Maldives 2014 - Thudufushi, Ari Atoll

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Review of our two-week stay at Diamonds Thudufushi, Ari Atoll, Maldives, in April 2014.

Getting there

This was our fourth visit to Thudufushi, and our sixteenth to the Maldives, and we were really looking forward to it.

The usual ten hour Sunday evening flight from Gatwick to Male.  Really, BA and their Boeing 777s are going from bad to worse.  They always seem to be trying to annoy you.  Gin and tonic, please.  Sorry, we've run out.  I’ll have the chicken, please.  Sorry, we've run out.  Never mind, I’ll watch a movie.  Oh, the video screen doesn’t work.  Pull your socks up BA.  Everybody else says Emirates are better – perhaps we’ll try them in future.

The MAT (Maldivian Air Taxi) seaplane service brand name is no more: MAT and TMA (Trans Maldivian Airways) have both been taken over by a new company which will continue to use the TMA name.  MAT’s web site is redirected to TMA’s.  Although the ex-MAT seaplanes are still in their red livery, the MAT name has been removed from the fuselage.  Doubtless by this time next year they’ll all be in the TMA blue & yellow livery (or maybe a brand new look?  See my photos!).

An annoying three-hour wait at the seaplane terminal, during which our flight is cancelled for no apparent reason, and some Italian fellow-passengers, also destined for Thudufushi, get rather vocal about their own four-hour wait.  Eventually two aircraft set off within seconds of each other for Thudufushi, and TMA even give us a 25% refund for the inexplicable delay.

Our bad tempers evaporate when the seaplane takes off and we can look down on the coral reefs and palm-covered tropical islands of the atolls spread out below, gleaming in the sun.

The seaplane lands in the lagoon, ties up at the floating pontoon, we walk across to the dhoni for the short boat-ride to the jetty, and into Reception, where a cool drink and a chilled moist flannel are provided to refresh us.  A short walk over the sand to our room, where the management have thoughtfully provided a bottle of bubbly in an ice-bucket, some sandwiches and fruit.  Now that’s customer care – are you listening, BA?  We kick off our shoes and walk out onto the veranda and drink in the view over the blindingly-white coral-sand beach to the transparent Indian Ocean.  Aaah – starting to relax at last.

Thudufushi

We’d asked for a detached beach bungalow on the north side of the island with plenty of beach, and were pleased to be led to room 17.  In March, it gets a good breeze, there was a wide expanse of sand in front of the veranda, and a big tree outside providing shade all day.  Interestingly, the hotel has upgraded some of the rooms (though not ours) to what they call “Junior Suites”.  This simply means they’ve added a small sitting area at the front, by converting the existing veranda area into a sitting room, and building a new covered veranda area on the front.

Our room was spacious and kept spotlessly clean, with a huge bed, a good deal of hanging-, drawer- and shelf-space in the wardrobes, a minibar, tea/coffee-making facilities, a dresser, bedside tables, a room safe, dual washbasins in the bathroom and the usual outdoor (but of course private) shower.  Towels and sheets were changed regularly.  There are a few free power sockets, both UK and continental-style.  There’s no TV or radio, but you do get an iPod dock.

We’ve mentioned before that the beach bungalows on sister-island Athuruga do need a bit of refurbishment - the interiors are looking a bit tired, and Thudufushi is the same.  The décor of dark wood could do with a brighter paint job, and the beach bungalows need to have Wi-Fi installed, like the Water Villas.  Annoyingly, a day or two before we left, we were told that there were, in fact, some Wi-Fi routers available for use in the Beach Bungalows – we only had to ask.  Why didn’t they tell us this at the start of our holiday instead of the end?  The room safe is tiny – ok in the old days for passports, money, jewellery and airline tickets, but not big enough for the laptops, iPads, Kindles, smartphones, digital cameras and other paraphernalia of modern life. 

In our bathroom, the floor under the shower sloped away from the drain, meaning that the soapy shower water flowed away from the drain into the sandy area in the middle of the bathroom.  The wardrobe doors didn’t shut smoothly, and needed a bit of a shove by way of persuasion.  Some TLC needed, Thudufushi, please. 

