Holiday trip review and report about our two-week stay in December 2009 at Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo resort in the Maldives.
Our eleventh visit to the Maldives, booked via First Choice. The usual Sunday-evening departure from Gatwick, on a Thomson flight. Wave your diver certification card at the check-in person to get an extra 5kg baggage allowance. You might need to get them to check this - ours didn't seem to know about it.
The Thomson plane turned out to be a bit of a dog. The overhead reading lights started switching themselves off and on at random, while the crew were continually rebooting the entertainment system, as there was evidently something wrong with it. But the first inkling that something was seriously wrong was when we spotted that we were flying in circles over the Channel. The pilot eventually admitted that his airspeed indicator had packed up, and said that we'd have to return to Gatwick for engineer attention. Since he had no speedometer, the pilot landed (in the dark) at high speed, which made for a heavy landing. Several people got off the plane at this point.
We eventually took off again about three hours late, and after a while the lights seemed to settle down a bit, and we could start to use the entertainment system - which turned out to be rubbish. The movies & TV/radio shows were of little interest, and we discovered that you had to pay £5 extra to see the best three movies, which was a bit of a nerve.
Not a good experience, Thomson.
Once at Male after the 11 hour flight, we were quickly collected by the First Choice rep, and checked in for our 25-minute seaplane transfer to Ellaidhoo Island (we'd had to pay £65pp extra for this, as the brochure price unusually and inexplicably only included transfer by boat). They'd clearly been waiting for our delayed flight, as the seaplane flight left almost immediately - on previous visits we've sometimes had to wait for an hour or two.
Good weather meant great views of the coral reefs and islands (have your camera ready, as you don't have access to your hand baggage during the flight). The usual 5 minute transfer by dhoni (local boat) from the seaplane pontoon to the island's jetty, a welcome fruit drink and some form-filling in Reception, and we were shown to our room. Have some dollar bills ready to tip the staff who carry your bags.
An elliptical island about 400m across, Ellaidhoo has 112 rooms in mostly single-storey buildings spread around the perimeter of the island. We'd paid a bit extra for a detached Beach Front bungalow, and had specifically asked for one on the only bit of proper beach. The island is completely surrounded by concrete breakwaters to try and control erosion. While this is somewhat unsightly, the alternative is a disappearing island. Within this outer ring of breakwaters, there is an inner concrete retaining wall around most of the island. This means that most people have a few meters of sand in front of their room, then this concrete wall, and a step down onto sand or coral usually covered by the sea at high tide.
Rooms 301 to 311 are the exception - there is no inner concrete retaining wall in front of them, so you can walk straight off your room's veranda, under the shady trees, onto a proper beach which runs the 60 meters or so to the outer breakwaters. There are some sunshades set up on this bit of beach. We felt that these rooms are the best, as they have a proper beach, are situated between the jetty/dive centre and the pool bar/restaurant, and are also close to Reception, the main bar and the main restaurant. We'd asked for one of these rooms, and were happy to be allocated room 304. Here is a map of the island (PDF - opens in a new window or tab) showing the location of our room. You'll need to zoom in to read the room numbers.
There are 24 newly constructed, semi-detached water bungalows built on stilts over the water beside the pool bar. These cost quite a bit extra. Many people like the romantic appeal of these, but we prefer to be on the beach.
A tiny island near the seaplane pontoon has a large telecom tower on it, and several biggish boats drawn up out of the water.
The island's interior is well-wooded, and the gardeners have planted flowers and shrubs here and there to brighten the place up. There are a couple of fountains and even a grassy lawn (normally unheard of in the Maldives). There's a spa, a gym and a small football field.
We counted at least a dozen species of birds - some of them numerous, such as the Indian Hill Mynahs. This is unusual for a resort island - many of them have no birds at all.
There's Wi-Fi internet access available in Reception and the pool bar at a cost of just USD3 for 2 hours. We used SkypeOut on our netbook to make phone calls back to the UK for about one-hundredth the price that Vodafone charge. Also in Reception are a couple of shops selling pricey touristy stuff.
We went in early December, when the resort was about two-thirds full. It's more expensive in peak time (Jan-Mar) when the weather is more settled, but we were very lucky - we only had a couple of overcast days, and only a few rain showers, quickly over. For four or five days during the middle of the fortnight the wind died away almost completely, leaving the sea flat calm - marvellous for snorkelling and you can also see dolphins more easily (I saw a few from the dive boat on several occasions).
