If not for a bit of luck in Abu Dhabi and a minor miracle in Doha, Qatar…we might have missed the Maldives entirely.
After a full day exploring Abu Dhabi, we arrived at the airport at 10:00pm excited for our redeye flight to the Maldives. We were flying Qatar Airways, which meant a quick connection in Doha to catch our longer flight to Malé, Maldives.
As we got in the line for check-in, I glanced at the departures board and noticed that practically every flight showed delayed or canceled. What!?? The weather outside seemed fine, we were in the middle of the desert after all, what could be the problem? As it turned out, the problem was fog. Enough fog to cause the virtual shutdown of the Abu Dhabi airport.
Having spent months researching flights to the Maldives and knowing how limited the options were, I had an immediate sense of dread. If this flight didn’t go, we were in big, big trouble. We’d be lucky to get to the Maldives at all, much less by the next day.
But my friend Susan remained positive, so I tried my best to share her optimism. As the departure time for our flight approached, I watched the screen like my life depended on it. More flights all around ours began to show “delayed.” Yet, somehow, ours remained “on time.”
I didn’t understand how we were escaping the fog fiasco, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Amazingly, right on time, we boarded our flight thinking we had dodged a major bullet.
We took off a bit late and I began to get nervous again since we only had a 50-minute connection in Doha. We finally touched down with only 15 minutes before our next flight was supposed to depart. By the time we got off the plane we were in full sprint mode.
An airline representative (who was probably wondering why there were crazed American girls running through his airport) pointed us to our gate and I have never run so fast while carrying luggage in my entire life. We made it to the gate and were literally the last to board before they closed the boarding door. Whew!!!!
After the stress of our connection, neither of us got any sleep on the 4 ½ hour flight to the Maldives capital of Malé. We touched down at 7:30am exhausted but just thankful to be there.
The Maldivian Customs Experience
And then just as we were beginning to relax, we had an immediate reality-check on the Maldivian culture at customs. Since Susan and I had met up in Paris a few days before, we decided to each buy a bottle of wine to take with us to the Maldives.
However, the Maldives is a 100% Muslim nation and, it turns out, bringing alcohol (as well as a number of other things) into the country is strictly prohibited. And make no mistake, their customs officers WILL find it.
Now, I’ve been to a number of Muslim countries before and never heard of a rule as strict as this so I was definitely taken aback. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled, but what can you do? You can’t exactly argue with these guys. I was just thankful the wine only cost a few euro. I saw people in the same line lose far more expensive duty-free items.
(Note to the Maldivian Tourism Bureau: this information should be front and center on your website. No one likes to start their vacation by having their personal property confiscated at the airport. I checked my guidebook after we left the airport and though this is mentioned near the back of the book, it also says that they will issue you a receipt for the items confiscated and return them to you upon departure. This is NOT the case. In 2011, this storage policy was discontinued due to lack of space at the airport.)
If you’re planning a trip to the Maldives, check the Maldives Customs Website for the official list of what is banned. If you are carrying any of the items listed in your luggage, trust me, they will find it.
Exhausted and wine-less, we cleared customs and were thankful to see our cheerful W Maldives representative eagerly awaiting us. Moments later we were relieved of our bags and whisked away to the nearby seaplane terminal where the W is one of only a few luxury hotels to maintain a lovely, private departure lounge.
We had the lounge all to ourselves and waited just a little under an hour for two other guests to arrive who were booked on our same seaplane. While we waited, we had snacks, checked email and completed the resort’s check-in process.
Once in the air, my mood immediately began to improve and suddenly I was wide awake. The seaplane flight was one of the things I was most looking forward to in the Maldives. I’d never been on a seaplane before and what a place for your first flight! Susan and I both grabbed window seats and settled in for the short 20-minute flight to the hotel.
The entire country of the Maldives consists of hundreds of tiny, idyllic islands scattered across an expanse of ocean. The Maldivian Archipelago of 26 atolls stretches over 500 miles from North to South and forms a natural barrier across the Indian Ocean. Its nearest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka.
