Going to the Maldives on a honeymoon has always been something of a private dream of mine. A secluded water villa, with glorious sun, sand, and sea. I mean, who doesn’t dream about that? But when Mr. Right stubbornly refused to turn up at my doorsteps, I made a decisive move to piss him off by departing with my Single and Fabulous Gang. Sweet revenge 🙂
It would be a major shortcoming talking about the Maldives without mentioning first 4 lovely guys at Holiday Lodge on Maafushi Island who made our trip so memorable (especially in the context of Mr.Right’s absence). Meet Ali, the quick witted and brilliant story teller; the quiet but attentive ‘merman’ Jai and captain Shima ‘Bob Marley’ who accompanied us on our day trips; and Akram, the smart-looking ‘philosopher’ who gave us a beautiful shell as a parting gift and a can-not-be-more-true conclusion ‘a resort is just another island’ after our visit to Fihaalhohi Island Resort. It was through them that we got a taste of the world-famous Maldivian hospitality and its ‘sunny side of life’. It was through them that we got to know Maldives’ history, its beauty as well as its looming threat.
The republic of Maldives comprises of nearly 1,200 islands which arrange themselves into 26 ring-shaped clusters called atolls. It seems fitting that an old local folk song describes the archipelago as ‘From the clear blue sea, we grow like pearls’. Looking from space, the Maldives indeed resembles a giant string of pearl in the middle of the Indian Ocean. This dream destination attracts many leisure seekers throughout the year with its pristine natural wonders. The sea of the Maldives features massive lagoons with different depths, which results in a mesmerizing palette of every possible shade of blue – emerald, turquoise, sapphire, cerulean blue, azure, and aquamarine. Meanwhile, the sun-kissed sand is pure white and soft under your feet like a pillow. Its coral reefs are home to a vivid colorful ecosystem of marine flora and fauna, you wouldn’t need to go far to find Nemo, turtles, dolphins, and reef sharks. If you are lucky to come to the Maldives during full moon, like us, basking in the bright moonlight at night while fishing in the middle of the ocean or flying in a speed boat could be one of the most liberating experiences that you can have. Being in the Maldives makes me realize why I am a sucker for natural beauties, because they can make your head go ‘wow’, your heart sing, and your soul come alive.
But visiting the Maldives also makes me realize that it is an extremely vulnerable country with a very delicate and fragile ecosystem that is suffering from rapid socio-economic development, fast growing population, and huge influx of tourists. Its small size, geographical isolation, and low elevation make it especially susceptible to climate change and natural disasters like tsunamis. Experts even fear that the Maldives could disappear before the year 2050 due to rising sea level. The transient nature of the Maldives’ islands is evident through one of its most amazing and perplexing natural wonders – moving sand banks, which can disappear during high tide, and shift to new locations due to soil erosion during the biannual seasonal change. But man-made environmental issues are even more evident everywhere you go. On land, the narrow streets of Male are jam packed with cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians. The capital island is crowded, choked with pollution and deafened by traffic noise. Out on the sea, you can easily spot a plastic bottle floating here, a foam food container drifting there. Underwater, coral bleaching and death are clear signs of environmental destruction. But the most disturbing scene that I saw during my trip was from a photo taken by our merman Jai of a turtle surrounded by snorkelers in shallow water. It looks like the poor animal was being cornered by alien preys. After all, we as tourists are just guests of those amazing marine creatures, but some are treating them as our pets, and littering their home as if it was our own backyard.
But do not let my worldly feelings stop you from visiting this paradise on earth. Just do it with responsibility and respect for Mother Nature. I am sure you will find a tranquil heaven for your heart and soul!
Let my heart fly, across the ocean
Let my soul flow, clouds up high
Close my eyes, and wish I’d be there
Crystal waters, meet deep blue sky
Palm trees sway
Night and Day
This is where I want to stay
(The Maldives song – Unoosha ft. Harubee & Barchie)
Tips for travelling in the Maldives on a budget:
• You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars per night on a resort island. The Maldives now offers many budget accommodations on their residential islands. We stayed at Holiday Lodge on Maafushi Island, which provides clean basic A/C rooms, but great 5-star quality service. There are plenty of other options on Maafushi as well, so look around and you can surely find a good deal.
