Go local in the Maldives
The Maldives are a postcard destination, a place that many people would consider a once-in-a-lifetime trip for a honeymoon or wedding. Visiting those amazing atolls in the Indian Ocean can wreck your annual budget, but there’s also a no-fuss, budget way to visit this incredible place that doesn’t need to cost you the equivalent of a small car. All you need to do is to forget the resorts and stay on a local island. As there is relatively little info on the internet about how to do this, below are some tips on how to have a great experience.
Book first, figure out the details later
Our visit to the Maldives was a spur of the moment thing, we really wanted to go somewhere exotic over Christmas and happened to find a relatively cheap flight from Dublin to Male via London Gatwick. The main flight takes about 10 hours and British Airways give a good service, with decent food, a selection of recent film releases and reasonable departure and arrival times. The flight sounded great at 750 EUR return, so we quickly checked for visa requirements and required vaccinations (there are none) and booked straight away! It was only after we’d bought the tickets that we found out that:
the Maldives is a Muslim country, thus making alcohol, pork and swimming in a bikini a big no-no unless you are staying in a resort or are on a dedicated tourist beach (more on that later);
the prices of resorts are extortionate, you’re looking at a minimum of 300 EUR per night for bed and breakfast, plus no easy way to leave the resort where everything will cost 50-75% more than on a local island;
every hotel adds approx. 23% of tax to the price quoted on Booking.com, plus mandatory speedboat transfer at 5 times the usual price, plus a mandatory gala dinner (100-300 USD per head) if you’re staying there on major holiday dates, in our case Dec 24th;
regular ferries that go between local islands are limited to one atoll at a time and depart on average only once a day, and on every other day (for example, Sun-Tue-Thu), making transport between the islands tricky to plan, especially if you have limited time.
Not to worry, there is a possibility to visit the Maldives on a budget and have a great time.
Choose a local island for independent travel options
There are several local islands relatively close to the airport at Hulhumale. These include Himmafushi, Huraa, Thulusdoo in the North Malé Atoll and Maafushi, Gulhi and Guraidhoo on the South Malé Atoll. Shared speedboat transfer from Malé city can be arranged once you’ve booked your accommodation, through the guesthouse owner, and will cost approx. 20-30 USD per person each way. Don’t worry excessively about transfers if you’re staying within a 30km radius from the airport, and don’t waste time looking for shared speedboat schedules online - you won’t find any!
I’ve read on several other blogs that Maafushi is quickly becoming very touristy, so we booked our stay on Huraa island which has fewer guesthouses and is not as crowded – in fact, there were plenty of times on the island where we were the only tourists in sight. We stayed at Finihiyaa Inn on Huraa Island for 6 nights, our room was comfortable, clean and had a good size at around 70 USD per night, and our guesthouse owner Hussain was helpful with all arrangements.
Many things in the Maldives happen by arrangement. It can create hilarious situations like when we asked when it was possible to go on a snorkelling trip or do evening fishing, and the reply was always “well, when would you like to go?”. You arrange a time, but it can sometimes be moved around at short notice, depending on what other tourists chose as their preferred time. The benefit from this though is that oftentimes we were the only people on a boat trip, or shared with another couple of tourists only – no crowds and bus-loads of tourists here as can be the case in Thailand or Turkey. Make sure to write down the price of the trip when arranging it, and confirm if you’re being quoted per person or per couple/boat.
Meet the locals
Local islands offer a great opportunity to get some insight into local life. For example, we learned that all shops close for a 20-min break during prayer and that people take off their shoes when entering a cafeteria or the inside of the guesthouse. Eating options are rather limited, so don’t expect a variety of culinary delights. Huraa island has 2 restaurants which serve Maldivian dishes, curries and noodles: E-cafe and Sunset Restaurant. Neither of them is particularly fancy, but we preferred E-cafe as service was friendlier and the food of good quality. A two-course meal for two would normally cost us between 10-15 USD, including Maldivian fish soup (yum!) and noodles or rice dish for main. Fish and coconut are the main ingredients in local dishes, as everything else needs to be imported from abroad. E-cafe is right across from the big power generator which can be quite noisy, hence the name I guess!
