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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Unforgettable Fairmont: How a Luxury Resort Altered the Course of our Life

When an experience is extremely powerful, over time you forget all the details of what happened, and are left with only a feeling. We will never forget how the Fairmont Sirru Fen Fushi Maldives made us feel: welcome.

The Fairmont provided us with a safe anchorage for Skylark when we had to fly across the world for an interview. This allowed us to continue our airline pilot careers during a time in the industry where more than half of pilots worldwide have been grounded. In a world that is increasingly more distant and difficult, the Fairmont chose to help us, rather than push us away.

In early 2020, my husband Chris and I both lost our airline pilot jobs and spent the previous year sailing around Thailand on our yacht. We were busy learning and maintaining Skylark, our Amel 54, so that when things finally opened up we could visit new places and find adventure. Over the new year, we experienced our first offshore passage. We sailed from Phuket, Thailand across the Indian Ocean to Uligan, Maldives. We planned a three-month journey from Uligan south towards Gan, and dreamed of visiting secluded beaches and upmarket resorts along the way. I worked in the Maldives 10 years ago as a seaplane pilot, and was excited to be back to the sunny side of life.

Mid-January, we visited the beautiful uninhabited island of Kudamuraidhoo, that we absolutely loved. We spent nearly a week swimming, catching squid, and even made a karaoke booth out of sand on the beach! It was truly paradise.

We had a picnic and sang karaoke on the beach. Life felt perfect. I even declared, “This is the best day since we bought the boat!” We were settling into the cruising lifestyle, and looking forward to exploring more beautiful locations around the Maldives.

The following day, Chris and I received a phone call from an airline, inviting us to pilot interviews in the United States. This particular airline was a great fit for us, and would allow us to continue our sailing lifestyle while developing our careers. We accepted this invitation and suddenly needed to make a plan to travel to the United States for our interviews only 11 days later.

We were still 150NM from the capitol city of Male’, where the marina and haul out facilities were located. Unfortunately, we needed to haul Skylark out at some point to replace seals on Skylark’s prop shaft, where a small leak had developed. Our Amel C drive oil had salt water in it, and Amel advises that you can delay the procedure for up to six months so long as the oil continues to stay emulsified. We discovered the problem less than a month ago. Our new fear was that if we became stuck away from Skylark for an extended period of time, the oil and water would separate and lead to expensive damage. We contacted some boat yards to book a spot and discovered they had no availability. Our alternative was to book a berth in the Crossroads Marina and return immediately after the interview to fix the issue. It would be a whirlwind trip.

We booked flights, hotels, PCR tests, and a berth for Skylark. New restrictions were popping up and we needed to constantly reevaluate our plan. With each new problem, we found solutions. It was like a game of whack-a-mole as each new issue reared its ugly head. Chris needed a replacement FAA pilots license since his was in Japan, so we would mail the replacement to my sister’s home and drive a few hours to pick it up and visit them. Double points. There was a snow storm forecast for our arrival which made flights and roads unpredictable. I also left my winter coat in Japan, since I didn't think I needed it on Skylark. We determined my spring Burberry trench coat would be good enough, since America’s ability to allow you to transit from car to building with minimal outdoor exposure is world class.

In addition to these “normal” issues, we had to deal with Covid logistics. The marina required a PCR test to enter, and the USA now also required a PCR test within 72 hours prior to departure, which they only put into effect a few days before we needed to fly there. We arranged a test with the marina on the day we planned to enter, and would have to quarantine on the boat while we waited for our results. Unfortunately with the timing, the day of the boat quarantine was my birthday. I rationalized to myself that if I didn’t celebrate my birthday properly, I wouldn’t grow a year older. We also dreaded going from isolated bare-face barefoot sailboat living to spending nearly 60 hours in airports and aircraft in a mask and shoes. We booked transit hotels to give us an opportunity to sleep, shower, and breath unrestricted.

One of the hardest parts of this new opportunity was telling our friend Paul, who we were anchored next to when we found out this news. We had spent the past year with him in Thailand, and had plans to continue across the Indian Ocean together. We even scored 2/3 of the available permits for our desired time slot for Chagos together. I’ll never forget the look on Paul’s face when we told him. As much as he tried to hide his initial look of shock and disappointment, he was very happy for us, and offered to help in any way he could. Paul was able to retire at an early age after a successful career running his own oil consulting company. He is no stranger to fun, but also understands the importance of a career and building a future. He knew we had to go, wrote us the most thoughtful recommendation letters, and even lent Chris his lucky Hermes tie. Paul is a true friend and somebody we can always count on.

We departed early the following morning, and Paul escorted us out of the tight channel in his dinghy. He planned to stay a few more days, since the island was paradise. We needed to hustle down to Male’ and planned to reconnect with him when we returned. The Maldives is made up of many beautiful lagoons and beaches, however not all are suitable for a 54ft sailboat with a 2.1m draft. Some of the suitable anchorages require permission.

