BA don't fly to the Maldives in the low season nowadays, so we chose to go with Emirates (in cattle class, as usual). This means 1½ to 2 hours on the ground in Dubai airport and a change of plane. The Heathrow – Dubai leg was on an Airbus 380-800, and the Dubai – Male leg was a Boeing 777.
The Airbus is quiet (apart from the large number of screaming kids that we seemed to be surrounded by – thank goodness for noise-cancelling headphones). Emirates food was good (with metal cutlery!) and the cabin staff were attentive. On BA flights they serve drinks first, then the meal. On Emirates, they seemed to serve the meal first, and then drinks. If you would like a pre-dinner drink, you need to call one of the cabin staff.
The in-flight entertainment seemed good, with a huge number of movies to watch. The Airbus had external front-facing cameras, a neat idea, giving you some idea of the view from the flight deck.
Dubai Airport is vast, but well signposted. On the way out, we had to use the intra-terminal train, but not on the way back. The journey out went smoothly, but the journey back was a nightmare. The Male to Dubai leg on the Emirates 777 took place just a few days after another Emirates 777 crashed and burned at Dubai airport, which raised the heart rate a bit as we came in to land. Once safely down at Dubai, we transferred to the A380, but its cabin was baking hot when we entered it. It was 42°C outside, and about the same inside - the aircraft's air-conditioning seemed totally unable to cope. We eventually left the terminal and headed out towards the runway. Then we stopped, waited for an age, turned round and headed back to the terminal – it appeared there was a “medical situation”. Eventually three people left the plane – which meant that their baggage had to be extracted from the hold, which took nearly two hours while we sweltered in the heat. We finally took off two hours late, and within a few minutes the temperature reduced to a more pleasant level.
My tray table drooped alarmingly, threatening to dump my meal in my lap, so I found an empty seat with a good tray table at mealtimes. We were served exactly the same chicken meal on the two legs of the return journey. The Airbus is so vast, it took ages to get off back at Heathrow.
This is the first time we've flown with Emirates, and we had high expectations. Our verdict? Positive on the whole, but not as good as we'd hoped.
Caution: we used the services of off-airport “Purple Parking” to store our car for the two weeks we were away, as they were cheap. Our experience was not good, and we won't be using them again. Note that “Purple Parking Business” seems to be a different, and much better outfit – we've used them in the past and recommend them.
We'd booked a week in Diamonds Athuruga, followed by a week in neighbouring sister island Diamonds Thudufushi. We've stayed half-a-dozen times on each of these islands before, so please read our previous posts for more information about these little corners of paradise.
It's been three years since our last stay on Athuruga, but several of the staff remembered us, and came over to shake our hands and welcome us back. We were pleased to see J Ram and his crew again behind the bar, and to have the same smiley waiter Mohammed from 2013 – we were delighted to see he is now head waiter in the main restaurant and he again looked after us very well. Stefano, the Italian Resort Manager is back in charge and he too remembered us.
The only changes are a new small building on the beach near the main restaurant which houses both the new Teppenyaki restaurant and a new water-sports centre.
We'd asked for a particular Beach Bungalow in advance, and they'd kindly put us in it. However, there was much less beach outside than before, so we asked to change to room 31, with plenty of beach and shade, which the staff arranged the following day. It had recently been re-painted white, and quality control was clearly lacking when it was handed back by the decorators, as the ridiculously small room safe and one of the power sockets weren't working, and there were one or two other problems as well. These were all quickly sorted out, and we were then happy with the room.
There were thousands upon thousands of sardine-like baitfish in several large, tightly-packed schools in the shallows next to the beach, being hassled by baby blacktip reef sharks. We went for a stroll along the water villa jetty one day, and watched a large stingray hunting for food in just a metre of water below us right next to the jetty.
We'd arranged a dhoni boat transfer from Athuruga to neighbouring Thudufushi, just an hour away, and fortunately the weather was good. Again, we were welcomed back by several staff members who remembered us from last year.
The old beach bar has been converted into a new Teppenyaki restaurant, and a new beach bar created from some of the buildings behind Reception. The new beach bar also serves food, with excellent cheese and ham toasties, and rather sparsely-populated pizzas made completely from scratch. The beach bar has plenty of seats for admiring the sunsets, but only a few in the shade during the day. The new Teppenyaki restaurant didn't seem that popular – we only saw it used a couple of times during our week.
The main restaurant was being extended when we arrived to provide more table space – it re-opened the following day. There's no extra accommodation on the island, so the extra room is presumably either to provide bigger gaps between the tables, or to accommodate Water Villa guests who prefer to eat in the main restaurant.
As on Athuruga, we'd requested a particular room in advance, but again found that the beach had nearly disappeared in front of it. We didn't even bother to unpack, but went straight back to Reception to ask for a transfer to the excellent beach bungalow 31, which was quickly arranged. Once again the (this time, good big) room safe didn't work when we arrived, but this was because the wrong instruction card was next to it. With the right instruction card provided, we were ok.
Thudufushi have some spare Wi-Fi routers (though they don't publicise this), and if there's one spare, and if you smile nicely enough, they'll put one in your room. We managed to get one, which definitely improved internet access, as you're not sharing the Wi-Fi bandwidth with lots of other people as you do in Reception or the bar. It was certainly much better for Skype voice calls back home.
Food + Drink
The food at both Athuruga and Thudufushi was good. There are imaginative and tasty starters, a variety of dishes in tureens, salads, curries, freshly-cooked fish on the bbq grill, pizzas, pasta, sweets, ice creams and more. There is plenty of choice – you are bound to find something you like.
