Report on our holiday at Diamonds Athuruga, Ari Atoll, Maldives, in April 2013.
Booked through Kuoni, our travel agent threw in free airport lounge passes for us at Gatwick before the usual 10-hour Sunday evening BA flight – a very pleasant start to the tedious journey.
Once arrived at Male airport in the Maldives, we love that feeling as you step out of the chilly aeroplane's interior onto the steps when the heat and the humidity hit you, and you know you're on holiday, after six months of a British winter.
The Kuoni information sheet stated that the Maldivian authorities would now require all visitors to have their photographs and fingerprints taken. We already knew that queuing up at passport control takes a while, so we were dreading an even longer process. However, Kuoni's information was wrong, and it was just the usual 20-minute queue to get your passport checked (about the same length of time as on the return trip through the UK border at Gatwick). You're met by the Kuoni rep outside the terminal building, taken in quick succession to the Kuoni desk and then to the MAT (Maldivian Air Taxi) check-in. No excess baggage to pay this time (MAT seem to have raised their weight allowances) and then onto the bus for the ten-minute ride around the perimeter road to the MAT seaplane terminal. There's usually an hour or two to wait for the flight to your destination.
We had a great flight in good weather, with marvellous views of the coral reefs and islands. We stopped off at another resort island to drop off some other holiday-makers, before landing in the lagoon at Athuruga and tying up to the pontoon for the short boat-ride to the jetty.
A nice touch: as the lunch session was nearly over, we were taken straight to the restaurant to get some food, and told to drift over to Reception to check in once we'd had something to eat. This is an example of how laid-back and thoughtful the management at Athuruga is. We were recognised by several of the staff who greeted us warmly.
We'd asked for a beach villa on the north-west side of the island, with plenty of beach, but were irked to be shown to room 22, which had little beach at high tide. We asked to change to room 21 next door, with much more beach, and were able to do so a couple of days later.
The rooms are all clean, neat and tidy, with plenty of wardrobe space and clothes-drawer space, all finished in dark wood. A lighter décor would make the rooms more cheerful. There's the huge bed, a long dresser, and a pointless wicker chair in the corner that just gets stuff dumped on it. The bedside tables have no drawers. There's a tea/coffee-making facility (though the kettle didn't work when we tried it), and an inadequately-tiny room safe - there's no room in it for laptops, digital cameras, iPads and the other paraphernalia of modern life (though some rooms have larger safes). There are several free electricity sockets, both UK and European styles. There's no TV, but you do get an iPod docking station.
The bathroom is partly under cover and partly outdoors in a small walled garden – shower when it's raining and you'll get a hot and cold shower at the same time! There are two washbasins, a loo and a bidet, all under cover. Dressing gowns and masses of towels are hung up. Towels (including beach towels) are changed every day and sheets seem to get changed every day or two.
Back in the bedroom, the massive patio door leads out onto the covered veranda on the beach. There are two comfortable steamer chairs, an uncomfortable bench, and a large bowl of water, changed daily, for you to wash the sand off your feet when you come in from the beach. Step from the veranda onto the beach, walk a few short paces over the white sand, past your sun-loungers, and you're in the clear, warm (29-30°C) Indian Ocean. Harmless baby black-tip reef sharks, 50-80 cm long, circle the island in the shallows, and we once saw two spotted eagle rays circling just a few metres from the beach, in water less than waist-deep.
Your room-boy keeps the room spotless every day, and will occasionally decorate your bed with a beautiful display of flowers – hibiscus, bougainvillea, and so on.
People usually give tips to staff who've made their stay pleasant. We gave tips to our room-boy, the bar staff, our waiter, the fish-man, the pasta-man, the pizza-man, the ice-cream-man, and the dive staff, as well as putting something in the general tips box for the people who work behind the scenes.
There's not a lot to do on Athuruga if you're not interested in watersports or relaxing on the beach, getting a tan. There's a spa, a souvenir shop, a tailor shop, a TV, free Wi-Fi in Reception (or in your room if you're in a water villa) … and that's about it.
There's a doctor who runs a surgery three times a day. 95% of their time is spent treating coral cuts and ear infections (try to avoid these latter by rinsing them thoroughly with fresh water after each swim). These doctors are usually Italian and are lured to Athuruga for a three-week spell of duty by the promise of a free holiday.
The Watersports centre will loan you snorkelling equipment for free, and they also have windsurfers and Hobie cats for hire.
There are excursions to be had: whale-shark and snorkelling expeditions, visits to nearby inhabited islands, fishing trips, sunset cruises, and so on. There are also deep-sea fishing trips outside the atoll to try for sailfish, marlin etc.
