Let me begin with a confession, until I traveled to Maldives, I always had my doubts about its picture-perfect and fantastical stock images but after having experienced it myself, I can literally pour out my heart. Maldives is incredibly idyllic, charming, enchanting and full of prepossessing sights. My quest to explore the local islands has lots to do in this realization.
For the first time when I saw the blue-green lagoons interspersed with tiny islands, miles of turquoise waters and those daintily-kept islands, my heart leaped with joy and eye dropped a tear. The prowess of Maldives’ natural beauty, crystal-clear water and local island hideaways is such that you can’t be without falling in love with it for several reasons. Maldives (the island nation) is made up of approximately 1,200 coral islands which are grouped into 26 coral atolls. Geographically, it is quite spread out and a few are isolated too, but as of now we only know of its 200 inhabited and approximately 90 resorts islands. In my stay of ten days, I explored five local islands, one resort island, the capital Male and artificial island, Hulhumale (closest to the airport).
Why Local Islands?
Maldives may sound synonymous to sand, sea and surf but you really don’t need to be a typical beach bum or aquatic adventurer. I had different priorities. From the very word go, I knew that I wanted to do a culturally immersive trip in its local islands than take a sea plane to a wealthy resort on any of the private islands. I am sure you are wondering does Maldives even have anything remotely close to culture. Of course it does. Contrary to what social media and resort islands have made us all believe that Maldives is mostly about stilted luxurious huts beetling over the water, I would suggest go for a slow-paced, culture-rich and non-extravagant side on the local islands. These raw and rugged islands are definitely the best kept secrets of Maldives. I am glad Maldivian government allowed these local islands to have guesthouses and budget friendly accommodations around a decade ago. Life has been easier since then. Here is a glimpse of my offbeat trail.
MAAFUSHI – A complete in itself and one of the best among the local islands.
After enjoying the adventures of the speed boat over the azure blue waters of Indian Ocean, the glimpse of the shore was heartening. Slithering white and golden sand, swaying palm trees and limitless turquoise waters made for its beautiful coastline and character. Located forty five minutes away from the Male Airport, this one on the South Male Atoll welcomed me with cheerful vibes and plenty of like-minded tourists. Next that caught my eyes were the vibrant shops which provided for wholesome watersports activities. They provided for all- jet-skiing, windsurfing, parasailing, sailing, knee boarding, banana boat, canoeing and more.
As I walked along I discovered that along with two public beaches, the island had a bikini beach, water sport beach and a coral beach too. I further walked along the Maafushi School whose walls were painted with caricatures advocating Islamic principles, the main street which had some eateries and the narrow lanes which had the colourful houses. I also discovered the façade of the Maafushi prison at the end of the street. One of the local guys also told me that it was called Maafushi because – “maa means big” and “fushi stands for island”.
This self-sufficient and budget island had everything for a lovely picnic day. In the evening, I stayed for the sunset. If you are staying on the island, you have things to do like go for night fishing experience or go dining on the floating bar and safari.
GULHI – One of my favorite among the local islands!
The serenity and tranquility of Gulhi Island is bewitching. I loved it for its pure nature and true solitude. Just 21 kilometers from Male, it is one of the smallest islands that I have seen. I finished a quick round of the island in straight fifteen minutes but one could spend the whole day without getting bored. The shimmering white-sand bikini beach at Gulhi is a gem and one of the best. Gulhi also houses the oldest dock yard (boat yard/port) in the Maldives. And it is here that you will be surprised to find a football field surrounded by palm trees and a telecom tower in the background. As I walked past the colourful houses along the narrow lanes of the island, I found a tourist office, Gulhi School, Mosque and some very interesting art work too. Some of the wall art was indicative of Island’s love and passion for football.
Local islands give you so much opportunities to walk around and explore!
The locals seemed extremely friendly by nature. Gulhi is among the few islands which allowed bed and breakfast culture in the early 80’s. Hospitality was evident in the mannerisms of the residents. Another very interesting feature of the island is that it is full of swings. While the kids and ladies can be seen sitting and chit-chatting on them, there is enough for the tourists too. Just before the sunset, I met a bunch of teens playing football and another bunch lined up for fishing, near the jetty. Do go there for a great swim in the beach, to take a sun-bathe, to interact with the locals and to get photographed on the “I love Gulhi” swing on the sea-green waters. You can’t miss the last one.
By this day, I was in love with the idea of island hopping. Every day, I looking forward to something new and unique. 17 kilometers from the capital Male, I pitched in to see this one on Kaafu Atoll for I heard that this local fishing-island truly captures the charms of Maldives and has great surf spots. And so it does. It was fun to wander around and unearth its beauty. This is too is gifted with its own lovely sand beach and gorgeous blue waters. The quaintness was amazing. The island also has a fish processing company and a boat building workshop. The island visit to Himmafushi can be clubbed with dolphin watching, snorkeling, sand bank visit and scuba diving. And there is plenty to observe if you just stroll around.
