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Independent Maldives

I’ve flown via Male a few times, but I’ve always wanted to see these dreamy islands up close. The country has been open to independent tourism for a while, but it might still come as a surprise that you can actually get around the main atolls (groups of islands, of which there are 26) by super-cheap public ferry and book independent guesthouses. Backpacking in the Maldives – who’d have thought it!

Waiting outside Arrivals is your first glimpse of the glittering Indian Ocean, beckoning you to tropical paradise. Most resort guests are collected by a glamorous speed-boat transfer, but as I was staying in a guesthouse on Hulhumale Island, the artificial island designed as an overflow for Male, just north of the airport, I needed to find some transport myself. Anticipating an expensive taxi, I actually discovered a local bus (a budget-saving 1USD) which took a loop round the runway, over the link road, conveniently stopping in the centre of Hulhumale, walking distance to my guesthouse Velima Inn. Hulhumale is laid out on a grid of wide roads with purpose-built housing blocks. But as we’re on the Maldives, this new build estate is fringed with swaying palms and white sand beaches. There are even a few nice restaurants with fresh juices and seafood. Accommodation prices on Hulhumale are much lower than densely-populated Male, where space and rates are a premium, plus it’s a only a 20 minute speedboat ride across the water. Hulhumale ferry docks near Male city centre, at the edge of the circular road, Boduthakurufaanu Magu, under Sea House restaurant. An afternoon spent mooching around Male is a great way to see traditional Maldivian life. There are colourful markets – where Maldivians come to sell their produce – a bustling fishing harbour with traditional dhows, a 17th-century mosque made of carved white coral, (plus a striking landmark modern one). The tiny capital even boasts a museum.

Slow boat to Maafushi
The next day, I arrived early at Viligili Ferry Terminal (back on Male) to buy a $2 ticket for Maafushi Island ferry, a 1½ hr journey.

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I’d seen complaints on Trip Advisor about Maafushi being less than perfect, so remember this is not that all-inclusive luxury resort (you need to pay a lot more for that) but actually a large inhabited local island with schools, mosques, shops and even a working prison. But I found Maafushi’s sandy lanes, brightly painted houses and low-key cafes charming. The independent guesthouse scene is well-established too, a double room at contemporary Beachwood Hotel, was approx. $100 a night. OK, not quite the budget definition of south-east Asia, but a still an absolute snip compared to the luxury brands. In the ultra-conservative Maldives you can’t go on public beaches in a bikini, so one of the best things about Maafushi is the private beach for tourists, concealed behind a fence of palm fronds.

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Each guesthouse has nightly BBQs, plus they arrange day-trips, such as a picnic lunch on a deserted, pristine sand bank, so there’s a good few activities to prevent you from feeling too bored (did I mention there’s no alcohol at all outside the resorts?!) With the lack of entertainment, restrictive dress code and no booze, these islands are definitely not the place for travellers looking for a Full Moon party experience, most people come to the Maldives to experience the flawless beaches, a perfect antidote to chaotic, polluted city life.

Even on a budget, you can still sample a taste of luxury by visiting a neighbouring island resort for a day. Anantara and Olhuveli were out of my price range at around $250 for a day’s use, instead I took a short speedboat trip to low-key diver’s resort Biyadhoo, where I spent the day sunbathing, snorkelling and wandering around the jungle paths. Pure bliss!

Don’t miss the 7am ferry back to Male, or you’ll either be stranded, or shelling out for a private speedboat at $250+ Always check the schedule (double/triple-check at the guesthouse) and remember ferries don’t run on Fridays. Also, some of the remote atolls are a seaplane ride away from Male, followed by a local ferry, so check the map very carefully before booking online and stick to the North or South Atolls if you’re going for a short trip.

Maldivians are used to tourists, so it’s a safe place, with zero hassle and no touts; the only sharks to be found are most definitely off-shore. A do-able 10 hours direct flight from LHR to Male with a 30 day visitor’s visa issued on arrival, it’s the perfect tropical bolthole. I found myself transfixed by the iridescent clarity of the ocean,  glittering all shades of blue one minute a perfectly-cut sapphire next, pale turquoise. An earthy paradise where winter quickly becomes a dim and distant memory, this collection of tiny gem-like islands is without a doubt the perfect place to refresh your mind.

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Exploring Iran

Booking a tour of Iran directly with an independent in-country operator, then transferring funds based on email communications, was a definitely a leap of faith, but despite our uncertainties, everything ran smoothly. We discovered a country full of breath-taking architecture, rich history and warm and welcoming people. Unfamiliar to western eyes, arriving in Iran can be an anxious experience, especially for female travellers concerned with the logistics of being escorted, not to mention wearing the mandatory headscarf.

As we entered Iranian airspace, we copied the other women on the plane and draped our pashminas over our hair. Breezing past welcoming customs officers, we were immediately spotted in baggage reclaim by our driver/guide Ramin. Skilfully negotiating Tehran’s crazy traffic in his ubiquitous white Peugeot (nearly every car is a Peugeot in Iran) he delivered us safely at our hotel, The Englehab. The décor was stranded in the 1980s, but it was well-maintained and spotlessly clean. We decided to head out immediately by cab to catch the sunset at Milad Tower, the world’s fourth tallest. Braving the biting February wind on the observation deck, we gazed at the distant snow-capped Alborz mountains – before my friend suddenly realised she left her new iPhone6 in the back of the cab! Ramin spent pretty much the whole evening calling every cab firm in the Tehran trying to get it back – no small feat in a city of 18 million – but amazingly, he actually managed track down the taxi driver, who arrived next morning with the phone. Relief all round! Then we just had time to visit the impressive Azadi Tower, one of the symbols of Tehran, which marks the west entrance to the city.

