Ten Days at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef, Maldives: A Once in a Lifetime Experience

Stephen and I went to Whitstable for our 15th wedding anniversary. It was a marvellous weekend spent in an old Fisherman's Hut, sampling all the local seafood, and walking our Golden Labrador Molly on the beach. It was lovely but we began to hatch a plan for something altogether more glamourous for our 20th anniversary and so the saving began. We chose Maldives because it was the one place I thought we’d never be able to go to. Our brief to the travel agent was quite specific – we wanted a water villa with a private splash pool, we wanted to fly (not sail) from Malé to the island, and we wanted an all-inclusive option because the majority of complaints from travellers about the Maldives were related to the costs involved in not going all-inclusive.

Was the travel agent able to deliver that within our budget? Of course they weren’t and the trip landed up costing twice what we’d been anticipating. It was a lesson in working with travel agents after decades spent planning travel ourselves. Do we regret anything? Of course not. We were treated to ten days of five star treatment, the likes of which we hadn’t had the privilege of enjoying before.

View of the Indian Ocean through the ViluReef swing  | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

If you've never spent ten days on a tropical island before and you're wondering how you would spend the time, allow me to share what we did to celebrate our milestone anniversary trip.

Flying on a Seaplane

Propellor and engine of a seaplane viewed over the islands of the Maldives | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

We flew by seaplane from Malé to the tiny island of Meedhuffushi in the Maldives' South Nilandhe Atoll. The journey was exhilarating and we were able to see some of the 1192 islands that make up the Maldives from the air.

Getting Our First Glimpse of the Water Villas

Water villas at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

Our excitement began to build following our landing on the water and we got our first glimpse of the water villas as our plane taxied to the landing point. Our villa is to the very left of the photo, with the infinity pool visible in white.

Waking Up to this View Each Day

We chose a Grand Water Villa with Pool featuring a private infinity pool and sunset views. We woke up to views like this every day and it was absolutely magical. There were steps leading down from our deck into the water and we were able to snorkel under our villa.

Top tip: the Grand Water Villas are west-facing and don’t get much sun during the day, so you’ll want to head to the pool or beaches for some sun.

Enjoying Cocktails on the Beach

Enjoying cocktails on the beach at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef. There is a swing hanging in the midground and the Indian Ocean in the background

I’m hesitant to say this, for purely superstitious reasons, but Stephen and I are exceptionally lucky with weather on our trips (Great Britain excluded, of course). The weather forecast had predicted thundershowers for our entire late-November trip, with the ‘good’ season for visiting Maldives only really starting in late-November and ending in April.

The first couple of days were indeed grey but we took the time to relax on the beach with cocktails and simply unwind. We were able to run under cover when the torrential rain arrived, usually in the afternoons, and we were somewhat protected from the intense heat that would arrive later in our trip.

Top tip for bars at Vilu Reef: the cocktails are really watered down which isn’t great for a luxury resort. We soon learned that it was better to order spirits or wine because then you knew what you were getting.

Snorkelling For the First Time

A sandy beach with palm trees in the foreground and the Indian Ocean in the background | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

It brightened up a lot of our third day at Vilu Reef and we decided to go snorkelling. It was my first experience snorkelling and I learned that taking photos underwater is a LOT more difficult than it looks, especially if you learned to swim in 2018, you’ve never snorkelled before, and your goggles keep steaming up.

An underwater scene of black fish swimming alongside a reef | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

I also learned that fish will sink their sharp little teeth into your thighs if you don’t keep moving, all the while the sun is slowly burning you to a crisp. Despite the steep learning curve, it was an incredible experience and the reef was pristine.

Top tip: wear a surfing t-shirt when snorkelling to prevent severe sunburn on your back.

Relaxing by the pool

Relaxing in the shade by the pool | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

It certainly began to warm up on our fourth day on the island and we took the opportunity to relax in the shade by the side of the pool. It wasn't all relaxation though, a woman began to struggle in the pool and her husband called for help. Stephen calmly dived in, put her head above water and swam her to the shallow end, where she could catch her breath again. It all happened very fast!

Enjoying a Sunset Cruise

The view of Vilu Reef from the water  | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

On the Wednesday evening, we headed out for a sunset cruise around the island and enjoyed stunning views of the island, delighting in the thrill of the ride and the wind in our hair. I was very pleasantly surprised that I didn't experience any seasickness but slightly sad that we didn’t spot any dolphins!

Breakfast With a View

Dosa with spiced potato filling on plate with Indian Ocean in background | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

Perhaps my favourite part of each day was enjoying breakfast with a view each morning. The food was exquisite at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef and it helps that I was willing to be adventurous. It was here that I learned to love dosa with spiced potato filling. I would never have chosen these savoury pancakes before and now they're a favourite.