Athuruga, unlike Thudufushi, didn't stock our favoured Chilean Sauvignon blanc wine, but served a very acceptable Soave instead.
Because the main restaurant at Thudufushi has been expanded, there is no longer room on the beach at the front for the bbq grill, which has been moved to the garden area behind the restaurant. Unfortunately, nobody has told Aaron, the resident heron, who was unable to find it to cadge fishy titbits from the bbq chef as usual. Every lunchtime he strode up and down the beach in front of the restaurant, continually returning to the space where the bbq used to be, with a puzzled and increasingly hungry look on his face. Some guests took pity and threw him bits of raw fish that they'd cadged from the bbq chef. Sara, the Resort Manager, felt that Aaron will find the bbq eventually.
We tried the new Teppenyaki restaurant at Athuruga, which is all about the show rather than the food, as the chef cooks stuff on the griddle in front of you. We've attended this sort of thing before in the Caribbean – the chef is supposed to perform tricks with the food and the utensils, crack jokes, clown about, and keep up a running commentary on what he's cooking – that's the entertainment. Chef Mahinder presided, but didn't really enter into the spirit of it, and when he tried juggling a couple of spatulas, he dropped one. He hardly said a word – he seemed a bit embarrassed by it all. We didn't try it at Thudufushi.
The really bad news is that the house reef at Athuruga is completely dead, and Thudufushi's isn't much better. Where, just six months ago, there were bright, healthy, colourful corals, all is now dull, grey, colourless, and covered with a thin layer of sand. It broke my heart to see it, as Athuruga's house reef was the finest we'd seen in the Maldives – snorkelling over it was one of the highlights of previous visits. There are still plenty of fish, but for example the parrotfish scrape off bits of live coral and digest the organic material. Since there is no longer any organic material left, the parrotfish will have to go elsewhere to find less affected coral.
The cause is a combination of some stress from coral bleaching (caused by warmer than usual ocean currents brought by El Niňo), and at Athuruga a massive explosion in the population of the highly-damaging Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS).
There's not much that can be done about El Niňo, but the resorts are fighting back against the COTS by either physically removing them from the reef and destroying them, or injecting them with vinegar in situ which apparently kills them. We were told that they've pulled 15,000 COTS out of the house reef at Athuruga in just the last few months, but more keep coming. The dive teams, the watersports staff, even the waiters and other local staff all join in the COTS hunts on the reef.
Why so many COTS? We were told by Athuruga's resident marine biologist that its principal predator in the Maldives is the Triton sea-snail, which unfortunately has a huge, brightly coloured, highly attractive snail shell. The Tritons are therefore hunted for their decorative shell. Fewer Tritons means more COTS. In addition, it seems that the COTS population undergoes a massive increase every couple of decades, although it's not fully understood why. Unfortunately, if you attack a COTS, even if you just turn it over onto its back, it will, during the spawning season, eject millions of eggs, many of which will grow to replace a thousand times over the one you've attacked. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is also under COTS attack, and even more exotic measures are being taken there – the Aussies have invented an autonomous underwater rover which cruises around, identifies COTS and injects them with something to kill them. They definitely need one at Athuruga.
Yet more great dives with the IDive dive team (they're also on Facebook) on both islands. The standard of service just keeps getting better. This time, I wasn't even allowed to walk back to my place on the boat after the dive – the boat crew insisted I sit down on the bench next to the ladder so that they could take my tank off and allow me to walk back to my crate unburdened. Once or twice they even pulled my weight belt off me as well.
There was plenty of evidence of the 2016 coral bleaching event, with scattered bleached white patches to be seen on every dive, though fortunately the great majority of the coral has survived. It was also plain that every reef we visited is suffering from the COTS plague, though not as badly as at Athuruga. On a couple of dives we were accompanied by one of the watersports staff wielding a gun to inject ordinary vinegar into the COTS, which apparently kills them without harming the rest of the reef.
Where the reefs are unaffected by bleaching or COTS, the hard and soft corals are still colourful and healthy, and a pleasure to view.
The dive sites I visited this time were: Thudufushi Thila (twice), Himandhoo Thila (twice), Himandhoo Kandu, Fesdhoo Wreck, Shark Thila, Maavaru Corner (twice), Moofushi Kandu and Kuda Miaru Thila.
Highlights this year were:
- A Stonefish and a Reef Manta at Kuda Miaru Thila (I wasn't expecting to see any mantas at all at this time of year, so this was a real bonus)
- A mass of nudibranch eggs at Himandhoo Thila
- Being the only guest on the boat (accompanied by three boat crew and two instructors!), at Thudufushi Thila
- A baby Clown triggerfish and a good view of a Mantis shrimp at Fesdhoo Wreck
- Beautiful, colourful, healthy soft corals at Thudufushi Thila
- Some unconcerned turtles, big Napoleons, sharks, eagle rays and stingrays, several different species of Nudibranchs, lobsters, and lots of reef fish of all sizes, shapes and colours at various dive sites.
Check out the "Photos" section below for lots of images of these and other stuff.
Thanks to Luca D, Luca P, Laura, Patrick, Chris, Antonio, Govinda, and the rest of the IDive crews at both Athuruga and Thudufushi. My 11 dives cost US$1077.12, which converted at 1.302 to GBP £827, ie £75 per dive. Even more expensive this time as the pound had dropped against the US dollar after the Brexit vote.
Each page contains twelve to fifteen pictures totalling approx four MB per page.
Another great holiday at our favourite Maldivian resorts. Would we go again? Already planning it…