Everyone surely has one – or many – dream destinations, places that seem perfect in many ways and somehow unreachable, too. The Maldives has always been that for me, a place of my dreams. For some reason I always thought it was out of my reach.
When we moved to Malaysia, I met people who had been snorkeling in the beautiful waters of the Maldives, and suddenly my dream no longer felt so distant. I kept searching for flights and googled pictures of crystal clear waters and amazing marine life. However, it was only last summer when we were planning my friend’s visit to Malaysia, that we started to plan a trip to the Maldives – after all, the flights to the Maldives are much cheaper from KL than from Europe!
I had always thought that you need to have a fairly generous travel budget to be able to travel to the Maldives, but after a few minutes of searching we found inexpensive guesthouses. That kick-started the planning of the holiday of our dreams!
Where and how to get there?
The Maldives is an island group in the Indian Ocean, consisting of 1192 coral islands, grouped in 26 atolls. The islands are spread over 90,000 square km, so the distance from the capital Male to your chosen island/resort might be very long. This is something that needs to be checked first when you start your hotel search.
The islands close to Male are reachable by ferries or speed boats, but if you wish to travel to islands further away from Male, a seaplane/airplane is your only option.
After the regulations changed in 2009, tourists are now allowed to stay outside the high-end resorts on local islands. This opened new opportunities both for local businesses and tourists traveling with lower budgets. We traveled to Ukulhas, a small island located in the North Ari Atoll island group, 80km from Male to the west.
Travel options to Ukulhas are local ferries, that do not operate every day, or speedboats. A ferry is an inexpensive option, costing only USD3 per person, whereas a speedboat costs USD50 per adult and USD25 per child. We chose the ferry on the way there and a speedboat on the way back, as a ferry ride was not available that day. I am not a huge fan of speedboats, but we reached the airport safely and the kids were very impressed by our arrival to the airport by boat!
Ukulhas island is roughly 1km long and there are virtually no cars. Local guesthouses are popping up across the island and it will soon have its first multi-storey hotel, too. However, local regulations limit the number of tourists on the island to 600 at a time. The island is not very big so the 600 tourists do show, but it is nothing compared to busy tourist hot spots in Southeast Asia!
The Maldives is an Islamic country and this shows on small islands like Ukulhas, whereas the resorts have different rules. If you choose to stay on a local island, you have to respect the local culture and religion. Alcohol is prohibited and tourists should dress appropriately, covering shoulders and not wear very short shorts.
The beach in Ukulhas is considered “bikini zone” and tourists can happily roam around wearing bikinis. However, the sun is burning hot, much harsher than here in Malaysia! We ended up wearing full cover swimming suits, both kids and adults.
Proper sun protection is indeed a must – my son suffered from snow blindness for a few days and his lips got so burnt it hurt to eat. And all this happened with a hat on and SPF50+ sun cream that is especially meant for face and lips. My son usually refuses to wear sunglasses but after this experience he is warming up to the idea!
What to expect?
The Maldives is all about the sun, sea, beach and snorkelling. So be prepared – if you choose to travel to a small local island that’s pretty much what you will be doing the whole time. We met some tourists who had spent a day in an upscale resort with fancy drinks, swimming in pools and enjoying nice massages at the spa. However, to be able to enjoy all of that, you need to pay an entrance fee to the resort and prices for food, drinks and spa might easily double your travel budget.
In addition to resort trips, the local hotels offer different half-day and full-day trips: swimming with rays, dolphin watching, fishing, picnicking on deserted islands, snorkelling, diving etc. Prices for these trips are anything up from USD50, usually USD70-100 per person. We took a memorable 2-hour dolphin trip. The kids were so excited, they were actually jumping around when they saw the first glimpses of these playful creatures. The sea was quite rough though and of course there were no life vests available. Luckily we had taken some from the hotel – the years spent traveling in Asia have taught us something!
Food and drinks in Ukulhas
Maldivian food did not impress us much and we didn’t find the price-quality ratio very good. Tuna was available in many different dishes – but from the can or from the freezer! This was a big disappointment for us. Ukulhas has five restaurants, but all of them serve more or less the same food. Olhumati was our favourite restaurant – they serve fresh reef fish and their grilled prawns are very good. The kids lived mostly on French fries, beef burgers and spaghetti bolognaise for the ten days we were there. Our best culinary experience was the Maldivian breakfast mas huni with roshi, mas huni being tuna, coconut, onion and herbs, grated and eaten with roshi (local roti).
What to expect when staying at a local guesthouse?
We only stayed at one guesthouse, Ukulhas Beach Inn, so I cannot speak for all of them. However, I talked to some other tourists and all of them had the same experience. Local guesthouses and small hotels are not fancy or luxurious, but they are also not very expensive. Breakfasts are quite basic, cleanliness not necessarily top class and service varies a lot.
Our hotel’s staff was nice and we had good discussions with our hosts. The “room boy” (as they are apparently called in the Maldives) had just started one month ago and had previously been working in a textile factory in Bangladesh. He obviously did not have the best knowledge of hotel maintenance but he was certainly doing his best. I would give our hotel’s service five stars because nowhere have I felt as welcome as I felt there. Our kids were taking turns throwing massive tantrums, but that did not cause any negative energy whatsoever between us and the staff or other customers. The hotel manager even took our kids to his home to borrow more books after they had finished the ones we had with us during the first days (like I said, there was not that much to do after coming back from the beach).
The beach in Ukulhas is just amazing! The western side of the island is dedicated for swimming and snorkelling. The beach is very quiet, which might be also because we visited during low season and there were hardly any tourists on the island. There were also no boats anywhere close to the beach, which was wonderful, because boats and snorkelling are not a very relaxing combination. I think the peaceful waters are one reason why the marine life is as amazing as it is.
Ukulhas has some small grocery shops selling beach toys, but there was little variety. I suggest to pack everything: hats, flip flops, snorkels, life vests for kids, sun screen, sunglasses, books, magazines… everything you think you might need during your holiday. Snacks, drinks and some fruit are sold in Ukulhas. Some islands might have a better or worse selection of shops; this is something you might want to check out before your trip!
The coral reef itself was unfortunately almost dead, mostly because of the tsunami in 2004 and of course the ever warming temperature of the sea caused by climate change. Fortunately, there is still enough food for fish and other marine life – the diversity was mind-blowing. We swam with sharks, sea turtles, eels and hundreds of unidentified fish. We spotted some lionfish too – they are supposedly poisonous but very beautiful! And with all of this right from our beach. There was no need to make any additional snorkelling trips, because the marine life was so rich at Ukulhas.
Budget holidays in the Maldives are for people who don’t expect much luxury. Local islands do not have many activities apart from the rather expensive day-trips. If you wish to enjoy top notch service and surroundings, then I would go for a resort holiday.
Our kids of 5, 6, and 8 were old enough to play in the sand all day and entertain themselves in the evening in the small hotel room. I had a minor surgery right before our trip, so I had to leave our toddler behind in KL with her dad. It turned out to be a good decision; Ukulhas would not have been as relaxing and perfect if I would have had a toddler in tow.
Both me and my friend find resort holidays a bit dull and absolutely loved our adventure on this local island. After all, what else do you need than a beautiful beach with the most amazing sea life?
All photos: Inari Fernandez