Picture a tropical paradise of tiny islands with palm-fringed, white sand beaches surrounded by coral reefs and turquoise waters. It’s a scene straight out of a travel brochure, but the dream becomes reality in the Maldives. A remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean, only 200 of the Maldives’ 1200 islands are inhabited, and most of those seem to be full of honeymooners. It’s the classic destination for a romantic holiday – overwater bungalows, deserted beaches, and candlelit dinners under the stars. But there’s a more authentic side to the islands too, where you can experience Maldivian life like a local – and here’s how.
Stay in a homestay
Until recently, the only way to stay in the Maldives was on one of the pricey resort islands, well away from local life. But the government changed their rules five years ago and guesthouses are now spr
inging up all over the islands. On places like Maafushi you can get an en-suite room for $50 a night – so that’s the same stunning beaches, for about a tenth of the price of a room in a luxury resort. The Maldives is a Muslim country though so you do need to follow local customs. There’s no alcohol and you need to keep covered up, although most islands have a designated ‘bikini beach’ where tourists can work on their tans.
Take to the water
If you’re not keen on staying in the same spot the whole time, then another way to get out and explore the islands is on a liveaboard boat trip. Designed for divers and snorkelers, these small boats normally hold around 20 passengers at a time. They take you around some of the best diving spots by day, well away from the resort crowds. And then by night they anchor up in a lagoon where you can go ashore and visit different islands, and eat with the locals. If you’re lucky you might also see a performance of boduberu – a hypnotic performance of drumming and dancing.
Explore the capital
The bustling streets of the Maldives’ capital Male are a major contrast to the laid-back lifestyle on the other islands. It’s certainly the only place you’re likely to see high-rise buildings and paved roads. Most visitors just use Male as a transport hub to get to the other islands, but it’s worth taking a look around the capital to see a different side of the Maldives. Take a walk around the lively markets and try some traditional dishes at one of the open-air restaurants. You can also get an insight into local culture at the 400-year-old Hukuru Miskiiy – aka the Old Friday Mosque – and in the National Museum.
Feast on local food
Most resorts have a range of international food available, but trying the local food is a great way to get a taste of Maldivian life. Because of the sandy soil, the traditional diet is based around fish and coconut, with fragrant curries similar to what you’d see in Sri Lanka. Try one of the ‘short eats’ – snacks like fish-stuffed pastries or fried curried fish. Or why not go for a traditional Maldivian breakfast of mas huni – shredded smoked tuna with grated coconut and onions wrapped in a roshi flatbread. Alcohol isn’t available outside of the resorts, so try a chai tea spiced with ginger, cinnamon and cardamom, or a raa toddy made with the sap from the palm trees.
So if you’re planning a trip to the Maldives get the full experience and go local.