Maldives - Maldives Hilton Resort by Lucy Kublikowski
It doesn't sound quite right, 'The Hilton' in the Maldives, it conjures up an image of a big solid hotel balanced on a tiny coral island. In reality the Hilton at Rangali Island, South Ari Atoll is much the same as other resorts only a bit plusher! The Hilton is divided into two islands connected by a 500m foot bridge. On the main island are the main restaurants (3), bar, dive centre, watersports and approx 100 beach villas. The second island has the water villas and a separate restaurant. There is also a 10 minute Dhoni boat shuttle operating between the two islands.
The flight was pretty grim on the charter airline but we had a last minute deal, so you get what you pay for. At least the flights now are direct, if you opt to pay more and fly scheduled, you will stop in Dubai and spend at least a couple of extra hours in the airport.
We had no problems with excess luggage charges even though we were well over the official weight limit.
The first pertinent point to make is that all luggage is X-rayed on arrival and any alcohol is confiscated. It will be kept at the airport and you can pick it up on your way home but you can buy duty free booze at the airport on your way out.
Its pretty hot at the airport and if two planes land at once, getting your luggage can be a real scrum, you must then wait to have your luggage X-rayed before trying to find your rep, and there are a lot! I always take a pair of shorts and a T-shirt to change into and there are plenty of toilets where you can change before the trip out to your island.
Across the road from the airport is the ferry jetty, if your island is reasonably close, chances are you will board a boat there and continue your journey. The Hilton Resort is another 35 minutes seaplane flight so you are guided to a mini bus which transports you across the airport to the sea plane airport. There is no need to rush to get in the first mini bus, you will only end up waiting at the sea plane airport for the rest of the Hilton-bound passengers.
On arrival there you identify your luggage and check in. All luggage must be weighed so they can calculate fuel etc but even our seriously overweight amount didn't incur an excess. (They do have the discretion to charge and my feeling is it will depend on how full the plane is.) The Hilton has its own air-conditioned waiting lounge at the airport and chances are you will have a short wait there until all other passengers for the Hilton have arrived. It is very pleasant, and you are given complimentary soft drinks or tea and coffee. You also complete your check in formalities there whilst you're waiting and your rooms are allocated.
At this point you are also given a 'portfolio' of photos showing the deluxe villas and water villas and given the opportunity to up-grade at a reduced price. This will of course depend on their availability but does represent a significant saving. However we also found out that at the start of the second week, beach villa guests were given a further incentive to spend some or all of their second week in a water villa and the price had reduced again.
The sea-plane flight was pretty noisy (ear plugs are distributed) but great views over the coral atolls and a spectacular landing through a 'runway' of marker buoys at Rangali. We swiftly disembarked at the jetty and were taken by boat to our island. We collected our key cards at reception and headed to our villa. (The jetty, which is half way between the two islands on the footbridge, is an excellent spot for Manta watching at night - they are drawn to the plankton and the lights on the jetty.)
We were fortunate to be staying in a water villa, which faced out across the most perfect turquoise lagoon, and beyond to the reef. Our villa was on the south side of the island, the north side facing villas having a view across the water to the other island - I'd recommend the south side. Each morning we woke up, climbed down the steps from our veranda into the most amazing tropical fish tank! By day there were rays, reef fish and our own patrol of the most perfect miniature black tips right on our door step. At night fish congregated under our spotlight, flashing colours as they darted into its beam. It was truly idyllic.
The room itself was sumptuous, and nice touches such as fresh fruit in the room each day,
A wealth of toiletries, so no need to lug shampoo, conditioner or shower gels in your luggage. There was also a CD player and a library of CD's to borrow at reception. The Deluxe Water Villas also have a DVD player and a similar set up for DVDs. Also, in the receptions are internet terminals which are free to water villa guests or a nominal fee to others.
The Main island is much bigger and busier, beautiful beaches and quite a large pool which is dominated by children. The food there is buffet style with amazing salads, freshly cooked pastas to order and the main themed menu of the day. We found in comparison this restaurant was very busy and also quite hot unless you got a table by the open doors. There is another Grill A-la-carte Restaurant built out over the water and a Tapenyaki grill which needs a minimum booking to operate. The bar operates a snack food menu served around the pool but most people are content with the offerings from the main buffet which is after all, included in your holiday. The bar has entertainment in the evenings, some of which is child orientated.
Also on the main island is the water sports and dive centre. The dive centre is quite large with a multi-cultural mix of instructors from Europe and Japan, all equipment is available to hire including cameras and is dispensed in an orderly and coherent manner. You are allocated a peg and a box, numbered and in a specific spot. If you return all your equipment to your spot at the end of the dive, it will miraculously appear on the dive boat for the next dive.
On arrival at the Dive Centre all qualifications were checked and in our case, as we hadn't dived for a few months, we were required to do a check dive which was charged at a reduced rate. I got the impression almost everyone was required to this. Once you have passed this you are able to join the twice-daily dive expeditions or opt to dive the house reef off the beach.
To join a dive you simply add your name to the list posted at 5pm each afternoon outside the dive centre. There is a brief description and diagram and dives are colour coded to match ability so harder dives are only open to more advanced divers etc. The harder dives tended to be the morning dive and were deeper or areas with stronger currents.
The Dive centre had a thriving teaching business and every day seemed to bring a host of new recruits learning to dive in the lagoon, the only courses available were PADI.
The dive boats (2) are large traditional Dhonis with a toilet, fresh water shower, sundeck on the roof and most importantly, plenty of space for kitting up. The boats take a maximum of 16 divers to dive with Divemasters plus extras who are diving unguided.
I only ever saw Divemasters with a maximum of 4 divers in their group, so you can have quite a few staff on board as well. A nice touch is the fresh fruit and bottled water which is passed around after each dive.