The exact number of islands that make up the Maldives depends on the time of day you ask. Low tide adds to, while high tide subtracts from the country’s land mass. But within the chain of 26 atolls it is estimated that there are approximately 1,200 coral islands and hundreds of small sandbanks.
From the air, the vast blue ocean seems sprinkled with tiny blue circles of coral and sandy paradise. Some uninhabited, others home to small luxury resorts with thatched bungalows perched over turquoise lagoons.
Our flight made one stop to drop off a few passengers at a nearby island and once back in the air I spotted the magnificent W Retreat & Spa Maldives ahead almost immediately. Having studied the pictures on the website for months, I easily recognized the tiny spot of sand that held my long-awaited island nirvana.
The W Retreat & Spa Maldives
Our seaplane touched down with a salty splash and we taxied to the W’s dock. Awaiting our arrival, a team of W staffers clad in all-white, resort-casual attire, including my W Maldives Public Relations contact, Tara.
I’d been communicating with Tara via email for several weeks because the hotel was gracious enough to offer me a reduced media rate based on the popularity of my blog. As it turns out, Tara is from Atlanta! Small world, huh?
After a warm island welcome from the hotel staff, we were swept away on a golf cart for a quick tour of the island before being shown to the “Beach Oasis Retreat” that would be our home for the next two nights. (W Retreat properties don’t have rooms, you know, only retreats.) And what a retreat it was.
From the luxuriously-appointed, spacious interior to the decadent indoor/outdoor open-air bathroom, everything in this thatched-roof slice of heaven was first-class. But the real WOW-factor still awaited just outside the glass doors…a sundeck featuring a private pool, barbecue grill, lounge chairs and a circular daybed for lounging the day away in style.
And as if that wasn’t enough, just steps from the pool on the other side of swaying palms was our own private stretch of sand complete with umbrella, two more lounge chairs and direct access to the sparkling clear blue lagoon. WOW, indeed.
While the romance element intended in the design of these retreats was clearly lost on two single girls traveling together, the luxury element was most certainly not! All thoughts of sleep forgotten for the moment, Susan and I quickly settled into our new digs, changed into swimsuits, kicked off our shoes and set out to explore the island a bit.
The first thing we investigated was the W’s Sweet Spot. A signature of the W Retreat properties, Sweet Spots are located throughout the resort and provide free ice cream, beverages, ice and towels 24/7. No matter where your retreat is on the island, you can be sure there is a Sweet Spot lurking dangerously close by.
Thorough travel writer that I am, I selected an ice cream from the freezer quickly realizing that I should probably try each variety over the course of my stay, just to make sure I had covered all the bases. You see, it’s all about you, dear readers. And if there’s ice cream to be sampled, you can count on me.
With ice cream in hand, we continued on to check out the pool, main beach and a few of the restaurants and then stopped by the dive shop to collect our snorkel gear before heading back to the retreat (I love calling it that). Since the island is tiny, this took all of about an hour so we spent the afternoon snorkeling and relaxing on our own little beach before changing to meet Tara for sunset cocktails at “SIP” – the resort’s prime sunset spot.
In signature W-style, you don’t sit in chairs at Sip; you lounge on daybeds as you sip your cocktail and watch the sun set over paradise. Absolute bliss.
After sunset, I made plans with Tara to tour the resort’s Extreme WOW suite and get a peek at their other room type (Ocean Oasis Retreats) the next afternoon. Then we had a delicious dinner at the resort’s main restaurant, Kitchen, at a table literally in the pool. I now know that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve had lobster pasta with your feet in a pool.
Postcards from Paradise – Day 2
The next day, it was time to get out on the water for a little kayaking. In my diligent pre-trip research, I’d discovered that the W had see-through kayaks! I mean, seriously, see-through kayaks…how cool is that? I’d never seen one before, but the hotel tweeted me pictures and I was dying to get out on the water in one.
The W’s motto is “whatever, whenever” and when I went to the water sports bungalow on the beach, the see-through kayak was right there waiting for me. Since it was a 2-person kayak, Susan and I went out together and she was kind enough to do
most all of the paddling while I snapped away with my camera (I’m going to make a photographer’s assistant out of her, yet. Ha!).
