Olivia Palamountain leaves the UK (for business purposes) to explore the Sun Siyam portfolio of island resorts in the Maldives, and ends up taking an extended workation.
It’s March 2021 and I’m cruising over the Maldives in a sea plane. An incredible experience at the best of times, this journey is made even more extraordinary because we’re in the grip of the pandemic and travel from the UK is banned.
Considering the severity of the government’s stance on travel, I’m not quite sure how I managed to make it this far but I know that there was blood, sweat and tears involved – as well as my fair share of luck. Travel journalists don’t always feel like VIPs but with business travel one of few permissible reasons to leave the country, I guess you could say this was our chance to shine.
Due to the naturally distanced nature of these islands, the Maldivian government had – at that point – managed to contain the virus wherever it sprung up, ensuring that the destination remained open to the tourists allowed to visit.
For UK citizens intent on travelling when borders are expected to open on May 17, it was hoped that this agile response would guarantee the the Maldives retained its place on the “green list”.However, as reported by the BBC, from 4am BST on May 12, the Maldives will be added to England’s “red list”, meaning that anyone entering the UK from these islands will have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days on their return.
The news will come as something of a double blow for a nation built on welcoming visitors to paradise and for whom the UK is a key market. Why? According to tourism minister Abdulla Mausoom, and as reported by CNBC, the Maldives was in the process of gearing up to offer visitors vaccinations on arrival.
But while the status of this destination may have changed in the eyes of UK law (for now), the beauty of the Maldives has not.
A pearl necklace of some 2,000 islands strung through the Indian Ocean, this archipelago has long been the luxury traveller’s destination of choice and it’s from the air that the atolls reveal themselves best.
Like a series of atomic explosions, islands burst out of the deep blue like batik on indigo silk, surrounded by halos of dip-dye turquoise and ringed by coral reef.
Some appear uninhabited, others wear tails of wooden villas that snake into the sea – the telltale giveaway of a Maldivian resort.
For a girl that’s always maintained she wasn’t interested in visiting the Maldives (“too chi chi”…”too obvious”…”too many couples”), I’m pretty excited. I was only going to stay a few days, but when I found out that I would have to quarantine in a UK airport hotel as a consequence of having flown with Qatar Airways via Qatar (at that point on the “red list”), I decided to stay longer and work from afar, flying back direct with British Airways.
As remote as it is ravishing, the isolation of the Maldives only serves to enhance its allure – when local transport of choice is a seaplane you know you’re somewhere special. Undoubtedly the grooviest way to get around, these aircraft on skis buzz about the islands captained by the aviation equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, bare-footed pilots in Ray-Bans who know they’ve got the coolest job in the world.Even after an 11-hour flight from London Heathrow, catching a Trans Maldivian Airways flight is a journey to be relished and after some 45 minutes in the air, we land gracefully at Sun Siyam Iru Fushi, the first stop on my twinned island tour (next up, Iru Veli – more on that later).
At 52 acres, it’s the brand’s largest resort to-date (newcomer Sun Siyam World will dwarf this when it opens in the autumn) and is renowned for its family-friendly vibe, excellent facilities (including a PADI and DDI Diamond certified diving school) and great value all-inclusive dining.The team – all sparkling smiles in sharp white linen – is lined up and ready to greet us on the dock with a fanfare of flower garlands drumming. If you like making an entrance, you’ll love it. Each guest is assigned a butler who will look after them during their stay. My new mate is Nafiu – he’s full of friendly chat and inspirational ideas as to what I can get up to on the island – we connect via WhatsApp.
The resort was built as a Hilton in 2008 and it appears that much of the infrastructure here hasn’t been updated since.
Parade up the majestic catwalk of over-water suites that trail into the sea on either tip of the island and you can’t fail to be impressed by the scale of the place but while the the proportions are generous, the décor and atmosphere are tired.The bungalows are all chunky, ebony wood with floating balconies that usher in the ocean beyond through panoramic glass doors. Spartan soft furnishings feel like an afterthought, as does the odd piece of painting-by-numbers style artwork, lost on the giant walls. Outside, a knackered hot tub crowns the deck, bubbling away conspiratorially.
While spotlessly clean and tidy, these rooms need some TLC and a revamp in terms of texture, colour and print, something I’m told the powers that be are working on.
That said, they are solid and feel ultra private, despite the relative proximity to neighbours. Plus you’re slap bang in nature – rays glide by regularly and you’re welcome to join them via private ladder access into the ocean.The best bit? You don’t need to be Jesus to walk on water. A large glass brick inserted into the floor displays sea below as art. Wondering across it never gets old, neither does the view: a friendly parrot fish has claimed this spot as his own, and greets me from his watery home every evening.
