If you’ve read my previous article explaining the differences between Maldives travel in resorts vs local islands and decided to visit the “local island way,” you’ve come to the right place. You will find that there are many benefits in choosing an alternative to resorts and there are dozens of islands to choose from. For starters, there’s a cool map I got at the airport (ask in the information booth) with diving spots, manta points, and whale shark points all over the Maldives. Here is a zoomed in version of the Ari Atoll.
Here is a break down of the three local islands on the South Ari Atoll. We chose to maximize our time by sticking to a single atoll and chose Ari because it is considered one of the best places in the world to see whale sharks and mantas.
Mahibadhoo is the perfect alternative to Maafushi (in Male/Kaafu Atoll) for those who want to visit the Maldives local islands off the beaten path but don’t want to go too far from Male. The water around the island is absolutely pristine with a house reef protecting the perimeter and housing tons of wildlife. From the main road, you can look in both directions and see the ocean, giving you an idea of just how small and low this island is. Despite its small size and population (2000 people), Mahibadhoo is well known for its sports talent. Five of the eleven starters in the Maldivian national football team come from here and according to the locals, more would be in the team but they get homesick. You can see locals playing volleyball, tennis, soccer, or just going for a swim virtually all the time. Mahibadhoo has a bank in the island if you need it as well as places where you can get sim cards. This is rather important as the other two islands do not currently have ATMs that take foreign cards.
For animal enthusiasts, it is beyond expectations. Hermit crabs litter virtually every corner of the island and they are pretty adorable.
As the sun begins to set, “flying foxes,” giant bats endemic to the region, come out to feed. Around the same time, the fishermen of the island are done for the day and throw overboard any left over fish. This attracts stingrays who show up like clockwork to chow down every evening.
Octopus is a local delicacy in this island in particular octo-hunters are revered for their skill to this day. One of our snorkel guides is known for being able to catch octopus without any tools, which is pretty impressive if you’ve ever seen how fast they are. In my whole time diving, I had only seen octopuses once and here in Mahibadhoo, every single time we went to snorkel we saw one or two. Finally, at night, the beaches are littered with thousands of crabs. Bring a flashlight to explore.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Noovilu Suites, the higher end of the two properties owned by a local man named Mazin Noovilu. His other guesthouse is called the AMazing Noovilu and while I usually try to book the cheaper option if possible, it was our honeymoon and we spoiled ourselves a little (hint hint “Amazing Noovilu” was undergoing renovations). We took the food inclusive option, and it was a great decision. While I normally like to try the local restaurants and don’t like to bundle meals with accommodation, this was different. Restaurant options are limited virtually everywhere in the Maldives besides Male since eating out is not a typical practice for local Maldivians. In addition, Mazin’s entire family lives together and run this business as a team, which means the best family cook is in charge of the meals, and they are divine. The times we did eat outside just to try it paled in comparison to what Mazin’s family made.
Every review I saw online for Noovilu was from a blogger who was given a free night to stay, so I was a bit skeptical. However, I would say the service was worth the price all things considered. Oh, I almost forgot, Mazin has a cool parrot named Richie which accompanied us to the deserted island of Alicoi.
With that said, if I were to go back, I’d like to try other options including the Liberty Guesthouse on the other end of the island. For starters, Liberty already has a dive boat which is something Noovilu is just about to begin. Nothing stops you from staying here and diving with Liberty, though.
Things to do
Clear Water Canoe ($25 a person) – Noovilu Suites has a clear canoe you can rent and paddle around the shores of Mahibadhoo. For safety reasons, the hosts watch you at all times, so that can be pro or con depending on how you feel about it. I never imagined I would like this so much, but it was one of the coolest things we did. You can easily see fish and coral right beneath you which is pretty awesome.
Overnight on a Deserted Island ($120 a person) – Ever wished you could have a whole island to yourself? I know I have, but I always assumed it would cost a fortune. $120 USD a person isn’t cheap, but I could definitely afford that. Near Mahibadhoo, Mazin has a half dozen islands he likes and he took us to “his favorite” island called Alicoi. This island and others like it are shared for tourism or local leisure as no one is allowed to build on them. After a 40 or so minute speed boat ride, Mazin and his cousin set up a tarp for us complete with chairs to relax. I decided to walk around the whole island, but after 5 minutes, I was done. At night, they set up a triangular bed made out of sheets and blankets which was surprisingly comfortable. The stargazing alone is worth the trip but if you don’t want to stay the night, a dinner only option is also available.
