Here’s a guest post from my sister, Ana. Enjoy!
Those who don’t know me well might take a look at my social media feed and assume I make good money. Every so often I would see comments and messages on Facebook and Instagram from distant family or acquaintances reacting or asking about my trips abroad. I am a single mom to a teenager, rely on a modest salary of a legal assistant, and struggle to survive in an expensive neighborhood in Los Angeles. I have taken on quite a plenty of side jobs, just to stay on top of my bills. But I have been to some nice places around the world. I do have something most people do not have. And that is, a travel hacker for a brother.
Early 2019, my younger brother Rambi asked me if I wanted to go to Bora Bora. The trip would be in two weeks, and all I needed to pay for was airfare. I was bummed to pass up on my chance to stay at The Conrad Bora Bora Nui for free. I couldn’t take off work with just two weeks notice and I certainly wasn’t in a position to drop close to a thousand dollars for airfare. I told him to give me a few months notice next time so I could plan my leave at work, make child care arrangements and save enough for plane tickets and a little pocket money. Well, as soon as he came back from Bora Bora, he extended another invitation – The Maldives in seven months.
I religiously monitored tickets from LAX to MLE for months. I almost succumbed to an enticing price drop from over a thousand dollars to around seven hundred dollars. Rambi convinced me to wait it out. Two months before our planned trip, I snagged tickets from Los Angeles to Male via Shanghai for $537.21.
Living in Los Angeles, I always thought that The Maldives would be one of those items I never get to check off my bucket list. Europe or The Americas were just the more practical options. After all, what crazy person would travel 57 hours round trip for only 6 nights in The Maldives? And my boss did call me crazy for being so willing to spend all that time up in the air and in between airports, in exchange for a week of vacation. But I just knew in my heart it was going to be worth it. Turns out, I was right.
I landed in Male at 5:00 P.M. Rambi, Rac and Isa were not due to arrive until 9:30 A.M. the following day. I chose to spend the night at a budget boutique hotel while waiting for my family. I made my hotel selection based on free airport transfers and complimentary breakfast. For a worry-free overnight stay, I’d say $70 is a decent deal. At around 10:00 A.M. the following morning, I was reunited with Rambi, Rac and Isa who flew in from Frankfurt to Male via Dubai.
Right across Velana International Airport, we boarded Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi’s private yacht. After less than an hour, we made it to our little paradise.
As we approached the dock, four individuals started waving at us. One of them was our personal concierge, Hasan. After a warm welcome and some refreshments, Hasan took us in his electric car and led us to our Beach Villa.
Can I be honest with you here? I was trying hard to play it cool but I think my mouth was just open in awe when I saw our Beach Villa. I just felt so out of place. Here I was with my luggage filled with instant noodles (Lucky Me Pancit Canton yo!) and my portable noodle pot, in a luxurious private villa, our own infinity pool, access to the beach and just stunning views every which way I look. I had never been in such a swanky resort and I couldn’t believe I was staying here for free for the next 6 nights.
Hasan handed us a mobile phone and told us to call him anytime for anything. And he really meant anything. Hasan was available to us 24 hours of the day. We never abused our lifeline to him though. That’s just not cool to ordinary folks like us.
Rambi, Rac, Isa and I all just fell into a routine during our stay. Everyday, I would wake up early and watch the sunrise from our villa. Then I would urge Rambi to hop on our bikes to make it to the early morning yoga or pilates sessions. Rac, who was then pregnant with the twins, would sleep in with Isa.
Yoga, pilates and other group wellness activities were all free. But in almost all the days we were on the island, it was just me and Rambi in these wellness sessions with the instructor. It looked like we always had private yoga sessions on a deck facing the sun and the sea. Obviously, the richer folks would rather spend their money in some expensive private activity and had no time to waste on these freebies.
After our wellness sessions, we would ride our bikes from one end of the island to the other, sort of planning and checking out what we could do and where we could go in the afternoon and evening. I found this as a better workout alternative to using their gym. Forget the fancy gym! There’s an abundance of that back where I come from. I am taking in everything on this island!
It became a habit for us to have late brunch. Because of Rambi’s Diamond status in Hilton Honors, every morning we had access to a complimentary international breakfast spread. Chef Handoko noticed that Rambi took seconds and thirds of their Siu Mai (shrimp and pork dumplings), and very kindly prepared these divine dumplings for him on days it wasn’t part of their menu. This was just one of the many things Waldorf Astoria did to make us feel special.
