Maldives has always been on my bucket list… granted, every country on this planet is on that same list, but this one was in the top 20 for sure, if only because it is also in the top 20 to drown due to global warming :). This year my mom and a few other people had to go to Sri Lanka for a congress and, lo and behold, the cheapest available flights were by Emirates through Male! As we normally stay a few extra days before or after the congress anyway, we decided why not do the same, just not in Colombo…
It’s hard to imagine how people arranged things and found out information before the internet… For instance, how else than from the internet forums would we ever learn which island is the cheapest to stay at? Or which hotel to choose on the island? Or how to best get there? Actually, to begin with, how else would we quickly find cheap flights for the needed route? But we live in the age of the world wide web and all this was all possible, so this is how it went.
November 14. We set off to the airport. Once inside, we pass winter clothes and shoes back to my dad for the keeping – no need for the extra luggage on this trip – and proceed to baggage drop-off. The two other ladies we are flying with are lovely, but suffer from memory loss: I need to remind them, as before every flight, to drink up their water, put all cremes/perfumes over 50ml and manicure scissors/nail foils into the suitcases (tricky since they already wrapped them… I squeeze everything into my own…). At security check we spend a few extra minutes trying to untangle one of them out of her belt and finally make it through to the gate.
Must say that this particular time cabin crew on both stretches of our flight was somehow either more tired or just slightly less friendly/responsive than is the norm on Emirates… It didn’t matter too much though… The down side of the well-equipped carrier was that I made the ‘wise’ choice of watching movies all the way from Moscow to Dubai instead of sleeping…
We had a 4h 05 min transit in Dubai – an important number because, as it turned out, Emirates issue free food vouchers for all passengers with a stop-over of 4 hours or more to be first requested at the counter in the terminal and then redeemed in one of the restaurants from the list. I thought this is something of an anti-economical strategy for the airline (I remember BA saved millions of $ when they decided to put one fewer olives into the business class salads…) – a conclusion that resulted in 100$ loss on a bet to my mom that she seems to have, luckily, forgotten about :).
We sort of battled the urge to gobble up some McD or super-spicy Thai or what not… NOT :D, ‘settled’ on (as in, ran to) the Ocean’s Basket place near gate B26 and ordered 2 portions of fish-n-rice and 2 portions of shrimps-n-rice: the only two dishes the vouchers could get there (you could have it with chips as well). They we absolutely delicious!
We then went upstairs to some cafe and ordered tea, the power of which I grossly underestimated: the waiter unloaded what seemed to be half a pack of green leaf tea into the pot and I got enough of a kick out of it to completely wake me up for the rest of the journey! So much for the plans to nap…
An hour before our next flight we set off in the direction of the gate. On our way, we dove into one of the DutyFree shops to sample perfumes – purely out of curiosity, although I discovered one absolutely addictive scent there (but I don’t use perfumes… Besides, it cost an effing fortune…) – and, roughly 40 minutes before the flight, emerged, all fragrant, to proceed to the gate C19… which ended up being a whole freaking kilometer away at the very end of the terminal extension downstairs! This, however, I only discovered after I saw ‘last call’ announcement for our flight and proposed to run ahead of my ladies with our trolley of our carry-on scraps to make sure I get to the gate and hold them off, if needed. When my ladies made it to the far ends of the segment, they walked right past me and C19, so I had to run after them, but we actually made it and the flight was stuck in airport traffic for extra 15 minutes. Phew – this could have been an expensive miscalculation of the terminal’s length…
Since my naive hopes of a nap during segment 2 were crashed by the tea and the jogging session, I watched another movie. Towards the end of the flight the crew finally presented my mom with her b-day cake (we kinda expected it on flight 1…) and asked us whether we wished for our picture to be taken… Ehmmmm… half a day into a trip? Sssssssuuuuurrrrre… We had to carry that cake through the heat of the day but in the end it made it and was well worth it, too. Thank you, Emirates! I’d rather take pictures of the sunrise instead, here:
Welcome to Maldives.
At first, we had a mission. The ticket for one of the ladies traveling with us was bought separately from us three. It was the same exact route we had, but the price went up tremendously by the day she decided to join us and the only way to get the same price was to indicate the Male-Colombo flight segment (our flight path was Moscow-(via Dubai)-Male-Colombo-Moscow) as being later on the day of our arrival to Male. We could not change that ticket in time through the booking site and Emirates couldn’t change it until the ticket was used up up to the segment in question. So once in Male, we went to the Emirates office and, when someone showed up, asked if it would be possible to change the date for Male-Colombo flight to November 22. Originally we expected a change fee, but we were lucky and it got changed for free :). This taken care of, off we went into the heat.
