Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Pandemic Trip 2021 ✈ Maldives

For the past year, we've cancelled multiple trips but kept our hopes up that the pandemic will soon be over and the world will return to some sort of normalcy in 2021. However, this year is showing that this pandemic will still be with us for awhile and many countries are still keeping their borders closed. 


Maldives is a bucket list destination that we originally planned to save for later when we are older (and have less energy), but this pandemic brought the following changes that made us decide to pull the trigger and make this trip happen earlier. 
  • Hilton extended the expiration dates for all Free Weekend Night Rewards through 2021 and provided the flexibility to use it for any night of the week. That means, I could use both 2019 and 2020 Free Weekend Night Rewards that came with my Hilton Aspire credit card for 2 free nights in one trip.
  • Maldives is one of the few places that is welcoming tourists of any nationalities and does not require quarantine.
  • The seclusion and exclusivity of the 'one island, one resort' set up make Maldives a relatively safe and appealing travel destination at a time like this.

Honestly, with the constant changing travel requirements and flight schedule changes, we weren't optimistic that this trip was going to happen. I lost count of how many times we've changed our flight and hotel bookings since we booked this trip back in June 2020, to the extent that we were still changing our flight up to 2 days before departure. Fortunately all our bookings were made with points and miles, which made it much easier and stress-free to make changes.

Now that we've safely returned from our trip, here's our first-hand experience on how it's like traveling to the Maldives during a pandemic.


Pre-departure Preparations

We've been taking this pandemic very seriously since the very beginning. Apart from hubby having to go to work daily as an essential worker (his lab runs Covid tests), we've avoided all social interactions and stayed home for the past year. Besides, hubby had also been fully vaccinated earlier this year. 

We did our research to understand the Covid situation in Maldives, including the measures and prevention efforts that the Maldives government and the hotel have put in place to ensure the safety and well-being of the tourists.

The Maldives require all travelers to have a negative COVID-19 PCR test result taken within 96 hours prior to departure, and complete a Traveler Health Declaration form within 24 hours prior to arrival the Maldives. To be safe, we tested ourselves for 3 consecutive days prior to departure and received negative results for all 3 tests.

We were absolutely aware of the risks we were taking to travel during a pandemic and the price we may have to bear in case we need to quarantine in the resort. As such, we bought insurance that would cover any additional medical and quarantine costs. 

Unlike our previous travels, traveling during a pandemic means packing a lot more 'Covid' related items such as masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizers, gloves, etc. I brought an extra fanny pack with my carry on to keep all these stuffs. Call me crazy but I even disinfected all the cash we withdrew.

We could have packed very lightly for this 5D4N trip, but we fully utilized the check-in baggage allowance of 50 lbs each as I was traveling back to Malaysia directly after this trip so 80% of our luggage space was filled with stuffs to be brought back to Malaysia.


36-Hours Journey from US to Maldives

Mar 17-19 (Wed-Fri): Huntsville - Dallas - Doha - Male - Conrad Maldives 
Of all the airlines that we could redeem with our miles, we decided to use AA's miles to redeem Qatar Airways flights mainly because Qatar had been the most consistent airline throughout this pandemic. That means less risk of last minute flight cancellations (many airlines have cancelled most of their flights). Our original flight booking was for QSuites (one of the best business class seats) but there weren't any QSuites available when we shifted our travel dates so we opted for economy. Oh well, I guess we shall hold off on inflating our travel lifestyle for now. =P

Our flight from Huntsville to Dallas was scheduled for 1.24pm. However, the weather was expected to turn bad in the afternoon so we requested FIL to drop us off at the airport earlier at 11am so he could drive home before the weather gets back. 

As expected, the airport was pretty empty and it took us less than 10 minutes to check in, get through security and get to our boarding gate. It is important to keep things organized at times like this. As such, I made a folder of all the documents we needed for this trip, including all the additional Covid-related travel documents such as our negative PCR test results, hotel booking confirmation in Maldives, return flight from Maldives, Letter of Undertaking to enter Malaysia, etc. Btw, even though masks are required at airports, you can still see people who just can't follow instructions. =.=

We boarded our flight on time, but as soon as we sat down, the pilot announced that our flight will be delayed by approximately 2 hours due to weather in Dallas. Fortunately, the flight finally departed in time, leaving us with only 1 hour (instead of 3 hours) to transit in Dallas. We made a quick stop at The Club, a Priority Pass lounge to grab some quick bites.

