Are you mad to backpack in the Maldives? The answer may surprise you!
£3,000 for one night. That was the ‘special deal’ on the website. The water bungalow was just like the ones I’d seen when I was younger. Majestically poised above tranquil, turquoise waters; the epitome of luxurious relaxation that can be seen plastered on the front cover of every ‘tropical’ holiday brochure.
Three. Thousand. Pounds. Per. Night.
For each and every one of us, there are probably a handful of places in this world that stand out above all others.
For me, my top 5 wish-list includes:
Mount Everest (I mean, who wouldn’t want to see or even stand on top of the world?)
St Lucia (ever since I studied it as a geography project aged 9)
New Zealand (just watch The Lord of the Rings and you’ll be hooked too)
Pretty much the whole of Africa
And last but not least, the Maldives
In my mind since I was a child, the Maldives has always been a distant paradise, all but inaccessible to the common man. I recall seeing adverts for a well-known honeymoon travel agent advertise the snowy white sand and crystal clear waters – an attractive, slender woman runs in slow motion across a deserted beach into the arms of her new husband, clad in a pristine white linen shirt with teeth to match. A romantic candlelit dinner follows as gentle waves lap against their feet and rose petals litter the sand, before sailing off into the sunset on a private yacht, hand in hand. Idyllic isn’t it? But far from reality.
I arrived at Verlana International Airport in the capital, formerly known as Ibrahim Nasir Airport, without a white linen shirt wrapped around my torso. I didn’t have a huge grin across my face. Nor did I have a model-like new bride at my side, as the adverts would have you expect. I arrived after an early morning start, yawning and wearing the same t-shirt I’d had on the day before. I stepped off the plane from India as a single, late-twenty-something with my travel buddy alongside me in the same dishevelled state. Not exactly how you’d picture an arrival in the Maldives after having all those adverts engrained in your mind.
The surprising thing – we appeared not to be the only ones like this.
Although Malé airport was congested with the typical honeymooners and middle-aged couples with enough disposable income to make them a dream for marketers and advertising agencies, it was also frequented by families. Indian families, Chinese families, Japanese families, European families. Children excitedly awaiting their transfer to whichever resort their parents had chosen. This was certainly not what I had expected to see.
And in amongst them all, were backpackers like us. Stereotypically, the exact opposite of whom the travel agents had tried to market this paradise to.
£3,000 per night was the price for the water bungalow I’d seen on a resort website two weeks prior. That’s roughly $3,800 and makes up about 2 months’ travel budget for me following my 3 years of gruelling saving. It quickly became clear that I was not going to have the ‘honeymoon’ type experience that I’d dreamed of. But do you want to know something? That’s ok.
One thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older and made my way through most of my twenties, is that your tastes, needs and wants change. You mature and grow. You learn the realities of the world as opposed to the dreams conjured by what you see on television, in newspapers and magazines.
Sat on a beach in Goa a fortnight before we were due to fly to this collection of islands, reefs and atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we were researching how we would visit the Maldives on a budget. For years, the small Islamic nation’s tourist industry consisted of exclusive resorts that simply weren’t within the grasp of visitors on a limited budget. Almost no independent travellers could visit.
Make no mistake, I could have spent my entire savings on three weeks at an all-inclusive, 5-star resort and stayed in a lavish water bungalow with a sunken glass floor and whiled away my days watching the rainbow-coloured fish go about their daily business. I could have done that. It was almost tempting after the month we’d had in India. But it was not to be. I’d have found myself returning to the UK leaving the rest of the world untouched and missing out on so many adventures and experiences.
After hours spent gawping at the expensive resorts online, we returned to reality and explored the extensive range of options outside the lucrative resort islands. Much to my surprise, there is now an almost endless assortment of affordable accommodation dotted across the larger islands, from the northernmost atoll to the very south. As we were only planning to stay for a few days, we decided not to venture too far. The island town of Hulhumalé would be our stomping ground.
Located next to the capital island of Malé and home to the newly expanded main airport, the town itself is growing and developing. Modern apartment blocks rise above the narrow, quiet streets and more are being built all the time. The atmosphere is decidedly relaxed and the beaches are endless.
Many of the airport’s 1,000+ staff live within the town. After touching down, we joined what appeared to be most of them on a crowded local bus from the arrivals terminal to Hulhumalé’s main bus stop – a cosy, open-sided hut made from corrugated steel panels that glistened in the midday sun. Despite being the only western passengers making the 15-minute journey from the bottom of the island to the top, smiles met our gaze all along the route. “Hi! Nice to meet you!” one man beamed, “first time in Maldives?”
