Stuart Philpott is never one to shy away from a challenge, and bouncing between four different resorts and three atolls in the Maldives in just 16 days was right up his alley. Here he continues his adventure with a visit to Alila KothaifaruPhotographs by Stuart Philpott
“ Even though it wasn’t manta season, Egor suggested a visit to the local cleaning station Solar Corner, just so I could see how spectacular the site looked ”Did You Know? The Maldivian archipelago is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles; green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley and leatherback.After four days I left Dhigali bound for neighbouring resort island, Alila Kothaifaru. I was looking forward to seeing dolphins during my 20-minute speedboat transfer but hadn’t accounted for the unpredictable weather at this time of year. We sped towards a dark unsettled sky and moments later hit the incoming squall.

Heavy rain reduced surface visibility to near-on zero and the smooth sea instantaneously whipped up into giant rollers. It really was one of those ‘glad to be back on land’ moments as I stepped onto the jetty.

Alila Kothaifaru five-star resort opened in May 2022. They offer 80 rooms all with private pools on a half- and full-board basis. Seaplane transfers from Malé take around 45 minutes each way. I met up with Swiss GM Alex and he explained that they had tried to keep the island as natural as possible and ‘merged’ the resort into the surroundings. Alex is very keen on promoting environmental sustainability.

I was booked into a sunset water villa located ten minute’s walk from the main reception area. Alila operate what they call a ‘butler’ service whereby a member of staff plus buggy is assigned to each room for the duration. This was a new experience for me as I am usually left to wander the resort at my own devices. If I needed to be picked up, had any questions about the resort, even checking out and paying the bill, Alla via Whatsapp was my first point of contact. I didn’t visit reception at all during my stay.

Alla drove me through the dense undergrowth to the water villas located on the opposite side of the island. I have to concede my room had the most-spectacular view. Through the double-width full-size glass windows I could see waves breaking over the shallow reef on the lefthand side, an uninhabited palm-fringed island directly in front of me and Alila’s white sandy beach stretching out on the right-hand side. This really was a picture-perfect view to die for.

The villa came equipped with a plunge pool and wooden deck area complete with sofa and sun loungers. There was also a set of steps leading down to the sea for swimming or snorkelling. Alla said the rooms had only recently been finished so I was one of the very first guests to take it for a ‘test drive’. I did find a few minor issues with the fixtures and fittings, but they were quickly resolved by the attentive staff. On my last day there was a power cut and I got moved to a beach villa. Even though the room spec was very similar, I can honestly say the view didn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor.

Alila has two on-site restaurants and two bars. Seasalt is the main restaurant which serves a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner. I spoke to the F & B Manager and they may change to a buffet-style breakfast sometime in the future.

There was already an area set aside in the restaurant, I think they were just waiting for occupancy numbers to increase. Outside the restaurant is a huge Olympic-length swimming pool surrounded by loungers and sun shades. This looks out onto a small uninhabited island which is used for afternoon picnic excursions.
Did you know?A diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) course will teach you how to properly and safely pilot a DPV in the water.Umami located on the other side of the island served up Japanese cuisine. The Yakitori bar sits right next door. This was the go-to bar for pre-dinner drinks. I discovered an exciting selection of sake-based cocktails on the menu. It was a tough job but I managed to work my way through a good number during my stay! Every day between 3-4pm, the Pibati café serves up a unique tea-making/tasting experience. I got to pick a number of different ingredients from the trolley and make my own special brew.

Egor Sidorov manages the Euro-Divers Dive Centre. I briefly met Egor at Vilamendhoo last year. This was his first commission as dive centre manager. As well as being a top rate PADI instructor, Egor is a true film buff and knows everything there is to know about movies. The main dive centre is located on the beach and there’s an equipment storage area with dunk tanks, etc, on the jetty. The dive boat is a classic-looking Dhoni and can comfortably carry 12 divers. Egor said they also have two speedboats that can be used for private hire. There are around 30 dive sites on offer. Boat journey times are between ten minutes and an hour. As standard they use 11-litre aluminium cylinders. Nitrox is free of charge. Special sites include Lundufushi Thila for leopard shark encounters and Vadhoo Corner for green turtles. There is also a world-famous manta cleaning station called Solar Corner ten minutes boat ride away. The resort doesn’t have a proper house reef but they do offer regular snorkelling trips, including visits to UNESCO site Hanifaru Bay for manta encounters.
Massive shoal of snapperExpect to be enveloped by fishGorgonian seafanThe reefs teem with lifeDhoni dive boat“ We did a full 360-degree circumnavigation of the Thila and then cut through the steep-sided canyons colonised with sea fans and soft corals The brand-new dive centre was still finding its feet during my visit, but Egor said they would soon have a resident marine biologist/instructor offering courses on coral reconstruction, mantas and marine life in general. They would also be giving presentations at the resort during the evening. It was great to see Jennifer Foo helping out at the dive centre. I met Jenny on my three-resort extravaganza last year. She is usually based on Meeru and looks after media operations for Euro-Divers Maldives. Jenny had brought along her famous white suit, BCD and fins and just to add to the effect, we fired up the SUEX scooters for a day which also happened to be white! Put Jenny’s long dark hair into the mix ae well and I had the makings of some greatlooking underwater pictures.

