The Maldives, along with Paris, is the most competitive luxury hotel market on earth. Sure, you can go look at AMEX FHR or Virtuoso and see 427 hotels for either New York or London, but most of them are so crap that Mary would have still chosen the stable floor. In Paris, you may only have around 18 truly luxury hotels, but roll a dice and you will still end up in a great property. Each has to offer something exceptional to outdo the competition, so it’s only a matter of time before one of the perks are Get Out of Jail free cards and your own Russian troll farm. The Maldives is even more ruthless, so just think what’s on offer and what you can get away with.
Since the opening of Velaa and Cheval Blanc in 2012, the Maldives seemed to peak. Everybody was either too afraid to compete or didn’t have the financial means. Whilst it was still highly competitive, we were left with the usual suspects of Four Seasons, One&Only and enter-any-other-brand-here. When we started to plan this trip, I first thought: do we really need another hotel in the Maldives? Do we have to be subjected to yet another website that goes through exactly the same motions and presents it as an epiphany in living, where some caucasian woman gently whispers about how her life on crack was all whisked away and now she’s on the verge of curing cancer, all after a short stay (minimum 7 nights)? Then see the usual activities play out: eat some near-extinct animal on a floating tray whilst swimming in your private pool; go punch a dolphin on a jet ski and turn all Gordon Ramsay on your butler by treating him like a piece of dirt, anytime you want.
Then I decided this was exactly what I wanted. So we spent a good chunk of our December in the Maldives trying out the new contenders: Joali, Kudadoo, Soneva Jani and The Nautilus. Soneva Jani opened in 2017, whilst the others have all opened within the last 12 months.
You’ve spent 10 hours on a burning metal tube, regularly breathing in regurgitated germs, whilst being served food that Jaws rejected. The arrival experience is important. Ideally they’d have a psychiatrist waiting for you, but a lounge will do.
The Maldives is currently rebuilding half the country, some of which include a new airport terminal for all the seaplanes. You’re best checking the date that this is published and if it’s more than a year later ignore all of it, as everyone is moving to the new building with their new lounges. All the same, this is what we’ve got to deal with for now.
This is probably the easiest category to rank, as Joali is easily the best. It’s small, but it’s beautifully designed and comes with a menu that is slightly better than your local cinema. Nautilus shares their lounge with Milaidhoo and was comfortable enough that it wasn’t going to embarrass anyone, but even here their very attentive service shined and was a sign of what was to come. We never got a chance to visit Soneva’s lounge, but there’s no way it could be worse than Kudadoo’s, not even by Soneva’s standards. Kudadoo’s lounge is like an abandoned film set. It’s separated from their main lounge, Hurawalhi, by a see-through curtain, so you can only partially hide your shame at being in here. Their only amenity was a confused waiter, offering us a tuna sandwich. We spent a few minutes in there before begging Joali to take us back.
- Soneva Jani
Once you leave the lounge, you’re then back onto yet another plane. Oh you lucky boys and girls, you. Nautilus has its own – rather lovely – plane, Joali is getting one later this year and Kudadoo shares one with their other properties that just appeared to be a normal seaplane with their own branding on the outside. We transferred to Soneva Jani by boat and unlike our transfer to Soneva Fushi last year, it didn’t break down, so these are welcome improvements.
This is unfair, but then so is life. Kudadoo is such a small island that it barely has room for a beach, Soneva Jani has the beach so far away that it may as well not exist, and when you do arrive you’ll be greeted by an army of bugs anyway. But the world is a sick place, so some people may enjoy that. That means it’s really only Joali or Nautilus, both of which have overwater and beach villas.
None of the properties offer an excellent beach, and really none offer much in the way of spending time on the beach, but Joali and Nautilus at least offer a sense of having one. I arrived at Nautilus, took my shoes off and left them festering by my suitcase, as my feet were treated to the pleasures associated with what I call barefoot luxury. Barefoot luxury shouldn’t be some squalid tent made of bamboo leaves on an island, it should be the ability to completely relax, whilst not having to get your skin ripped off your feet by the badly planned wooden piers or glass left in the beach. Check and check.
