Review of our 6th visit to Diamonds Athuruga Island in South Ari Atoll in the Maldives - our 14th visit to the Maldives - in April 2012.
Our Travel Agent kindly supplied free passes to an airport lounge at Gatwick, which is a very civilised way of preparing for the journey. A good, if long, direct BA flight from Gatwick was followed by a long wait at Male Immigration and another at the baggage carousel, and another at the TMA (Trans-Maldivian Airways) terminal for the seaplane flight to Athuruga. TMA charged us excess baggage – while our cases were within BA's 23kg allowance, TMA's allowance is only 20kg, and this covers your hand baggage as well, so it's easy to exceed. We feel they should weigh us as well, because somebody with more than my body weight could end up paying no excess, even though their total body + baggage weight could be far more than mine.
A smooth seaplane flight from Male over the beautiful coral atolls to Athuruga. Every year the islands around Male increase in size as more land is reclaimed from the sea.
This was our fourteenth visit to the Maldives, and our sixth to Athuruga.
We'd hoped that our holiday in late April would be at the tail-end of high-season, when the wind is still blowing from the north-east, and consequently asked for beach villa 35 on the north-east side of the island. We were pleased to get it, but unfortunately the season turned just as we arrived and the breeze blew constantly from the south-west. This meant that there was little breeze outside our room, and lying on the beach there was stiflingly hot. We often walked the couple of hundred metres to the other side of the island to find a shaded double sunbed in the cooling breeze. Next time we'll ask for room 23, which looks as if it should get breeze in both seasons, plus a sunset view.
We were very lucky with the weather this year. We had just two tropical showers, each over in just a few minutes. The rest of the time it was hot and sunny, with a constant F2 or 3, occasionally 4, breeze.
The beach seemed to be a bit wider this year than last, with plenty of sand to lie on all round the island.
Our room was the same as last year (see our report for the details), and was kept spotlessly clean by the room boy. On our penultimate night he decorated the bed beautifully with petals and leaves.
There had been another major earthquake in Indonesia the week before we arrived, and we were impressed to hear from reports on Tripadvisor that, learning from the awful 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, there was a quick and well-drilled response: the tsunami warning was relayed to the island, a speedboat was despatched to tell snorkelers to return to shore, guests were gathered together in the centre of the island, and staff were ready to shepherd them upstairs into third-floor areas of the staff quarters. Fortunately in this instance no tsunami occurred.
On previous visits we've been critical of the cabaret singer at lunch and dinner. They have usually been loud, obtrusive and out of tune. This year the singer could actually sing, could hold a tune, and wasn't obtrusively loud - a pleasant change.
We were interested to meet the brand-new resort manager, Petra, who spent all day walking and talking with both guests and staff. She has some ideas for improvements already – let's hope they coincide with ours. For the beach villas: bigger room safes, WiFi and more drawer space for starters please.
Food + drink
There's definitely an improvement in the quality and presentation of the food this year. Chef Giacomo had only just arrived last year, and in the last year he has made plenty of changes. We were pleased to see that the chicken dishes, last year full of tiny bones, now had good-sized chicken breast meat. There are now a variety of individual portion-sized bowls containing appetisers, including tuna with the consistency of butter, crabmeat, langoustines, beef carpaccio etc, as well as vegetarian / salad options. There was a good selection of dishes in tureens, too.
Being an Italian-run resort, the pasta bar had an ever-changing menu of sauces and pastas, and the ice-cream bar was always a firm favourite.
As usual, the freshly-grilled fish, cooked to order over coals outside in the chef's marinade was sensational. The marinade included parsley, basil, olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper – we'll have to try this at home, if we ever get a decent bbq summer.
If we had to be picky, we'd say that at breakfast, the bacon was undercooked and very fatty, the grilled tomatoes slightly burnt, and at lunch and dinner we'd like to see more variety and quality in the curries (which usually consisted of a delicious lentil curry and a slightly watery fish curry).
But overall the food is better than ever.
