Maldives 2010 - Athuruga, Ari Atoll

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Review of our 14-day holiday on Athuruga Island (now sometimes seemingly called Diamonds Athuruga) in the Maldives in June 2010.

Athuruga

This was to be our fourth visit to Athuruga, but the first since the newly-built water village was opened to guests this spring.  We were interested to see how the building of the water villas has affected Athuruga's superb snorkelling.  Because of BA's problems with Unite, we switched to Sri Lankan for our satisfactory flight out.  This was followed by a MAT seaplane transfer from Male to Athuruga at low level under heavy skies.

Beach Villa

Following a recommendation from somebody on Tripadvisor, we'd asked for room 42 or thereabouts on the east side of the island, and were given room 38 just a few yards away.  However, we were disappointed to find hardly any beach at high tide, and very little shade.  We asked to be moved to the west side where there was more beach, lots of shade, and more breeze.  We moved into room 5, which turned out to be a mixed blessing.  Yes, lots of lovely beach and shade, but we soon discovered that the staff quarters behind it were now three stories high, and there were consequently windows that looked down into our open-air bathroom, which was disconcerting. 

Otherwise the room was of reasonably high quality, but the fittings were not as good as previous years.  There have always been a table and two chairs on the veranda - very handy for writing postcards, sipping drinks, relaxing in the shade, sheltering from rain showers etc.  However, this year these had disappeared and been replaced by an uncomfortable long wooden bench with no table.  Why?  We asked for a table and were provided with a large, low coffee table.  There was also a single steamer chair on our veranda, so we pinched another one from an unoccupied room so that we had one each.

Otherwise the room contained plenty of drawer and hanging space in the cupboards, a minibar, tea and coffee-making facility, a room-safe and lots of free electricity sockets (mostly European-style).  The drawers are fully inside the cupboards - it would have been much easier to have the drawers below the cupboard doors so that you can access the drawers without having to open the cupboard doors first.  There's an iPod dock, and Reception will lend you an iPod with music on.  The bedside tables don't have any drawers (why not?), and there's a long dresser-type table against one wall, which also has no drawers, and no seat in front of it.  There seems to be a preference for style over utility.

Water Villa

We arranged via Kuoni to upgrade to a water villa for the last five days of our holiday, and were provided with room 15, facing south.  The villa is finished to a high standard (actually it would be more accurate to say "nearly finished", as there were still a couple of items missing).  There is a huge over-water veranda, with steps down into the sea, from where it's possible to snorkel out to the drop-off 50 meters away.  The veranda has a dining-table with four chairs, and there are two three-seater settees, a coffee table and a double sun-bed (some villas had two singles).  Inside there is a large sitting area with another three-seater settee.  The bedroom area has a huge four-poster bed, two writing-desks with chairs, and a walk-in wardrobe with lots of shelves and hanging space and a full-length mirror.  Both the seating area and the bedroom area have large sliding patio doors onto the veranda.  The indoor bathroom has two washbasins, a separate WC, and a shower unit which also has a door out onto the veranda, so that you can rinse off after a swim without having to drip seawater all over the bedroom floor.  There are three (count them), three shower heads in the shower room.

A final excellent touch is your own Wifi router providing free internet access.  There's also free Wifi internet access at Reception.

There's a new Reception area and jetty in the middle of the water village, but it wasn't finished when we were there.

This is all very grand, and we thoroughly enjoyed some of these nice touches, but the Law of Unintended Consequences intervenes.  Unfortunately we were not lucky with the weather - the last week of our holiday was spent under mostly grey overcast skies with a stiff and sometimes chilly breeze from the south.  The room was therefore noisy with waves slapping the supporting concrete pilings, the wind moaning loudly through the ill-fitting patio doors, and the net curtains billowing out into the room.  During our first night there, we wedged flannels into one of the patio doors to stop it rattling in the wind.  The obscured-glass doors into the shower room from the veranda had a centimetre or so gap all the way round, giving you a chilly blast while you showered.  The veranda furniture was very lightweight, so it could be easily moved around, but this meant that it occasionally got blown into the water when a squall passed through and then had to be fished out.  The management responded by tying each item down to the decking with fishing line, which then meant that you couldn't move it at all.