Joali does have a beautiful stretch of beach leading to the overwater villas, plus has a beach area around the main pool, so you won’t miss out, but it’s rather exposed compared to Nautilus.
- Soneva Jani
Joali took a little look at Cheval Blanc, then took a much longer stare, the kind that starts to make you feel uncomfortable. Then went full blown stalker on them before likely kidnapping Jean-Michel Gathy and forcing him into replicating it. But Cheval Blanc is great, so who am I to judge? Tesla reinvented the car, but it’s still got 4 wheels and some doors. That’s probably what Joali’s lawyers said, anyway.
We stayed in higher room categories in Joali and Nautilus, whereas Kudadoo only has one room category and Soneva Jani’s one bedroom rooms are overwater and identical, except for whether you have a slide or not. Of course we went for the slide. If you truly hate yourself, take a room without the slide.
Arriving to Kudadoo after Joali, I paced around like a wolf with a concussion, as I tried to put my finger on exactly what was missing. The room was good, but it wasn’t great; it had the largest bath room I’d ever seen, but then forced you into being in an outside sweat feast to use the shower, toilet and vanities; it was very private, but then was open planned so offered no separate living room. It somehow felt basic, even though it ticked most of the boxes. It’s designed by a Japanese chap, in the style of a Japanese room, with an emphasis on the air flowing through. You may get confused and think you’re in Hakone. It’s the kinda place where you like it, but don’t love it. Like your 2nd or 3rd child. I really need to go back to school to find better words.
Conversely, I loved the Joali room. Sure, it could have been more original, but the design works and the extra touches and focuses on detail is immense. You feel it is a product of love. Private, comfortable, luxurious.
For Nautilus, their basic room categories are not going to wow, so I would recommend upgrading to one of their Residences. These are beautiful. However, their biggest seller is the heated pools. I always ask for the pool to be the highest temperature, simply because most properties consider that 30C. Here they had it set to 40C and I couldn’t tell if it was they or I who was mad.
- Soneva Jani
Soneva Jani would get higher marks were it not for the fact that all its many deficiencies, being more exposed than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and, leaking and making it more moist than erm Sharon Stone.
Joali did everything it could, but it suffered from a keenness I’ve not see anywhere, one where you would be approached so often for feedback that it fell on the wrong side of irritating. “How was your second chew, sir? On a scale of 1 to 5, would you say it’s better or worse than chew 1?”. We would experience staff stood around waiting for us to take a bite, just to then ask how it was, for a follow-up of 4 other staff come over and ask the same question. It was annoying, but you could tell they cared and they really did put a lot of effort into personalising the experience. Just chill out, guys.
I could never quite figure out if Kudadoo was good or lucky, as they rarely were around, but we never needed them – perhaps the hallmark of great service, as it was already done? Soneva Jani, well, I’ve said all there is to say about that and it’s not pretty.
Nautilus was absolutely splendid. It’s clear why: every room has their own dedicated butler. I cannot recall that outside of North Island or Iniala; for comparison our butler at Soneva Jani was looking after 7 other rooms. The staff all knew who we were, they all knew our preferences, chefs knew our allergies, meals were bespoke for us without asking, service was incredibly friendly and I can give no better compliment than saying it greatly surprised me how good it was. Their island is small, so they have to stand out and they do it with superb service.
- Soneva Jani
Nautilus cracked it, Joali boiled it, Kudadoo let it simmer and Soneva Jani left it go rotten.
