Popping the Maldives Bubble

Island Hopping in the Maldives

I’m sitting here enjoying my last day on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen. The sand is sugary white. The palm trees lean and sway with  scores of coconuts. The crabs run away and come back every time they think I’m not paying attention to them. I’m in the Maldives, a collection of some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever photographed.  For many people, the name of this place evokes the impossible travel dream: an expensive tourist destination that they’ll never reach because of the distance and the cost. It’s like Bora Bora, Zanzibar or the moon.  All it takes is a quick search online and one must decide if they’re going to go to Maldives or pay for their kid’s college. I’m writing this is to let you know that this is not the case. You can travel to the Maldives and it doesn’t need to be the most expensive week of your life.

I arrived in Maldives late at night (which is usually a bad thing) and had only my first hotel night booked. My research seemed to show that most hotel transport involved ferries, seaplanes. and other transport that you don’t really want to organize at midnight. I sent a Facebook message to the hotel and asked them how I could get to their place. They assured me it was easy. It only required a walk, a ferry, a taxi, another ferry and another walk. That sounded complicated but they gave me prices and details, so when I got off the plane I knew exactly what I was doing and within less than 30 minutes I was checked in my hotel. There was one only snag. I had seen many pictures of the islands and this did not fit the image I was expecting. First, I was not allowed to bring any duty free liquor on board the plane. The country is 100% Muslim and there is a long list of things about what will not be permitted in the country as soon as you step off the plane. The first one is alcohol. What? A tropical island without tropical drinks? Okay. So…. what about the lovely beaches?  As I got on the ferry and headed to the main island of Male’, it became clear that there were no tropical beaches at all; Only a cluster of buildings, cars and motorcycles that seemed to cover every square inch of the island. I soon learned that there were at least 100,000 people living on this one mile square island. A square mile! There was even traffic at midnight! It took 15 minutes to go that mile in my taxi and I saw no beautiful beaches just cars, buildings and motorcycles. I must admit though, looking down into the water from my ferry, the ocean looked like a swimming pool.

I’ve traveled all over and I know the deal. Many of the best places in the world require that you fly somewhere and then go to an island which has an island, which has an island and so on until you’ve found the photo perfect beach….. I had seen some pictures of the capital and knew that it wasn’t the tropical paradise that the rest of the country seemed to be, but I thought maybe I could use it as a jumping off spot to explore other islands. Maybe I could rent a boat and just island hop. I figured that there would be slews of travel agents just waiting for me to arrive so that they could help me create my vacation as I normally do, on the fly. There was no one. There were lots of little concession-stand-looking booths with different resort names on them, but I wasn’t  staying at any of them so I passed them by. Once I arrived on the island that I was staying, I noticed there was really no travel offices there either. Vilingili is a tiny island with one hotel and a small shopping area. I asked my hotel about diving and visiting other islands but the receptionist was from the Philippines and seemed pretty clueless about how to get anywhere other than to the hotel. She told me to come by at breakfast and all would be revealed.

I got up early and was greeted by another Filipino who seemed to know even less than the first girl. I was told that a dive master would come by and he could help me make my plans. I went back into my room, got out my computer and then started worrying. My normal system of travel was failing me. As I got on hotels.com and TripAdvisor, all I could find were resorts that were ridiculously expensive. There were a few normal priced hotels but they were all in the Male area (and who wants to stay there?) Hotels ranged from $500 -1400/night! I only had a few nights left so I could pay that much I suppose, but why? I found a hotel that looked like it would be very memorable called the Conrad Maldives Rangali and sent them a Facebook message. They are famous for their underwater restaurant (it’s been featured on many travel shows) and I thought if I was going to have to cough up some dough, I might as well make it something special. They told me the cheapest they could do 2 nights would be $800/night, plus $500 to fly there, plus food, drinks, taxes, etc. Diving was $200/dive, so my bill at the very minimum would be around $2500 for 2 nights. And guess what? That cool restaurant that hooked me was completely booked for a month! I could go to Europe for 2 weeks on $2500!  I searched around some more and found similar problems. Every resort I looked at required hiring a seaplane or speedboat, plus a ridiculous expensive room and then the hotel gouging you for every little amenity. I knew there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be coming back here anytime soon, so I wanted my Maldive experience, but I also knew I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars for 2 nights on a tropical island. I’ve been to lots of tropical islands. When the dive master  from Divers Lodge (diverslodgemaldives.com) arrived, I explained what I wanted, the amount of time I had and he made a few calls, showed me some maps and helped get me on the right path.

Before I go any further, if you are reading this, have kids, a job that takes all your time and you’re lucky to  vacation for only a week or 2 a year, don’t read any further. If you’re a millionaire and don’t really care about prices, then this is not an article that will interest you. However, if you are a traveler like me (or would like to be) and the Maldives’ price tag makes the islands inaccessible, read on! What I discovered the last few days is that Maldives tourist industry is set up with a “bubble vacation” model. It is like a giant factory where tourists are processed from raw goods (getting off the plane) to the finished product (getting on a plane) Once a person has booked their vacation here and chosen their resort, they arrive at the airport. Many times there will be an agent to facilitate getting you on a plane or boat to whisk you to your destination. Once on your personal island, you get your room, you’re given the rules and then you’re free to book whatever water sports you wish with the hotel, eat in the restaurants, and do whatever it is you like to do on vacation. Sounds good? Well, it is wonderful in many ways because everything is done for you and you don’t have to think about anything….