It was so unique to be able to look directly through the kayak at the coral and fish below. I loved it!
After paddling around in that for a while (and seeing a bit more skin than we would have liked on fellow guests enjoying the “privacy” of their Ocean Oasis Retreat sundecks), we headed back to shore and I decided to try out one of the red kayaks on my own since red looks awesome in pictures and I am all about the pictures.
I was excited to discover that even the red kayaks had a clear panel on the bottom so they were almost as much fun as the entirely see-through kayaks. The rest of my day was spent lounging poolside and inspecting Sweet Spots for any offerings I may have missed.
Later that afternoon we met up with Tara to tour a couple of retreats. It was nice to see the Ocean Oasis Retreats which make up about half of the resort’s 78 retreats and are all located directly over the water. They were almost exactly the same as our retreat, though a bit smaller, but it’s hard to beat an overwater bungalow for spectacular accommodation.
Even so, we loved the fact that our retreat was right on the beach – the overwater retreats have direct access to the lagoon but aren’t at all near the beach. Honestly, it would be hard to go wrong with either. I think the bottom line is there are no bad retreats at the W Maldives.
Next, we were fortunate enough to be able to tour what the W calls its Extreme WOW villa, the 2-bedroom Ocean Haven. And I must say I was extremely wowed. In fact, when we walked in, the first word out of our mouths was, “WOW!” and I suspect this is not an unusual reaction.
The best feature of the ocean haven is the gigantic sundeck perched atop the lagoon. The pool is as large as one you might find serving an entire hotel and there’s lots of room for entertaining (I can only assume that anyone who can afford this kind of WOW does a lot of entertaining). Sufficiently wowed, we took a few pictures of ourselves on the deck, ended our tour and headed back to Sip for sunset.
After sunset, Tara treated us to an incredible dinner at their seafood restaurant, Fish. (Sidebar: Don’t you just love the clean simplicity of how W names things? They just tell you what it is, no fuss. Some of their boats are called Dream and Soul and the dive boat is simply called Under. The gym? Sweat. The Spa? Away.)
We met the chef and even got to inspect the lobster cage tethered to the restaurant’s dock. At Tara’s suggestion, we both had the lobster prepared Maldivian-style and it was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Ever.
Notes from Nirvana – Day 3
The next day, it was time to get in the seaplane and fly back to the main island of Malé for our boat transfer to the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort. I was sad to leave but content in the knowledge that my long-time dream to visit this resort was well-worth the obsession.
There are so many exceptional things to highlight but one of my favorite things was the castaway feel of the island. Though the resort was at almost 100% capacity while we were there, you would never have known it. The retreats are so divine that many guests choose to while away most of their days in privacy venturing out only for dinner.
As a result, the public areas of the island often feel deserted, like you’re vacationing on your own private island. There’s a sense of isolation and tranquility that oozes from every sandy corner, every swaying palm. Yet, when you need something, anything…the staff is there at a moment’s notice.
That was my second favorite thing about the W Maldives, the staff. W calls them “talent” and I can certainly see why. Due to the remoteness of the location, all staff live on property and you get the feel that they are welcoming you to their home when you arrive. You can feel their pride in the resort and the experience it provides.
From the moment I stepped off the seaplane, I was greeted by name by all the talent I encountered – even the ones I had never been introduced to. When we arrived at the seaplane lounge in Malé, our photo was snapped in front of the signature W outside the terminal. A sneaky, yet genius way for talent to recognize guests? Perhaps. The mark of a hotel that goes the extra mile to make guests feel welcome? Absolutely.
The W Retreat Maldives exceeded my every expectation. The Whatever, Whenever mantra quickly permeates your mindset while on the island. You truly begin to feel like there’s nothing you can’t have whenever you want it.
The only down-side to this extreme pampering? Eventually, you have to return to the real world where you are expected to wear shoes and free ice cream isn’t waiting for you around every corner. Real life can be so cruel.
