So you want to go to the Maldives

Staying in an over water villa in the Maldives was one of my husband’s bucket list items, and this year, he decided we were going. He booked the flights and left it up to me to do the research on where to stay.

I started my search by looking up the best resorts for kids. Although I came up with a list of resorts to look at, I wish I’d found more blog posts that walked me through booking a trip to the Maldives (hence me writing this post). It wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be, but thank goodness for the Maldives TripAdvisor forum. With all the information I gleaned from reading the forum topics and questions, I felt well equipped to move forward on booking a trip, but there was a lot I needed to learn before I did.

Because you can look through that forum yourself, starting with the Top Questions About the Maldives, I won’t go into all the details you’ll need, but I will tell you how we decided on–and booked–our resort. It took a leap of faith, but it all worked out.

The first thing you need to know is that to get the best deals, you go through one of the recommended travel agents. Yes, it’s contrary to everything I thought – who uses travel agents these days when you can do it yourself? But the experts on the forum were right, the travel agents often got better deals, including lots of extras that I’ll talk about later. Do yourself a favor and look up the recommended travel agents on the TripAdvisor forum, I won’t list them here in case they change over time.

The next thing you need to know is that the most highly recommended agents came from the UK. That has its own set of issues for people booking from the U.S. I’ll go into more detail later.

I started with an email to four of the recommended Maldives travel agents. I listed what we were looking for and our budget. I tend to be fairly detailed
(over water villa, kid friendly, all inclusive), so when one of the agents replied back with a resort suggestion that had NO over water villas, I ticked them off the list. At least read the email to find out what someone is looking for.

Two of the other three agents responded. One called me from the UK, and after asking questions about how we like to travel, recommended Ayada Maldives. He also suggested looking at Outrigger Konotta but told me he thought I’d get more out of Ayada.

I looked up the two resorts and shared them with my husband and our friends who were also booking a trip. According to the agents, Ayada is somewhat overlooked because it’s so hard to get to. Once you finally get to Male, it takes a one hour domestic flight to Kaadedhdhoo, followed by a one hour speed boat ride to Ayada. It may take a little longer to get to, but Ayada is quickly garnering a name for itself. It’s listed as one of the top 25 hotels in the world on TripAdvisor, and it was recognized as one of the best hotels in the Maldives by Conde Nast. Don’t trust me, go ahead and look it up for yourself.

After much back and forth, we decided to book Ayada.

Before I could get back to the agent, he left on a trip to the Maldives, and another agent picked up where he left off. I found her difficult to work with and was frustrated that it often took me asking multiple times to get the quotes and/or information I wanted. During this time frame, I was still corresponding with another agent, but the rates were not as good, and he kept pushing us to choose Outrigger Konotta.

Even though one of the original four agents had never responded to me, the reviews for her were so good on TripAdvisor that I gave her another try, and she got back to me immediately, with a better rate and better conditions than any of the others. Let me explain:

  • after landing in Male, you still have to get to the resort – once you fly into Male, you have to get a speed boat/sea plane to the resort–any resort, not just the one we picked, or you have to get a domestic flight to another airport and then a speed boat. Agents can often get the cost of the transfer INCLUDED with the rate. If we had not booked through an agent for our trip to Ayada, we would have spent thousands of extra dollars for the six of us to transfer to Ayada.
  • our agent got a great rate on the Ayada Diamond Package – because we stayed 7 nights, we were eligible for the Diamond Package, and it was much more affordable through the agent. The price difference between all inclusive and half board was so small that it made sense to upgrade to the all inclusive.
  • UK agents might have credit card charges – two of the other UK agents had a processing fee of 2.8 to 3% to use a credit card from the U.S. The one we used did NOT charge a processing fee.

So, the agent we booked with had the best rate, managed to get our transfers included with the rate, got us upgraded to the Diamond Package for a small fee, and did NOT charge us to use our U.S. credit card. The time we spent researching and talking to agents paid off.

There is a lot of information about all of this on the TripAdvisor Maldives forum, and I encourage you to research for yourself. The information I’ve listed here is about my experience to get you started, but it is not thorough. Booking through a UK agent took a leap of faith in that I had some anxiety about the whole thing being legit, but it was so well documented on TripAdvisor, and the agent was so good about explaining what kind of coverage she had as a travel agent, that I was able to leap. And everything worked out perfectly.

If you’re in the process of booking a trip to the Maldives, good luck and happy travels!