It’s lucky I like it here because after just three days on Iru Fushi, the headline hits that Qatar is being moved to the red list – in advance of my scheduled return – and my flight is via Doha. This means that if I stick to the status quo, I’ll be forced to hole up in a quarantine hotel on my return.
While a few options present themselves, I decide to extend my stay by 10 days and buy a direct BA flight to London Heathrow, arriving home at least 10 days after I last touched terra firma in Qatar (read more about how and why I plumped to strand myself in paradise here).
Crisis averted and I gain myself another 6 days to explore Iru Fushi. After a while, resort life can feel a bit samey, which is why Sun Siyam’s all-inclusive concept affords access to 15 different bars and restaurants. There’s something for everyone, from Indian to Italian, French and Middle Eastern, along with a groaning daily buffet and a cold drinks at every turn.Considering that this is a tiny island in pretty much the middle of nowhere, the variety of dining is astonishing, and the quality is excellent across the board. While some people might prefer the dressy vibe and laboured glamour of Iru Fushi’s speciality dining options (wine tasting dinners at the Cellar, for example), Bamboo is my immediate favourite, a Pan-Asian spot overlooking the main jetty.
The barefoot chic restaurant serves up bright, fragrant cuisine – papaya salads, curries, pho, satay – all perfectly at home in this exotic climate, washed down by fruity cocktails, sake and beer. Islander’s Grill, with its local curries and grilled seafood, is another banging option. If you’re prepared to don a silly paper chef’s hat for an afternoon, I can also highly recommend its Maldivian cooking class.
I understand that there is insufficient local cultivation and agriculture to feed hordes of additional holiday-making mouths, so of course some produce must be imported. But in a destination built on its relationship with the sea, I’d rather this wasn’t fish. Management agrees with me, but how to update the menu without offending returning guests and less adventurous Western palates is, apparently, a perennial debate.Speaking to Devex, Shaha Hashim, field project manager at Blue Marine Foundation, an NGO that focuses on marine conservation, says the government has plans to attract 2.5 million tourists by 2023, which she explains is “very concerning,” as it was already hard to manage limited resources and cater to over 1.7 million tourists who visited the Maldives in 2019 alone.
“Tourism is our golden egg-laying goose, but it also has very devastating impacts on coral reefs, both during the construction and operation phases of resorts,” Hashim says.
To offset at least some of the footprint associated with incessant imports, Sun Siyam has commandeered its own island – Farm Island (does exactly what it says on the tin) – to grow veggies and micro herbs exclusively for its resorts. A Farm Island-to-table tour and experience is also available to guests.I’m not sure people come to the Maldives for action-packed adventures, and while there are things to do on Iru Fushi – banana boating, jet-skiing, flyboarding, sunset dolphin cruises – my personal trump card aside from soaking up the island’s natural beauty is probably the outrageous spa.
Operated under French beauty brand Thalgo (renowned for its marine-based skincare), this temple to mind and body gives little away at first glance, from its humble bungalow HQ.
But step over the threshold and you are at once transported to a Babylon-inspired sanctuary of tropical plants, navigated via a labyrinth of of smooth pebble pathways that snake over gurgling books to a series of private spa suites.
From a state of bliss, during 60-minutes of expert pummelling and deep tissue massage, I think I finally reach Nirvana. At around US$200 a pop, treatments aren’t cheap but this is the Maldives, and as massages go, it’s worth every penny.I haven’t elaborated on the service, but I must because it’s excellent. Tirelessly helpful and considerate, Nafiu checks in regularly to see how I’m doing, makes reservations for lunch and dinner and even pulls off a magic trick – after hearing whispers that my knackered MacBook is giving up the ghost, he anticipates sorting me another one to use for the duration of my stay before it kicks the bucket completely.
Travellers wanting to island hop rather than corral at one resort are obliged to take a PCR test before each move. While it’s easy to feel frustrated at the seemingly unnecessary expense ($150), it’s these kinds of protocols that ensure that the various islands remain Covid-secure so I’m more than happy to play my part.
There’s masses to like about Iru Fushi, but as soon as I land at Iru Veli, the undisputed jewel in Sun Siyam’s crown and just a quick 30-minute sea plane transfer away, I’m in love.Everything about the group’s youngest resort (it’s just two years old) has been designed with Millennials in mind (guilty). From the vibrant fuchsia and orange colour scheme and mid-century inspired furniture to the bleached decking and laid-back beats that ooze from the bar, Iru Veli nails a first impression.The island is smaller and more intimate than Iru Fushi, a place where guests are left to their on devices with background support from “ambassadors”, an informal team that feel more like friendly faces rather than staff. I’m a low maintenance guest, so this set up suits me perfectly.
