The pint-sized Maldivian capital is the throbbing, mercantile heart of the nation, a densely crowded and extraordinary place, notable mainly for its stark contrast to the laid-back pace of island life elsewhere in the country. Male (mar-lay) offers the best chance to see the ‘real’ Maldives away from the resort buffet and infinity pool.
The southern atolls have been busy over the past few years as new resorts have been built on ever more atolls. With better transport infrastructure than the north of the country – there are five regional airports, all with multiple daily connections to the capital – it's surprising that tourism didn't catch on here sooner.
North Malé Atoll
Tourism is well developed in North Male Atoll, and as well as having lots of resorts, there are several guesthouses on inhabited islands here too. Male itself isn’t the atoll capital, as it’s considered to be its own administrative district. Instead, the atoll capital is Thulusdhoo, on the eastern edge of North Male Atoll, with a population of about 1200.
Ari Atoll & Around
Centred on a vast, sumptuously and inviting oval lagoon dotted with reefs, Ari Atoll sits to the west of the capital and is famed for its superb diving and stellar beaches. While the atoll is one natural entity, it’s large enough to have been split into two districts – North and South Ari Atoll.
The geographic entity of Ari Atoll is about 80km from north to south, 30km wide and contains 18 inhabited islands out of a total of 81. The most populous island is Mahibadhoo, the capital of South Ari, with around 2000 people. There are now several guesthouse on Mahibadhoo, and it's a good place to experience life in a large Maldivian town.
Heart-shaped Addu Atoll is the southern extreme of Maldives and is home to some of the most colourful corals in the country. There’s a splash of late colonial flavour on Gan Island, where there was a British military base until the 1970s, and an independent streak flows through the locals, who even speak a different dialect of Dhivehi to that spoken in Male.
Faafu Atoll has about 4000 people living on its five inhabited islands. The capital island, Magoodhoo (population 680), is a small fishing village with a very traditional community. There are just two resorts in the atoll, and as one is a private island for the super rich (called the Rania Experience), nearly everyone coming here stays at Filitheyo.
Meemu Atoll has eight inhabited islands and three resorts. The capital island is Muli (population 850), a small and traditional island with little to attract visitors. Nearby Mulah and more southerly Kolhufushi are both more populous with about 1450 and 1225 people respectively. Both these islands grow yams, which are an important food staple on fertile islands.
Fishing is the main industry of Lhaviyani Atoll, although tourism also employs many people, with several large resorts located here. On the capital island, Naifaru (population 4720), the residents have a reputation for making attractive handicrafts from coral and mother-of-pearl, and for concocting local medicines.
Dhaalu Atoll is home to around 6500 people, who live on its seven inhabited islands. The biggest island is the capital, Kudahuvadhoo (population 1550), which is a busy fishing centre, but also has an ancient and mysterious mound. The mound is now just sand, but originally this was the foundation of a structure made of fine stonework.