The local islands close to Male were the first to benefit from the advent of local guesthouses, their ease of proximity to the capital and the international airport has allowed transfer costs to be kept at a minimum and wherever possible Secret Paradise will always transfer guests by public ferry. This ensures that the journey itself is an experience, choose to sit up top and watch local islands and resorts pass you by and if you are lucky you may spot dolphins. Or sit inside amongst the locals returning from a shopping trip to Male and whilst it would be very unusual to share your seat with any live animals, more often than not there will be a few motor cycles, a mattress or two and boxes and bags of unknown purchases. On one of my first ferry journeys, I sat on the roof travelling from Male to Himmufushi, a 90 minute journey, during which time 3 local women chatted with me, eager to learn where I was going and what I was doing, eager to teach me a few local words of Dhivehi and eager to marry me off to one of their sons!
How to dress
Staying on a local island verses a resort is not without its differences. The Maldives is a 100% Muslim country; therefore bikinis are a no-go on the local islands unless the island or guesthouse has a private garden or a tourist bikini beach. This, however, should not be a big deal as most excursions involve a boat or an uninhabited island where the law does not apply. To be honest the locals are far more tolerant now of western dress, t-shirts and shorts, sundresses and vest tops are not frowned upon. My advice however, to fellow female travellers is to dress modestly, keeping your chest and top of thighs covered, we are after all guests in another country. For tours that may involve wandering the sandy roads of a local island community, visiting a mosque or a family home extra care should be taken to respect Maldivian culture and cultural values.
One other big consideration regarding staying on a local island is alcohol, or lack of it. Laws prohibit alcohol being drunk on local islands but this can be easily overcome by a day or evening visit to a resort. From some islands it is also possible to take dinner on a boat allowing access to your favorite tipple and should you choose to take the real budget option and stay within the capital area then a trip to the bar of the airport hotel is only a short bus journey away! It’s surprising however, how much fun you can actually have without alcohol even more so when you are visiting an island paradise and I have yet to come across a guest who has felt they were on a self enforced detox! If you are a coffee drinker then the Maldives should be your ideal destination! If there was a national drink it would be Nescafe, served strong and black. The likes of Costa and Starbucks would have a field day should they ever be allowed to get their foot in the door.
What to eat
Dining on a local island pretty much guarantees freshly cooked food on a daily basis. Tuna and reef fish will generally form some part of a meal especially if there has been a good catch had that day by the local fishermen, add to this chicken, beef, pasta, noodles, rice, salad and fresh papaya, water melon, banana and mango and you have a veritable feast! A word of warning, more often than not you will find guesthouses and local cafes offer a wide menu of western and European dishes and very little in the way of Maldivian food. Never be afraid to ask for a local dish you will find the chef to be accomodating and pleased to show off local cuisine.
Whilst we are talking about food, I should mention hedikaa. The Maldives equivalent of ‘tapas’ is how I would best describe this afternoon tradition. Walk into any coffee shop, café or restaurant between the hours of three and five pm and you will find an array of bite size savory and sweet delights. Certainly, not one of the healthiest snacks if you are watching your waistline, as most are deep fried but none the less I’m very partial to my afternoon treat!!! Savory ones are filled with vegetables, tuna, egg and chili. Whilst a few of the sweet ones will look familiar – pancakes, French toast, sponge cake you must try is coconut pirini. Select as many as you wish and then to follow true Maldivian tradition accompany them with a mug of black tea.
Chili incidentally is incorporated into pretty much everything so if this fiery spice is not your thing, ensure you ask for less or indeed none! Pork is forbidden so don’t expect bacon butties for breakfast but instead take the opportunity to try a traditional Maldivian breakfast dish: masshuni and roshi – flaked tuna, grated coconut, chilli and lemon mixed together and eaten with a flat style bread which makes a refreshing change and if like me you are converted it is very easy to make at home!
Before we move off the subject of food i should highlight that It is common practice for Maldivian’s to finish their meal off with beetle nuts and leaves. Plates are automatically placed on the table but beware there is an art to the preparation of this Maldivian equivalent of an after dinner mint! Flatten out your leaf, add slices of beetle nuts, a clove, a cardamom seed and sprinkle with a ground fruit and spice flavored powder. Fold up into a bite size parcel and pop into your mouth! Oops forgot to mention it’s an acquired taste and for many westerners the phrase that is commonly used is it’s like chewing cardboard!
