West of Sri Lanka, south of India and in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Maldives is a necklace of twenty-six atolls containing within them 1200 tropical islands and beautiful coral reefs. A little more than 100 islands on the Ari, North Malé and South Malé atolls have been allocated to resorts. Malé is Maldives’ capital city and its largest city by population, followed by Addu City, Fuvahmulah and Kulhudhuffushi. Though Malé is the island country’s premier shopping destination and heart of commercial activity, it is the uninhabited islands and quiet hideaways that hold allure for adventurers.
The island nation’s tranquillity, scenic beauty, marine treasures and watersport opportunities have made it a popular destination for tourists from all four corners of the globe. In the 70s, the Maldives served as a secret retreat for discerning divers; since the 90s, it has experienced a tourism boom, with luxury resorts and hotels attracting over a million visitors each year. Despite receiving global attention, the garland of islands retains an unspoilt look and a calm, tranquil air.
Maldivian culture is a rich potpourri of influences from the earliest settlers, many among whom were seafaring traders sailing through the Indian Ocean from Arab, South East Asian and African countries. Maldivians are of Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Arabic descent. There is some archaeological evidence suggesting that Buddhism and Hinduism were the dominant religions prior to the emergence of Islam, which became the official state religion in 1997. Traces of Sanskrit, Sinhalese (spoken in Sri Lanka), Arabic and English can be found in Dhivehi, the native language of Maldivians.
The locals are friendly and hospitable. There is a sense of community feel with generations of families living under one roof and supporting one another. Islam is central to their way of living, with religious education being imparted at school and at home.
Unless you’re staying at an island Maldives Resorts, avoid wearing scanty clothes or beachwear as it is bound to offend the locals. The government enforces strict dress codes and as such it is best to stay on the right side of the law by dressing modestly. If you plan to visit one or more of the island’s mosques, keep your legs and body (except your neck and face) covered.
If you’re calling on someone, take off your shoes before entering their home. Shaking hands is a traditional and customary form of greeting. Steer clear of making insensitive remarks about religion or culture when conversing with locals.
Smoking is a common habit among locals and all resort hotels maintain bars. Keep in mind that the government has a history of imposing night-time and party curfews, which both locals and tourists are expected to abide by.
While tipping is not compulsory in Maldives given a 10% service tax on everything, tourists don’t shy away from giving away cash tips to hospitality staff. You can tip on a daily or weekly basis, or leave it till the end of your holiday.
Maldives is best explored at leisure. Here’s where people come to escape from the noise and concrete monstrosities to smell the fresh sea breeze, dive into unspoilt ocean waters and experience the unique local culture.
Maldives and boat cruises are inseparable. Sitting aboard a quiet dhoni with sea all around you and waiting to get to yet another uninhabited island where you’ll savour local delicacies and wait for the dolphins to appear as the locals play the traditional Bodu Beru drums, is one of the most satisfying experiences. Island-hopping is a popular tourist past-time, complete with fishing trips and beach barbecues. Hulhumalé, a man-made island on land reclaimed from the sea, is a popular stop-over. For shopping and a taste of the local culture, the capital city Malé with its 17th century mosques, buzzing fish market and National Museum, is perfect for a day trip.
The island is home to some of the world’s best diving sites, in particular Addu Atoll, its southern-most atoll famous for its rich dolphin and whale fauna and the only area in the Maldives to escape coral bleaching. If you prefer to keep your head under water for a couple of hours, snorkelling and diving give you an opportunity to get up and close with the diverse marine life – including the deadly stingray. Swim with the reef sharks, bat fish and schooling fish at Mushimasmingili Thila, a popular marine protected dive site in North Ari Atoll. Water skiing, para sailing, windsurfing and banana boat rides are other popular island activities. You cannot come to Maldives and not enjoy the scenic vistas surrounding you from high up in the sky! Aerial sightseeing is a great way to experience the island’s abundant natural beauty (get your cameras ready!).
Maldivians’ traditional cuisine is a blend of Indian, Sri Lankan, Arabic and Thai tastes. Asian influences can be seen in the curries and incorporation of coconut in dishes. Not surprisingly, fish is part of the staple diet, with steamed, fried or curried fish meals whipped up at the island’s restaurants and resort kitchens. From tuna, red snapper and swordfish to rock lobsters and groupers, the seafood spread is delectable. Maldivians add curry leaves and chilli to literally all their dishes. Their fiery pork, fish and lamb dishes are robust, delicious and full of spices (you can also request for milder flavours).
Among the popular local delicacies are kulhi boakibaa, a spicy tuna fish cake eaten as a snack; deep-fried fish balls known as gulha; bajiya, a twist on the world-famous ‘samosa’, complete with a dried fish or chicken filling; and bambukeylu hiti made from breadfruit and served as a standalone snack or curry. Resorts serve a range of international cuisine, so you can stick to Continental or experience Oriental or Middle Eastern flavours on your holiday. Coffee shops on liveaboard vessels and resorts meet your snack and light food needs.
