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At the heart of the classic Maldives holiday is a fine balance between rel axing in the resort and experiencing the power of the currents out in the passes. Charles Hood reports on the newly refurbished resort island of Kandooma
All photos by Charles Hood
Today, it’s completely different. Ask one of the resort barmen for a martini and he’s likely to enquire whether you favour Grey Goose or Stolichnaya vodka. Resorts change every year in a perpetual arms race to offer the best service, the most luxury or the silliest special features (step forward the new generation of underwater restaurants).
While the prices can’t be said to be low, they are competitive. I wanted to see a thoroughly modern Maldives resort in action, so I booked the newly refurbished island of Kandooma, located about 20 miles (or a 40-minute speedboat ride) south of the international airport, in South Malé Atoll. It covers 13 hectares, is about a 20-minute walk around the circumference, and gets its name from the kandoo mangrove tree and maa, which means ‘big’. The resort has 160 villas, which sounds a lot, but you never get the feeling of being crowded.
So, after arrival and welcome drinks, we head straight to the beach villa. In the early days, the typical Maldivian accommodation would have been a simple hut with basic facilities. If you opted for the deluxe package, you might have been given a mosquito net. But all that was a distant memory when I walked into my snazzy Kandooma beach villa complete with iPod docking station, Wi-Fi access and designer splendour. In fact, it’s so hip that they’ve opened the shower room to the elements, as an ironic nod to the rustic past.
Diving is still the best reason to come to the Maldives, and at Kandooma it is organised by Cyrille Coutant of Euro-Divers, a charming and self-assured young Frenchman. The centre is located at the end of the pier: it’s equipped with bang up-to-date gear for hire, and 32 per cent nitrox is available free of charge. The only thing missing is a decent house reef, which means you have to do all the dives by boat (or dhoni, as they are called in the Maldives). Still, there are dive sites to cater for all levels relatively close to the resort. In the morning, there is usually a fairly adventurous dive on offer, while the afternoon dives tend to be in more protected spots. My top three dives were Kandooma Caves, Cocoa Corner and Kandooma Thila.
Kandooma Caves are among the largest caverns in all of the Maldives and are located at the conclusion of an exhilarating drift. On the drift part of the dive, expect to see uncountable numbers of blue triggerfish, sweetlips, angelfish and clownfish in beautiful red anemones. The caves themselves rank among the greatest marvels of the Maldives. We found the entrance to one at 20m and another at 16m – the passageway snaked away for 70m, the interior dominated by yellow sponges and fan and cup corals.
By contrast, Cocoa Corner is located on the north side of the Kandooma Channel and the aim is to find shelter from the current against the steep-sided wall. Here, vast schools of fusiliers swirl in the tidal race, while below, at a depth of 30m, whitetip and grey reef sharks patrol for an easy snack courtesy of the incoming tide. There’s also a good chance of seeing eagle rays here, though they tend to be skittish.
Kandooma Thila is probably the most spectacular of the three signature dives, comprising a teardrop-shaped reef that rises from 30m to 16m. With its many outcrops and overhangs, it provides an ideal footing for corals, not to mention plenty of scorpionfish. However, the main reason for diving this site is to see the bigger animals Grey reef sharks are practically guaranteed, as well as barracuda and huge tuna. At the end of the dive, it’s worth spending a bit of time at the top of the reef, an area frequented by green turtles.
Kandooma does a pretty good job of addressing the needs of different divers. Two dives a day may seem a tad paltry for a lot of hardcore scuba travellers, but perhaps diving three times a day is a legacy of the Maldives holiday of yesteryear, when you wouldn’t feel inclined to hang around the basic resorts all day. For those in search of more adventure, there are full-day excursions to remote dive sites, while at the other end of the scale are try-dives for would-be divers.
After the diving, it is the tranquillity of a Maldivian evening that sets your holiday apart. At Kandooma, you can choose between a big buffet or a formal restaurant called the Kitchen, where everything is cooked in the same room and gastronomes can keep their critical eyes on the chef. As a novelty, there is a third dining option – freshly prepared ingredients can be delivered to your villa and you can cook them yourself on your own barbecue.
You need your rest at night, because the more adventurous diving here can be exhausting. The current on the pass was way too powerful to swim against, so we went with the flow, streaming through schools of fusiliers that never seemed to end. It was a safari at high speed, as we whizzed past triggerfish and spotted morays that glared at us from their lairs in the reef.
Out in the blue, the silver predators rode the currents like seagulls on the wind, awaiting an opportunity to sweep down and pick off a stray fusilier. When a giant trevally or dogtooth tuna decided to make its move, I would hear a rumbling sound as it sped through the water. Sometimes, when the darting hunt was successful, you could hear a crunching sound as the unfortunate fusilier was devoured.
So while the denizens of the pass continue their struggle for life and death, I returned to the low-key luxury of Kandooma. After a week of this Jekyll and Hyde routine, I found myself increasingly fond of the resort and its attentive staff. If you’re looking for a quiet, upmarket break with sporadic bouts of high-octane diving, this could be just the ticket for you. Those in search of riotous nightlife should look elsewhere, as this is a seriously laid-back resort. The only thing lacking was a decent house reef, so you do depend on the scheduled boat dives for your downtime. A final note – the Euro-Divers centre at Kandooma is one of the best I have visited, anywhere in the world.
Need to know
Hayes & Jarvis (0871 664 0246; www.hayesandjarvis.com ) offers one-week stays at Kandooma from £1,135 per person (based on two sharing). Departing on 9 May 2009, the package includes seven nights’ B&B accommodation and return Qatar Airways flights from London Heathrow.
Kandooma Maldives Resort: www.kandooma-maldives.com.
Euro-Divers Kandooma: www.euro-divers.com.