“Would madam care for a glass of Champagne?” the charming flight attendant asks. Would I what? After nearly two years of working at home in a cramped spare room, trying to entertain a toddler through multiple lockdowns and not having escaped our island in what feels like an eternity, this could only be a rhetorical question. Yes, madam would most definitely care for a glass of Champagne, thank you very much.
This first taste of freedom is as delicious as the glass of bubbles, served onboard a Qatar Airways flight to the Maldives on a dark, miserable November morning. A small group of us have been invited to visit the impossibly beautiful archipelago of some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. We are heading for Kuramathi island, one of the roughly 350 inhabited or resort islands in this slice of paradise, which runs like a string of pearls for nearly 1,000km to the south west of India and Sri Lanka.
But first, back to the journey. We start our trip in the Platinum Services section of Dublin Airport. With a separate entrance beside Terminal One, this 24-hour VIP terminal offers an altogether different experience of the airport. It houses seven private suites, holding up to 15 people each (Covid restrictions) and includes private check-in and security clearance, complimentary refreshments and a chauffeur-driven BMW to your plane on the tarmac. You don't have to own a Learjet to avail of this taste of luxury; we're told it's not unheard of for people flying Ryanair to avail of the service for special occasions. It's a popular wedding present for honeymooners, too. It costs €295 for the first person and €190 for each subsequent person for two hours pre-departure (three hours for transatlantic flights). See dublinairport.com
As if to banish all lockdown blues before we've even landed in the Maldives, we travel in Qatar Airway's swanky Qsuite seats. Like business class seats but with extra oomph, each suite is self-contained, with a sliding door to offer total privacy. There's much oohing and aahing (nobody's playing it cool) over the enormous lie-flat beds, on-demand meal and drinks service as well as neat touches such as freshly-mixed welcome cocktails and complimentary White Company pyjamas. If you're so inclined you can convert some adjoining seats into full double beds on long-haul flights, or create a central dining table between a pod of four seats. But after months of enforced Paw Patrol cartoons, I'm much happier closing my suite door and settling down to some movies on my own.
The journey from Dublin to Malé, the capital city of the Maldives, takes approximately 13 hours with Qatar Airways, including a stopover in Doha international airport. This is a great spot for duty-free bargains but don't buy any alcohol on your way to the Maldives as it will be confiscated on arrival in the country. Everyone must complete a PCR Covid test in advance of travelling to the Maldives, regardless of their vaccination status, and this is checked rigorously on arrival. Paperwork complete, we exit the tiny airport into the most picture-perfect setting. Just metres from the terminal door lie the famous blue Maldivian waters and the jetty where speedboats ferry passengers to and from the resort islands. The speedboat to Kuramathi island takes 75 minutes (and is included in the price of your stay). You can also opt to travel by seaplane, which we do, from the nearby Trans Maldivian Airways terminal (on the water, of course). The largest seaplane operation in the world, flights (which costs €280pp return) must be booked through the resort and take about 20 minutes. Be sure to sit on the right side of the plane for the best view.
Arriving at Kuramathi is like stepping into a holiday brochure, especially for eyes as starved of foreign shores as ours. At 1.8km in length, the island is large by Maldivian standards, culminating in a long white sandbank that stretches out into the ocean.
The seaplane lands at a pontoon beside the island and we’re taken ashore by a small boat, past people lazing around on the sand and in the sea, as we slowly melt in our Irish clothing. (Temperatures here are remarkably consistent, given the proximity to the equator; expect high 20s to low 30s year round. Sea temperatures are also in the mid- to high-20s.)
We check in to our villas; there are 11 different styles ranging in price and amenities, from traditional Maldivian-style beach villas up to luxury honeymoon pool villas. I'm staying in a deluxe modern over water villa, reached by a wooden walkway from the island. The enormous bedroom features a super kingsize bed, fully stocked wine fridge and floor to ceiling concertina glass doors that fold back to give a panoramic view of the ocean. The bathroom is glorious, with a rainfall shower and a huge standalone bath facing the sea. I'm pleasantly surprised to see a touch of home: luxury seaweed toiletries courtesy of Irish company, Voya, based in Strandhill, Co Sligo. But the real charm of the over water villas is the large deck, with steps leading directly down into the ocean. My swimsuit is immediately liberated from my suitcase and I dive in before I've had a chance to fully explore my room.