The amount of people at the boarding gate for the Dallas - Doha flight was certainly more than what we expected. As we were connecting from another domestic flight, the airline staff at the boarding gate paged for us to review all our travel documents needed for Maldives, including the negative PCR test result and hotel confirmation. They also asked for our Maldives Health Declaration QR code but since it was still more than 24 hours prior to our arrival in Maldives (we had a 7 hour transit in Doha), the staff reminded us to ensure we complete the form prior to boarding at Doha.

We flew on an Airbus A350 and the flight was probably half full. Face mask is required throughout the flight (face shields are no longer provided/required). All cabin crew were also dressed in protective gears. The airline also provided a hygiene pack that contains a mask, gloves and sanitizer for each passenger. To be cautious, we wiped down our seats and surrounding area with the disinfecting wipes we brought, and double masked with our own N95 or KF94 masks.

We initially had a row of 3 for the both of us but were able to switch to a full row each after take off, and made myself an economy 'lay-flat' seat. It was so comfortable that I slept for more than half of the 14-hr flight. Who needs QSuites when we can get something similar for less miles. =P
 
We were served 3 meals during the 14-hr flight and we both thought they were good.

Landed in Doha at 6.15pm and an airport staff screened the temperatures of all passengers as soon as we got off the plane. We headed straight to the Al Maha Transit Lounge, a Priority Pass lounge, but was directed to the Oryx Lounge next door, and was given a voucher to the Qatar Airways Business Class lounge instead as it was full.

I don't really know the differences between each lounge but I'm glad we got directed to this lounge as it was less crowded and the 4 hours limit weren't enforced here.

The lounge did a pretty good job with the food and beverages by packing everything individually. There weren't too many choices but it was good enough for us.

My favorite thing to do after every long flight is to take a good shower. There were only 2 shower rooms in the female washroom but I didn't have to wait at all. The shower was very clean and it felt great to be able to clean up and refresh after traveling for 24 hours.

After chilling for 5 hours, we left the lounge at 11.30pm and walked to our gate for our 12.40am flight, with a quick photo stop with the famous lamp/bear. 

We were surprised to see our boarding gate was packed with people, mostly Russians. Most of them weren't bothered about social distancing but what annoyed me more was people who refused to wear their masks properly. =.= Our flight was probably 80% full but at least we were able to get a row of 3 for ourselves.

We were impressed that a meal was served for the 4-hour flight from Doha to Male. 

Approaching Male airport. We landed at 7am, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

However, it took 20 min to taxi and we had to get on a bus to get to the airport terminal. There was no social distancing on the bus, and it got even worse at the immigration area. There were a few flights that landed around the same time with no 'traffic control' at the immigration. The social distancing stickers on the floor were obviously for-display-only. We stood in line for approximately an hour before getting through immigration. We had all our documents ready but they only needed our passports. The online Health Declaration we submitted were linked to our passports and we've uploaded the negative PCR test results so they had all the necessary information in their system already.

A Conrad airport representative with a 'Conrad' sign board was already waiting for us at the arrival hall. We were escorted to the Conrad counter (counter #19) where another Conrad staff helped to take our bags and escorted us to the Trans Maldivian (seaplane) check in counter. The baggage allowance for the seaplane was 27kg + 3kg hand luggage for each person, and each extra kg will be charged $5. I was afraid that ours were gonna go overweight, but luckily they looked at the total weight (60kg for 2 pax) and we came in under at 56.1kg (23.1kg + 23.1kg + 5.4kg + 4.5kg). The Conrad staff took over the whole seaplane check-in process and it was all done within 10 minutes. The seaplane charges were included in our final hotel bill.

We were then escorted to the Conrad van which took us to the Conrad lounge, where we could relax and enjoy complimentary refreshments before our seaplane flight. We could also take a shower if we wanted and Diamond members could get a free 15-min massage here. However, as our seaplane was departing soon, we only had 15 min at the lounge so we only had time to quickly refresh and change into our shorts. I didn't even have time to enjoy my cappuccino...what a bummer. I'm blaming the slow immigration for this.

