Review of our fifth visit to Athuruga Island in South Ari Atoll in the Maldives - our thirteenth visit to the Maldives - in May 2011.
Our travel agent Affinion supplied us with airport lounge passes at Gatwick, which were most welcome while we waited for our Sunday evening flight. We had good, punctual, half-empty BA flights, slightly marred by faulty entertainment systems. Good, prompt seaplane flights from the international airport to Athuruga Island under fair skies, providing great views of the coral atolls and the blue sea. We noted that Athuruga has acquired a second seaplane pontoon since last year.
Our visit this year was in mid-May, which is the start of the low season, and sure enough we had five days of poor weather early on in our fortnight’s holiday, with grey skies, tropical showers and some prolonged downpours. Fortunately our second week was mostly beautiful weather, sometimes flat calm (excellent for snorkelling), sometimes with a light, cooling breeze.
We had asked for a room between 4 and 7, on the breezy side of the island in the south-west monsoon, as there is plenty of shade and beach. However, we decided that we no longer like the view from room no 4 - the view of the Indian Ocean is blocked by the water villas, the parked dhonis, and the rusting and ugly sand-pumping pontoon with its line of blue barrels to support the outflow pipe. Also, during our rainy five days, the squally winds accompanying each shower blew the rain into our covered verandah, forcing us indoors or to the bar.
We therefore asked for a transfer to a room on the lee side of the island, and managed to get room 35 - a room we’ve stayed in twice before. Thanks to manager Marc for arranging the transfer. This has a much better, uninterrupted view, and (because it’s on the sheltered side of the island) in poor weather the rain would not be blown onto the verandah. We were glad that we moved. Sod’s Law dictated that the day we moved, the weather changed from rainy and windy to hot and sunny, so of course it then felt sweltering as it had less cooling breeze. Still, that’s what we came for - tropical sunshine. There was still sufficient shade outside room 35 to get out of the heat of the midday sun. There was plenty of beach outside 35 in May 2011 (the depth of the beach varies with the seasons, and from year to year). We felt that room no 33 had the best combination of shade and beach on the lee side of the island this time.
We’ve already noted last year that we prefer a simple table and chairs to the uncomfortable wooden bench on the veranda. The steamer chairs however are very comfortable. The rooms have a spacious outdoor shower, two wash-basins etc. Bathrobes, soap and toiletries are all provided. Herons and huge fruitbats roost in the trees above and behind the open-air bathrooms. Indoors, there’s good hanging space, shelves, and wardrobe drawers, but we felt that the bedside tables should have drawers (35 did, 4 didn’t). The room safe was tiny - big enough for cash, jewellery and passports, but not really big enough for the cameras, mp3 players, laptops etc of today’s travellers.
The beach villas all have aircon and ceiling fan, tea and coffee-making facilities, and a minibar. You can ask Reception to fill this with beers, or get some from the bar. The rooms do not have TV, radio or CD player, but have an iPod dock, and Reception will lend you an iPod filled with their idea of good music for it. Some of the furniture and paintwork is looking a bit battered - perhaps the beach villas now need renovating to bring them up to a similar standard to the water villas.
The water villas now look completed, and the WV Reception area is now open. Many extras which were missing last year now seem to be in place – eg the Apple iMac in each WV room, plastic windshields around deck etc.
As always, the beach is swept clean of leaves and lumps of coral each day. Mid-morning, frozen sorbets are brought round to your sunbed on the beach to keep you cool. The management have provided several excellent double sunbeds with large sunshades on the sand outside the restaurant.
There is a good library of paperbacks in Reception. You can help yourself to a selection of books in English, Italian and German. Providing you’re happy with romances or thrillers, you really don’t need to take any books with you. The honour system prevails - you can even take a library book home with you, as long as you leave one of yours behind.
Reception provide a 10-page news digest each morning in English, Italian and German.
Top marks to Athuruga for providing a doctor on site - the infirmary is open at set hours three times a day.
There is a wildly overpriced tourist shop with clothes, postcards, souvenirs etc. There’s also a tailor on the island who will run up a suit for you, but we didn’t explore this.
