There are now over 160 Maldives resorts, spread across the legendary Indian Ocean archipelago. How do you choose? Send a family travel expert on a fact finding mission of course. Just back from testing two fabulous Atmosphere resorts in the Maldives, John Lewisohn reveals all. He even dived with Manta Rays. Don’t miss the video, it’s hypnotic!
An aerial overview of Maldives resorts
After departing from a leaden autumnal dusk at Heathrow, we flew south-east through the night on a packed BA 777. After dinner and a couple of movies and unable to sleep, I played dot to dot with the evening lights 40,000ft below. Spotting firstly Kuwait City, then Bahrain, Doha, even the shimmering Palm crescent of Dubai, before eventually drifting off. Several hours later my eyes blinked on lifting the window shutter to reveal sharp, tropical light. Soon afterwards, popping ears indicated our short descent into Malé International Airport.
Can there be a more evocative descent? The long-view is of multiple turquoise atolls protecting green dots fringed by golden beaches. Down to a couple of thousand feet some islands show off their famous water villas strung out into impossibly clear lagoons. And I felt like I was on another planet, not just 4,000 miles from London gloom.
How do families choose between Maldives resorts?
There’s only two ways out of the airport, by seaplane or boat. However, there’s also a bewildering number of booths and signs for different Maldives resorts. A snapshot, if one were needed, of just how many resorts there are in the country now. Over 160 in fact, although that number covers just a fraction of the Maldives’ 1192 islands, spread over 26 atolls.
So how does a family choose their perfect resort? Naturally, budget will be the main consideration for many. Fortunately, Atmosphere Resorts have several options that won’t break the bank. And, less than an hour’s journey from the airport by water taxi, we arrived at our first: Atmosphere’s 4-Star Superior OBLU Nature Helengeli in North Male Atoll.
Barefoot luxury is literal at OBLU Nature Helengeli
Arrival is handled via the Helengeli app so check-in was hassle free: a boon with children. Sandy paths wind through shaded tropical foliage and guests are encouraged to remove their shoes. Even the main restaurant has soft sand underfoot to compliment its contemporary Maldivian interior.
Nature Helengeli isn’t just a cute marketing slogan. All of nature’s essential elements were in touching distance here: earth, sand, flowering shrubs and palm trees. The sound and sight of the turquoise sea is also on view on both sides so Helengeli can seem almost like a world in miniature. Watch the sunrise on one beach, then a few sandy footprints will take you to the west coast where another gentle curve of white sand reveals a further magnificent sunset.
One of the best Maldives resorts for diving (or snorkelling)
Of course many Maldives islands offer the same enchantment, so what makes Helengeli stand out ?
The island straddles a channel in the main entrance to North Malé Atoll which results in a rich flow of marine life on both sides. So book complimentary snorkelling gear – part of the Oblu Island Plan – and I promise you’ll use it every day.
The amazing reef wall, accessed down a ladder from the marina, is my personal recommendation. You just have to gently drift along it to see a who’s-who of reef fish from Nemo to brightly coloured parrot fish. Even the neighbourhood black and white tipped reef sharks make an appearance, patrolling the corals.
Later, I actually took the same route scuba-diving with the in-house resort crew. And I can confirm that just a few metres down, the reef is even more spectacular. No surprise to discover Helengeli was voted #2 Best Dive Resort in the World in 2017 by Dive Magazine. Although, if my reef recommendation isn’t enough, there are up to 30 alternative dive sites, all within a short boat ride of the resort.
Cool and kid-friendly beach villas
Our spacious Deluxe Beach Villa was a few steps from the beach and featured a cool, outdoor shower which kids love. For those with deeper pockets, there are water villas half-built on land, but with decks out into the lagoon.
Although our villa felt nicely secluded, it was just a few minutes walk from the main restaurant, Spice. Here, live cooking stations and a great buffet offers loads of choice for families. Just Grill, is Helengeli’s fine dining restaurant if you want to be grown up for the night. And Helen’s Bar is only the perfect place to unwind with a cocktail or mocktails for the kids.
Helengeli has a relaxed vibe and feels very comfortable in its own skin. However, if you’re looking for a livelier atmosphere as well as a kids club, the second of our Maldives resorts is perfect.
