The first tourists came to the Maldives back in 1973. Until recently, however, they could only stay on the resort islands. Now, following an initiative that was launched by ex-President Nasheed, non-resort islands can now accept tourists and islanders are opening guesthouses where they can stay.
I’ve come to the Maldives to visit some of the lesser-known islands and meet the people who live on them.
Day one: Maafushi in the Kaafu Atoll.
Don’t forget to explore Maafushi’s streets
The traditional Dhoni boat with curved prow glides out of the Villingili Ferry Terminal. Beneath our boat the water shimmers clear as turquoise glass as we bump across the waves, past tiny islands set in the sparkling sea like green eggs yolks surrounded by the blue-white waters of their coral lagoons. “Most people come here for the diving –it’s the best in the world,” says Mohammed who lives on the first island where I plan to start my island-hopping adventure. Maafushi located in Kaafu Atoll just 27km away from Male.
Although the southern island was damaged by a tsunami in 2004, there are no signs of this when we leap from the ferry onto Maafushi’s tiny jetty.
The sandy track fringed by brightly painted tin roof houses glitters gaily in the hot afternoon sun and islanders smile and greet me with halu kahinay, the breathy Maldivian word for ‘hello’.
Guesthouses were first opened here in 2010, and now provide valuable income that helped islanders rebuild. Nowadays Maafushi is a bustling and prosperous island with a scattering of souvenir shops and more than forty guesthouses. Mohammad, from the Velana Beach hotel where I’m staying, meets me and loads my luggage into the hotel’s bright painted wheelbarrow. As we pad along sandy tracks to the charming guesthouse he tells me that the northern end of the island is the tourist zone where I’ll find gift shops and restaurants.
I spend four days in Maafushi: exploring the rocky paths of this mile-long atoll; relaxing on the Bikini beach, a dazzlingly beautiful stretch of palm tree studded shoreline hidden behind a wooden fence where tourists can sunbathe without offending islanders, or lounging in one of the surprisingly comfortable Maldivian steel framed joali hammocks that line the unpaved streets.
I borrowed a mask and flippers, and joined a snorkelling trip to see the turtles and other exotic marine fauna at Banana Reef, and one evening I even leapt from a small boat and swam with wild dolphins.
Day five: Fulidhoo in the Vaavu Atol.
Fulidhoo is one of the smaller islands and has very few visitors
Fulidhoo in the Vaavu Atol is a two-hour ferry trip across a sparkling sea from Maafushi. I had been told that the island is tiny and only has a handful of guesthouses so I’m not surprised, when I hop off the boat onto a small wooden jetty, to find the white sand beach deserted.
I’m met by the owner of Thundi, a small guesthouse with just a few rooms. He takes my bags on a wheelbarrow ad I follow him to the tiny guesthouse. With a population of around 400, Fulidhoo is one of the smaller islands, but there are still a few shops and places to order hedhikaa (short eats), the delicious local snacks that include spicy titbits made with fried coconut, and rich fish curries served with roshi breads.
There are only five other tourists on the island and we get to know each other as we laze on Fulidhoo’s powder-white, near-deserted Bikini beach. “It was incredibly difficult to find out how to visit the Maldives if you’re not staying in a resort,” one couple told me. “But we’re really glad we made the effort. People are really welcoming here and we couldn’t have afforded to come here otherwise.”
Day eight: Thinadoo island, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.
Thinadoo’s clean beach and aquamrine water is a treat for sea lovers
Thinadoo island, capital of Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and the next stop from Fulidhoo on the ferry, is my final destination. Despite its tragic history, when many island homes were destroyed in 1962 in order to wipe out a separatist movement that had its roots here, Thinadoo is a busy, happy island with mosques, schools and pristine beaches.
I spend several days here, staying at Viletheraa beach hotel: exploring the house reef teeming with bright-coloured fish and lazing on the powder-white sand beach.
After ten days island-hopping, I spend a few days at Hideaway, a far-flung luxury beach resort close to the fish teeming Dhonakulhi reef. My over water villa with plunge pool is sumptuous; there is caviar and champagne served by my own butler and the beaches are stunning, but I miss the local touch.
Day twelve: Male
Male is fascinating for a stroll
I end my trip, where I began, on the Maldives capital island, Male. Known as the King’s island, because it was the seat of the dynasties that ruled here for centuries, the capital of the Republic of the Maldives is often overlooked, and yet this tiny city, which measures only one square mile, is well worth a visit.
With a population of 150,000, this tiny island is densely built and it is fascinating to stroll through the grid of narrow streets lined with shops and bright coloured houses and trees that are heavy with fruit bats.
I spend several days in this charming little island town, visiting the National Museum which has a vast range of artefacts dating from the country’s Buddhist era and lots of fascinating exhibits from the later Islamic period. I marvel at the golden-domed Grand Friday Mosque, watch families swimming from the island’s artificial beach and enjoy my meals the Beehive, a modern hotel with a good restaurant in back streets not far from the lively fish market.
By the end of my stay I feel that I’ve seen another side to the Maldives and I know that I’ll be back for more.
Emirates have direct flights from Dubai to Male Ibrahim Nasir International airport, from Dh2,380.
Hideaway Beach resort (www.hideawaybeachmaldives.com)
Velana Beach hotel (www.velanahotels.com)
Thundi Guesthouse (www.thundihotels.com)
Viletheraa Beach hotel (www.facebook.com/viletheraa)
The Beehive hotel (www.beehivehotels.com)