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!
Waiting outside Arrivals is your first glimpse of the glittering Indian Ocean, ready to welcome 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, a bit like a tropical new build estate. But being the Maldives, it’s 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.
I’d seen complaints on Trip Advisor about Maafushi being less than perfect, so remember this is not an 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. 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.
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 pared-down barefoot luxury, the perfect antidote to cluttered and chaotic 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. Possibly the most spectacular place I’ve been to, I found myself immediately transfixed by the pure depth of colour and clarity of the ocean, constantly sparkling like a perfectly-cut sapphire. 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.