Sugar white beaches, idyllic over-water villas, and an underwater world teeming with life are just a few of the reasons why the Maldives has earned its reputation as one of the world’s most sought after honeymoon destinations. Yet, what happens when two becomes four? Product and Operations Director, Olly, goes in search of the perfect family beach vacation at firm Scott Dunn favorite, Niyama Private Islands resort.
Our last encounter with the Maldives was as fleeting as it was frustrating. We had been on our way to Sri Lanka (before children, marriage and mortgages intervened) when my other half and I touched down in Malé for an hour or so – just long enough to be tormented by the view of a perfect turquoise wave peeling along the shore and to have a lively debate about how we had missed an opportunity to stopover in a place it would take us over a decade to be able to afford to revisit.
That view from the window of an aircraft some 12 years ago certainly left an impression though and after realising that this paradise was also blessed with some of the most “user-friendly” surfing on the planet, I found myself spending many hours researching where and when to go with the help of Google Earth, YouTube and countless drone videos.
It took several more years after that first fleeting visit before Niyama started developing their second island and were looking to open the best kids’ club in the Maldives. This neatly coincided with the time that Scott Dunn was looking to expand the Explorers Kids Club program outside of Europe. The combination of a new island with family accommodation and the best childcare in the business was the perfect fit and Explorers was launched at Niyama Private Islands in March 2015. However, I never quite managed to find an excuse to visit until now.
While the Maldives may be best known for honeymooners, it is a brilliant place for young kids too. Andrew Dunn always described it as “the ultimate bucket and spade vacation” and my 4 and 6 year old would certainly agree.
Bucket and spade or not, my wife and I both have limited patience for sunbathing so Niyama (with plenty to do) fitted the bill. The two islands are big enough to warrant getting around by bike, which was a highlight for all of us, particularly as the absence of traffic and tarmac meant the usual rules of helmets and shoes needed not apply.
The rooms and villas are beautiful, sensationally comfortable and have thoughtful touches like electric curtains (perfect for that sea view lie-in) and free ice cream. Every single one overlooks a brilliant white beach and multiple shades of turquoise while the bathrooms are all huge indoor/outdoor affairs. Naturally, the food, wine and service are exquisite, but the restaurants all have completely different settings and a unique character; Edge is plonked in the middle of the sea, Nest is in the treetops and Tribal feels like it belongs in Africa. While the standards may be cutting-edge luxury, the style is determinedly barefoot and casual, which appealed to our sense of not having to dress up for dinner.
The Maldives has a growing reputation for some of the world’s most accessible surfing and Niyama is one of the few islands to have a break which doesn’t require a boat to reach (although plenty more breaks are just a short boat ride away). This means surfing can be free of charge, which is far from the case at other Maldivian “surf resorts”. Boards are available to rent (reasonably) and conditions are ideal for intermediates and advanced surfers while beginners can also learn there. The Surf Shack team made it easy to keep up to speed with WhatsApp updates on conditions and planned visits to other breaks.
As for the children, I am embarrassed to say that I had no idea how good our own product was going to be. Forget everything you think you know about hotel kids’ clubs when you think about Explorers – this is no supervised playroom. The (complimentary) Voyagers program was phenomenal, combining dolphin spotting trips with junior spa treatments, lessons in coral conservation from a marine biologist, mocktail making, stand-up paddleboarding and octopus spotting in the underwater nightclub. Our daughters made great friends to share in the excitement and whole families followed their lead and got together around the pool and the dining table.
As a destination, the other thing that came as a surprise was the wildlife. Even before donning a mask and scuba tank, we logged regular sightings of giant hermit crabs, turtles, dolphins, huge fruit bats and myriad birdlife.
It was expensive, it was delightful but was it perfect? Having been fortunate enough to experience some of the world’s best hotels and resorts, I realised some time ago that the problem with perfection in vacations is that it is personal, subjective and also requires an element of surprise to truly tick all of the boxes. The journey from London was pretty arduous for a family – but then the best places are rarely the easiest ones to reach – the waves were smaller than I had hoped, the coral reefs are damaged, an over-seasoned steak left me pretty thirsty and, for a former backpacker with a penchant for independence, the personal butler service could be a little over-bearing. So no, it wasn’t perfect, but for a beach vacation, it was the closest thing I have found to it yet.