Being away from the sea and a boat from October until May is just too long for me. For my fourth winter boating story I went to get my fix of salty air by boarding a petite size, low frills cruise ship with 30 other passengers in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The bonus here was snorkeling and diving with whale sharks, manta rays and tropical fish, not to mention bumping into some serious octopus sex 30 feet below.
The Maldives is a true tropical paradise. This island nation is located in the Indian Ocean 620 miles southwest off the tip of India. Its 1192 coral islands are scattered over 35,000 square miles making the Maldives one of the most dispersed countries. Of these islands, 200 are lived on and 97 are set up as resorts. (More on a resort island later)
Because the Maldives are spread out over the many atoll regions it is hard to really know what the country looks like staying on an island resort. To get to understand the lay of the land, or in this case, the sea, we boarded the 56 passenger, 180 foot, Yasawa Princes for two weeks. (http://yasawaprincess.com/).
We chose the Yasawa Princess because it cruised over 200 miles, visiting all four of the Maldives regions. It offered both good diving, but just as important, catered to non-divers equally. During our two weeks, we beached at over a dozen islands and sand spits.
The ship’s usual routine would be to anchor off a picture-perfect uninhabited island. These islands or sand spits, complete with a few palm trees, would sometimes be no larger than 1000 feet long and a couple of hundred feet wide. They were always surrounded by coral reefs and pretty fish. Basically, we had a private island each day for the 30 of us passengers.
Guests would be dinghied to the beach for a few hours of snorkeling, floating in the warm waters and snoozing on a blanket. Other guests had the option for a morning dive. For lunch, everyone would shuttle back to the ship and either be taken back to the island or set off for an afternoon to snorkel elsewhere. Twice during the week, sunset fishing was offered using local methods of hand spooling a line from one of the small boats.
This pleasant routine was changed up with a visit to the resort island of Rannahli for those that wanted a massage, enjoy a hotel lunch and the facilities. Just off of Rannahli, snorkelers and divers had the opportunity to swim with dozens of stingrays and nurse sharks that lived off the beach or under the main dock. Another stop on the two-week cruise was a visit to a small village to pick up a few souvenirs and see what island life looked like.
During our second week, we all boarded the dive boat looking for whale sharks. When one was spotted everyone aboard grabbed their snorkel gear and jumped overboard as fast as possible. Swimming with one was a bucket list experience.
That night we anchored in a channel with the ship’s underwater stern lights on. Here a baby 25-foot whale shark came up to feed on the plankton. Both passengers and crew were screaming in joy. Four of us with lines wrapped firmly around our wrists as to not get swept away in the current, jumped overboard in the dark to get a better look.
Night and Days with the Manta Rays
Another highlight for both snorkelers and divers was the manta ray encounters. Here we saw these majestic creatures with 12-foot wingspans “flying” through the water, looping around each other or swimming in tight formation. They had their mouths wide open collecting food as they came within inches of the divers below them. The snorkelers in the group were able to get a top-down view of these beautiful creatures.
One night during the cruise we jumped into the dark waters with flashlights to see the action below the surface. This included viewing a dozen large manta rays and several different fish either feeding or trying to avoid being dinner. Seeing the first manta ray appear out of the darkness and into the lights was almost surreal.
The Yasawa Princess is an older “three-star ship cruising in a five-star” destination. As a courtesy from the captain, I was able to take the wheel on a few stretches between islands. She handled well and cruised at about 12 knots. Navigation is done via compass and direct sighting when close to a chain of islands and atolls. There are few markers at sea so you need to know the water well when close to any island. Also, the islands of the Maldives don’t show up easily on the horizon. This is the lowest country in the world having an average altitude of 3.5 feet. (They are very worried about climate change as some of the islands are disappearing) The ship pulled a large dinghy and was followed by a 35-foot dive boat.
Onboard, the ship’s cabins and heads are small and basic with air conditioning that is “adequate”. All meals on board are buffet, simple and very good. The bar in the center of the lounge has beer on tap and only “well” brands of liquor. Lunch and dinners had choices of “just caught” fish by the crew as well as chicken or beef. On most days sashimi was served as a starter. Tea, coffee and British biscuits were available all day. A highlight is the weekly “no-shoes” beach BBQ on a deserted island complete with fire dancing in the sand and a million stars overhead.
The ship’s layout is simple. The dining room connects to the bar and lounge area which opens to an outside stern view. It is not air-conditioned but does have large open windows and fans that allow a breeze to run through it as the boat always faces the wind. The top deck has shade with lounge chairs. Service on board was excellent and we were pleased with the chef giving personal attention in regards to any food allergies.
If you need table service, an upscale bar, indoor air-conditioned lounges, room service and the need to dress for dinner, this is not the venue for you. (Most people dined in T-Shirts and shorts) There are no luxury large passenger ships that cruise these beautiful waters.
What Yasawa Princess does well is get you to nature, remote beaches and reefs at an affordable price. It shows you the best of the islands above and below the surface without fancy frills. Of the 34 passengers on board, 30 were British retirees. A quarter of them were repeat guests with some coming back over three times. Cruises are one or two weeks. Guests opting for one week must meet or get off the ship at the half waypoint. (This ship is not wheelchair accessible)
A good way to have some ultimate luxurious quiet time after spending two weeks aboard the ship is to check into one of the five-star island resorts. Our choice was the JA Manafaru on Manafura Island. (https://www.jaresortshotels.com/maldives/ja-manafaru). It was chosen because of its size, the number of villas and its location far to the north.
We enjoyed the 75-minute seaplane ride to get there. From the air, we saw some of the coral reefs, small islands and atolls we cruised around. For the “seaplane adverse”, there are closer island resorts that run a boat from the international airport to their place. If you don’t like small planes or boats, the Maldives is not for you.
The Resort Life
Manafaru Island at only 24 acres is never felt crowded. This is because more than half its villas are over the water. Our plush villa came with a small plunge pool, spa tub for two and was ten times larger than our cabin on the cruise. Our private patio had a ladder down to the sea as well as a partial glass floor to the view the fish.
The island has seven restaurants, a spa, gym and bicycles. There is one swimming pool in the center surrounded by trees as well as an infinity pool built into the beach that we preferred. It takes 45-minutes to walk around the island which is heavily vegetated between the buildings giving an almost jungle feel.
Our activities at the resort included the beach, pool, snorkeling and enjoying good food. Different boating excursions along with diving were also offered. Being away at sea for the past two weeks, we mostly enjoyed our very spacious over the water villa and the view. A “must-do” is their floating breakfast. Think breakfast in bed but with a floating tray in your pool.
Capt. Tab Hauser is a regular contributor to L.I. Boating on topics of cruising and safety. He manages www.glencovecruises.com out of Glen Cove. When not on the water, he is following his second career as a travel journalist.