Ditch the resorts: Stay on local islands (Maldives)

When I mention to anyone that I live in Maldives, they get very excited and a little jealous, assuming I must live in the absolute definition of luxury (i,e, on a resort). Maybe they imagine me drinking pina colada’s out of fresh pineapples on my balcony that overlooks the sea, eating incredibly healthy meals made from ingredients of the island; fresh fish, fruit and vegetables picked only that morning, a world away from factories, pollution and city-living. They think it’s a paradise, and in some ways it is. But it’s not a resort. It’s much MORE.

 

Maybe (ironically) what actually holds Maldives back are these some-100 island resorts. Why? Think about it- who owns these resorts? There’s 345,000 people in this country spread across 200-odd local islands. The rest of the 900 and something islands are left uninhabited, although I don’t imagine forever. New resorts are popping up all over the place since there’s such immense demand for vacation packages to this island utopia. OK ok, so resorts are good because they give the people jobs and a career ladder (not to mention all the millions and millions of profits for those at the top). BUT, it seems actually more than 50% of resort staff are foreign: fair enough if you need other spoken languages or set of skills, but the majority are doing what a Maldivian could do himself. Whether that’s Maldivian’s being lazy or resort owners hiring from outside the country in order to pay reduced wages, I don’t know.

 

The problem is that the average Joe (or rather, Ibrahim) barely, if at all, benefits from this kind of tourism. Resorts have their own dive schools, restaurants, speedboat hire, you name it. They do offer day trips to local islands… but I kinda feel that’s just to make guests feel well-cultured, when in reality all they’ll do is wander around a bit (with a tour guide from the resort) under their fancy umbrella’s before sailing off back to fairyland. Sorry I’m coming across really rude, but now I’ve traveled to several local islands (Male, Hulhumale, Villigili, Himmafushi and Maafushi fairly close to me, and islands in Addu and Lammu further afield) I feel really passionate about localised tourism- actually giving something to local communities, using their own guest houses, diving schools, restaurants etc.

 

Island community is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I grew up in Colchester, a fairly large town not far from London with a population size of 104,000: that’s practically a third of Maldives. Only 5 islands in Maldives have a population over 3000, other islands range from 500 – 2000, others less than a couple hundred people. I’ve noticed that therefore, everyone helps everyone. If one guest house is fully booked, they’ll send their guests to the other guest houses on the island and give them the majority of the payment. If a guest house calls up the diving school on the island to book some guests in, they’ll give them some kind of deal, like commission I guess, for bringing them business. The same even applies to souvenir shops, whatever a guest buys from the shop, around 50% will go back to the guest house or whoever is responsible for that guest being on that particular island and being taken to the shop. But wait, it’s not just within the island. Island to island local businesses work together, I’ve seen first hand as one of my best friends owns a guest house here in Hulhumale with his Uncle. If he has guests wanting to explore other islands, he’ll call up a guest house in the desired island and get it all organised. He benefits with a bit of commission, the other guest house benefits, the guest benefits (gets to explore in so much depth) and all the staff involved and their families all benefit.

 

TIP: If you’re thinking about going to Maldives, however much it goes against your obsessive need to plan, DON’T PLAN. Speedboat / local boat transfers from island to island aren’t the easiest (unless you happen to speak Dhivehi and know all the right guys…) So if I was coming here as a tourist, I’d book the first guest house I wanted to stay in and sort everything from there. These guys are good people, but please remember that they haven’t been in the business long. An obvious difference between staying in resorts and staying on local islands is the service you’ll receive. Maldives are friendly yes of course, but sometimes there seems to be a lack of initiative, which can be frustrating to say the least. Before I used to think Maldivians could be rather rude, but I’ve since realised that it’s more a matter of a lack of training and/or English ability. That’s why I was incredibly delighted by the service I received when staying on Gan Island in Laamu Atoll, in a guest house called Reveries– it’s basically resort standard. The staff were SO smiley and efficient, plus there’s a restaurant, beautiful garden, gym, spa and swimming pool AND just next door they’ve got a dive school.

 

Another thing to remember: I’m always reading bad reviews from tourists who have stayed on local islands. Their complaints are always the same, maybe the airport transfer was an hour late, the receptionist seemed unhelpful, they waited too long for food in a restaurant, a bottle of water took 20 minutes to come out….. all I can say to all that is that tourists need to calm down. This is island living. I had a similar experience of waiting a long time for a bottle of water while staying in Maafushi. Did I care? No. Why? I was sat on a beautifully lit dining area on a white sandy beach, the stunning blue sea only metres away from me. I was paying pennies ($26 a night) to stay there, and my meal of fresh seafood was only going to cost about $5. What was the problem again? If Maldives has taught me anything, it’s to take a breath and stop. There’s no rush… look around you and take it in, the smells, the sights, the way the slight breeze feels. In the 20 minutes waiting for the bottle of water, I had 50 thoughts whirling around in my head, but most of all how lucky I am to be here right now. You know, tourists can only recently travel to local islands. Before it was strictly illegal- not to mention impossible. My friend I mentioned before, it used to take him a 3-day boat trip to reach the capital from his island, now it can be reached in several hours, and there’s even plans for a runway.