After a very filling brunch, we would drop off Isa, our four year old, to the Kids Club. The Kids Club is probably every parent’s dream in a vacation. Imagine having a daycare in an island paradise. Isa had a grand time playing with the other kids, while we set off to do as we pleased. The Kids Club also had a structured schedule. They had activities like scavenger hunt, playtime at the kiddie water park, baking, painting, dance video games, and more. It was touching to see how the teachers and staff took care of Isa. On some days, the teachers would send us mobile photos of Isa enjoying the day’s activities. I’m pretty sure that she will remember the time she spent in her “school” in The Maldives.
Prior to this trip, I was a little nervous about my budget. As we were nearing September, Rambi conveniently mentioned the fact that the boat transfer cost would be a whopping $862.40 per person. Had I known this months before, I probably would have backed out of this trip. But I already paid for my cheap plane tickets (and told everyone I was going to The Maldives). I figured, I just needed to make budget cuts to make up for it. I’m a foodie above everything else, and knew my food budget was going to take a tremendous hit. To prepare for this, I decided to check-in a bag full of goodies from Trader Joe’s and Seafood City (Filipino supermarket). I’m not embarrassed. I thought this was necessary to make this trip happen for me. We were going to be in an island for seven days. There wouldn’t be any low budget options. No fastfood. No grocery. Waldorf Astoria Maldives had eleven posh restaurants. There was no way I was going to starve in this vacation, just because I was poor.
I am happy to report that I didn’t starve in this vacation. I did not get to eat all the food I had in my luggage, but instant noodles and Pringles gave us comfort in some afternoons or late at night. If you’re Filipino, you get it. Merienda is a necessity. Rambi ended up paying for all my meals anyway (thank you brother). We had dinner at Li Long twice because we just couldn’t get enough of their duck. We also had a taste of some mouth watering burgers at The Ledge by Dave Pynt (Michelin star chef). At 4PM everyday, we raced to Peacock Alley, because Diamond members had free cocktails and treats.
One of the memorable dinners we had was at the Tasting Table. I’m not fond of fish dishes but it was kind of cool to eat fish we caught from our little fishing adventure. We got to choose how we wanted our fish cooked. Rambi, Rac, Isa and I joined WA’s night fishing where we learned how to put fresh bait on a hook. Pardon me for my ignorance in this subject. We “fished” without a rod, pole or nets. We each just had a hook tied to a line and threw it in front of us. I quickly learned during this experience that I had no patience for this hobby. It was discouraging to have no catch, when everyone else was getting something! But when the sun started to set, it felt like some sort of miracle was happening. All the fish decided to come out and we finally caught some! Personally, fishing is only fun if you actually catch something. I would have rated this as a major fail if I hadn’t caught any.
Everyday in this island, we took advantage of the free water activities. Yes, the pools outside of our Beach Villa were grandiose, but the warm ocean called out louder. And because during our visit, WA had just opened, their water gear were all brand new. We carried our dive masks, snorkels and fins in our bikes everyday so we could explore all the beauty under that turquoise water. Kayaking was free too, so I took one of their kayaks and opted to go for a solo ride, instead of their paid guided kayaking.
We also did not miss our opportunity to scuba dive. (Rac had to sit this one out because she was carrying the twins at that time). Rambi and I were taken on a private boat to Vaagali Heaven for our first dive. I just have to mention that I was just not used to being fussed over. We had four people attending to us. We were like spoiled crazy rich Asians. I had someone putting fins on my feet and another one helping me in my wetsuit. The luxury treatment everywhere was just nonstop. Not complaining here, just saying.
We had scheduled a second dive the following day, but I got a surprise visit from the resort’s doctor. He said that he saw that I had hypertension from those forms I filled out prior to our first dive, and wanted to make sure I was in good shape before going underwater again. Unfortunately, my blood pressure was way up so I wasn’t allowed to join Rambi on the second dive. But man, these people really take their work seriously. I was just glad I saw turtles during our first dive! I also learned the hard way that I should never leave home without my medication.
During our stay at the Waldorf, we expressed our interest in seeing the Overwater Villas. Hasan happily took us to one of them. Rambi and I had one of our YOLO moments and decided to upgrade to the Overwater Villa for our last two nights. Before the move, Hasan broke the most amazing news to us. He said that the upgrade was free. He actually said that it was Waldorf Astoria’s gift for the twins. Wow. Just wow.
Waldorf Astoria and the Indian Ocean is just so beautiful and new that you would want to keep going back to this paradise. But our experience was amazing because of every employee in this resort.
As I was getting ready to get into the yacht on my way back home, the other guests were saying thank you to their personal concierge. I could not just say thank you to Hasan. I gave him a hug and silently wished to go back to this awesome slice of heaven.