The next day, at Tajrish Mosque near Tehran’s Northern Bazaar – where I wanted to buy metres of the opulent textiles on display – religious monitors fluffed our heads with feather dusters to remind us our pashminas had slipped again…

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Termeh fabric

Giving up on our attempt at stylishly draped scarves, we decided to get serious and buy our own chadors for mosque visits. Ramin whisked us off shopping, selecting the best Islamic fashions for us to try on. The shop staff clearly found our fumbling fashion display hilarious and probably their best entertainment all year. When we came to pay, we struggled with the complicated currency of rials and tolman, and Ramin had to be our banker, (as well as fashion guru)! At the time of writing this, British tourists had to be accompanied in Iran, although I hear this is changing. It was strange at first for someone so well-used to independent travel to be continually chaperoned. However, Iran would not have been as accessible without Ramin (who became a good friend as well as our guide) and I have to admit, it was amazingly relaxing not having to do any research or bookings! One place we definitely wouldn’t have thought to visit alone was Qom – the centre of Shi’a Islam and birthplace of 1979’s Islamic Revolution. Most Iranians go there on pilgrimage to visit the Shrine of Fatima. But despite the perception the place might be a tad anti-western, Qomis are actually very welcoming. We even asked a few of the formidable-looking clerics for photos, dignified in their elegantly-draped monochrome robes. I’m sure our chadors helped us blend in; we even had local women asking us for directions!

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Shrine of Fatima, Qom

Next we headed to Kashan home of the best bread (prepare for carb overload!) A traditional town with an exquisite Taj-like mosque, beautifully restored merchant’s houses – some have been converted into atmospheric guesthouses – and an authentic bazaar, a highlight was tea amongst the rug-sellers gazing up at the beautiful ceiling.

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Tea in Kashan Bazaar

After Kashan we drove to the medieval village of Abayneh. Guarding the village was a group of toothless but tough old ladies who insisted on selling us bags of desiccated apples; like a Persian version of Snow White. With one stationed on every corner demanding rials, we decided to make a swift exit and press on to the fabled Esfahan. Named ‘Half the World’ by the seventeenth century Shah Abbas I, Esfahan definitely lived up to all expectations. At night, the turquoise domes and golden arches of Iman Square or Naqsh-e Jahan are luminous against velvet skies and the photo opportunities endless.

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Esfahan at night

For a real visual treat, visit inside the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. The soaring entrance, called an iwan, is encrusted with beautiful azure honeycombed tiling known as muquannas. Far above on the domed roof, a sharp shaft of light from a cleverly positioned window creates the impression of a tail on the mosaic peacock.sam_3031-1024x683

Peacock’s tail on the mosaic ceiling

The authentic desert town of Yazd was our next stop, where cobalt minarets soar above cubist mudbrick houses. Home of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, the city houses the Fire Temple which contains a flame kept alight since 470AD. We visited the eerie Towers of Silence on the outskirts of the city. This is where centuries before, the Zoroastrians laid out their dead for the vultures to pick clean. Despite the gruesome stories, we started to feel peckish. I rotated Persian classics all trip, the standard chicken kebab and saffron rice with mirza ghasemi, a smoked garlic, tomato and aubergine dish and fesenjan, chicken in a walnut and pomegranate sauce. But there were plenty of random meat options on the menu for the more adventurous – like the dubious sounding muscle rice.

On the way to Shiraz we stopped overnight at a converted caravanserai (old desert trading post). It was just as well as we hit an unexpected blizzard on the way. Waking up the next morning in the middle of a snowy desert was a breath-taking experience and literally icing on the cake – it was my birthday!

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Desert blizzard

Being further south, Shiraz was warm and sunny when we arrived. We headed straight to the most iconic sight in Iran – the Pink Mosque or Nasir al-Mulk, so-called because of its gorgeous rose-coloured tiles. Entering the winter prayer hall was like stepping into a rainbow. Built to face east, so the stained glass windows catch the early morning sun, we stood and marvelled at the dazzling patterns reflected on the Persian carpet. When the colours faded, we wandered to Valik Mosque with its 107 arches – again, stunning for photos, and then finished the morning by shopping for antique jewellery and ceramics in nearby Valik Bazaar.

The poet Hafez has legendary status amongst Persians, so a visit to his tomb is a definitely a must.

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Tomb of Hafez

Outside, men linger in groups holding tame lime and lemon budgies. “Do you want to know your fortune?” says Ramin. We watch as our little feathered mystic darts forward, selecting a slip of paper with its orange beak – our future printed in Farsi. The (photocopied duplicates!) both predict more travel, which is spot on, as our next stop is the fabled Persepolis, heart of the Persian Empire, with its legendary griffin-topped capitals.

The ancient capital was sacked by Alexander the Great in 330BC, but inside the Apadana Palace, the exquisite reliefs are amazingly preserved, depicting rows of tribute bearers from the enormous Persian Empire, which stretched as far as North Africa, Ethiopia and India.

Despite all the negative responses I had when I told people I was going to Iran, we felt safe at all times and even discovered a fun and light-hearted side to the country. With economics sanctions lifted and a thawing of relations with the west, perhaps these changes will enable the country to open its doors a little wider to its unique cultural treasures.

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Famous Griffin capital