News & Reviews Indian Ocean Maldives Review: Joali, Maldives

If time heals all wounds, it also can create new ones.  Being overindulged really can have its downside, folks.  It turns out, our education system missed a crucial class somewhere between maths and history: Sympathy 101 for the Spoilt.  There really needs to be more publicity and empathy for our cause.  During my last visit to Joali in 2019, a year after it opened its doors, I was in love.  Now, I just look at it and think, “What’s the point”?  Maybe I need a better therapist.  It was like seeing a long-lost love that returns with herpes sores on their face.  But Joali is not a bad resort, it just failed to live up to my expectations, failed to live up to the competition and had two flaws that I struggled with.  Ok, so maybe it’s not great either.

On this trip, everywhere went against expectations.  Everyone said Reethi Rah is awful, it’s not; I thought Waldorf Astoria Maldives would be awful – it wasn’t; I thought paying rates Christmas was a waste, and Velaa proved otherwise.  Joali is the only place we departed more disappointed than when we arrived.

No Apple Vision Pro from Santa?  Rubbish.

Joali features 73 villas, with 49 overwater poised over the water.  Whatever the difference is, that’s how many are on land – because, as of yet, sky villas aren’t a thing.  Joali is renowned for its immersive art displays scattered throughout the island, one of the Maldives’ best beaches that stretch towards the jetty, its authentic design, and housing a nuclear launch site.  One of these facts might not be true.  Guess which one, and you might just earn yourself a free trip to Joali (disclaimer: free not included).

Opening in 2018, it felt like the first actual competition to Velaa and Cheval Blanc Randheli.  It never quite reached the heights, particularly as having 50% more rooms, it lacked the exclusivity, but it was as close as anyone had managed.  Their desire to aim for greatness was part of the charm.  The island is also charming: a small, natural island enveloped in lush greenery, maintaining a genuine and authentic atmosphere.  You can easily walk around the island within ten minutes, and like Joali Being (a 15-minute speedboat away), it’s not the most pleasant barefoot experience.  Since our last visit, and due to damage to the island, groynes lurk on every corner, reminding you that natural is great, but sometimes silicon isn’t too bad either.  But where you lose, you sometimes win, as I don’t know how they do it, but here and Joali Being to be mosquito-free.

They blend modern architecture and traditional Maldivian craftsmanship, which splits you into one of two camps: those who like it and me.  Some people hate the lack of authenticity at Cheval Blanc and Waldorf Astoria Maldives, as there’s nothing Maldivian about them.  Joali has the feels, but my feeling was more “Did I really used to love this design”?  Lucie and I even dug up our old pictures to double-check our memories or if they had undergone some transformation.  They had not – it was always this way.  It turns out that staying in ultra-luxury villas starts to make you a bit of a twat.  Maybe it made some of the guests twats, too, as it was the first resort on this trip where I felt like people wanted to be seen, especially around the pool.  After nearly twenty nights in the Maldives, it was the only property that felt busy.  Come lunchtime, getting a table was harder than understanding Tenet.

We arrived on Christmas Eve and received a warm, beautiful welcome, with our daughter handed flowers, gifts from the kids club and coconut drinks for all of us.  Back in the room, they had done an excellent job with the stay list, including a charming Joali special Christmas hamper.  There were no snacks for us, but the kids had a small plate of treats that might have vanished before they had a chance to see it.  The Christmas tree, like Being, was some weird, fugly-looking thing that deserved to be banished from whence it came.  We asked them to replace it, and they did so with a real Christmas tree.  I like knowing they had to keep a backup as they realised their mistake.

The architecture emphasises natural light and seamless indoor-outdoor living, with large windows and doors that open onto a private terrace and outdoor pool overlooking the beach.  The decor incorporates local crafts and materials, creating an authentic Maldivian atmosphere.  With this being my fifth review of a Maldives property in the space of the last five weeks and the third property to emulate Jean-Michel Gathy’s design, it does get a tad monotonous to repeat the layout.  But let’s pretend you’ve not read every other word I’ve ever written (lucky you), so let me explain how the ceilings are high, how there’s an open-planned feeling to the room, although doors between the living and bedroom can be closed, and how it’s still a great design and layout.  For the most part.  I will never get behind a design that doesn’t physically separate the bathroom from the bedroom.

Our room, a Grand Beach Villa (their top one-bedroom villa) #2, was perfectly positioned: opposite where breakfast was served and practically beside the kids club.  The downside was that from 7:30 am, we could hear seaplanes very loudly taking off from near our room.  They’re very private, with entry via a door into a large, enclosed area that contains your villa, pool, a semi-private beach area, and, I had forgotten, they also include a small room to the side for the nanny.  The space is immense, with over 800 sqm, all yours.  I did not love the outdoor areas, which didn’t seem to offer much in the way of comforts, but at least no one can see you struggling as they are very private.  They decided to put the bath outside, which normally would be a mosquito’s wet dream, but as I have to keep emphasising in amazement, I did not find any here.

