Take all the cheesy cliche one-liners you can think of, like “A dream come true,” or “A magical getaway of a lifetime,” combine them, and that’s exactly what the Maldives was for us. As opposed to a backpacker, a flashpacker is someone who travels on a budget because they choose to, not because they have to. So, they possess the funds to splash out a little extra here and there along the way. We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip we wanted to make without having to sell a kidney, so after researching and now living the experience ourselves, we’ve outlined some must-dos and don’ts from our experience to help get you to the Maldives yourself!
Since the 1970s, the Maldivian government has worked with foreign investors to host only the most ultra-expensive resorts, making it an untouchable getaway for anyone except the super rich or the splurging vacationer. This changed in the late 2000s, when the government gave permission for hotels and guesthouses to be built. This sparked a flurry of construction, especially in the last few years. We saw with our own eyes the blocks and blocks of new affordable hotels in the midst of being built on Hulumale, the major residential island found next to the capital island of Male.
Secondly, we were notified by the Air Asia smartphone app of a massive seat sale in May of 2015. A roundtrip flight to the Maldives from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was only 140 USD, just in time for my birthday 8 months later! We jumped on the deal without any hesitation, planning for 5 days in paradise. We figured we could splurge to stay at a fancy all-inclusive resort for one night only for the big birthday, and then move to budget accommodations for the other 4 nights, no problem!
ISLAND-TO-ISLAND: CRAZY EXPENSIVE TO SURPRISINGLY AFFORDABLE
When we finally looked into lodging in December, we quickly realised that our dreams of staying in a water villa were nowhere nears budget-friendly. Averaging 500 USD a night, most of them also extort you to pay for a private speedboat or seaplane transfer since public transport doesn’t service the private islands they are located on. Depending on how far they are from the airport, the cheapest speedboat transfer was 98 USD per person, ONE-WAY! And it goes up to 1000 USD for a seaplane! After much deliberation, we painfully decided to pursue other options.
Luckily, we found out that the public ferries cost anywhere from 0.30 USD to 5 USD for short to long haul trips to the public islands. They are cheap, clean and possess both an on-board bathroom and small convenience store. However, they often only run once a day to the desired destination, have no air conditioning or fans and can be really hot if there’s no natural wind. We suggest bringing your own food and water, as well as sitting in the front two rows nearest the aisle, so you can try and catch some wind through the open front door. Some of them allow rooftop access and may even install a canopy, so you can lay down and enjoy the fresh ocean air.
AFFORDABLE SEMI-RESORT GETAWAYS
We did some more research and discovered an in-between budget lodging and resorts. Some locals who have spent most of their lives working for a resort have sprung into action to create their own semi-resorts on their home islands populated by locals and accessible by public ferries. There are a number of these places listed on Airbnb offering affordable stays hovering around the 100 USD per night range. One such place that we continued to read about was “The Amazing Noovilu,” (though see below that we do not necessarily recommend this place). For 125 USD a night, you get a spacious A/C room with an ‘exotic’ traditional outdoor bathroom and 3 meals a day. You can also peruse their extensive list of excursions for extra fees, which ranged from night snorkeling to a deserted island picnic and even whale shark watching. AND you could take the 4 hour public ferry there for just a few dollars per person. At that price, we could compromise on doing 2 nights at Noovilu and 3 night budget lodging back at Hulumale or Male.
We flew into Hulhumale with confidence that a Noovilu team member would pick us up and transfer us to the overnight ferry and on our way to our little budget paradise getaway. To our surprise, nobody was there waiting for us and didn’t show up until we begged someone to make a phone call to the owner. On top of that, upon their arrival, the pickup team informed us that the ferry wasn’t running because supposedly the owners were celebrating a wedding (but when we met the owner of the Noovilu later, he said it was due to stormy waters). The next ferry 4.5 hour ferry was not until the next day at 4PM, so we’d arrive at 8:30PM and have spent half of my birthday commuting. No thanks! We cancelled our first night’s stay and let them know we’d only do one night, the day after my birthday.
