A Guide to The Maldives
Where is The Maldives and how do I get there?
Renowned for it’s white-sand beaches, blue lagoon waters and some of the world's most beautiful coral reefs, The Maldives islands are arguably the most desired gems of the Indian Ocean
Located to the South West of Sri Lanka and in the Indian Ocean, The Republic of Maldives comprises over 1,200 small islands perched on 26 coral rims (atolls) stretching 960 kilometres from north to south. Asia’s smallest country, both in land mass and population, the Maldives also claims the world’s lowest average elevation, just 1.5 metres above sea level. Whatever these islands may lack in physical stature, however, they more than make up for in sheer, breath-taking beauty.
Over one hundred of its 300 inhabited islands are exclusive to tourism, the rest belonging to locals. Within the resort islands there are no hawkers selling tattoos, no taxi tours and virtually no air or noise pollution. Each island is it’s own resort environment. Largely due to this unique arrangement, despite its remote location, the Maldives are considered one of the safest and most sophisticated holiday destinations in the world. High-end dining, world-class spas and villas worthy of Roman emperors blend into the palm fringed islands that seem to float on the turquoise lagoons. Little wonder these remote islands attract more than one million tourists a year.
The surrounding seas are home to a rich variety of marine life, part of an underwater ecosystem that continues to sustain a commercial fishing industry that was the nation’s bedrock long before tourism arrived in the mid 1970’s. The brilliant reefs and deep-water denizens such as the whale shark and manta ray are a major attraction for sport divers from all over the world.
A Brief History
Early settlers to The Maldives did not leave any archaeological artefacts, hence little is known of the nation’s ancient history, believed to date back over two millennia. Homes were probably built of wood, palm fronds and other perishable goods washed away in salt and wind. Chiefs or headmen did not reside in stone buildings and their religions did not require the construction of large temples or compounds.
The earliest written history came with the Sinhalese seafarers who arrived from Sri Lanka around 543 to 483 BC. Their settlement marked the development of the Indo-European Dhivehi language, the national language spoken today.
The arrival of 12th century Arab traders resulted in the country converting from Buddhism to Islam, initiating a series of six Islamic Dynasties that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective.
The vast majority of the Maldives population of around 428,000 remain devout Muslims: this, despite long periods of Portuguese and British colonial influence in the 16th and 18th centuries. A more noticeable result of colonial influence is the use of English as a second language.
The Maldives achieved full political independence from the British on 26 July 1965 and was declared a republic on 11 November 1968, thus ending the 853 year-old-monarchy.
Today, the Maldives is going through a period of uncertainty and change. After decades of one party rule the country held its first democratic election in 2008, resulting in the presidency of Mohammed Nasheed. Nasheed presided over four years of progressive change, often against the wishes of the nation’s more conservative elements. Following an alleged coup in 2012, the former dictator’s brother in law, Abdulla Yameen, became president and remains in that role to this day. Elections are pending in 2018 and the political field plays out on the island capital of Male.
Two worlds in one
In many ways The Maldives represent two worlds in one; that of the resort islands where anything goes (within the bounds of reason and respect) and that of the local islands where traditions hold sway.
Officially, 100% of the population are practicing Sunni Muslims. This may be because under the 2008 constitution, it’s impossible to be a citizen of the Maldives if you are a not a Muslim.
This deep religious faith does not preclude hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims travelling to the resort islands each year; attracted by the clear lagoon waters, where special licenses allow resorts to serve alcohol and food not permitted on local islands, and guests can work on their bronze tans while cooling off in infinity pools. Their warm welcome and integration with the Maldivian people goes to prove that tradition and international modernism can thrive side by side.
The fact that tourism accounts for 28% of GDP and up to 90% of tax revenue may go some way to assuring such a harmonious co-existence.
Without question, tourism is the dominant industry, directly employing tens of thousands of locals and integrating the geographically remote islands with the wider world. These are exciting times to visit. Luxury properties at the high end are going up at an astonishing speed as are more affordable guest houses on local islands, attracting a whole new type of adventure traveller to the Maldives. From solo travellers, backpackers to friends and three generations of family travelling together, The Maldives is no longer just a honeymooner and couples paradise.
