Maldives – Return to Paradise

We never expected to return to the Maldives. Not that we didn’t want to. It’s just one of those unique places – like Bhutan, the Galápagos or Antarctica – that you dream of visiting once in your lifetime. Beautiful, remote, romantic and take-your-breath-away expensive, the Maldives is for honeymoon splurges, silver anniversaries or “closing the deal” on that special relationship. It’s not a repeat destination, and it’s not appropriate or affordable for families like ours.

That’s how most people view the Maldives. That’s how we viewed the Maldives. But a three-day weekend at the Anantara Dhigu Resort changed our minds. We are big fans of the hotel brand’s Asian aesthetic, service levels and kid-friendly (but not kid-focused) resorts. Through clever resort planning, they’ve managed to maintain that balance even in the couples-heavy Maldives. Our very active boys never ran short of adventures, and we never felt like lepers for bringing them.

A visit to the Maldives is never going to be cheap. However, with AirAsia now offering direct, daily roundtrip flights from Bangkok’s Don Muang to Malé for as little as US$200, a key expense item has been reduced. And if you choose a resort located in either the southern half of the North Male Atoll, or the northern half of the South Male Atoll, you can avoid a pricey seaplane flight and arrive by a 30-60 minute boat transfer. Plus, with the number of resorts having grown from around 80 to 120 over the last 5-8 years, many hotels (including Anantara Dhigu) are offering very attractive packages if you visit their websites directly.

For four hours we had flown west across the Indian Ocean, with nothing but clouds and the fathomless blue sea below. Then, with a suddenness made me gasp, we seemed to pass through a turquoise curtain into a dreamworld of island-halos, barely submerged reefs and white sand fringes. Comprising 26 atolls and nearly 1,200 islands, the Maldives stretches north to south across 800 km of territory. Entranced, I nearly forgot to let my kids have a look.

After speeding through Malé Airport, Anantara staff led us to the adjoining port where a luxurious surprise awaited us: the Nirvana – an 18-meter Sunseeker Manhattan power yacht. In our experience, boat transfers are usually something to be endured. In this case, I wish the journey had taken longer than 40 minutes. Most of the boys crashed on the sumptuous leather seating, while the affable captain, Jal, allowed Kiva to pilot the boat for a few minutes. And then, that wondrous moment of island arrival: a greeting party at the end of a jetty that leads to paradise.

We stayed in one of three beachfront two-bedroom family villas, which was perfect for our crew: Mom & Dad in a king bed in the main room and our four boys sharing three twin beds in the side room. The open-air bathrooms were extraordinary as was the private front ‘yard’ – a sandy circle with bean bags and a hammock, all nestled in a hedge of laurel, Indian almond and pandanus trees. But the boys were exploding with energy, so we threw open the suitcases, located the goggles and sprinted for the beach. Moments later, the boys were gaping at a trio of elegant but venomous lionfish drifting beneath the pier of Dhigu’s over-water spa.

 

The 110-villa Dhigu is one of three Anantara resorts in the six-island cluster. Just across a narrow, stunningly blue channel is the adults-only, 67-villa Anantara Veli. While on the opposite side of Dhigu’s tranquil lagoon is the Naladhu Private Island, with 20 houses, each with a pool and butler. Adult guests of Dhigu and Veli can move freely between the two resorts (the cross-channel ferry takes just 2-3 minutes). Both Dhigu and Veli have their own spas, although Dhigu’s over-water treatment rooms are stunning. Veli has the cluster’s Thai and Japanese restaurants. Bushi Island houses the staff. Tiny Moyo Island is a short swim from Veli’s over-water villas. But the island that really captivated us was Gulhi Fushi.

Located at the edge of the lagoon, Gulhi Fushi is known as the “snorkeling island” or the “picnic island”. Most resort guests get there by boat, but we opted to kayak there, stopping at blinding white sandbars along the way. A high seawall runs parallel to the reef, protecting the sandy island from wave erosion. On the lagoon side, there’s a wide white sand beach where the boys played for hours, chasing crabs and watching small sharks ‘herd’ schools of fish into the shallows before striking. And on the ocean side is a circle of vegetation sheltering a small hut with a few tables and chairs and a bar. That’s where we donned our snorkeling gear.

“The water’s a bit rough,” the barman advised, “and there’s a current, so don’t go into the dark blue water beyond the reef.”