The Sheraton Maldives
But alas, we’d been granted a reprieve…we had one more night of luxury remaining in the Maldives. This time at Starwood’s other Maldivian escape, the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa. After our remarkable experience at the W, I had tempered my expectations of the Sheraton.
I made no request for a media rate here, just used a Cash & Points award redemption and trusted my Starwood Platinum status to take care of the rest. But, thanks to the wonders of Twitter, their marketing folks knew I was coming and graciously rolled out the red carpet.
After a seamless transfer from seaplane to speedboat (the Sheraton is closer to the airport and doesn’t require a seaplane transfer), we stepped off the boat and were greeted enthusiastically by the General Manager, Ursula Schoefl and Marketing Communications Manager, Shumaes Resheed (who’d been answering Maldives-related questions for me on Twitter for weeks yet I had no idea he worked for the hotel until a few days before I arrived).
Once again we were whisked away on a golf cart, given a brief tour of the island and then driven straight to our villa to settle in.
Now, after two nights at the extraordinary W Maldives, I have to admit I didn’t have high expectations for our room at the Sheraton. I mean, I knew it would be nice (they always are) but I didn’t expect to be wowed. My apologies to the Sheraton Maldives for underestimating them, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Recently, the Sheraton added 20 new luxury villas and I was fortunate enough to be upgraded to one. The villa’s design was elegant and contemporary with clean lines and calming colors. It was similar in size to the W retreat and more importantly, it had a truly outstanding terrace outfitted with private infinity pool, lounge chairs, hammock and the tranquil sound of crashing waves. Once again, the first word that came to mind was, WOW.
I was so amazed by the terrace I almost missed the unbelievable welcome gift the hotel’s pastry chefs had created for me. Since the hotel had been following me on Twitter, they knew that I worked for ESPN. So, they created a beautifully-detailed football field cake as a welcome gift. Without a doubt the most thoughtful and creative welcome gift I’ve ever gotten from a hotel. They really went the extra mile and at that moment I realized I was dealing with a hotel that treats guest service not as a duty but as an art form.
After unpacking a little, we grabbed some lunch and spent a little time exploring the island. We wandered out to the boardwalks leading to the overwater bungalows – yes, the Sheraton Maldives has those, too! After touring the island for a bit, we decided that our own terrace was the best place to lounge the afternoon away.
That evening, we joined Ursula and Shumaes at the Anchorage Bar for sunset cocktails and to watch the nightly shark feeding. As the sun set in the distance, dozens of baby black-tip sharks and several rays began to swarm near the bar – clearly having this free food thing all figured out.
A hotel staffer began to toss food to the sharks and it was fascinating to watch them all dart around in search of a handout. Honestly, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. (Note to self: Sunset is not a good time for a swim near the bar.)
After sunset, Ursula and Shumaes were kind enough to treat us to dinner at the hotel’s signature restaurant Sea Salt. Again, I didn’t think anything could top the exquisite meal we’d had the night before at the W and again the Sheraton proved that I was underestimating them.
The chef had created a special tasting menu for us and every course was more divine than the last. Ursula was a delight to talk to and over the course of the evening it became obvious that she makes it her mission to ensure that each and every guest who steps off that speedboat has a wonderful experience. All in all, a terrific meal with equally terrific company.
The next day, it was finally time to depart this beautiful island nation. I’ve dreamed of visiting the Maldives for many years and I’m so thrilled to be able to say, with certainty, they are just as magnificent as the dreamy photos would have you believe. Quite literally, heaven on sand.
I can’t thank the folks at Starwood enough for taking such great care of me (as usual!). And a special thanks goes to fellow Atlanta-girl Tara at the W Maldives and to Ursula and Shumaes at the Sheraton. The three of you are shining examples of why Starwood has so many loyal fans. I truly appreciate the time you took to show me your properties and to ensure that my three nights in the Maldives were island paradise perfection.
This may have been my first visit to the Maldives, but you can bet an ice cream from the Sweet Spot that it won’t be my last.
Next stop, Sri Lanka!