We started our Asia trip with one week of independent travel in Maldives and in this post we share our experiences. We also provide a small travel guide about the places we visited, as well as food, accommodation and water activities.
You can also check some photos from the trip in our Maldives Photo Album.
Maldives is famous for the island resorts where flocks of tourists go to spend their honeymoon and/or indulge in the art of doing nothing and getting tanned for a week. Independent travel in Maldives was not available before 2010 when the government allowed small guesthouses in the local islands. These guesthouses offer a more affordable option to travel and enjoy the beautiful beaches but I feel that some of the islands are not prepared for the extra development and pollution caused by increasing tourism.
It is true though, that the majority of the tourists arriving to Male International Airport are resort tourists and not independent travelers. This was obvious when we left the airport and only 3 people (the two of us and one girl from Germany) were not immediately routed to their resorts.
Places we visited
As most independent travelers in Maldives, we had to go from the airport island to Male and from there to one of the islands. As we had no place to leave our backpacks and the heat was exhausting us, we saw little of the capital of Maldives. We took a couple of taxi rides (from jetty to jetty) and peeked through the city. It looks like a modern and chaotic city with modern buildings paired by colonial houses and bare basics apartments. The traffic seemed a bit chaotic with many cars and scooters and the lively street markets remind us that this is Asia.
Maafushi, in the Kaafu Atoll, is 1.5h by ferry from Male, and the most touristy of the “local” islands. There are around 40 guesthouses (and quite a few more under construction) in the 1.2×0.2km island which means in theory 1000 tourists for a population of 2000 Maldivians. Ironically the island also includes the largest prison in the country.
We found that because of all this development the island has little character and reminded us of other places spoiled by mass tourism like Bali, South Thailand, Zanzibar, etc. Everywhere we went there was a guesthouse or a souvenir shop or a company selling activities and day trips to resorts. And there were lots of tourists, mostly from Russia, Italy and France. Like in some of the local islands, there is a “bikini beach” for tourists and a local beach.
The only positive aspect we found about Maafushi is that there is fierce competition between the service providers so the prices are cheaper than in other places. There are also more options available for activities.
Fear not, the place is gorgeous and the beaches still unspoiled (but the bikini beach gets quite crowded), so we think this is still a good option for people that don’t mind mass tourism and would like to stay in a more lively place.
Fulidhoo (Vaavu Atoll) is further south, about half the size of Maafushi, and a population of around 500 people. This is a complete different experience than Maafushi, in part because there are only 3 guesthouses and a relaxed atmosphere. In 3 days there we saw around 10 tourists plus a few more on a day trip or in transit to another island. There is also a bikini beach which was empty most of the time and a stunning public beach.
The only drawback is that there are few options for eating and going out on activities, so we had to rely on the guesthouse to prepare food for us and organise our snorkelling. This is fine and we have no complaints but the prices are slightly more expensive than in Maafushi. We also felt that the people from the guesthouse were a bit offended when we tried to go to the “competition”.
We loved Fulidhoo and think that this is one of those paradise places that are becoming incredibly rare to find. We spent our days in a “lazy” manner, mostly swimming, relaxing, reading a book in a hammock, eating… Needless to say, this is not a partying place, so better go somewhere else if that is what you are looking for.
As you guessed by now, we did not stay in any of the resort islands but rather in guesthouses.
In Maafushi we stayed in the Isle Beach Inn. The guesthouse is close to the public beach (other side than bikini beach) in the quieter area of the island. We paid around 60€ per night for a double room with on-suite, but the price did not include taxes or breakfast. Staff was friendly, picked us up from the jetty, suggested companies for activities, places to eat, etc… They provided coffee, tea and water for free, as well as snorkelling equipment. If you want to go to Maafushi, we recommend this place as a good budget option.
In Fulidhoo we stayed in the newest guesthouse of the island, the Sea Side View Guesthouse. This place is located in the opposite side of the jetty and, as the name suggests, has a great view to the sea. It is a bit more basic than the previous one but the room is still quite nice, with a/c and fan, nice shower, all tidy and clean. The guys were super nice and flexible, cooked delicious meals and organised a snorkelling trip for us. At this guesthouse we paid 70€/night but the price already included all taxes and breakfast for two. Again, we highly recommend this place.
The preferable way for independent travel in Maldives is by using public ferries. We only used this and found it convenient, cheap and a nice way to interact with the locals (on the way back I even spent a bit of time talking with the Mayor of Fulidhoo).
Public ferries operate every day except Friday but some islands have more irregular schedules so it is important to check the time schedules and plan the trip accordingly, to avoid having to use one of the more expensive private ferries or speedboats.
Ferries from Male airport to Male run every 15 minutes or so and cost 10 Rufyias (less than 1€). From Male to Maafushi there are three ferries per day and cost 50 Rufyias (around 3€). They take 1.5h/2h (depending if you choose the direct ferry or the hopping one).