We originally chose “The Amazing Noovilu” after seeing it recommended on Nomadic Matt and its high ratings on Airbnb, the latter being how we booked it. To get there, we sweated through a hot and windless 4.5 hour public ferry ride to arrive at 1:30PM with high expectations – that it unfortunately did not live up to. The room was big and clean BUT there were no included soaps or shampoo. Not only was the highly-touted outdoor shower an ensemble of cheap plastic fixtures, its heat cut out due to a electrical breaker issue and its drain clogged after just one use. All of the aluminum bathroom fixtures were overcome by rust due to lack of maintenance, and there was no door handle for the bathroom. We’d be woken up by sun in our eye thanks to a lack of curtains in the bedroom, plus the WiFi was pay-per-use, starting at 20 USD. We caught a glimpse of the brand new suites, three already in use and three more being constructed, and they seem to be much nicer. And yet, we learned that although we had paid the same amount as another couple staying in a fancy suite, the suite we would’ve stayed in was given away to some visiting politicians, despite our reservation being made two months in advance.
It wasn’t all bad. The owner is very friendly, charismatic and informative, while the daily excursions are awesome. He’s very good at sitting down with you to plan out your day(s) and to articulate a plan that appeals to you. The 2nd floor restaurant is a pretty cool hangout area, with a sand floor, lounge chairs and island-themed decor – not to forget the included meals were quite good to boot. The inner island was quiet and quaint and the surrounding waters are beyond beautiful, however, there is no proper beach and trash lined both the shore and some parts of the water near the guesthouse. The house reef snorkeling was both fantastic and complimentary, which we highly recommend to do earlier in the morning, as that was the best time to see sea turtles, rays and other fascinating sealife.
If you do decide to give them a shot, book one of the new suites to maximize your stay.
UNPARALLELED WATER EXCURSIONS
For dive instructors, the Maldives is a dream spot to be able to live and work in. Though we opted not to dive, the snorkeling here is unparalleled as well. We went snorkeling every single day we were there and it was phenomenal! Beyond the neverending exotic coral reefs and thousands upon thousands of tropical fish, we spotted several big tuna, black-tipped sharks, sea turtles, moray eels, massive stingrays and a school of dolphins. Each day was even more amazing than the last! There’s a plethora of other water activities available through tour agencies and your hotel, including tubing, wakeboarding, flyboarding, fishing, parasailing and more.
No, that is not a typo. SCUNA diving is a relatively new system that’s more engaging than snorkeling but easier to do than diving. Imagine a tear-shaped kayak that’s full of air and fitted with an air compressor. Attach hoses from it to one or two scuba regulators, throw on a weight belt, grab a mask and fins and you’re set to “dive!” Depending on the strength of the air compressor (we used a 2 horsepower one), a single person can dive as deep as 20 meters while two can dive simultaneously to 10 meters for 2 to 3 hours. We organized our SCUNA trip through UI Inn for $45 per person, since they are the only ones who own a SCUNA system in all of Maldives, brought to them by a Jamaican salesman who was visiting the area. Jen has already had one failed dive attempt so she was a bit nervous, but the simplicity of it and the excellent supervision had her diving down to 10 meters like a pro. We highly recommend this to anyone who’s looking to try something different or has the jitters about dipping fin first into diving.
RESORT DAY TRIPS – AN AMAZING BIRTHDAY
Many, if not all of the resorts have begun to offer day trip visits to travellers who would like to enjoy the amenities and luxury of a resort without shelling out the full amount for a night’s stay. Depending on the resort, what’s offered and the price will differ. There are a number of offices or stalls outside the arrival gate of the airport, where we scored a deal for Centara. The day trips manager informed us that for 99 USD, we would have a 9AM to 6PM visit to Centara Ras Fushi, conveniently located just a 45 minute included ferry ride from Hulumale. The daytrip would include a lunch buffet, pool access with a swim-up bar and unlimited drinks, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boating – and not to forget, views to die for. But, the agent cut us an even better deal. Since we agreed to stay at an associate’s hotel that night (see Velima Beach below), he also included Centara’s delectable breakfast buffet and a 15 minute speedboat transfer for just 21 dollars more – bringing the total to 120 USD each. Later, the manager at Centara would confirm with great surprise that we had scored a phenomenal deal, since the extra 20 USD each wasn’t even be enough to cover the cost of the speedboat’s fuel. It’s funny how things work out sometimes as going to an all-inclusive resort in the middle of the Maldives was the best way I could have spent my 30th birthday, by far. We indulged in everything that was included, made some new friends and took plenty of incredible photos. A day we will definitely always remember as one of the best birthday celebrations ever!
