Maldives- the sunny side of life

Heritance Aarah & Varu by Atmosphere, Maldives

Overview

  • When: 21 December – 29 December, 2020
  • Where (accommodations):  Heritance Aarah (Raa Atoll), Varu by Atmosphere (Madivaru)
  • Transportation: Emirates flight through Dubai (UAE) to Malé (Maldives).
  • Sights/attractions: Water sports/excursions, snorkeling excursion and swimming with turtles (Varu)
  • Food/drinks: Heritance Aarah: Ralu, Baani, Ranba, Bandhi Bar, Sky Bar, Ambula. Varu by Atmosphere: Lime and Chile, NÜ, Charcoal, Kaagé

Long road to paradise

Last trip of 2020, still during pandemic, full of fears and uncertainties. Maldives are open for tourists with certain requirements. Negative COVID-19 PCR test is mandatory to board the plane and has to be taken no earlier than 96 hours before the departure flight. Results need to be printed, electronic version is not accepted. Health Declaration Form has to be completed within 24 hours before the trip (as well as departing Maldives). Once the form is accepted, the QR code is issued and can be shown on the mobile device, no printout is needed. Tip: if you are completing the form on your phone, make sure to switch to desktop version on your web browser, otherwise it gets stuck and you won’t be able to obtain the QR code.

All of the above accomplished, excited and ready to leave snowy Boston behind we are waiting at the gate to begin a 12 hour journey from Boston to Dubai. Boarding time comes and goes, the only information so far is that final check is being made to the aircraft and we will board ‘soon’. Next thing you know, Emirates staff start offering bottled waters to the waiting passengers- that seems like a bad sign. Sure enough, about an hour past the scheduled departure comes an announcement- due to the mechanical problem the flight is delayed indefinitely, everyone should collect their checked bags at the carousel located at the floor below. No further details are given, passengers scrambling and crowding the desk to speak to an agent- looks like we are not leaving the cold any time soon…

I used to work at the emergency assistance company for travel insurance and I think 7 years of dealing with every travel situation possible came in handy. While everyone was trying to speak to the overwhelmed staff at the desk, we called Emirates 800 number and were lucky they picked up pretty fast! Unfortunately we were informed that there is no other flight from Boston for another 2 days, which would make our COVID-19 test invalid by the time we reach Maldives…Sounds like a true nightmare now that I am recounting these events. However, there was a flight from JFK, New York the next evening, just about 24 hours later. This would still allow us to use our COVID-19 test, so without any doubts we changed the flight and started looking at the best option to reach NYC.

Emirates was no help in terms of getting us to New York, so we booked the first available flight out ourselves- 6am the following morning on Delta airlines. Instead of going back home, we decided to take Emirates up on their offer of an airport hotel. Well, seems like the hotel was not aware of how many people will need accomodations and had no rooms available. With only a few hours remaining till dawn, we stayed up in the chairs in the Hilton lobby at Boston Logan airport and went to our flight to NYC feeling like zombies- at this point we have been up for over 24 hours and have not even left our city yet! Thankfully, once we reached New York our luck has turned- we checked into TWA Hotel at JFK airport and it finally started to feel like vacation!

Having 12 more hours to spare until our international flight to Dubai, exhausted and in a dire need for a shower, this hotel was God’s sent. Not only it has great amenities without having to leave the airport, but also is super fun to explore! We almost forgot how tired we were once we started walking around. Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center now serves as a lobby for this hotel and it’s an architectural masterpiece.

Full of history TWA Hotel even has a rooftop pool overlooking the runway (closed in winter), a chalet, restaurant/bar and a cool vibe that we absolutely did not expect out of a hotel at the airport! I am not saying that we are happy we experienced this delay and lost a day of our trip, but if that had to happen, the next best thing was an opportunity to explore this place.

