pristine beaches, fabulous resorts – the maldives are all about luxury.
If ever there were an idyllic paradise that summed up the spirit of Coconut Lands, the Republic of the Maldives is it.
1192 coral islands stretching along 871 km in the Indian Ocean make up this fascinating country. Most people who go there are seeking luxury – as in, the kind of five-star-and-above experience usually afforded by royalty and film stars.
isn’t it also for the adventurous?
The Maldives is also the place to go if you love water sports. It’s regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world, with heaps of incredible marine life to see among the coral reefs. Dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, barracuda, whale sharks and sea turtles can be spotted. Surfing is also popular, notably on the North Malé Atoll and the Huvadhoo Atoll.
If you’re an unadventurous traveller like me, you can enjoy snorkelling or simply bathing in the warm waters with colourful reef fish around you.
One day I hope to add a Maldivian luxury resort to my bucket list of favourite hotels. More of that later. But in the meantime, might it be possible to enjoy the many attractions of the Maldives on a budget? The good news is, yes!
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things to do for free in the maldives
Many of the islands in the Maldives are known for something – whether it’s for the most beautiful beaches, best green landscape and walks, most luxurious hotels, best activities for kids, best food – and so on. Or for specific attractions. Unfortunately, island-hopping is not as easy as it could be – and is not cheap.
If your budget can stretch to one or two organised activities, therefore, it’s well worth it, if only to experience the amazing biodiversity and marine life of the islands. Dolphin watching, island cruising, snorkelling with sharks and feeding stingrays are some of the options on offer. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can usually book through them. Alternatively, Viator* offer some great options that you can pre-book – see their ad at the foot of this page.
However, there are still plenty of things to do for free or at low cost – apart from relaxing on the beach! Here are a few suggestions.
Sea of stars
If you visit the Maldives in late summer, make sure you pack your flashlight, 18650 batteries and charger set* – as one of the most beautiful and amazing natural wonders is to be seen at night.
This stunning phenomenon is caused by bioluminescent phytoplankton. Although they are actually emitting a toxin to keep away fish and other predatory creatures, it’s perfectly safe for humans to swim among the ‘stars’. Vaadhoo Island is one of the best places to see them.
The capital city of the Maldives is well worth a visit. One third of the country’s population lives here so it’s a buzzing, hectic place – a colourful contrast to your laid-back, peaceful beach resort!
You can wander the streets and shops, soaking up the local Dhivehi culture and maybe visiting one of the alcohol-free restaurants. If museums are your thing, this is where you’ll find the National Museum and National Gallery.
Grand Friday Mosque
The largest mosque in the Maldives, this stunning marble building opened in 1984. Its golden dome dominates the Malé skyline. Visitors must be appropriately dressed to enter, and can visit between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m outside prayer times. The beautiful wood carvings are impressive, as are the chandeliers and specially-woven carpets.
If you enjoyed your visit to the ultra modern Grand Friday Mosque, you might like to see the contrast offered by the oldest mosque in the Maldives. Old Friday Mosque, also in Malé, dates back to 1656 and has ornate coral stone carvings in its exterior walls, along with beautiful lacquerwork and fine wood carvings inside. There are no official visiting times but if you are conservatively dressed and you turn up outside prayer times, you may be allowed to enter.
Bodu Beru, or Baburu Lava as it is also known, is a Dhivehi folk dance traditionally enjoyed in the evenings after a hard day’s work. The dance is named after the large drum used to play the music. The drum is carved out of coconut wood and covered in goatskin or manta ray skin. The dance starts with a slow beat, accompanied by singing and clapping, speeding up to very fast pace.
The dance is often performed informally on beaches in the evenings, and visitors are encouraged to join in!
If I had to describe Maldivian cuisine, I’d say that it is similar to Indian (curries, chapatis, flatbreads) but with a lighter and sweeter twist thanks to the extensive use of coconut and tropical fruits. Needless to say, fresh fish – especially tuna – and seafood feature strongly on most menus.
While there is no shortage of top-end eateries to serve wealthy visitors, there are some tasty, authentic options for the budget tourist. Local cafes known as hotaa are a great source of popular dishes such as gulha and garudhiya. Gulha is a pastry ball with a delicious filling of smoked fish, while garudhiya is a fish soup served with lime, chilli and rice. Take a look at the highly-rated Magukolhu Hotaa in Malé to get an idea of what these cafes can offer.
