Maldives on my mind

The Maldives Islands are the stuff dreams are made of. They’re the 1,192 islands, peppered across the Indian Ocean, that feed common fantasies about quitting that old day job to live on an exotic island until your dying day. They’re the 26 atolls (collections of islands) that fill Windows desktop wallpapers around the world: complete with bright sun, blue lagoons, house reefs teeming with fish, low waters that house baby reef sharks and rays, and white sand beaches that stretch out for miles. But for all its idyllic beauty, the islands really are the stuff of dreams—and sometimes the stuff isn’t quite up to snuff.

First, the facts. Approximately 200 islands in the Muslim-dominated Maldives are inhabited by people, while about another 200 are occupied only by the resorts that occupy them. The Maldives covers about 35 thousand square miles (or 90 thousand square kms) in sea territory but just 115 square miles (300 square km) in land, making it the ninth smallest country in the world. Also, fun fact: 98% of Maldivians can read and write, making them one of the most literate countries in the world (thanks, British colonization!).

The capital of the Maldives is Malé, and this is where we (and most international visitors, save for Richard Branson and a handful of others) will fly into. With a population of 133,412 and an area of three and a half square miles (or 9.27 square kms), it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It’s like landing in Times Square on steroids, meaning you land, and you GTFO.

Zé and I landed on Wednesday evening, the 7 of August, ahead of a long weekend comprised of Singapore’s National Day and Hari Raya celebrations. We took a ($130) 20-minute boat ride from the airport island to the Sheraton Maldives, where we’d be staying for the night before flying up north and meeting up with a few friends for the remainder of the weekend. We were greeted by Sergio, the property manager, at the dock, and what came next was truly ‘the stuff of dreams.’ Sergio told us we’d been upgraded to our very own water bungalow, atop a shimmering turquoise sea, accessible directly by a step ladder on our front deck. It was like the Gucci handbag of holidays. Not only that, but because Zé has spent four years plus slaving away at various consulting locations, he’s reached Elite Ambassador status with the Marriott Bonvoy program, and the stay at that gorgeous villa was completely free of charge. It was a signal of hospitality like I’ve never seen before. The nightly price is a bit on the pricey side, but if you want to do the Maldives right, it’s worth the splurge. I can’t speak for other resorts, but between the space, the food, and the service, I feel confident saying the Sheraton Maldives is the place to be (this is not not a subtle plea for upgrades in the future, Sheraton. And yes I’m willing to sell you ad space on this page. Let’s talk).

After a wonderful and relaxing 24 hours, where a blend of napping, snorkeling, reading, eating, and taking leisure walks are now swirling into one, dream-like concoction in my mind, it was unfortunately time to leave. We had a late afternoon, 20-minute flight from Malé to the island of Dharavandhoo, one of the inhabited islands of Baa Atoll. The flight up north was filled with aerial atoll views, truly beautiful. Once we landed, we were scooped up at the airport by a golf cart sent by the hotel where we’d stay, Kiha Beach. Dharavandhoo is one of those local, inhabited islands, giving us the chance to experience something different than what we’d seen at the Sheraton. And I can tell you, there were pros and cons.

The pros? Loads cheaper than resorts. Since we were traveling with a large group, it seemed unreasonable to ask everyone to pay luxury resort prices. We also got to experience a bit of the local culture, particularly on Sunday during Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays of the Islamic calendar that marks the height of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The other perk (albeit not incredibly relevant for us, but good for others to know) is there’s no need to dress in any kind of posh way on the local islands, whereas many of the resorts make people feel the desire to be dressed ‘fresh to death’ as the kids say.

The cons? As we experienced, the hotel was pretty basic. Clean, but basic. It wasn’t exactly the picturesque Maldivian experience you think of when seeing pictures of these beautiful islands. Additionally, trips were quite hard to plan as the hotel staff was small, and everything needed to go through the boss man. We had to ask the evening before to secure a boat for lunchtime the following day. It wasn’t exactly an agile experience. And the big one, which we (regrettably) didn’t consider until our arrival: Muslim country = no alcohol on local islands. Resorts only. I could not choose just one GIF to express my horror, so please enjoy them all.

Our friends Karen and Jerome, the first of the bunch, arrived that evening, and together we commiserated about the lack of hooch available on the island. We shared a BBQ dinner at the resort that night (which, I have to hand it to them, was actually pretty solid). The Maldives are three hours behind Singapore, so we were all a bit foggy, jetlagged and confused about how we didn’t put Muslim and alcohol ban together prior to the trip, so we headed to bed early that night.

The next morning, someone had a stroke of brilliance: we were nearby several other, more luxe resorts, which surely had some bars we could hit up for sunset cocktails (need I mention this was a key discussion topic for the group?). We’d head off for a day of snorkeling, sunbathing, and manta ray chasing, then over to one of the resorts for dinner and drinks. Group genius at work.