Watching the Sunset From Our Private Deck

Sunset from the deck of a water villa in Maldives | Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

Each evening we watched the sunset from the deck of our water villa. We'd enjoy shandies from the mini-bar and take a dip in our pool, all the while watching the beautiful pink, blue and orange hues in the sky. It was quite magical and a welcome chance to cool down after the very warm days.

Relaxing on the Beach

| Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

The beaches at Vilu Reef are pristine and the Indian Ocean water a perfect temperature. I spent many an afternoon simply sitting in the water, gazing into the distance. Stephen took the chance to go jet skiing while I paddled.

Top tip while jet skiing: don’t wear brand new Oakley sunglasses unless you specifically want to lose them and contribute to plastics in the ocean.

Swimming With Fishes, Reef Sharks and Stingrays Around Our Villas

| Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

The water villas at Vilu Reef form a leaf shape around a lagoon and it is full of fishes, reef sharks and tiny stingrays. They were beautiful to see but not so easy to photograph. I certainly kept my distance from the stingrays but the reef sharks don’t really scare me.

A Moonlight Dinner for Two Under the Stars

| Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

Perhaps the most memorable evening was a moonlight dinner under the stars to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary (which is actually in March but November seemed like a better month to travel). We enjoyed scallops, lobster, prawns, laksa and much more and were treated to a dedicated waiter.

We did have a funny experience during our meal. We ordered a bottle of Prosecco – my favourite – and the waiter delivered a $700 bottle of champagne. He insisted it was correct when I questioned him and it was only when the manager came to see how our meal was that it was resolved. I explained that I’d wanted Prosecco and the manager spotted the Very Expensive Champagne, whipped it off the table, and returned with a Much More Reasonably Priced bottle of Prosecco. We had a good laugh.

Couple's Massage in the Spa

The Salon at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

No romantic anniversary holiday would be complete without a couple’s massage and the spa at Vilu Reef was spectacular.

Couples massage at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef

We lay side by side for 90 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Top tip for massages at Vilu Reef: try the Vilu Herbal massage featuring treatment with a special blend of herbs in heated herbal pouches. I could see Stephen melting into the bed out of the corner of my eye and it was lovely to see!

Our stay at Sun Siyam Vilu Reef was a once-in-a-lifetime dream and we’ll be filled with memories for the rest of our lives. Would we return? Probably not. We prefer our holidays to be more down to earth. Somehow that makes our experience even more special.

It took me a long time to post this! It was a big trip to condense into one post and last year did not go as planned in terms of blogging. I’m slowly catching up with posts and will return with more tales from my big birthday trip to South Africa last year.

The David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at the Stunning Fitzrovia Chapel

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

Over the course of a single day in December 1992, photographer Kevin Davies took a series of photos of David Bowie for his upcoming album Black Tie White Noise.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

While some of the photos were approved by Bowie for press use, most of the original rolls of film, contact sheets and prints were put into storage where they remained until 2020.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

Discovering over 400 film negatives in pristine condition, Davies realised the cultural significance of the collection and worked with Bowie biographer Dylan Jones to bring the collection to the public.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

We felt quite privileged to see the David Bowie - A London Day exhibition in the Fitzrovia Chapel. The chapel is beautiful and provided a perfect backdrop for the collection of prints.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

The chapel features stunning marble flooring, intricate gold leaf detailing, and spectacular stained glass windows, including the remarkable east window, which bathes the space in colorful light.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

The ceiling is adorned with exquisite mosaics, inspired by the Byzantine style, making the chapel a masterpiece of art and architecture.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

Fitzrovia Chapel was completed in 1891 as part of the Middlesex Hospital. Today the chapel is all that remains of the hospital complex, a tiny red brick building nestled in amongst modern apartment and commercial buildings. After the hospital was closed in 2005 and subsequently demolished, Fitzrovia Chapel underwent a careful restoration which completed in 2015.

David Bowie - A London Day Exhibition at Fitzrovia Chapel

We visited the exhibition in its final week in March but the chapel is open to the public and provides details of upcoming exhibitions on their website.

Fitzrovia Chapel
Fitzroy Place
2 Pearson Square
London W1T 3BF

April has been quite a month! I had eye surgery on the 2nd April and it took much longer to recover than I'd anticipated. I couldn't exercise for a week afterwards, not that I'd have wanted to, and I'm still adjusting to the changes in my near-and-middle-distance vision. I'll have to see how it affects my photography but haven't taken my camera out yet.

Just when I was settling down, I fell down the stairs and twisted my ankle badly. I'm recovering now but have agreed that April was not the most auspicious month. Here's to more adventures in the months to come!

