Maldives: Maafushi

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 While the majority of holiday-makers travelling to the Maldives sign up for all-inclusive island resort packages with seaplanes, speedboats and sky high costs, we’re here to try a less frivolous yet more exciting way of enjoying the Maldives – independent travel. This is not quite backpacking, but more luxury on a shoestring. After a restless night in our transit hotel in Malé City, we head towards the inter-island ferry pier at Villingili, a mere 10 minute drive away. With the warmth of the morning sun on our faces, we wrestle our way through the rickety ramp leading to an old wooden junk boat. As the only foreign tourists among the many Maldivians pouring into the aisles, we are unquestionably the odd ones out. The boat crew efficiently stow and stuff cargo underneath the seats and into every – and any – nook and cranny. From oversized boxes to suitcases, to stashes of store-bought corn-puffs to live chickens, you name it, they can stow it. All for a measly $15 one-way ferry fare (runs Sat-Thu, +960 331 5050, tsd@mtcc.com.mv). The Maldivians hardly make any conversation with strangers or attempt any sort of eye-contact – their reserved demeanour either an indifference to foreign tourists or simply, a sign of their very private nature.

Soon, with a few more indie travellers on board, we’re off to our stunning paradise, a place in many a world traveller’s bucket-list. Although our 90-minute journey starts smoothly, the rough waves along the way do whip into quite a frenzy a times – bad enough to trigger mild dizziness. Let’s just say with our heads spinning, our sight blurring and a crying baby on board, disembarkation did not come quickly enough. But, like a ray of hope, Maafushii island finally appeared in the distance, and visions of azure waters soon plopped back into our minds.

Almost a decade on from the devastating 2004 tsunami, one of the smallest island nations in Asia has successfully rebuilt itself and come into its own. Maafushi, one of the inhabited islands in Kaafu Atoll, South Malé, was among the worst hit by the horrific tidal wave, displacing thousands of locals and wiping out their only means to livelihood – tourism. With the help of international aid groups such as Red Cross though, Maafushi is now back on its feet. To date, there are now around 30 guesthouses on the island, the most in any inhabited island in the country, generating local employment and tourism.

A curly-haired and plump Maafushi local named Hamid leads us to our hotel a few metres away with our bags carted on a wheelbarrow – a staple hotel tool in Maldives. Although our accommodation in Kaani beach hotel (kaanibeach.com) doesn’t stand on stilts, the balconies overlook the same pristine waters for a fraction of the price tag of a luxury resort water bungalow. The hotel strip is reasonably quiet too, void of rowdy tour groups and hassling local vendors. As we settle in, beachfront tables are preparing for lunch while the locals go about their daily business of opening shops as fishermen return with their morning catches.

Fishing under the stars
Our first port of call is a fishing trip along the expanse of the Indian Ocean on South Malé Atoll ($320 per person for two hours, through stingraybeachinn.com). This is usually done after sunset when the fish are known to converge en masse at the reefs. After loading our fishing boat with bait, lines and hooks, we cruise quietly into the setting sun. The Maldives is home to more than one thousand species of fish, five species of turtles, 21 species of whales and dolphins and 187 types of coral. Its marine ecosystem is possibly one of the most complex and healthiest in the world, making it an underwater paradise for enthusiasts.

As we anchor, our boat alone in the middle of the sea, we’re taught how to attach a bait of ‘sashimi’ to the end of the line so as to hook any passing curious fish. In between, we happily pass the time chatting away with the crew, whilst basking in the glory of the ocean under the stars. Minutes later, we get a pull – a tight one. We call and scream for everyone’s attention. As we retrieve the line, there’s a big reef fish hooked at the end and it feels like winning the lottery. A short time later, after indulging in a series of ‘selfies’ with our fish, we head back feeling satisfied with a total of five big ones in the cooler. 

The freedivers of Maafushi
On a whim, we decide to try some snorkelling ($160 per person for one-and-a-half hours, through stingraybeachinn.com). Accompanied by a young Polka named Emma, we take to the high seas, passing awesome sandbanks and miles of crystal clear blue waters until we reach a renowned snorkelling point in the Kaafu atoll. Our boat crew and snorkelling guides for the day are two teenage best friends. They have been freediving together for as long as they can remember and jump out as soon as the boat docks, scouring the surrounding area for the most colourful underwater scenery. We join them as soon as they give us the thumbs-up and soon after, we are shown an unforgettable spectacle of underwater beauty. There are barracudas, napolean wrasses, sweetlips, the famed ‘nemo’ clownfish, pufferfish and baby reef shark. The clear visibility and bath-warm seawater temperature, makes us long for more. Our dynamic duo, being the best freedivers of Maafushi (according to an elderly villager we met earlier), impress us with their acrobatic moves, poking fun at each other before surfacing to point out some delicate starfish or queer underwater corals.

On our modest budget the trip to Maafushi exceeded all expectations, proving that you don’t need to break the bank in order to have fun in Maldives. Staying with the locals not only saves on the cost but helps to understand their laid-back nature and quiet hospitality. Best of all, it made us appreciate the raw beauty of island life that we sometimes take for granted.

Getting there

Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies direct to Male four times a week with prices from $8,229. The ferry from Male to Maafushi takes 90 minutes at 10am, Sundays, Tuesday and Thursdays, and 3pm Saturday and Thursday, for $15 (times subject to change, contact +960 331 5050, tsd@mtcc.com.mv).

Where to stay

Kaani Beach Hotel (Aabaadhee Hingun Rd, +960 933 3626; kaanibeach.com) is a stone's throw from the beach on the northwest shore. A deluxe double room with sea views starts from $936 per night.

Situated on the northern end of the island, Stingray Beach Inn (Ziyaaraiy Magu Rd, +960 778 1068; stingraybeachinn.com) is a cosy 10-room boutique hotel. Stay in its deluxe double room with garden views from $640 per night.

The more centrally located Sun Tan Beach Hotel (Mirihi Magu, +960 779 9798; suntanbeachhotel.com) offers 19 rooms with sea or city views. A deluxe double room with sea views starts from $720 per night.

Excursions including night fishing, snorkelling, dolphin watching, picnics and island hopping can be booked through the guest houses (prices vary).

 

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