The public ferry drops us off at Fulidhoo Island, a palm-covered speck of land surrounded by the whitest sand and clearest water I’ve ever seen. As if on cue, a half-dozen stingrays glide by in the iridescent shallows.
Fulidhoo is one of more than a thousand coral islands in the Maldives, a country in the Indian Ocean famous for its dazzling beaches and luxurious resorts. I never thought I could afford to visit these atolls – until I learned about local island tourism.
This little-known option provides an affordable – and arguably richer – experience than the high-priced resorts. The cost of a week-long stay on Fulidhoo, for example, is less than what some properties charge for one night. Same crystal-clear water, silky-soft sand, incredible marine life and opportunities to swim and scuba dive – but at a fraction of the price.
The Maldives’ reputation as a “luxury only” destination stems from rules that were changed only a decade ago: Tourism development used to be restricted to single resorts on uninhabited islands – one hitherto deserted island, one resort. But in 2010, the law changed and residents of inhabited islands are now allowed to grow their own local tourism businesses. Guesthouses, restaurants and even diving centres have sprung up. Prices vary, but it’s still not difficult to find a nice guesthouse for US$50 to US$100 a night – far cheaper than the US$300 to US$1,000 a night at a private island resort.
Of course, a lower price tag means fewer perks and a different atmosphere. A local island vacation isn’t for everyone. If you’ve always dreamed of staying in an overwater bungalow with gourmet cuisine and butler service, you’d best book elsewhere. Local guesthouses are simple and comfortable, food is traditional and unpretentious, and your luggage is more likely to be picked up in a wheelbarrow than by an employee wearing white gloves.
But one thing that isn’t lacking is hospitality.
The seven-room Island Break guesthouse – my home for the week – is a charming place run warmly by three young brothers. It’s not fancy but I love the special touches: the hibiscus flowers scattered on our bed, the help-yourself tea service in the sand floor dining room, the funky furniture handmade by family members.
Mohamed, one of the brothers, takes my partner and me for a walk around Fulidhoo. The island measures a mere 700 metres by 200 metres and is home to 400 residents. There are no motorized vehicles and the largest buildings are the pretty school and the mosque, which is the same light-green as the surrounding water.
The sand road that runs the length of the island and only sees foot traffic is lined with colourful houses and small shops. Locals go about their business or relax in low-slung rope chairs, which remind me of hockey nets. The vibe is peaceful, unhurried.
Our jaws drop when we see the tourist beach, a gorgeous swath of powdery sand. Unlike elsewhere on Fulidhoo, here we are free to hang out in our swimwear. Almost 99 per cent of the Maldivian population is Muslim and local islands are subject to Islamic law: No alcohol is permitted and dress must be modest beyond such designated “bikini beaches.” (Resort islands are exempt as they have no permanent resident population.) Mohamed tells us that we’re welcome on the long stretch of public beach provided we respect local customs by wearing shoulder-covering tops and knee-length bottoms.
Once we have the lay of the land, our days settle into a relaxing routine. After a delicious traditional breakfast of tuna mixed with onion, chili and coconut, we saunter over to Fulidhoo Dive, a PADI five-star dive centre run by the friendly and professional Adele and Ali. The water around Fulidhoo is famous for being home to large pelagic creatures and everyday we see reef sharks, nurse sharks, dolphins, eagle rays and jewel-toned reef beauties. We’re thrilled to share the water with these amazing animals, feeling safe under the competent guidance of Fulidhoo Dive. And as with accommodations, diving here is a bargain compared with the resort islands.
Lunch is waiting for us after our morning dives. I become addicted to Mohamed’s chicken and homemade barbecue sauce. We chat with him and his brothers about their lives. They’ve all worked at resort islands and are happy that with the opening of local island tourism they can now use their skills on their home turf. It’s the same with our boat captain and some of our dive guides. Before tourism came to Fulidhoo, they would have to spend countless months away from their families at distant resort islands.
After lunch, it’s off to bikini beach. The water is incredibly clear, calm and warm, with nothing but soft sand underfoot for as far out as we can walk. I won’t lie … this is when I’m craving a cold beer. Non-alcoholic beer is for sale at a palm-thatched beach “bar," but I end up preferring the refreshing local coconuts.
My favourite time of the day though is late afternoon, when we head to the public beach. Clusters of men and women sit on the sand, chatting, as the sky turns brilliant shades of orange and purple. Little kids play in the sand and engage me in a friendly game of tag. A group of older boys kick around a soccer ball with some Italian tourists.
One night we follow the locals to the open-air community hall, where we join in dancing. It’s not your typical flashy display for tourists; more like a jam session where residents come out to enjoy the traditional drumming that is especially popular in this part of the Maldives. It gives us yet another taste of local life that is absent on resort islands.
We’ve worked up an appetite and, back at the hotel, dig into the beautifully prepared fish caught by Mohamed’s dad. We’re joined by new friends we met while diving, and spend the evening talking about how much we all love this little island – above and below the water.
If you go
Flying to the Maldives (Malé International Airport) from Canada requires one or more connections through Asia or the Middle East. The route is serviced by Cathay Pacific, China South, Emirates and others. Fulidhoo Island, in the Vaavu Atoll, is 57 kilometres from Malé. Access is via speed boat (70 minutes/US$40), or public ferry (3 1/2 hours/US$4).
Scuba diving is a big draw on Fulidhoo Island, but other available activities include snorkelling, fishing, excursions to sandbars and even day trips to a resort island.
There are 10 small guesthouses that range from US$50 to US$100 a night including breakfast. Various packages including diving/learn to dive, and hotel options are available.
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