Our agent assured us the Health Protection Agency allowed yachts to visit resorts if certain requirements were met. We heard even before Covid, many resorts did not wish for yachts to visit and it was better contact the resort before showing up. Of the many resorts we emailed, only one or two said we could visit with a PCR test, and the rest turned us down. Some of the responses included, “we do not allow outsiders at this time,” and “the safety of our guests and staff take precedence over your visit,” and “may we suggest you leave your yacht at the airport, get another PCR test, and then you can fly up and book a villa?". We even had a GM from a resort, that is part of a hotel chain we are elite members at, initially say they would love to welcome us on Skylark, then the following day say unfortunately it wasn't possible. We even offered to book a room to see if that changed anything, and that was still interpreted as forbidden. As frustrating as it was, we understood and respected that it was up to each resort to make their own policy. If they didn't want our business or Skylark in their lagoon's vista, there was nothing we could do but search for another spot. Not only did it hurt to feel so unwanted, it made finding a safe anchorage that much more of a challange.

We discovered on the satellite imagery that an ideal overnight anchorage on our route was the Fairmont resort. There is 360 degree protection with crystal clear water, and a sandy bottom, which provides superior holding for our anchor. We were not getting our hopes up about receiving permission, but if we didn't ask we would never know. Chris telephoned the Fairmont to save time, and was connected to their Security Manager Fawwaz. He kindly arranged for us to anchor in the lagoon. Fawwaz was also going to check if it was possible for us to come on shore based on the current guidelines and resort policy.

We entered the picturesque lagoon late afternoon. A speedboat approached us to advise us where the best place to anchor was, and that the management was waiting on the jetty to welcome us. After so much rejection, it was an exciting surprise to be accepted into civilization again.

We made ourselves presentable, hopped in our dinghy (Sir Fribs), and zipped to shore. There were at least 10 staff waiting for us on the jetty and we were greeted with a cold towel, glass of bubbly, and, of course, a covid screening. Two Australians, Andrew and Marshall, respectively the General Manager and Resort Manager, along with several other management and staff welcomed us and informed us of all our dining options. Shortly after, we were whisked away in a buggy for a tour of the island. We were even shown inside one of their best water villas!

Our tour concluded at Onu bar, where we enjoyed delicious caipirinihia’s and watched a spectacular sunset.

We dined at Kata, the resort’s Japanese restaurant, which was our first restaurant meal in over a month since we left Thailand. We had a fantastic table overlooking the lagoon and the sushi and service were excellent. My only regret was not turning Skylark’s spreader lights on, as they illuminate her beautifully, and allow us to admire her as we dine at waterfront restaurants.

After dinner, Fawwaz invited us to come back in the morning for breakfast, and to contact him on WhatsApp if we wanted to come to shore again or needed anything.

We were blown away by the hospitality, and did not realize that this was only the beginning of what kindness was to come!

The following morning we departed early to cover some distance. As we sailed, we reflected on how bittersweet this new job opportunity was. Our life changed drastically over the last year, and our “new normal,” as much as I dislike that term, was sailing across the Indian Ocean on Skylark.

After all of the year’s uncertainty, we were finally beginning to accept everything we so unexpectedly lost: a promising career we worked so hard to achieve and maintain; our colleagues, who became friends and felt like family; and everything about our life in Japan. We had fond memories of sushi lunches, karaoke in Roppongi, and strolling through Tokyo on a crisp autumn day. As we were cruising south, waves of uncertainty crashed over us. Life was going to change again.

For several months, we received positive feedback about how we are making the best of this time. For the first time in our adult lives, we weren't in school or working full-time and we had the resources to sail full time for a while longer. We wondered if we would look back in 20 years and regret not taking advantage of this sailing adventure for little while longer. Were we making a mistake by wanting to go back to work? We missed flying, but also cherished our life at sea.

We now had an opportunity to return to a similar lifestyle that we enjoyed before the pandemic shook our world. The paradox of choice plagued us. The opportunity cost of pursuing our aviation careers was full-time sailing, sleeping at home every night, a suntan, having time to do our own boat maintenance, and living a slow paced life. The opportunity cost of full-time sailing, was continuing fulfilling careers that we love, a good income, visiting exotic destinations by air, nice hotels with air conditioning, the balance of work/play, my hair looking decent again, and visiting family in America. We had the luxury to choose how we wanted our future to look, but understood the reality that we can’t have everything. We had to avoid getting caught up in what we perceived society thought the dream was and determine what our new dream was. We knew in our hearts we needed to attend the interview.