Meals should generally cost no more than $10 per person. But, if you’re staying on one of the smaller islands, such as Fulidhoo, options will be limited. The busier islands like Maafushi have more than enough dining options which are reasonably priced. Try searching for restaurants in the Maldives on Tripadvisor, which allows you to choose your island and then filter the results by ‘cheap eats’.
If you’re self-catering, you can shop in the amazing markets of Malé. The fruit and fish market is best visited early in the morning, when the fresh catch of the day arrives. You can also stock up on your coconuts, mangoes, papaya, bananas, watermelons, limes, onions, curry leaves, garlic and chillies if you want to cook like the locals.
While those beautiful over-water villas are tempting, you can find perfectly decent accommodation for less than US$60 a night per person! For this price you get a nice modern room with air conditioning, hot water, and a complimentary breakfast.
We recommend Booking.com* for great prices and a wide selection of accommodation to suit all budgets. You can even search the site by budget amount, once you have selected your location. Our search offered 29 properties in the Maldives for a budget of US$50 or under! Take a look at the gorgeous Nirili Villa* guest house for example, which offers simple beachside accommodation good enough to be rated an ‘exceptional’ 9.5 by guests!
For just a little more, 7 nights at the family-run Fehendhoo Stay* guest house is priced from US$627 including taxes, or $635 with continental breakfast included, for two people sharing a twin or double room. Fehendhoo Stay has been rated 9.3 by guests, placing it in Booking.com’s ‘wonderful’ category. It’s not hard to see why, when you read the long list of amenities and see pictures of the gorgeous private beach located a 1-minute walk away! (Prices stated as at March 2022 – check for the latest deals.)
Self-catering is another option. AirBNB offers a wide selection of private rooms and apartments at reasonable prices.
If you do want a little more luxury, here are a couple of tips to cut the cost of your hotel stay. Choose an island close to the airport, as this will help cut down your transport costs. (Furthest-flung islands might require an expensive seaplane transfer). Avoid the over-water hotels and go for a beachside option instead. Where available, opt for a ‘garden view’ room rather than a beach view as this will be cheaper. You can still spend your day out on the beach!
Staying within the law
Before the pandemic, The Maldives was welcoming over 1.5 million visitors a year, mostly without incident. To be sure of a fabulous holiday, however, it’s important to realise that this is a strict Islamic country and the way of life is very different from what many of us are used to. Care must be taken not to fall foul of the law, especially when venturing outside resorts.
We strongly recommend consulting your government’s latest travel advice for the Maldives to make sure you are up-to-date on any health, safety and security issues that may have arisen before your trip. Make sure to do your research – but here are a few key things to know about:
- alcohol is prohibited outside holiday resorts;
- be aware of dress codes, particularly when entering holy places such as mosques;
- don’t even think about importing or consuming narcotics;
- same sex relations are illegal;
- public observance of any religion other than Islam is not allowed.
If you’re a bit of a rebel and feel tempted to test the boundaries, don’t – unless you fancy a very long stay in prison. It’s worth noting that there are very few foreign consulates in Malé – the nearest are in Sri Lanka – so if you get into trouble, help is not immediately at hand.
The weather in the Maldives is warm and sunny all year round, with temperatures between 23 and 30 degrees celsius. The dry monsoon season, from November to April, is the best time to visit. Peak tourist season is from December to March.
Velana International Airport is located on the island of Hulhulé. Hotels and resorts often pre-arrange transport for their guests and escort them when they arrive. A ferry or speedboat will usually take you to whichever island you are staying on.
If you’re keen to see different islands, unfortunately the ferries can be unreliable and often finish early in the day. One way around this, if your budget allows, is to book what is known as a liveaboard holiday. Your accommodation will be on a beautiful yacht! – and your host will ensure that you cruise around and enjoy all the water sports you desire. If this interests you, find out more on the Visit Maldives Liveaboard page.
Islamic extremists are known to live in the Maldives. Occasional anti-western demonstrations take place, or terrorist attacks involving Islamic State and other groups motivated by the conflict in Syria. As noted earlier, be sure to check your government’s travel advice for up-to-date information on areas to avoid.
So, which hotel would I like to add to my bucket list one day, if money were no object? Without doubt it would be a sunset water villa with pool at the Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru*. I could spend a wonderful week there with my husband for a mere US$29,026 – breakfast included!
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