top 10 destinations

This was, hands down, the best vacation of my life. This particular Maldivian adventure embodies the meaning of the word ‘vacation’. I believe that I have now experienced actual paradise. So many trips we take are wonderful in sections but fall short of what we originally expected. Hopefully this photographic journey will give you the wanderlust to visit the Maldives yourself.

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Why choose the Maldives?  The Maldives are located in the Indian Ocean. The climate is tropical, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures around 86F°/ 30C° throughout the year. The Islands are unique, remote and mostly pristine, the ultimate desert Island getaway– with some luxuries! Take note: there is a rainy season. During the April-October southwest monsoon, particularly from June to August, rain can be heavy. You have been warned.

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Of course one of the most important reasons to visit the Maldives is to experience the marine life up close. You will see so much, even just paddling on the beach fish will be beneath your feet but there are a wealth of marine opportunities here that will be addressed a tad later on in this blog. If this is a diving holiday, who really minds a bit of rain anyway?

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Choosing the right resort in the Maldives is essential. Once you’re there, you really can’t do much in the way of Island hopping. You will not be floating about checking out all your different options, it’s just not possible to have drinks in one resort and dinner in another! The Maldives are a wonderful collection of picture perfect atolls but as they are spread out, once you are at your resort you pretty much have to stay put.

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The Maldives is laid out in a very different way than say the British Virgin Islands or Croatian Islands, however in the North it has become popular to do do a ‘Liveaboard’ boating and diving holiday. These are motor boats in various sizes and for various budgets  and mostly tour the Northern Malé atoll, do remember these are geared up for diving rather than cruising the Islands to party! Click here for info on ‘Liveaboard’.

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The outer ring of this atoll is seen in the distance

There are 26 atolls in the Maldives. These are not single islands, but giant circular coral formations that have countless Islands around the perimeter. Inside this outer ring lagoons form. There are usually more Islands within these lagoons. The Maldives is a narrow chain of atolls approximately 80 miles wide and stretching for approximately 510 miles south. This chain is made up of 1190 islands of which approximately 200 are inhabited. The Maldives are an 100 percent Sunni Muslim republic. No alcohol except on your resort. No dogs either and no pork. All fine with me…I was sure as heck not treating my Dachshunds to a holiday on a desert Island and hopefully, just as I did, instead of lusting for pork you will be eating lots of fresh fish !!! Click here to see a map of the Maldives.

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Ariel view flying south from Malé of a typical resort. Hadahaa is only third the size of this Island.

The resort I chose to stay at was the Park Hyatt, it represents a totally unique “green” concept in the Maldives. The Park Hyatt Hadahaa is located in North Huvadhoo, in the Gaafu Alifu Atoll believed to be believed to be one of the largest and deepest natural atolls in the world. Hadahaa is remote and extremely small, you are pushed to spend 30 mins walking the perimeter. The Maldives capital of Malé is 250 miles to the north, and the nearest regional airport is 52 K to the east.This particular resort is wonderful design aesthetically, the cost to build the hotel was around $40 million, so as you can imagine, the accommodation is not to shabby! Click here to see an aerial photo of Hadahaa. (Once you click on the link go to ‘view photos’ and the aerial view is there).

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The Gaafu atoll is the second furthest south atoll in the Maldivian archipelago. Your location is so remote that you will barely see a boat or plane your entire stay. There is only you (and a few other guests that you barely see) on a tiny circle of sand– Robinson Crusoe with the added convenience of a five star resort. Welcome to real life version of ‘The Life of Pi’, here at Hadahaa the surreal becomes a reality.

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The arrivals and departures jetty!

Whichever resort is your final destination, you will have to transfer from Malé International Airport to your hotel. There will be a more detailed account on getting here further on in the blog. Basically from Malé, you catch a local flight and fly south for an hour and a half then you take a boat–another hour!

As you head from the port to Hadahaa you will pass strings of tiny Islands on the far horizon. Sailing along right next to you, schools of flying fish hover in the air and appear to ‘fly’ for quite long stretches before they dive back into the water. As you approach the Island your heart gives a little jump when you see the delightful little paradise that will be your hang out for the next week or so.

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Once you step onto the jetty you are welcomed by the staff and taken to the reception area.The structure of the reception area recreates a Dhoni. These are handcrafted, traditional fishing boats, usually with sails and traditionally used in the Maldives. From here you will stroll to the central hotel area where you will find an open air lounge, pool, bar and restaurant. I went to straight to the bar!

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The pool area is delightful but I wanted to explore the Island. A quick walking loop around the Island grasping cocktail is in order, this takes about twenty minutes and quite a bit longer if you stop every few steps to gasp and soak it all up.

