Widely regarded as home to some of the most beautiful beaches on Earth, the Maldives is a true bucket-list destination. This collection of 26 island atolls is far from almost everything, adrift in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, although getting there from New Zealand is easier than you might think – for example Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to the Maldives capital, Malé, with just a single stop in Singapore.
But apart from the fact that it’s an island paradise to satisfy the most persnickety tropical holiday lover, what else do you need to know about the Maldives? Here are five facts that may come as a surprise.
The sea life is incredible
Experts agree: the diving in the Maldives is some of the best in the world. Incredibly clear water and diversity of ocean life make for superb Scuba diving and underwater photography, while coral reefs offer spectacular sights closer to the surface. If experiencing ocean life is a priority, look out for resorts that market themselves as diving or snorkelling specialists, and try to time your visit for the calmest weather conditions – January to April usually offer perfect weather for diving.
Be ready to shop
Go shopping for a souvenir from your Maldives holiday and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Printed sarongs, hand-crafted jewellery and traditional homewares and crafts are for sale throughout Malé – try the enormous Majeedhee Magu market (be prepared to haggle!) or the fresh produce-heavy Malé Local Market. But for something special, head to Island Bazaar, a boutique store selling handmade goods from local artisans. A great souvenir is a thundu kunaa, a traditional Maldivian mat woven with geometric designs by local island women.
Malé is marvellous
If you’re looking for a contrast to the tranquil beach resorts on the outer islands, you can hardly do better than Malé. With over 130,000 people packed into just 9 square kilometres, the Maldives’ capital is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, its brightly coloured built-up area covering the entire landmass of the central Malé island (the city covers three islands, with Malé island in the middle).
Still, for all its bustle, Malé is a relatively laidback city, perfect for a day’s urban wandering before or after your resort stay. Visit the National Museum, which houses objects and exhibitions tracing the islands’ fascinating history, and the Old Friday Mosque, the nation’s oldest mosque, built in 1656. Like the rest of the Maldives, Malé is officially “dry” due to its residents’ Islamic faith (though alcohol is served at resorts) but the city’s cafes and restaurants still hum with lively conversation and laughter.
The local food is delicious
It probably comes as no surprise that the food of the Maldives, also known as Dhivehi cuisine, owes a lot to its near neighbour Sri Lanka. As in that country, curries are hugely popular, as are coconut and fish. Uniquely, though, the fish that predominates in the Maldives is tuna. Try it in the widely eaten curry mas riha and in bajiya, a samosa-like snack filled with spiced smoked tuna. Another favourite snack – which in the Maldives is charmingly referred to as “short eats” – is bis keemiya, a flaky egg-and-cabbage-stuffed pastry. Discover the tastes of the Maldives at the food vendors lining the streets of Malé, or get hands-on with a cooking class at your resort.
It might not be as expensive as you think
Nobody’s going to claim that the Maldives is a budget destination, but there are certainly ways to cut the cost. While the islands feature a lot of super-luxurious romantic hideaways, there are also resorts aimed at families, non-honeymooners, and others who are looking for an upper-mid-range holiday. A good way to keep a lid on costs is by booking an all-inclusive resort such as Club Med for example. Knowing that everything from meals to drinks to watersports and activities are taken care of makes budgeting for your trip a lot more feasible. Another good way to save money on your stay is by compromising on accommodation type: you’ll pay far less for a garden villa than one with an ocean view, for example, to say nothing of pricey over-the-water bungalows!! But then again, you may decide to splurge – this is your dream tropical island holiday, after all.