A group of us then hopped on a small bus and were taken to the seaplane terminal. There's a waiting area at the seaplane terminal but we didn't need to wait at all. We were ushered directly to our seaplane, with barely enough time for me to take any photos. It felt like we were on a race the moment we got out of the arrival hall...here's the timeline:
8.35am: Met Conrad rep at arrival hall
8.37am: Check-in for seaplane
8.45am: Got on Conrad van
8.54am: Arrived Conrad lounge
9.12am: Boarded mini bus to seaplane terminal
9.16am: Arrived seaplane terminal
9.21am: Boarded seaplane

One of the reasons we chose Conrad over Waldorf Astoria is because of the seaplane transfer. Conrad uses a seaplane whereas the latter uses a yacht. Both of us had never been on a seaplane so we wanted this experience. The seaplane transfer takes 30 minutes and costs $590 (incl. tax) round trip per person. Yes, it's very expensive and not a very comfortable one. Reality is, the seats are pretty cramp, there's no AC (only 2 small fans), and it's loud. =P Anyway, it was still a cool experience being able to takeoff and land on water, and see the 'barefoot' pilots and the cockpit from our seats. I was busy taking videos and photos throughout the flight so it was obvious that it was my first time getting on a seaplane, a total opposite of that guy sitting in front of me...lol!

Our seaplane made a stop for 2 passengers at another resort before dropping the rest of us at Rangali Island at 11.15am. It started raining as we landed so the hosts waited for us with umbrellas on the seaplane platform. We were reminded that the island is an hour ahead of Male's time, and our phones shows Male time by default so we'd need to follow the time for Dhaka, Bangladesh. It can be confusing but important to keep track of time because most meals have specific time slots.

While the staff helped to unload our luggages from the seaplane, we were invited to wait in the seaplane waiting lounge. Our host, Jamie, introduced herself and brought us coconut drinks while we waited. This was when we finally felt like this trip was real, and we can finally relax now that we've made it to paradise...Conrad Maldives Rangali Island!


Mar 19-23 (Fri-Tues): 5 Days & 4 Nights in Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

After enjoying our welcome drink, we rode in a buggy to the hotel lobby area for check in. Jamie helped us with the check-in process and acknowledged our requests for a sunset view water villa that I had previously included in my email to the hotel prior to our arrival. 

I did some research on Flyertalk and had shortlisted a few rooms with better view/location but was informed that they were all occupied. Oh well, at least we still got a sunset view water villa. I found out later that they've started renovating all the sunrise view water villas so we wouldn't have gotten any of the sunrise view villas anyway. 


Over-water Villa (Room 317)


We booked the water villa for the first 3 nights and were given room 317 (2nd from the left in the photo above). As the lobby is on the main island (Rangalifinolu) but the water villa is on Rangali island, we hopped back onto the buggy and Jamie took us to the other island. She told us that we could take our mask off and won't need to wear mask on the island for the rest of our stay. =) All staffs were required to wear masks at all times though.

Exterior of our over-water villa from the front and the back (ocean).

Interior of our sunset water villa

I've read recent reviews about how aged and worn out the water villas were and the hotel was going to refurbish and renovate all the water villas starting mid-April so we kept my expectations fairly low. However, when we saw our room, we both felt that it's very comfortable, well maintained and clean. The glass-paneled floor underneath the desk was pretty cool too. 

Our water villa comes with a private sundeck and an infinity tub/jacuzzi. The tub is small but the size was perfect for the both of us to sunbathe and relax in it while enjoying the ocean view. It's not like we were going to swim in it anyway. We spent most of our time sunbathing on this deck when we're not roaming around the island. 

 
There is a staircase on the left of our deck that provides direct ocean access. The water is crystal clear and it was shallow enough to walk. We didn't snorkel around the villa but the water was so clear that we spotted some fishes, including reef sharks from our deck. 

We received a bottle of sparkling wine and a box of chocolate as part of my Diamond member benefit.


Beach Villa (Room 215)

We booked the Beach Villa for the last night of our stay to experience a different room. The Beach Villa is on the main island so the hotel staff came to our water villa in a buggy at 11am to help move us to our new room.

The beach villas are set in tropical gardens with direct beach access. I specifically requested for the beach villas on the sunrise side facing the house reef. The interesting feature in the beach villas are the outdoor showers. The walls are high enough for privacy so it was fine for us. The only issue was the ground getting really hot during the day.

Thanks to Jamie for making this arrangement for us.

In response to Covid, the hotel added extra measures to clean and sanitize the rooms.


Dining in Paradise

It's a known fact that dining in the Maldives is not cheap. However, thanks to the Hilton Diamond benefit that comes with my Hilton Aspire credit card, we received complimentary daily buffet breakfast (7am-10.30am) and daily happy hour (4pm-5pm). By turning our breakfast into brunch, we were able to save quite a good bit on our meals without starving ourselves.