On our first outing we were joined by a couple from New York who had booked onto a PADI Advanced course. Egor took us to a site called Goboshi, which was about 30 minute’s boat ride from the jetty. This may have been a good spot for navigation exercises but not for photography. We finned along the reef for an hour and saw a few solitary sweetlips, snapper and a passing turtle, but not much else to write home about.

There was an absolute ripping current at the second site, Miyaru Giri. Again, not so good for photography as I was hanging on for dear life most of the time. We finned into the current for as long as possible and then drifted back. We managed to duck into a few overhangs that were occupied by grouper, snapper, sweetlips and a moray eel. Ironically the best spot happened to be back where we entered the water at the beginning of the dive. We found some deep gullies at 20m full of yellow snapper and a number of patrolling reef sharks.

The Raa Atoll still has many undiscovered Thilas. Egor said that during an exploratory expedition with Alex, the GM, he had found an untouched Thila at a max depth of around 30m. He named this site ‘the secret place’. We quite often encountered strong currents on our dives so negative entries and fast descents are a necessity otherwise there’s a chance of drifting past the dive site. When we reached the Thila I could see plenty of marine life action, including sharks, eagle rays and turtles. There were so many schooling fish and the seabed was alive with vibrantly coloured soft corals.

Crinoid on the vibrant reefEven though it wasn’t manta season, Egor suggested a visit to the local cleaning station Solar Corner, just so I could see how spectacular the site looked. I thought this was a little sadistic to taunt me with one of the best-known cleaning stations and have a near-on zero percent chance of seeing mantas, but went along with his plan. Both Jenny and I were using the SUEX scooters. They are a little tricky to use when holding a camera but the benefits definitely outweigh the pain. I came up behind a turtle and I’m sure it did a double take when it realised I was still following. We sped off towards the corner and on the plateau, where the mantas would normally be cleaned, there were thousands upon thousands of blue stripped snapper and goatfish circling. We stayed here for at least 15 minutes sweeping in and out of the shoals. In front of the plateau at around 30m, I found around 40 or more sweetlips. They were a little agitated by the scooters, so I had to approach using fin power alone. I must confess Egor was right, watching the mantas flying over the shoaling fish must be an amazing sight.

For my last dive we planned a return visit to Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Jennifer had fallen ill so I had to make do with Egor in my pictures. The current was really racing so I was glad we were using the scooters again. We did a full 360-degree circumnavigation of the Thila and then cut through the steep-sided canyons colonised with sea fans and soft corals. Schools of snapper hugged the reef top while a huge ball of fusiliers was being picked off by a number of fast-moving trevally. We found 20 or more batfish taking refuge behind a coral head. While Egor was whizzing backwards and forwards, I managed to get a few close up pictures and some video footage.

Throughout my brief stay at Alila I was constantly dodging rain showers so didn’t feel as though I had experienced its true potential. Everything looks much better in the sunshine and this had unfortunately been in very short supply. The Hyatt-owned resort had only been open a month so there were still a few finishing touches on the go as well as some minor repair work. The Euro-Divers Dive Centre was up to the brand’s usual high standard. Having a manta station just ten minutes boat ride away was a massive attraction and there were so many underwater Thilas still waiting to be discovered. I was extremely impressed with what I did see during my brief stay.

I packed my bags and prepared for the journey ahead. Finally, the weather forecast was looking more favourable. Fingers crossed my visit to the LUX resort in the South Ari Atoll would yield better results. I might even get a suntan! 

Prepping the DPVs