift dive into the atoll, with more swirling eddies ("washing machine" effect).

Atabu Thila

A great dive – Stingray, a resident Leaf Scorpionfish, Grey reef sharks, 2 Remora, lots of nudibranchs, Scorpionfish, and a "Pregnant" Giant Puffer Fish, with a hugely swollen stomach.  Deepish dive – the top of thila is at 18m, so we were asked to do an extra safety stop at 9m for 1 min.  Unusually there’s a mooring buoy at this dive site.

Athuruga Thila

Some current to fin against on way right round this smallish circular Thila.  Morays, a Nurse shark asleep on sand at 35m, Turtle on reef top, Nudibranchs (two seemed to be mating), Scorpionfish.  Another site with a mooring buoy.

Mama Giri

Nice Thila with little current, good hard coral toward surface.  The thila top is only 2-3m deep.  A biggish stingray asleep on sand at base of thila at 35m, a nervous turtle, Lionfish, Nudibranchs, millions of beautiful fusiliers, Tuna, big group of curious batfish.

Thudufushi Thila

Strong current to start - then weakening.  A short reef meant a short dive with the current.  Good corals & reef fish, turtles, white tip reef sharks, 2 Eagle Rays.

Conclusion

Thudufushi is a very well-run resort island, and the staff like working there, which is a good sign of a happy ship.  The food wasn’t quite as good as we’ve had on previous visits.  We were pleasantly surprised by how lucky we were with the good weather in the “low season” south-west monsoon.

We enjoyed our stay and would probably go again, however, we may not be able to afford to.  We were told that once Athuruga re-opens, Thudufushi will also shut for refurbishment.  On both islands, the main change is to build 25 water bungalows.  Some people like them, but most people we’ve spoken to don’t.  We prefer to be on the beach, and water bungalows are a bit of an eyesore, sticking out into the lagoon.

The principal driver for this seems to be the Maldives Tourism Ministry, which has decreed that resorts will lose their 5-star rating unless they build water bungalows.  Obviously, the Min of Tourism gets a tax income per room, so increasing the number of rooms increases income for the Maldives government.  No-brainer for them.  However, the effect is to boost costs and therefore the price of a holiday – it seems that a holiday on Athuruga or Thudufushi may well nearly double next year.

Watch this space...

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