(Note – Just a heads up, there is link to a downloadable google docs spreadsheet at the bottom of this post with a full financial report of this trip!)
The Maldives is a country of 1200 islands, 200 of which are inhabited. But what to do with the nearly 1000 islands with absolutely gorgeous beaches? The Maldivian government decided to kill two birds with one stone. They opened up to foreign investment of high-end resorts and sold entire islands to private hotel companies in exchange for a piece of the pie in the form of taxes. Furthermore, the government also agreed to allow two major things which remained forbidden in “local islands,” alcohol and bikinis.
It worked and the Maldives soon became synonymous with paradise AND luxury. Some of the higher-end resorts go for thousands a night, and as I learned the hard way, finding an over the water bungalow for under $500 USD is almost impossible. Nevertheless, the appeal helped propel the economy, even if most of the revenues rarely saw the light of day outside of the capital of Male. That all changed in 2009.
The Maldivian government lifted a 1984 law which banned guesthouses in non-resort islands. This proved to be a great move which helped a rising middle class of locals and travelers. Maldivians started opening up guesthouses on the larger local islands, starting with Maafushi and the number keeps growing exponentially in other islands every year. Today, you can see guesthouses in Mahibadhoo, Rasdhoo, Dhangethi, and virtually any large local island. There are major trade-offs however which traveler’s should keep in mind. These two ways of traveling the Maldives (Local Island vs Resort) are generally mutually exclusive due to logistics, but if you feel comfortable, you can jump in and out of resorts as detailed at the end of this post.
Staying in Resorts
Usually, you fly into Male’s airport and you either take a local flight, a sea plane, or a speed boat to the resort island you have pre-booked. Pre-booking is absolutely essential as they handle most of the logistics, and you will be thoroughly questioned at Male Airport about your accommodations and plans. These forms of transportation aren’t cheap either, so read the fine print as to whether or not the cost has been included in the price of the accommodation (it often isn’t). Speedboats can cost up to hundreds of dollars, but are more cost effective for big groups as you can rent out entire boats on demand and split the costs. Sea Planes charge hundreds per passenger depending on distance and up to 25% in service charges and taxes on top of that. For the most part, unless you get creative and split your time into a half local island half resort adventure, there is no way around these costs of transportation. There are deals to be had if you’re flexible, patient, and can live without the over the water bungalows. Resort Islands are the only places in the Maldives where you can have alcohol and can freely wear a bikini anywhere you like with the exception of restaurants.
- Alcohol – If you care for it.
- Comfort – Everything taken care of.
- Bikinis – Allowed almost everywhere.
- Clean – No trash on the beaches as everything is handled by the resort (more on this later).
- Over the water bungalows – These are expensive to build and simply do not exist on local islands.
- Cost – Not just the room either. Every activity and meal will be more expensive and in addition to the room.
- No options – You don’t like the place? Tough. You’re stuck here until you leave.
- No local experience – Every single Maldivian there is working to make you happy and you won’t really see the day to day Maldivian life. This to me is a huge draw back as I find this part of travel fascinating, but it might not be a big deal to everyone.
Staying in Local Islands
If you decide to skip the 100+ resort islands and stay in the local islands, your options open up to about an equal amount of local islands. ‘Local islands’ are places where regular Maldivians live. Just like the resort islands, some, if not most, are absolutely gorgeous and have beaches just as beautiful as the resorts. Male is the main local island but is not a place tourists generally stay as it is a “concrete jungle” and the administrative center of the Maldives. Don’t get me wrong, I actually liked Male a lot more than most travelers I’ve read about, but it is simply not what you think of when you think “Maldives.” I’ll talk more about Male in a separate post.
Maafushi is probably the best known and most visited ‘local island’ as it is very close to Male. It has a ‘bikini beach’ and is now well developed for mid to budget tourism. However, it also has a reputation of being one of the “uglier” local islands, by Maldivian terms, which is still quite pretty. Nevertheless, we decided to skip it and went to the Ari Atoll islands of Mahibadhoo, Dhangethi, and Dhigurah instead which is what my next post will cover. These islands are up and coming as alternatives to resorts, mainly for their abundance of whale sharks and mantas. I will have a complete report on the three islands soon, but for now, know that each has its individual charms. The activities you can do are very similar to the resorts: Snorkeling on beautiful reefs, SCUBA diving, whale shark snorkeling, manta ray snorkeling, having a picnic in a deserted island, staying the night in a deserted islands, resort island visits, fishing, and the list goes on. Since the local islands neighbor the resort islands, they often go diving or snorkeling to the same spots, so you’re not getting a ‘lesser experience’ by any means. On the contrary, with more competition, the local islands have more options.
- Cheaper – Competition in local islands bring down the price.
- Options – Don’t like the guesthouse, go down the street. Don’t like this island? Hop to another one. You also have a lot more options on your level of comfort from an all inclusive diving resort to a super cheap Air BnB
- Local Experience – Schools, banks, fishermen, and construction workers just going about their business are very friendly all around the islands.
- Logistics – The Maldives is a very spread out country. In addition, the public transportation system is not very extensive since it is a country of under half a million people. To boot, it is a Muslim nation which means public ferries do not operate on the holy day (Friday). Plan ahead of time. You’re gonna need this: the official public ferry time table. (If that’s confusing AF, don’t worry, I have a full transportation guide coming soon).
- Bikinis – Many want to go to an island paradise to get a good tan or just to show some skin. Anything less than mid knee shorts and a T-shirt (ladies) is restricted to “bikini beaches,” during boat trips, and on deserted islands. Most (if not all) guesthouse owners are rather liberal about this having spend lots of time working in the resorts. However, local norms must be respected while on local islands and not every island has a bikini beach.
- No alcohol – No booze can be found outside of resorts, period. Muslims don’t drink, so if getting trashed is important, this is not the country (or experience) for you.
- Trash – The Maldives does not currently have a way to dispose of trash in local islands outside of Male other than burying or burning trash. The result is that the beach and water may be pristine, but the land just above that may be littered with trash. It is a very sad sight and I will cover this more extensively in another post.
Local Island and Resort Mix
Another option that is possible is doing a mix of resorts and local islands. The logistics of going from resort islands to local islands may be tricky and involves cutting deals with both the resorts and local island guesthouses. Nevertheless, I did inquire while I was in Dhangethi if I could be dropped off in a nearby resort and neither the resort nor the guesthouse seemed to think it was a problem. It will just take more planning and margin for error. Before coming to the Maldives, I didn’t consider this option but when I return in a few years, this is definitely what I’ll be doing.
- Best of Both Worlds – You can pretty much get everything you like about both experiences and not have to sacrifice.
- Logistics – If you are someone who is super good at planning and cutting deals with locals, you’ll be fine. But if you don’t like to stress too much about this on vacation, this can be rather difficult. Definitely not for inexperienced travelers.
Many people talk about “not as much as you think” and “affordable,” but what does that even mean without actual numbers. ‘Expensive’ and ‘cheap’ are subjective terms, so I’ve decided, from now on, to provide a beautiful and downloadable Google Docs spreadsheet of all of my expenses for this, and any trip forward AND retroactively since I am kind of an accountant when it comes to budgeting anyways. Enjoy:
Note – Whether I travel alone, with my wife, or with friends, I always track what I personally spend. Therefore, if a hotel was $50 a night but I split it, it will be listed as $25 with a note that it was split and thus, half the cost of the room. Adjust accordingly.
Note 2 – Nomadic Matt has this excellent post on the Maldives from 2016 and Never Ending Footsteps constantly updates her take on the archipelago which are good cross references to my spreadsheet.