One final consideration is that local islands are not always as pristine as resort islands. Though they’re catching up and are still beautiful, be forewarned that there are still some growing pains and some room for improvement. The Maldivian’s would historically have thrown their waste into the ocean, however, that was in the days when waste would have been predominantly food waste and all biodegradable, then came along plastic and then came over one million visitors. Add all this together and we are presented with a country that has a significant challenge regarding waste removal. Some of you may have seen the BBC documentary on rubbish island, it’s existence as an island to purely burn the tons and tons of waste produced evokes much debate. Positively, there are a number of actions being taken to manage waste and over time a more environmentally friendly waste management process will come into being throughout the archipelago. As guests to the Maldives we can play our part by taking home plastic waste wherever possible and by leading by example.
It is also important to remember, especially if your first impression of the Maldives is the capital area of Male and Hulhumale that like most countries there is less of a community spirit in the city area, whereas on other local islands there is a real sense of community and the need to take care of their home island. But don’t get me wrong you are not going to visit rubbish strewn islands but also don’t expect every local island to be a perfect vision of that picture postcard image.
What you cannot fault however is the friendliness and hospitality of the Maldivian’s. Nothing is too much trouble for them. It was this hospitality and eagerness to please that gave rise to the cultural aspects of Secret Paradise tours.
Sitting in the home of a local family for dinner can be a humbling experience. We encourage the local families that we work with to sit and eat with our guests. On my initial visits to a local home I would be provided with an array of food, enough to feed a small army, but as I sat and stuffed my face the family would sit and watch me and no amount of encouragement would get them to join me! Any young children at first can be a little shy of a group of strangers but they soon come out from behind their mothers legs and more often than not end up sitting on someone’s knee. The older generation sometimes may not be able to speak English but will do their utmost to understand your sign language which as you can imagine generally adds laughter to the proceedings. Learning to eat traditionally with your fingers is also another great ice breaker and to be very honest combining the components of local dishes – white rice, a clear tuna broth, pickled vegetables, chili paste, a squeeze of lemon as you would if you were making a cake does enhance the flavor enormously. It is also a great way of locating any fish bones!
One of the great things about staying on a local island is that you have the opportunity to see first hand how locals go about their daily lives. As I have already mentioned the Maldives is a Muslim country and therefore there is a call to prayer from the mosque 5 times a day. This compelling and melodious sound particularly at sun rise and sunset can be quite mesmerizing. As part of our local island tours we invite guests to visit a mosque and learn more about how the Islamic faith creates the foundation on how Maldivians live their daily lives.
Also as part of the tour wherever possible we will take you to see how a boat is hand crafted. I’m not just talking about a traditional fishing boat, I’m talking of large 10 cabin live aboard boats used by divers and cruising guests. The unique approach to the construction of boats was invented in the Maldives centuries back.
During the early days, palm trees were used as the timber to build a boat and only hand-crafted tools were used. Carpenters now use automatic tools to work but despite this automation, the skill that was inherited from their forefathers still brings the boats that we see in the Maldives waters today into existence.
A visit to the local school is also included and dependent on school term timings we invite our guests to observe a lesson and on occasion should our guests choose, join in! Schooling in the Maldives is not particularly different to the UK apart from the fact that children are up at the crack of dawn for a 7.30am start. Subjects include Dhivehi, Arabic, English, Math’s and Islamic studies.
Evening’s on local islands are quiet affairs more often than not spent on the beach, chatting with friends over a cup of coffee. Early evening activities include cruising the Indian Ocean in search of dolphins as the sun sets on the horizon creating a hue of orange, pink and golds or try your hand at fishing Maldivian style. The Maldives is unique in that its history depends on tuna fishing and the locals are excellent fishermen using pole and line and are happy to share their line fishing skills with you. Your catch will be freshly prepared for you to enjoy as a BBQ dinner.
However, in my opinion nothing can beat those tranquil moments of sitting on a white sand beach looking out across the blue expanse of the ocean to the horizon with nothing else in sight. Or lying back under a star filled sky at night on the lookout for shooting stars. With little or no light pollution the night sky is filled with twinkling lights and on a full moon evening, the words ‘by the light of a silvery moon’ take on real meaning. Moments like these remind me of how small and insignificant I actually am in the big scheme of the universe.
Maldivian’s are great believers in a relaxing lifestyle! There is one thing I have come to know about the people of Maldives and that is that they enjoy a slow paced stress-free life; while foreign urban creatures of speed think Maldivians may be slow, they are actually perfectly on time according to their own schedules! The whole point of experiencing the real Maldives is to learn about new cultures and lifestyles and see how diversely people live elsewhere. If you are on holiday and you need to hurry, you aren’t on holiday.
Share my experiences on one of Secret Paradise’s local island hopping tours.