These damn lists are trickier than they look, aren’t they? I dunno how everyone else does it. It’s almost like they’re arbitrary and mean nothing. Well, Soneva Jani is definitely last, as the food was created by someone with no enthusiasm for food or life, but the rest is tricky. So here’s how I’m judging it: which property never let me down. Kudadoo has only one menu, but it’s incredibly extensive and included one of the best breakfasts dishes I’ve ever had, whilst Nautilus and Joali both have 3 restaurants, including the mandatory Japanese that appears to be a requirement at every property in the Maldives. In fact, they both have an Italian/Mediterranean restaurant too. And an International one. Just like Cheval Blanc. If variety is the spice of life, I’d likely give it to Nautilus, just slightly ahead of Joali, as I preferred the dishes on offer. But I’m a creature of habit and upon taking one look at the Kudadoo menu and picking out some dishes that turned out to be gods gift, I decided to eat them the entire time. All-inclusive wagyu is tough to beat.
Nautilus belongs to Relais & Châteaux, which as you might suspect means it’s got a high focus on food. They created a bespoke Italian menu for us, plus live on the basis that they never have opening times, so if you want a Japanese meal at 2am it’s yours. The chef at Joali would come around daily and speak to us, not at 2am, so less brownie points for them, but it was always to help improve the experience. Their ice cream shop was broken during our stay, so perhaps that’s why they’re not #1. They have a large focus on largeness, so you will not go hungry in Joali, nor will you need to go home fat, as they have a significant focus on healthy eating….if you so choose.
Even though we were celebrating my wife’s birthday at Soneva Jani and wanted to try one of their suggestions, we decided against the private beach BBQ. We’ve done enough of this, so know it will once again sound wonderful, but in reality involves sitting on a beach in the dark, unable to see the food, whilst we have someone stood 10m away starring at us and waiting on our every move, producing mediocre food.
Kudadoo offers the ability to dine in the underwater restaurant, “5.8” on their sister property, Hurawalhi. The setting is spectacular, but I bore easily, so a drink would have sufficed. Whilst eating there, we discussed how grateful we were that it was all-inclusive, as the food simply wasn’t good enough. Then found out it wasn’t actually included in the price. Whoops.
Ultimately, all 3 are good, so it just goes to show how stupid it is creating lists.
- Soneva Jani
Kudadoo suffers from being surrounded by other islands, some so close that you have to close your blinds as they could be looking in, others so developed that it looks like New York is nearby. The biggest benefit though is how small the island is. So small, in fact, that there were no mosquitos there, as not even they have enough space. Joali was the only resort where there are no other islands in sight, but take nothing away from how beautiful the lagoon is at Soneva Jani. The slides may look a gimmick, but they actually serve a great purpose: get you into the water. The warm, beautifully clear waters that are what the Maldives is ultimately about. I’m going to be kind and ignore the thick, mosquito ridden jungle that you must navigate to when you reach the island and give it a higher ranking.
- Soneva Jani
The two best words in the English language: all-inclusive. That’s what Kudadoo offers, and that’s what we were there to validate. The last time we had all inclusive spa treatments was Ani Villas, where the therapist was practicing new-age torture on us. We hoped for better and Kudadoo delivered. Like Nautilus, they also avoid nasty words like opening hours, so the world if your therapeutic oyster. Kudadoo only has 2 treatment rooms, along with a manicure/pedicure, but it has decent facilities in having a mixed-sex sauna, steam room and salt room.
My wife managed to take one for the team and have spa treatments at every single property, so if this was purely on the basis of the treatments it would likely go: Kudadoo, Joali, Nautilus, Soneva, but as this is about the facilities as well, Joali is a clear winner. Just writing this makes me realise this summary is unfair and I really should write a review about each property, but luckily my boss is me, and he says it’s fine to just do this.
Joali’s spa is still not quite Velaa standard, but it’s an excellent offering, especially the overwater private treatment rooms, with their own sauna and steam room. There are separate sexes facilities on land with a hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam, experience showers. Nautilus is entirely overwater, with three treatment rooms, each with their own steam room, and a separate yoga studio and relaxing areas.
Soneva Jani decided to add ambience to theirs, by having it so close to the entrance of The Gathering that you can hear the music and guests whilst you wait in reception.