I dropped in to test the waters myself. He was right – definitely not the ideal conditions for my boys’ first snorkeling adventure. But they are confident swimmers and were all wearing life-vests so I decided to let Tai and Logan have a go first. Just below the surface, an astonishing variety of reef fish were darting about, nibbling on coral, fleeing to little caves, chasing schoolmates or staying magically motionless while our less-streamlined forms rocked back and forth with the waves. The boys were so excited and wanted to show me everything they’d spotted.

 

“Dad!” Tai shouted, pulling on my arm. His eyes were wide behind his goggles. I followed his finger to a little coral head, over which a beautiful Picasso triggerfish was hovering.

“Well, I guess we found Dory!” joked Logan, dragging me over to admire the resplendent blue and yellow of a Regal Tang.

Later, Nori joined with Drake and Kiva. Despite weeks of pool training, our five-year olds were still struggling a bit with their snorkels in the waves (Nobel Parent Prize for the inventor of one that stays upright) and their masks slowly filled with water, but that didn’t stop them from absolutely loving the encounter. So much so that Nori and I were running late for our massage!

In the late afternoon, we were scheduled to join a dolphin-watching cruise. In truth, I was worried that the boys might be bored. Just last year, the trip we did off the coast of Oman had been marvelous. We encountered a pod of 70-80 dolphins. It was so beautiful, I had tears in my eyes. But it had taken 1.5 hours of battering through the heavy chop to find them. The boys were elated to see the dolphins, but they were also soaked, chilled and nauseous. I hoped the Maldives dolphin-watching would be less arduous.

I started to relax when I saw our vessel: an open-decked, sunset cocktail cruiser rather than a powerboat. The pre-trip briefing further boosted my optimism. “Nothing is guaranteed because the dolphins are wild creatures,” the guide said, “but we usually see them.” He added that guests could go up on the roof if they wanted.

“Let’s go boys!” I shouted, heading for the ladder.

  

The boys wouldn’t be able to sit still for long. Soon they’d be chasing each other around the deck and annoying everyone. Up top, I reckoned, they’d be too afraid to rough-house. And the extra height should make it easier to see the dolphins as well. The crew had laid out some cushions on the roof; just enough space for the six of us to sit comfortably. For 30 minutes or so, we didn’t see anything except small seabirds. Then a dolphin erupted from the water on the port side, spinning on its axis like a figure skater. But not just a single or double axel; spinner dolphins can execute as many as seven rotations per leap. And they tended to do a series of leaps! We followed the pod of 20-30 dolphins for more than hour. Each time one spun or flipped, the passengers roared their approval. Scientists aren’t 100% sure why the spinners do this, but to me it was clear that they were showing off.

“OK,” Tai admitted, “that was a lot more exciting than I expected.” What a result!

Cost aside, the Maldives is (perhaps counterintuitively) a perfect family destination: the islands are small so the kids can’t get lost (though Logan did try), there is no vehicle traffic to worry about, the water in the lagoons is clear and full of life and the resorts offer a myriad of activities to keep kids engaged. We were so busy snorkeling and exploring that the boys never even made it to the kids-only Dhoni Club. And after an early dinner for the boys at Aqua (kids under
12 eat for free), Nori and I were still able to enjoy wonderful dinners at Sea. Fire. Salt. on the first night and Origami (at the Anantara Veli) on the last night.

Was the trip a bit rushed? Yes. But the experiences (snorkeling at the reef’s edge), encounters (lionfish, crown jellyfish, dolphins) and Anantara service levels were amazing. My four boys absolutely loved it. Nori and I loved it. A visit to the Maldives is expensive. But with a bit of research and some flexibility on dates, there are ways to reduce costs significantly. I suspect that we’ll be back to the Maldives – again.

Planning Details:

  1. AirAsia flies from Bangkok’s Don Muang at 9:30 a.m. and arrives Malé at 11:40 a.m. local time (it’s a four-hour flight with a two-hour time change).
  2. On the return leg, the flight leaves Malé at 12:30 p.m. and arrives at 7:00 p.m. Bangkok time. That gives you ample time for breakfast at the resort before the 10:00 a.m. boat transfer.
  3. The piers for hotel boats are adjacent to Malé Airport, so no time is wasted. It takes 40 minutes to travel from Malé to Anantara Dhigu. We arrived at the resort at 1:00 p.m.
  4. If you book online direct through Anantara’s website, there are some very attractive specials available currently ( includes breakfast and complimentary dinner)
  5. While Anantara Veli’s villas, pools and beaches are for adults only, families with kids are allowed at Veli’s restaurants for dinner.
  6. You are not allowed to bring liquor/wine/beer into the Maldives. All bags are x-rayed.
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