I didn't do much snorkelling this year for various reasons, despite Athuruga's superb house reef. There had been no sand-pumping (which had ruined snorkelling in parts of the reef in previous years), so visibility was always pretty good, and sometimes exceptional. Others reported regular sightings of turtles, octopus, rays and the like.
Some excellent diving again this year courtesy of IDive. Unfortunately, they've put their prices up a lot again this year, from €550 to €605 for the 10-dive package, though part of this can be blamed on the Maldives government, who have doubled last year's new Goods and Services tax (GST) from 3% to 6% (and there are rumours it will increase to 10% next year). And it has to be pointed out that this is an all-inclusive price – all kit, including computer and boat charges are included in this price.
There are now dozens of big live-aboards (aka safari-boats) loose in the Maldives – most days one or two motored past the island, and for the first time it was not uncommon to find your dive site already occupied by their dive dhonis. Last year we saw maybe one or two live-aboards the entire fortnight. These also produce much revenue for the Maldivean Exchequer – the government have clearly decided that they are going to squeeze the tourist for every rufiyaa they can get. One of the instructors told us that in the Maldives there are now more live-aboards than resorts. The IDive instructors were critical of the live-aboards, claiming that they do not meet proper safety standards, dump their rubbish over the side at night, and clandestinely catch rare fish such as Frogfish and Leaf-fish to be sold in the market in Male.
Another instructor told us that the “manta season” had "failed" this year – hardly any had turned up, and when they did, they were just in ones and twos passing by, and not in bigger groups feeding and playing with the divers. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of one manta this year. Some blamed fishing for the Chinese market, but maybe they've heard that if they go up to Hanifaru in Baa Atoll, they can get on YouTube or on telly.
Although expensive, IDive are very professional, and do everything for you – the service is superb. Your kit will already be on the boat for you when you climb aboard, and after your dive they will take your kit away, rinse it and dry it. You don't have to lift a finger. On the boat, there's a loo, a fresh-water shower, towels and a cool-box full of cold soft drinks. Underwater, the instructors have superb eyesight, and will point out tiny Suzanne's Flatworms or cleaner shrimps hidden in the coral, and will be the first to point out sharks or rays passing by at the limit of visibility. Nitrox is free for qualified divers. After the dive, the crew bring round cups of tea or coffee and a plate of fresh coconut.
But nobody's perfect - this year, just like last year, they dropped us several hundred metres from the Warren Thila dive site, meaning 15 minutes wasted finning to get there, by which time I was puffing hard, had used up half my tank and only had 15 minutes down at 28m on this superb shark dive site, instead of the 30 minutes I should have had.
Dive sites visited were: Moofushi Kandu (twice), Himandhoo Kandu, Kuda Miaru Thila (three times), Warren Thila, Atabu Thila, Kuda Thila, Shark Thila (aka Fish Head), Athuruga House reef (night dive), and Fesdu Wreck.
Highlights this year were:
- A passing manta, two mobula and two leopard sharks at Moofushi Kandu
- A Frogfish and 2 Octopus (possibly mating!) at Kuda Miaru Thila
- Lots of grey reef sharks, huge shoals of blue-striped snappers and Jackfish at Warren Thila
…plus turtles, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, barracuda, tuna, white-tip reef sharks, nurse sharks, Glorious and Suzanne's Flatworms, beautiful hard and soft coral, and millions of reef fish at various dive sites.
My 12 dives, plus torch hire for a night dive, plus GST tax, came to €780, which after being converted first to US dollars and finally to GBP, amounted to £637, ie £53 per dive. Thanks to Luca, Mara and Achim for some great dives.
About ten pictures totalling approx two to three MB per page.
Another lovely holiday at Athuruga. The food is better than ever, the staff are loyal, well-trained, and welcoming (several recognised us from previous years and came over to shake hands and say hello), the beach villas are good if not palatial, excellent weather, and marvellous diving. It's getting ever more expensive, so we keep thinking this will be our last holiday there, but who knows?