Point number one…they are Mal deeves, not Mal dives, regardless of the spelling.
The Maldives are a nation that is 99% water, with 1192 individual islands (about 200 of these are inhabited). The islands extend more than 820 km from north to south and 130 km from east to west. All the islands are low-lying, none rising to more than 6 feet (1.8 metres) above sea level.
The geography naturally divides the country up into 26 atolls (chains of islands) but for administrative purposes, the government has divided it into 20. Added to this there are many sandbanks however these tend to change locations with the tides and are not usually mapped.
Maldives has a very friendly and welcoming population. The official language is called Dhivehi (or Maldivian) which is a sort of hybrid version of Arabic, Hindi, and English but most Maldivians can speak English with no problems.
Islam is the state religion and our timing put us here right in the middle of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when the new crescent moon can first be seen). During Ramadan, Muslims worldwide fast from sunrise to sunset. And Jill and I in the middle of it. No alcohol allowed and no food during daylight hours. Forced detox it is.
Now let’s not be silly here this place is stunning…and we have only seen a minuscule amount of it. Warm, open waters of every shade of black, blue and green that you can imagine and white sandy beaches everywhere you look. Even walking out of the Male Airport you are not met with the usual grey bitumen cab rank, you are greeted by pristine blue waters and your taxi is invariably a high-powered water taxi.
This place is also hot. The numbers don’t show it (28-32 degrees) but the feels like is always reported around the 38 mark. This is mainly because there is no avoiding the sun. It hits you on the way down and reflects off the gleaming white sand and hits you on the way back up. The up side to this is that you are just a quick dip in the water away from dropping your body temperature considerably.
Some of the islands and atolls are named using local names while others are merely known by the particular resort that has been established there. Eleven of the Islands are serviced by airports with the remaining 1181 islands being serviced by boats (of varying quality and standard). Male is the main international airport with other islands having smaller local airports, and seaplanes servicing many of the other islands.
Important Note: your flight time and the boat/ferry times are unlikely to match each other. This will be a critical point when planning your trips, particularly for arrivals and departures. The local ferry is cheap as chips, the fast ferry is around $25 USD/head and a private boat could be any number they think of.
We set up camp on a little island called Guraidhoo, which was about 36km south of the capital Male that we got to on a high powered jet boat (for $50 USD each way). It is small (about 700m by 500m but has numerous shops, dive and tour operators, and a few restaurants.
80% of the Maldives’ GDP is generated through tourism with over 1.5 million people visiting annually. Other than that there are is boat building and a few cottage industries (handicrafts, weaving, embroidery etc).
There are over 130 resort islands, including almost all of the top hotel chains. As with everywhere, the accommodation ranges from the top of the line to the cheap and cheerful depending upon your budget. These numbers also go up and down depending on the time of the year and season.
I found 5 star rooms and villas on offer for between $2200 and $4500 USD per night. Needless to say, these were pretty bloody nice. The place directly opposite our island had bungalows over the water for $1500 a night and the ones with pools were more than double that.
I also found some all-inclusive deals that started for around $400USD a night and they went up from there. Oh, the other factor here is that you can get booze on some (if not all) of the resort islands.
Our place, by comparison, was a meagre $60 Australian a night and included breakfast. When we go out for dinner we hit one of the few restaurants on the island and our general spend is between $20-25 USD for our meals. This includes a restaurant where your feet are in the sand while you eat. Bear in mind that there is no alcohol included in this price as we are in a Muslim country.
The streets are not paved but are made of a sandy/coral mix, which means you are virtually on the beach 100% of the time. The Bikini beach was a 3 minute walk for us and was stunning. Jill got into the pattern of heading out to the beach after breakfast and lazing under one of the cabanas (with regular dips into the ocean) and returning at around 5 pm. I on the other hand would pop in once or twice a day for an hour or two to get my swim in and chat.
The funny thing was that each day a boat would arrive from one of the resort islands and drop off a bunch of people to laze on our beach, because it was nicer.
After a few days of lolling around on the beach we decided to do a day trip. These are available for about $500-700 USD per day, but the price per person drops the more people that go. We managed to get on one that was $100USD / head. It was meant to include dolphins, turtles, sting rays, sharks, snorkelling, lunch, sandbank and manta rays. We were warned in advance that it was the wrong time of year for Manta Rays and given that it was Ramadan, lunch did not happen.
As for the rest though…they seriously delivered on all fronts.