Due to Covid and the lower occupancy, not all restaurants are open every day. As such, we were provided with this schedule upon check-in. We were also advised to make reservations ahead of time as the restaurants have limited capacity for social distancing. Our original plan was to make reservations for Mandhoo, Sunset Grill, and Ithaa, but both Mandhoo and Sunset Grill were fully booked for the time slots we wanted. Fortunately, we were able to reserve a cocktail hour spot for Ithaa, which you will see more below.


Vilu
Vilu is on the water villa island and it's only a short 5 min walk from our water villa. It's an open-air restaurant located on the edge of the lagoon. This was our favorite restaurant and also the one we frequented the most during our stay (for breakfast and happy hour)

The amazing view is the reason why Vilu is my favorite restaurant on the island.

 Buffet options for breakfast. We were also able to order additional items off a menu.

We certainly felt safe with all the measures the hotel put in place. There were several hand sanitizers at the buffet area, all tables were disinfected, there's a QR code we could scan to see the menu on our phones, plenty of social distancing, and the outdoor seatings meant we were not in confined/enclosed areas. 

Even though there are 2 restaurants serving breakfast, we had breakfast in Vilu on the first 3 days, and only went to Ufaa on the last day when we moved to the beach villa. 

Daily happy hour at 4-5pm with unlimited alcoholic beverages and one canapé for Hilton Gold and Diamond members.

We slowly retreated from outdoor to indoor as the days went by and we got more 'burnt'.


Ufaa
Ufaa is the other restaurant available for breakfast and is located on the main island. We had breakfast on our last day here. This restaurant seemed to be more crowded than Vilu and we saw more kids here.

Breakfast on the beach.

Slightly more options for the buffet but there's no made-to-order items here.


Rangali Bar
Rangali Bar is located on the main island and did not require reservation so we had lunch on the first day and dinner on the last day here. We liked the food here and the prices are also very reasonable. 

We liked what we had on the first day and ordered the exact same thing during our 2nd visit. Hubby had the Wagyu beef burger ($38) and I ordered the poke bowl ($26). Our bill for each meal was about $90 after tax and tips.


Ithaa Underwater Restaurant
Ithaa is located on the main island and it's the world's first and only all-glass undersea restaurant. We are not foodies so the only reason we are willing to pay for a 'meal' here is for the experience and photo op. The cheapest option is to visit during the cocktail hour from 11am-12pm. For $110 per person including tax, we got 1 champagne, 1 canapé, and 1 hour to take as many photos/videos as we wanted. =P

We arrived about 20 minutes before 11am to take some photos outside. We could see the restaurant from above. 

We were expecting other guests to arrive for this time slot but we were the only ones there at 11am so the staff gave us a quick intro of the restaurant, brought us our champagne, and brought us downstairs into the restaurant. I must say, it felt magical going down the dark spiral stairs and entering the empty underwater restaurant. 

We still couldn't quite believe that we were the only ones there but we wasted no time and started taking photos before other guests arrive. There was one staff in the restaurant and she gladly helped to take our photos. 

We had the restaurant all to ourselves for a good 15 minutes before the next group of guests arrived. You can imagine how many photos/videos we took within that 15 min. Hahaha! It was bright in the restaurant, which explains the sunglasses.

Jamie told us that the Maldives authorities banned all resorts from feeding the fishes just a few days before we arrived. We were worried that we wouldn't be able to see as many fishes but we were glad the fishes were still swimming around the restaurant.


Sunset Grill
We were planning to have over-water dinner here on our last night but it was fully booked. However, we had a chance to 'visit' the restaurant on our way to Ithaa.

We had to walk through Sunset Grill to get to Ithaa. Since we got there earlier, the staff asked us to take a seat and wait at Sunset Grill before walking over to Ithaa.

Sunset Grill wasn't open for lunch so we were the only ones there. Once again, we took the opportunity to take photos and videos of the empty restaurant. =)

The water was so clean and clear we saw so many different types of fishes from above.


Mandhoo
We planned to have lunch here on our first day. However, it was fully booked and we found out that the fish feeding had been cancelled due to the government ban.

Mandhoo overwater restaurant


Infinity Pools
There are 2 pools. The Quiet Zone pool on Rangali Island is for adults only, and the one on the main island is for families. We spent most of our time in our water villa's pool so we didn't really use any of the common pools, apart from taking photos.

Adults-only infinity pool

So relaxing overlooking the lagoon and the glittering horizon

We went at 8am before the pool was open and the staff was still cleaning the deck so we were able to take photos of the empty pool.

