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Diving the Maldives on a Budget


12 December 2017, by Adam Broadbent

The Maldives - epitomised by idyllic islands, crystal-clear lagoons and underwater treasures - have long been regarded as a luxury destination for the rich and famous, leaving the budget conscious traveller to admire the beautiful atolls in the pages of glossy travel magazines or the social media feeds of celebrities. But not anymore!
Discover our selection of affordable destinations in the Maldives; all carefully chosen to ensure your Maldives experience will leave your Instagram feed looking like a Conde Nast photoshoot!

For decades, tourism was confined to either resort islands or liveaboards, but after the Maldivian government changed its laws in 2009 and allowed tourists to stay on local islands, a plethora of new affordable options have flourished. Although you might not stroll along the same beach as Lewis Hamilton or swim in an infinity pool with Kim Kardashian, it is now much easier to get your own slice of Maldivian paradise, without getting a call from your bank manager.

SOME PROS AND CONS OF BUDGET TRAVEL

Traditional dancing on Fulidhoo | © Fulidhoo Dive

Pros

  • It’s cheaper! Accommodation, activities, and food are all significantly less than resort islands. Guesthouse rooms range from US$50 - US$150/night, dives around US$45-55, and full-board is roughly US$20/day per person.
  • The incredible dive sites will still be the same regardless of where you sleep!
  • Many of the base leaders and local dive centre owners have years of experience in the luxury sector, so expect great service.
  • You can get around relatively cheaply by using inexpensive local ferries. For example, a ferry from Male’ to Fulidhoo Island (3.5 hours) costs only US$3.5 each way.
  • Budget travellers may find it easier to get involved with the locals and experience some Maldivian culture outside of the big resorts. Maldivians love music as much as they love fishing, and witnessing the local drumming, known as Boduberu, is always a highlight.
  • Try Hedhikaa: these traditional snacks or “short-eats” are best savoured after the afternoon prayer, Asr, at around 4pm when they have been freshly baked and are still warm. And they are an easy way to fill up when you are on a budget.


    Cons

    • Alcohol is prohibited on local islands, but a detox is never a bad thing!
    • As a 100% Muslim nation, it’s important to respect local culture and women are advised to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees, especially when exploring the island.
    • Women can’t wear swimwear on the islands unless there is a designated “Bikini Beach” for tourists.
    • Food options are often fairly limited and can be basic, if not challenging, for vegetarians and vegans.
    • In the low season, bad weather can affect the local ferry service and disrupt your plans.

    OUR TOP 5 BUDGET DESTINATIONS IN THE MALDIVES

    1

    FULIDHOO ISLAND, VAAVU ATOLL

    vaavu_fulidhoo_dive_banner_2-01.jpg#asset:3703

    Aerial view of Fulidhoo | © Fulidhoo Dive

    Fulidhoo Island is located in Vaavu, an atoll renowned for its diving with sharks, manta rays, vast amounts of fish life as well yellow soft corals carpeting the reef walls and overhangs. Fotteyo Kandu is often regarded one of the best channel dives in the Maldives and the night dive at Alimatha jetty with dozens of nurse sharks and whiprays is not to be missed.

    This beautiful island is 700m long, 200m wide, and has only 200 local residents. It is also home to one of our favourite dive centres in the Maldives, Fulidhoo Dive. The only PADI Five Star dive centre on the island, it is run by Four Seasons veterans Ali Miuraj and Adele Verdier-Ali. They combine 5-star service, a wealth of diving experience and knowledge, and friendly Maldivian hospitality to make your experiences here unforgettable.

    Great for:

    • Exhilarating channel and night dives
    • Learning to dive or snorkeling
    • Laid-back, tranquil island life
    • Gorgeous deserted sandbars for day trips and surface intervals

    Best time to go: Year round, but best November to April

    How to get here: Either a 1 hour 10 minute speedboat at US$50/person each way or a 3.5 hour public ferry from Villingili ferry terminal in Male’ at US$3.5/person each way. Departure times are very specific so let us help with arranging your travel logistics.

    View FULIDHOO ISLAND, VAAVU ATOLL
    2

    UKULHAS ISLAND, NORTH ARI ATOLL

    ukulhas_sandbank_banner-01.jpg#asset:3826Picnic on a sandbank | © Ukulhas Inn

    Ukulhas Island is the ideal eco-friendly budget option in the Maldives. This island, located in North Ari Atoll, was awarded a Green Leaf Award in 2014 for outstanding services to protecting and preserving the Island’s environment.