We stopped for a night at Kuredu Resort and, the following day, continued south to the Baa atoll for a third overnight stop before pressing on to Male’. It was another long day of exhausting contemplation. Our initial planned anchorage was not suitable, so we proceeded to our back up anchorage nearby. On our way there, we received a game changing call from the marina. Effective immediately, the marina was shut down indefinitely due to a cluster of Covid cases on the island. Was it a sign or just another massive curveball we needed to find solution for?

There was no other marina in the country. There was no yard with space. We could leave Skylark at anchor in Hulhumale, but it seemed too crowded to leave a boat unattended comfortably, and the marina staff warned us, “everything on the boat will be stolen.” I’m sure that was an exaggeration, but that comment didn’t give us much confidence to leave Skylark there.

For the first time since we received the call, we thought we might not be able to attend the interview, because we had no safe place to leave Skylark. We worked for years to purchase Skylark and poured our souls into maintaining her over the past year and a half. We wanted to make the right choice, but Covid effects had knocked us down once again, and everything felt so uncertain. I pride myself in using self-efficacy to navigate through life, but there was so much out of our control. All we could do to stay in control was continuously revise the plan with the information we had in the moment. We had no choice but to get up, keep moving, and keep thinking.

As we worked through the pieces of this puzzle, I suggested to Chris, “Why don’t we ask the Fairmont if we can leave Skylark at anchor there for a week? It’s a protected anchorage, safe, and maybe Paul wants to visit the Fairmont? We could take a seaplane to Male’, which would be awesome!”

Chris agreed that was an option and sent a message to Fawwaz. Chris detailed how we lost our jobs as pilots and have an opportunity for an interview, but that now the marina is closed. We were exploring options, and checking if it was possible to leave Skylark on anchor for a week at the Fairmont. This is where Fawwaz could have easily said no. It would have been the easy option for him. He wouldn’t have to coordinate with anybody and could have ended the conversation there. We learned from our first visit that Fawwaz is somebody who doesn’t settle for easy. He will help you if it’s possible, and doesn’t make excuses. He goes the extra mile and has excellent common sense, communication, and networking abilities.

Fawwaz relayed a few questions from the GM and owner, and what began as a desperate suggestion of an idea became a real option! That evening, Fawwaz informed us that we had approval to anchor in the lagoon. He gave us details of the in-house PCR testing and seaplane transfer formalities. Our uncertainty and stress quickly turned into a dopamine rush of excitement and gratitude.

We finally had clarity as we sailed upwind back to the Fairmont. Less than two days later, we arrived at their spectacular lagoon and felt relaxed and taken care of.

The resort doctor, along with Fawwaz, who was on his day off, boarded Skylark to extract our PCR test samples from deep up our noses. At the Fairmont, the samples are sent via seaplane to Male’, and the results were available when we woke up the following morning. If we had been positive, they would have notified us immediately, even if it had meant waking you up. That would have been a nightmare.

Thankfully, we woke up to negative PCR results on my birthday. That was great since we could now go on shore to our favorite resort for a proper celebration. I would now be turning a year older.

We spent the day relaxing at the beach, sipping champagne and cocktails, and gazing at the blue water. We tried to absorb all the gorgeous sights and stay in the moment since we would soon be dealing with winter weather conditions and would need something to fantasize about. Skylark and SV Making Time looked beautiful in the lagoon and we were pleased to hear from Marshall, the resort manager, that they like having boats there as it adds to the ambiance and guests enjoy seeing them. It made us feel very welcome and proud of Skylark.

Fawwaz helped us with important logistics for our trip, and coordinated with Chris to make my birthday special. We enjoyed a Mediterranean buffet at Raha Market for my birthday dinner. They set up a beautiful table on the beach for us and we feasted on many delights we missed at sea. The talented band sang “Happy Birthday” to me while the staff brought a cake with a sparkler to our table. Everyone truly made it a memorable birthday!

The next day, we began our long journey to America. We completed departure tasks such as shutting off our fridge and freezer, closing the water-tight bulkheads, and other Amel-recommended procedures. We double, triple, and quadruple checked all of our interview documents and exited Skylark.

We had a delicious breakfast on SV Making Time and Paul drove us to the jetty with his dinghy, so we could leave Sir Fribs on his davits.

We said our farewells and walked down the jetty to board the airplane. We had a 35-hour journey and life-changing moments ahead. The PT6 engines started up and we knew this was really happening. We were going to the interview.

Our Captain was Yasir, who trained me on the Twin Otter many years ago. We knew we were in good hands! And bare-feet! I was excited to be in the front row, the best seat to view the cockpit I spent so many hours flying in.

We looked out the window and saw the Fairmont staff doing their customary wave off. Paul was there too, as he always is there for us.

It was very emotional as we taxied away and took off next to Skylark. We were leaving behind our new normal to pursue our next normal.

Our Yacht Agent, Assad, arranged all of our paperwork, and we kept him up to date with our travel itinerary for our return to Maldives. It was seamless.