Dive briefings are made at the jetty with clear instructions and well drawn diagrams. The staff are friendly and well organised, all multi-lingual. All your kit is loaded and unloaded onto the boat for you and tanks are also there, on arrival at the boat and whilst moored, you dress your tank and it is then stashed in a logical order to where you are sitting. Your kit (in its numbered box) is stored under the seating, and again is positioned in groups according to your Instructor/Divemaster and whether you are diving guided or unguided. And it works, it is a system I wish other dive operators would adopt. No one was reaching across each other for their gear or tank and everyone was able to exit the boat without getting in each other's way.
As we had done a number of dives in the previous year ( I think the magic number is 30 dives in the last 18 months) and were BSAC Sports Divers, we were given the option of diving 'unguided' which is slightly cheaper. After one dive 'guided' we felt confident enough to 'do our own thing' albeit without losing sight of the other groups. Visibility was about 30 metres so it wasn't hard to keep track of the others but at the same time keeping far enough away that we dived in peace!
All the guided divers exited the boat via a giant step off the bow, (once the Divemaster had checked the current). As unguided divers we were able to exit through side openings
at our leisure and away from the throngs fumbling around on the surface.
The diving is justifiably famous in the Maldives, even post-El Nithe reefs are spectacular and so far unrivalled in my diving career. The Madivaru reef just off the Hilton resort has a spot called 'Manta reef' which is a cleaning station for Mantas. We were lucky enough to see some on two dives even though in July we were out of season.
During the peak season Feb-April, the dive centre sends one boat to this spot every day, it is so teeming with the big guys! Most dives are conducted on the reef surrounding the resort, about 15 minutes away but every few days dives are offered further afield, anything up to 2 hours away. We did a couple including one to a wreck and found them enjoyable despite the distance on the boat.
The majority of dives were drift dives over reefs, along walls and even a wreck, all accompanied by fabulous tropical fish, turtles, morays, reef sharks, nudibranchs, invertebrates and even dolphins. I even fulfilled my long held ambition to see a mantis shrimp. Basically if it lives in tropical waters you will probably see it in the Maldives!
Night dives are available if 4 people can be mustered, we dived over the nearby Madivaru reef, familiar territory at about 12 metres. Torches were provided.
All diving is non-deco but precautionary stops are rigorously observed. The nearest decompression chamber is 15 minutes sea-plane ride away. There is a resident doctor on the island and the nearest hospital is located about 20 minutes away by speedboat. The dive boats carry first aid and oxygen on board.
The Hilton also has a resident Marine Biologist who lives on the island and is studying the coral growth. She will take individuals or groups out on snorkelling trips around the islands and can do courses in Marine Biology for anyone interested. It was a real education and we both felt we appreciated our diving a lot more after a session with her.
On her day off, she was also able to dive with us and we spent most of the time with our noses in the coral, where she was able to point out many features and creatures I would previously have missed. There is a small charge for her services snorkelling but it was well worth it.
Costs at the dive centre were on a par with most resorts in the Maldives, as we had our own gear and dive unguided this reduced it, but a course of dives was approx ?35 per dive, plus an additional $10 per dive for the boat. It can all be charged to your room so you can put off the final figure until the last day and not to spoil your holiday!
As we were on a Water Villa package all our non motorised water sports were free, we sailed a catamaran, canoed, wind surfed, pedaloed, in fact we definitely got our money's worth! Also part of our deal was meals in the A la Carte restaurant on the smaller island which were superb, even discounting the fact we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I felt slightly guilty tucking into fresh Tuna Sashimi but the chef assured us he only ever cooked ugly fish!
There were a host of excursions to choose from including sunset cruises on the islands 40ft yacht, game fishing, snorkelling, deserted island picnics etc. On the island there were speciality dinners including a gourmet dinner hosted inside the islands underground wine cellar! Wine is something the resort places great importance on, however the prices reflect this, as does the cost of any alcohol on the island. As you are unable to bring in any duty frees, you either have to swallow it (sorry!) or treat it as a detox holiday! As everything else was included in our package we didn't feel it was too much that we couldn't indulge.
I should also mention the spas at the resort, one on each island. The one on the water villa island is built out over the water and you lie on the massage table looking down through a glass floor to the reef below. It's heavenly and it's incredibly expensive. On the main island there is another spa which is less expensive but not quite so idyllic.
Some divers might find the Hilton Resort a bit too luxurious (and pricey), not for 'serious divers'. I loved it, the diving was excellent and varied, it was well organised and the right level of service. There was no lugging tanks and boxes, as I have done in other Maldives Resorts, but you washed your own gear and were responsible for making sure it was stored back in its allocated spot ready for the next dive.
The Hilton Resort may not be as laid back as some resorts but I still found it pretty relaxed. If you wanted to dress for dinner you could and if like me, you like to go barefoot - that was OK too. Would I go back there? -Absolutely! I'm saving up so I can go during the Manta season!
In a nutshell:
A year round destination although the rainy season is June, July, August. The Maldives are spread over a wide area and just because it says its raining in MalČohe capital, it doesn't mean its raining at the Hilton Resort! We were in the middle of the rainy season and we had one morning of rain, even that was a short shower really.
Best time of year for diving is Feb-April when you can see mantas and whale sharks.
Do not try to take in any alcohol.
If alcohol plays a big part in your holiday enjoyment be prepared to pay a large bar bill at the end.
It is usually worth booking a dive package from the UK with the rest of your holiday
At the Hilton Resort if you can afford to upgrade to a water villa you get lots of 'extras' included.
For an extra ?200 you can upgrade into premium economy on the charter flights which means a better chance of sleeping on the 11 hour flight - but these seats get booked fast.