    The island’s location at the northern tip of North Ari - also known as Alifu Alifu Atoll - means guests are well placed to dive some famous sites: Maaya Thila, a submerged pinnacle covered in marine life and home to eagle rays, turtles, barracuda and much more; Fish Head, an oblong shaped reef with schooling fish and snapper as well as resident Humpback wrasse; and nearby Rasdhoo Atoll and the legendary Rasdhoo Madivaru site, with its resident hammerheads that are often encountered on the early morning dive. 

    We recommend staying with Ukulhas Inn. Just a minute walks from the beach, they offer modern, well-appointed accommodation as well as running excursions, diving trips, manta ray safaris, dolphin cruises and sand bank picnics.

    Great for:

    • Variety of diving
    • Selection of excursions

    Best time to go: Year round, but best November to April

    How to get here: Either a 1.5 hour speedboat at US$50/person each way or a 3.5 hour public ferry from Villingili ferry terminal in Male’ at US$3.5/person each way. Departure times are very specific so let us help with arranging your travel logistics.

    3

    FUVAMULAH ATOLL, SOUTHERN MALDIVES

    fuvamulah_aerial_banner-01.jpg#asset:3827Aerial view of Fuvamulah | © Farikede Divers

    Situated in the far south of the Maldives at 0°17'S, Fuvahmulah is the country’s closest island to the equator. This isolated and relatively unchartered island promises pristine reefs, large pelagics such as oceanic reef manta rays and mola mola, as well as big shark diving - threshers, tigers and oceanic whitetips.

    We recommend diving with the big shark lovers at Farikede Divers. They’ve pioneered diving and exploring these waters and are definitely your best bet to get some awesome shark encounters.

    Great for:

    • Sharks and big pelagics!
    • ‘Tiger Zoo’, the special dive site for tiger sharks.
    • The only beach break to surf in the Maldives
    • Remoteness means complete escapism

    Best time to go: Year round, due to reduced impact of monsoon seasons

    How to get here: Being so far south, a domestic flight is your only option. Prices are US$240 return including taxes with two daily flights.

    View FUVAMULAH ATOLL, SOUTHERN MALDIVES
    4

    FEHENDHOO, GOIDHOO ATOLL

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    Beach views on Fehendhoo | © Aqua Blue Fehendhoo

    Fehendhoo is a tropical paradise in the 3-island Goidhoo Atoll, located just south of Baa Atoll. There are less than 100 residents and the Fehendhoo children even take a school boat to another nearby island for their lessons. This lush island, covered in coconut-palms and banyan trees, is ideal for simplicity and escapism. Surrounded by azure lagoons and healthy reefs, it is perfect for snorkeling, catamaran sailing and diving. Day trips are also possible to Hanifaru Bay, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where hundreds of manta rays and whale sharks come to feed on plankton accumulations. There is also a long stretch of “bikini beach” where normal island dress codes do not apply.

    The owner-operated Aqua Blue Fehendhoo is a brand new offering on the island that is run by Maldivian veterans, Chikako and Mathias. They’ve been long time friends since the ZuBlu team started diving in the Maldives back in 2006 – and their hospitality is one of the warmest in the Maldives.

    Great for:

    • Quiet Maldivian escapism
    • Day trips to Hanifaru Bay
    • Healthy reefs for snorkeling and diving 

    Best time to go: June to September

    How to get here: Fehendhoo is a bit out of the way, so the first step is to get to Goidhoo island. The cheapest option is by public speed boat. Operating 3 times a week - Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays - it departs from Male' at 9 AM and returns from Goidhoo at 1:30PM. Travel time is about 2 hours and costs about 33 USD per person, one-way. Alternatively a domestic flight, of which there are 4-6 every day between Male' and local Dharavandhoo airport. The price is 80 USD per person one-way plus speed boat transfer from/to Dharavandhoo to Goidhoo for 170 USD (per boat). Once at Goidhoo a short local boat transfer can take you over to Fehendhoo.

    5

    THULUSDHOO ISLAND, KAAFU ATOLL

    thulusdhoo_cokes_surf_camp_banner-01.jpg#asset:3828Surfboards and palm trees |© Cokes Surf Camp

    Thulusdhoo Island is the capital of Kaafu Atoll and located just 28km north of the capital, Male’. Although not much larger in size than our other recommendations, it is substantially more populated with around 1,400 people living there; many were displaced from the nearby Rinbodhoo island after the 2004 Tsunami.

    With more people comes more accommodation options, more restaurants and even a Coca-Cola factory – the only one in the world to use desalinated sea water and and the source of Thulusdhoo’s nickname of Coke’s Island.