Room 304 was a good big room with a comfortable king-size bed, a reasonable amount of hanging space in the wardrobe, plenty of drawer space, a ceiling fan, aircon and a TV (with AV inputs at the back, so you can plug your mp3 player in) with BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera plus lots of other non-English stations. There's a good-sized room safe in the wardrobe. Unusually, there are UK-style 13A sockets, and there were a couple free to recharge stuff. There's a place to store your cases, a separate divan bed, a writing desk, a mirror and a couple of chairs.
Some people have said that the rooms are too dark - we'd have preferred them to be a bit brighter, too, but we managed.
At the back is the very large open-air bathroom - though the single washbasin, loo and shower are all under cover. On our first morning we were horrified to see teeth marks in the soap, so we kept the soap covered for the rest of the holiday. Others have also reported this - we twice saw tree rats during our fortnight, once at each of the bars. These aren't the brown rats you sometimes see in the UK - they have much longer hind legs, and are probably the local equivalent of squirrels. Nevertheless, be prepared and use a covered soap dish.
Out front on our covered deck was a rather uncomfortable double seat, a shower rose for washing sand off your feet before entering your room, and then we stepped straight off our deck onto the sand, walked a few yards under some trees (plenty of shade), out onto the coral-sand beach, where there are plenty of sunbeds. There are also a few sunshades - you'll have to get up before the Germans to bag one of these with your beach towel (fresh ones supplied daily by your room boy).
Main Restaurant and Bar
Most people eat in the main restaurant, a large covered area with a buffet area at the back. You keep the same table and waiter for your fortnight. Your waiter will usually be keen to take your drinks order - he'll be hoping for a good tip at the end of your holiday.
There was a good variety of dishes available, though in quite small quantities, so you sometimes found there was none left. The salad bar had a reasonable variety of stuff. The quality of the cooked food was pretty average, though. You'd think that Maldivians would know how to grill fish, but it always seemed to be dry, tough and overcooked. The main reason for this is that they wouldn't cook the fish to order - they'd do a batch and then leave them on the edge of the griddle until a customer happened along. The chicken always seemed to be small wings full of bones. For breakfast they had back bacon one day and sausages the next - but the sausage I had was disgusting, oozing white liquid when I cut into it. The curries were nice, and so were the freshly cooked dishes from the pasta station. The sweet section had a good variety of tempting stuff.
Some people have reported that the main restaurant is swelteringly hot - but we were ok seated near the entrance and under a ceiling fan. It may well have been hotter near the kitchens and buffet area at the back.
Next to the main restaurant is the main bar, which has a large sunny deck with plenty of tables and chairs overlooking the sea and the inner lagoon where they feed stingrays every evening before sunset. Nissanka, the bar manager, and his team were very attentive. There's good-quality draught beer and other drinks, even if you've never heard of the brands, and they are generous with the measures. The all-inclusive deal covers a reasonable selection of basic drinks, eg sherry, martini etc as well as basic gin, rum, vodka, brandy and scotch drinks with a mixer. There are some all-inclusive cocktails as well, and these are worth exploring. There's tea and coffee available, and snacks (sandwiches) are served mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They don't like you to take drinks away from the bar, eg to the beach or back to your room, which is annoying.
There's also a big covered bar area which we fortunately did not need to use as it hardly rained at all during our fortnight.
There's a coffee shop between the main bar and the main restaurant, with a table footy machine outside, but we didn't use this.
Pool Restaurant and Bar
Next to the Water Village bungalows there is a pool, a bar and a restaurant. These are for the use of the water bungalow denizens, but us plebs in beach bungalows are allowed to use the pool bar. There's a large area of decking around the pool, but not much shade. The pool bar is much smaller than the main bar, and the measures aren't as generous. The tables at the pool restaurant are on the decking, but under shade.
We were told by Disi, the Sri Lankan manager of the pool bar, that we could ask at Reception if we could have dinner free at the pool restaurant, which we did, and we were impressed by the quality of the food. There isn't as much choice as at the main restaurant, but the quality of the cooked food is streets ahead. For example, there are covered trays of uncooked meats and fish - you fork up some nice-looking bits onto a plate and hand it over to the chefs behind the counter, and they cook it for you on the spot. Ok, you have to wait a few minutes, but that's not so hard if you end up with good, freshly cooked food. And the raw ingredients are better, too - the chicken is all breast meat rather than bony wing, and so on. For breakfast, there's back bacon every day, and, again, it's cooked fresh for you. There's also a selection of curries, meat dishes and other stuff. We also enjoyed the cheese and biscuits.
We ended up asking Reception if we could eat at the pool restaurant for all our meals for the rest of our holiday, and were delighted when they agreed. The fact that the water village was less than half-full might have had something to do with it - at peak times (Jan - Mar) we probably would have been told to hop it.