It's not quite like the resorts you see in pictures
Huraa island has a tourist beach where you can strip down to your bikini, but the beach isn’t really suitable for swimming as the shoreline has some rocks and algae and is too shallow. A newly built hotel Pearl Sands seems to have appropriated the nicest part of the sandy beach on Huraa, so if you’re a beach bum then consider staying there.
There’s also a local beach with hammocks, swings and sunbeds which are free to use and a lovely way to spend the afternoon reading and relaxing. We saw a baby shark joyfully swimming around in the shallow waters there!
Bear in mind that there’s not much to do on a local island after dark, as there are no bars or other types of entertainment. We went for walks to look at crabs crawling around in the mangrove area - I’ve never seen so many crabs in one place, they were of all sizes and shapes! Some nights we read our books and went to bed early, tired from day trips. One evening we saw a traditional dance show underneath a giant mangrove tree that grows its roots from the branches.
Day trips were superb: we went on multiple snorkelling trips and did a trip to the picnic island (otherwise known as the Chicken Island) and to the sandbank, which is basically a tiny island of sand in the middle of the ocean.
We tried scuba diving and night fishing with Raajje Divers who were excellent and really went out of their way to make our excursion unforgettable. Watching fluorescent plankton in the water and staring at the stars from the rooftop of the boat were both amazing.
When staying on a local island, prepare to do A LOT of snorkelling 💦 It’s included in every trip, equipment provided, and you’re always going with an experienced guide who shows you all the different sea creatures – the sights are truly marvellous, we saw multiple turtles, sharks, manta rays, schools of giant Napoleon fish and Jackfish. You snorkel off a boat, right on the border of the coral reef. Make sure to rub some dish washing liquid on the inside of your mask and only rinse lightly, to stop it from fogging. Also, slap on suncream even in cloudy weather, the sun is very powerful.
You can visit a resort on a day pass
If you want a little bit of luxury and a cocktail or two, or ten, you can also visit nearby resorts for a day pass. Of course you also need to arrange transport by boat to the resort, even if it's just 20 metres away. We opted for Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives which cost 90 USD per head from 9am to 6pm and included snacks, drinks and lunch in a buffet restaurant. It was a glorious day but we were also happy to be going back to our island in the evening. It felt very homely, while the resorts are manicured and polished to perfection, and you don’t get a sense of where in the world you are in terms of culture, you could really be anywhere. I was glad that my tourist dollars were going directly to the local people who were all very friendly.
Take your rubbish with you
There is also the ugly side of the growing tourism industry in the Maldives: rubbish. The islands do not have good recycling systems and rubbish is collected and burned once a week in dedicated spots on local islands. They even have an island literally full to the brim with refuse: Thilafushi. That's why you should bring all your trash back with you on your flight to preserve this wonderful biosphere.
We felt that 6 nights on Huraa was just the right amount of time to be able to do everything we wanted. I wouldn’t recommend staying on one island for longer than that, I think it would be nice to combine it with a liveaboard diving trip next time.
We also spent one day in Male City, which is a very different experience to anywhere else in the Maldives. It is crowded, noisy, a bit crazy and rather dirty, with multiple shops, restaurants and people of different nationalities whizzing around on their motorbikes. We walked around the entire city in an afternoon and got a great insight into how people live there (everyone was taking selfies at the tsunami monument), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re after sun, beach and relax. Hotels in Male have tiny rooms, as it’s so overpopulated.
I fell in love with the Maldives, the place is just so beautiful and people are so friendly! I’m looking into an option of combining a second trip to the Maldives with a trip to Sri Lanka, as there are multiple daily flights between Male and Colombo. This time it will hopefully be a diving excursion, the marine life in the Maldives is beyond amazing!