- Soneva Jani
If I were to write a breakdown of most of the resorts facilities they would be mostly the same: pool, bar, water sports center, gym, boutique (there’s always a boutique), spa, restaurants, dining areas, sand, water, earth, wind, the lot. The way these are presented gives you a reflection of the property as a whole: Joali has an incredible amount of variety, including what some may call bling, but I call classy, design; Soneva and Kudadoo are more rustic, whilst Nautilus meets somewhere in the middle.
There are only several notable exceptions to what’s on offer: Soneva Jani for their excellent Cinema Paradiso, Nautilus for their immense range of private yachts and Joali for their great range of land and water sports. Kudadoo, well, not so much. Excluding the water sports center, all of their facilities are in a single, overwater structure and don’t offer much in the same of uniqueness, even if I was rather fond of their bar design.
Nautilus certainly feels higher-end than Kudadoo, but it doesn’t have the same grandiose that Joali does. Basic is not the right word, but perhaps more simple is. It does not have the same pizzazz, so whilst clearly higher end than Kudadoo and Soneva, it doesn’t have that glamour. You go into the spa and you don’t feel the grandiose of it. Like Kudadoo, Soneva Jani jam it all into The Gathering, then leave their pièce de résistance, Cinema Paradiso, nearly 3km away. Joali is spread out, it’s open, it’s luxurious. You don’t feel, you know a large amount of money has been spent on it, as every single area feels special.
- Soneva Jani
Well you got me here, cos we did the square root of fuck all for the entire stay, other than a sunset dolphin cruise, which is a type of travel far more highbrow than cruising around in a Ford Focus around Cambridge city center. I blame you lot, as I need to take notes, pictures and write about these darn hotels. Joali does have a submarine though, which I’m legally obliged to mention, even if calling it a submarine is like calling a Super Soaker a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Oh, and Kudadoo even includes motorised sports in their nightly fee, so grab yourself a jet ski and treat it like your first born – never let it go.
I often find myself on trips that end up just being far too long. There’s no one else to blame but myself, for no one held me at gunpoint and forced me into cramming so many flights and hotels into such a short space of time. It started in South America last year, then continued into India in 2019. It’s become an issue, as I hate flying so far and not maximising the experience, but it leads to travel fatigue and not wanting to bother going anywhere thereafter.
Not the beautiful Maldives.
Sure, Soneva Jani did their best to even put my unborn children off traveling, but the others were the reason that travel is still such a joy.
It was a joy to experience new properties that make travel exciting, rather than looking at all the issues they suffer.
Joali, Kudadoo and Nautilus each offer a different product, but one that’s worth considering. I’ll admit, I’m unlikely to return to Kudadoo, simply from it being too small, too simplistic and too focused on hiding away in your room, which I managed most of my teenage life and it cost a lot less. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s a bad resort. I’m still at a loss where they fits into the market place though, except for those after a more simple life.
From the moment we arrived at Kudadoo I kept feeling like something was missing and I was struggling to put my finger on it. Soneva Jani is so bad that I will only ever refer to it again when I’ve used my annual quota of referencing the Nazis. Joali is clearly trying to be competitive to Cheval Blanc and Velaa. It’s not quite there, but it’s not far off, but the fact that it’s only a year old and the owner is heavily investing into changes is a really positive sign.
However, it’s The Nautilus what stood out the most for me. 26 rooms, excellent service, brilliant food and, whilst not my favourite rooms, they will not be accused of being bland. It would be ideal to split a stay between here and Joali, Cheval Blanc or Velaa. If you’ve been to Cheval Blanc or Velaa, I cannot see you visiting any of these properties and thinking “wow” on the basis of the infrastructure and facilities, but I think The Nautilus will surprise in how service focused it is: the level they will go to in order to bespoke it for you, the lack of opening and closing times, the dedicated butler.
So next time you go to the Maldives, be grateful that between Cheval Blanc, Velaa, Joali and The Nautilus, you are bound to be delighted.
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