News & Reviews Indian Ocean Maldives Cheval Blanc Randheli vs Velaa

Velaa Private Island, Maldives
Room type: Beach Pool House
Duration: 23rd > 27th June, 2018

Disclaimer: My fiancé is Czech; Velaa is owned by a Czech billionaire; the GM is Czech.  There was some wide-scale patriotic bias being whispered in my ear.  

Cheval Blanc Randheli (CBR) and Velaa have become synonymous with each other in the Maldivian luxury sector.  You cannot think of one without the other, just like Ant and Dec.  They even opened around the same time, are within a 25-minute boat ride from each other, and went for the top end of an already high-end market.  Practically twins, I’m sure you agree.  Like North Island and Fregate in the Seychelles and cocaine and bankers, you are unlikely to consider one without at least looking at the other.

During my first visit to North Island I got to learn a valuable lesson regarding the art of timing; I was told prior to heading to Fregate that it would only disappoint.  I was coming from North Island; it’s far better to go from Fregate to North than vice versa, they said.  I felt that no matter what Velaa does, I am already going to suffer that fate – Cheval Blanc was just that good.

Pre-sales

Cheval Blanc sent through a detailed questionnaire to personalise your preferences between temperature, allergies, robe and slipper sizes, activities and spa treatments.  Velaa sent through an email telling us how much they were looking forward to seeing us.

Winner: Cheval Blanc

Getting there

Cheval Blanc has one, if not the best, private airport lounges in the world, although the list of those who offer one can be counted on one hand.  Still, it is a beauty.  As of this year, Velaa now matches Cheval Blanc in offering its own custom designed private plane, although the difference is that they do not charge you extra to use it.  They are both within the same atoll and approximately 45 minutes from Male.

Winner: Cheval Blanc

Maldivian equivalent of tumbleweed.

Arrival

It is not a fair comparison that we flew to CBR, whilst taking a boat transfer to Velaa.  So let’s ignore that.  But were I marking it, a 20 minute comfortable boat ride with WiFi against a 45 minute flight gets my vote.  On arrival we had management greet us with champagne and juices, and not even a whiff of a credit card form to fill in – Velaa actually do not ask for one until the night before your departure.  We immediately heard birds and other creatures that were alive – a truly terrifying experience.  What is this wizardry?  Cheval Blanc had none of this.

Winner: Velaa

Stay List

CBR had the exact Tempur pillows I wanted.  It was going to be hard for Velaa to beat that.  And so it proved.  The room setup, amenities and thoughtfulness of Cheval Blanc was superb, whereas Velaa provided welcome champagne, fruit, and a welcome card with the butlers name tipexed out and replaced with someone else.  Hopefully he’s still alive.

Winner: Cheval Blanc

Setting

Not a single mosquito bite from either property.  Whereas The Brando talks up their mosquito eradication program yet ultimately failed, Cheval Blanc and Velaa have found a way to murder them and murder them good, without any bravado.  Cheval Blanc managed this by turning every day into a glorified fox hunt, where staff must be financially rewarded for killing anything they see, whereas at Velaa I am at a complete loss as to their magic.  Perhaps all that money really can buy you happiness.

Whilst I can debate the pros and cons of the spa at Cheval Blanc being on its own island, there is nothing else that I would favour it for.  Velaa has a more beautiful beach – one you can walk around the entire island on; Velaa has wildlife, not just in the trees, or the unnatural amount of stone turtles everywhere, but within the waters and sand.  We missed watching turtles hatch by just a few days on either side of our stay.  The beach was superb, even comparable to North Island: super soft sand, white beaches and perfectly maintained.  The circular shape of the island means you cannot get lost, as you’ll eventually end up where you need to be.  It’s idiot-proof, just as long as you don’t start walking away from the place you’re looking for, as then it’s proven you’re an idiot.  With the main road being covered in sand, we always took off barefoot, and because I’m the kinda guy that likes to impress the ladies, I showed off my physical strength by timing how long it took for us to walk around the entire island – 12 minutes, as you asked.  Ironman competition, here we come.

