Paradise done cheap: visit the Maldives without breaking the bank
Long a favoured destination for honeymooners and high rollers, the Maldives is seeking to broaden its appeal. Once upon a time, government policy sequestered luxury tourists on separate dedicated islands, away from the local population. This is changing, as a result of then president Mohamed Nasheed’s 2008 decision to open “local islands” to tourism.
“Since Nasheed’s reforms, there’s been an explosion of small- to medium-sized developments owned and operated by Maldivians,” says Sharafuzzaman Anees, the operator of Shark Diving School on the centrally located Maafushi Island. These new hotels, restaurants and ancillary businesses cater to budget and middle-market tourists. “On some islands, local tourism is thriving.”
Now, tourists can interact with ordinary Maldivians, sample local culture, and enjoy the balmy climate, pristine beaches, and access to marine life for which the archipelago is justly celebrated – at a fraction of the cost of luxury resorts.
The island triad of Maafushi, Guraidhoo and Gulhi is emerging as a local tourism centre. Access is cheap and easy: each is located on South Malé Atoll, 30 to 40 minutes by speedboat from the main Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (one-way shared speedboat airport transfers from US$20 [Dh73] per person). Local ferries cost about 30 Maldivian rufiyaa [Dh7], and run at least once daily, except Fridays.
Maafushi, the largest of the trio, is the flagship for local tourism. Although the island is only 1.25 kilometres long and 250 metres wide, the reefs surrounding it have long been featured stops on all the expensive liveaboard dive-safari itineraries. The first Maldivian hotel opened here in 2010, and the island currently boasts more than 40 such establishments. Nearby are the even smaller Gulhi and Guraidhoo, each with its own allure.
“Visiting local islands makes vacationing in the Maldives affordable,” says Margarita Turik, who recently fled a St Petersburg winter to visit all three islands, with her husband, Vladimir. Their favourite: the tiny Gulhi, “which is wild, but may be a bit too quiet for some visitors. Its beach is the most beautiful of all three, and has been nearly deserted during our [early] December visit.”
Arrange a Maafushi journey
“Maafushi and other local islands offer world-class diving and unspoilt beaches, as well as a range of well-priced accommodation,” says Renee Sorenson, a diving instructor and the proprietor of Ekte Maldivene who first travelled here in 2013 to learn to dive – and never left.
Most Maafushi hotels can now be pre-booked via online services such as Booking.com and Hotels.com. In this nascent tourism market, “using an agency for one-stop shopping reduces hassle and headaches,” says Sorenson. “We take care of our clients from the moment they step out of the airport and board a speedboat until they leave the Maldives. They get the same level of service people get at luxury resorts, at a far lower cost.”
Sun Tan Beach Hotel offers 19 comfortable rooms – some oceanfront – fast Wi-Fi, and a wider range of breakfast options than most rival hotels, including the local speciality, mashuni – finely diced tuna, shredded coconut, chopped onions and chillies, served with fried egg and Indian roti. The smaller, well-run Lily Rest is a 10-minute walk from the main swimming beach, while Island Cottage offers the friendliest welcome.
The range and quality of Maafushi’s dining options have yet to keep pace with the opening of new hotels. Restaurants are usually beachside to allow diners to enjoy soft evening breezes. Yet frozen ingredients are common, waiting times can be long, and service is often slow or indifferent. Some hotel restaurants will procure and grill fresh fish, on request, even for non-residents. Usually purchased on the same day from local fisherman, this is by far the tastiest option.
Fine Bake (Main Road) is Maafushi’s only bakery, and offers excellent cakes, doughnuts and pastries, from 15 rufiyaa (Dh4). Its proprietor, Suzy, also prepares meals of Maldivian specialities on request.
Gulhi and Guraidhoo
For a small island with few cars, Maafushi can be unexpectedly noisy: it sometimes seems every other local who’s profited from the tourism boom has invested in a motorbike.
