Newlywed couples stroll along white sand beaches, hand in hand. Their bungalow sits over the water, with bleached white sheets and a dedicated staff who serve them steak dinners, rent them expensive jet skis, and offer them boat trips with other foreign guests.
They spend $3,000 per night on this bungalow, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occasion! Sure, it could be just about anywhere with beautiful beaches (and trust me, the world has more of them than one could ever hope to see), but it’s the Maldives, so it’s exclusive, and out of the reach of most people, right?
What if I told you none of this has to be true? What if I told you there are locally-owned guesthouses in the Maldives, and it’s entirely possible to go there, even as a solo traveler, and have a completely authentic experience without feeling like the only odd man out without a spouse or boatloads of cash?
Guess what? That’s exactly what I’m telling you.
I had wanted to visit the Maldives ever since I first heard about it. I knew it was amazing for diving and I had always dreamed of seeing it for myself. When an email came through for one of the low cost airlines I subscribe to, I realized I could fly over for a couple hundred dollars and booked it without hesitation – I would figure out the rest later.
At first I was afraid it would break the bank. Not only that, I’d be the only solo traveler in a sea of couples. Then I found something out that changed my perspective completely.
Three years ago, the Maldives opened up the possibility to locals to open guesthouses and welcome travelers to locally-inhabited islands, thereby providing an authentic and budget friendly alternative to resorts. I found this one via Airbnb.
Given it’s still such a small market (the place I stayed at will be fully booked for the first time ever this month, though it’s only three rooms anyway), local tourism in the Maldives is relatively new and provides a great opportunity for travelers who want to experience something more authentic.
I stayed at a place called the Amazing Noovilu, run by an upbeat and always smiling local named Mazin, with his family providing the rest of the support from cleaning rooms to driving boats to cooking the meals. The room itself ran $100 per night, though I saw several options on Airbnb for closer to $50, making it a truly budget-friendly way to explore the Maldives.
Even better than that, Mazin ate each meal with us, which was almost always a traditional Maldivian meal, complete with grilled fish, a delicious bread called roshi, rice, curries, veggies, and lots of tuna.
Awesome almost-private tours
Perhaps the best part of the trip, and what remains the best kept secret on the Maldives at the moment, is how private each tour we did ended up being. It was typically just myself, Mazin, his brother driving the boat, and the buddy I was traveling with.
“We must look like really big deals,” we joked to each other, being driven around in a private boat, just the two of us. Yet we were paying less for the privilege.
We swam with manta rays and whale sharks, getting the opportunity to stay and float with them as long as we wanted while several boatloads of people came and left, only getting a short glimpse.
Possibly my favorite thing about the whole experience was getting to dive one-on-one with Mazin. He rented diving equipment from local sea cucumber fishermen, took me out on the little speedboat, and guided dives in some of the best reefs in this world – all without any other divers around.
Fishing on a local fisherman’s boat under the stars and going to a deserted island while the others stay at the guesthouse were additional cherries on top of an already fantastic trip.
Interacting with the locals
Especially moving was the reception from the locals on Mahibadhoo. When visiting the local outdoor coffee shop (the main hangout for locals), the owner came over twice to make sure the coffee and service was to my liking.
“I told him not to make it too sweet. I used to work in the resorts. I know Europeans don’t like it too sweet,” he said.
Then there was the encounter with a couple of young local girls outside my garden door, waiting to present me with some gifts – a set of hair barrettes and a pen. It was an incredibly touching gesture (and honestly, I needed a pen! I had misplaced mine).
I couldn’t have expected that this kind of no-frills trip to the Maldives would be so much fun and such a rewarding experience. I’m glad to know that it’s possible to go and do it local, and to have crossed an item off of the never-ending bucket list.
Do it yourself:
- This guesthouse can be booked using Airbnb
- One thing to be aware of is the rules in the Maldives, which are structured according to Islam: no alcohol (it will be a “dry” vacation if you stay on a local island), no bikinis (though once you leave the local islands – on the boat or on private islands, bikinis are fine), and covering up shoulders and knees is pretty much required of females
- Meals are authentic and local. This means fish for nearly every meal, though dietary restrictions can be accommodated
- More airlines are opening up routes to the Maldives via Malé, its capital city. Cheap flights are easy to find if you can be flexible with your dates. November proved to be an excellent month to visit