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Magical Maldives – Not Just a Once in a Lifetime Experience
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So how about 1,200 gorgeous islands, each with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters so clear that you can see the bottom and swim for hours in the lukewarm water. The Maldives can outdo other dreamy destinations in sheer numbers alone, yet this isn’t a ‘once in a lifetime’ place, because its affordable enough to go back time and time again. Let’s live a little, people!

Only about 200 of those islands are inhabited, and half are resorts here one company has exclusive use of the land. Tourism was restricted to those private resorts under the previous President, which made holidays here exclusive and pricey. When President Mohammed Nasheed took control in 2008, his more liberal policies allowed the locals to capitalize on the beauty in their back gardens by opening guesthouses and hotels.

The economy is now heavily dependent on tourism, and the capital, Malé, is the starting point. You’ll laugh when you see the small size of its international airport and be charmed when you walk out to be met by a fleet of boats rather than a fleet of taxis. As more local islands open up to tourism, you can plan an isle-hopping itinerary using public ferries or by arranging private transfers.

One of the most popular ‘local’ islands is Maafushi, and don’t be put off by the prison being based there. Airbnb is there as well, with about 770 listings across the archipelago. Maafushi is 90 minutes by ferry from Malé, and a favorite for backpackers. Several guesthouses offer low budget stays by the beach, and some organize karaoke evenings, colorful displays of traditional dancing, or stock a few books with cerebral inclinations.

Diving, fishing, and night fishing can be arranged through local guides, but it’s a Muslim country, so you’re frowned upon for cavorting in skimpy shorts or bikinis unless you’re in a resort. Restaurants and cafés are scattered around the island, although alcohol is unavailable. Luckily, the locals know that visitors enjoy a drink and can direct you to a boat moored offshore that acts as a floating bar.

Maasfushi’s northern shoreline was rebuilt after being severely damaged in the tsunami of 2004, and it’s now a thriving fishing and tourism center. You can walk out to a small sandbar at low tide to snorkel and sunbath by a coconut tree and be mesmerized by pure turquoise sea in every direction.

Guraidhoo Island is a two-hour ferry ride from Malé, and its community of 2,300 fishermen, and boat builders are venturing into tourism with souvenir shops and cafés. The snorkeling and surfing are excellent, and it’s close to some of the atoll’s best diving spots.

Staying with local hosts in a guesthouse or ordinary house shows you a quieter side to life, with home-cooked meals or cheap street food to spice up the experience. The resorts, on the other hand, have secular pleasures of bars, skimpy sunbathing, familiar music, organized free activities and nobody frowning if you pitch up to supper in a sundress. On the downside, they’re mostly owned by international companies, so little of the revenue goes back into the country’s economy.

A good balance can be to stay in a guesthouse run by locals to support their livelihood and buy a day pass to a resort to enjoy the facilities. Maafushi and Guraidhoo are close to several resorts and transfers and entry can be arranged quite cheaply.

Sea Life

The Maldives’ biggest attractions are water sports and marine life, with the amazingly clear Indian Ocean perfect for diving among tuna, butterflyfish, wahoo, and giant Napoleon wrasse, as well as turtles, 37 species of sharks, rays and mantas.

Ah, the manta rays. I didn’t get to swim with these gentle giants, and if you want that incredible experience, head to Hanifaru between May and November, where the bay of this uninhabited island can attract more than 100 of these magnificent creatures at a time.

The Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru can be reached by a short boat trip, and guests can sign up for ‘manta alerts.’ If marine biologists spot significant manta ray activity, guests are whisked out to snorkel in the lagoon. When they feed on plankton, mantas often stay near the surface so snorkellers can see them.

Another option is to stay on a liveaboard safari boat, which takes divers around the best sites in the atoll. Popular dive sites include Cocoa Corner near Guraidhoo, which is famous for shark sightings, and Kandooma Thila, a reef shaped like a teardrop that attracts spectacular fish.

Mooch Around Malé

Malé is a small place with about 100,000 people or roughly half the entire population. It’s worth a day trip to see museums and mosques and the Singapore Bazaar where traditional handicrafts are sold, or to board a submarine for a trip down to the reefs.

The National Museum was once a palace, and now displays cloth manuscripts, garments worn by royalty, thrones, armor and old photographs. The most unusual exhibit is the minutes of President Nasheed’s famous underwater cabinet meeting in 2009, held to emphasize the need for environmental protection since these low-lying islands are threatened by the rising tides of climate change.

The Fish Market is a must-see, must-smell attraction, with fresh fruits and vegetables sold alongside the catch of the day. The cuisine has been influenced by Indian, Sri Lankan, Arabic, and Oriental cultures, and street food revolves around fish. There’s bajiyaa or pastry stuffed with fish, kulhi boakibaa, or fishcakes, gulha, or fishballs; and masroshi, a small pancake stuffed with fish. Sweet and sour fish with vegetable rice is another favorite.

Despite being the capital, Malé isn’t riddled with bars and clubs, so if you’re looking for a party, then you’d better head back to your international resort.

Organized Activities

For activities beyond topping up your tan, a resort-like Club Med Kani is ideal. But by day two, I was checking the agenda and planning my day around them.

The most spectacular watersport is flyboarding, a fabulous hoverboard contraption propelled by water jets so powerful that you can rise 15m above the sea. Two rasta brothers run the operation and spend their days performing somersaults and swoops to impress the guests.

Club Med offers constant food and drink for an all-inclusive price, and most activities are free. It’s a young person’s resort, and great for families too, since parents can safely leave their kids for all-day water sports, arts and crafts, and beach games. Older kids can hang out playing soccer, volleyball, kayaking, and dancing, and there’s a full gym and an excellent spa for adults.

The beach villas each have a patio and a personal strip of sand, and better still is a cluster of luxurious villas raised on stilts right above the water.

Rescuing the Reefs

More than 90% of the coral that makes the Maldives a magnet for tourists died last year, bleached and broken by global warming.

Marine biologists with Seamarc are working to reverse the damage with an innovative method of coral propagation, and tourists at the Club Med Kani Resort can lend a hand.

I watched the marine biologist Stephen Bergacker dip into a bucket of seawater and pulled out fingers of healthy coral that he’d broken off a reef a few minutes earlier. He carefully tied each fragment onto a dome-shaped metal frame as tourists wandered over to hear about the project and stayed on to tie on more coral.

Coral reefs are the aquatic equivalent of rain forests, he explained, covering only 0.01% of the ocean floor but supporting more than 25% of the ocean’s diversity.

When the frame was covered, he carried it along a jetty and flung it into the ocean, where it settled near a handful of others a few meters beneath the surface.

There are already over 5,000 human-made coral creches scattered around the Maldives, with more added every day. If you sponsor a frame, Seamarc will post photos of it on its website every six months so you can see how your patch of coral is progressing. Within two years the frames are thoroughly covered, attracting fish and other marine life back to areas that global warming had destroyed.


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