Since the advent of tourism here in the 1970s, the Maldives managed a one island, one resort policy and managed to keep visitors separate from the inhabited islands. Running a smooth operating machine, tourists were transported by seaplane or speedboat to their packaged holiday. Now with more mid-market options adventurous travellers are discovering the islands, for the first time being able to stay at guest houses, springing up all over the country and to travel outside designated 'tourist zones'.
The appeal to travellers is huge with 1,200 islands and only a hundred or so of them being utilised as either inhabited islands or exclusive resorts. It is safe to say, much of the Maldives remains unexplored – a final frontier. The Indian Ocean is scattered with virgin islands that have not seen a human footprint for many years. It is certainly not an easy place to negotiate travel, being geographically, politically and socially challenged, but travellers are now arriving in their thousands, hoping to discover the Robinson Crusoe lifestyle and engage with local people.
The capital of the Maldives, Male, is a melting pot of activity – a pulsing commercial centre where 80% of the county’s population are squeezed in. Tea Houses are no place for a woman traveller – if you are female and brave enough to venture inside, expect long unwelcome stares. The younger generation can be spotted hanging out at Sea House, sporting their crazy poodle-perm haircuts and skinny jeans. Male is unlike anyplace else in the Maldives. The people love gadgets and everyone will have a cooler phone than you!
A good place to start is the Hulhule' Island Hotel (HIH), which is adjoined to the airport. This 70s-themed bar is Male’s one and only expat watering hole. It is easy to strike up a conversation with one of the established expats who know the country inside out and can point you in the direction of adventure.
Addu, originally a base for the British RAF, is easily the most budget-friendly atoll. Unique in the Maldives, the Brits built a causeway across six islands. Hire a bike and explore the islands, getting up close and personal with the locals.
Venture off the beaten path and discover the Shaviyani Atoll. Close to Komandoo island – where a chain of five uninhabited islands are connected by a sand bank. At low tide it is like walking across a long white desert crossing one island to another.
Maldivian culture and heritage can be found on Ari Atoll, home to communities that have lived on these islands for centuries. Some of these islands have ruins and artefacts of ancient Buddhist and Hindu settlements prior to the arrival of Islam.
Remember this is a Muslim country. Be aware of local customs. On local islands it is forbidden to wear bikinis on the beach – there are huge signs prohibiting the wearing of swim wear or revealing clothing.
During prayer time, shops shut and buses stop running at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and early evening. During Ramadan tourists are not allowed to eat or drink in public as everyone observes a strict fast during daylight hours.
On the more remote, local islands it is recommended to learn some basic words and phrases as some shopkeepers do not always speak English.
- Capital: Male
- Population: 395,000
- Language: Dhivehi
- Time: GMT+5
- International dialling code: +960
- Visas: Not required by UK nationals
- Money: Ruiyaa (MVR), currently around MVR24 to the UK£. ATMs are available in Male.
When to go to the Maldives
December through to April signals peak season in the Maldives, with higher prices and more visitors but the lowest rainfall; average temperatures of 28°C.
Storms roll in from May to August, signalling the start of the monsoon. Days are humid and hotter (temperatures often low-30°Cs). June is the wettest month.
September, October and November are still wet and humid, though conditions gradually start to improve.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies Gatwick-Male direct three times a week. Flight time is around ten hours; return fares from £814. Sri Lankan Airlines flies Heathrow-Male via Colombo; Emirates flies Gatwick-Male, via Dubai.
Getting around requires considerable effort and is often expensive. Maldivian Air Taxi offers transfers and special photography flights across the country.
Cost of travelling in the Maldives
The remoteness of most islands makes the Maldives an expensive destination, particularly in the pricey resorts where an evening meal can easily cost £100. Male is significantly cheaper (dinner around £10) but note that restaurants outside the resorts are alcohol-free and often a little rough around the edges.
Accommodation in the Maldives
Travellers who want to spend some time on terra firma are spoilt for choice – there are more than 100 resorts in the Maldives. Candies Hotel (+960 331 0220) is well located in central Male. The 17 rooms are simple but cosy and there’s a lovely garden restaurant. B&B doubles from £57.
Kuruma (North Male Atoll) was the first resort to open in the Maldives in 1972 and continues to offer luxury with a more modest price tag. B&B doubles from £153.
Splash out at luxurious Naladhu (South Male Atoll), one of the most exclusive resorts and popular with the A-list. Each of the 19 ‘houses’ boasts a private infinity pool, outdoor rainforest shower and private butler. B&B rooms from £616pn.
Food & drink in the Maldives
Maldivian cuisine is unsurprisingly seafood heavy and laden with spices. Garudhiya (a clear fish soup sometimes served with the head) and bis riha (an egg curry in a turmeric and coconut milk sauce) are especially popular.
Expect international cuisine in the resorts.
Health & safety in the Maldives
Maldives is a largely safe country. Petty crime in Male, such as pickpocketing, is the biggest worry. Recent years have seen sporadic political riots in the capital. Malaria is not a problem but mosquito repellent is advised. Take care against heatstroke and cutting yourself on sharp coral.