There are supposed to be clear plastic blinds around the outside of the veranda which you can use to shelter from the breeze, but only one villa had been equipped with these - and apparently they slap and crack loudly in the wind, so are a mixed blessing.

One final problem was that the veranda is entirely covered by the roof, providing complete shade - but this meant that there was hardly anywhere on the veranda that you could actually sunbathe in the sun, especially after the sunbed was tied down.

All in all we decided that we'd rather be in a beach bungalow.

Food + drink

Main Restaurant and Bar

The main restaurant hasn't changed much - there's a large choice of buffet food both hot and cold (and sometimes the hot food was cold as well).  There's a fry-station at breakfast for omelettes, pancakes etc, which doubles as a pasta station at lunch and dinner.  There's also a barbecue outside on the sand grilling superb fresh fish.  There's a new pizza station with a very keen and eager pizza chef serving tasty food.

You'd have to be a very fussy eater indeed not to find something to eat in the main restaurant.  If only the hot food was always hot it would receive full marks.

The bar has been moved to the old entertainment area, and the beach bar has been demolished.  You can perch on bar stools, or there are very comfortable chairs and tables in the shade or in the sun.  We were pleased to recognise Jay Ram, Kholil and other bar staff from previous visits, and they all looked after us very well.  The all-inclusive deal covers a wide range of drinks - only pricey stuff like single malts were extra. 

One annoying change is that you used to be able to order a bottle of sparkling wine, either to enjoy in the bar or on your veranda.  This year they wouldn't provide a bottle for us to celebrate an anniversary with friends in the bar, but were happy to provide six glasses instead....!  

Water Villa Restaurant and "Bar"

As you'd expect, the water villa restaurant is more up-market, with a la carte dining and waiter service on a covered deck over the water.  Breakfast wasn't up to much - the bacon was very fatty streaky (although others said that there had been good back bacon earlier), the eggs were sometimes overcooked, and there was no bread, only hard chewy toast, so we usually breakfasted in the main restaurant.  The water villa doesn't do lunch, so we only ate there in the evening, when we quickly learned to skip some of the five courses, otherwise we couldn't move afterwards.  The food is cooked to order, and portions were generous to say the least.  The chef is oriental, so some of the dishes had an eastern flavour - sweet chilli sauce made a frequent appearance.

The food was of variable quality - I had a sensational and huge Argentinean fillet steak the size of a grapefruit which was beautifully cooked and out of this world.  Lobster tails, herb-crusted sea bass and prawns were also delicious on other nights.  However, I also had some dodgy-tasting lamb loin, half of which I left, and Linda had some fish ravioli, which she wished she had left as it tasted a bit too fishy, and she ended up being ill in the middle of the night.  Indeed, we and some of our fellow guests frequently seemed to have upset stomachs after eating here.  Maybe the food was just too rich for our delicate stomachs, but I'm not so sure - there was a large selection of food on the a la carte menu, and only about a dozen diners most nights.

Check out this sample menu.

The Water Villa "Bar" was a bit of a joke, consisting of a long dining table with some bottles on it.  The bar staff were very attentive, providing very generous measures, so you had to watch your intake otherwise you could fall off the long wooden jetty on your way back to your room.

Other facilities

The watersports centre has an area on the beach next to the main jetty where you can borrow snorkelling gear, buoyancy vests, etc.  You can also hire Hobie cats, dinghies and sailboards.  They also have an office tucked away behind Reception.

The shop has plenty of over-priced touristy stuff.  There is a doctor available on the island at several set times during the day in a surgery.  There's a table-tennis table, and a TV area (the TV was a small CRT job - apparently the big LCD one was broken).  It has a Wii box attached to it, so you could frequently see people flailing away in front of it.

Near Reception there are lots of shelves dotted about filled with hundreds of paperbacks in a variety of languages.  As long as you like romances or action books, you don't really need to take any books with you.