This is not to say Cheval Blanc is some kind of monster; it is a beautiful island, but it does not lend itself to explore in the same way Velaa does, nor does it have the beach to properly contend.  Velaa is built within a single island, with facilities such as the spa being overwater, whereas Cheval Blanc consists of multiple islands.  They both suffer from the same issue of the noise of the seaplane on its regular excursions to the mainland.  They both suffered days of horror weather, followed by sheer perfect blue skies.  Best stick to peak, methinks, which is Dec > April.

Winner: Velaa

Rooms

Do you know when you see a room and think “wow, this has been really thought through?” That’s not Velaa.

For such a luxurious resort that clearly cared little about money during development (and proves it by putting all their profits back into improvements every year), Velaa could have done so much better.

We saw all rooms, except the Romantic Villa – it was occupied and for some unfathomable reasons me being there wouldn’t increase the romance – none wowed. Ours, a 2 bedroom because the Deluxe Beach were all under maintenance, was the same as a 1 bedroom Deluxe, just with a double pool, gazebo, and unsurprisingly a second bedroom.

Yet even then, it was not on the same level as Cheval Blanc.  The amount of space Cheval offers is incomparable.  Then you throw in the layout, natural light, colours, style, technology, bed, plus added kitchen area, guest toilet, private outdoor dining area and of course my favourite: free minibar.

I saw a lot of talk that whilst at Cheval you should take room 46 or 47 due to the extra privacy, but perhaps it was due to low reason and therefore low occupancy, I never had any issue with it – we swapped rooms, so tried both an Island Villa and Water Garden Villa. I would not consider any of the rooms at either resort entirely private though (except maybe the Villa’s Owner on Cheval).

In Cheval Blanc you will be more than satisfied regardless of what room category you have, whereas the entry-level category at Velaa should be avoided due to the lack of real indoor living space.  Do not think being in the Maldives will mean you always want to be outside, particularly if your skin is allergic to more than 3 hours of sunlight a year like mine.  Damn you, pasty parents.

Cheval and Velaa have 46 and 47 rooms respectively, but that is about all they share in common with room facilities.  This is not to say Velaa is bad, it’s just a disappointment after Cheval Blanc, although I suspect the Queen would be a tad annoyed at returning to Buckingham Palace after living it up in Cheval Blanc.

Anytime I find a TV in the bedroom that is in an unwatchable position, I know things were as carefully planned as a funeral outside a day care centre.  It shows afterthought and dedication to design, rather than focus on the guest.  The fact that they offer free movies shows that they expect people to use it, but only those who will need a chiropractor afterwards.  The TV even became unworkable as it overheated, as if to emphasis this.  Whereas Cheval Blanc has AirPlay in every room, Velaa has just started to upgrade it and instead offers you a portal Bluetooth speaker, just so you can be really annoying on the beach.  I even had to open the curtains myself in the morning – surely a breach of my human rights?  They implemented a night light that automatically comes on, but even if a mouse farts it triggers it.  The WiFi asks you to login with your name and room number, like nearby pirates are somehow stealing the bandwidth.

Velaa’s owners must have been abused by a TV salesman, as even in the living room the TV, directly in front of the sofa, has a chair obstructing the view.  Basically, the layout, style and attention to detail just isn’t comparable to Cheval Blanc.  The rooms feel small and cramped, not helped by the dark woods that flood the interiors.  The minibar not being free is just another reason to be outside.  There is absolutely no competition between the two properties, right up until you venture outside or relieve yourself – just ignore the plastic flowers.

Outside, the pool may be smaller, but it’s far more useful; that beautiful beach awaits; the ocean just steps away; the lounging areas more comfortable.  It makes you really appreciate being in the Maldives.

My main advice is don’t book the base room category at Velaa as there’s no separate living area and the the bedroom feels cramped. The rooms are easily the biggest disappointment at Velaa. It took me a few hours of being grumpy before I went outside and then realised how amazing the private area is, so got over it. Probably best doing Velaa first, so Cheval wows even more. At Cheval all the rooms are exactly the same, it’s just what you have outside that alters. You could have any room category at Cheval and love it, but Velaa you’re going to want at least a Deluxe Beach or over water.