One step closer

Rested and refreshed we finally got on a NYC-Dubai flight and were quite surprised to see how full the plane was. Emirates did not block the middle seats, so we sat right next to a stranger (for the first time in nine months!) and just took comfort in the fact that every passenger was required to present a negative test before boarding. Emirates food and service was great, but I have to say- the staff was not at all enforcing the proper wear of masks. We saw a lot of ‘half masked’ or ‘chin masked’ with no reaction from the flight attendants.

We had a 6 hour layover in Dubai before another 4.5 hr flight to Male, so we booked a room at the Dubai International Airport Terminal Hotel right in Terminal C. With the use of the hotel came a 20% discount at the spa, so we went there right away and got a sixty minute whole body massage. Best. Decision. Ever. There is nothing better than a nice massage after a 12 hour flight. Hotel room was surprisingly spacious, including a huge bathroom. Spa also had a pool, which we only looked at- we did not have enough time to go for a swim. This layover was so much better than waiting in the uncomfortable seats by the gate!

Finally arrived

Well, sort of. We have made it to the Maldives capital Malé, but we are not staying here. Our first of the two resorts in Maldives – Heritance Aarah is located in a Raa Atoll- 40 minutes seaplane away from Malé. When we booked the accommodations, this all inclusive resort had a promotion which included the transfer costs. That is a GREAT deal of savings. Seaplane rides are very expensive and can easily rack up additional 500-1000 USD to your trip. After we got through customs (the lines were pretty long, but it moved fast and we got our visa on arrival in no time), representative from the hotel took us to the counter, told us that all our bags have to be checked (including small carry- on suitcases) and took us to the waiting lounge located a few minutes shuttle bus away. As we were stepping on the bus the sky opened up- it was not just raining, it was POURING. Not the sunny welcome we have expected from the Maldives at all.

About an hour later the rain subsided and we were taken to the seaplane. First seaplane ride for both of us! It was not scary despite it being a small plane (and a barefoot pilot!). Even with the gusts of wind and rain the ride was pretty smooth and we did not have any major turbulence. If you have a chance- I think it’s a fun experience!

HERITANCE AARAH

Welcome to paradise

Seaplane landed at the nearby island and Heritance Aarah staff was there with a speedboat to collect our tired selves. 10 more minutes later we are on the island where we will spend three nights (we lost one due to the unfortunate flight cancellation out of Boston). We were warmly greeted with the sound of local drums and whisked to the open lobby area.

Welcome drink in hand we were introduced to our butler Ramsey. Yes, we have a butler! Ramsey will be our go- to person for any questions, restaurant bookings and other needs during our stay. Our first question was- where is our luggage? The unfortunate answer- still in Malé. Seaplanes are finicky with weight restrictions and our luggage was bumped to the next flight…Not the most ideal way to finally start vacation when you don’t even have a bathing suit while surrounded by the clear blue water. Thankfully we changed into shorts at the airport, because there were people still in their winter clothes and with no luggage. Lesson learned- whenever you give your bags away, keep a bare minimum change of clothes in a backpack. Luggage arrived several hours later, but by then it was time for dinner, so we did not even get to enjoy the swim on our first day.

Relax and unwind

That is really mostly what we did while in Maldives. Each resort is on its own island and moving around is not easy or budget friendly, so the mindset going to Maldives should be lots of R&R. For this stay we chose the Ocean Villa- a beautiful overwater bungalow with a good size deck and an amazing tub.

We had some rain during our stay, but really made the best of it. It’s still warm, so even with a shower the island looked beautiful. We spent the rainy morning exploring the island and having a silly photoshoot.

The swings, the leaning palm trees, the hammocks in the water- Heritance Aarah may be still a very new resort, but it certainly cares about creating those picture perfect spots around the island.

While wandering around we enjoyed the lush greenery and spotted several super cute island residents- fruit bats (also known as flying foxes)- some of the largest bats in the world! They were just chillin’ in the trees, never bothered us.

We planned to take an excursion to see the dolphins, but the weather was not cooperating on the day that excursion had to take place, so we got Ramsey to book us massages at the spa instead. The coolest part of the massages was the glass floor underneath the headrest- Sean saw a blacktip shark during his massage, I had fun observing a school of little fish.