It was very interesting coming from Being, which is essentially Joali 2.0, back to Joali.  It’s not like it’s bad here, it’s just not as good.  Except for the fact that you get two TVs, whereas Being gives you none, and you can also play music with built-in speakers, whereas Being gives you the comforting sound of silence and your stomach gurgling.

It’s incredible to me that somewhere can feel old in such a short space of time – I wonder how other properties will contend with this now there are more than ever new openings.  I had such fond memories before, but now the dark colours and functionality were not offering much inspiration.  I was also getting annoyed with the lack of clear separation between rooms, with no way to separate the bedroom from the living room (same half-closing door) like Being and nothing to the bathroom either.  But worst of all, that stupid sofa with a hidden wooden slab at the bottom, which everyone managed to kick at least eighty-five times and curse the designer for being born.

Joali is certainly more kid-friendly than its namesake, Being, but that is like congratulating you on being more vegetarian than Hannibal Lecter.  For a start, the kids’ club looks like it was designed by someone who had seen a child before, and the indoor and outdoor areas were next to each other, helping you move in and out without needing to use a compass and a hiking stick.

The outdoor area boasts a climbing frame, slide, trampoline, a small pool, and various activities, aiming to create some sense of adventure.  Indoors, the space divides into two rooms: one dedicated to arts and crafts and another designed for younger children, filled with soft cushions but lacking in excitement.  The indoor setup, with its scant selection of toys, seems to cater more to older children, leaving the room with the enthusiasm of a hospital waiting room.  It seems they geared everything towards older children, with activities focused around them going out and having fun, whilst the younger kids were left behind to contemplate why Santa doesn’t love them.  Just like at Being, our three-year-old did not want to be there.

Where she did enjoy her time was the ice cream store, where everyone gets one free ice cream per day.  I dunno how they keep track of it, so try a new fake moustache and monocle every few hours and see what happens.  Near the back of the island is a roofed tennis court, a multipurpose court, and a paddleball court.  There’s also an art studio and a “chef’s garden”, which is a garden you can only enter if you’re a chef?  Joali really does like some immersive art and has some things scattered around the property, including their somewhat famous Manta Ray treehouse, which is used for a private dining experience and also for people who love mantas and wish they could be legally inside of one.
The lounge above the gym has undergone a transformation since our last visit, now resembling a teens club complete with a pool table, TV, PS5, and table football.  The indoor gym, equipped with TechnoGym gear, mirrors that of Being, albeit on a smaller scale.  I encountered someone who proudly claimed to have designed the Being gym, wearing it as a badge of honour, reminiscent of boasting about designing the Hindenburg.  Oddly, the gym operates within specific hours, which struck me as unusual.  There’s an outdoor gym, too, and I’m hoping it’s free from the constraints of a timetable, but in this place, who can be sure?

The spa beautifully integrates art and ocean views to foster a peaceful atmosphere.  It offers separate saunas, steam rooms, and hydro pools for men and women, along with a hair salon, hammam, and treatment rooms that hover over the water.  The only downside is that the Being spa is significantly better.  Once again, spoiled bastards, we are.

Joali offers multiple dining options that they refer to as Culinary Arts, but based on the quality, I’m gonna say more like Culinary Farts.  Ammirite, guys.  Guys?  No takers on that joke?  Damn.

Mura Bar is the only restaurant open for lunch.  The food style can be described as ‘meh’ with a twist of “blah”.  And I tried, ladies and gentlemen; I certainly gave it my best shot, particularly with the desserts, which sounded like culinary marvels.  But they were more The Marvels which was also shite.  Neither I nor even my one-year-old, who would eat out of a bin, found any joy at Mura Bar.  I do need to bring up two special dishes, though.  Firstly, please take a moment of silence to appreciate how terrible their mango cake was.  Then there’s the Greek salad that costs $40 and a further $30 to add chicken.  You could literally buy the country of Greece for less.  As Plato once said, “$70 for a Greek salad?  I could buy two caves for that”.

Elsewhere is Tuh’U for Levant cuisine, Vandhoo for Chinese, Indian and South East Asian, which is quite the mix; Bellinis for Italian and Saoke offering Japanese and Tepinyaki.  At Saoke, our chef put on the best display of all teppanyaki on this trip (yes, somehow this was our fourth teppanyaki, showing how innovative everyone in the Maldives has become), but other than the rice, the quality was not there.  I ended up leaving my final few dishes.  We also tried Bellinis, which again was just average.

The breakfast buffet was equally underwhelming.  There are two areas, one cooled with some fruit, another with pastries, and one day, but one day only, a burger station.

There were only two parts of the food I cared for: they offered these chocolate caramel balls in the room, and they were like crack.  Secondly, for their Christmas Eve buffet, they went all out, but I got stuck on the Japanese food and never managed to try anything else as it was so good.

The key thing that I want to make clear is that they always tried, and service recovery was absolutely over the top.  That gives me the faith to still suggest there’s hope here because anyone who cares that much deserves a second chance.  Also, all our complaints made it to the GM, even though we only ever gave feedback to our butler as he was requesting it.

