A sub-£40 flight from Kuala Lumpur, coupled with the fact that we had read a few blogs which said you could now visit the Maldives on a budget, meant that adding this gorgeous tropical paradise to our itinerary at the last minute, was a no brainer.
Further research revealed that since 2009 Maldivians have been allowed to build guesthouses on local islands (e.g. those without resorts) and hundreds have sprung across the various 200 inhabited islands in the 1,200 strong archipelago.
All this means you can now find brand new well-anointed rooms with air conditioning, rain showers and comfy beds from just £30 per night (about 10 times less than the cheapest rooms in resorts). Moreover the guesthouse owners are really friendly, speak perfect English (all subjects in school our taught in English) and are a wealth of information.
The minor trade off for this new form of tourism is that visitors need to respect the nations’ conservative values. This means no alcohol is available on these islands and swimwear is only permitted on designated ‘bikini beaches’ , which are separate from the locals’ beach.
After much discussion we decided to visit three islands in the North Ari Atoll, west of the capital Male: Thoddoo, Ukulhas and Rasdhoo.
After a night on Hulhumale, a man made island (built to ease overcrowding on Male) near the airport, we jumped in a speedboat (£28) for the 80 minute journey to Thoddoo.
The boat pulled into a small port surrounded by amazing turquoise water where our guesthouse owner met us and walked us the ten minutes to our accommodation, Thoddoo Retreat.
After a disappointing lunch (sadly a theme throughout our time in the country) we headed to the bikini beach. The island is the largest fruit and vegetable producer in the country, so the walk passed fields of papayas, cucumbers, mangoes and squash.
The beach was hidden from the road by a thick hedge of mangroves with a small sandy path cut through. Once down this we were greeted by the most unique (and probably beautiful) beach we had ever seen. Rather than the typical view of the water from the sand, the area was almost enclosed on all four sides by mangroves, palms and bushes. Small gaps led down to the water. It was a shady beach hideaway, nothing like we’d ever seen. And there were sunloungers provided by the community to use for free.
After the excitement over the sand, we thought surely the water was going to be a disappointment? No, it was also world beating. Blue-green. Gin clear. Calm. Deep. Sandy underfoot. And not too busy. We were in heaven, especially as I had read that beaches on local islands were not as nice as in resorts. Surely it does not get any better than this?
The day was to get better as that night, the guesthouse had a complimentary fish BBQ followed by local music and dance. The three huge red snappers we were served were delicious, especially washed down with fresh watermelon juice, homemade chips, salad and fish curry. Probably our best meal in the country.
Then the entertainment started with around 20 men and boys drumming and sing and dancing. By the end they were doing Maldivian hip hop and all the guests were doing the conga!
The next day was Becki’s birthday so Abdullah, the friendliest guesthouse owner we have ever met, offered us a free snorkelling tour on the ‘house reef’ around the island. It was amazing as it was just the two of us and the guide (Hassan) and because we saw dolphins, a manta ray and a turtle, as well as loads of fish.
After all that exertion, it was time to head back to the beach where we spent the afternoon. After dinner, Hassan whispered to me that I needed to take Becki for a walk for an hour. I asked why but he just laughed. On an island of only 2 sq km, at night and with no bars serving alcohol, it was a struggle to walk around for that long. After about eight circuits, the 60 minutes was up and we headed back.
On opening the door to our room, we were greeted with an amazing sight. The bed had been decorated with plants, flowers and a towel to say ‘Happy Birthday’ and a delicious chocolate cake had been baked. Meanwhile the other guests had assembled outside and started singing happy birthday. I would love to say I was responsible for this but it was a combination of the guesthouse and Becki’s friend Ally…
Our final day on Thoddoo was again spent on the beach and taking a tour of the island. This was surprisingly interesting as it showed how self-sufficient it was. It had it’s own water desalination plant, health centre, rubbish collection, two mosques, school and council. This was followed by a tasty dinner at Abdullah’s house accompanied by some interesting insights into working on resort islands (which he did before he opened the guesthouse).
Political murals around the island:
Two hours on a slow but comfortable local ferry (costing just £1) brought us to Ukulhas which was much smaller than Thoddoo at just 0.2 sq km.
The beach here was more conventional but still stunning. What was really unique though, was that a guesthouse staff member accompanied you to the sand and set-up a parasol and sun-loungers for you. I’ve not had service like that in expensive resorts.
The next day we decided to do a sandbar tour. This a piece of sandy land that reaches above water at low tide. A brisk 25 minute speedboat ride brought us to a deserted spindle of blindingly white sand surrounded by azure blue on all sides.
We got off with a beach umbrella and a picnic and the boatman announced he would be back to pick us up in four hours! It was crazy to be alone in the middle of the ocean on a tiny spec of sand.
We read, snorkelled and ate our lunch whilst in awe of the scenery surrounding us.
Our final island was only an hour from Ukulhas so we were there before we knew it. At check-in, the guesthouse manager asked if we wanted to join a complimentary boat trip to a picnic Island which was leaving in 30 minutes. We immediately said yes and were soon whisked ten minutes away to a deserted island.
Unlike the sandbar, this island had plants growing on it and was slightly more developed with parasols and picnic tables. However, The water was the deepest bluest blue (on par Aitutaki in the Cook Islands which we visited earlier in the trip). It was the weekend so load of locals were also enjoying the beach and water.
From each island, there were day trips to the nearby resorts, we had discussed doing one but the price (£100 each) and the fact that the local island beaches were so good meant we decided not to bother.
I had high hopes but didn’t expect the Maldives to be as beautiful as the islands we visited in the South Pacific, however the beaches were stunning and the locals lovely and we spent less than expected (around £500 each) over the 11 days we were there.
Next stop: Dubai