Money: The airport is its own island and was undergoing renovation/construction when we arrived. The only exchange office is located immediately at arrival before you exit into the terminal itself. Most places on Maldives happily accept USD, giving you change in either USD or local currency, but you might want to stock on some local cash, especially if you only have banknotes of higher denomination with you. In case the exchange office guy is not there and no one knows when he’ll be back, you can also change some money at the help desk to the left of the exit from arrivals section. No one warns you that you cannot change Maldives currency back to any other at departure unless you got a receipt for the original exchange transaction (help desk doesn’t give receipts ;)). This means you’d need to spend all your local money before you leave or do some shopping at the duty free.
Ferry. You can, of course, order speedboat transfer to your hotel directly from the airport, but those are costly, especially if you are only 1-4 people. If your arrival/departure times allow it and you decide to stay on one of the local islands, as we did, it’s better to take a ferry. If you are going to Male, then once you exit the terminal, you need to go right to the ferry docks. They leave every 15-30 minutes or so, depending on the time of the day and the tickets are something close to $1. Ferry crew will help with suitcases.
On Male we had to go to the port on other side of the island to catch our ferry to Maafushi island. It is a roughly 5 minute drive but if you have serious luggage, don’t hesitate to catch a taxi – they have a flat rate of close to nothing ($8) and dragging your stuff around in the heat is a highly questionable pleasure. There are a dozen of eateries (locals called them ‘cafes’, but I’d say it’s a stretch…) near that port where you can wait out, but order at your own risk. “Not spicy” is a meaningless promise in most cases. Even basic foods, like pasta, can be made so terribly wrong you’d think one would need a special degree in “spoiling simple foods” to cook that up. But hey, it costs close to nothing and if you’re not hungry, you can simply order a drink.
Maafushi. The ferry leaves to Maafushi around 3pm and costs about $2 per person. According to the seasoned travelers we eventually met who have been to the Maldives a few times already, it is probably thus far the cheapest place to stay at on Maldives (not counting a hostel on Male, but staying on Male is thoroughly worthless and should be avoided at all costs, unless it is an emergency or absolute necessity due to flight schedule) and also the island from which various trips are the cheapest.
Why the trips? Because there is close to nothing to do on Maldives. You have the picture-perfect ocean and beaches, snorkeling, souvenir shops, some SPA procedures if you’re into it and the rest are water sports. In the big resorts there may be some additional entertainment (I’m guessing), but on the local island like Maafushi there is not. Thus, if you are a beach potato, you’d love it here. Or you can take snorkel/diving trips to either other islands or specific locations at the atolls to swim with all sorts of creatures of your selection. And that is the cheapest, for now, from Maafushi.
Try to coordinate your potential trips with other guests at the hotel: if you are fewer than 6 people, try to get 6-8 to go together, as it makes any trip cheaper. If you happen to be alone and you want to join people from another hotel on a trip (no one else from yours is going where you want to go), try to arrange it in advance: the owners would need to contact one another to arrange everything and you’re likely to need to sign a responsibility waiver for your own hotel in case of any damage/injury during the trip.
We stayed at the Stingray Beach Inn. It is, at the moment, one of the cheapest hotels on Maldives, but very comfortable, with nice rooms with A/C, hot water, TV and fresh towels for both the shower and the beach provided every day, good reviews and a very helpful and friendly owner – Ibrahim. Other hotels didn’t have nice reviews… Breakfast is the only downside – if you are there for longer than a few days, the ‘choice’ of eggs/sausage/toast/jam/coffee (or all that with beans) vs. canned tuna mixed with coconut and served with plain white nan-type bread can get a bit annoying.
What you can do is order breakfast for just a few days, then take the remaining days with no breakfast and order a-la carte – at the hotel or elsewhere. Keep in mind that everything takes time on Maldives, so you can order your food then go back to your room to shower, for example, and come back out 40 minutes later to still wait a bit for it to be ready :). Order before you’re too hungry, in other words :).
November 16. Food seems to be an issue on Maldives. You basically are gambling every time you order: it may end up being nice and tasty, or completely ruined… In our hotel we found out chicken cream soup and sweet corn creme soup were really good. In the restaurant near the dock the same chicken cream soup was mediocre at best… Milkshakes, on the other hand, are better there than elsewhere, the grilled fish is very good, so are boiled vegetables (which aren’t even close to cooked at Stingray, on the other hand…). Fresh juices in our hotel were a curious thing to say the least but really nice at the other two restaurants. Pasta was the best on the beach – it was, for starters, actual spaghetti (Carbonara) and properly done, too. Avoid ‘barbecue’ sauce there, unless you’re into overly vinegary sour experiences. You have to explicitly tell them to not put anything (and insist on no sauce, too) onto your food, if that’s the way you want it (for instance, we prefer our sea food and grilled chicken to be cooked with no additional spices/sauces), because if you say just ‘no spices’ they coat it in that freaking mega-sour sauce instead for no good reason :). However, if you give very clear instructions, they manage pretty well :). One thing that surprised us was the collective inability to cook prawns… The tiny ones in the pasta or the slightly bigger ones on ‘grill’ were somehow, in all three restaurants, cooked to the point of turning into rubber… Apparently, not all island cooks can deal with sea food :).
