I stroll along the endless stretch of white sand in te late afternoon sun. The water in the shallow aqua blue lagoon is at low tide, yet it laps gently against the shore, showing exposed coral and driftwood, writes Donna Richardson.
Women dressed in burkas play with their kids on the sand and locals dance to a ‘bodu beru beat’ while families cook fresh fish on the stand-alone barbeques. I pause to take it all in, then continue to jog down the wide open road that’s lined with evergreen trees. I’m chasing the glowing circle of the sun, which is rapidly disappearing into the sea. At the end of the beach, I turn left and reach the yacht marina where I sit on the dock of the bay to watch one of the most striking sun sets I have seen. I marvel at the sky painted with all the colours of the rainbow, against the backdrop of yachts and safari boats. As dusk settles in, the safari boat community comes to life and it’s party time aboard for the guests. This is Hulhumale – the place where I live.
How to get there from Male’?
It’s easy, hop on a ferry from a part of the city where motorcycles clog the narrow streets and fishermen gut their morning catch on the sidewalk. Just 25 minutes later, you arrive in a brand new world, the island of Hulhumale’.
This is an artificial island built by engineers, not volcanoes, yet strangely it feels almost natural. Its elder sibling Male’ is the natural island, yet it with its concrete jungle interior as opposed to Hulhumale’s fairly recently planted trees that now outnumber buildings, it appears vice-versa.
Perhaps the contrasts between the two islands betray one of the Maldives’ many paradoxes.
When the ferry arrives, you step up onto this island. The streets are straight and wide. There’s a new hospital, new schools, new government buildings, new apartments — all several feet higher than the rest of the Maldives.
The flood-resistant island was created by a huge dredge that sucked up sand from the ocean floor and disgorged it into a shallow lagoon. Eventually, Hulhumale’ rose from the waters.
With long, wide open roads, it’s perfect for those who love the outdoors. Much of the island is undeveloped, which means there are plenty of open roads to jog or cycle around as you discover the magic of the island.
As I live right on the beach, ideally I like to start each day with a sun rise jog to see the glory of the morning. I pace myself down the airport road in the direction of Hulhumale’ Inn, (Formerly Daisy Inn) and onwards to the Hulhule’ border. It is a good stretch from top to bottom, but worth the effort when you reach a look out spot over to Hulhule’ Airport. It’s one of my favourite places to reflect. You can watching the comings and goings of the busy ‘floating’ airport.
Overhead, the “red and white” Maldivian Air Taxi and the “blue and yellow” Trans Maldivian Airways sea planes circle the island. You could almost re-create a scene out of the cult film ‘Wayne’s World’, as the mighty metal birds wing their way through the sky, they whizz but a few metres above your head before skillfully landing on floats in the lagoon – right in front of your eyes.
Hulhule’ International Hotel
A causeway separates the inhabited island from the Hulhule’ Airport, where Hulhule’ International Hotel (HIH) stands, the only hotel near Male’ that serves alcohol, apart from resorts. Since the border is manned by security guards 24/7, you must take a special airport licensed taxi cab or one of the irregular airport buses to reach it.
Hulhumale’ has a wide sand beach instead of a concrete seawall. It is one of the first inhabited islands to take positive action against littering, installing bins and a proper waste disposal and collection system.
Earlier this year, in partnership with the municipality, locals kickstarted a ‘Clean Up Hulhumale’’ campaign – although this has yet to sink in fully with most of the population. Take a walk along the beautiful white beach and you will see plastic bottles and empty crisp packets discarded by careless picnickers. It’s a crying shame to spoil such beauty.
Still, education is the key to solve this plague afflicting the community. Perhaps the school kids should pay more attention to the ‘Captain Planet’ cartoons which are shown daily on the Maldives National Broadcasting Channel (MNBC). As you wait at the ferry Hulhumale’ ferry terminal during rush hour in the evening children are glued to this popular eighties cartoon. Perhaps more exposure to these messages will help to cut ‘pollution down to zero’ in time.
There are plenty of restaurants. all offering international cuisine to choose from. Highly recommended eateries include; Food Palace, which does a great pizza and lasagne; Oxillia has some of the freshest salads on the island and a great club sandwich too. Both can be found on the main road leading to the ferry terminal. Or if a curry takes your fancy, why not head down to the main ‘airport’ road to Friendstar, which cannot be beaten for portions and quantity. The beach front area is also dotted with local cafes and hotels, many of the best which can be found down side streets. Café Blues plays rock and indie and is a popular hang out for teenagers and free-thinking Maldivians. Meanwhile, River Cafe’ is a clean-non smoking family restaurant which serves reasonably-priced food, including local dishes such as Mas ‘huni’ Roshi and curry for under 30MRF. Yuppies will love the latest edition to the scene – an uber trendy cafe’ called I-Berry that opened its doors in early August. I’ve yet to try it, but it is modern and clean, if slightly hidden from the main drag. However, it will be the first cafe’ on the island to have wifi facilities.
If you prefer to eat as the locals do why not try one of the many small tea shops, which are easy to spot because they are mainly populated by men. They serve battered snacks with tasty spicy fillings called ‘short eats’ at all times of the day for less than 2 MRF or ‘long eats’ such as curry or rice.
Because there is plenty of space, construction is ongoing in pockets of the island. Work is almost complete on the ambitious Coral View development which is aimed at key workers. These flats have been built by Thai company Pruska-HDC and there are many private developments springing up too, just about everywhere.
Privately-rented apartments are less expensive than on Male’, so it’s a great place to stay if you have a family, or just prefer the quiet life. In fact many Arabic families visiting from the Emirates’ prefer to ‘rent’ an apartment for their holiday. If you are an expat on assignment, it is also the perfect place to base yourself, if you don’t mind a commute. Overall, housing is evenly spaced on this island and sparsely so. The shape and size of housing varies. Many beach-front residences are three-level beach houses, split into luxury apartments. These are aimed at upwardly mobile Maldivian business people and their families, as well as a growing number of expats.