Maldives is all about water. Paddle boards, kayaks, jet skis- sports center had these available and I attempted SUP while Sean went around in a kayak. Waves were really small, but I had the hardest time staying up. Definitely more practice is needed!

Appreciate the nature

On the second morning of our stay, after yet another rain shower, we were gifted with an amazing rainbow! It truly was magical. It’s something about the rainbows that makes me really happy.

With the sun finally out, we also got to experience Maldivian sunset! The most beautiful shades of pink painted the sky…And we had the outfits to match 🙂 !

Talking about outfits- do not overpack for these islands. Weather is always warm- no sweater is needed, all restaurants are typically very laid back, so pack light, breathable and comfortable clothes- dresses are ideal for women, shorts for men. Forget the heels at home- you can walk around barefoot or with flat sandals everywhere.

And of course, don’t forget to pack several bathing suits! You can’t have too many 🙂 .

If you are an early riser and manage to get up before dawn, you might be lucky to see the stars- I had to wake Sean up to see this incredible sky above our bungalow!

Enjoy incredible food

We chose an all inclusive stay (something we have not done before) after hearing how pricey these islands are. When sunblock is $60+ USD, last thing you want to worry about is how much the food and drinks will amount to by the end of your trip. Heritance Aarah has several restaurants on site, each featuring different cuisine, so unless you prefer a buffet or bar snacks, make sure to work with your butler to secure dinner reservations! We do not like buffets- especially during COVID times, so even for breakfast we went to Baani– a wonderful restaurant on the water. While buffet was crowded with people, we enjoyed three servers running around us and making custom breakfasts!

Lunch options also included either buffet at Ranba, snacks at the Bandhi Bar (espresso martini is on point here!) or a la carte menu at Baani. It does get busier than breakfast, but we really enjoyed the food at this restaurant, so did not mind the wait.

Our favorites of course were dinner options. First night was at- Ralu, which served seafood on this particular night. We were honestly slightly delirious from all the travels and did not get to fully enjoy the meals, but remember them being big portions with pretty strong flavors.

On our second night Ramsey secured a spot at Baani. By now we have had breakfast and lunch here and were curious how dinner would be. Four course meal was outstanding! Not only tasty, but very creative presentation as well.

On our last night we got a special treat- dinner at Ambula- Sri Lankan cuisine with a nine course meal! We stopped at the Sky bar for a drink prior and truly loved the artfully prepared dishes at Ambula. It was not easy for Ramsey to get us a spot here, so we are really grateful he managed to pull it off.

We ended it with the most incredible dessert and Sri Lankan tea- I am still wondering how the server managed to not spill a drop with this pour!

Lastly, if you love a good cocktail, you cannot leave this resort without trying this masterpiece at the Bandhi Bar. Taken as a shot, this jellyfish resembling drink is a mix of several liquors. It’s sweet and a perfect way to end the night!

Three nights at Heritance Aarah flew by and the next thing you know, we are being given a blessing by the staff and whisked away to the boat to catch the seaplane ride back to Male. What we’ll remember the most about this resort is the hospitality and the incredible food. We did not have the best weather, but the warmth of the staff and the chef creations more than made up for some rainy days. We felt truly special and spoiled while staying here.

VARU BY ATMOSPHERE

Getting there

Clear and sunny day for the second seaplane ride on this trip was even more enjoyable than the first. The views of the islands from the sky is something like out of a postcard! Transfer was easy and smooth. We asked to have the first flight of the day, so even with early wake up we knew that our luggage is not going to be left behind. Heritance Aarah staff coordinated the seaplane with the boat pick up from Varu by Atmosphere, so we did not have to waste our day waiting around. Representative greeted us in Male airport and took us to the boat together with one more family. 40 minutes boat ride from the airport and we are in another all inclusive paradise island!