New travellers are arriving in growing numbers, each seeking fun, adventure and excitement in The Maldives.
The destination itself is surrounded by water, an island nation by definition, and as such it receives awards year after year for being one of the world top dive destinations. From May to November, the annual manta ray migration to Hanifaru Bay is a big draw for visitors to The Maldives.
Declared a protected marine biosphere by UNESCO, Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll is also one of the few places in the world where whale sharks congregate to mate. But that is more of a chance sighting than a regular occurrence. It’s the charismatic manta rays that visitors expect to see.
On any given day from May to November, between 20 to over 100 will congregate here to gorge themselves in the plankton rich waters.
Due to the protected nature of Hanifaru Bay, diving is not permitted in the area, only snorkelling. So even the traveller who is less confident in the water can observe the graceful underwater dance that is akin to a coral-reef ballet.
Arts and Craft
Maldivians have a distinct cultural identity that reflects a blend of all the influences their society has experienced over the past thousand years – chiefly Arab, Indian and Sinhalese. The official language is Dhivehi, an Indo European language unique to the archipelago but sharing similarities with Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka.
Dhivehi culture has continued to thrive in isolation from the rest of the world. Visitors will see expressions of it in Maldivian arts and crafts and also in music and dance performances on public occasions and festivals. Bodu Beru, meaning ‘big drum’ in Dhivehi, is one such example. Many resorts will put on a weekly performance of “bodu beru’. As the drummers beat out a slow rhythm dancers begin to swing their arms and bodies, increasing the pace as the drummers lead them into a rhythmic frenzy. There are four to six drummers in each group and the rhythms have a strong African influence. These performances can also be found on local islands where dancers will sometimes enter a trance like state.
The unique craft of Maldivian lacquer work is also ubiquitous throughout the islands. Traditionally created as containers, bowls and trays for the sultans the range of lacquer produce has widened and evolved to become part of the Maldivian identity. Several layers of lacquer are applied to hand crafted objects using different types of wood. Designs are usually (but not always) floral motives in yellow with red trim on black backgrounds. Tourism enables this centuries old practice to thrive.
Mosques tend to be the most interesting buildings to see on the local islands. There are some that date back to the 6th century AD and are striking for their coral carved craftsmanship and lacquer-work interiors. However, in most cases non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques so will have to view the interior from the doorway.
Coral architecture for home buildings became popular in the 1960s as fishing expanded and incomes increased. A coral built home provided more status than a wood-palm-thatch house. The older coral blocks were assembled using a mortar of palm sugar, egg, nutmeg and sand. Later, imported cement, or cement made from crushed coral became the norm.
Nowadays, strict regulations on coral mining mean that most houses are made of concrete blocks, typically ensconced in shaded courtyards and shielded from the streets by chest high walls. Maldivian villages are notable for their orderly layout, with wide streets in a rectangular grid.
The vast majority of cuisine to be enjoyed on the resort islands is imported from around the world. It might be prime steak from Argentina on one day, wild salmon from Norway on another, gelato from Italy and rum from The Caribbean.
Thin topsoil makes wide-scale farming out of the question. The only edible fruit that grow naturally in the Maldives are coconuts, mangoes, papayas, pineapples and yams along with herbs and spices. The only other locally sourced food is fish and seafood.
That said, traditional Maldivian cuisine is far from bland. Centuries of spices and culinary concepts delivered from the Indian sub-continent, Arabia and Africa have created a nutritious and delicious cuisine unique to the Maldives. A popular Maldivian breakfast is mas huni, a healthy mixture of tuna, coconut, onion and chilli.
For snacks and short meals finger foods or hedhikaa are a favourite. These can include gulha (fried dough balls with fish and spices), fihunu mas (fish pieces with chilli coating) and boakiba (spicy fish cakes). A popular main dish often found in teashops is garudia, a soup made from dried and smoked fish, often eaten with rice, lime and chilli. The soup is often poured over rice, mixed up and eaten with fingers. Heaven help a Maldivian who doesn’t like fish, and in particular, tuna! Tea is a popular accompaniment, usually drunk black and sweet.