Walking the Augustine Camino (part 2): Tyland Barn to Thurnham

Signpost at Detling

Kent farmhouse with distinctive oast house

It had been over an hour since we'd left Aylesford Priory on our walk along the Augustine Camino. We'd left pavements and roadways behind and had begun to walk across muddy, waterlogged fields, past quaint farmhouses and distinctive Kentish oast houses.

Decorative window in Tyland Barn

Our first (and very welcome) stop was at Tyland Barn where we enjoyed hot drinks and pastries. Tyland Barn is the home of the Kent Wildlife Trust and was one of several places that I discovered on the walk and would love to visit again.

Doorway of cottage near Boxley Abbey

Feeling warmer and fortified after our break, we walked on to Boxley Abbey, site of a former 12th century monastery which is now a private home. The house has been on the market for several years and the asking price has been reduced from £2.25m to £1.85m.

Row of cottages near Boxley Abbey

Naturally, we only got as far as the gate to the property but we admired the quaint cottages nearby which would have housed workers or guests of the abbey and later the estate.

Boarley Farm vineyard in Boxley

Our walk then continued across the Chapel Downs vineyard at Boarley Farm. Together with their Boxley and Kit's Coty sites, Boarley establishes Chapel Downs as the biggest winery in England and an emerging contender on the global wine market. I shall have to go on a wine tour and report back on this!

Red phone box in Boxley

We soon arrived at the incredibly picturesque village of Boxley. Note the red phone box with working pay phone.

The King's Arms, Boxley

When we arrived in Boxley, our group split up and some went to enjoy packed lunches in the churchyard while the rest of us opted for lunch at the King's Arms. I enjoyed a delicious lemon and thyme linguini with marinated crispy chicken thighs. It was honestly so good that I know I have to take Stephen back there soon.

St Mary the Virgin & All Saints Church, Boxley

Sadly the heavens had opened while we were eating and we found the rest of our group shivering inside the church. It was not the first or last time that it rained on us that day!

Orchards at Detling

We were keen to continue our walk after that, both to warm up and to work off our lunches. Our route took us across more fields and past orchards, with stunning views and a bit of sunshine too.

By this time, we'd been together for over five hours and my legs were beginning to protest each time we stopped moving. The only choice was to keep moving!

St Mary the Virgin Church, Thurnham

We finally arrived at our penultimate stop, the St Mary the Virgin Church in Thurnham.

Pilgrim stamps on Augustine Camino

Several members of the group collected their pilgrim stamps - they had been able to collect three that day. One of the women kindly let me photograph her book.

Stained glass at St Mary the Virgin Church, Thurnham

We admired the stained glass and played with a chest which required a puzzle to be solved in order to open it.

Daffodils at St Mary the Virgin Church, Thurnham

We left the church and walked to the Black Horse Inn in Thurnham where the greatest downpour of the day began. Luckily, our taxi arrived to take us back to Aylesford Priory where I'd parked my car. I'd walked 21908 steps over 9.7 miles and was very pleased with a successful day of exploring.

If my posts about this walk have piqued your interest, you might be interested in the week-long walks along the Augustine Camino. The 2024 dates are Monday 29th April – Sunday 5th May 2024 and Monday 30th September – Sunday 6th October 2024.

Walking the Augustine Camino (part 1): Aylesford Priory and Aylesford Village

St Thérèse of Lisieux statue in the gardens of Aylesford Priory

Desperate to explore more at the end of winter, I'd been searching for Kentish walking tours and was delighted when an advert popped up on my feed for the Heart of Kent walking festival which takes place in and around Maidstone every March. I chose the Introduction to Pilgrimage walk from Aylesford Priory to Thurnham along the Augustine Camino which promised the most instagrammable view in Kent and met my requirements of moderate difficulty and a medium distance of 7 miles. If you know anything about the concept of 'country miles', you won't be surprised that our walk landed up being closer to 9 miles!

Signposts at Aylesford Priory with the Shrine Altar in the background

Our guide was Andrew Kelly, Route Director for the Augustine Camino. Andrew is a lover of long-distance walks and wanted to emulate the medieval pilgrims by creating a week-long walking pilgrimage route from Rochester Cathedral to the Shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate, that crucially stops in the most important churches along the way. The walk I took was an introduction to the week-long route. Our walking group was a nice mix of people both young and old, ranging from very religious to not religious at all. It made for great conversation.