Reception provide a daily ten-page news digest available in several languages.

Underwater

Snorkelling

There are two main snorkelling areas at Athuruga: the east side and the south side.

We've always loved the east-side house reef, outside room 35 or so, where you could float over the reef and see pretty coral, beautiful reef fish and the occasional turtle.  You could walk along a cut-through almost out to the drop-off and look out for sharks and rays passing by.  And in June it's the lee side of the island, so it's sheltered from the wind and waves and therefore much more comfortable than the exposed south side.

Unfortunately, it's been ruined this year by the resort - it was completely unusable.  To combat beach erosion, they are vacuuming sand from the sea bed a couple of hundred metres out, and pumping it onto the shallows on this east side of the island outside room 20 or so.  This rendered the surrounding water area opaque with a milky, sandy sediment so that you couldn't see where you were going, and one of our fellow guests got nasty coral cuts as a result when she tried.

The south side (between the main jetty and the water villas) did not suffer so much from this milkiness.  I went out one day when the wind died away to nothing and the water was flat-calm and clear - and saw a manta ray (or maybe a devil ray) swim past me just a couple of meters away!  The coral along this reef is gorgeous - quite the best I've seen on a house reef in the Maldives.  Unfortunately being south-facing, it suffered later in our holiday when there was a stiff breeze from the south, becoming uncomfortably choppy and bumpy with the visibility being obscured by sediment thrown up by the waves.

Definitely thumbs-down for the snorkelling at Athuruga this year.

Diving

The dive centres at Athuruga and nearby sister island Thudufushi are run by iDive.  There were two instructors (one German, one Italian) plus a Maldivian trainee instructor, who were all very friendly, chatty and helpful.  It's now tucked away behind Reception - it used to be prominent between Reception and the bar and restaurant.  The equipment for hire was all good-quality new-looking ScubaPro stuff.  I hired a BCD and reg.  They do a one-tank dive leaving at 0930, plus an afternoon dive at 1430.  There's occasionally a night dive and an all-day three-tank dive.  Nitrox is free for qualified divers.

The dive centre staff do everything for you.  All you have to do is put your name down on the notice-board for tomorrow's dive, and turn up on the boat.  All your kit will be on the boat in your personal crate.  The boat boys help you on and off with your kit, and will even strip down your tank for you after the dive.  On the dive boat there's hot and cold drinks, and fresh pineapple and coconut slices to nibble after the dive.  You leave all your kit in your crate, and the staff take it ashore, rinse it and hang it up to dry for you.  First-rate service.  For some reason there were few other divers, and I sometimes had one of the dive leaders all to myself.

I did the 10-dive package costing EUR480.  Annoyingly they convert this into US dollars before billing you, and if you pay on plastic, it then gets converted into sterling, meaning you get clobbered by two turns in the rate.  This worked out at GBP 427.62, ie GBP 42.76 per dive.  This is moderately expensive, but was affected by weak sterling.  And of course the service is superior to most other dive centres I've used in the Maldives.

Highlights this trip were:

  • A pod of about ten dolphins seen from the dive boat on our way to Embhoodhoo Thila
  • Drifting through the middle of a vast dense school of thousands upon thousands of silvery jacks at Warren Thila
  • A friendly, curious turtle that swam right up to me and peered into the camera lens at Kuda Miaru Thila
  • Lots of Grey and white-tip reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, Hawksbill turtles at various dive sites
  • Masses of beautiful coral and reef fish at various dive sites.

Thanks to Simone, Bjorn and Mohammed for some good dives.

Conclusion

We didn't enjoy this holiday on Athuruga as much as previous ones.  We weren't so lucky with the weather, which was a big factor.  The snorkelling was a big disappointment, and our experiment staying in a water villa was curate's eggy.  The diving was good.  We might go back - but we'd want to be assured that the visibility while snorkelling outside room 35 was back to normal first.  And we'd probably stay on the beach, not in the water village, but only if you can't be seen from the staff quarters while sitting on the toilet...

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