Noise isn’t a problem on more relaxed Gulhi. Nima Inn is 100 metres from the beach, and has faster Wi-Fi than on Maafushi. Gulhi’s modest restaurants currently only offer limited menus – mainly Chinese-style noodles and fried rice – but the Nima Inn can arrange tasty freshly caught tuna or reef-fish lunches or dinners ($10 to S15 [Dh37 to Dh55]).
On Guraidhoo, The Guraidhoo Inn features a lovely garden. Next door, the Guraidhoo Palm Inn has its own restaurant. Maniko Café’s specialises in hedhika – “short eats” – savoury pastries filled with combinations of tuna, potato, cabbage, or coconut. They cost 60 rufiyaa (Dh14) for an ample selection, with coffee, tea or soft drink.
Diving’s one of the main draws in the Maldives. For those who want to learn, try Maafushi’s Maldives Passions (www.maldives-passions.com), especially under the tutelage of proprietor Adham Rafeeu (whose Facebook page sports a picture with one famous client, Cristiano Ronaldo). Its prices are a bit higher than those of other local centres, but you get what they pay for. Single dives cost $50 (Dh184) each, with discounted multi-dive packages available, as well as Padi certification courses.
Shark Diving School (www.sharkdivingschool.com) on Gulhi caters to experienced divers with an interest in marine biology and conservation. Gulhi is a 10-minute speedboat ride from Dhigu Thila and Meru Faru dive sites. Its operator, Anees, is active in developing sustainable tourism, documenting the results of climate change on coral reefs, and supporting efforts to preserve endangered marine life.
Scuba gear isn’t necessary to explore the watery wonders near these islands. Spinner dolphins are often visible from onshore, and snorkellers commonly see eagle rays, hawksbill turtles, and kaleidoscopic schools of reef fish in the lagoon adjoining Gulhi Reef.
Swimming with the biggest fish in the sea
For many, a highlight of their Maldivian holiday is the chance to swim with a whale shark, the biggest fish in the world. These gentle, plankton-eating behemoths have been known to reach 12 metres in length – the ones found in the Maldives generally max out at seven metres. Although they can dive to great depths, they often swim just below the surface, and aren’t skittish around people.
Whale sharks migrate, so seeing them poses a challenge. The Maldives is unique: it’s possible to encounter these creatures year-round somewhere in the archipelago, unlike other places – such as Australia, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand and the UAE – where their presence is seasonal.
Each morning, weather and customer interest permitting, iCom Tours (www.icomtours.com) dispatches a speedboat from Maafushi Harbour to search for whale sharks (tours cost from $100 [Dh367] per person; advance booking essential). Finding a whale shark isn’t guaranteed, although about half of excursions succeed in getting close enough to allow customers to swim alongside the huge fish, according to iCom’s Ibrahim Schaphyg. Sightings of dolphins, sea turtles, and various sea birds en route are common.
These trips aren’t limited to divers: indeed, the use of scuba equipment is banned, because standard air regulators emit bubbles that disturb the creatures. Nor do you need to be an Olympic-class swimmer. All that’s necessary is some swimming ability and a basic comfort with being in open water, although the excursions aren’t suitable for younger children.
These day trips are now popular, with boats arriving from throughout the Maldives. At peak times, dozens of people may be in the water, each seeking to commune with a whale shark. Custom trips are available that allow for a more private experience, by hiring a speedboat (these cost from $800 [Dh2,938]). This can be arranged by iCom Tours or many hotels.
Much remains to be known about whale sharks, and how the creatures relate to the fragile Maldivian marine ecosystem. Since 2006, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme has sought to fill this gap. The charity promotes community-focused conservation in the Maldives and the greater Indian Ocean. Its website (www.maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org) features a video outlining how to swim safely with the creatures while causing minimal disturbance. It’s well worth a watch before taking a whale-shark trip.
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Updated: February 18, 2016 04:00 AM