Asia’s smallest country has found the perfect balance between modern life and island traditions
Flying in over low, palm-fringed islands, it’s impossible to imagine that the Maldives was once a soaring mountain range. It was created when the India plate passed over a hotspot known as the Reunion mantle plume, which produced a more than 2,000km-long span of volcanoes called the Laccadives-Chagos Ridge. Over the millennia, the volcanoes collapsed, each leaving a ring of small, perfect islands.
The word for this ring in Dhivehi, the Maldivian national language, is atholhu, or atoll. In the Maldives, 26 atolls, comprising over a thousand islands, are spread over 90,000sq km of sea. What little bits of land there are make up the world’s most low-lying country, where the highest point on an island is often the neighbourhood mosque minaret. Only on the capital of Malé, with buildings that seem to spring straight from the waters, is anything taller than a palm tree. Everywhere else, only one thing dominates the view: the sea.
Shimmering in endless shades of blue, the ocean was the reason Buddhist seafarers were lured from India and Sri Lanka to settle on these islands in the 5th century BC. Islamic Middle Eastern traders followed, attracted by the abundance of cowry shells that were used as currency at the time. The country converted to Islam in 1153, after a Moroccan scholar was said to have chased away a sea monster simply by reading from the Quran, astounding the king.
It was also the sea that attracted the first tourists to the Maldives. In the 1970s, divers and surfers flocked to the country’s lush reefs and exhilarating surf breaks. Stories spread of a land with spectacular surf points, huge gatherings of manta rays and more than a dozen species of whales and dolphins. As tourism grew, the first Robinson Crusoe-style lodgings were gradually replaced by luxury resorts.
Maldivian islands are small, each housing at most a village or a single resort, making a vacation here feel very exclusive. Though the country attracts a large number of visitors – an estimated 1.4 million tourists in 2015 – there are no crowds on most islands. You can claim long stretches of powder-fine white beach as your own anytime, snorkel in a private reef outside your bungalow and dine in intimate settings.
Part of what makes the Maldives so fascinating is how little most people know about the country of approximately 393,300 people. The perception is of a sun-kissed Indian Ocean beach vacation paradise. Yet, Malé – an entire modern city squeezed into 5.8sq km – is just the place to get a feel of the colour and contrast that make up the Maldives.
The city is served by passenger ferry from the airport island of Hulhulé. As you step off the boat, it can take a moment to make sense of the hive of activity. Scooters speed down the narrow streets, while pedestrians weave their way past stately official buildings and tumbledown markets plastered with political signs. Almost instantly, you’ll feel that modern life and island tradition have found a balance here. Despite being the largest (and only) city in the Maldives, Malé is delightfully walkable and each narrow road holds a treasure just waiting to be uncovered.
Touch of history
Set in the lush Sultan’s Park, the National Museum holds a collection of ancient Qurans and costumes worn by the old sultans. Meanwhile, the 15th-century Hukuru Miskiy or Old Friday Mosque is a spectacular example of ancient coral stone construction. Look for the exquisite carvings on the coral block and the wooden panels inscribed with Arabic prayers when you venture inside.
More coral carving is found on the tombstones of heroes, sultans and nobles in the mosque’s cemetery. Medhu Ziyaarai, the shrine for Abul al Barakat, the scholar responsible for converting the country to Islam is just across the road.
Luxury goods exist alongside more traditional wares in Malé. For local brand names, check out Reefside and Evince for watches and sunglasses, Le Cute for perfume and cosmetics and Sonee Sports for beach and athletic brands.
The waterfront fish market, with huge yellowfin tuna destined for restaurants and resorts, is a must for visitors. Even if you’re not in the market for fish, the colourful fishing boats are delightfully eye-catching. In the local craft shops, you’ll find lacquerwork from Thulhaadhoo island, colourful locally made sarongs called feylis and woven thundukunaa mats from Gadhdhoo island. The touts will direct you to streetfront souvenir shops, but hold out for Najah Art Palace and Souvenirs (above the shops on Chandani Magu) and The Craft Shop (on the waterfront) for the best selection.
Flavour of Maldives
Malé is a great place to dig into authentic Maldivian cuisine, which has strong influences from India and Sri Lanka and features spicy, seafood-based curries, a smoky tuna soup called garudiya and tasty coconut sambals. The balcony at the Seagull Café is where you can enjoy a plate of short eats (savoury pastries) as you people-watch, while the SeaHouse Café dishes up a fantastic Maldivian breakfast that includes traditional Maldivian mashuni (a spicy mix of coconut, tuna and curry leaves) and roshi, a warm flatbread.
Coconut palms are the national tree of the Republic of Maldives and both the trees and nuts have a variety of uses. Coir, or rope, is made from the husks; thatching is made from fronds; the flowers are used for decorations while the nectar is extracted as a sweetener. Five species of coconuts are grown in the Maldives and the coconut itself has 12 different names in Dhivehi, depending on its stage of growth.
Coconuts can also be used to sway the vote, it seems. A kihah (young coconut) was suspected of being infused with black magic and accused of vote-rigging in the 2013 presidential election. The kihah was later found innocent and released.
Out on the atolls: Glide with mantas and whale sharks
In contrast to Malé’s busy pace, atoll life is pared-down living consisting of swaying palms, white sand beaches and iridescent blue lagoons. In Baa Atoll, you can add spectacular diving to the list. Designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, Baa Atoll attracts divers from all over the world to its clear warm waters and abundant reefs. On every dive, you’re certain to encounter a range of fish, rays, sharks and even turtles while swimming through vibrant coral. Be sure to take a snorkelling excursion to the remarkable Hanifaru Bay for the best chance to spot whale sharks and manta rays.
While the Maldives are renowned for being relaxing, if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, head to North Malé (not to be confused with the capital city). This is where the surfing scene first took off. Companies such as Surfatoll offer multi-day excursions for experts and beginners alike. Those who prefer underwater thrills can check out the Maldives Victory Wreck, which boasts an abundance of fish and coral. Sunset fishing trips are also a big draw in the area – your resort can arrange a beachside barbecue so you can enjoy your catch for dinner.
Beaches with perfect sand for sandcastles, silky warm water and family-friendly resorts make Ari (or Alufu) Atoll a great family destination. Kids love boarding traditional boats called dhonis and heading out to try and spot the resident dolphins and other marine life. Ari’s vibrant and protected reefs are also a great place for older kids to learn to dive and younger ones to try an introductory Bubblemaker dive class or learn to snorkel. Many resorts also have excellent kids clubs and activities like movies on the beach and private island barbecues.
Your resort can also arrange a half-day excursion to Dhigurah village where you can see traditional wooden boats being built and watch local women make palm coir (rope) and roofing thatch, all while sipping a fresh coconut.
Before you go…
- While beachwear is perfect for resorts, you’ll need to pack more modest wear for village visits and trips to Malé. For women, knees and shoulders should be covered, while men should wear shirts with sleeves.
- Alcohol is served only in the resorts. You can’t bring it in and you cannot find it in Malé or in the villages.
- Tipping isn’t required; a 10% service charge is automatically added to everything.
- Outside the resorts, you won’t find bacon (or any other pork product): these are haram (forbidden) in Islam.
- When choosing a resort, keep in mind that they tend to be spread out across the atolls, each occupying an entire island. This means all your meals and excursions will be planned by the resort, so comb the offerings and prices carefully to find the best match.
- Beyond resorts, other lodging options include village guesthouses, surf camps and live-aboard dive boats.