However, most local families, (mostly displaced from outer-islands affected by the tsunami or migrants from Male’) live in brightly coloured social housing flats clustered on the interior of the island. These housing ‘lots’ are lively and populated. Laundry can be found hanging outside the balconies day and night. Flats are awarded by the government in a kind of ‘housing lottery’. Some social housing lots are numbered and stand out like ghettoes on the island, alongside the small tin shacks where Bangladeshi labourers work and live. It is an environment where expats mix with locals daily. Overall the island aims to be home to around 50,000 residents when it is complete. Less than 10,000 live here now. That is a stark difference to the hundreds of thousands of people all crammed on to the capital like rabbits in warrens.
Most of the local shops selling groceries, household wares, basic clothing items and toiletries can be found on one of the two main roads. All supporting infrastructure is here from schools, a hospital, a beauty salon, social centre (for men only) an international language centre. You can also pay utility bills at the Hulhumale Housing Development Corporation (HDC) building.
Surf and Dive Tourism
Hulhumale’ has a fully-fledged marina, so it’s not surprising that most of the safari boats are permanently docked here. That means there is a huge surf and dive tourism market. More and more guest houses are springing up on Hulhumale, specifically with surfing and diving in mind. This accommodation is just a short walk or pick-up truck ride away from the main marina where the safari boats stay to rest before venturing out into the wider ocean. There are many local dive spots accessible by dhoni too as well as famous surf spots. Plus being semi-land based gives the creature comforts of home for a few nights and access to shops and facilities not found on the open ocean.
Many guest houses and expatriate houses can be found along the beach facing the sea. There are also some more along the airport road. If you are a budget traveller, Hulhumale’ is the best place to stay, as it has easy access to the safari boats and the capital enabling movement.
Divers can choose to mix their dive time with a stay on the local island and at the same time get to grips with the culture and local customs. For the budget traveller, there are a variety of options. “A lot more independent travellers are coming to the Maldives, we are seeing guest houses, specifically aimed at divers and surfers, springing up in Hulhumale and Male’. Typically we can find rooms through our contacts for around $45-60US per night,” said Mickey Nutts who runs Surf in the Maldives Travel Agency.
‘Surf in the Maldives’ has been building a network of partners to offer accommodation for surfing holidays and surf dhoni trips too. In terms of guest houses there are plenty to choose from. If its just the basics you are after the Hulhumale Inn, formerly Daisy Inn, just a short trip from the airport, offers modern and spacious rooms for a reasonable US$35-45 dollars. It is an ideal haven for backpackers as it has free wifi and a simple concept which appeals to backpackers. Meanwhile, beach front guest houses such as Fauna Inn is popular. Boasting a ‘room with a view’ for around $50-80 dollars. Those wanting a little luxury can try the Loona Hotel which has a red carpet leading inside and an outside area fronting on to the beach, which costs between $80 and $100US per night.
Loona Hotel is progressive in many ways because it has the only litter bin on the beach and is popular with tourists because it faces on to the sea. Guests can enjoy fantastic views of the lagoon from the rooftop restaurant. Until recently locals and expats liked it too because they were allowed to sit on tables shaded by umbrellas as they drank a coffee on the beach. Sun loungers were also there too. However, all the fun stopped when a ‘moral panic’ broke out concerning tourists wearing bikinis. A a sign was put up to show people bikini’s are banned. Modest clothing should be worn on the beach as it attracts staring men and can offend locals. It is an actual criminal offence.
Many members of the boating community live on Hulhumale’ , running independent diving agencies attached to safari boats. The owner of one safari boat called Alter Ego, soon to launch in the Maldives, runs a guest house as an annex to his boat, catering to the Russian, French and Chinese markets.
In terms of land-based independent schools, which are not attached to guest houses, Dive Club Maldives is just located a few metres from these beachfront guest houses. This outfit, a fully PADI qualified dive centre, is one of three dive schools on the island. All of which are competitively priced. All will offer ‘expat rates’ if you barter with them. They also offer water sports activities at the nearby Club Faru resort for around $40US transfer and entrance fee.
Overall it is becoming much more affordable for the Fully Independent Travellers’ (FIT) market and tourists who don’t want to break the bank to come and visit the Maldives, for as little as $50US -$100US you can stay in a guest house which has links to safari boats and surfing networks. It is the perfect harmony in which tourists, locals and expats can meet.
Tips for Tourists
- This is a Muslim island. Be aware of local customs
- Don’t wear bikinis on the beach – there are huge signs prohibiting wearing of swim wear or revealing clothing
- Shops shut during prayer times. Dawn, noon, afternoon and at sunset.
- Buses run hourly to the airport but check timings as they are infrequent during the daytime and have different timings on Fridays and during Ramadan
- Ferries run daily, every 15 minutes, as above
- Learn some basic local words and phrases as some shopkeepers do not always speak good English
- There are no internet café’s but all the guest houses have wifi if you ask politely
- There is much building development happening in the area. New residential developments and hotels are springing up but at the moment accomodation is limited to guest houses. You may not recognise it in a few years time.
Costs vary, but for as little as $75US per day. FITs can enjoy full bed and breakfast with optional dive or surf packages, which are individually priced.
Connecting bus rides to the ferry cost MRF 2.
The ferry ride to and from Male’ is 5 MRF each way, so for less than a dollar return, it is a great day trip out.
Buses to the airport cost 15 MRF, they run at regular intervals, except during prayer times.
Airport taxi’s cost 100 MRF (approx $6.50US)
All photos and copyright belong to Donna Richardson
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