Experience the Maldives for less. Donna Richardson unlocks the secrets to travelling cheaply throughout the archipelago in this article which appeared in national magazine Wanderlust …
A longer version of this article appears below.
With 1,200 islands and only a hundred or so being utilised as inhabited islands or exclusive resorts, much of the Maldives remains unexplored. While this makes for a backpackers’ nirvana, it is not an easy place to navigate, being geographically, politically and socially challenged. However, the determined backpacker can find a slice of untouched paradise at a fraction of the cost.
Donna Richardson, a travel journalist and former expat shares her insider knowledge about the Maldives.
On 7 February 2012, Mohammed Nasheed – the first democratically elected President for 30 years was toppled from power in a political coup. A year later it’s not uncommon to see riots and demonstrations as locals struggle for democracy. Whatever happens in Male’ stays in Male’. Since tourists are transported directly to their resorts via seaplane or speedboat they rarely glimpse happenings in the capital Male’.
Male’ is a conservative place where politics and religion are debated in Tea Houses, Mosques and Majlis. Tea Houses are no place for women – if you are brave enough to venture inside, expect long unwelcome stares from chain-smoking men.
Events on the mainland and islands are organised through facebook. With the right contacts, it’s possible to get around the stifling social and moral restrictions imposed upon inhabited islands and the capital.
Since alcohol is prohibited on inhabited islands at all times, a good place to familiarise yourselves with is the Hulhule’ Island Hotel (HIH). This seventies-themed airport bar is Male’s one and only watering hole and an ideal meeting place for fellow travellers.
Secret 1: Hire your own island for a night
Live the jet-set lifestyle with your friends and hire out a private island for as little as $50 per person per night. Olhahali is one of the few destinations in the country that can be booked for a guest’s exclusive use, and offers a Robinson-Crusoe-type experience. To get there you need to charter a speed-boat as the island is outside of the Male’ atoll. This tiny speck in the ocean is just 285 metres in length and 60 metres wide. Available for up to 40 people for US$2000 a day, Olhahali offers a number of packages on its official website, with special rates for expats and locals.
Secret 2: Day trips and entertainment at resorts
Many resorts in the Maldives are under-occupied during the low season. With this in mind, it’s possible to negotiate day use of the resorts –even to blag an overnight deal. Depending on the resort, they can arrange transfers from the capital and entertainment and activities at a fraction of the price you’d pay for a packaged holiday.
Every Thursday night the Kurumba resort hosts a disco under the stars. The boat leaves from nearby Male’.
Secret 3: Discover desert islands and get to know the locals
As more guest houses spring up on local islands, backpackers can enjoy more interaction with locals.
Chartering a liveaboard boat in Male’ will take you to inhabited and uninhabited islands in the atoll, This can also be achieved for a fraction of the cost via local tour operators like Surf In the Maldives. Visit local islands to support cottage crafts and enjoy traditional Maldivian dance and bodu beru drumming. Islanders come out of their brightly painted houses and quaint coral cottages to unwind on undolis (giant swings) after a day’s work. Learn a few basic local phrases as shopkeepers speak little English.
It is forbidden to wear bikinis on the beach – there are huge signs to remind you. Shops shut during prayer time – dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and early evening. During Ramadan, when locals observe a strict fast during daylight hours, tourists are not allowed to eat or drink in public places.
Night reef fishing trips organised by local fishermen allow you to catch your own fish and then head to a deserted island to eat it. While the catch is grilled over red hot ambers, the stars above shine brightly and the lagoon is illuminated with tiny lights of phosphoresce.
Secret 4: Getting around
Flying in a sea plane over the Maldives is an experience to remember. However, the most popular method of transport inter-atoll is by dhoni (small indigenous boat). A flotilla of these magnificent vessels lines the jetties in Male’ bound for numerous islands and resorts within the atoll. For a small fee it is possible to negotiate a passage.
For as little as 50 cents you can travel from Male’ to Hulhumale’ and Vilingili from established ferry terminals in the capital. While it isn’t advertised, it is also possible to hop on a dhoni to Thulusdhoo and Himmafushi, islands close to the Cokes and Sultans surf breaks. Ferries depart from Male’ every other day, so you will need to arrange accomodation on the island and hire a boat to the surf points.
Secret 5: South of the Equator
Addu – an hour’s flight from Male’ Ibrahim Nasir Airport is the most backpacker friendly atoll in the Maldives – and the only place possible to explore multiple islands by bicycle. These islands are linked by a causeway built by the British during its military occupancy. Stay in Equator Village, the former Sergeants Mess.
For a real adventure enquire down at the Fruit and Vegetable Market for a passage on a cargo ship to Addu. Along its various port drops you can visit islands never before set foot on by a Westerner, for as little as $50 for a return trip.
Culture and heritage
Take a ferry from Feydhoo in Addu to the ancient villages of Hulhudoo and Meedhoo in the north and discover the oldest cemetery in the Maldives.
Alternatively take a speedboat to the one-island atoll of Fuvahmulah in search of Buddhist relics and inland lakes. Regular speedboats depart from Feydhoo.
Ruins and artifacts of ancient settlements prior to the arrival of Islam can be found in Thoddoo, Rasdhoo, Mahibadhoo, Maamigili, and Fenfushi in Ari Atoll. Relics are also on show in the National Museum in Malé.
North of Male’ lies the stunning Shaviyani Atoll. A chain of five uninhabited islands are connected by a sand bank. At low tide a long white desert appears in the middle of the ocean allowing you to cross one island to another. You will need to charter a local dhoni to reach them. The Viceroy is the nearest resort.