Alicoi’s reef is pretty amazing with tons of fish, rays, and even sharks paying a visit. It was easily the best experience of the entire trip, maybe even better than snorkeling with mantas.
At night, you can even see some of the bioluminescent plankton that the Maldives is known for. And with that…
Night Snorkeling ($18 a person) – Despite having been snorkeling and diving dozens of times, I had never done so at night. It was quite an experience and one I highly recommend. The snorkeling at night is a very different feeling than in the daytime, but it is not scary at all. The draw here isn’t simply another snorkeling session. It is the bio-luminescent plankton native to the Maldives.
Day Snorkeling ($20-$50 a person) – One of the coolest things you can see in the water are octopuses, and the waters around Mahibadhoo are filled with them. There is actually a weekly octopus selling bonanza at the pier around sundown and octopus hunting is somewhat of a local tradition.
Here is a complete list with prices of what Noovilu offers:
Other things I found enjoyable were fishing from the shore (included in the room), swimming, or just walking around the island. It is amazing how it was full of surprises despite being so small. Mahibadhoo currently does not have a bikini beach, although plans to build one are in the works. It is not as big of a deal for men, but women have to be fairly covered up when swimming which can be uncomfortable from a non-Muslim perspective.
Like anywhere in the Maldives, one of the most important things to know are the ways to get in and out of the island.
Get in – There is direct transportation from Male by local boat (3x a week) or speed boat (daily) (20-30 USD). The price difference is huge percentage-wise, but in the grand scheme of things, you might want to save time and some sea sickness, but up to you. Another alternative is to visit these island in reverse by either flying into Maamigili and taking a local boat north or taking a speed boat into Dhigurah (70 USD) and taking the local ferry to Mahibadhoo. One thing to note is that other blogs claim that speedboats sometimes don’t show up at all. This is not true. They simply leave early if they are full, so a wise precaution is to talk to someone who knows about the boat schedule and show up early.
Get out – If your only destination is Mahibadhoo, you can just reverse the way you got there. However, if you plan to island hop, it gets a bit interesting. The South Ari Atoll is connected by an intra-atoll ferry system which goes from Mahibadhoo to Maamigili and beyond once a day. Note that local ferries do not run on Fridays, the holy day in Islam.
About an hour and a half south of Mahibadhoo is the smaller island of Dhangethi. Although smaller, it seemed to have many more options for accommodation, probably due to having a very beautiful bikini beach. Unlike Mahibadhoo, this island doesn’t have a closed in harbor, which makes it feel more open and cozy. Also, the sunsets from here were spectacular and the restaurant closest to the pier was pretty good too.
The real hotspots for mantas and whale sharks is a little further south in Dhigurah, but during the high season, boats leave from Dhangethi too for about $50 for whale shark watching in a full boat. During the low season though, it is simply not worth going to far so they will either charge a lot or not go at all.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Mala Boutique simply because it looked like a clean and cheaply priced place to stay. It was very basic and nothing compared to the Noovilu Suites, but the hosts were very kind and accommodating. Breakfast is included, which seemed to be standard of all the places we looked at. The nearby Ariston Dhangethi looked like the nicest place to stay and had a big focus on diving with their own dive shop. However, there are quite a few other options on Air BnB.
Things to do
We were only here a day, so for the most part, we just hung out in the bikini beach.
It is absolutely beautiful with few tourists. In fact, we were the only ones there on a few occasions. However, there seemed to be quite a few options for water sports provided by the Mala, Ariston and some local shops. I snapped up a few shots of their ads.
The intra-atoll ferry seems to be regularly late from its scheduled arrival time heading south to Dhigurah. We got to the pier right on time and waited another 20 minutes. Locals seemed to know this and arrived accordingly.
Get in – Your local option is the local ferry, but it doesn’t go to Male. You would have to transfer in Mahibadhoo and potentially lose a day. Since there were speedboats from Male to and from Dhigurah and Mahibadhoo, there could be one to Dhangethi, but we didn’t see that option.
