Back in April, we took the plunge to go on the ‘impossible’ budget excursion to the Maldives during a trip to Sri Lanka. (For more on costs on non-resort islands of the Maldives, have a look at my previous post.) After two initial days in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we woke up at 4:30am to head to the airport, eager to see something like this:
The main airport of the Maldives is actually on its own island (one of nearly 1200 islands that make up the small nation). A short 15-minute ferry ride away is the capital city island of Malé, which is basically made up of a big city, the only really big city in the country (but still only around 150,000 people). There are only a few attractions in Malé: a mosque (the Maldives are a majority Muslim country), some museums, a man-made beach…but these are far overshadowed by the beauty of the other islands, so we didn’t set aside any time for exploring and instead got a taxi directly to the Maafushi ferry terminal.
Maafushi is one of the more popular and well-established of the inhabited islands now open to independent travelers. Although we had heard amazing things about other areas in the Maldives, with little time and a lack of reliable information about Maldives travel online, we decided to play it safe and stick with Maafushi, as it’s only a 90-minute ferry ride from Malé, and the ferries run 2-3 times per day every day (except Fridays).
Although speedboats are also available for hire, in addition to being cheaper, the ferry ride is an experience in itself. Once the eclectic mix of tourists and locals packed on to the boat and we took off, passengers were free to sit on the roof, and take in the endless ocean horizon. We spent most of our time on the roof deck, taking photos, watching thunderstorms in the distance, and picking out specks of islands in the distance.
Once the ferry pulled into Maafushi, we jumped off and our feet were instantly in the sand—all of the roads in Maafushi are made of sand, compacted for the small number of vehicles, most of which are motorbikes and bicycles. Staff from the various hotels waited around with trolleys and wheelbarrows to help guests take their bags to hotels.
After arriving, we set off for a walking exploration of the island, which is home to 1200 and only takes about 20 minutes to circumnavigate. The catch with going to a local island rather than a resort island is that, well, some aspects are more local—there are both the beautiful and the ugly sides to living on a small island. Although others might be turned off by this, I found it interesting, and a nice reality check. After all, no place is perfect, and it helps to see the less picturesque side to understand the country and the people, rather than just sipping from coconuts in ignorant bliss. (However, lots of lounging and coconut sipping is also necessary.)
For example, a large portion of the island of Maafushi is actually occupied by a prison. That’s right…even paradise islands have prisons. We walked until reaching the prison walls, and then crossed through the town. On one side of the island, the beaches are more local. Mostly devoid of tourists, piles of trash are collected and burnt, and signs of local industry like construction materials and cement mixers are on the side of the path. There’s a local beach, where families walk, and girls splash in their hijabs.
The alleys of the town are narrow and colorful, with painted walls, signs in the fascinating Maldivian script, and a surprising amount of construction. Cutting through town, the hotels begin to pop up closer to the ‘tourist beach,’ where shirtlessness and bikinis are allowed, as there’s a small wooden fence blocking it from direct sight of the local homes. While certainly not one of the most stunning that the Maldives have to offer, you can’t really complain about the tourist beach—tall palm trees: check, white sand: check, coconuts: check. It was a good place to spend one lazy afternoon lounging and snorkeling with equipment borrowed from our hotel (most all of the hotels let guests borrow snorkels and flippers for free) on the small reef off the beach—fairly bleached not too lively, but cool to explore nonetheless. Naturally, my waterproof camera also chose this time to die.
However, a trip to the Maldives is certainly not worth it just to sit around on Maafushi, so after one day checking out the local scene we took advantage of all the excursions on offer. All of these day trips are the same types of trips that you can be taken from the resorts, but often at a cheaper rate.
On one of our first evenings, we decided to try our hand at night fishing. We found a hotel that already had some bookings for a fishing trip and joined the group, clambering onto the fishing boat around sunset, heading off the coast for deeper waters. It was worth it just for the stunning experience of watching the sun go down from all directions while in the middle of the ocean. Once the guides decided we had found a suitable spot, they gave each of us a hand reel with plastic line and a big chunk of fish on the hook. We spread out around the boat and…waited. And waited. As no one on the boat was having much luck, we moved around a couple of times until people started catching things, mostly some medium-sized snapper. Once promising and increasingly aggressive tugs started on my line, I tried to reel it in, but the taut plastic line took a slice out of my finger instead, while my prey disappeared into the depths. I like to imagine that’s because it was so big… Although I came back empty (and bloody) handed, A managed to catch one small fish.
4 hours later, we headed back to shore, and luckily the guides had made up for the rest of our slack by catching some decent-size fish. They grilled up the catch and divided them up among the guests, along with some rice and salad for a (maybe not-so) well-earned meal.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story in Four Days in Maafushi, Maldives: Part Two, coming soon!