Belton House and Outdoor Adventure Playgrounds

With Belton House, things work a little differently than the other National Trust properties we’d been to. First, it’s so popular that visitors have to reserve spots for timed entry. We were going on a weekday, so we didn’t reserve online, but we were lucky to get timed entry for two hours after we got there. If we’d been going on a weekend or school holiday, the tickets to the house probably would have sold out before we got there. To make the most of our time, we booked the basement tour before the house entry, and it was free for National Trust members.

With the popularity of Downton Abbey, I could understand the compulsion to learn more about how the servant class lived, and the tour was eye opening. I loved the real life examples the tour guide gave us about people who’d actually lived and worked at Belton House, how much they got paid in comparison to today’s salaries, and how the family took care of the servants – even going so far as to pay for the treatment of one of the servants who had cancer. It painted a picture that was kinder than the one I’d had of how families treated servants (too many error-filled historical novels?). I left the tour with a much better understanding of the hierarchy and duties of the serving class. It was fascinating.

Like I said, entry to the house was timed, and we made sure not to miss our window. The girls loved the “tickets” that provided entry to the house — an old-fashioned key. We gave the keys to the woman at the door, and we entered to begin exploring the house.

I will say that navigating the house was sometimes confusing. While trying to catch up to my husband and the girls, I took a wrong turn and missed an entire level of the house, finished the tour, tried to figure out where my family was, returned to the entrance, asked for help, and finally realized that they had gone upstairs when I had gone across the landing.

The house itself was incredibly grand. I was fortunate to spend some time in a small room filled with paintings – just me and the room guide. I call it lucky because I may have missed the Frederick Leighton painting if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. Of all the famous painters, I love the Pre-Raphaelite painters the most, and the painting of Countess Brownlow by Frederick Leighton was stunning. Because of my interest in that painting, the room guide pointed out a few of the other more popular paintings. But my eye caught on one that reminded me of The Swing by Fragonard. It was called The Belton Conversation Piece by Philippe Mercier. When it caught my eye, the sun was shining on it in such a way that the woman in the swing was illuminated. Truly exquisite.

The other truly noteworthy aspect of Belton House is that it is also known as Rosings Park in the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice. I was so impressed, I even took photos of the Blue Bedroom, where Mr. Darcy stays during his visit to Rosings and where he writes his letter to Lizzie.

I toured the rest of Belton House by myself, having lost the family. It’s always nice to go at your own pace.

As a rewarding ending to the day, the girls played in the indoor play area for a while before we took them to the Outdoor Adventure Playground. It was extensive. We made it right before the cafe closed, so the girls got some ice cream, and I got tea with milk and sugar. It was perfect for the quickly cooling afternoon. We didn’t see the girls again until it was time to go, and of course, on their way back to the entrance, they tried all the outdoor adventure play things that they could. I also had a go at some of them! The area was so extensive, we could easily have stayed an entire day there without the girls getting bored.

To summarize, our trip to Belton House was great, and we’d go again with extra time for the Outdoor Adventure Playground.

A Visit to Grimm & Co – Using Incentives to Keep Kids Going on a Long Trip

Oh, Grimm & Co, this wonderful, fabulous, magical place! It knocked our socks off from the time we approached the door until the time the girls (5yo Kora and 9yo Juliet) found a quiet place to activate their wands, as instructed by the magical apothecary.

You see, our girls are seasoned travelers, but even seasoned travelers need a little incentive to go along with their parents’ aggressive sightseeing schedule, and when I read reviews about Grimm & Co Apothecary to the Magical, I knew it would be the perfect reward for my girls after some long days of travel and sightseeing.

It exceeded ALL my expectations! And I say that even though I knew going in that it wasn’t your typical tourist destination. It’s a charity that encourages kids to write, which is right (write – hah!) up my alley, but it being the morning of a typical school day, Grimm wasn’t hosting any events or workshops. We were basically going out of our way to check out the onsite store, much the way we would check out something like Harrod’s, but maybe on a slightly smaller scale. And we were going to Grimm & Co because it looked and sounded like a store straight out of Diagon Alley.

But I digress, Grimm & Co encourages kids to write in the best, most funnest way imaginable…by teleporting them into a world of fairytales, magic, and make believe. The decor was only the beginning! From the time we entered until the time we left, we were treated to a storybook experience as magical creatures. You can check out some Google Images of Grimm & Co on Google to get an idea of the setting and ambiance.