Winner: Cheval Blanc

Facilities

Velaa has a very similar feel to Huvafen Fushi.  Unsurprising, when you know the owner had stayed there over many, many years and took a large percentage of staff with him to Velaa.  The room categories, room layouts, spa and library all “borrow” inspiration from Huvafen Fushi.  Yet Velaa is Huvafen Fushi on steroids – it is so clearly in another league that the comparisons end there.

Both properties have kids clubs so good, I could have chopped off my legs, impersonated a child and spent the week there.  They both have their main pool and bar, although my preference would be towards Velaa for the extended and private dining areas, and being able to watch the sunset whilst sat on a seat in the pool.

Both try and seduce you with a variety of shops, although the “Concept Store” at Cheval Blanc is beautifully done, as you may come to expect from LVMH.  They both did their best to put on a show for the World Cup, with Cheval adding a TV within their bar, and Velaa not taking any prisoners by adding a massive projector in their games room.

Winner: Tie

Spa / Gym

Ladies and gentleman, take a deep breath and breathe it in: I went to the gym.  It was hard not to.  It was so big that it was inevitable I would end up there eventually, even if by mistake.  All those monkeys with typewriters have found their ultimate destination.  The gym and spa facilities at Velaa are better than any other island retreat I’ve ever been on.  Some of it felt like showing off, such as a snow room or their phalic-shaped, vibrating structure called Cloud 9, which gave none of the expected pleasure and served as a disappointment to me, but an expected disappointment to all women. Other facilities are pure class: a sauna and steam room with views out across the ocean; a jacuzzi (sadly not heated) next to it; their supremely comfortable loungers offer an excellent respite from the stress of choosing which treatment to have next.

During treatments, you face down onto glass, allowing you to peer into the ocean.  Mine was superb, something I rarely write, whereas Lucie disliked hers – something else I rarely write.  This was the opposite case at Cheval Blanc, with I sharing no love for my therapist, and Lucie baptising her a saint.

It does not require much of a description to explain how different the spas are, when you know that Cheval Blanc has an entire island dedicated to theirs, whilst Velaa is a man made structure over the water.  The serenity of Cheval is unsurpassed, but ultimately I want to get in there, use some facilities and leave.   The only area that Cheval once again wins in is their human focus: the splendid materials they use, the face mask to stop your head going numb, the story behind choosing your fragrance for the massage.  Velaa goes big and bold, whilst Cheval apply the small touches.

Winner: Velaa

Activities

Submarines, jetpacks, yachts faster than speedboats, speedboats faster than dolphins on steroids, squash courts, climbing walls, tennis courts, badminton courts, volleyball, table tennis, humungous gym, football with the staff, live pianists and bands: that’s Velaa.  With Laucala, it is the more activity heavy property I’ve ever been to.

I’m unable to think of a time I had more fun.  And I include that night with a walrus, a pint of butter and a lumberjack.  The in-room iPad gives a daily list of recommended activities, varying from nature walks, piano lessons, watching football, stingray feeding, all the way up to flyboards and jet packs.  They even have another deserted island they rent for private events.

You do need to take a moment to appreciate exactly what is on offer here.  It is a plaything by billionaires for millionaires.  All the equipment is either new or soon to be.  Just imagine the cost of an air-conditioned squash court, or maintaining a 9 hole golf course.  No, don’t do that, it’s boring – you failed the test of whether you should go to Velaa.  Your punishment is to choose one of the, let’s say, eclectic activities, that raise an eyebrow or three, such as a Mermaid Photoshoot for $245 for 45 minutes, or dumping all your kids on an island survival package – the cost of bliss comes in at $1500.

Alternatively, if you want to never see them again, prod this fella with a stick for free. 

I would like to tell you how much I enjoyed the submarine, but it is nowhere near as good as Laucala’s.  I even noticed they’ve renamed it to a semi-submarine, as you’re actually semi-submerged, have to swim into it and therefore have to equalise – something, along with analogies, I’ve never been particularly good at.

Price wise, CBR and Velaa are very similar, but the main difference is the lack of group activities at Velaa.  They have “Private Island” in their name, as they focus on almost entirely private activities.  So if you want to see dolphins then cough up $1800 compared to $145/pp on a shared tour at Cheval. I like dolphins, but not that much. Perhaps better we leave them alone, I say.  They’re probably sick of seeing humans anyway.  We actually booked the dolphin cruise at CBR, but the weather turned against us; no worries, we said, we’ll just do it at Velaa….