 

Resorts are going to be there, always. The chance of being one of the only guests on an entire island, before it’s completely flooded with budget-travelers and backpackers? Time’s tick-tocking!

 

The following are a mix of my own images from around Maldives. Take a pen and paper and write down whether you think it’s a resort or not, and have a think about which places look more appealing- be that more interesting, more pristine, whatever appeals to you:

 

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IMG_4787 resized

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no bikini sign resized

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the beach resized

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the swimming square resized

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two girls on bicycles resized

lots of flags

mosque3 resized

practice with camera 3 parachute

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star fish resized

Coconuts1 smaller

bikini barrier

Colourful buildings smaller

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Answers:

1. This was to throw you off a bit- here I’m on a sandbank – so actually not a resort or a local island but it’s important to note that BOTH resorts and local islands offer excursions to sandbanks.

2. Oh nature! This was taken in a local island called Hithadhoo in Addu Atoll.

3. A quiet road in the neighbourhood- Hithadhoo, Addu.

4. Since you really ought to know by now that alcohol is prohibited on local islands, you’ll know this was taken on a resort- Filhaaholi Island Resort.

5. Bikini beach on a local island called Gan Island- Laamu Atoll.

6. A local fruit and snack shop- Gan Island, Laamu Atoll.

7. This sign is similar to most signs on the beaches of local islands. Bikini’s are not allowed and wearing one is extremely ignorant, disrespectful and will have you oogled at if not told to cover up by police. – Hulhumale (my island home).

8. A wonderful restaurant named “Royal Plus”, extremely fast and polite service. Definitely recommend- Hithadhoo, Addu.

9. The beach in Hulhumale.

10. A colourful fruit and vegetable market – Gan Island, Laamu.

11. A picturesque lake where boys were swimming and playing during some very heavy rain- Gan Island, Laamu.

12. Going for a walk around- Gan Island, Laamu.

13. The swimming track! Whoever thought of this is a genius, I love it. – Hulhumale

14. Walking around the island taking it all in, I bumped into some local boys playing and stopped for a chat- Gan Island, Laamu

15. This is an incredible island, especially over Eid holidays. – Maafushi

16. Taken from inside the bus while on my way to work.- Hulhumale

17. Oh I love a bit of patriotism! In England we never put up our flag… – Hulhumale.

18. An absolutely stunning Mosque with a very peaceful garden surrounding it – Hulhumale.

19. Taken close to Hulhumale. Local watersport companies offer para-sailing, among much more.

20. Diving with Hulhumale Dive Club.

21. Girls v Boys water fight over Eid holidays- Maafushi.

22. Again not a resort or a local island, tricked ya! This is one of Maldives 900 charming uninhabited islands. Both resorts and local islands alike offer such excursions.

22. Diving with Maafushi Dive.

23. Fresh coconut juice- Himmafushi.

24. A “bikini barrier” allowing tourists to get into their swimsuits during their stay- Maafushi.

25. Oh I adore all the colours! – Himmafushi.

26. Diving with Dive Club Hulhumale… if you want to see Manta Rays, this is the place to be.

27. Nothing like a stroll along the beach- Maafushi.

 

Well… only 1 photo was actually from a resort, the one with the bottle of beer. So what’s your opinion? Are you a pay-a-fortune-resort-goer or a budget-travel-culture-seeker? Thank you for reading.

Hi! I’m Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I’m an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I’m using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

29 Comments

        1. Thank you very much! Yes, all photos here are my own unless otherwise stated! Those diving pics were taken with a Go Pro 4 🙂

    1. Haha- yeah! It’s great, you can sunbathe on it, sit and relax.. or push your friends off it and into the sea! I wish I wasn’t so lazy and swam there more often!

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I am curious as to what you do to make a living on the non-resort islands of Maldives.

    I myself would like to live there and contribute to the locals there but am not sure where to start. Any advice?