It began with an explanation of why we had made a special trip to Rotherham just to go to the store despite there not being a writing workshop on. The magical apothecary (staff member) immediately took charge and led my girls to the magical detection station to determine what kind of creatures they are (Juliet = Fairy; Kora = Leprechaun). She then pointed out various magical artifacts, told stories about them and how they got there, and introduced Juliet to the writing station where she could write to any character she wanted (she chose Harry Potter, I think Kora chose Cinderella). Another apothecary made us tea and orange juice and biscuits and then they left us to explore the store offerings.

The girls went a little crazy with wands – as if they didn’t already have some – wand cases, t shirts, potions, potion ingredients, spell books, and stamps for their letters to Harry Potter and Cinderella. While we were exploring, the apothecaries conferred with Graham Grimm about letting the girls tour the writing space, and he must have given the go ahead because the next thing we knew, Juliet had found the trigger to open the secret door that opened into the world of writing, and we were in the inner sanctum!

What an incredible writing space (again, Google Images)! Once the girls got through the door, their imaginations were cleared, and they ran up the staircase (decorated with the spines of some of our favorite books!), past the office of the mysterious Graham Grimm, and to a secret garden. They saw where all the writing magic happens before returning to the shop via the giant beanstalk that grew from some beans Jack dropped after a shopping trip. If only we could have stayed in the garden for a day to just write and write and write some more.

I’m not sure how we managed it, but we spent nearly two hours at Grimm & Co. It was one of the highlights of the trip for the girls, and they couldn’t wait to get to our next stop (Cambridge via Grantham, but more on that later), where they activated their new wands in the wardrobe of the hotel. I thought that was a perfectly appropriate conclusion to a perfectly magical day.

No, that’s not the end! Those letters the girls sent to Harry Potter and Cinderella? They replied! The letters are sitting in an envelope on my desk, waiting for Juliet to return from Girl Scout camp so they can open them. I can’t wait to see their reactions!

Visiting Hardwick Hall and Kedleston Hall – Shining a Light on Those Georgette Heyer Novels

It’s easy to imagine the slow moving pace of life for aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries when you visit places like Hardwick Hall and Kedleston Hall. With all of the history, historical fiction, and historical romance I’ve read, these grand mansions lived up to, no…surpassed, my expectations. I’ll admit, I’ve been comfort reading Georgette Heyer for the last couple of months, and she was just the right person to be reading while visiting these houses. I couldn’t help but imagine carriages rolling slowly up the winding roads with these majestic houses in the distance, the women in their large skirts, and the liveried servants rushing to open doors and do their bidding.

We started our sightseeing extravaganza at Hardwick Hall–a National Trust property–with breakfast in the cafe, overlooking the fields. The sun was shining, we were surrounded by rolling farmland, and it almost felt like the Italian countryside. Not a bad way to start the day!

Before moving on to the Hall, we stopped at the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall and learned about the history of the family, the ruins, and Hardwick Hall – fascinating stuff – you can look up the complex histories yourself, but the most important takeaways are that Hardwick Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, the 2nd most powerful woman in Elizabethan England. She amassed her wealth through four marriages and had strong connections to the Tudors. During Bess’s fourth marriage, Bess and her husband became the custodians of the recently abdicated Mary, Queen of Scots. See, fascinating!

Even the girls loved exploring. They got handouts with specific items they were supposed to find, and they took to it spectacularly. Even Kora was excited to check off the items she found. The grounds were also kid friendly, especially the stable yard with picnic areas and activities. We wanted to get to our next stop, so we didn’t enjoy the grounds for long before ushering the girls along to the car. On reflection, we should have made a few of the properties full day trips instead of half day trips. The girls would have liked more time to run around in the gardens and playgrounds.

Next up, Kedleston Hall, another magnificent National Trust property. Walking up to Kedleston was truly impressive with its neo-classical columns and grand staircases. The history isn’t as exciting, maybe because we’re not English, but the house and collections did not disappoint. The girls particularly loved the famous Peacock dress, and Kora wants one just like it.

Again, I thought of Georgette Heyer novels where the characters live in opulent houses and hold parties and balls or visit with gentleman callers or nosy neighbors, and it was so much easier to picture after having been in one of these houses with a grand ballroom, long and winding driveways, and acres upon acres of manicured lawns that are perfect for long walks or leisurely rides on horseback. Although I’ve loved imagining the Georgette Heyer world, it wasn’t until I started visiting these National Trust properties that I could truly appreciate the lifestyle of the English aristocracy in the time periods I love to read about.

As a perfect end to our day of sightseeing, I got a little time to myself with a cup of tea, the English way with milk and sugar, while sitting outside with a view of the house and grounds.