Arriving at our guesthouse, we couldn’t help but notice how close it was to the beach. Only a pavement and narrow road separated the entrance from the fine, ivory coloured sand and tranquil waters that caressed the shore line. Beachfront cafés made temporary camp on the powder with barbecues and tables neatly laid out, overlooking the reefs out to sea. The colour of the water is exactly how you might imagine it; a palette of varied and rich blues and greens extending as far as the eye can see – as clear as the night sky when you’re as far from civilisation as could possibly be. And that is how the Maldives can make you feel – Islands only an hour away from the madness that is India that feel like a world away.
The hotel we had chosen was one of many guesthouses that can be found online for a relatively cheap price. Ours cost approximately £25 ($31) per person per night and included an incredible breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, omelette and selection of breads (just be aware of the taxes that the Maldivian government levies on tourists in addition to prices quoted, sometimes around 25% depending upon the island, then there’s the mandatory service charges and environment taxes to consider). The Eureka Athiri Inn provided us with a deluxe room decorated in striking maroon and rich wood, featuring decorative shells and corals that had washed up on the beach just 20 feet away. The beds were enormous and the shower powerful and hot; vastly different to many of the hotels we’d experienced throughout India for similar prices.
From our base on the picturesque sea front, we had the option to explore not only this cultured island but many other inhabited islands within the Malé atoll. Ferries run during daylight hours from Hulhumalé and Malé to other nearby islands and cost only a matter of pounds or dollars, a fraction of the price that resort islands charge for speedboat or seaplane transfers.
Other non-resort islands in the vicinity are much smaller and carry an even more relaxed vibe than Hulhumalé. Maafushi, Himafushi and Guraidhoo are just some of those that can be reached within an hour or two, making an exciting daytrip or even an extension of your stay, for those who wish to stay overnight on more than one island. As with Hulhumalé, affordable guesthouses on these islands are springing up all the time so there will never be a shortage of places to stay on a budget.
One aspect of travel that captures my imagination every time, is meeting genuine people. People without the front the tourism industry has forced upon them, but genuine, honest, friendly, local people. Learning about their lives and exchanging stories is, I’ve discovered, one of the great treasures of world travel.
I met one such man when we decided to have a mid-morning drink along Hulhumalé’s Eastern Beach.
Calling into ‘The Family Room’ café, we were met by owner Afrah and his young daughter, a 2 or maybe 3-year-old girl with an infectious smile and warm welcome. This greeting was matched by her father, who enthusiastically told us about his speciality coffees and iced teas. Not being a man to shy away from trying new things, I tasted my first ever iced tea. A mixed berry concoction brewed and chilled to perfection! Did I like it? Well considering we didn’t leave the café for another 6 hours (considerably more hydrated), I’d say the answer to that question is undoubtedly yes!
Afrah spent the afternoon with us personally and enriched us with his knowledge of coffee and teas. Sharing his passion for his craft, he passed round various samples of iced tea for us to try with an enormous range of flavours to excite the taste buds, including spiced orange, rose petal, fresh citrus and pure green tea. Coming from Yorkshire, a northern English county famed for its love of tea, I almost felt a little ashamed I hadn’t tried this years ago. He also imparted with his coffee-making knowledge; Afrah receives the beans in their raw form and works at the art of roasting the them before he sells them from his small beachfront outlet. I’m not a coffee lover myself but I’m told by a very reputable source that it’s the best coffee she’d tasted in years!
It may have been a simple afternoon whiling away the hours and relaxing but drinking refreshing iced tea whilst seeing a man’s eyes light up with an inspirational spark that few people possess in this day and age, was utterly uplifting. Afrah told us that one day he hopes to expand his business and open a café at the airport and to distribute his speciality coffee and tea to the resort islands across the water-locked country.
If you visit the Maldives, either as an independent traveller or as part of package to an island resort, I urge you to delay your speedboat, seaplane or ferry by an hour or two, catch the bus to Hulhumalé’s Eastern Beach and visit Afrah, his wife and young daughter at ‘The Family Room’. Sipping refreshing iced tea whilst looking out over pristine waters and the finest sand the Indian Ocean has to offer, listening to chilled out music and enjoying great company is nothing short of perfection.
Following a couple of nights on the resort island of Bandos to experience both sides of travel here (I had a great time relaxing and snorkelling at the stunning yet expensive resort but it all felt a little soulless in comparison to real island life), I left the Maldives safe in the knowledge that not only can you can travel there independently, you can also do it within a tight budget and thrive! Travelling to these islands in this way helped me to learn what really drives a country’s unique culture; the locals who make it what it is.