Iru Fushi and Iru Veli might be part of the same Sun Siyam dynasty, but like a great-aunt and her Millennial niece, they don’t have much in common. Where Fushi is staid and traditional, with a sense of gravitas that appeals to mature travellers, Veli is playful, bright and conducive to Insta-likes.
The clientele reflect the vibe – gone are the multi-generational families as seen at Iru Fushi, replaced by loved up couples frolicking with selfie sticks by the shimmering adults-only pool.Exploring the island reveals delight at every turn, from the baby sharks that pool in the shallows en route to the Dolphin Suites to the wicker cocoon chairs that hang from artfully-places palm trees.
Pool parties kick off to the tune of live DJs every Thursday (go for the music and stay for the shisha – every room receives a complimentary pipe per day) and there’s live music most evenings too.Room categories include both water villas and beach villas, both beautifully designed and decorated in Veli’s signature playful style. My Dolphin Ocean Suite comes complete with a massive private outdoor deck and boutique infinity pool that spills into the sea.Nautical touches reference the ocean, billowy white drapes frame my minimalist bed and sunshine reflects off the gold tiles in the bling bathroom. It’s jaw-on-the-floor opulence, with a funky twist. While the facilities here feel less expansive, if you can tear yourself away from doing nothing, there’s actually plenty on offer including a tennis court, ping pong, poole, a dive centre (with toys such as sea bobs available at an additional charge) and various included excursions – the fishing trip and dolphin cruise are highlights.When Ambassador Evan takes me out on a guided snorkel of his favourite reefs, the hidden beauty of the Maldives bursts into technicolour. Swirls of angelfish, butterflyfish, clownfish, parrotfish and more drift and dart on the currents like confetti in the wind while anemones sway a Mexican wave between boulders of flamboyant coral. A turtle drifts by while white tip reef sharks monitor the depths.This sub aqua treasure trove of riches belie the fact that that the Indian Ocean is in trouble. As reported by Forbes, the Maldives’ tourism boom has been a double-edged sword.
The new industry has significantly lifted the Maldivian economy in what the World Bank calls a “development success story” but as the lowest elevation country in the world and with a fragile marine ecosystem, the Maldives is one of the countries most at risk due to climate change and rising sea levels.
The coral reefs that comprise the Maldives have been damaged by rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution and overexploitation.
A recent paper by Marine Conservation scientist Jean-Luc Solandt showed recent resilience and recovery from a mass coral bleaching in 2016, so there is hope, but it remains to be seen if a growing tourism industry can put conservation before short-term profits.
The struggle between positive evolution for luxury resorts and the old school, grossly indulgent attitude of “more is more” is a conflict felt acutely here in the Maldives. It’s something I feel Sun Siyam could do more to combat and I can’t help but feel that instilling a greater sense of place and localisation throughout the resorts should be a priority. However, there are initiatives to feel positively about. Drinks are crowned with edible or paper straws and water is bottled in house in reusable glass (any plastic entering the Maldives is subject to a 100 per cent tax). Additionally, Sun Siyam was one of the few local companies to maintain all staff during the pandemic.
Hungry? Iru Veli has glimmers of excellent dining, especially at the buffet where rotating live stations compliment a spread of international and local dishes. The Indian vegetarian options are a highlight, as good as any high-end London restaurant and, best of all, curries are available at breakfast too.Chargeable options include wine tasting dinners at Roma with sommelier Igor (is a must for oenophiles) and a beachside barbecue chargeable at US$150 per couple, plus a the “lagoon lunch” where, you can enjoy the shore lapping at your ankles while you tuck into platters of grilled seafood.Washed down with a bottle of champagne, it works – minus from the “fishy” addition of grilled salmon hiding amongst local squid, tuna and reef fish. Call me crazy, but if I’m going to eat fish on holiday, I want it to come from the same water I swim in.In between a packed schedule of swimming, spa treatments and lavish meals, I’m a regular at the bar. After a week on the island, I’ve even designed my own cocktail, a lychee-infused riff on a mojito aptly named “the Maldiva”.
It’s easier than I expected to travel as a single female here, and thanks to the sunny efforts of the resorts teams, I couldn’t feel more at home. If you could bottle Maldivian charm, you’d make a killing.
Despite my reservations, as the days melt into one another, I fall further under the spell of the islands. What was supposed to be a six-day jaunt has turned into more than two weeks soaking up the Sun Siyam vibe – and, especially at a time when the rest of the UK battles on at home, what a privilege that is.
While Brits might not be able to recreate this Maldives trip right now, good things come to those who wait, as they say. And when it’s our time to travel here again, experiencing this phenomenal part of the world will taste all the sweeter.