For about a decade, I’ve been a loyal member of Club Mahindra and RCI, believing fervently that until my child turned 18, timeshares were the safest, most family-friendly option for a single mom vacationing with a small child.
This was actually true to some extent. There are many benefits to timeshares, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.
Now, the Maldives was on my bucket list for a number of years, but I never even imagined I could go there. It was a luxury and honeymoon destination that, I thought, would always be out of reach.
In my mind, such exotic places were reserved for celebrities like the Bachchans and very rich tourists. So when RCI announced that it had included the Maldives in its roster, I couldn’t contain my excitement at the chance to go.
We booked our trip through a friendly, Sri-Lankan company called Southern Hospitality, that RCI had partnered with. I decided to opt for the full-board (three meals a day) package and paid for our board plus sea-plane journey before we left.
In early December 2017, we boarded our Srilankan Airlines flight at Mumbai and took our first steps outside India via Colombo to Male. Since the Maldives is one of the countries where Indians get a visa on arrival, the immigration process was a breeze.
At Male, our tourist operator transferred us to the TransMaldivian Airlines (TMA) Terminal. Unfortunately, Cyclone Ockhi decided to make landfall just then, bringing heavy showers, so all flights were cancelled due to bad weather.
This led to quite a bit of chaos at the TMA terminal. The passengers who had booked resorts not too far from Male decided to proceed there by boat, while many had not yet realised that they were not going anywhere.
I knew that once people realised we were spending the night in Male, the hotels would be packed to the rafters with stranded passengers. I had to act quickly if we were to find a place to stay, and asked our tour operator to book us a hotel room pronto. It took us a short ferry ride to get there.
Male did not impress me at all. There was no feeling of being in a foreign country. It reminded me too much of Mumbai, and as we passed a Tata Housing project, it felt just like another suburb of Andheri. Cities can be dreary, soulless places, especially ones that are poorly planned.
As the capital of an archipelago, I found Male a cramped and crowded place. Stepping through lanes too tiny for even a car to pass, we reached the Octave Hotel, where we retired for the night. I prayed that the weather would improve the next morning if only so we could get out of the city.
I was weary and my feet were cramping up. I soaked them in hot water for some relief. The staff at the Octave Hotel were courteous and helpful, and our tour operator made sure we were well-taken care of. But I suspect, at this stage, I would have found any old hotel a blessing.
The room service had some excellent options, and, hungry from our long day, where the only thing we’d eaten were bland-tasting sandwiches in the TMA lounge, I ordered some jumbo prawns before bed.
The concierge (poor man) thought I’d ordered two plates and was dismayed when I had to ask him to take one back, but he took it back and didn’t charge me for it, which I was grateful for.
Whether I was positively ravenous, or because the prawns were so fresh, I’ll never know, but those jumbo prawns were the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life. I still salivate every time I think of them.
The weather had vastly improved the next morning, but on these tiny islands, squalls can descend pretty quickly. Eager to get going, we had a very early breakfast, thanks to the obliging hotel chef, and left for the airport terminal. It wasn’t long before we managed to take off to our destination – Medhufushi Island Resort.
The 45-minute sea-plane journey, a first for us, was a bit stomach-churning, but the sight of the numerous little coral atolls from the air was captivating. In my mind, the melodious voice of Harry Belafonte was singing “Island In The Sun” while below, the sun sparkled and glinted on the blue-green sea.
Medhufushi Island Resort is truly a tropical paradise – one of those picture-perfect little islands that you see in those glossy travel magazines and yearn to visit. I was thrilled to find that, in such a beautiful location, you can get really good photos with just a mobile phone. #nofilter required. 🙂
We were booked into an over-water villa, one of the little rooms on stilts that fan out into the sea. The guest relations manager, Kishore, was a clever young man from Bangalore.
He was quick to inform us that he’d given us the sunset villas that face the west, which was better than the sunrise villas. Those, he said, are allocated to large families, so that they don’t fight among themselves over who’s got the better villa.