    Thanks for your time,
    Jonathan A

    1. Hi Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to look and comment! There was such a massive expat community in Maldives while I was living there. I myself worked as an English teacher on Hulhumhale island (very close to the capital- the blog posts on other islands were weekend trips), while others worked as journalists, in service/tourism, advertising, as travel agents, scuba diving instructors, on cruise ships… but everyone tended to be based in Male (the capital) or otherwise lived and worked on the resort islands. It’s lovely how you’d like to contribute to the locals, I’d say the best option would be to think about the skills you have now and how you can apply them! For me it was teaching English. If you’re interested take a look at sites such as tefl.com and i-to-i Tefl. Good luck!

  2. Thank u sarah for this information.. me and two of my friend planning to go to one of Maldivian local island. There is two many islands which make our disicion too hard. Can you please advise and helping us choosing the island..
    thanks in advance 🙂

    1. Hi Ameena. Are you coming to Maldives to visit one island in particular or are you going to be staying at a resort? Maybe you could plan to stay in two or three islands, but keep the pace slow. How long will you be in Maldives for? It’s good to spend at least 2 nights on any one island so you can get the most out of it, especially where water activities and excursions are concerned. Good luck!

      1. Thank you sara so mush for your reply.. we’re planing to stay 7 or 8 days.. we will not go to any resort.. i’m looking for peace relax time and interact and discover the maldivians culture and taste the maldivianes food.. one of my frind is looking for more water activities and little bit an active life.. if you recommend a spicific islands for us.. that will be great..
        thank you sarah again..

        1. Well I’ve visited Maafushi which I would certainly recommend. Other options include Huraa and Thulusdhoo which are very close to each other. Thulusdhoo has an uninhabited island very close by (less than 5 minutes) and a really lovely reef off the beach which makes for great snorkelling. All of the local islands I’ve visited have a very peaceful, relaxed atmosphere. The islands run on “island time”, no one is rushing around or anything. On Fridays expect the shops/restaurants to stay closed until after 2pm. Maafushi is a little bit touristy nowadays, but I still really enjoyed it, particularly around the Eid holidays in October.
          Don’t worry too much about which island you choose. I’ve found guest house owners to be so helpful, they helped me organise excursions, diving, resort day trips, sand bank trips, fishing trips, they even let me invite a whole load of friends (who weren’t staying at same guest house as me) and cooked us a giant BBQ feast in their lovely garden and it worked out such great value.
          Do also check out http://www.neverendingfoodsteps.com as she visited some other islands in Maldives and wrote some great articles about them. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi Sarah, Great to read your blog. I am from India. My daughters are 12.5 and 2.5 respectively. 🙂 i was thinking of taking my family somewhere cheap and came across your blog. Is it okay to just land up there and then think of where to go and what to do ? Since i have small girl kids being careful.

    1. Hi Alwin! Thanks for your comment. If I were you I would try and contact at least a few guest houses, just incase you arrive and you’ve missed the transport boat to the island or the guest house is full. You could at least just book a few nights and then later decide to visit a different island or whatever! Enjoy!

  4. This is great! I agree that a local experience is better than a resort! I want to do this if I am ever lucky enough to go here!

    Just a question, how long were you in the Maldives for? Did you work there? I noticed that you said many non-locals work in the tourism industry. Do you know if you need to get a visa to do that? Did you need one?

    Thank you! Beautiful pictures!

    1. I was living in Maldives just under a year and I taught English in a small private language school in Hulhumale (about 10/15minutes boat ride from the capital island, Male).
      Yes a working visa is essential but the company organise that on your behalf. We were given a “work permit card” similar to an ID card with a passport size picture of myself on it, name etc. This was a powerful tool and enabled me to get so many things discounted (charged the same as locals) from scuba diving to stays at resorts and guest houses on local islands. They even discounted my domestic flight when I flew down to Addu and when I visited Amilla Fushi resort. Thank you and you’re welcome!

  5. Hello Sarah. I read your blog with great interest. I am also looking into the option of staying at a local island. I really have problems finding out which of then has a good and easy accessible house reef. I couldn’t find any article about this. Of course the manta’s, whale sharks and dolphins are also high on our wish list we were looking into Dharavandhoo and Mathiveri/Ukulhas/Thoddo/folhudhoo . Do you know anything about these island and their (possible) housereef? Also a big issue is the price guesthouses ask for excursions. There are really big differences. When you are with a family of 4 and an whale shark excursions costs 130USD thats 430USD total!!!! So not only the price of the guesthouse one has to consider, also the costs of the excursions, the costs of getting there from Male airport and the costs of the meals. If there a local restaurants costs of meals will probably be lower than when you only have the option of eating at the guesthouse. Maybe you can blog something about these subjects in the future.
    I hope you know something about housereefs of the local islands. I am going to read your other articles now. Kind regards, Jo Haanen, The Netherlands.