So that’s exactly what we did, after meeting up with Margot and Margarida (two more friends on the trip with us). We secured a rental boat from reception for the day, and spent an hour swimming and snorkeling (we hit some windy weather, so there was not much to see), and stopping at a beautiful sandbar about 30 minutes from the island. Following our morning of swimming after breakfast, we were all a bit ‘watered out’ (that’s code for ready for drinks, but I get the feeling I’m making the group sound like a bunch of booze hounds), so we headed to Royal Island Resort & Spa. It was definitely an upgrade from where we were staying, with a poolside perch overlooking a pristine Indian Ocean beach. We were so relieved to be amidst luxury accommodations again, so most of the group headed right for the bar for some tasty poolside cocktails. I grabbed a paddleboard and hopped into the ocean, paddling around for an hour, and swapping my paddleboard for a snorkel set from Jerome, and jumping into the sea to check out the underwater jewels of the Indian Ocean. Afterwards, Jerome and I met the rest of the group on land for dinner and a nice buffet dinner of seafood and (so much) more. The boat from our dwelling picked us up around 11PM, and we headed back over choppy waters back to our hotel. This would not be the last we’d see of the other resorts around Baa Atoll.

For the following morning, we had arranged a dive trip for the cool kids among us, a snorkel trip for those less cool (moi). Margarida, Margot and me pulled on our snorkel gear and joined the others on the boat just in time to set sail on the great big waves, headed for manta rays. We stopped at our first site for an hour, and I have to take a moment and pour one out for the wildlife in the Maldives. Snorkeling gave us colorful and lively walls with resident schooling banner fish, shallow reefs with moray eels hiding in the cracks, and clown fish darting in and out of rocks. It was like the world’s best aquarium, and we were allowed inside the tank. But it wasn’t just the underwater life that amazed me: besides the wonderful and weird wildlife in the trees and on the ground, there were also fruit bats all over the place! Massive fruits bats. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As someone that grew up watching the tiny ones fly around outside in my childhood backyard, seeing bats that were four times the size was spellbinding, to say the least. Every time one of their larges figures flew by me, I could’ve sworn they were headed for Gotham City.

The boat headed out on the high seas for a second, hour-long dive, but drinks the evening prior + windy and wild waves = time to go back to the hotel and nap for a bit. Zè and I had a coffee and arranged for the boat to come pick us up around 11AM, where we headed to a new beach resort called Kihaa Maldives. Kihaa was the Lamborghini to Royal Island’s BMW and Kiha Beach (our hotel)’s ramshackle tuk-tuk. It was quiet, spacious, with a beautiful, clean, white-sand beach, a large infinity pool, fully-equipped spa, and loungers for reading everywhere. This was where we were meant to be. And if you don’t think we stayed there all day long, reading, sipping cocktails, paddleboarding, and returning promptly back again the very next morning, you are very much mistaken.

Kihaa Maldives greatly improved our trip. Not that it was going poorly at all, but it went from good to great once we discovered the true meaning of the Maldivian island life here. Over the next two days, I finished my book, paddleboarded about three hours total, napped, and witnessed one of the most wicked thunderstorms I’ve ever seen (would’ve put the summer storms in Branchburg to shame, Dad!). It was an incredibly relaxing way to end our trip.

On our final day in the Maldives, we secured a late checkout and flight back to Malè early in the day, allowing us until 5PM to read and relax. Jerome and Karen, along with Mags, hopped back on the boat with the diving company for one more foray into the sea, where they were lucky enough to see manta rays. Uploading the video here for your viewing (and it’s very worth viewing!). I took a nice, long beach walk and got about halfway through yet another book, and spent time chatting and sunbathing with Zè. It was nice to have a few days of nothing-ness (with weak Wi-Fi I might add, a blessing in many ways). I was also happy for Karen and Margot, my two close friends, to have quality time with Zè as well, the first real QT they’ve spent since he arrived.

After a light lunch and a sad goodbye, we headed back to Malè on our little charter plane. We ate dinner together at the airport (really soaking up the local culture in those last few moments with a bit of Dairy Queen to finish), and boarded our flight back to Singapore. We landed at 5AM Tuesday, and all had very different approaches with what we did for those few precious hours before we all had to head back into the office to start the week. Me? Similar to my nightly practice: pass out immediately, and sleep as long as possible.

So what was the Maldives all about, in the end? A nice refresh, some good time spent with friends, and lots of learnings. As this blog has become my go-to when friends and visitors seek my almighty wisdom and sage counsel on Asia travels, I’ve decided make the posts a bit more pointed moving forward, offering a snapshot of the good, the bad, and the ugly, if you will. Tips and tricks, some might say. If you have any feedback or would like to see anything added to the below that might be helpful to you or someone else, let me know. I’d like to make my writing fun and entertaining of course, but also as practical and actionable as I can (is my consultant background showing?). It’s also good for those of you that get tired reading long posts, cough Larissa and Matthew cough, that want something short and snappy to read and convince me you’ve combed through the whole thing.

Over and out!

The roundup

Where we stayed: Sheraton Maldives (recommend if you’ve got a bit of cash to splash, or can stay on points like we did), Kiha Beach (recommend if you’re on a budget and don’t mind not being able to drink)

What we did: Royal Island Resort day pass (lots of activities and good buffet dinner deal, but somewhat trashy vibe), Kihaa Maldives Resort day pass (recommend)

The best: Idyllic beaches, wonderfully warm people, excellent diving and snorkeling, manta rays (!)

The worst: No alcohol outside of the resorts (for all those kombucha detoxers out there, this is my blog, I get to decide what’s the worst, and no alcohol was definitely the worst), expensive AF, very low key (don’t expect much nightlife or moving between resorts – not necessarily the worst if this is what you’re looking for)

Conclusion: While I wouldn’t trade our experience for anything, I’d think twice about going the budget route if you’re looking to drink wine and wear a bikini on the beach (and what’s a beach holiday without booze and bikinis, after all?).

Some photos from our trip to the Maldives: