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The Maldive islands (less than an hour by air southwest of Sri Lanka, or 3 1/2 hours from Singapore) are perfectly suited to snorkeling. Picture a group of 1190 low coral islands forming an enormous oval hundreds of miles long. Then 26 oval-shaped subgroups (atolls) of islands within this area protected from the surf, and within each atoll, numerous islands, many surrounded by a shallow lagoon with a "house reef." Each resort is located on its own private island and can be reached by boat or plane from the airport serving Male, the tiny capital and Maldives' only real city.
(Note: the word 'atoll' is actually derived from the Maldivian language!)
All of these atolls are nearly flat with most islands 6 feet high at most. Sandy paths provide the only roads. Rooms are usually found between the palms on the white coral sand facing the sea -- often with a reef ringing the island. Snorkel in the calm, shallow inner lagoon, which is perfect for learning the sport, or venture beyond the house reef to see vast schools of fish thriving along the outer edge. Then take boat trips out to explore other tempting sites nearby.
Here are short reviews of three different types of resorts. They typically occupy one island, with shallow lagoons surrounding the islands, and the outer reef beyond. All offer great snorkeling, but in varied conditions with somewhat different marine life to view. They are also protected from the open ocean by their locations within the larger atoll. You must transfer from Male via boat, seaplane or helicopter, in ascending order of cost. Try flying at least once while you're in the Maldives, as the views of the atolls from the air are sublime.
We put a lot of effort into figuring out which of the numerous resorts were the best prospect for beach-entry snorkeling, and also had good food and comfortable accomodations. Maldives guidebooks tend to be somewhat vague about snorkeling, and of course there is some snorkeling available at all resorts.(If you've snorkeled others that you are especially fond of, please email us, as we love the Maldives and are planning to do more site work there). Here are our choices so far:
VILAMENDHOO ISLAND RESORT
Connecting through Male, the resort can be reached in 3 hours by boat or just 25 minutes via sea plane. The boat is large, comfortable and air-conditioned, costs a lot less, and is lacking only the spectacular view from the skies.
Nearly all the 141 cottages fringing the island are within a stone's throw of the sea. They are simple, but very clean and quite comfortable. All can be reached by a short stroll down sandy paths that radiate out from the main buildings in the center through the dense foliage providing full shade.
This is a casual place with most of the visitors arriving from England, Germany or Japan (very rarely from the US). Many are repeat customers, who know a good thing when they find it. If you like simple and casual barefoot living with great fish a stone's throw away, Vilamendhoo is hard to beat.
Food is excellent and varied, served buffet-style, with excellent service. Emphasis is on Maldivian and Indian dishes with plenty of choices. Note the sand floor! One thing we love about Vilamendhoo is that you can walk everywhere on the island barefoot in comfort, with lots of shade on the inland trails. What a tropical dream!
The island itself is a long oval with snorkeling on each of the long sides (sand bars at both ends). The lagoon is mostly about five feet deep, with several slots where you can swim through to the outer reef (only about 50 feet from shore). On the outer slope of the house reef (30-60' deep), you can see thousands (it seems like millions) of fish.
The coral near the surface is mostly white from coral bleaching caused by overly warm water recently, but the fish are still present, so there's plenty to see. Beyond the reef water upwells from the deep, which is what attracts such large numbers of fish.
Tides move through the area causing currents that often carry you along the edge of the reef, giving you a free ride. The direction often changes during the day. Once we even had a stiff current give us a surprisingly swift ride, then stop, and in another five minutes, reverse direction. The ride was always along the edge of the reef, so it didn't seem dangerous. However, you wouldn't want to swim very far away from the reef without knowing exactly what you were doing.
A few of the sightings: colorful parrotfish, schools of blue tang, turtles, Picasso triggerfish, the huge Titan triggerfish, emperor angelfish, tiny nudibranchs, wrasses of all sorts, trumpetfish, cornetfish, and large schools of pelagic fish -- often difficult to identify. Did we say there are lots of fish already? It's hard to exaggerate the wealth of fish here.
The resort also provides boat trips for snorkelers, when enough sign up. They will also take snorkelers along on dive trips, but these ride-alongs seem expensive for what you get. Divers will usually be going to deeper water well away from land -- not the best places for a snorkeler. We were happy with the excellent house reef snorkeling.
We loved everything about Vilamendhoo, from the friendly Maldivian employees, to the great food, to the relaxed and happy guests. This is a place we think many people would appreciate and we recommend it highly. Don't come here expecting luxurious, no-compromises rooms and facilities like the Four Seasons (see below). Expect casual but comfortable rooms, simple but satisfying food with great variety, and laid-back tropical island life with superb snorkeling. Vilamendhoo is on our top 10 snorkeling destinations worldwide list.
More basic (and less expensive) than Vilamendhoo, but with a similar fringing reef, we tried Biyadhoo for a change of pace. We came because the Biyadhoo area has a good reputation for snorkeling and diving. The surrounding house reef was quite good and we saw plenty of creatures including spotted eagle ray, turtles, lots of Titan triggerfish, and the usual wrasses, butterflyfish, parrotfish, and much more. Currents are a bit faster here, so parts of the reef were difficult, but these spots are easily avoided since there are plenty of breaks in the reef. Tides in the Maldives only vary by about two feet, but high tide is the best time to cross this reef comfortably.
Rooms are arranged in six two-story blocks with connecting paths from the center. The blocks have the look and feel of apartment buildings. While we don't mind basic rooms, we found these uncomfortable and not very attractive, with very hard beds and a rather run down and musty feeling. A lamp by the bed gave us a good shock. There is a somewhat noisy generator in the center of the island rumbling away in the background.
They don't supply beach towels, but do sell them in the shops. On the plus side, the food was quite good and interesting. They served dinner (rather than buffet), but plenty of choices were available. Shuttle boats are available for visiting their sister resort Villi Varu. The dive shop appeared to be very popular. We talked with a number of Japanese visitors on dive packages and they all seemed quite happy with the diving and snorkeling.
The management was friendly and helpful, but we found the overall experience more funky than charming. Divers who appreciate the resources in the area may not be bothered by this.
Four Seasons Resort at Kuda Huraa
Four Seasons is simply dazzling, from the scattered hexagonal thatched bungalows (some with splash pools and open air bathrooms) lining each side of the island to the over-water cottages, to the horizon pool. If your budget permits, the five star level of detail and service is superb, and will not disappoint. The staff works very hard at polishing every detail till it shines.
Even the spa has a gorgeous setting on its own tiny island. Quite beautiful, just like the pictures! Several theme restaurants serve outstanding food (emphasis on a variety of south Asian cuisines), staff very friendly, and the resort offers plenty of activities to keep their guests happy and better educated about nature in the Maldives.
This resort is fairly near Male, so is able to send speedboats to the airport at any time of day or evening, making it possible to go directly to the Four Seasons rather than overnight in Male. Transport is via a comfortable, enclosed and air-conditioned large speedboat.
Unlike the other two islands, Kuda Huraa has a very broad and shallow lagoon. The resort has created a "Blue Hole" near the swimming pool -- although small, there's plenty to see. Most of the rest of the lagoon is only about 2-5' deep with a sandy bottom, scattered small coral heads and sea grass. At times this makes for good snorkeling, but most people will find it difficult when the tides run through, which they often do surprising swiftly. There's no stopping to fish watch when tides are fast because it is even difficult to stand up. During sunset we enjoyed sweeping along past the many large stingrays, scorpionfish, eels, barracudas, and even a small reef shark. Still, this is not the best spot for 'from the beach' snorkeling. The rooms are close to the beach, but not directly on it.
Except for the Blue Hole near the pool, most people will prefer the outer reef edge. It's really too far to swim (maybe a thousand feet, but with currents), so the resort provides a boat to ferry people to various sites along the reef (usually five minutes away). The resident naturalist comes along to keep an eye on snorkelers and teach them about the creatures here. Groups are taken out at 930 and 300 as well as for classes about the reef environment -- an excellent idea. In one ten minute stretch we saw the colorful clown triggerfish, royal angelfish, hawksbill turtle, giant eel, Titan triggerfish, and even a tiger shark resting on the bottom in about 50 feet of water. Other times we saw Napolean wrasses, an octopus, a large school of batfish, unicornfish, all sorts of butterflyfish -- all on an easy snorkel in calm, clear water mostly thirty feet deep. As with the other Maldives snorkeling spots, much of the coral died in the bleaching several years ago.
While at the Four Seasons, we sampled their "Robinson Crusoe" trip, which took us to a deserted island about an hour away by speedboat, where we picnicked and snorkeled around its reef. Crossing the reef was a bit tricky because the ocean was rougher here and we had to cross a shallow part without getting scraped on the coral.
Once we crossed to the outer edge, this was some of the best snorkeling of our trip although a stronger current than some would enjoy. We saw a tiny dragon wrasse, the large Napolean wrasse, clown triggerfish (one of the most exotic), Titan triggerfish, huge schools of fusiliers, and all the usual parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and more. In the large lagoon we spotted an orange octopus atop a coral head and were engulfed by about a thousand convict tangs grazing on the reef.
The staff provided an ample and tasty lunch on the beach. The island has simple toilets, and nets to sit in under shady palms. A pleasant and worthwhile excursion.