Food + drink
For us, the highlight of dining at Athuruga is the excellent freshly-caught fish, cooked to order by the skilled Bangladeshi bbq chef. You know that this fish was swimming in the ocean the previous day, as there’s a daily delivery from local boatmen. We dined almost exclusively on fresh tuna steaks and “sea bass” (probably barramundi, not European sea bass), grilled on the bbq in the chef’s own marinade. Out of this world. There are welcome fresh salad vegetables to go with the fish. There were always two good curries, usually beef & dhal, but occasionally fish or chicken, with plain boiled or fried rice. Being an Italian-run island, there are of course fresh pasta, pizza and ice-cream bars. There’s also a good selection of other dishes in tureens - we recommend you start meals promptly as the tureen foods tend to dry out and slightly overcook. There are themed dinners every day - Chinese, Mexican, Maldivian, Italian, etc.
One drawback is that they only put out small quantities of certain foods, eg bacon, ham and cheese, which can mean a wait while they find some more for you. And inexplicably there was no melon at breakfast several days.
There’s a good selection of wines, and you can ask for just a glass or a whole bottle - whites come in an ice-bucket. We recommend the Argentinian Sauvignon blanc.
We enjoyed chatting to our waiter Ziyaad who was friendly and attentive.
We also were happy to see J Ram and Kholil manning the bar again this year. We missed another familiar face, Roshan, who was managing the bar at sister island Thudufushi on the south-western horizon. The Bar staff as usual were excellent - very attentive, quick, with a good choice of drinks, and no skimping on the all-inclusive deal - the only things not included were champagne and single-malt whiskies. Strangely, they’d run out of plain Absolut vodka - only peculiar flavoured Absolut vodkas were available. Regrettably, you can no longer have bubbly (good Italian sparkling wine) delivered to your room, but you can ring Reception and ask for a bottle of chilled still wine, which will be delivered to your room in an ice-bucket with glasses. Very civilised for sipping on the veranda as the sun sets.
The downside of Athuruga, as always, is the appalling live singer, who sings along to karaoke-style backing tracks before lunch and dinner between the bar and restaurant. The Italians seem to like it, but most of the Brits didn’t. It would be far better if they just played an iPod on shuffle quietly in the background. The entertainment is otherwise low-key, consisting of quizzes, slideshows of the marine life, films and so on.
The diving was fantastic as usual, but annoyingly we were twice dropped several hundred meters down-current from the dive site - one dive was a bit of a waste of time as a result, as we never got to where we supposed to go. Otherwise, the dive staff were very good and attentive. Dive leaders Andrea & Jan from iDive were very professional and observant, pointing out the tiniest of critters etc. Not a wide variety of sites visited - of 10 dives, I visited Warren Thila three times (though to be fair I did ask to go back the second time to this stunning shark dive), Himandoo Kandoo twice, and Himandoo Thila twice. The dives this year were VERY expensive - approx £50 each. The cost of the 10-dive package is up from EUR480 last year to EUR550. However, you get excellent service from the dive team, and nitrox is free. Visibility was average this year - 20m or so, with lots of suspended matter, presumably plankton, in the water. We saw a small pod of dolphins and a manta from the dive boat during our stay. At all of the dive sites there was a lot to see - the soft and hard corals are getting better and better, and there were millions of reef fish of every size, shape and colour. Turtles, stingrays, spotted eagle rays and white-tip and grey reef sharks were all regular sightings. But no Lionfish at all this year! I wonder why?
Snorkelling was much better than last year. The visibility was fair on the east side of the island outside room no 35, and good on the south side between the jetty and the water village. Fortunately there was no pumping of sand into the shallows on the north-east side of the island while we were there, however, the ugly pumping pontoon is still there, and the resort say that they are forced to pump frequently by the Maldivean government, which will ruin the visibility outside no 35 for days. I saw turtles and morays while snorkelling on the house reef. Others saw eagle rays and manta rays (or more probably mobula - "devil rays").
The free watersports facilities are good - they have two Hobie cats, windsurfers, canoes, snorkelling kit including flotation jackets, etc. There are organised free house reef snorkelling trips at 11am and 4pm each day.
The videos are hosted on YouTube.
Another great holiday at Athuruga - our favourite Maldives island. The weather wasn’t that good again this year, but that’s the price you pay when going off-season. Maybe next year we’ll splash out and go in high season.