Grabbing a bunch of mates, booking a luxurious charter boat and hunting down the best waves you can find day after day for at least a week at a time is the type of Maldives experience Island Hop Maldives’ Shaun Levings enjoys the most.
It’s no surprise then really that when the opportunity came for Shaun to work with the owners of the charter boat Handhu and organise surf trips for small groups looking for something a little different, he jumped at it.
A veteran of surfing tourism, having started World Surfaris back in 1997 day, before selling it in 2016 to John Finlay and the current crew, Shaun said when the owners of the boat got in touch in late 2019, he had been keen to see what they could do together.
The result is Island Hop Maldives, a surf charter concept that is primarily targeted at family, friend and business groups of between 6-10 people who are keen to see the Maldives, surf lots, and enjoy great food and service along the way.
Home, for those who book with Island Hop Maldives, is the 90ft charter boat Handhu, which will have just had a new engine installed as this edition of Smorgasboarder goes to print.
Shaun said the owners had opted to take advantage of the quieter times created by COVID to invest in their business for the better times ahead.
Handhu had an extensive makeover in 2019 to update the interiors, paint and layout and now includes six guest cabins on the lower deck, all airconditioned and with ensuite.
The mid-deck features a large saloon/lounge/dining area with bar, with room for fishing off the back (The Aft deck) and dining out the front. There’s also plenty of storage for the surfboards.
Climb the stairs from the mid-deck to the top sundeck and there’s ample room to relax in a sun lounge and enjoy the surrounds, to host a function, or even do a bit of yoga.
There’s also a speedboat to race surfers out to the waves a range of basic snorkelling and fishing gear for anyone keen to make the most of their ocean experience in ways other than surfing (hard to believe, we know!).
Byron Bay surfers Josie Prendergast and Oscar Langburne and a few of their friends were among the first to try out the revamped tour in late 2019, and Shaun said interest had been high.
“The boat was nearly full for 2020, then COVID hit and closed everyone down,” Shaun said.
“We’ve been in a holding pattern – the boat’s been working and it’s done a few dive trips. Now that Australia’s quarantine-free and people can commit to annual leave with their employers it should get better.
“Hopefully it’ll gain a fair bit of momentum this year – leading into a big 2023.”
While the boat itself is one thing that contributes to a great trip, Shaun said it was the quality of the people they had assembled to work with travellers that made the real difference.
One of the contributing factors for Shaun becoming involved with the boat’s Maldivian owners, Radiant Heat Travels, was their decision to employ a retired army general and head of coast guard General Zuhair as their head of operations in the Maldives.
“I went over there and met him – he’s the guy you need on the ground to make sure everything’s running smoothly,” Shaun said.
Another big plus for travellers is the experience of the tour’s chef Gopal – and Indian trained master who is renowned for his ability to find rare produce even on remote islands.
“Chef Gopal has been working on the boat for the last decade or more,” Shaun said.
“I’ve never tasted better food on a boat.
“He finds the best local produce. Because they’re such an isolated nation and it’s all sand islands – they can’t grow a lot of stuff there – But Gopal, he’ll put some coriander in, or come up with all these little special things – he’s got his culinary connections.
“If you catch a fish, he’ll be down on the stern gutting it promptly – you’ll have fresh sashimi within an hour.”
On the surfing front Shaun said they had assembled a strong team of local guides, including Hussain “Iboo” Areef, a local surfer who’s won numerous domestic surf championships over the years and had developed an intimate knowledge of the nation’s best breaks and when they’ll be working.
It’s on the surfing front that Shaun paints a vivid picture of the fun to be had.
“We’ll anchor in the main channel, in very deep water,” he said.
“During the days we drop anchor in the middle of the channel with a grandstand view of the break. We use a tinny to ferry the surfers to the break and when they’re finished surfing, they wave their boards in the air and we jump in the tinny and go and pick them up and bring them back to the main boat. At nights, we retire to a tranquil lagoon behind an island.
“The Maldives is a lot more forgiving than Indo as it’s a deep water take off. You get on the wave, and you look down the line – Happy Days! 200m of fun ahead of you.
“In my 26 years surfing the Maldives I’ve never been hurt. It super consistent, super user-friendly. When it’s six to eight feet, if you’re a good surfer, you’ll get heaps of waves. I’ve had the best waves in my life over there on the bigger days.”
For Shaun, one of the best things about operating Island Hop the way they do is that the pressure’s not there to book hundreds of people each year.
There’s flexibility in organising departure times, lengths of trips and size of the group. The boat and its crew are part of the package, and the rest of the details can be worked out and scheduled within Island Hop’s current aim of having 10-12 tours booked each year.
As an indication only, an 8-night Male’ Atolls Charter for eight nights sole use of Handhu with a party of 10 people would cost $17,735 US dollars or about $1738 US dollars per person (approx. $2330 AUD per person). Prices include three meals a day, snacks, high quality drinking water, an expert surf guide and airport meet and greet.
The options are almost endless, so the best bet is to talk to Shaun at the start and work out your plans from there.