While you may not find alcoholic beverages on inhabited islands, you can get your fill at well-stocked resort bars. The choice in red and white wines – usually sourced from New Zealand, South African and Australian estates and presented at resort buffets – is excellent. When you’re at the bar, don’t miss out on interesting cocktails prepared by the island’s creative bartenders. Fancy a quiet nightcap? The mini bars in your room are topped up everyday.
Malé is the hub of shopping in Maldives. You can buy pretty much everything from fresh produce and electronics items to clothes, books, medicines and jewellery here. It is also home to many souvenir shops that sell local handicrafts and artwork, which range from playing cards and seashell necklaces to wood-carved miniature dhonis, oil paintings, hand-painted t-shirts and elegant local mats known as ‘thudu kuna’ woven with natural fibres.
The buzz of shopping activities is centred around the local market on the northern waterfront that sells agricultural produce and a fish market located just two blocks away from the local market. You can buy various local vegetables, bananas, breadfruit chips and home made pickles and sweets from the several stalls that make up the local market. Tourist footfall in the fish market gets heavier in the afternoons as local fishermen bring in fresh catch and sellers cut the fish up masterfully. The bevy of shops on Majeedhee Magu located on the island’s main road stay open till 11 in the night. For imported Singapore-made products and souvenir shops, head to the Chaandanee Magu commercial centre.
While tourists come to Maldives for its tranquil air, those seeking night-time entertainment have a good choice of resort nightclubs with world-class DJs and vintage vodka collections, among other luxurious offerings. An open-air cinema with 60 different ice-cream and popcorn flavours, high-end dining and lively bars are also some star attractions at Maldives’ resorts. As Islam prohibits gambling, there is little by way of betting activities on the island.
Every resort in Maldives Resorts has a spa, with many offering couples’ spa therapies and customized day and night spa packages.
There are no direct flights from Australia to Malé. Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Emirates have flights to Malé from their respective base/local hubs. Dubai is 14 hours from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, while Singapore and Kuala Lumpur cut the time down to seven hours.
International flights to the island arrive at Malé’s Hulhule Airport. From here, you have the following choices to get to your resort island: (a) seaplanes, which are fast and offer you stunning views of uninhabited islands but cost you a bit and operate only during the day (b) supply boats, which are slow but inexpensive (c) speedboats that offer a good balance between speed and price and (d) domestic flights operated by the island’s two large domestic airlines, Maldivian and Flyme .
If you want to explore the islands, you have four options. One is by boat or dhoni as the locals call it. You can charter a dhoni at your resort or take your pick from the many at the harbour. Speedboats can also get you around, with the smaller runabouts costing you less than the huge multi-deck ones. Dhonis are quieter than speedboats, come equipped with a sun roof, and serve as good diving boats.
As Malé is the only island where you’ll need to travel by road, you’ll find cars, taxis and motorcycles here. You can also cover the island on foot; walking from one end to another doesn’t take up a lot of time. It’s really easy to find restaurants, shops and other commercial establishments in Malé. If you don’t feel up to it, you can take a cab but you will only be driven to your destination and there will be no stopping in between. Bicycles are also another cost-effective option, with some island resorts renting them out for as low as $3 per day.
Australian tourists require a valid passport for the duration of stay in Maldives. You can get a tourist visa on arrival for a period of 30 days at no cost. Tourist visas can be extended by up to 90 days by applying to the immigration department.
Given an average temperature of 30 degree Celsius and the likelihood that you’ll be spending a good part of your day outside, it is best to carry sunblock, aftersun lotions and hats. A first-aid box with plasters will come in handy for small cuts from walking on dead corals. Light cotton clothes, swimwear (with cover ups) and casual clothing will keep your bags light so you can pack in the important stuff like your snorkelling equipment (it is more expensive to buy or rent them at your resort), underwater camera and other photo equipment.
If you have to take medication on a regular basis, carry along certified copies of your prescription just to be on the safe side. You cannot carry alcohol or cigarettes into the country. To save money on buying mineral water, juices and sodas – which are quite pricey in the Maldives – you can carry them along.
The Maldivian currency is the rufiya, further divided into 100 larees. Coins are in denominations of 1 and 2 rufiya, and 10, 25 and 50 larees; notes are in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 rufiya. The rufiya is pegged to the U.S dollar, and you’ll be billed in dollars at most hotels and resorts. While there is a preference for U.S dollars, you can make cash, travellers cheque or credit card payments in all major currencies. If you plan to use an ATM, keep in the mind that only Malé has a handful of them, with only some allowing international fund withdrawal