What I don’t like about it is this: First, all the money goes to the big company who leased out the island. The local Maldivians won’t see very much or maybe none of that money. Second: You are trapped. Once you’ve paid all that money, you’re stuck. If your resort wants to charge you $50 for a pina colada, too bad! They can serve alcohol because it’s “their island” and you there’s no competition. You can’t exactly swim to the next island. If you don’t like the hotel, too bad. Where are you gonna go?  Third: You don’t get to know anything about the country. Other than the guy who cleans your room, there’s little chance to see how the local people live in these islands. Fourth: It’s ridiculously priced. Many people will never come here because it just costs too much. As I said before, it doesn’t need to cost a lot and I’ll tell you how to get the cost down so you can visit this bucket list destination.

The first thing that you need to know about the Maldives is that there are over a thousand islands spread out in groups of atolls, which by definition are little rings of islands with a shallow part in the middle called a lagoon. The islands are either uninhabited, have a resort on them or they’re a “local” island. Until recently, not many people had discovered the possibility of staying on a local island. This is the real Maldives, where people live and work, go shopping, visit the mosque and play soccer. There are a fair number of hotels on these local islands that are made for either local people to stay or tourists who don’t mind thinking outside the bubble. The downside is that you have to respect the local customs. That means no drinking( there is no alcohol so that isn’t a problem) and no women running around inhabited areas half nude. The culture is Muslim and  it’s conservative when it comes to dress. Just like Americans don’t like to see fat old Germans in Speedos, the culture here has issues with showing too much skin. The upside is you don’t have to spend $700/night for a hotel or $500 to fly by seaplane. The hotel that I’m blogging from was $70/ night. It’s a highly rated hotel with great service, great location and the guys that work here will set up transportation, dive trips, or get you a coke whenever you need one. There’s an overnight ferry that takes 8 hours to get here that costs $10!  I dove with whale sharks yesterday. I wasn’t stuck on a boat with 30 tourists, I had a small group from this local island. It didn’t cost $200, it cost $40/dive plus a few other boat and transportation charges. You won’t find out about this type of traveling easily. I didn’t discover the ferry until I had already paid $375 for a 17 minute R/T propeller plane flight. The ferry apparently has no website so you have to dig a little deeper to find out how the locals get around. The same is true with the hotel. My hotel never showed up on my normal booking sites. I used a website called Agoda. I actually booked the hotel while I was sitting in the airport and it was pretty simple.

To me, there’s an adventure in getting to where I’m going and figuring out the puzzle. Not everyone enjoys riddles with their vacations, but as long as I get there, I’m learning, experiencing and figuring out the system and I find that entertaining. As with any place I’ve ever visited, there’s almost always a way to get from one place to another without spending a fortune. The problem is sometimes it’s slow or irregular. Sometimes it’s crowded. I’ll tell you though, the local people don’t take expensive plane rides everywhere. So finding out how people get from one place to another is the mystery and also the solution. As I’ve stated before, if you have more money than time, then sometimes it’s better to just ante up the cash and let the resorts spoil you. If you have a flexible schedule, which is very important for budget traveling, then take a ferry. An overnight ferry saves you a night of accommodation and you wake up where you want to be.

There’s a little village in the town and everyone is as pleasant as they can be. Yesterday I visited their tourist souvenir shop, had lunch in the local restaurant. Lunch was $3 and very delicious. The souvenirs were a fraction of the price of the big resorts. I love this island. Next to me is a very big resort that charges around $1000/night. They’re in the same lagoon and have great reviews, but so does my hotel and I’m not stuck. The dive shop is fantastic and made sure that I achieved my bucket list goal: To swim with a whale shark. Maldives has year round opportunities to see these huge amazing creatures as well as giant manta rays and lots of other amazing underwater life.

So, you want to visit the Maldives and not spend a fortune? Here’s my suggestion: Emirates Air, a fantastic carrier flies direct to Male. I combined this visit with a stop in Sri Lanka and Dubai and it actually worked out costing less than just a ticket to Dubai. I don’t know why, but understanding airline prices is usually so complicated, the airlines don’t even know how they do it. Find a nice hotel on a “local” island that is accessible by ferry. Make sure that you Google the island, look at pictures and read whatever reviews you can on the hotel and the island. If you’re a diver (and if you’re not, you should be) make sure that there are diving facilities available. The water is Maldives greatest asset and you can see things here that you won’t find in other places. If you have time, look into visiting another island or two. If you have the money and would like a splurge, book a night at one of the swankier resorts. A true traveler changes things up and gets a panoramic experience. You can always go from island to island by hiring a speedboat. This is great if you have a short distance or several people in your group to minimize the expense.

There are emerging travel agents that are catering now to the travelers and not just the well heeled tourists. They’re usually located on the islands and don’t do a lot of advertising but they can help you put together your trip using local ferries and hotels. I’ve spent the last couple of days with a group from one Selha tours (selahtoursinc.com)  that can answer questions for you and/or set your whole island hopping trip up for you. They work with hotels like TME Retreats (tme.mv) where I’m  staying now.  As I get ready to head to the airport in a few hours, I realize what a fantastic trip this has been. I haven’t had any drinks all week (which was good for me probably) but I had a great adventure for a tenth of what the package tour tourists were paying. Best of all, now I have money left over to book another trip!

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