We intentionally chose to stay Heritance first because it was further away. It’s important to remember that seaplanes are weather dependent and there is no set flight schedule. So my advice would be if you choose the resort that is only reachable by seaplane to start your trip there. That way if there is an unexpected delay you will be late for the second resort, but still won’t have to worry about missing your international flight out of Male. Being 40 minutes away by boat from the airport gave us peace of mind. Last thing you want is to worry while on vacation!

Accommodations

We’ll be staying at Varu by Atmosphere for five nights and decided to try out one of their Ocean Villas with the pool! As we later observed- it was a great choice. The main pool lounges were filling up quickly during the day and it being pandemic, we wanted to spend the least amount of time near other people. Being able to sunbathe on your own deck and then dip in a private pool was true luxury. We were in and out of our pool all throughout the day and even after sunset.

The overwater villa was spacious and the greatest asset besides the pool was their tub! You’d think that having all that ocean around us the last thing you’d want is to take a bath, but surprisingly we loved it! Especially when the incredible housekeeping staff would prepare it, decorate it with flowers and we never once stumbled upon them! I really don’t know how they timed it up that each time we’d return from dinner and find it perfectly ready and hot. Their towel art was on point too!

Under the sea…

Weather has improved dramatically since our arrival to Maldives and we were super excited to check out the sea life. Just from the fish around our bungalow we noticed that there is a lot more action here than what it was at the previous resort. Our stay came with a complimentary one hour long snorkeling excursion, so we booked that right away.

To be completely honest we did not see an extreme amount of fish, but enjoyed a little excursion regardless. It was nice to see the island from a different angle!

When we got back from snorkeling, we asked the sports center if there are any turtles around (I have heard about swimming with the turtles before booking this resort). We found out that there IS a separate excursion where turtle sightings are guaranteed or your money back. We booked the trip for the same afternoon!

It exceeded our expectations! Somehow nobody else signed up for this trip, so it ended up being a private two hour long excursion! We could have stayed longer, but after seeing so many turtles and getting tired from the swim we called it a day.

Christmas on the beach

Maldives is predominantly Muslim country, but since all resorts are for tourists, Christmas spirit was bright! There were festive decorations everywhere and even Santa had arrived being pulled by the jetski!

Both on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day there was a festive buffet brunch/dinner with a live singer. The staff definitely put a lot of effort in making everyone feel the holiday spirit!

Magical sunsets

Maldivian sunsets are really out of this world! Just when you thought that the sunset is over, the opposite side of the sky would turn the brightest pink. Reflecting off our pool the view was priceless.

With our stay we also had an option to either go on a sunset cruise or a fishing trip. Neither of us cares about fishing, so we opted for the sunset cruise. The same longboat that took us snorkeling was used for this trip and everyone was comfortably seated on the upper deck on the big beanbags. Very relaxing way to end the day in paradise.

Island vibes

Most of the resorts in Maldives are on their own little islands. A lot of them are man made. Our resort was only 1yr old and that year included shutdown for the pandemic! Being so new, the island had limited vegetation, but was still beautiful and we liked walking around and exploring it one hot afternoon.

Bring your camera, you WILL take pictures. The water is super clear and blue, it’s something you’ll want to keep in your memory forever.

Talking about pictures- Maldives is a great place for a photoshoot! The sky, the tan, the perfectly placed swings- no need for a photographer (even though our island had one), just take your camera (or the phone) and have fun! I know for sure that we did 🙂 .

SPA time

Any time is a good time for a massage (providing you are not sunburned), so if you are in need for an ultimate relaxation, book yourself a treatment at Elena Spa. Our stay included 45 min massages, so we agreed to pay extra and got a 90 minute each! Just like in the previous resort, the whole time we were able to see the fish below and this time I saw a blacktip shark!

Super relaxed we decided that we want some excitement and went to play on the slide – no kids were taking advantage of that, so someone had to! So fun (until Sean got a wedgie 🙂 ) !