I’m sure Cheval Blanc offer some activities, but who really cares?

And if you don’t like Velaa, try telling that to his 31 year-old man-child. Just look at that stupid grin on his stupid face, having the time of his life.

Me happier than you will ever be

Winner: Velaa

Food

It’s sometimes not what you do, but how you do it.  Velaa was not happy having yet another Teppanyaki, so they decided to build it in the tallest island structure in the Maldives.  Neither were happy with the lack of fine dining options around in the Maldives, which I’m sure we all agree is a blight on society.  How dare they not serve up 3 hour meals in 30C heat.  But luckily they fixed that. 1947 at CBR and Aragu at Velaa respectively are their competing top-end options, with Aragu clearly winning this round due to a more beautiful surrounding, far better dishes, a pianist in love with film music and a menu personalised to me – truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  I didn’t have to ask for a single change, they had already done it.

Strangely it is Velaa that enforces a dress code at Aragu, whilst 1947 is far more relaxed.  Polo shirt and trousers – it was not my lucky day.  Borrowing clothes whilst on a private island is normally because I’ve soiled all my underwear.  I survived, but the scars will live on.  A shame that Cru, their champagne bar within the same building as Aragu, is also only only 4 days a week.  It offers the perfect environment to watch the sunset, but apparently too much of a good thing and all that.

Whilst Velaa only has 3 restaurants to CBR’s 6, variety is not a concern.  There are 14 International cuisines available, each managed by a chef from that country.  Breakfast is the largest buffet I’ve ever seen on a private island, with entire areas for Indian, Chinese, European, Maldivian, pastries, cheese, meat, cereals and more.  During peak it’s larger still.  Actually thinking of their guests, the door even self opens, so you’ll have both hands free to feast on as much as possible.  But their real show was when I mentioned how there was no sliced fruit and the next day a new table was put out with just that.

Food was always prompt, and always of a high standard.  Their Greek salad was a particular highlight, along with the delights from their pizza oven.  As luck would have it, we got to try chefs take on black cod and steak at both properties and Velaa easily came ahead.  Pricing was very similar, although I cannot help but take umbrage at $20 for a slice of cheesecake that was invisible to the naked eye.

Athiri serves as the main restaurant, with it or room service being your only choices for lunch.  Its beach setting makes it suitable to spend the entire day, were it not for the open environment sans air conditioning.  Not to matter, you can just dip your feet in the water whilst eating dinner.  Just make sure to remember which side of the restaurant allows smoking so you’re not subjected to someone else’s inconsideration.

The only disappointment at Velaa was Tavaru, where the teppanyaki came with quite the performance, but it was not enough to hide how expensive and disappointing it was.  Tavaru is only open for dinner, so you’re denied the opportunity to enjoy the views on offer, which may have helped distract further from the abomination on your plate.

At the top of Tavaru, no one can hear you scream.

Where CBR excels is their specialities, notably Italian at Deelani and teppanyaki.  It makes this quite the riddle.

Velaa: Athiri, Tavaru, Aragu

Cheval Blanc: The White, 1947, The Diptyque (Chinese and Japanese), Teppanyaki, Deelani

Winner: Tie

Service

I absolutely loved the GM of Cheval Blanc.  He treated us as if he personally was hosting us, as if the entire experience was just for us.  Velaa’s GM, a self-confessed introvert, impressed by actively engaging with us every day, even though it was not his forte.  I really appreciated him spending the time to talk to us, although I much preferred his company as we rushed around on jet skies. There are times where you just appreciate life, and this was one; I was laughing like a manic as we rushed through the water at 35mph to another island.  

Both properties offer butlers, with my preference being towards Velaa; he was easier to understand, was on top of everything and never made any mistakes.  He did not offer to unpack as they do at CBR, but let’s not get picky.  The same applied with the staff elsewhere: it was exemplary.  Cheval had their fair number of mistake orders, but at Velaa you ask, you get, they smile, you high five. You also get a line asking for a tip, which was pleasantly absent at CBR.  The service felt a step-up at Velaa, although occupancy was 30% compared to CBR’s 65%.  I particularly liked the desire for anyone to provide you with a cold towel at every venue, sometimes even going as far as running after me to give me one.  Even dropping by to visit the spa, an ice tea awaited.

