February 2014. We arrive in the Maldives, our 22nd country, from Sri Lanka on our 45th flight, and celebrate our 18 month travelling milestone.
So we’re not going to be able to brag about our light carbon footprint – it’s a long old way around this globe and with low cost airlines luring us to take more trips to explore more new places never on our original itinerary, we seem to have been heading to the airport rather a lot recently! It’s never been our intention and we try to bus, walk, train or boat where we can over flights but they still add up!
We booked this flight two weeks earlier in KL airport before we were allowed to check in for our flight to Colombo but once we’d booked and returned to the check in desk – they didn’t ask at all! But really, no complaints from us! What a place to be able to visit en route to India. We had of course done some homework beforehand and figured out that we should be able to visit the Maldives on our backpacker budget although we knew it would be a week that would probably hit the higher end of our range of acceptable cost levels. We knew there were ways that didn’t need to include exclusive $1000 a night and up water bungalows ( to Zoe’s disappointment – who would love to experience staying in one!)
We land at the International airport on HulHule island, it really isn’t much more than an airstrip and terminal building in the sea and as you come out of the modern terminal you’re faced with the brightest sparkling azure sea all around you, making you catch your breath!
The Maldives are not just a string of isolated holiday resort islands – there are also local islands when the Maldivian people live. Resort and local islands remain segregated but the total restriction on tourism to ‘local’ islands was only lifted a few years back and slowly little hotels, homestays and villa rentals are appearing on these islands. If you go for a resort experience, you’ll not be on a backpacker’s budget, if you are up for a more adventurous, local experience, it’s really very doable and we really only scratched at the surface in our one week.
The long archipelago of atolls stretches across the equator almost 500 miles from north to south, to the south west of India and Sri Lanka, in the Laccadive Sea (I’d never heard of this, thought it was all the Indian Ocean! So, the Laccadive Sea sits between southern India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka) The archipelago sits atop a vast submarine mountain ridge, together with the Chagos islands further south and the Lakshadweep islands to the north, and with a population of 328,500 inhabiting 192 of its 1,192 islands. This does mean choosing your islands carefully so you don’t accidentally find yourself stung with a hugely expensive internal flight. There are ferries which travel around the islands but some LONG distances!
Most islands have a maximum height of 1 to 1.5m above sea level and the highest point is only 2.4m above sea level making it the world’s lowest lying country and very much at risk from disappearing altogether as sea levels rise, estimated by some scientists to be likely between 2050 and 2100. Just imagine knowing this? That your country could be gone in the next 40 years or so! Another reason in our eyes to go visit! After learning more and seeing first hand the devastation from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in other countries, we couldn’t help but wonder what on earth that day was like here, with nowhere to climb to, nowhere to hide from those immense waves. Wikipedia told us that 112 people were lost, two-thirds of the capital city Malé was submerged, outlying low-level atolls were badly affected and some low lying islands, including major resorts, were completely submerged at the peak of the tsunami. I’m actually surprised the death toll wasn’t a lot higher.
Officially the Republic of the Maldives and also known as the Maldive Islands, for the majority of its history, the Maldives has been independent despite three instances during which it was ruled by outside forces: in the 16th century, it fell under the Portuguese Empire for fifteen years, in the mid-17th century the Dutch ruled for 4 months and finally, in 1887, it became a British protectorate until 1965.
We spend a lovely week mainly in Vilimale, aka Villingili, a 10 minutes public ferry ride from Male, the capital which is a few minutes again from the airport island on the other side from Vilimale. We enjoy the quiet streets, hotel tandem bike and quad cycle, the little local beach (you must swim with conservative dress – that means I wear a costume and a pair of shorts and the kids wear their rash tops and swim shorts) and the gentle friendliness and modesty of everyone we meet.
We stay in the only hotel on the island – the Seahouse Top Deck, in a cosy double room, perhaps the smallest space (apart from tents) we’ve slept in on our trip, two kids on the floor and one in the double with us, luggage piled in the corner! But it’s a super place and the staff are charming and work extremely hard to make us welcome and play or chat with the kids.
We take the cheap ferry across to the capital city and island of Male quite often to explore, have lunch or supper at one of the many restaurants. It’s quite bizarre to look across the sea from from Vilimale at this high rise city sitting on a tiny island surrounded by blue!
There are options to do any number of day trips to snorkel, dive or visit deserted or small resort islands and we’re tempted but they’re quite expensive, I mean the cheapest would be $80 each for the day, so we resist.
After a few days, Lara and I take a ferry, about 2 hours, down to Maafushi, another lovely local island with sandy streets, no cars and a few bikes, a number of small hotels and a couple of beautiful beaches. The friendy guy from Maafushi Inn meets us off the boat and there is someone with a wheelbarrow to pick up our luggage and walk it to the hotel, about 5 minutes away. We barely have enough to warrant a wheelbarrow having stuffed a few things for both of us into Lara’s small pack and left the rest in Vilimale. Our room is huge and has a lovely sea view after we are lucky with an upgrade because Agoda double booked us! Lara quickly makes a video and sends it to the others to make them jealous!
The island is tiny, you could walk around it in under an hour but its hot and we only make it around the streets at the north end. There’s a prison at the south end but we don’t feel the need to go to look at it!
We are lucky to meet some charming Chinese teenagers who played with Lara for two days… I am not sure who entertained who most. These five kids all about 14 were with their five mothers, all teachers, on a brief school holiday trip. What truly lovely people. I hope we get to visit them in their hometown. They told us a lot about their lives as all only-ones and clearly enjoyed the novelty of having a surrogate little sister for a while! Lara is now exchanging emails with two of them, nicknamed dolphin and dinosaur and we would love to go visit them in China, on this tip or perhaps a future one!
The beach is divine especially when our friends show up and spend half the day having fun with Lara. There are also a load of baby reef sharks hanging out in the shallows by some rocks which we can watch from the sand!
We keep saying we should ‘split up’ more and go on little mini adventures like this on a more regular basis! It gives the kids a real treat to have Mum or Dad to themselves and some quality 1-2-1 or 2-2-1 for everyone, making a fantastic change from 5 together 24×7!
Lara and I have a blast, and whilst we’re away Zoe and Ben enjoy roaming free back on Vilimale, making friends and enjoying complete independence whilst Dad went off to Male for lunch or coffee and got a big laugh out of emailing me with hints of B&Z being left alone. Rotter! I love it so much when he does this!! not
But we are soon back on a boat, waving goodbye to our island hideaway and friend from Maafushi Inn who gives Lara a quick spin on his bike while we wait, and two hours later reunited, with one last night together, another fantastic Thai meal in Male City, and then were off to hop back across islands to the airport and our flight to India!
What did it cost for our family of five?
Our 1 way flight from Sri Lanka with Air Asia $450 (for 5 people)
Our onward flight to Kochi in S India was a little more at $570
Beach House Top Deck, 6 nights, double room $328 ($54 a night)
Maafushi Inn, 2 nights, double room $98 ($49 a night)
$758 for 6 days for 5 people – included two quite expensive Thai meals in Male at the very nice Sala Thai (those two meals cost $210 of this) we also ate great Thai food in the airport believe it or not, bit pricy. Local restaurants and our hotel served well priced food
Ferries – to from airport, back and forth to Male and Lara’s and my trip to Maafushi – total $16!
Taxis – twice across and twice within Mali $7.50
Bike Hire – the kids had almost exclusive hire of hotel bikes $30
Martin had a pricy massage $27
Including both flights, accomodation food, travel and extras. $2340
Excluding flights – accom, food, transport in the islands and extras $1320
( $220 a day, or $44 per person per day)