• If you are travelling in a group of 3 or more, ask for speed boat pick-up from and drop-off to the airport. It will save you a lot of time and hustle. We literally wasted one day trying to save cost by staying one night in Huhu-Male and taking public ferry (following advice from other bloggers). It turns out Huhu-Male is a boring artificial island created through a government’s land reclamation project with lots of tasteless concrete residential blocks and dozens of cheap guesthouses mushrooming along the coast. To go anywhere, you have to take a 30 min ferry to Male and transfer to other ferry terminals. The problem is there is no guarantee that you can get a public ferry ticket from Male to other islands. For example, there are only 2 ferries daily from Male to Maafushi at 10am and 3pm, and they tend to fill up way before you can get to the ticket office. So when we add up the costs for taxi from airport to Huhu-Male, one-night accommodation on the island, a dinner, ferries to Male, taxi across Male, and the chartered slow boat that we shared with 14 other people, we did not save a single penny at all. That does not count the huge opportunity cost incurred since we wasted 24 hours seeing almost next to nothing of the Maldives we dreamed of.
• If you really cannot afford a speedboat, and cannot get a ferry ticket either, just hang around the ticket office at the ferry terminal. Sooner or later you will find other passengers in the same situation, and some local men offering private boat to wherever you want to go. We joined several couples and families, and hired such a boat for only $10/pax to go from Male to Maafushi. Not bad at all!
• Try the Maldivian dinner. It’s a feast and it’s super cheap. We had a sumptuous one at Holiday Lodge which costed only $20 for 3 people, and we did not even finish half of it.
• You can combine multiple excursions to save cost. We did 2 snorkeling trips and a Sand Bank visit in a day, and got quite a good discount.
• Unless you can get into a really luxury resort (which is very unlikely), do not waste money on resort day pass. We spent $120/pax to visit Fihaalhohi Island Resort (boat transfer + entry fee + lunch), but ended up sleeping on its beach most of the time. There are only a few water villas on Fihaalhohi. There is no swimming pool. Their huge restaurant is like a bee hive at lunch time. After a wonderful day snorkeling and lunching on the Sand Bank, the beaches and house reefs of an island resort somehow just lack the ‘wow’ factor to us. That day we dearly missed our cheerful Ali, and the cozy dining space at Holiday Lodge. True, you can get a few nice photos, so what? You can get nice photos from anywhere in the Maldives anyway.
• All prices above and elsewhere in the Maldives are exclusive of 10% service charge and 12% good and service tax (GST) 🙂 These hidden taxes can add up to a significant amount after just a few days.
• Talk to local people. You cannot put a price on their bright smiles, their warm hospitality, and all the joy you get from their stories. We certainly got a lot of random trivia, facts, myths, and gossips from the Fantastic Four of Holiday Lodge, especially from Ali. I mean really ‘random’, like how crazy but smart their President was, how an inmate escaped from Maafushi prison and got caught in Male while wearing a wig and having dinner, how local people used washing machine to make fruit juice (still can’t believe it), how budget hotels ‘claim’ their land by cleaning the beach, how to pick the best day to go fishing, how the sand banks move, how the Maldives converted to Islam after an Arab merchant/trader helped chase away an ancient evil living on virgin sacrifices by reciting the Quran, how Ali cannot control ‘his mind’ when it speaks up, and oh well, a lot more that I cannot recall right now. Talk is cheap, but what you get out of it is invaluable.
Can you see the reef shark?
See the turtle? The sight of a turtle diving into the deep ocean with the sun rays penetrating the water surface is simply spectacular.
Below are my photos arranged in chronological order. We went fishing on the first night, then snorkeling and visiting a sand bank on the second day. The third day was spent leisurely at Fihaalhohi Island Resort.
Even the water at Male’s ferry terminal is unbelievably clear
View from Maafushi’s boat dock
Picking our snorkeling gears
Going crazy on the Sand Bank
The sand was white, the water was super clear, the sunlight was sparkling – I could not have asked for more!
You can walk around Maafushi island in 15 min. Some people bike around. We even saw a car. Not sure why you need a car here anyway.
The other side of Maafushi island at sunset – the blue hue is simply beautiful.
When we were on the way to Fihaalhohi Island Resort, we came across a few dolphins. So lucky!
Don’t be fooled by these pictures. Fihaalhohi Island Resort only has a dozen water villas or so.