Food, food and more food

It is all inclusive place, so granted there is always food around. Even snacks/drinks at the mini bar were stocked twice daily! However, the way restaurants work was a bit different than at the previous resort. Varu has three high end restaurants and a buffet style at Lime and Chilli. All breakfast, lunch and dinner is always available there. Both Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners were special buffet. Other days the menu was changed daily, but at the same time, it’s still a buffet, which we are not big fans of. For a buffet food, it was REALLY good. And we had a daily visitor- the staff called him Johnny. The bird would not eat any fruit, but given the chance would snag some meat or smoked salmon- don’t leave your plate unattended : ).

With our five night stay we had an option to have two dinners at the a la carte restaurants, which we booked reservations right away. After a few days of the buffet for breakfast we decided that need a change. Luckily (of course it comes with a cost) you can order a floating breakfast to your bungalow.

It was pretty simple, no hot meals included, but we LOVED it. Somehow we felt more satisfied than after a huge buffet meal. Of course it could not be just eaten, I had to document it 🙂 . It’s too cool not to!

After a few lunches at the buffet, we ended up also paying for one at the Nu restaurant. The view from there is gorgeous and the food is excellent!

Dinners were a special treat. We tried , Charcoal and a local Maldivian restaurant, multiple course dinner at Kaagé.

We very much enjoyed them all. had incredible tuna, mushroom risotto as well as very artsy looking (also tasty!) desserts.

Charcoal was barbeque oriented and we enjoyed their pork belly, main meals and of course- creme brulee!

Kaagé was on our last night and was a feast. We started with a little movie about Maldivian cuisine and when the food arrived, it just kept on coming. I blame half of the weight gain of this trip on this restaurant 🙂 .

Time to say goodbye…

Our lovely and pretty lazy Maldivian vacation came to an end. Next destination is Dubai, which required a negative PCR test. For $95 USD per person, resort organized a doctor to come to an island and do the tests for anyone that needed one. The following day our results (luckily negative!) were printed and provided to us to present on the flight. Not having to find our way to a testing site was amazing. Definitely well organized system and very much oriented for the convenience to visitors.

CONCLUSION

It was hard to decide on which resort/island to go to when planning this trip. We cannot claim that after visiting these two resorts we are experts on Maldivian travels. I can only compare Heritance Aarah and Varu by Atmosphere, because even though similar they had some significant differences. First one being proximity to Male international airport. We loved the seaplane ride to Heritance Aarah, but when planning that, make sure to take into account the cost, the weather and keep at least a bathing suit on you in case your luggage is bumped to the next flight! Boat ride to Varu was super easy and uncomplicated way to get from Male.

Both resorts had amazing overwater bungalows, we chose the one with the pool at Varu and absolutely recommend that! Both are all inclusive, but that does not mean the same thing. At Heritance you can eat at the Michelin star restaurants (instead of a buffet), but you MUST get reservations done with your butler. We got lucky, but during our stay hotel was understaffed and some of the restaurants were not open, so it was not easy to get into the places we wanted. At Varu you will not automatically be eligible for a la carte restaurant, only after certain number of nights booked you get a couple dinners there. All other times you either have buffet or need to pay for dinner. Not exactly ‘all inclusive’, but it was worth it.

Spa was great at both, but Heritance was once again understaffed and we could not get massages together (were told initially that there are no spots available at all, despite the 30 minute treatment that came with the promotion!). Varu had no trouble booking us for 90 minutes each at the same time.

There was a lot more sea life around Varu. But Heritance had cool bats!

And lastly service. Even though under staffed, Heritance felt a lot more personalized and warm. Having your own butler was a huge help and felt like a true luxury. Varu housekeeping was outstanding- new towel animals twice a day, decorated bubble baths, but other than that, we were left to book and organize everything ourselves (I know, got spoiled quick 🙂 ).

All in all, both places are gorgeous, dreamy and worth a visit. For ultimate luxury and relaxation Maldives is the place to be.

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