There’s lots of exploring to be done on this island. The central stretch is covered with lush vegetation (don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent), with beaches, pools and sports facilities dotted around the periphery. Aside from the main reception area at the arrival jetty, nine restaurants and six bars are spread out across the island; there are numerous nature walks, sports centres and an Eco-centre (more of which later). The island is best explored on foot on well-marked sandy paths, but electric buggies also shuttle up and down the main paths if you prefer to take it easy. Just wave one down or wait at one of the buggy stops, give your driver your room number and they’ll drop you off (though if you stay out too late, you can expect a moonlight walk home, as we discover).
Off shore, there’s a coral reef which you can access via snorkelling channels directly from the beaches. An El Niño event in March 2016 caused sea temperatures to rise, bleaching of a lot of the coral in the Maldives. The government and individual resorts are working hard to protect and restore the reefs; you’ll pay a government Green Tax of $6 (€5.25) per night spent in the resort that goes towards protecting the environment, and at Kuramathi, you can see younger coral returning, along with lots of colourful fish such as clown fish – hello, Nemo! – and other marine life. There’s also a well-established dive school with its own decompression chamber. You can rent snorkelling gear from here and there are nearby dive sites for experienced divers to see sharks, mantas, turtles and rays, or if you’ve never tried diving before you can do a try dive, or PADI and SSI courses. You don’t even have to leave land to see some smaller sharks and turtles, which swim past the villas and restaurants on a regular basis.
Of course, most people come to Kuramathi to unwind and do very little; you won’t have to look far to see the very obvious honeymooners gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. But you’ll also see older couples or small groups of friends on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We don’t see many families while we’re there, but we’re told they do come during school holidays, and there’s a fun-looking kids club that caters for children up to age 12 free of charge. Under-3s are given a one-to-one babysitting service at an extra cost. (Kuramathi’s sister island, the luxe five-star Kandolhu island only allows children over the age of six if you prefer a small person-free resort.)
One advantage to the layout of the island is that even though it's almost at full capacity when we visit, it never feels busy; the only time you really come across other guests is in the restaurants and bars. Over our short visit, we try The Reef seafood restaurant, which sits over the water, and where you choose your meal from the local catch of the day (the mahi mahi with Sri Lankan sambal was a standout); there's excellent Thai food at Siam Garden, and the beach-side Island Barbeque is a great spot for charcoal-cooked meat and fish with the added drama of flambé dishes prepared table-side. Stays at Kuramathi are on a minimum full-board basis, which gives access to buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner at one of three restaurants. All food and drink outside of that are charged, but all-inclusive packages are available (see pricing below). The bars are lively at night, with live music at some (or some atrocious karaoke from our group at the Havana Club Wine & Cigar Bar... Beyoncé I am not). The Champagne Loft is a great spot to watch the sun set with a glass of bubbles, or if you're feeling romantic, you can head up to the sandbar, but prepare to share the view with other people's Instagram photo shoots!
The islands of the Maldives average just 1.5m above sea level, so environmental issues are obviously to the fore. At Kuramathi, emphasis is placed on eliminating plastic; the island has its own bottling plant which provides fresh drinking water in glass bottles to all rooms and restaurants and in free dispensers dotted around the island. An impressive hydroponic garden – which guests are welcome to visit – produces salad leaves, herbs and vegetables for the restaurants; neighbouring islands provide the remaining fresh produce, to minimise food miles. At the Eco-centre, a resident marine biologist gives talks on the island’s marine life and efforts to protect it, while children from the kids club are brought along to examine specimens under microscopes and to learn about the ocean. Especially impressive is the 11m-long sperm whale skeleton which was reconstructed on the island a decade ago.
On our final day we squeeze in one more swim in those turquoise waters before reluctantly heading back to Malé by seaplane. It’s hard to leave this island paradise: a trip to the Maldives is not cheap, but it really is a once-in-a-lifetime luxury holiday. Real life is suspended just a little longer as I settle into my Qsuite for the overnight flight home. “Would madam care for a glass of Champagne?” I thought you’d never ask.
Stay: Kuramathi beach villas from €1,995pp; Over water villas from €2,945pp for seven nights including flights, taxes and boat transfers on full-board basis (November-April rates approx 30 per cent higher). Optional basic all-inclusive package (full board plus drinks), €65 extra per day; Select all-inclusive package (access to all restaurants), €115 extra per day. There is 25 per cent off room rates, May- October 2022; Water villa categories get a free meal plan upgrade to basic all inclusive. To book: See Simply Maldives.ie or your local travel agent
Get there: Qatar Airways operates daily departures from Dublin to Doha from €489. Return fares from Dublin to Maldives from €689 (economy) and €2,540 (business class). For more information, to see routes Qsuite seats are available on or to book flights, see qatarairways.com or your local travel agent.