Love the layout and view from this pool

The main pool is located next to Rangali Bar and offers views across the Indian Ocean. 


Beaches
The island is surrounded by white sandy beaches so there is a beach everywhere you walk on both islands. Let's start with the beaches on Rangali Island...

This small beach is located next to the Over Water Spa. The wooden swing and the leaning coconut tree with water villas in the background make this a good photo spot.

This beach is one that we have to walk through everyday to get to Vilu. There is also a dock on this beach, where we can catch the dhoni (boat) to go back and forth between both islands.

This beach is next to the Quiet Zone adults-only pool.

This beach is located next to the Sunset Villas and is the closest one to our water villa. We could see both sunset and sunrise from this beach.

This beach is located on the other end of Rangali Island, where all the beach dining events such as the Fisherman's Barbeque, Champagne and Lobster Night, etc. are held.

This beach is on the main island where the Rangali Bar is located. The leaning coconut tree is a popular photo spot.

This long stretch of beach is the one that we have direct access to from our beach villa and is located on the sunrise side facing the house reef. 

We can also see The Muraka, the world's first undersea residence, from this beach. 


Tropical Vibes
When we first arrived and was riding on the buggy to our water villa, I was surprised to see lots of trees around the island. 

Thank goodness all the walking/buggy paths were shaded by these trees.

Coconut trees everywhere 

Sunrise & Sunset

I woke up early every morning to see sunrise. A good spot to watch sunrise that was close to our water villa is the deck towards the Sunset Villas. 

Beautiful sunset from the water villas area on the main island.


Night views

Not sure if it was jet lag or the alcohol from the happy hour, we were in bed by 8pm for the first few nights. We only explored the main island at night on our last night.


Activities
So what other things did we do apart from walking all around taking photos?

Rented a paddleboard. Paddleboards, kayaks, and pedal boats can be rented free of charge from the water sports desk.

Snorkeled at the house reef.

We rented the snorkelling equipments (mask, snorkel, fins, bag) free of charge from the Dive Centre. Life vests were available free of charge at the watersports center, but had to be returned each evening before 6pm.

Workout - Hubby ran and I did yoga on the deck.


Took jumpshot photos all around the island.

Took photos of this super chill bird that's everywhere on the island...including the roof.


Covid Testing
The resort also provide on-site PCR testing for guests who needs it. It costs $150 per person and will be charged to the final hotel bill. US requires all passengers to have a negative PCR test prior to departure so we arranged for hubby to get his done in the resort. As Malaysia doesn't require a negative PCR test, I opted to get tested upon arrival instead.

Jamie helped to make the arrangement for hubby to get his swab test at 1pm the day before our departure and we received the results via email before we checked out at 3.30pm the next day. The hotel also printed 2 extra copies for us.


Departing Paradise
After 5 relaxing days, it was finally time to bid goodbye to paradise and head back home. I was continuing my journey to Malaysia while hubby will fly back to the US. Instead of taking the shorter route with SIA via Singapore to fly back to Malaysia, I opted for the longer route with Qatar via Doha to avoid the long transit in Changi airport, and also for hubby to help with some of my luggages before we split ways in Doha.

As our flight departing Male airport was at 7.55pm, the hotel arranged for us to take the 5pm seaplane. Male is an hour behind Conrad so we'd have sufficient time for our flight. 

Upon landing at seaplane terminal, the Conrad staff picked us up in a van and took us to the airport departure terminal. We were impressed that the Conrad staff helped us with our luggages all the way through security until the check-in counter. As you can see, the airport was packed so it took awhile before we completed the check-in process.

Similar to our flight coming to Male, the flight departing Male was also quite full but at least we had a row of 3 for ourselves. Dinner was served on this 5-hour flight.

Back in Doha airport for a 2.5 hour transit. Once again, we were directed to the Qatar Airways Business Lounge, where we took a shower and had some refreshment before going to our respective gates to board for our flights to Dallas and KL. 


Phewww...that was a long post for our 5D4N stay at the Conrad Maldives. Planning and preparing for this trip was certainly more stressful than all our pre-pandemic trips, but all our worries melted away the moment we stepped foot on the island. We certainly appreciated this opportunity to rest, relax, and rejuvenate while getting tanned. This trip is also a reminder not to take the freedom to travel for granted, and the importance of following all the safety measures to protect ourselves and people around us. Thanks to the resort for doing all the right things to make us feel safe during our stay. While it may still take quite some time for the travel industry to fully recover, I'm hopeful that everyone in the world will have the opportunity to travel freely once again.

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