Stepping out into the balcony of our water-villa, the first thing that hit me was the breeze and the sight of miles and miles of blue-green waves in every direction. It was unreal. It felt like we’d entered a very rarefied realm that we could lose ourselves in.
It’s true what they say about the beach being good for your health. The sight of all that water was unimaginably soothing and calming.
All I wanted to do was to spend as much time as possible gazing at the waves, listening to the ocean, absorbing it all so I could see it in my mind’s eye anytime I wanted. Of course, nowadays you have Instagram for that. 😉
The first day we spent on the island was relatively dry, with the cyclone seeming to have taken a hiatus. We spent most of the day exploring the sandy beach, familiarising ourselves with the layout of the resort, and savouring the excellent buffet.
Maldivians make a living through fishing and tourism. Most of the staff in the resort are expats from Bangladesh and the chefs are very good with fish preparations.
The fish and vegetarian curries were excellent as was the Continental food. The sushi and sashimi were not as tasty. But when you’re spoilt for choice, like we were, you can’t really complain.
On impulse (and thanks to the sales skills of the talented Mr Kishore), I decided to upgrade us to the all-inclusive package – which included unlimited drinks, two bottles of drinking water a day, and a couple of free excursions. What’s a holiday on the beach without a few Margheritas?
Because Medhufushi Island Resort is just that – an island – fresh water is scarce. The resort has a desalination unit so that they can create the copious amounts of fresh water their guests require.
Being an eco-conscious tourist, I asked Mr Kishore how the (not inconsiderable) garbage generated on the resort was dealt with. He said it was sent to another island, where part of it is incinerated and the rest is exported for recycling. Hmm, that didn’t sound very eco-friendly.
I could see many opportunities for them to just create less garbage in the first place, especially in the use of plastic straws and plastic bags in the gift shop. But luxury resorts like these are less likely to change their wasteful ways than those that promote themselves as eco-friendly.
Here are some observations and travel tips if you plan a trip to the Maldives:
1. The Maldives is a Muslim country.
While Maldivians prefer that you dress conservatively, especially in Male, on the island resorts all bets are off. There are even a few adult-only resorts I read about in the flight magazine on the way over. I tend to prefer the family-friendly ones that RCI is well-known for.
Some things, like idols and pork, are prohibited here. The bacon is made with beef. (No, I didn’t try it. I don’t eat beef or pork).
2. American currency is good here.
While the local currency (the Maldivian rufiyaa) is accepted, US dollars are preferred for most purchases. All prices are quoted in USD. Indian rupees are not accepted, although Indian debit cards are.
3. The Maldivian capital, Malé, is like a suburb of Mumbai.
Despite the brochures, don’t fall for the Malé tour spiel. It’s like a section of Andheri and even smaller. If we weren’t stranded by bad weather, we’d have avoided it altogether.
That said, it depends on your personal preferences. If you like touring cities and soaking in the local culture, by all means, explore Malé. I, however, loathe cities and long to be as far away from them as possible. On vacation, at least.
4. If you’re newly married, this is Heaven.
It’s worth noting how popular the Maldives is with newly-weds and honeymooners. We saw quite a few beautiful brides posing for photo-ops in their wedding regalia.
Also, you’ll see a number of these little mementoes that couples like to leave behind. Very cute!
5. So. Many. Chinese. People.
The Maldives seems to be very popular with Chinese tourists. There were so many of them, mostly newly-weds, posing in their wedding regalia.
As tourists, they are very friendly and well-behaved people. We even made friends with a very nice guy called Nate, who spoke a little English. Most don’t speak any English, but I did see one of them using a translation app to talk to their guide at the airport.
6. The best time to visit the Maldives.
According to the brochures, it’s from December to April. Barring a cyclone or two (we went in early December), the climate should be beautiful. Cyclone Ockhi made landfall while we were on the island, giving us a couple of days of torrential rains.
When not cloudy and windy, it’s hot and humid, rather like Mumbai weather. Carry plenty of sunblock and apply it liberally, especially if, like me, you tend to get sunburnt.
