The other Maldives
We did take full advantage of our one sunny day. My family went parasailing and sea-bobbing (holding onto an electrically propelled pod somewhat similar to what James Bond used in the opening scenes of "Thunderball") while I took an excursion to inhabited islands with no resorts.
The tour proved to be extraordinary. I was the only guest who had signed up that day, and my guide was Simo Ali, whom I had met earlier in his role as watersports manager.
He took me to his home village, Fiyoaree, population 1,500, which was about a 25-minute boat ride away. We passed dozens of small, low-lying islands populated only by palm trees and the occasional telecommunications tower.
The youngest of nine children, Ali took me first to meet his parents and one of his brothers. His brother lopped off the top of a coconut with a machete, and I sipped from it as I toured the small house and stood with his parents for a while watching what appeared to be Maldivian military exercises on their television, patriotic music blaring.
The atmosphere on the island was laid-back, to say the least. About 10 young men sat on plastic chairs in a small cafe, drinking tea and eating sandwiches, but Fiyoaree was by and large a hammock culture, with people lying or sitting in wide-gauge fishnetting strung between trees next to the sea.
A few of the older buildings lining the village's wide dirt streets were made of coral stone, but most were cinder block and covered with painted plaster, a few of the latter inscribed with political graffiti.
Ali said that much of the younger generation has, like himself, left the island for jobs on resorts.
As we walked around, he seemed to know, or was related to, everyone we met; the village comprised three families, he said. I was greeted warmly by all.
The village, like the country, is overwhelmingly Muslim; our tour included two mosques, a communal garden, a school and a shop. There was talk that a Singaporean had bought land and would build a four-star hotel that might cater to, among others, surfers (waves 18- to 25-feet high broke nearby), but Ali said it was nothing that could be depended upon.
What made the visit to that and another slightly more prosperous village most memorable was the slow unraveling of Ali's life story.
He was born on a boat that was bringing his mother to a medical center for his delivery. School went to seventh grade; he learned English, but his opportunities were limited to tuna fishing or tourism. He chose to go to a hotel school in Male, Maldives' capital.
After studying for three years, he worked first as a waiter and a tour guide. He learned to dive and had a job in watersports with a Jumeirah resort prior to coming to Outrigger.
But what seemed to be his proudest accomplishment was a successful lobbying effort to get the government to develop a waste management plan for his village.
"I wrote letters," he said. "I put on a tie and went to Male and spoke to many people in government, you wouldn't believe how many. But this is our country, and if we don't care, who will?"
The boat's captain, Adhil, brought us to Nadalla, where he was from. He introduced me to his family as well, and his brother climbed a palm tree and extracted an extraordinarily sweet sap, locally called coconut toddy, for me to taste.
I was surprised to see, on both islands, headquarters for the Maldivian Democratic Party, founded by exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed, who had been deposed in a coup and jailed before claiming asylum in the U.K., where he had gone for medical treatment. Additionally, a store had put a poster of Nasheed in its window, and his image was stenciled on walls.
For most guests, Maldivian politics doesn't intrude on vacations. I had planned to spend part of my first day in Male, but the day before my arrival I learned that there were frequent protests there and that new rules, designed to limit activity by foreign journalists, had just been adopted.
I abandoned the idea.
I had also been told that there was a movement in France to boycott vacations in Maldives due to the political situation, and I asked Outrigger's Dee if local politics caused him concern.
"It's something to observe and pay attention to, not just here, but also, for example, in the Philippines and Thailand," he said. "It's important on many levels, but we haven't seen any disruption. We remain vigilant."
It surprised me when sales and marketing director Collepardi told me that currently, only about 5% of guests at Konotta are American, because it seems very much like a product that would appeal to Outrigger's U.S. base, which is already familiar with its Hawaiian product.
The various categories of rooms I inspected all seemed generous in size and amenities, and the overwater Grand Konotta Villa, an impressive structure with large public areas, a spacious deck and an infinity pool as well as three bedrooms, represents incredible value (it would be less expensive for three couples to share that than get three separate accommodations, according to Collepardi).
The service is excellent, the watersports are run very professionally and there's even a doctor in residence.
The food offering was consistently good and the teppanyaki chef was the most entertaining of dozens I've seen (he was an excellent cook, too). I particularly enjoyed a seaside cooking lesson and a torch-lit farewell dinner on the beach.
The atmosphere is serene; one Australian guest I met said he chose it because, on a previous visit to the Maldives, the resort he chose was too close to an island with a noisy, party scene.
The issue for most Americans, no doubt, is distance. There are no nonstop flights, though connecting service is available via the Persian Gulf States, India, China or Korea. Coupling the destination, as I did, with Sri Lanka proved a great combination, and Outrigger's Dee believes that as the company's portfolio fills out, there will be advantages in combining Konotta with other destinations that would be considered far-flung to North Americans.
"We did some preliminary studies, and think that we might see some opportunity in packaging," Dee said. "We can't pair it with Waikiki, certainly, but three or four days in the Maldives along with Seychelles or Sri Lanka -- an Indian Ocean package -- could do very well.
"To North Americans, it may seem a long way from everywhere," Dee said, "But the potential is significant."
And should Americans arrive in greater numbers, the resort will no doubt iterate once again, tweaking rooms, amenities and packages accordingly.
The strategies playing out in the boutique atmosphere of Konotta reflect a new reality in the globalized marketplace: Resources to continuously edit a hospitality product have become table stakes, and the ability to accurately interpret the complex preferences of different source markets is a baseline competency.