    1. Hello Jo! Thanks for dropping by. I think the problem is that the resorts make it seem like you can only do things like scubadive with manta’s and whale sharks if you go with the resort. But it isn’t true! Guesthouses work hard to provide tourists with a wide range of excursions, often partnering up with other local businesses and receiving commission. Guest houses are on local islands where you are free to eat where you want, you can buy some food at a supermarket and cook it in the shared kitchen (most guest houses I’ve stayed in have these facilities) or you can visit a restaurant. From experience it can work out nicely to let the guesthouse organise a BBQ when you’re in a group, as it works out very cheaply per person. I’ve seen Manta Ray’s many times as they have a cleaning station not too far away from Male/Hulhumale maybe the trip takes about 30 minutes or so. A dive like this costs around $60 I think (half the price a resort charges) but you should check with companies such as Dive Club Maldives (based in Hulhumale).

      Dolphin cruises cost around the same price and are often listed as “sunset cruises”, probably every guest house I visited had this excursion available. The best cruise was near a local island called Huraa when I went diving with a company called Scuba Divine Maldives (you can find them on Facebook). The Dolphins weren’t actually planned but suddenly there we were with so many around us! I jumped in and tried to swim near them and got some nice videos on the go pro camera.

      Whale shark diving is always more expensive because you have to travel quite a way to get to them. However if you tell your guesthouse in advance, and maybe ask around and see if other guests or people you meet are interested, and you join up- this way costs of travel can be shared. I think I remember my Maldivian friends telling me that a good spot for whale sharks was in Ari Atoll.

      If you have any questions do get in touch with my friend Siraa, manager of the Travelodge guesthouse in Hulhumale and an avid diver with a lot of experience visiting hundreds of local islands. You can find Travelodge on Facebook or contact him through the website http://www.travellodge.mv/maldives-activities.html.

      Hope that helps! Sarah

  6. Amazing blog Sarah..i have went to several local islands in Maldives myself , your writing here really brings back sweet memories of Maldives , can’t wait to visit again !

  7. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this post, found it at a good time. I am struggling to find hotels on local islands? Is there a website youcould recommend where i can book hotels and flights?
    Or even just hotels?
    I am looking for hotels at 4* rating or higher

    Thanks
    Amra

    1. Hi Amra! For flights I would use Skyscanner to find the best deal. For guest houses (on local islands the B&B’s/hotels tend to be called Guest Houses) I would try booking.com- but you should know which local island you want to stay on before searching for guest houses. 4* or higher might be difficult to find, just because tourism on local islands is relatively new. The guest houses I’ve stayed in have all been lovely, clean, etc, but not at all like the service etc you would get from staying in a resort – i.e. not a local island, an island specifically for a resort hotel, for example- Amilla Fushi is a 5* resort I stayed in once which was stunning. The best guest house I’ve stayed in was probably on Gan Island in the South of Maldives, called Reveries Dining Village (4*). Good luck! Sarah

  8. Hi Sarah!
    I’m planning to visit maldives for a week with a friend and we’re planning to do island hopping (2 nights per island) how is the ferry system like? For example for a ferry like Male-Maafushi, will it stop at other islands too like Huraa or the other ones you recommended? Thanks!!!
    -Yuyi from Malaysia-

  9. At first I want to say I REALLY REALLY love your blog!!
    I think I’ve read all your Posts about the maledives. Me and My future husband are dying tot go to one of the local islands for our honeymoon. We are both Muslim from Belgium, and we prefer an island with a beautiful mosque and Nice friendly local people.
    Also we would really love an island with the most beautiful bleu water you’ve ever seen… Where is not only the “bikini beach” the Nice place on the island, because we don’t go there anyway.
    Which island do you reccomand?
    Love to hear from you!
    Thanks! X

    1. Hi Malilka, lovely to hear from you! This all sounds super exciting! I would suggest visiting 2 or 3 islands especially if they’re nearby. The problem with local islands of course is issues with waste, so while the water is lovely, it isn’t as luxurious as it is on resort islands. It is blue. I’d say the most beautiful sea I saw was at Maafushi island, as well as anytime we took a boat further out to sea. The mosques on the local islands are smaller and simple, not too elegant. I’d suggest visiting Male (the capital) for a few hours to see the huge white mosque there, perhaps as soon as you arrive or on a day trip visit (which guest house owners can help arrange). I also loved Thulusdhoo island, plus it’s a little closer to some other islands. Have fun!!

  10. Hi Sarah,
    Awesome read that helped provide a lot of insight. I will be arriving in Male on a Sunday. Do any of the ferries run on Sunday at all? I was looking at possibly staying Maafushi and Thulusdoo one night each.

What do you think? Let me know!

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