7. It’s a haven for snorkelers and divers.
Despite the widespread coral bleaching due to the El Nino event in 1998, the Maldives is still a snorkelers and diver’s paradise. There are many spots where you can watch amazing sea life in the crystal-clear waters. We saw this sting ray close to our room.
Because the house reef was bleached in the El Nino event, it wasn’t exactly teeming with sea life. So they compensate you with free snorkelling trips to a thriving and colourful coral reef a short boat ride away.
We went snorkelling, line fishing and saw glowing flying fish and spots of bioluminescence in the water (a bit reminiscent of this scene from Life of Pi). Apparently, the Maldives is one of the best places to spot bioluminescence on the planet.
If you catch fish during your line fishing trip, the chef will cook it according to your preference. We caught a grouper and red snapper, so the cook grilled it up for us with some garlic butter. For Indians like us, used to spicier fare, it turned out to be a bit bland.
8. Carry a good camera.
The Maldives is so beautiful that even a decent mobile phone will give you great photos like it did for me. Unfortunately, I could not take underwater and low-light/night photos with my mobile phone so it might be worth carrying a better camera for that.
Many of the Chinese tourists had little waterproof mobile pouch covers into which they put their mobile phones for underwater photos. I truly regretted not buying one before I came. Ah well, live and learn.
9. Be a responsible tourist.
The Maldives is an eco-sensitive zone, and sadly, not immune to the deluge of plastic that’s destroying our oceans. We did see a considerable amount of plastic waste washed up on the beach.
Please don’t add to it by throwing garbage in the water, or on the beach, where it can wash out to sea. You’ll end up harming sea life and making these beautiful islands less attractive. Check out GoNomad’s recommendations for eco-friendly travel in the Maldives.
I do hope you enjoy your trip to the Maldives. Yes, you’ll be sad to leave, but who can complain when you have a departure lounge that looks like this. 🙂
What’s the cost of travel to the Maldives from India?
It depends. Our Maldives trip cost us around INR 2.5 lakhs (US$4000) all-inclusive. This was not exactly cheap, but thanks to RCI, we did get to stay in an over-water villa for a week at a very nominal cost. In comparison, if you book a water villa through Booking.com , it can cost over US$500 a day.
The air-fare, sea-plane and the food package were our most expensive purchases, but it was my first foreign trip with my child and I wanted us to have an incredible experience. It turned out to be a dream vacation and it’s one destination that I wouldn’t mind visiting again and again.
Since I returned, I’ve been researching ways to do the Maldives even cheaper. Lauren Juliff has an excellent guide on travelling to the Maldives on a budget. Check it out if you’re willing to forego the water villa experience (which I’ll remember for a lifetime).
One perk I really enjoyed (thanks to my HDFC Bank Regalia Card), during both my departure from Mumbai and my arrival back in India, was my Priority Pass™ Airport Lounge Membership.
Thanks to the Priority Pass™ card, we got to wait in this really comfortable lounge after the immigration check at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, where we were entitled to free meals and even alcohol (yes, you can get free booze, people).
On the way back, at Velana International Airport in Male, I was gloomily resigned to spending a few hours in the hot, muggy, outdoor waiting area, until I spotted an air-conditioned lounge and asked the lady at the desk if my Priority Pass™ card was accepted there. It was. Oh, joy! 🙂
We found we were entitled to free drinks, cookies, luggage storage, one hour of Wifi, and even a shower if I wanted one. I declined the shower but opted for the drinks, cookies, Wifi and luggage storage. It made the wait so much more bearable.
According to their website, the Priority Pass Airport Lounge Membership is the “largest and most prestigious independent airport VIP Lounge access program in the world with the objective of providing frequent travellers with airport lounge access, irrespective of their class of travel, airline or existing membership in an airline loyalty program.”
To avail of it, you can either get a credit card that gives you a complimentary membership, or just signup for the program here. Till the 30th of October 2018, Priority Pass is has allowed me to share an exclusive code “HKAFFQ125” that gives you up to 25% off membership.
Check out the video below with some of our favourite moments from our trip.
All images and videos are © Priya Florence Shah