They are far more relaxed about signing the bill than Cheval Blanc, with few really caring if we did at all.  They do not offer my beloved minibar, but they are very generous with daily fruit replenishments that were absent from Cheval Blanc, plus a series of evening snacks. They were even more generous with toiletries – large bottles and they were completely restocked, even though we hadn’t finished the first lot.  Cheval felt like being on rations.

It can be very hard to provide feedback – not because the owners do not want to hear it, but because this is clearly so personal to them.  The owner is here several months a year; the owner’s brother is the GM; the GM goes on about how much he loves things here and how he came as a guest.

I recently criticised the strangeness of Il Sereno and the GM not coming from the industry, but that would not have been an issue if he hadn’t acted the way he did. The GM at Velaa is the brother of the owner, who also has no experience in the industry, but I never had any issue with any service to complain. In fact, the way they tailored things for me is quite incredible, so clearly there is a good team. For example, I sent my usual stay list which mentions things I do/don’t like, and for the fine dining menu they completely altered ingredients for me without even asking, right down to specific types of chocolate. I’ve never had that before anywhere.

Aragu

Winner: Velaa

Departure

A warm farewell at the end of the pier, as Soneva Fushi came to take us on the worst journey of my life, to one of the most disappointing hotels of my life.  They stocked us with earplugs, water and mints, knowing they are the only resemblance of luxury we would see for a while.

Worth Knowing

Got a late checkout?  No problemo.  Velaa have a day use villa for guests who are stranded without a room on their final day.

The Good

  • You’re in the Maldives

The Bad

  • The rooms should be better

The Luxurious

  • Perfect setting
  • Wonderful food
  • Epic activities list

Conclusion

I feel like I’ve already gone through a divorce in writing this review, as we disagreed so much over it; Lucie preferring Velaa, I more of a Cheval man.  Ultimately, I prefer Cheval Blanc, but Velaa is an absolutely brilliant option, proved by us extending our stay at Velaa for an additional night.

Both GMs talked fondly of each other, yet tried to differentiate their properties by describing the type of guest most likely to visit their neighbour, but both assumed the same of each other, that is, they both believe the type of person that would go to the other property was someone different to who actually stays in their property.

So let me tell you how they separate.  Cheval Blanc is like your elegant, successful Aunt that everyone looks up to and admires; Velaa is your mental Uncle that has been sectioned twice and gave you a venomous pet snake for your 8th birthday. Sure, we all love Aunt Mildred, but really our fond memories are with Uncle Cletus. It’s very expensive, but I had so much fun that I didn’t care.  In fact, probably the most fun I’ve ever had on holiday, with great memories of making a fool of myself as a supplement.

I can absolutely see why Cheval Blanc and Velaa are so closely compared as the best within the Maldives. It seems almost like they counter each other in every area: where one excels, the other falters. The rooms at Cheval Blanc are undeniably better, yet the beaches at Velaa are amongst the best I’ve ever experienced and the freedom of walking barefoot around the entire island is wonderful; the overall attention to detail at Cheval is immense, yet our butler was better at Velaa; the activities are Velaa are only bettered by Laucala, whereas Cheval Blanc has some of the best dining options in any resort. It goes on and on, even down to the teppanyaki at Cheval being great, whereas the fine dining at Velaa was better; Velaa is better at black cod, but Cheval is better at beef carpaccio; I preferred my massage at Velaa, but Lucie preferred hers at Cheval.

I don’t think anyone could deny that the rooms at CB are far better than Velaa, but I much preferred being led directly onto the beautiful beach with soft, white sand at Velaa. The spa, activities and setting are unequivocally better than Cheval Blanc, and I suppose the rest is up for discussion.

Velaa is not perfect; Cheval Blanc is not perfect, but I think overall you would find less fault with Cheval Blanc, and more fun at Velaa.

Athiri

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 3rd Aug '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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