Neither of us were that thrilled with the dolphin idea as we have seen them often. In fact, in Perth there is a local pod that lives in the river and swims past regularly. And then we saw a pod of about 100+ dolphins and they were magnificent. The little ones were leaping out of the water and spinning and generally just having a good time.
The boat dude handed out snorkels and said, jump in…in the middle of the ocean. Everyone stared at each other not too sure, but someone had to make a move so in I went. That was basically the last that I saw of dolphins. They did not come within 20 meters of me and my GoPro.
Jill on the other hand had them swimming all around and underneath her (with no GoPro). I had the ability to capture the images but didn’t get near one, she did not and was surrounded by them.
The next stop was the snorkelling and the turtles. Now this has been on my bucket list for a long time. I have always wanted to swim with turtle and am happy to say that this has now happened. More importantly both Jill and I got to get VERY close to it. From here we hit a local island (Fulidhoo) where we saw the sting rays right on the beach. In fact we can see this every evening at our own island but is was still ok.
From here we headed over to the next stop, which was the sharks. Now this was impressive and terrifying at the same time. We pulled up in the boat and the dude immediately started chumming the water so that the sharks would come to the boat. When there was around 20 sharks under the boat he told everyone to jump in. People were nervous enough in the middle of the ocean with dolphins, needless to say nobody rushed to do this. Jill and I filmed from the boat while I decided that I did not really need to swim with sharks.
These sharks ranged in size from about 2m to 3.5m and google tells me they keep going over 4m. The dude who kept urging us to get in, made the comment not to touch the sharks. I’m not sure how stupid I look but I am pretty sure that this is advice I probably didn’t need to be told. Jill (who is obviously over my company by now and knows the value of my superannuation) kept encouraging me to jump in.
After the first 2 people had gone in with no incident I made my way to the front of the boat and prepared to jump. Just as I was about to leave a shark emerged directly below me, that I would have landed on. Now I don’t know a lot about sharks, but I am pretty sure a fat bugger landing on your back while you are happily swimming along, might prompt you to bite. Anyway, long story short, I jumped in, while my bride watched and filmed from the boat.
I spent the next 20-30 minutes getting bumped into and shoved by sharks. Don’t touch the sharks, bloody well tell them that.
Uninhabited Islands – there are more uninhabited islands in the Maldives than there are inhabited ones, they are the closest you can get to ‘truly untouched’ natural environments. And virtually every resort, guesthouse, hotel will have a day trip to private sandbanks and uninhabited islands. They almost all have powdery sandy white beaches and pristine lagoons. However, a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ experience comes at an expense, both financially and physically. There is often no escape from the heat, and the shifting tides and currents can drastically change the formation of the sandbank throughout the day.
The traditional Maldivian cuisine is known as Dhivehi Cuisine it is a fusion of Indian and Sri Lankan food (more so the Sri Lankan) but heavily influenced by the seafood and coconut that is in abundance. Obviously fish is a staple and many nights during our time here did we eat a lot of fresh whole fish. These varied greatly, depending upon what had been caught that day.
On our last morning before leaving we even tried the Maldivian traditional breakfast. This consisted of a mix of tuna, coconut flesh and onions served with a boiled egg and some chapatis.
Extras – There are some extra hidden costs that sneak up on you, particularly that you are subject to a 10% Service Charge plus a 16% Goods and Services Tax (GST). The GST is applied after the service charge has been added on. In addition, there is a green tax applicable of USD $6 per person per night.
Leaving became a bit of an issue as we had a 10:30am flight out and the ferry that came at 7am was a slow one (for $1.50 each) that takes 3 hrs to do the 36km trip. The fast one (for $25 USD each) that takes 30mins came at 9:45 and a private one would have cost us $200 USD. So a last minute scramble saw us heading out from Guraidhoo back to Male and getting a night’s accommodation at Hulhumale. However the hotel helped with all of this (including transfers) and it generally worked out well.
This place is heaven on earth and we will definitely be coming back. This time we had 10 days on the one Island, with the tour taking us to 2 others and our departure to a third (due to boat and ferry times). Next time we may split this to 5 and 5 moving to another island to get a bit more variety. Besides, there are another 1188 islands that we haven’t been near yet. But Jill has already got a travel alert set up for when there are cheap flights.
While I am certain that the resorts are lovely, so too was our little cheap and cheerful. And regardless of where you stay, you end up swimming in the same crystal clear waters and seeing the same fish, dolphins, sharks and rays.