    Surfing is the main draw here with Chicken and Cokes the best breaks. You’re also not far from other iconic North Male’ Atoll breaks such as Lohis, Sultans and Jailbreaks. There is a bikini beach for tourists but in general, the enforcement of the dress code is a bit stricter here so pack your bag accordingly. The beaches also aren’t as pristine and idyllic as the other islands we’ve suggested.

    Great for:

    • Surfing

    Best time to go: June to October

    How to get here: Either a 25 minute speedboat at US$46/person each way or a public ferry from Villingili ferry terminal in Male’ at US$3/person each way. Departure times are very specific so let us help with arranging your travel logistics.

    View THULUSDHOO ISLAND, KAAFU ATOLL

    WHAT TO PACK


    Our recommended list of things to pack beyond your toothbrush, t-shirts, and swimwear:

    • Mask – we highly recommend purchasing your own well-fitting mask rather than renting second-hand from your dive centre or guest house.
    • Fins and snorkel – yes, they take up luggage space but you can’t knock comfort in the water, and you can coordinate colour schemes with your swimwear and mask to guarantee that perfect Insta pic.
    • Sunscreen & Aftersun – try to use eco and coral friendly brands.
    • Mosquito Repellent
    • Sarong – great for lying on the beach but also to cover your shoulders when exploring the islands. Even close to a “bikini beach” it is always best to respect local traditions and dress more conservatively.
    • Head torch – handy if you decide to go on a late-night stroll along the beach.

    Some extra eco ideas:

    • Glass straw – purchasing your own reusable straw helps reduce single-use plastic waste.
    • Water bottle – it’s always good to have water to hand in tropical climates plus having a refillable water container helps reduce plastic waste.
    • Travel towel – these are great for beach use and quickly drying yourself after a swim. It also reduces your use of the resorts’ towels and takes the strain off their laundry requirements.

    In terms of toiletries and grooming products, we recommend you bring everything you need, however, the majority of local islands do have a collection of small shops selling groceries and souvenirs, as well as sunscreen or mosquito repellent in case you have forgotten to bring your own. Although the local currency is Maldivian Rufiyaa, US dollars are accepted throughout the atolls. And with English the country’s second language most shopkeepers and islanders will be able to converse in English, especially the younger generation.

    TRAVEL ADVICE


    Currency: Maldivian rufiyaa, but US dollars are accepted everywhere.

    Religion: 100% Islam. Some cultural sensitivity is required with regard to dress code and no alcohol is allowed on local islands.

    Visas: All nationalities are granted a 30-day free visa on arrival. Officially you need to show an onward ticket and proof of funds, but this doesn’t always happen and immigration is usually an easy process.

    TOP ACTIVITIES IN THE MALDIVES

    Diving

    Of course we are a little biased, but the diving in the Maldives really is incredible. For the certified diver, the diversity of dive sites and marine life is breath-taking; from current-charged channel dives with sharks and schooling fish, to shallow reefs with cleaning stations for manta rays, the Maldives has it all. And with plenty of sheltered lagoons, the Maldives is also ideal for those wishing to learn to dive, especially with the prospect of seeing so much more once qualified.

    Snorkeling

    The shallow reefs, known locally as Giris, provide aquarium-like habitats that can be enjoyed comfortably with little concern for currents. The lagoons around the islands act as vital nurseries for reef life as well as sanctuaries for spotted eagle rays and juvenile sharks, making them great to explore. As a rule of thumb, islands within the atolls will have better reefs and provide more enjoyable snorkeling as they are more sheltered, whilst islands on the exterior of the atoll are barrier reefs so the snorkeling is harder to swim out to and there is less coral in the shallows. 

    Surfing

    With its reefs and channels galore, this atoll nation is a surfer’s heaven. Almost regardless of the tides and winds, there will likely be a corner of reef somewhere that is barrelling, pumping, glassy or simply fun to muck about on. North and South Male’ Atoll are the most well-established surfing spots with accessible breaks and a large number of boats offering surf trips.

    Watersports

    We appreciate that thrill-seekers may like to charge about on jetskis, but we prefer to get our kicks by enjoying nature, and the best way to do this is to head out into the lagoons on kayaks, SUP boards, or windsurfs. Being a lot quieter on the water will likely get you closer to spotted eagle rays, either looking for food or even mating, as well as juvenile blacktip reef sharks hunting in the shallows.


    ZUBLU'S TOP BUDGET DESTINATION
    Adam Broadbent
    Co-founder of ZuBlu