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As you walk the Island for the first time you are struck by the amazing color of the sand and the water clarity. You step into the water and immediately see wonderful fish of all types. The next thing you need to do is go find a snorkel!

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While we are on the subject of snorkeling, lets jump ahead and talk about the wonderful water experiences you can have in the Maldives. There is a level at which everyone can enjoy the marine life.  For the very timid you can experience the inside of the reef by snorkeling up to the inner ring from the shore, or even literally see it all from hanging off the deck of your water villa.

12The better experience is to snorkel on the outside of your immediate reef. The snorkeling experience here is so intense that when you first put your head in the water you are literally in shock from the amazing corals and fish that surround you.

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You can go on further excursions to the outside of the atoll to scuba dive. This is not for the faint hearted. Due to the remoteness of the area, sharks and other large marine creatures are unafraid and plentiful so you will probably get lucky and see them. Due to the amount of other readily available marine life and luckily for the diver, they are basically not interested in you as a ‘food group’. Still, most people I talked to felt that although they had  ‘enjoyed’ the extreme experience, they did not need to repeat the exposure to large water beasts more than once in a trip. Enough said. Later in the blog I will have more info on scuba diving in the Maldives.

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Our water villa, the first in the row!

After a loop of the Island we headed over to check out our room. There are about 85 rooms here and about twenty of these are over water villas. The Island rooms are nicely tucked into the lush, tropical growth. As far as imposing itself on the landscape, the design has an extremely ‘low impact’ ethic. During the building they followed the standards for Green Globe certification in the construction stage and also for the resort operations. The few guests that do share the island with you are rarely seen but when you do it is actually fun to see how others react while enjoying and reveling in the stunning surroundings, just as you are. Kindred spirits in this magical place.

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Unlike many other resorts, you will not see the reef damaged by the building process. Beneath the over water villas you can look straight down to reef– left just as nature created it. There are not many over water villas on this property but to stay in one is a real treat, particularly as watching the reef beneath you is entertainment for hours. Note: The building of these villas took a number of years, the piles that hold the buildings had to be individually placed so as not to damage the delicate coral.

As you walk along the jetty Cuttlefish will group together in schools and if you feel like chatting, will actually ‘talk’ to you. All you have to do is raise and lower your voice and as you speak, in unison, they will change both direction and color, it is truly a conversation worth having! Also fascinating to watch, and right below our deck, was a ‘cleaning station’ where fish swim in to be cleansed by smaller ‘nibbling’ fish.

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At the Park Hyatt there is a 5 star PADI center on site for all levels of diving. For general info on the PADI diving click here. The atoll on which Hadahaa rests is extremely large and one of the deepest in the world, this allows for unbelievable diving and snorkeling. We went with the resident marine biologist for a guided snorkel to view the outside of our immediate reef, which was incredibly rewarding as she pointed out many gems hidden in between the coral. Before we actually went to explore the reef we learnt about how the atoll was formed, about the coral and the many types fish. More incredible details on that further on in the blog!

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The outdoor cocktail ‘lounge’

Time to head back out and stroll the shoreline as you head to the bar for sunset cocktails! The bar is near the pool and in wet weather it’s a lovely place to hang out but once you have grabbed your cocktail I would head to the beach or back to your water villa  for sunset! Experiencing sunset in the Maldives could possibly ruin future sunsets for you… you will never be able to forget the drama you will be privy to here.

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As you settle yourself to enjoy sunset prepare for an amazing show! The sunset views are extraordinary, dramatic and with ever changing cloudscapes. The fact that it can rain adds to the drama as the rays bounce off the cloud layers. This was actually the first luxury resort in Huvadhoo and the closest inhabited island is actually more than 6 miles away. The Island is close to the equator and the lack of light pollution creates unbelievable night sky viewing, you can actually see stars from both hemispheres!

smooth sunset 4Although the water villa rooms are close together, they do not completely overlook each other and are actually staggered. Staying in one of these villas enhances the Maldives experience. In any resort I would try an over water villa, even if just for one or two nights as watching the fish through the water without a mask is truly better than watching TV. Obviously the villa at the end has a completely open view but they have the longest walk!! (Mind you could always call for a ride)!

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Now that you are cozy and enjoying the blog here is some info on getting here. Skip ahead if you don’t think you can take it. However you decide to make your way to the Maldives there is just not an easy route. Another ‘how to’ blog with all the excruciating details on getting to the Maldives will be posted shortly.

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We flew from Los Angeles, via Tokyo, Via Singapore to Malé International airport. Here, if your Island is far south as ours was, you wait in a really appalling lounge with dreadful food and no alcohol to ease the pain (no drinking until you get to the resort this is an Islamic country). Our wait was approximately for three hours.