So we had the best of both worlds - a beautiful sandy beach outside our bungalow, and the good-quality food normally reserved for the water bungalow types. We tended to use the main bar, as there was more room and more atmosphere, as well as more generous measures.
Ellaidhoo's house reef is very good indeed. The corals are unspoiled, and there's plenty of undersea life - not just countless reef fish, but turtles, rays, morays and sharks. People told us they'd even seen dolphins and octopus while snorkelling. The best bit is apparently the eastern section between rooms 207 and 225, though it's possible to snorkel all the way round if you're energetic.
The drawbacks are that at low tide it's not possible to get out to the drop-off everywhere, and there can be a fair old current whipping past the island at certain states of the tide. Choose the right time (there are tide tables at the dive centre, and they'll happily tell you what tide state to aim for), and you can enjoy slack water for your snorkelling expedition.
I enjoyed my diving with "Dive and Sail" at Ellaidhoo. The staff (a mixture of German and Maldivian) are very professional and experienced, and the kit for hire is good quality. They spend an hour or so with you explaining the house rules and procedures, fitting you out with any kit you need, and they allocate you a numbered crate and hangers for your BCD and wetsuit. They make you do a check dive on the house reef first (you have to pay for this), and they insist you do the usual exercises first (mask clearing, regulator recovery, buddy breathing etc). The house reef is definitely worth a dive anyway, so it's not a waste - for example, within the first five minutes, we'd spotted a big stingray asleep under an overhang, and then an eagle ray flew leisurely past us.
There's an unlimited shore dive package if this attracts you, but I went for the boat dives. The good news is that they do a two-tank morning dive leaving at 0830, which means you can do lots of dives, be back in time for lunch, and then spend the afternoon on the beach and take advantage of the all-inclusive deal at the bar. There's also an afternoon one-tank dive, and once or twice a week there's an all-day trip (three dives) and night dives.
Nitrox is free for qualified divers.
You have to do quite a lot of work for yourself. You have to test your nitrox tanks' oxygen percentage the evening before your morning dive (filling in forms and labels), and put them, together with your crate containing your BCD, reg, weights, wetsuit, etc at a designated spot ready for the boat boys to load onto the boat. After the dive, you have to rinse off your kit and hang it up. There are two large rinse tanks for BCDs, wetsuits etc, and a smaller tank for cameras and regs. At other resorts, all this work is done for you - but you pay more. The boat boys and dive centre staff are nevertheless very attentive and helpful.
I did 14 boat dives in addition to the check dive, and, with BCD and regulator hire, my dives cost me USD 868.50, ie about GBP 38 per dive at end-2009 exchange rates.
Highlights this trip were a manta at Orimas Thila, an octopus at Medu Thila, 2 big nurse sharks asleep at the back of a cave at Ellaidhoo Thila, an electric ray at Kuda Thila, a black Frogfish at Kanduludhoo Thila, and lots of sharks and rays on practically every dive. Also lots of scorpionfish and nudibranchs everywhere, and fantastic reeftops with millions of reef fish and great corals at Maaya Thila, Bathaala Thila, Fish Head and elsewhere. I also realised that I'd dived with one of the Maldivian instructors (Ali Shareef) twice before - on MV Ocean Paradise in 1998, and at Reethi Beach in Baa Atoll in 2008!
Each page contains a dozen or so photos, totalling between 1 Mb and 3Mb per page.
- Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo Island (1.4Mb)
- Our room (1.0Mb)
- Food, drink and the Water Village (2.1Mb)
- Diving 1 (2.7Mb) - the dive centre, Fesdu wreck and an octopus
- Diving 2 (2.5Mb) - fish in all shapes, colours and sizes
- Diving 3 (1Mb) - Sharks and Rays
- Diving 4 (3Mb) - morays, lionfish, nudibranchs and a flatworm
- Diving 5 (2.5MB) - scorpionfish and a turtle
- Diving 6 (3.1Mb) - Starfish and reeftop fish
- Diving 7 (2.5Mb) - reeftops and reeftop fish
Ellaidhoo is a very pleasant island to stay on. There is a fairly restricted range of good-quality, generous, all-inclusive drinks, and they don't like you to take drinks away from the bar. The staff were without exception smiling and attentive. We landed on our feet by getting a room on the best bit of beach and managing to eat at the pool restaurant. The food at the main restaurant was pretty average. The snorkelling and diving were very good.
Would we go again? Quite possibly, if we found a good deal, but there are so many other Maldivian islands to see...