Set in the Laccadive Sea, off the western coast of India, the Maldives are made up of a natural necklaces of 26 coral atolls reaching down to cross the equator. Within those 26 atolls are roughly 1,200 islands and of these, about 200 are inhabited and 100 are resorts. Perhaps mostly known as a super-luxe destination, the sort of spot where celebrities, singers and supermodels (together with their soon-to-be-exes) go for glamorous beach retreats, the stunning white-sand beaches and an amazing underwater world make the Maldives an obvious choice for the holiday of a lifetime. With some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world, the clear, turquoise waters are a must for anyone with an interest in marine life. The richness and variety is astonishing: dazzling coral walls, magnificent caves and schools of brightly coloured tropical fish on the reef; fluorescent parrot fish the size of pillows, clams looking like like nothing so much as a pair of cushiony, pouting lips, black moray eels with sharp protruding teeth, plus manta rays, turtles, sharks and even the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. The best bit? The water is so warm most people don’t even bother to wear a wetsuit.
It’s strange to think that it’s only in the last few years that these idyllic islands have opened up to independent travellers, meaning that visitors no longer have to stay only in resorts, separate from the local population. Intrepid individuals can now follow their own course and hop from island to island by small public ferry, staying amongst the devoutly Muslim but welcoming local population. With a rapidly expanding number of private guesthouses on inhabited islands, you can get the flavour of real Maldivian life, in all its Islamic constraints. (Whilst it’s certainly fascinating, do be aware that there's no booze and and you’ll have to swim in a burqa - optional for men!)

People

Maldivians have a relationship with the sea that’s so old they could well be classified as merpeople. Many believe that the legendary, sun-worshipping seafarers known as the Redin were first to land in the islands around 2000 BC. In the centuries that followed, settlers from southern India and Sri Lanka arrived, in turn followed by sailors from East Africa and Arabic countries (in fact, Dhivehi, the Maldives’ native language is said to be a mix of Persian, Urdu, Arabic and Tamil). In the 16th century, the Portuguese set their sights on the islands and seized control in 1558. They enjoyed a brief 15-year rule before a revolt led by Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who is still revered by most Maldivians.
Unsurprisingly, the unique Maldivian character has clearly been shaped by this turbulent past: They are a small, kindred society unified by common history, the Dhivehi language, and the Islamic faith. (Originally, Maldivians were Buddhists, but in 1133 Islam was proclaimed the national religion and remains so today; no other religions are allowed.) Intelligent and playful, as well as devout, the Maldivians are tolerant and respectful of each other and hospitable and welcoming to visitors.

 

Places

The Maldives is mainly (and rightly!) famed for its beaches and diving. But if you’re looking for a little more from your trip, here are 4 places well worth a visit, plus a diving site that’s simply not to be missed…

Utheemu Ganduvaru
The childhood home of Sultan Mohamed Thankurufaanu, this small palace is located in Utheemu, an inhabited island in the north of Maldives. Alongside his brothers, Mohamed Thankurufaanu overthrew Portuguese rule in 1573 and is considered one of the heroes of the Maldives. Visitors are shown around and can see the fascinating 500-year-old wooden interiors, including swing beds (used to keep cool in the heat), lamps that burn cocoa palm oil, ornate wooden carvings and guest sleeping quarters.
  
Malé
The pleasantly quirky, pint-sized capital city with the raffish charm of the Caribbean, Malé offers the best chance to see the ‘real’ Maldives away from ubiquitous resort buffet meals and over-chlorinated infinity pools. Brightly painted buildings huddle on its shoreline, small boats grace the harbour and men on motor scooters, either unaware of — or uninterested in — traffic laws, zip down the boulevard that runs along the sea. But still, in every part of this throbbing, mercantile, densely crowded city, at certain times you’ll hear a plangent sound that cuts through the buzz, bustle and noise: from a gold-domed mosque, a muezzin will be offering the call to prayer.

The National Museum
Located in Malé and recently gifted by China, the National Museum is, frankly, something of an eyesore. Nevertheless it contains an excellent collection of historic artefacts. Downstairs are galleries devoted to the ancient and medieval periods of Maldivian history. Items on display include weaponry, religious relics and household wares as well as many beautifully carved Arabic and Thaana-engraved pieces of wood commemorating the conversion of the Maldives to Islam. Upstairs is a display representing the modern period and including examples of the lacquer-work boxes for which the Maldives are famous, and various pieces of antique technology.

Hukuru Miskiiy (Old Friday Mosque)
Also in Malé, Hukuru Miskiiy is the oldest mosque in the Maldives, dating from 1656. It’s an exquisite structure with coral stone walls carved with elaborate decorations and Quranic script. The interior is truly magnificent and famed for the fine lacquer work and intricate woodcarvings. Visitors wanting to go inside are supposed to get permission from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs . However, most of the staff are officials of the ministry and, if you’re polite and respectfully dressed, they’ll usually give you permission to enter on the spot. Don’t even bother trying, though if you’re inappropriately dressed.
  