+For a great deal on a day trip to Centara, head straight to the Centara stall at the airport and ask for the Day Trips manager.
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE MALDIVES ON A BUDGET
After our time in Maldives, we figured out the best way to do Maldives on a budget is easier and more convenient than we thought. We suggest staying on the island of Hulhumale in a nice but affordable hotel, then signing up for day excursions through your hotel or travel agency. Not only will you save the time of having to commute to an entirely different island on an uncomfortably hot ferry, but you’ll save money and get better local food as well.
WHERE TO STAY:
This is the 2nd most populous island after the bustling capital island of Male as it serves as a residential island. It’s got wide roads, minimal vehicles, no crowds, and a peaceful community atmosphere. At night, locals gather in parking lots, neighbourhood blocks and open areas where projectors broadcast different television channels on screens or on building walls for everyone to enjoy together. The middle of the island is lined with small apartment buildings for locals, while the two blocks from the eastern coast are where the affordable hotels and boutique guesthouses have popped up, with more being slapped together everyday. The beach is silky and dotted with hammocks and lounge chairs while the water is aqua blue and clear, with a number of eateries, restaurants and grocery stores to choose from. The palm-tree lined port runs ferries 24/7 to Male every 15 minutes, costing only 33 cents per ride and taking 20 minutes. From Male, more ferries are available to head to outer lying islands, including resorts.
A new beachfront property with personal car escort and the most sparkling white clean bathroom we’ve come across, for $65 a night, which also gave us the killer deal for a speedboat transfer day trip to Centara Ras Fushi Resort.
A well-established hotel that’s very popular with young and budget-minded tourists housing a restaurant quite popular with locals (so you know it must be good) and excellent English-speaking staff that can sort out excursions for you. Only $45 a night for a very comfortable and well-furnished room with excellent wifi and only 2 blocks from the beach. These are the people who also run the only SCUNA diving excursion in the country.
WHERE TO EAT:
“Food by Meyna Hassan” is a local Dhivehi (traditional Maldivian) eatery that’s very popular with locals and especially by us, considering that once we discovered it, we gorged on two meals a day everyday. Owned and run by a famous Maldivian composer and singer, Meyna Hassan, he, his cousin and staff are very passionate about the restaurant and the food and will welcome you with open arms. The food is on display cafeteria-style, so point and choose what you want to create your own meal for between $1 to $3 per person, depending on how stuffed you wish to be. Don’t be afraid to ask what all the foods are, as they will patiently fill you in.
TIP: Order the “Bombay Tea” (equivalent of Indian masala chai) or a fruit shake. Delicious!
WHAT TO DO
Sign up through your hotel or through a travel agency to do excursions, ranging from diving and world-class snorkeling to submarine rides and water sports. We recommend Sora Travels, co-owned by Wahhab, a gruff no-nonsense local who grew up on the sea with a seamen father. There’s also Yumi, a Japanese national who fell in love with the Maldives and has made a pretty awesome life there. Our half-day snorkeling trip with Wahhab was both negotiable in price and the BEST snorkeling we’ve done yet, treating us to swim alongside sharks as big as Jen, massive stingrays and gape at moray eels.
10452 Ahigas Magu, K. Hulhumale’ 23500
Republic of Maldives.
+960 743 1617 // +960 783 8071
We are so incredibly happy we had the opportunity to enjoy the Maldives without having to take out a mortgage in the process. The food, the waters, the kind locals and the views made for an unforgettable trip and we hope these tips can help you experience the same when you decide to check out the Maldives for yourself!