Our first lunch was comped because our room was not ready, even though it was our fault for coming early.  That was really the standard that they wanted here.  On our final lunch, they did a beautiful setup with flowers on the table; our butler managed all our departure forms for us; one of the waiters at Bellini’s was carrying our 1 year old around to entertain her; our 3-year-old had a random person bring over a strawberry milkshake.  There are good things here, let me make that clear.

Sadly, other elements are not there.  Sometimes it was quicker to go order at the counter for lunch.  By sometimes I mean always.  Housekeeping would show up so late in the morning, often closer to 11.  They also always did beautiful things with towels and flowers, but the surprise was lost as every day we saw them doing it as they came at annoying times.  They knew of allergies but grouped it all together for the family (shellfish) and mistakingly thought it was seafood.  So 2 points?  They did the same at Being which was bizarre, just to assume the entire family has it, rather than an individual.  Drinks would take an age to arrive and sometimes just go missing.

Do you know when the service recovery is just as bad as the initial point?  Their apology was to give us the same champagne and wine as we were given on arrival, which had remained untouched in our room.  Seeing that I don’t drink and they know it, they were expecting Lucie to drink four bottles of champagne and wine in 24 hours.  Fair play to her, you go, girl.

The highlight, without question, was the Christmas Eve party and the Christmas Day celebrations, though the latter seemed to lack any real planning or thought.  Unlike other resorts that kick-started their festivities on the morning of the 25th, this place decided a 4 pm Santa appearance was the way to go, leaving a gaping void of activity throughout the day.

I have to balance this between the experience being magical in my mind, whilst feeling at the time that they were showcasing an astounding lack of thought.  On one hand, I will fondly remember the Christmas celebrations for a long time.

The Christmas Eve party set the stage with live music, the staff getting down on the dance floor, an epic buffet and an air of excitement throughout the night.  But the real magic was Santa arriving on a submarine (luckily, he survived – he’d already seen Titanic, so he didn’t need to bother going again) flanked by some elves on jet skis.  This was followed by a parade to the beach, where children were given presents and food was served.  Our butler was on hand to help us and the party atmosphere was magical for my children.  Just a truly beautiful moment I hope my kids will remember for the….oh, what’s that?  They’ve already forgotten.  Damnit.

On the other hand, after our Christmas Eve party, we returned to the room to find half-eaten meals on our table like housekeeping had started on the eggnog already.  The absence of even a token turndown gift, something even Being managed to provide, was stark.  The General Manager did offer apologies, admitting their oversight and explaining that an earlier-provided hamper was meant as our gift.  If there was one day of the year you wanted to get turndown right, it was then.

Joali’s departure plane didn’t exist the last time we came.  It’s good, but Velaa and Cheval are nicer.  And that summarised the stay.

The Good

  • I dunno how they do it, but here and Joali Being seem to be mostly mosquito-free
  • Facilities
  • Spa

The Bad

  • Kids club – for younger kids, it’s not ideal
  • Food

The Luxurious

  • Service recovery

Rating

Good

Conclusion

Joali left me with more questions than my daughter discovering “why?” for the first time.  What do they offer better than anyone else?  And who is it for?  I’m still not sure – people who love service recovery?  Amidst the sea of brilliant Maldivian resorts, Joali somehow seems to fade into the background.  While other resorts may not have Joali’s extensive offerings, they can stand out and create a niche.  The Nautilus for food and service; Kudadoo offers all-inclusive simplicity; even Joali Being focuses on wellness.  I wasn’t sure where Joali stood.

But there is a but here.  There is a reason they’re not on my shit list.  They put in a Herculean effort at making things right with kindness and service recovery, they just couldn’t fix my problems (can anyone?  Mine is a long list.  I really do need to switch therapists).  Everyone was confident about why they do things, but just cos you can justify it doesn’t mean it’s good.  They aimed for the stars but barely cleared the sand dunes.  My two main gripes were the kids club and food, so their comp meals don’t do much as it’s like saying I don’t like shit and then throwing me in a pig sty.

Typically, when I find myself airing this many grievances in a review, it’s a sign of apathy from the property.  That was clearly not the case with Joali.  They went above and beyond, throwing everything at us, all unrequested.  Such effort deserves recognition.  It was evident they were bending over backwards to make us happy.  Truly, they spared no expense or effort in their quest to provide us with an unforgettable experience.  So much, in fact, that I felt like I was being bribed.  I casually mentioned my love of their chocolate balls, and they delivered a lorry load.  Lucie mentioned a coconut chocolate she liked, so they sent an entire plantation to the room.  If I’d told the GM the only way I could be happy was to spend the night with his wife, I’m sure he’d have obliged.  But for whatever they threw at us, the food continued to be lousy (except those chocolate balls), and the kids club was underwhelming.  I have fond, sweet memories of Christmas Day here, but know they would have been even more special elsewhere.  It’s hard to overcome these points.

Enduring meal after meal with little to look forward to does wear thin, especially compared to the culinary highs experienced at Waldorf Astoria Maldives and Velaa.  Nevertheless, they kept trying, and for that, there is hope.  I shall summarise this review as: “Not for us, but maybe for you….but please consider Velaa”.

Apparently, two more Joali’s are on the way; maybe one of them will rediscover the magic.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 7th Feb '24

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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