Manta Point
One of the best experiences for divers coming to Maldives is to be able to snorkel or scuba dive with Manta rays. Weighing up to 5,000 pounds and with a wingspan of up to 25 feet, these majestic beauties can be found in large numbers in Manta Point. The best time to see them is from May to November. Coral outcrops at about 8m are a ‘cleaning station’, where cleaner wrasse feed on parasites from the mantas’ wings. Cliffs, coral tables, turtles, sharks and numerous reef fish are other attractions, as are the nearby Lankan Caves.
 

Pleasures

Many would argue that the real pleasures in the Maldives lie underwater. Even in Malé, there's really only the Friday Mosque, the National Museum and a couple of food markets to enjoy (no bars, no clubs), whilst on the tourist islands there's nothing to see except ocean, sand, palm trees and hotels. But nowhere else in the Indian Ocean, or the wider world, offers quite the same combination of natural tropical beauty and utterly away-from-it-all pleasure as the Maldives - and offers it with such a welcoming smile. And there is, of course, always the food…
The Maldivian cuisine has strong influences from neighbouring countries, especially India and Sri Lanka. Curries, locally called riha, are immensely popular and are usually accompanied by roshi, the Maldives’ version of India’s roti. But beneath the flavour and cooking influences is a distant Maldivian tang – a different kind of sweetness, a milder spiciness, and an overall exotic taste.
Because the country is entirely surrounded by water, fish is a dominant element of Maldivian cuisine. Whether curried, steamed, or fried, fish dishes inevitably come out mouthwateringly tasty . Coconut is another major element in Maldivian traditional cuisine, which adds a milky flavour to dishes, particularly to curries.
Start your day with mas huni — shredded smoked fish with grated coconuts and onions, the most common (and most delicious) Maldivian breakfast. Or perhaps, later in the morning, Garudiya - fish broth prepared using chillies, onion and lemon juice.
Don’t miss out on a simple egg curry…an everyday dish and second only to fish curry in popularity, the recipe differs from region to region and from cook to cook. There’s one constant, however: a thick, flavourful sauce that tempts, tickles and delights the palate.
Next, try Kulhi boakibaa, a Maldivian fish cake traditionally made of tuna and coconut. Somewhat spicy, this traditional Maldivian snack food is available in restaurants and cafés.
Like kulhi boakibaa, gulha is a Maldivian snack and is widely associated with fish balls. Forget that, though and just enjoy its delectable filling. The filling, which is usually made of smoked tuna, coconut, curry leaves, onion, ginger, lemon, turmeric, chilli, and salt, is stuffed into coconut and flour dough which is then shaped into balls and deep-fried.
And, for an ultra-local experience, try bambukeylu hiti (breadfruit curry). You’ll probably never see this glorious dish outside of the Maldives (personal experience has shown that you’ll even have a tough time finding recipes for it online), so when you’re in the islands, you simply can’t afford to let the chance to try it pass you by.
 

Do

Remember at all times that, outside the resorts, the Maldives is a different world - an Islamic nation ruled by strict Sharia law. Even being perceived to break it can lead to severe consequences
Dress modestly, but especially when entering a religious site. Women are expected to cover their bodies and thighs
Eat with your fingers if you wish to follow the local tradition. Keep in mind, though, that it’s considered unhygienic to touch food with the left hand. If in doubt use a spoon
Be conscious of the delicate local environment. Do not touch or pick corals when diving or snorkelling
Use the Islamic greeting Assalaam Alaikum to greet friends and strangers alike. It will be appreciated
 

Don’t

Import alcohol – importing alcohol or drinking it in local islands is strictly prohibited Sunbathe nude or topless– nudity is strictly prohibited in the Maldives, so is topless sunbathing
Hug or kiss in public – the country is conservative when it comes to expressing physical displays of affection
Smoke or consume food in Malé during the holy month of Ramadan
Buy turtle shells and black corals – they’re protected species in the Maldives, and you’ll be fined for buying or selling them
 

Best time to go

There’s no bad time to go to the Maldives, with good weather throughout the year. But April is one of the best times to visit the islands with clear water (for diving) and hot weather. The dry north east monsoon season (with little rain and lower humidity) takes place in December, January, February and March, while the wet south western monsoon (which has stronger winds and rain) from May, June, July, August, September and November. The temperature on the islands remains pretty consistent at around 30°C all year round.
 

Best way to go

What better way to explore 1,200 islands than by boat?
Anchor in Malé - it’s not to be missed. Provisioning is excellent as local produce is cheap, and for a price, you can get almost anything, often imported fresh from Australia by plane, plus the local restaurants near the markets are extremely good and extremely cheap. Spend one night here then go about 3 miles over to Hulhumale lagoon and anchor in a man-made lagoon whilst you decide your next destination. Whatever it is, no problem. Your boat can take you to any atoll or island you wish, meaning your trip is completely customisable.
Your boat’s customisable too…just choose from any of the beautifully equipped vessels.
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Maldives