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Not done yet. Eventually you catch your transfer flight with Maldivian Aero (who actually don’t stick to a regular schedule). You then take a 1 hour plus transfer flight, flying south over the Maldives, (some good views), you stop once at Kahdoo then finally arrive at the Kooddoo domestic airport located in the North Huvadhoo (Gaafu Alifu) atoll. You will be met by a representative from the Hotel and driven across this Island in a golf cart to the dock where you will catch the rather sturdy and seaworthy vessel (not very glamorous unfortunately) and off you head for about another 45mins to Hadahaa. You are a little irritable by now.

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Sunrise is just as lovely as sunset, make sure at least once you wake up in time to see it!

Some chose to break their journey by overnighting in the Capital of Malé. Don’t do it. The hotels are not great and forget a nice glass of wine, they do not serve alcohol. It’s a super place to visit for two hours and you should add this in on your return journey rather than sitting at the dreadful airport lounge for thee hours. By the way, if you do visit Malé, this is an Islamic republic do NOT wear skimpy beach wear. So long and short, if you can help it, don’t stop on the way there, just push on and get to your resort!

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Teeny tiny Islands far away, love the horizon shots!

In order to survive this trip…(and lets not forget the International flights you already took and the fact you haven’t had a glass of wine for five hours or more) you must NOT allow yourself to be a travel wimp. Grin and bear it. Let’s face it there is a light at the end of this travel tunnel and once you arrive, you are truly in paradise. Also particularly as far as airline and hotels are concerned, ‘out of season’ travel deals can be found at amazing prices but connections are less readily available and that is of course, the catch! Just remember, once you are there you will very quickly forget the trauma you experienced to get here.

Note taken from the Maldivian air site: ‘Please be aware Maldivian Aero has a strict hand luggage policy. Hand luggage should not be bigger than 20”x 12”x7” and the weight should not be more than 5kg for the domestic sectors’. GOOD LUCK.

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Cleaning station, right below our deck.

Back to the good stuff. The next morning a magnificent glow creeps across your face and pillow, you can’t help but get up to see the sunrise, (only possible if you are not totally wrecked with jet lag) and lets face it, you may not ever be coming back so do try to see at least one sunrise. Across toward the sunrise you can just see the string of Islands on the outer edge o the atoll. Taking a sunrise walk is magical way to start your day on the Island.  You could be surprised by a quick shower, (seen below), which normally quickly clears.

rain cloud boat wmHead back to the room before breakfast to snorkel. There are several levels of reef to explore. If your Island is in a lagoon, the reef around your tiny Island has an inner and outer side and both have slightly different marine environments. Then as you travel further out from your small Islands reef towards the atoll, the inside and outside of that outer ring, marine life is different again. The channels in-between the gaps of the outer atolls attract other species of marine life due to the swooshing of the currents in and out. So much to see!

Breakfast is a feast and all your usual breakfast foods are available which is pretty much a miracle considering how food even gets here. You must try the local breakfast, ‘Mas huni’, which is tuna with fresh shredded coconut inside a freshly made chapatti, I added limejuice –Yum.

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One of my favorite things to do on a beach holiday is to look for shells. The collecting here does not compare to the shelling in the Seychelles. Due to the barrier of Islands on the outer ring, which acts as a shelter belt from rougher weather, you won’t find many shells. The small pieces of coral that wash up are the most collectible and their fascinating shapes and make great mementos of your trip.

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200 species of stony coral are present in the Maldives. As well as the reef, shallow layers of volcanic rock can also be seen at certain points around the Island and can be explored by foot. Check out this link (from Ocean Oasis) to find out, in detail, how coral was formed here.

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Another option is to visit the hydroponic greenhouse on another Island in this atoll, where some of the fruits and vegetables are grown to support the Park Hyatt kitchen. As this particular hotel is so far down the Island chain there is less availability for produce and luckily there is a wonderful vendor nearby and the tour is very informative. A closer to home choice would be to take the inner workings tour of Hadahaa. This will show you the behind the scenes workings of the hotel, a truly fascinating tour and a real eye opener.

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Time for lunch. The tuna is caught literally right here and has not been exposed to pollution. We ate tuna for breakfast lunch and dinner. Lightly seared Tuna with curry sauce on the side was divine.

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Lunch on our deck at the water villa.

After lunch a stroll to the pool to sit and enjoy the shade of the palm trees.

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After pool time head back out for your afternoon stroll, the light starts to change when the clouds roll over, the water changes to the palest shades of aqua.

late afternoon HAs you walk the Island you sink into pillows of white sand. The Maldives are obviously a delicate eco system and are in danger from the effects of our ever changing global climate. However, I learnt this amazing fact about Parrot Fish. They make sand!!

