Swim through the Panettone Reef in Maldives with schooling bannerfish in this video. These bannerfish are native to areas near Africa and although they are strikingly similar to the Moorish idols, the bannerfish and Moorish idols are only distantly related. The Panettone Reef in Ari Atoll is a popular spot for diving. Not only is Maldives the smallest Asian country in both land area and population, but Maldives is also the world’s lowest country with an average above-ground level just short of 5 feet. With widespread worry over the future of Maldives and whether or not the islands will soon be covered completely with water, this country is on my “URGENT: Travel To Soon” list.
The lowest lying country in the world does not offer much above sea level, just 7 feet 7 inches at its highest point. This fine sliver of sun kissed atolls is so postcard perfect it borders on ridiculous. White sand beaches, Kool-aid blue seawater, and densely populated coral reefs are de rigueur in The Maldives. It is a different kind of world, a water-world with flying taxis and manta rays measuring over 20 feet from tip to tip, soaring over their colorful underwater kingdoms.
With 1,192 islands covering 26 atolls, the Maldives island chain covers a significant portion of the Indian Ocean between India and Africa. The scantly populated nation boasts only 400,000 humans, many of which are Muslim. The one time British protectorate and Islamic sultanate habitats only 200 of its many islands with the rest defending the deserted island ideal – groves of shady palms trees, tide pools filled with skittering creatures, soft white beaches that disappear into cyan water, and nary a human in sight to spoil the dream.
From the New World, reaching The Maldives is a serious commitment, but the effort is rewarding. While no direct flights exist from the United States, London and Dubai provide worthy hubs to the island nation. British Airways and SriLankan Airlines fly direct from London to Male – the capital city of The Maldives. Emirates flies direct from Dubai in just about four hours.
From Southeast Asia, Singapore Air services The Maldives from Singapore. The easiest (and cheapest) connection to Male is from nearby Colombo in Sri Lanka via SriLankan Airlines. Colombo can be reached cheaply from the hub of Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia.
The Maldives is home to some of the nicest resorts on the planet. It is one of the most exclusive and expensive places to visit, but value can be found for those that look. Websites such as Kayak will show aggregate pricing from a number of hotel booking sites, and it is possible to pounce on insanely good deals. Just be sure to factor in airplane transfers (seaplane taxi can reach $500 per person from the airport) and the inevitable massive dining bill on top of your nightly fee. For a mid-range resort in the Maldives, expect to pay at least $35-$100 per meal per couple (without massive alcohol consumption) and be sure to choose a package that includes a free breakfast.
A great workaround to the expensive seaplane taxi is to book a resort that can be reached by yacht. Resorts such as Kurumba and Kuramathi are close enough to the airport for cheap boat transportation, but the trade-off of hearing planes landing may not be worth it for some people.
Since every property in the Maldives outside of the capital city of Male is on its own private island, it is very important to choose wisely. The commitment is unlike choosing a regular hotel in a regular city because you are literally on an island, forced to eat and sun exclusively on island, with the exception of occasional excursions. If the food is sub-par and expensive, then you will be a slave to this dining arrangement for the duration of your stay. Therefore, it is very wise to do research on sites like Tripadvisor to insure yourself against the plague of daily disappointment.
As far as snorkeling goes, it does not get better than the Maldives. With 200 species of coral reef and 300 species of fish, the underwater beauty is mind-blowing. It is one of those rare locations where the snorkeling is as good as, if not better than, the scuba diving. Experiencing both is ideal, but if you are not into breathing compressed air, then snorkeling the Maldives will certainly suffice in providing one of life’s great experiences.
The coolest thing about the snorkeling is the accessibility. The water is extremely calm, and many offshore reefs are shallow. This provides an environment that even novice swimmers can be comfortable with. Most resorts also have house reefs that begin just steps from one’s guestroom. This proximity to the coral reefs provides a convenient, and free, gateway to the underwater kingdom of the Maldives.
Malé is the island capital of the Maldives (above) with 100,000 Maldivians making it one of the most densely populated islands in the world. The island is filled with tall buildings, mosques, and fish markets. People do not generally visit the Maldives to see this bustling island, but those that do visit the capital find an extremely interesting society based around the worship of Islam and bounty of the sea. It is also the cheapest place to stay in the Maldives with sub $50 rooms.
Maldives on a Budget
So what is “budget” in an island playground for the wealthy? The term “budget” is relative. Visiting Quito, Ecuador on a budget may involve a $35 per day allowance, while a budget Maldives trip can be realistically done for $250 per day per couple. A huge difference, but the price of paradise has a premium.
The Maldives is one of the most expensive destinations in the world. Just getting there will cost at least $300 round-trip, and upon arrival, the real hemorrhaging of cash begins. Rooms reach upwards of $1000 per night, private taxis from the airport can cost over $500, and food, bearing hefty logistical costs, is also quite expensive.
If done right though, it is possible to book a room for a little over $100. Airport transfer can also cost a fortune, but, if the resort is close enough to the airport, it is possible to pay only $25 each way for private boat transport.
Utilize websites like Kayak and Agoda to find cheap rooms and inquire directly with the resort about cost of transport from the airport. On my last visit to the Maldives, I paid $166 per night for a room at Kurumba (with breakfast, crucial, for stealing snacks later called lunch) and about $50 per person for return transport to the airport. My daily budget averaged $280 for two people that drink modestly – not a shoestring, but relatively cheap for one of the most expensive destinations in the world. (Disclaimer: I ate chicken nuggets off the toddler menu twice.)
Global warming and the Maldives
In 2009, the president of the Maldives and his cabinet held a meeting underwater to illustrate the Maldives status as one of the few endangered countries on the planet. With sea levels rising and the Maldives being the lowest lying country in the world, its fate as the first submerged nation is very possible. All the more reason to visit this spectacular land while it is still above sea level.
All photography by Justin Delaney
Aerial photo of Male from Wikimedia Commons
As for anyone who likes to dive, the Maldives have been high on my list for years. I have heard that virtually all of the 1200 coral islands are magnificent and the diving incredible. I haven’t been able to swing a trip there yet, but I am thinking I should do so very soon.
This week’s The Economist article “Sea, Sun and Jihad” talks about the rising tendency of Islamic extremism in The Maldives, the richest country in South Asia in terms of GDP per capita. In January, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was rescued from a knife attack when visiting one of the islands. Last September, terrorists detonated a bomb in the capital Male, injuring 12 tourists. The Maldives government says that there is no evidence of international terrorism. Instead, it blames homegrown terrorists. Is that better, I wonder?
The attempts to impose a state-sponsored moderate Islam have no been successful. The Economist is saying that it is the political uncertainty of the Maldives that is providing a space in which Islamist extremism can grown. The country’s first multi-party election is due this year. Let’s hope things get better.