Chef Giacomo had a very positive impact on the food last year, but this year he was based in nearby sister island Thudufushi, and his second-in-command Mahinder was in charge. Food standards are still good. The star is the freshly grilled, marinated fish from the bbq on the sand next to the restaurant: sea bass (barramundi), red snapper and tuna, all fresh-caught – we'd occasionally see local fishermen tying up at the jetty with a boatful of the day's catch.
There's a good selection of other food as well: salads, a dozen or more different dishes in tureens, a selection of starters (including a delicious melt-in the-mouth marinated raw tuna), a couple of curries with poppadums, and of course (it's an Italian-run hotel) the fresh pasta, pizza, cakes, sweets and ice-cream counters.
For breakfast, there's fruit-juice, smoothies, fruit, ham, cheese, cakes, bread, and a fry-station where you can get freshly cooked eggs, omelettes, grilled tomatoes, pancakes and waffles. The bacon could be more appetising – fatty and colourless.
Our waiter Mohammed soon learned our preferences and had a bottle of our favoured wine selection cooling in an ice-bucket beside our table in the evening.
We were delighted to see the bar manager, J.Ram, is still in charge. He and his staff have looked after us very well on our last few visits. Service is quick, and the all-inclusive selection is superb – only stuff like single-malt whiskies and Champagne are at extra charge. There are no dodgy labels - the gin is Gordon's or Bombay, the vodka is Absolut, the scotch is Dewar's, the mixers are Schweppes, and so on. There's Italian sparkling wine – a bit sweet for my taste, but very refreshing nonetheless.
The house reef at Athuruga is outstanding – put in some snorkelling time and you can see turtles, sharks, eagle-, sting-, devil- and manta-rays, moray eels and large groups of bannerfish, snappers, and so on around the beautiful coral reef. The resort does a free snorkelling tour every morning, led by a guide who can point out stuff.
I managed 10 fantastic dives this trip, courtesy of the IDive team. The standard of service is second to none – you just have to check the notice-board outside the dive centre to find out the details of the following morning's dive, and add your name to the list if you want to go. Then just turn up on the dive boat at the end of the jetty in the morning at 0915. All your kit will already be on the boat, rinsed and dried from the previous day's dive. Once you've dressed your tank and checked all your kit, relax for the boat ride (30-60 minutes) to the dive site. After the dive briefing and buddy assignment, the dive leaders will guide you round the dive site, pointing out the tiniest of critters, and the largest of pelagics passing by in the blue.
Back on board, the boat staff will help you strip your tank and provide you with a cup of tea/coffee and bits of coconut to chew. There's fresh water from a hand-held shower rose, and a tank for rinsing computers, cameras, etc. There are towels and a sun-deck on the roof for warming-up after the dive. Back at the jetty, you thank the dive team and head back to the beach and/or lunch. All your kit will be taken off the boat by the staff, rinsed and hung up to dry ready for the next day's dive. Luxury.
The dive leaders are at the same time laid-back and very professional. A mixture of Germans and Italians, they all speak English. As well as the morning dive, the centre also run an afternoon dive and a weekly night dive. Nitrox is free for qualified divers.
Highlights this trip were:
- A group of 20 grey reef sharks and a Manta at the superb Warren Tilla site
- A pod of about 15 dolphins seen at close quarters from the dive boat on the way home from Thudufushi Tilla in a flat-calm sea. Some of them came to play in the boat's bow-wave while we all cheered and clapped, grinning like idiots
- A Manta and a mixed group of about 15 mobulas and eagle rays at Thudufushi Tilla
- Beautiful soft corals and reeftops at Miaru Gali, Thudufushi and Himandoo Tillas
- Lots of Mantis shrimps and a weird flower-like bunch of nudibranch eggs at Shark Tilla – a Marine conservation area, and it shows
- Spotted eagle rays, stingrays, Hawksbill turtles, morays, barracuda, tuna, nudibranchs and millions of reef fish on various sites visited.
My 10 dives cost me US$875, or £566.64, ie £56.66 per dive. Pricey, but reflecting the top-notch level of service. Thanks to Luca, Mara, Sandro, Dierk and the staff of the IDive team.
About ten pictures totalling approx two to three MB per page.
Another great holiday at Athuruga – and boy, were we lucky with the weather. The seasons were late in changing this year, from the fine, settled, high-season, north-west 'monsoon' to the unsettled, rainier, low-season, south-east 'monsoon', so we had an uninterrupted fortnight of high-season blue skies and gentle breezes at low-season prices! Sometimes the sea was flat calm. I didn't see a single drop of rain.
Great to see so many familiar faces, from J. Ram behind the bar, to Petra the resort manager, to Ziyaad, our waiter from last year.
Petra: please ensure all rooms have good-sized room safes, install Wi-Fi in the beach villas, and do something about the breakfast bacon. Then Athuruga would be next to perfection.
And on the seaplane flight back to Male, we were the only passengers on the plane! Just like having your own private jet - but just a bit slower....
Will we go back again? Already planning it…