Ferries to Fulidhoo stop in Maafushi but only run every second day. It is 2h more than to Maafushi and the whole trip costs 105 Rufyias (around 7€).
If you miss a ferry and need to take a faster ferry/speedboat the prices are more expensive. We heard that Airport to Maafushi costs 20€/person and Maafushi to Fulidhoo around 50€/person, but they might be reluctant to go for this price if there is not enough people.
All in all, we paid less for all our transportation by public ferry than the cost of one single trip to Maafushi by speedboat.
Tuna is probably the most used ingredient in Maldives cuisine. Maldivian breakfast is fried tuna with coconut, onions and lime, served with baked roshi and sometimes a fried egg, quite fresh but filling. This was by far the favourite dish we had. Other dishes with tuna include tuna toast, grilled tuna and Koturoshi (fried roshi with tuna, veggies and some curry sauce).
Apart from tuna other fish and seafood is widely available but we found it expensive (more than 10€ for fish and 20€ for seafood), and not so delicious (OK, I’m spoiled by Portuguese fish dishes, I must confess).
Other food is close to Sri Lankan and Indian food, so you’ll find plenty of rice and curry or noodles (mostly instant), but not exciting at all, far away from the quality and taste in those countries.
Our biggest disappointment was the fresh juices. We are big fans of fresh juices (if you don’t have a beer or a cocktail, a fresh juice by the beach is the next best thing) but found that juices in Maldives are always mixed with water and with lots of added sugar. And they are not cheap, you can easily pay 2 or 3€ for a watered-down juice, that’s almost European prices. The only option that we found good was freshly-cut coconut (around 1€).
In general the food is not cheap if compared with neighbour countries, and sadly not as good as well.
The best news is that sun-bathing in white-sand beaches and swimming in the turquoise-blue water of the Indian Ocean is for free and we did this most of the time. All the beaches we visited are pristine and beautiful. We borrowed some snorkelling equipment and saw some coral reefs and colourful fishes straight from the beach.
For guided snorkelling in Maafushi, there are plenty of options available. We did a half-day package with 3 snorkelling points and picnic on a sandbank and we paid 35usd/person. We used the company iComTours and found them to be professional and skilled. Unfortunately we arrived a bit late for Manta Rays but we saw plenty of fishes and turtles.
In Fulidhoo we could not find any companies providing snorkelling trips but our guesthouse arranged a trip for us. This trip was a bit more expensive (around 40usd/person) because we were only two in the boat, but better, because we were only two in the boat.
In Maafushi there are all sort of other sea activities (diving, para-sailing, wake-board, etc.) as well as visit to resort islands, but we were not interested.
Muslim costumes and traditions: Maldives is a Muslim country and there are some rules that apply when you want to independent travel in Maldives. First rule is that alcohol and pork products are strictly forbidden except in resorts. This was enforced in the local islands we visited, so forget about mojitos at sunset.
Second rule is that you should dress modestly and this means no bikinis outside bikini beaches, woman should cover shoulders and both woman and man should cover thighs. In Fulidhoo we saw all people respecting this but in Maafushi we saw plenty of “infractions” to the rule.
Hefty taxes: It is common that prices (activities, accommodation, food) are presented to you without taxes, so be prepared to add up to 12% of government tax plus 10% of service tax. This is almost always the case if you book your accommodation on websites like booking, agoda, etc. And in some cases the people still expect a tip.
Independent Travel in Maldives – Final Impressions
I am writing this post and my mind is a bit confused about the country. It is a gorgeous place, still unspoiled, beach and ocean are the most amazing I’ve seen; but I feel that tourism is beginning to massify on those islands, which don’t have the capacity to handle all the garbage caused (normally) by the tourists.
The final list of positive aspects from our week of independent travel in Maldives:
- It is possible to independent travel in Maldives on a budget without going to expensive all-inclusive resorts;
- The beaches, reefs and ocean are amazing for all kind of sea activities, and these can be organised at reasonable prices;
- It is still unspoiled and clean in most places.
- We loved Fulidhoo island;
- Local transportation works well and is pleasant to use;
- Locals are friendly and helpful, and we did not experience any tourist scams.
The things we did not like:
- It is doable on a budget but it is not cheap (if compared with most of the other Asian countries). We had to restrict ourselves from some food and activities to keep it affordable. We spent (excluding flights) 870€ for a week for two persons. This is roughly 62€/person/day;
- Places like Maafushi are packed with tourists, some of them not respecting locals and their traditions. Because of the mass tourism, garbage begins to pile up in the “quiet” corners of the island;
- Although the local guides were very careful with the sea life, many tourists were careless (e.g. stepping on coral, touching turtles, etc.);
- The hefty taxes added on top of basically everything;
- Expensive and just-average food and juices.
We hope that this post helps people having a different perspective about travelling in the Maldives. If you’re planning to go there and have any questions please contact us, we’ll be happy to help in whatever we can.