We met our hotel neighbors that day and opened up the swimming season :). Trivia fact: on local islands the sandy beaches change location depending on the time of the year. For part of the year a lovely sandy beach will be on one side of the island, and for the other part of the year on the other side. It depends on the currents and winds moving around the coral sands. On big resort islands special structures are built to prevent this beach migration thing. Maafushi island hotel owners are thinking to also construct some shields to make sure the beach gets a bit bigger and stays there throughout the year.
November 17. Way too early in the morning for my liking we set off to chase a shark…
Whale shark, to be exact – it was a snorkeling trip. It took roughly 2 hours to get to the area by speedboat and another 2 hours to locate the shark itself – I was lucky to have landed on the bench at the very back of the boat, so I could lay down. When we finally got a signal about the shark and got there, there was a whole huge crowd of snorkelers (maybe 50 people?) chasing the poor thing with cameras and without :). One of the people we were with on that trip had an underwater camera, so there are a couple of pictures and a video :). There was only one shark there that day – here it is:
After the chase we stopped on one of the local islands. Most houses were destroyed by the tsunami and have been rebuilt or are in the process.
November 18. I caught up on sleep and swimming and took a few pictures of the sunset.
I also spent a sleepless night helping out on some writing, so when on
November 19. my mom and the ladies decided to go watch the sunrise, I tagged along and took a few pictures, of course :).
It rained today, so I could sleep half through the day without missing out on any great weather :).
November 20. We decided to go snorkel with manta rays :). There were 8 of us on the boat, so it was fun :).
On our way to see the stingrays we also saw an entire crowd of dolphins. First they were far away from us, but later on we got closer to where some of them were – swimming around, doing the ‘wheels’ and occasionally jumping out of the water :).
At first we only saw 2 of them (one disappeared elsewhere soon). I admire the ability of the locals to spot them from afar just by looking at the water surface! We took a few pictures from the boat and then jumped into the water with the masks.
The very first stingray was swimming right at me at one point, so I tried to keep still and when it was passing me by, I managed to touch it on the ‘wing’. I say ‘wing’ because the stingrays don’t ‘swim’ – the way they move is exactly the same as the way some birds fly, except the speed is adapted to the viscosity of water. It got scared and went deeper into the water for a little while… Its surface is kind of slippery :). There was 1 more at a different spot and finally, when we already were planning to go to the Biadhoo island, a whole bunch of them together. The underwater pictures are the courtesy of our friends with the camera who went to swim with the stingrays 2 days earlier than we did.
After satisfying our curiosity about those gracious creatures, we have proceeded to the Biadhoo island.
It is just a stone’s throw away from Maafushi, it is pretty cheap to enter ($11) for the day and offers lovely beaches and more lush vegetation. It’s good for snorkeling as well, although I saw more fish on the corals near Maafushi beach.
In the evening we were treated to a concert of local music and dance.
Besides our own dancing queen Liliya who, despite her age, could probably out-last them all on the floor, there was one particular participant who, it seems, was way more into it then everyone else and who added what I bet are non-traditional elements to their program :). The more interesting stuff begins around the 6th minute of the video:
November 21. I taught one of our ladies how to use fins and the snorkeling mask… So we chased fishies down the corals for almost two hours :). There was a heart drawn on the beach for some honeymooners – everyone took care not to mess it up and made sure to take pictures inside :).
I have heard before that sunsets at Maldives are spectacular. So tonight I decided to take my time and take a million pictures of the sunset :). This time I was lucky because there were more clouds and they made for spectacular scenery.
In the evening we made a major mistake of going to the souvenir shop… We left with I’m not even sure how much stuff… Oh well – nothing else but eat and shop for souvenirs to do here anyway :).
November 22. In the morning I was on the mission: to use up the under-water camera that we bought yesterday… It took me forever to get the 27 pictures, but I hope some of them worked, although obviously the colors and quality will be questionable underwater without proper equipment :). We decided to not go back to Male in the morning, because the ferry from Maafushi leaves around 7am (there is a passing-by ferry around 1pm, but it operates only on some days). Our flight was past 4pm and we would have been stuck on Male for half a day for no good reason instead of enjoying one more day at the beach…
So we had to agree to the expensive speedboat transfer, but at least we had an extra day on the beach and we also decided to have some lobster (because some of our group and one lovely lady we met never tried them) on the beach.
Thus came to a closure our lovely vacation on the Maldives and we moved on to Sri Lanka for the congress… But that, children, is a whole different story :).