The latest addition to Atmosphere’s portfolio of Maldives resorts
OBLU Xperience Ailafushi is the newest of Atmosphere’s Maldives resorts. You’ll find it less than 30 minutes from Malé Airport and, in Dhiveli its name translates as “family” which says it all really.
This is a playful resort for modern travellers and built on an artificial island. Although its foliage isn’t quite as luxuriant as on natural islands, yet, the sand is beautifully white, the sea turquoise and there’s all the private space you could want.
The Ocean View Rooms are adorned with colourful cushions, contrasted against white walls and wood textures. Verandas lead out onto the beach and, again, outdoor bathrooms are a feature. If you want the full Maldives experience, there’s also the option of water villas, with private plunge pools.
The Maldives largest underwater restaurant
Even eating at Ailafushi is family-friendly. New to the Maldives the resort has introduced Element X Buffet: a hassle-free “grab & go” concept, centred around a large, circular bar. The dining space is large and divided into separate design zones so it actually feels as if you’re eating in different restaurants. And this works particularly well with The Fushi Plan which includes three meals a day, as well as unlimited drinks and access to non-motorised water sports for limited periods.
Admittedly the “grab & go” concept might not be for everyone. And this is not one of the Maldives resorts where staff bring drinks to your sun lounger. However, the flipside is that food and drink are free and your wallet will be heavier at the end of your stay.
For an additional charge you can try The Copper Pot Truck. This riff on food trucks features a surf ‘n’ turf menu and let’s you dine out under the stars. Or, for special occasions try Only Blu, the Maldives largest underwater restaurant. With 46 seats and almost seven metres under the Indian Ocean, it’s accessed via a wooden bridge causeway which also links to Atmosphere Resort OBLU Select Lobigili. You descend underwater either by lift or stairs and the horseshoe shaped restaurant means every table has a great view of the coral reef. Only Blu welcomes kids of 12 and over, but if yours are younger, it’s the perfect excuse for a babysitter.
Meet the gentle giants at Manta Point
As Ailafushi is an artificial island it doesn’t have a natural house reef. However, divers need not despair. A mere 20 minute boat ride away is Manta Point, which certainly lived up to its name for me. Descending to 15m I was completely awe-struck to be surrounded by up to 20 gigantic manta rays. Their wingspans were four metres-plus and our entire dive was accompanied by them elegantly gliding around.
More reasons to love Atmosphere’s most family-friendly resorts
There’s a great kids club here that’s also included in The Fushi Plan. With different zones defined by kids’ ages, it’s conveniently located next to the resort’s family accommodation. And when I say family, I mean it; right down to the cute children’s bunk beds with steps that double as storage drawers.
Further highlighting the resort’s revolutionary thinking is the smart shopping and café area, La Promenade. Here you can be tempted by patisseries and boutiques, and you’ll even find a wine and liquor store where you can purchase premium brands to stock up your room fridge.
Both OBLU NATURE Helengeli and OBLU Xperience Ailafushi are Maldives resorts which offer a truly affordable family holiday in what has become an undeniably expensive destination. The signature Maldives elements of amazing beaches, turquoise sea and vibrant sea life are still very much in evidence at either resort, only both offer much better value for families through their exceptional all-inclusive resort plans.
Now all you have to do is choose which one’s right for you. My advice? Try both!
How to plan affordable Maldives holidays
How to get there
Direct UK flights to the Maldives take from 10 hours, 38 minutes.
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Malé between October and March.
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to Malé, 3 times weekly, from October 2023.
Where to stay
OBLU Nature Helengeli
OBLU Island Plan all-inclusive includes:
3 meals a day at Spice, plus Indian Ocean Night buffet each Friday;
unlimited cocktails, drinks and bar snacks at Helen’s Bar;
one complimentary á la carte dinner per guest at Just Grill;
one sunset fishing and one local island excursion per guest;
complimentary snorkelling equipment;
complimentary non-motorised water sports;
1 x 45 minute spa treatment on 4-7 night stays.
OBLU Xperience Ailafushi
The Fushi Plan all-inclusive includes:
All day dining, self assisted buffet and beverages counter at Element X;
unlimited regular spirits, beers, wines and signature cocktail/mocktail at X360 bar;
live entertainment; daily organised group activities;
complimentary non-motorised water sports;
45 minute kayak and paddle board hire per day;
access to kids club for under 12s.