Last time we were here, in 2009, the beach area around the Reception jetty was badly eroded by wave action.  Waves were coming into Reception on windy days, and there was no beach in front of rooms 1 to 6, just a line of sandbags to prevent the verandas from being washed away.  The Watersports shack had been isolated, and you couldn’t get to the counter in front of it.  The beach bar was in danger of sliding sideways into the sea.  The beach had shifted round to the other side of the island, where there was a huge expanse of sand outside room 17. 

This year we were relieved to see that it had all shifted back, and the huge expanse of sand is now back in front of rooms 1 to 6 and Reception.  The Watersports shack has gone, and the Watersports centre has moved back from the shore to a new indoor shop next to the dive centre, and there’s a new Beach bar, further back (this is the third beach bar we’ve seen since we first came here in 1996!).  On the north-east side of the island the beach was being eroded back this year, with rooms numbered 30 and above only having ten meters or so of sand in front of them.

The Water Villas (new since we were here last in 2009) are extremely luxurious – thanks to Karen from Guest Relations for showing us around a vacant one.  The deck area is slightly larger than the ones at Athuruga, which is better for sun-bathing, and they’ve been built slightly higher above the ocean, so reducing the noise of the waves slopping about underneath in bad weather.  Otherwise they appear identical to Athuruga’s.  In our second week, occupancy of both Water Village and Beach Bungalows was only about 30%.  We believe they need to reduce their prices – they couldn’t have been making a profit at that occupancy level.

During our first week, we appeared to be the only Brits staying on the island (there was another English couple staying in a water villa).  About 95% of the guests were Italians, well, at least, 95% of the noise was in Italian.  A further Brit couple arrived in our second week. 

Our arrival coincided with a spell of less settled weather – in the first week, there was a stiff breeze blowing, and rather overcast skies.  The stiff breeze made for uncomfortable snorkelling, but it actually was rather good for sunbathing, as it meant that we could lie out on the beach, cool and comfortable, without melting.  In our second week, the weather changed to more like the high-season weather we were expecting: a gentle breeze and blue skies, by which time we were prepared for it.  And during our two weeks, we only had a couple of tropical downpours, soon over.

Facilities

Water Sports

You can borrow snorkelling gear free, and there are Hobie cats, windsurfers, water-skiing, etc available.

There’s a free guided house-reef snorkelling excursion twice a day, at 11am and 4pm, and assorted other paid-for snorkelling outings available, eg excursions to nearby reefs, Manta ray trips, Whale shark trips and so on.

The Entertainment staff run “Aquacise” sessions each day in the shallows.

Snorkelling on the house reef is maybe not as sensational as sister-island Athuruga’s, but still very good.

Doctor

There’s a surgery three times a day, given by an Italian doctor lured here for a few weeks by the promise of a free holiday.  I used this service after cutting my finger-tips while grabbing some coral during a wild drift dive in Panettone Kandu, and having ear problems after catching a cold.

Gym

Air-conditioned, with a few bits of gym equipment.  Never saw anyone using it.

Shops

Wildly over-priced clothing (shorts, t-shirts etc) and the usual tourist souvenirs.

Tailor

Can run you up a shirt or a dress before you return home.

Deep Sea Fishing

Outside the atoll, to catch sailfish, tuna, marlin, etc.

Spa

Run by a couple of Indian ladies.  Massages, crystals, New-Age music, incense, etc.

Newspaper

There’s a ten-page news digest available at Reception every morning in English, Italian, French and German.

WiFi

Available for free in Reception.  Water villa guests have in-room WiFi.  Just before we left, we were told that there were some access-points available for the beach bungalows.  It's worth asking if you aren't offered one.

Food + drink

A good variety of food provided in the restaurant – you’re certain to find something you like.  There are individual starters in bowls showing much imagination on the part of Chef Giacomo.  There’s a variety of hot food in tureens, including a risotto, a filled pasta dish, various meat and vegetable dishes, and an oriental section with stir-fried stuff, all changed daily.  There were always three delicious curries: Fish, Dhal and Vegetable (the latter changing every day).  There are freshly-made pasta and pizza counters, cheese, ham, and sweet and ice-cream counters. 

The barbecue on the beach served freshly-grilled fish, including tuna steaks, at lunch and dinner, supplemented by occasional chicken, beef, and, on BBQ night, burgers and sausages.  We were told that tuna steaks cost about US$2 per kilo in the Maldives (compared to around US$35 in the UK)!
Tip: arrive on time for meals, as the food in the tureens can become a bit dry after a while. 

