I was doing a 2 week tour of southern India and wanted to finish off with a week in the Maldives. I looked on www.travelrepublic.co.uk and one island was much cheaper than most of the alternatives. Summer Island Village was £800 for one week all-inclusive. I'd been there before back in 1999, and written this report. The price didn't include boat transfers from the airport to the island. They certainly clawed back some money on them. They charged £135. Given that the one day shopping trip to Male from Summer Island on the same boat costs US$47, I think that's more than a bit of rip off.
I flew Air India from Trivandrum. It's only an hour and ten minute flight. I was near the front of the plane, so managed to make it through immigration quite quickly. Most of the people onboard were Indians coming over to work, so they were taking a fair amount of time to get through. However, once out the other side, I had to wait more than two and a half hours for the boat. It was looking poorer and poorer value by the minute. When it eventually turned up, it only took 40 mins to get to the island. The sea plane apparently takes 13 mins of flying time, but you can wait quite a long time for them too.
My room was in a semi-detached hut right on the beach. You couldn't really complain about the view of talcum powder white sand and turquoise sea. The bathroom is partially open air, so in theory someone could climb in, so the bathroom door has a key lock on it. Mine didn't work. Neither did the toilet, the cistern didn't fill. After complaining, they fixed the toilet and took the lock mechanism out of the door, presumably to fix it, though they never brought it back in the entire week.
Still the shower was always hot. The room had both air conditioning, which I didn't use, and a ceiling fan, which I did. There was an electronic safe for your valuables, a television with satellite channels including a couple of sport channels which showed Premiership football and a movie channel. There was also a fridge. It had nothing in it, but as part of the all inclusive package, you could bring back water, soft drinks and cans of beer to your room.
My all inclusive package included all meals. They were all served buffet style. Breakfast was a bit uninspiring. There was a chef on hand to cook omelettes to order. Other than that, the choice was a bit limited and included some novel breakfast items such as kidney beans. Lunch and dinner were OK. Some of the other guests weren't that impressed, as it was a bit samey. Every meal consisted of rice, a chicken dish, usually some fish dish, fried more often than not, and spaghetti, but it was all edible and about what you'd expect from a 3* hotel buffet. Mind you, perhaps 2 weeks of backpacking in India had lowered my expectations.
In the bar, soft drinks were included except, rather annoyingly, diet coke. As it was the same price as other soft drinks for those on full board, I couldn't really see the justification in this. Beer on draught and in cans was also included as was house wine, basic spirits and a cocktail of the day. The cocktail was rarely anything fancy. Typically it was a single spirit one. There was entertainment two nights of the week. One night was either a magic show or an acrobatic show on alternate weeks and there was also a disco on Friday nights.
Obviously one of the reasons I'd come was to go diving. Since my previous visit, the dive school had changed hands. The morning dive was advertised as a wreck, but I wasn't allowed to sign up for it as I had to do a weight check first apparently. This was to be done just off the jetty and there was the option of doing the house reef afterwards, except Summer Island doesn't really have a house reef on the atoll side of the island. So they've built an artificial reef, or perhaps more accurately put some junk down there for you to look at. Unsurprisingly I managed to sort my weighting out really quickly and we went on the dive, the instructor clutching a lead weight for most of the dive in case I needed it. I didn't.
There were a couple of small boats sunk down there and various other stuff, including old sun beds strapped together, oil cans etc. It doesn't sound that inspiring but it does a good job of attracting the fish and there's a fair bit of coral growth on some of it. There were a lot of rays about, including stringrays, a couple of eagle rays and then finally a manta ray. At this point I was somewhat mollified about having to do the dive in the first place.
After that, I did two boat dives a day for a total of 12 dives. It's cheaper to dive unguided, so that's what I did. I also did the unlimited 6 days diving package as that was slightly cheaper than a 12 dive package. This meant I could have dived the house reef again, but lacking a buddy and any great interest, I chose not to. Had I done so, I could have done it any time I liked. They let you dive 24 hours a day, though you have to arrange to pick up the equipment in advance if it's at a time when the dive school is shut.
My previous visit to Summer Island had been after the El Nino event in 1998 when almost all the hard coral had been killed off. I'm pleased to say that the coral has recovered a lot since then. On sites like Turtle Reef, there were table corals well over 2m in diameter, showing that those types of coral grow pretty quickly. The white tip reef shark population seems stable too. I saw at least one of three quarters of the dives I did there and there were a similar number of turtles.
January is manta season in North Male atoll and they were present on about half the dives. If you're not a diver, they were also around near the surface on the way back from several dives, so there's plenty of opportunity to snorkel with them. We did two dives on the site, Boduhithi thila, where there is a manta cleaning station. On the first dive there, some of the group saw 9 mantas because they hung around the cleaning station for practically the whole dive. My buddy and I didn't and only saw 5, but one of those encounters included one manta doing a loop-the-loop three times in our bubbles just above our heads, close enough to touch.
The best marine encounter of the holiday wasn't with mantas though. One morning, on the way to a dive, the boat suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. Wondering if there was a problem with the boat or whether the crew had seen something in the water, we quickly noticed a large shape near the boat. It was a whale shark. It was only a baby, being about 3m in length,but that's still a very big fish. 20 mins of snorkelling with it ensured that everyone on the boat, including the crew, had a big soppy grin on their face all the way to the dive site.
So the diving worked out pretty good. After the initial check out dive, I was left to do pretty much as I liked as long as I stuck to the rules of 30m maximum for 60 mins maximum, not that anyone ever checked my computer or asked me to fill in a log. The dive centre were fairly laid back and a huge improvement on the previous regime back in 1999. It being the Maldives, it wasn't cheap. My 6 days unlimited diving package, which included equipment as I didn't want to lug mine around India for 2 weeks, was £482.
(c) Jason Poynting 2012