Our flights went smoothly and everything worked out. Even the nonstop mask on the long journey wasn’t as uncomfortable as we had dreaded. After lots of blue water and eating fresh fish for the past year, it was a bit thrilling to eat fast food in a snowy parking lot. We were underdressed for the harsh winter conditions, so thank goodness for seat heaters and drive-throughs in America. We caught up with my sister, who we haven’t seen in years and spent time with her family.

Fawwaz sent us a message on the day of the interview to wish us good luck, and Paul called to give us a pep talk, tell us how good his dinner had just been at the Fairmont, and that Skylark was still safe. At the interview, we reconnected with friends from previous companies and met many new potential colleagues who were all very welcoming.

Our interview was a success and we start training soon to fly the queen of the sky, the Boeing 747. The company even made an awesome effort to call us at exactly the same time. On the way to the airport, our phones both rang simultaneously and we were both offered the position. We both accepted the position and once the phone conversations came to an end, we felt a huge sense of relief and excitement. It all worked out. We were overwhelmed by gratitude that our friends, family, and the Fairmont, helped and encouraged us get to this beautiful moment.

We are excited to begin training soon, and in the future plan to commute to Skylark and continue Outside Watch while we try our best to live our new dream, Skylark style. The vlogs and blogs might even be more frequent since we won’t be bogged down with boat repairs and slow internet while on layovers.

It was truly a whirlwind trip and before we knew it we were landing back at the Fairmont less than a week after we left. We were grateful to be back in the beautiful lagoon and see Skylark sitting right where we left her.

We initially planned to leave a day or two after arriving back at the Fairmont. They made us feel so welcome we ended up staying another six days.

While recovering from jet lag, we enjoyed relaxing with beautiful views and indulging at their restaurants. I went to their heavenly spa for a massage, something very important after 40 flight hours of mostly economy airplane travel within a week. The Willow Stream spa is incredible, and any tension from the week was completely eliminated.

At the Fairmont, you receive superior service because they are professionals who are highly trained by Fairmont and previous experiences. It’s not amateur hour here. We experienced so many wonderful interactions with the staff, who are genuine and interesting people! Every day there was a pleasure.

When we returned from the trip, we had a chance to speak to the GM, Andrew, to thank him for allowing us to come to the Fairmont with Skylark. When we told him about our upcoming 747 job, we learned that his father was a former 747 Captain in addition to an Olympic sailor. Andrew is also a sailor and has friends who are pilots, many of whom, just like us, were grounded by Covid. When Fawwaz forwarded our request, Andrew could have rejected it. During these difficult times, Andrew chose to help. His choice made a difference in our life, during a time of uncertainty, and gave us the opportunity to pursue our dream.

Andrew’s team strives for excellence because he inspires them to want to, not because they feel they have to. Many of the team there told me Fairmont Maldives has been their favorite hotel to work at. I truly believe them.

There is a beautiful wooden sailing dhoni, moored outside of Onu bar. From Skylark, we saw Andrew and one of the Maldivian staff rig up the dhoni and go for a sail near the beach. We hopped in our dinghy and went to take photos of this majestic sight. Andrew invited us to join him for a quick sail and I gladly accepted. He even let me take the helm! It was a true pleasure to sail with him and I can see why everyone has such high regards for him.

On the last morning, Paul and I went for a snorkel with the talented marine biologists and saw a few mantas. On our way back to our yachts, we saw Andrew and Marshall having a coffee by the main restaurant. We told them we were departing in a couple of hours, and they reinforced that we were welcome to stay longer and welcome back any time.

As much as we would have loved to stay forever, the time came for us to leave, sailing south to Male’ (for real this time). On a picture perfect morning, we met Fawwaz on the jetty to say a “see you later,” not “goodbye.” Fawwaz is a huge asset to the Fairmont and somebody we consider a friend. Remember the haul out we couldn’t find a yard for? Fawwaz called one of his friends and found us an available spot! Fawwaz's support during these uncertain times, made everything feel certain again. He gave us hope that if there's a will, there's a way. We will miss Fawwaz and hope to meet him again sometime, somewhere.

We lifted our anchor and cruised through the beautiful lagoon for the last time, setting sail to our next destination and next normal. We saw a few of the Fairmont team standing on the jetty waving goodbye to us, and were amazed at how we ended up at such a luxurious resort that didn’t have to allow us to visit or help us. They could have said no. They showed us their true colors are not only shades of teal water and white sandy beach. In a world of distance and difficulties, they showed us they care. The Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi is truly unforgettable for how they made us feel: welcome.

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Wouter Kool
Wouter Kool
Mar 07, 2021

That's quite the story Jennifer! and well done getting the interview. I am keen to learn how you both will manage a flying/cruising lifestyle. Good luck!

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