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Seventy percent of the sand you are walking on is made from the excrement of this fish. Each Parrot Fish can make about a ton of sand each year. Now, let me tell you I have never seen so many Parrot Fish. The Maldives are actually teaming with them and some were honestly huge. They constantly clean their beaks (scary thought…’beaks’) by nibbling the coral and in return the coral are happy as the Parrot Fish are cleaning off the parasites so they can survive. A ‘win win’ situation. One of the most wonderful things that happen in the Maldives (as you can’t watch Breaking Bad or whatever), is that you actually become interested in what is going on around you. Here is a link to watch the Parrot Fish making sand!

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There are three jetties on the island. One is used for the water Villas and all are used to access the reef from the outside, both for divers and for boats. The water is deeper on the outside of the reef allowing for better navigation. There are no significant breaks in the ring of coral surrounding the Island, the jetties are needed not just for looks but have a real purpose as they extend past this ring.

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As another day comes toward an end you realize the days have been long but filled every second with the marvel that surrounds you. The sunset views of the nearby atolls and of the jetties allow for endless photo opportunities. It’s actually quite hard just to sit and enjoy as you keep popping up for another shot!

After a few days in the Water Villas you may want to move to a beach room to experience walking straight out onto the sand from your room, on any resort I would recommend trying both.

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The rooms are tastefully decorated and comfortable but it’s hard to stay inside, you will not be spending much time in your room. The bathrooms are awesome some with both indoor and outdoor facilities. A pool is nice but lets face it, the ocean here is divine so you don’t really need one.

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As I lay on the beach endlessly looking out to sea, I contemplated the formation of the atolls. As promised here are some details.

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The word atoll does not necessarily mean Island. Here is what I grasped from the marine biologist. Over a rather long period of time a volcano sinks gradually into the ocean. As it gradually sinks, around the edge coral starts to grow. Eventually the Volcano disappears and an outer ring is formed the atoll. As time rolls on the outer ring becomes fragmented and breaks into Islands.  In the middle of this outer ring a lagoon is created. Within this lagoon deposits form and gradually as MORE time goes on these deposits attract more build up and a few small Islands grow within the lagoon. So you have a 511 mile long string of atolls each with their own lagoons in the middle, with smaller Islands within those lagoons. (The simplified version).

For more detail, here is a link to explore in more detail (from National Geographic education) the evolution of the Maldivian atolls!

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Note: Having said that you can’t Island hop isn’t completely true. However, the best desert Island experiences are on the more remote islands. The North Malé Atoll near the main airport and the Capital of Malé (at the southern edge of the North Malé atoll) is easier to access due to the close proximity of the airport and dock. As you come out of the airport you will see all the individual Hotel boats right at the dock literally steps from the airport, waiting to take their guests off to their respective destinations. This journey can be as little as 25 minutes or less.

The problem with this Northern Atoll is that it lies in a more commercial zone, as you lie on the beach you will see boats and cargo vessels going by and airplanes zipping about! The good news is, that for the same reason, these resorts have better access to fresh produce, so can supply a more varied menu. Click here to see a map of The North Malé atoll.

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When it is finally time to leave your Island home the staff will all see you off and wave, literally, till you are out of sight!  We watched until the Island was just a tiny speck in the distance, reluctant to let that little gem out of our sight.

Instead of waiting at the unattractive lounge at Malé airport we hired a guide to show us around The Capital of Malé a short excursion but a really interesting way to spend the last two hours in the Maldives.

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Ferries run to and from the airport to the capital

About 75,000 people live in Malé, one third of the total population. Despite the density, the capital is extremely clean but remember– here you will see high rises offices and shops and there are no beaches, there is a sea wall circling the Island. The older government buildings are relatively charming, the wharf and markets are colorful and once you have taken a short ferry ride from the airport to the main Island, everything you need to see is in walking distance.

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The second you step foot on Malé, immediately the vivid colors and bustle of the Island become apparent. Watch out as you are crossing the road it’s a ‘free for all’ situation! Motor scooters are the favored form of transport and the roads are teaming with them.  Fishing boats and small ferries pack the wharf.

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The fruit and vegetable market is bursting with produce you have never seen before, neatly stacked in abundant displays. At the Fish Market you will see all types of fish but there is lots of tuna, in these waters it is readily available. All the fish are laid out according to size on the floor, rather than on tables. The sights and sounds of the main Island afford insight into the economy of the Maldives and is worth a quick visit.

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As you board your plane you marvel at each moment you spent in this wonderful place. A happy blur of epic sunsets, talking cuttlefish, endless amounts of unbelievable white sand and clear blue water has to be left behind. For now.