Unrivalled luxury, stunning white-sand beaches and an amazing underwater world make Maldives an obvious choice for a true holiday of a lifetime.
Maldives is home to perhaps the best beaches in the world; they’re on almost every one of the country’s nearly 1200 islands and are so consistently perfect that it’s hard not to become blasé about them. While some beaches may boast softer granules than others, the basic fact remains: you won't find consistently whiter-than-white powder sand and luminous cyan-blue water like this anywhere else on earth. This fact alone is enough to bring well over a million people a year to this tiny, remote Indian Ocean paradise.
Resorts for Everyone
Every resort in Maldives is its own private island, and with over 100 to choose from the only problem is selecting where you want to stay. At the top end, the world’s most exclusive hotel brands compete with each other to attain ever-greater heights of luxury, from personal butlers and private lap pools to in-room massages and pillow menus. It’s not surprising that honeymooners and those seeking a glamorous tropical getaway have long had the country at the very top of their wish lists. But there’s also plenty of choice beyond the five- and six-star resorts.
Maldives has undergone seismic change in the past 10 years, since inhabited islands have been opened to tourism and locals permitted to build their own guesthouses. Travelers no longer have to stay in resorts and remain separate from the local population, something that kept backpackers away for decades. Island hopping by public ferry, speedboat and domestic flights has opened up this incredible country to visitors on almost all budgets. A number of islands in Male and Ari atolls are now big centers for a booming guesthouse industry, with dozens of options on each.
With some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world, the clear waters of Maldives are a magnet for anyone with an interest in marine life. The richness and variety is astonishing; dazzling coral walls, magnificent caves and schools of brightly colored tropical fish await you when you get down to the reef. In deeper waters lurk manta rays, turtles, sharks and even the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. The best bit? The water is so warm many people don’t even wear a wetsuit.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Maldives.
This is the oldest mosque in the country, dating from 1656. It’s a beautiful structure made from coral stone into which intricate decoration and Quranic script have been chiselled. Non-Muslims wishing to see inside are supposed to get permission from an official of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Most of the staff are officials of the ministry, however, and so if you are conservatively dressed and it's outside prayer times, you may well get permission to enter on the spot. Even though an ugly protective corrugated-iron sheet now covers the roof and some of the walls, this is still a fascinating place. The interior is superb and famed for its fine lacquer work and elaborate woodcarvings. One long panel, carved in the 13th century, commemorates the introduction of Islam to Maldives. The mosque was built on the foundations of an old temple that faced west towards the setting sun, not northwest towards Mecca. Consequently, the worshippers have to face the corner of the mosque when they pray – the striped carpet, laid at an angle, shows the correct direction. Overlooking the mosque is the solid, round, blue-and-white tower of the munnaaru – the squat minaret. Though it looks a bit neglected rather than particularly old, this minaret dates from 1675. To one side of the mosque is a cemetery with many elaborately carved tombstones. Stones with rounded tops are for females, those with pointy tops are for males and those featuring gold-plated lettering are the graves of former sultans. The small buildings are family mausoleums and their stone walls are intricately carved. Respectably dressed non-Muslims are welcome to walk around the graveyard; you don’t require permission for this.
Dhigurah is a charming, clean and friendly local island with about 600 inhabitants and around ten guesthouses. It's a very long island, with an absolutely stunning white-sand beach down one side that extends into a giant sandbank that sometimes connects Dhigurah to the LUX* Maldives resort to the south. There's a bikini beach, several cafes and lots of souvenir shops along the main street. It's a wonderful base for a diving and beach holiday.
Maldives' National Museum may be a ferociously ugly building gifted by China, but it nevertheless contains a well-labelled collection of historic artefacts that serve to trace the unusual history of these isolated islands. Sadly the museum was broken into by a mob of religious extremists during protests against former president Nasheed in 2012, and its most precious items, some 30 ancient Buddhist coral stone carvings from the country's pre-Islamic period, were destroyed for being 'idols'. Security remains tight. The display begins downstairs with galleries devoted to the ancient and medieval periods of Maldivian history. Items on display include weaponry, religious paraphernalia and household wares as well as many impressively carved Arabic- and Thaana-engraved pieces of wood commemorating the conversion of Maldives to Islam in 1153. Upstairs is a display representing the modern period and including some prized examples of the lacquer-work boxes for which Maldives is famous, and various pieces of antique technology including the country’s first gramophone, telephone and a massive computer. Quirkier relics include the minutes of the famous underwater cabinet meeting held under President Nasheed in 2009 and an impressive marine collection, the highlight of which is the 6m-long skeleton of the very rare Longman’s Beaked Whale, which is yet to have been sighted alive in the ocean.
This small palace – now a museum – was the childhood home of Maldivian national hero Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who, alongside his brothers, overthrew Portuguese rule in 1573. Visitors are escorted around the complex by a museum staff member to see the fascinating 500-year-old wooden interiors, including swing beds (used to keep cool in the heat), lamps that burn coconut palm oil and elaborate wooden carvings, plus a large palm-thatch shed used as a sleeping room for guests.
Thulusdhoo has traditionally been an industrious island, known for manufacturing of bodu beru (big drums), for its salted-fish warehouse and for its Coca-Cola factory, the only one in the world where the drink is made from desalinated water. In the past few years tourism has exploded, however, and there are now some 30 guesthouses here, with plans for a further 20. There are several stretches of good beach, including a bikini beach and a bridge link to a small island. Thulusdhoo is easy to reach from Male. There are regular speedboats (US$30, 30 minutes) from Male's Fishing Harbour and Velana International Airport; see Atoll Transfer for details. Otherwise you can take public ferry 308 from Male's New Harbour daily except Monday and Friday at 2.30pm, arriving in Thulusdhoo at 4.45pm.
This incredibly impressive piece of engineering connects Male to the airport island of Hulhule, but unlike most of the causeways connecting islands elsewhere in the country, this US$250m project goes over the open sea, meaning that vast concrete supports have been planted in the seabed. The bridge was still not operational at the time of writing, and it wasn't yet clear how its opening would affect ferry services to/from Male from Hulhule. Local opinion is divided about the bridge. While some argue that connecting the capital to its airport is an important infrastructural addition to Male, many people see the project as a huge waste of money and maintain that taking a ferry across the lagoon will always be faster and preferable.
Himmafushi is famous for its main street selling some of the least expensive souvenirs in the country, such as carved rosewood manta rays, sharks and dolphins. Wander into the back streets and you'll discover a sleepily traditional village and a cemetery with coral headstones. A sand spit has joined Himmafushi to the once separate island of Gaamaadhoo, where there used to be a prison. The surf break here, aptly called Jailbreaks, is a great righthander. To get here, there are daily private speedboat services (US$29, 45 minutes) from Male with Atoll Transfer.
Although the squeamish may well object to the buckets of entrails or the very public gutting of fish going on all around, the Fish Market should not be missed. This is the soul of Male – and it’s great fun watching the day’s catch being brought in from the adjacent fishing harbour. Look out for some truly vast tuna, octopus and grouper. Maldivian women don’t usually venture into these areas, although foreign women walking around won’t raise any eyebrows.
At the northwestern end of Fuvahmulah, the absolutely stunning Thoondu Beach is a wide band of dazzling white overlooked by swaying palms. It's famous in Maldives for being the only beach in the country that is made up of coral pebbles rather than coral grains. Sadly, swimming here is dangerous due to strong currents; it's also a public (non-bikini) beach. It is however popular with surfers who come here for the short surf season in July–August.