Villingili is a well-kept but not so popular gem on North Male atoll. Despite the fact that it is just 8 minutes away from the capital Male, not many tourists know about it or bother to visit it. I just found one foreigner on the public ferry boat along with the locals. The one-way ticket price was 3.25 MVR. This is the cheapest ride that I did in Maldives. Villingili is definitely one of the greenest islands that I had a chance to visit in Maldives. I was headed here an hour before sunset. The bustling port boasted of colourful trade ships and small dhonis. The island can easily be circumnavigated in 30 minutes but I strolled around for more than an hour.
During my walk I noticed that this was very different from its other neighbor islands and had its own cultural identity. The roads are beautifully built between real and age-old trees. The greenery gets to the eyes and soul and you feel that you are miles away from Male. I learned about some handful guest houses which happily arrange snorkeling, fishing and local activities for the visitors. Mind it, no bikini beach here. The towering palm trees and swings let down from the sheltering trees made for a perfect sunset frame. I made my way back after the sunset.
As the capital of Kaafu Atoll, Thulusdhoo is popular for its turquoise lagoons and fantastic surf breaks like “Cokes” and “Chickens”. Surfers know where to find and love to catch the waves here for the perfect photo moment. If you not surfing in Thulusdoo, you are diving for sure. If you thought diving was only meant for the experienced, Thulusdhoo’s shallow lagoons and channels make it really easy for the first time divers. I was also quite impressed to learn that Thulusdhoo is doing a great coral project, where the enthusiasts are saving corals around the island and contributing to make a coral garden.
With lush ambiance, relaxed vibes, long stretches of golden beaches, lots of opportunities to learn surfing and abundance of corals, I found it a genuine gateway for the day. In fact, I felt one day was not enough to check out the Coke plant (the only one in Maldives) or go for island hopping at the Chickens Island, the private sand bank island and then the pretty guesthouse island, Dhiffushi. It was fun to see a lot in one day but if you want to do in a slow and relaxed way, chew on some culture, you could stay here too for a day or two.
MALE and HULHUMALE
The capital, Male is one of the most densely populated capital on Earth and you can easily feel the clogging. It is so unlike the other less-populated islands and it has constant action around. Being part of the local crowd makes for a fun day. When you have had enough of lying by the beach, you can come down here and visit the Tsunami monument, the artificial Rasfannu beach, National Museum, prominent city Mosques, Presidential jetty and the popular fish market of the city. I would recommend to wear a comfortable shoes and walk through its alleys. From schools to universities to football grounds to food court to the shops that sell lovely souvenirs, I did not miss anything. I literally walked 6 kilometers square.
Hulhumale is very interesting island because it is claimed to be man-made but it’s doesn’t look like one. It is being developed as a youth city and is coming up as a modern young brother of Male. I loved the wide roads, road art, the greeneries and the beach in Hulhumale. It is very well planned and transports you to one of those colourful European villages where life is bliss. The beach is very clean and beautiful. It isn’t crowded and you can just have it to yourself at any time of the day. Hulhumale doesn’t have a bikini beach yet. Here, you will see the local ladies taking a dip wearing colourful dresses teamed with hijab (head scarf) or chadors (traditional cloak).
What I really liked about Maldives was each of these islands had their unique character. And let me also tell you there is nothing like Maldives on budget but yes visiting local islands and staying on them is cheaper than the resorts but moving around in private boats isn’t cheap. It’s not that the resort islands aren’t fun. They are extremely pampering but after few days of rejuvenation, you must head out to see the real island life. The local islands are the places where you will find perfect hybrid of island and urban life in the Maldives.
Information that will come handy
For Indians, the visa is on arrival and it’s a no-hassle procedure.
Maldivian rufiyaa is the currency of the island nation. You may only require it for local taxis and quick bites else US dollars is what you will need and use everywhere on the major expenses on the islands.
No alcohol is served or sold on local islands. Only the resort islands cater to it if you need. Do not bring from your country as its not allowed at the airport.
Some of the local islands do not have bikini beaches and the public beaches require females to be dressed up modestly even while swimming.
Check for the schedule of the ferries from Male, near the presidential jetty. Most of the islands have only one or two ferries catering to them every day. So you do need prior bookings.
Carry sunscreen, snorkeler, glasses, mats, swimming costumes and lots of water when you are visiting local islands. All of these will be helpful to have more fun.
The edited version of this write-up was published in Mail Today, on 24th March 2019.