Get out – There is a daily ferry that goes north to Mahibadhoo or south towards Maamigili and Dhigurah. The Ranveli Village and Spa is a resort no more than 10 minutes away by speedboat, so if you want to mix your local island with a resort stay, this is very doable. You would either have to negotiate with someone in Dhangethi, or have the resort book it for you.
Dhigurah is a very long island on the Southern part of the Ari Atoll which features an interesting reef, a great bikini beach, and some of the friendliest locals around. While both Mahibadhoo and Dhangethi have gift shops too, it seems to be a big part of the local economy here and the shop keepers are more keen to get customers. Nevertheless, they aren’t too pushy which was a big plus. Trash, however, is a huge problem on the southern 80-90% of the island as it absolutely litters the area just above the beach. While no trash is seen at all in the water, the further south you explore, the more you see along the shore. Trash disposal is an enormous issue in the Maldives, but one I will talk more about in another post.
This 5km long island is the mecca of whale sharks and manta snorkeling. Unfortunately, we had the worst of luck. The day before coming, three were spotted not too far off the shore. However, in our three days there, only mantas were around, which is one hell of a consolation prize. We spotted multiple mantas on both of our boat trips and I only wish I had an awesome underwater camera to document the amazing experience.
Flying foxes can also be seen regularly in the island as well as hermit crabs. For a bunch of local fish, just go for a quick snorkel and you’re bound to see some along the reef.
Where to stay
We stayed at the TME Resorts on the southern tip of the populated part of the island (which is the top 10% of Dhigurah). It was the most affordable option on this island which is quite a bit more expensive than the other two (around $90 a night), but the service was great. I was able to get my laundry done and it was on the house. The food was good, but not amazing for the price. TME is also next to the only bikini beach on the island. You do have other options if your budget allows it. Boutique Beach, an all inclusive diving resort with their own dive shop. The price of diving is included, so it is quite pricey at 400-500 a night. Athiri Beach an Oliva Palm Cottages are competitors in between these two price ranges and they all looked gorgeous.
Things to do
Diving – To be honest, the diving was nothing special. The reef was kind of sparse and not too many turtles or other large animals were around. But then again, I just finished diving in Sipadan, arguably the best place in the world, so maybe my standard was unrealistically high. However, you go on the same boat as the manta snorkelers and you’re more than welcome to jump in and snorkel is they spot them, so it is kind of worth it since you would be paying $40 for the snorkeling alone anyways. There is a cool wreck nearby with tons of schools.
Manta and Whale Shark Snorkeling ($40-$60 USD)- Unfortunately, you can’t predict nature and luck wasn’t on our side when it came to the whale sharks. However, we did get to see quite a few mantas and that was totally worth it.
Kayaking ($15 double)- The guy who owned a giftshop in the town also had a watersports stand by the shore.
Other activities – By far, the coolest thing to do is just to walk to the southern tip of the island. You can see a ton of things along the way and be surprised with one amazing sunset. There was also a volleyball court and picnic tables down there if you decide to bring your own lunch, which you probably should as the 5km trek takes its toll.
Unfortunately, there are piles of trash which gets more dense the further south you go, but it is just a consequence of a non existent trash system outside of Male.
Get in – Like Dhangethi, you can get a local ferry to Mahibadhoo and they transfer along the South Ari ferry line to Dhigurah. For $70 each way, you can also get a speed boat directly from Male. For those pressed for time or visiting Maamigili, you can also fly to Maamigili and take either a ferry to Dhigurah or a speed boat. This can cost a few hundred dollars though.
Get out – Just do the reverse of the get in option. In addition, the Lux resort is literally walkable if you are into very long walks along beaches on the southern most tip of the island. It is conceivable to walk there, just make reservations in advanced as there are guards! Oh, there’s also waist deep water…may want to take a boat…
It is hard to say what my favorite island was as they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. If Mahibadhoo gets a beach, it would be that one for sure. If I stayed a bit longer in Dhangethi and direct transport improves, I may go with that. If Dhigurah was cleaner along the vast streatch in the south, no question, that’s the best. For now though, I’ll let you decide.