The Reception House at Aylesford Priory, a stone and brick building

Aylesford Priory, also known as The Friars, was founded in 1242 by members of the Carmelite Order. The Carmelites are a Catholic mendicant order, and Aylesford is one of the oldest Carmelite communities in the world. In 1247 Saint Simon Stock is said to have received the Brown Scapular from the Virgin Mary. This event has made Aylesford a pilgrimage site for centuries.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Aylesford Priory
The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the priory passed through various hands and underwent numerous transformations. It wasn't until 1949 that the Carmelites were able to purchase the property and return to Aylesford. Since then, it has been extensively restored and developed into a vibrant center of spiritual retreat and pilgrimage.

A ceramic work by Adam Kossowski at Aylesford Priory depicting the sixth station of the cross of Veronica wiping Jesus face

The priory features a mix of ancient and modern religious art and architecture. Visitors can find medieval buildings alongside modern sculptures and artworks, including pieces by the renowned artist Adam Kossowski.

The seal of the Carmelites, Aylesford Priory
The Seal of the Carmelites

Examples of Kossowski's ceramic works can be seen in the photos above and many were created in the pottery studio established in the 1950s.

The Cloisters of Aylesford Priory

Aylesford Priory contains several chapels located around an outdoor piazza which is popular in the summer.

A Magnolia tree in Aylesford Priory

There is a rosary way featuring statuettes representing the mysteries of the rosary but interestingly enough, the doors to the statuettes were closed for Lent. The first photo in this post features a statue of St Thérèse of Lisieux which is also located in the gardens of the rosary way.

Peace garden at Aylesford Priory

Our final stop at the priory was to the beautiful peace garden. There were flagstones at our feet with the word 'peace' written in scores of languages around the world. I was delighted to be able to read the word in Greek as I've been learning the language for a year.

The rooftops of Aylesford, Kent

Following our time at the priory, we walked down to the village of Aylesbury. It was my first time visiting this quaint village but I hope it won't be my last.

Aylesford is notable for its ancient history, with evidence of human habitation dating back to Neolithic times. There is a chamber tomb located nearby, Kit's Coty House, estimated to have been built around 4000BCE. One of the most significant archaeological finds in the area is the Aylesford Bucket, a well-preserved Iron Age wooden vessel dating back to around 75-25 BCE. This artifact is considered one of the finest examples of prehistoric woodwork in Europe and is on display at the British Museum.

The View of The Chequers Pub from the River Medway

We finally arrived at the spot that Andrew had described as the most Instagrammable spot in Kent - the view of the Chequers pub from the River Medway. It was indeed very pretty but we would also see some incredible scenery over the next five hours. I'll post all about the second half of the walk in two weeks time.

Visiting Bryggen, Bergen's iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site

The colourful facade of the Radisson Blu Hotel and Bryggen Nightclub, Bryggen | Bergen, Norway

With its rich history and distinctive appearance, Bryggen is one of Bergen's most iconic landmarks. Like much of Bergen, Bryggen was quiet three days before Christmas but it is usually a bustling area filled with visitors.

Looking down the narrow passages of Bryggen | Bergen, Norway

Bryggen has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. This recognition was granted due to its historical significance and its importance to the Hanseatic League's trading empire during the 14th to the mid-16th century. The Hanseatic League was a powerful economic and defensive alliance that dominated maritime trade in northern Europe for centuries.

Bergen trolls in Bryggen | Bergen, Norway

We were bitterly disappointed not to run into Bergen trolls in Bergen. These life-sized trolls hide in the mountains of Bergen but we saw neither trolls nor mountain goats of Fløyen. I didn't buy any trolls but I did buy a Bryggen magnet for our collection and a Christmas Gonk.

Ceramic buildings of Bryggen buildings in a shop window | Bergen, Norway

Bryggen has been ravaged by several fires throughout its history, the most devastating of which occurred in 1702. This fire led to the complete rebuilding of the area, which explains the uniform architectural style seen today. Despite these challenges, Bryggen has been continually rebuilt according to traditional methods and styles, preserving its historical essence.

A side view of the colourful facades of Bryggen with a Christmas tree on the left| Bergen, Norway

The buildings at Bryggen housed offices and living quarters for merchants and workers involved in trade, particularly in dried cod from Northern Norway in exchange for grains from mainland Europe.

The colourful buildings of Bryggen in rust, mustard, maroon and white | Bergen, Norway

The buildings in Bryggen are notable for their distinctive wooden architecture, with their gabled facades facing the harbor. This construction style is characteristic of medieval Hanseatic trading centers.

A narrow walkway between the wooden buildings of Bryggen | Bergen, Norway

Today, Bryggen is not only a historical site but also a vibrant cultural hub. It houses several museums, including the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene, which offer insights into the life and operations of the Hanseatic merchants. In addition to its museums, Bryggen features art studios, craft shops, restaurants and cafes.

This is sadly my final post about our magical winter break to Bergen. I fell in love with Norway and will definitely return to the region for more Nordic adventures in future.