While fishing remains an essential industry to the Maldivian economy the most important land plant is the coconut tree. Throughout Maldivian history the coconut plant has provided nourishment, timber, shelter and rope – from the coir, the fibre of the dried coconut husk, which is spun and twisted into strong, salt water resistant cordage. The plant is considered a symbol of Maldivian life. A local saying claims that if a man is able to nurture just one coconut plant for life, he will have everything he needs.
When to go to the Maldives
The Maldives enjoy a benign climate, there are no tornadoes or hurricanes, and temperatures vary between 79F and 86F (26C-30C).
The high season is between December and February. During this period visitors can expect little rain, low humility and cloud-free blue skies. Prices generally rise between Christmas and New Year.
The shoulder season is between March and April. The great weather continues through April when temperatures are at their hottest. Prices jump over the Easter period.
The low season is between May and November. During these months the temperatures continue to vary from warm to hot. While storms and rain become more likely, downpours tend to be short lived as the clouds gravitate from one island to the next. Marine life is more varied on the western side of atolls during these months.
Prices rise in August for the European summer holidays.
Know before you go
Currency: The Maldivian currency is the rufiyaa (RF). However, unless travelling into Male most visitors will never see a rufiyaa. All resorts and travel expenses will be billed in US dollars. Resort and other expenses such as tips and purchases, are best paid by credit cards at the end of the stay.
Health, Safety and Emergency Contacts: There are almost no records of guests suffering crime and little record of medical issues. Malaria and dengue fever have been eliminated on the resort islands with stringent fumigation procedures in place. Heat strokes and stepping on sea urchins are a more common cause of injury.
Insurance is compulsory for diving enthusiasts who will be guided by professionals on health and safety hazards. Most resorts will have their own doctor or share one with a nearby resort. Local islands close by have hospitals and medical facilities for any serious injuries that may be incurred. General health insurance is recommended as with any other travel destination.
Most countries have no diplomats in the Maldives at all, though many have consulates. In the case of emergencies it’s necessary to contact embassies in neighbouring countries such as Colombo, Sri Lanka,
Getting There and Getting Around
Flights: International travellers arrive at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. This takes up the whole of Hulhule Island, which is five minutes by boat from the capital island, Male. Ferries to Male depart every 10 minutes, 24 hours per day. By the end of 2018 the new Maldivian-Chinese friendship bridge connecting the airport island to Male will open, making access quicker for anyone wishing to go into Male.
International flights serving the Maldives are a mixture of scheduled and chartered flights. Many airlines change their schedules in line with international demand and per season.
Air Asia (www.airasia.com)
Air India (www.airindia.com)
Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com)
Japan Airlines (www.jal.com)
Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaailines.com)
Mega Maldives Airlines (www.megamaldivesair.com)
Oman Air (www.omanair.com)
Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeairlines.com)
SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero)
Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com)
Transfers: Resort islands now span the entire length of the Maldives. Transfer from airport to island could be by boat, by plane, or both. Speedboats ferry guests to the nearer resorts; seaplanes to the more distant ones while fixed wheel planes transport guests to the five regional domestic airports, from where it’s another trip on a speedboat to the final destination. Again, these tend to be arranged by the individual resorts.
Most visitors to the Maldives choose to stay in once they reach their resort destination, as even a two-resort holiday can be costly and time consuming.
However, the past few years have seen a rise in independent travel. Privately run guest-houses on local islands are welcoming travellers into the local communities. Intrepid travellers and backpackers can now make their own itinerary and travel from island to island on local ferries, knowing that alcohol and port are not available, and follow a conservative dress code.
Cruises: Another great way to explore the region is through a dive safari. While pleasure cruises in the Maldives have been slow to take off dive safaris have become the most popular non-resort holidays. Usually these cater for up to 20 divers over a week or 10 days, and move from atoll to atoll in search of manta rays, whale sharks, pelagic fish and exploring coral reefs.
Surfing safaris are a more recent innovation as the Maldives' reputation for surfing spreads. Likewise, big game fishing is hooking the attention of holidaymakers along with whale and dolphin watching safaris.
Local Laws and Etiquette
Local laws and customs do not apply to the resort islands, common sense, however, does. Be aware that topless sunbathing is not permitted and when visiting local islands it is recommended to dress modestly and refrain from drinking alcohol.