We felt that the bbq grill wasn’t as good as on Athuruga last year.  On Athuruga, you made your choice of fish, and it was cooked fresh there and then for you, with plenty of delicious marinade.  Ok, you had to wait three or four minutes, but it was worth it for the juicy, tender, moist result.  This year, the chef sometimes tried to ensure you didn’t have to wait by pre-cooking pieces of fish, so they tended to be drier and slightly over-cooked.  At other times there wasn’t any pre-cooked fish, meaning we had some really quite rare tuna.  He was also a bit stingy with the marinade.  We also once or twice had disappointingly tough, gristly beef and chicken fresh from the bbq.

Our waiter Harish soon learned our wine preferences and had a bottle of very acceptable Chilean Sauvignon Blanc cooling in an ice-bucket beside our table at dinner.

It was good to see head barmen Roshan and Kholil again – they both recognised us from previous visits.  They and their colleagues provided excellent service at the Main and Beach Bars.  With your pre-prandial evening drink you’ll be provided with plates of popcorn, peanuts and olives.  After dinner, Kholil would see us leaving the restaurant, and have our preferred post-prandial drink ready for us.

There was the usual live singer performing in the entertainment area between the main bar and the restaurant every lunch and dinnertime.  He specialised in ancient, corny, schmaltzy songs from the 40s and 50s.  The guests, like us, were mostly not in the first flush of youth, and when some of the silver-haired holidaymakers got up to waltz around the dance floor after dinner, it seemed just like being in an up-market old-people’s home.

 

Underwater

Snorkelling

I didn’t do much snorkelling this year – the first week the sea was a bit rough and the currents were strong.  I found that the excellent diving left me sated for the underwater sights.

Diving

Some superb diving this year, thanks to the IDive dive centre, who provided the usual very high level of service.  The morning dive boat leaves at 0930 for a one-tank dive, but this year they occasionally crammed two dives into the morning, although this meant coming all the way back to the island and then going out again to the second dive site.  There's also an afternoon dive, and occasionally a night dive. 

We had decided to try the high season in March, partly because in low season April/May/June on previous visits we’d always been told that “the manta season is over”.  Well, it was definitely not over in March this year.

IDive had heard of a superb manta ray cleaning station called Hukuru Elhi Faru, about an hour and a half away near Rangali Island, and I was lucky enough to be able to go there twice.  It’s an early start (0830), and a long boat ride, but worth it – we had several huge but graceful mantas circling us for most of the dive on both occasions.  The mantas came closer and closer as they became used to us.  They definitely seemed to be deliberately coming close enough for us to reach out and touch, or to swim above us and enjoy the tickly feel of our air bubbles on their bellies.  We’d been told not to touch them, but I saw a diver from a different dive boat reach out and stroke a manta as it swam up to him, and the ray didn’t seem to mind at all, and immediately came round for a second pass.  It's a very popular dive site - there were several other dive boats there on both occasions.

Stefano from IDive dashed about filming with a GoPro on both occasions, and produced very professional-looking videos of the dives in the afternoon for show after dinner the same day in the entertainment area.  I bought copies of both for US$40.

At Himandoo Tilla a few days later we also had four or five mantas continually passing and re-passing us as they swam up and down the reef feeding.

Other highlights this trip were a Leopard Shark at Hukuru Elhi Faru, two superb Tritos Chromodoris (renamed Goniobranchus tritos in 2012) nudibranchs at Kuda Miaru Tilla, and assorted White-tip and Grey reef sharks, Hawksbill turtles, octopuses, Napoleons, and morays of various species, in addition to millions of reef fish at other dive sites.

Thanks to Torsten, Stefano and Manuel for some really great dives.  My twelve dives cost us US$1120, or £700 after conversion, ie £58 per dive.  Pricey, but I have some great memories to take away.

 

Conclusion

We enjoyed our stay on Thudufushi.  The weather was on the whole good, with little rain.  Coming earlier in the year means more plankton and therefore slightly less visibility underwater, but the plankton is what the manta rays come for, so I had some great manta encounters.  Superb, if expensive, diving.  The quality of the food overall remains high, with one or two lapses.  The room is clean, spacious and comfortable, though a bit of TLC would be welcomed.  The staff are excellent.

Would we go again?  Probably, but we do like sister island Athuruga a few miles away, and will maybe return there next, once we’ve saved up enough pennies.

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