Sitting on the ground in the breezy seaside shade, women from Magoodhoo Village were weaving rolls of roof thatch from palm fronds and palm coir (handmade rope made from coconut fibres).
Watching from a swing jolie – the surprisingly relaxing net seats that are found throughout the Maldives – I asked a few questions about the thatch (bound for resort roofs). Then I took a long drink from one of the coconuts that strangers were constantly handing me.
“Yum,” I said.
“Meeru,” my new friend Mashoodh responded (which translates to “delicious”). The casual language lesson came as part of Mashoodh’s offer to show my family around Magoodhoo, a small island of 600 people about 130 kilometres southwest of the Maldives capital, Malé.
Our walking tour took us from the women’s waterfront work area to the rest of the village’s highlights. Stops included the island’s new six-room guesthouse, with its bright airy rooms and comfortable outdoor dining area, the school – where we checked out the Grade 10 marine biology class – the boat-building sheds, the mosques and three small stores.
Eventually we arrived at Mashoodh’s home, where we were invited to join his family for a typical dinner of mashuni (spicy tuna and coconut), garudiya (fish soup) and barbecued fish. It was the perfect example of the kind of spontaneous Maldivian hospitality that would be legendary if only more people had the chance to experience village life.
Part of what makes the Maldives so fascinating is how little most people know about the small Islamic country of 345,000. The common perception is of a sun-kissed Indian Ocean paradise that caters to the well-heeled and honeymooning.
Until 2010, when the local tourism laws went into effect, the 105 secluded resorts were almost all outsiders ever saw of the Maldives. Villages were off-limits unless you were on a guided day excursion. But with the changing of laws, and the building of hundreds of guesthouses, travellers who don’t mind going without beer, bacon and bikinis (except on council-approved beaches) can now holiday for rates as low as $50 a night.
My question was: How do the two alternatives vary? Obviously a luxury resort is likely to be luxurious and a guesthouse option is going to be more affordable, but as I swung in my jolie, and tried to count how many different shades of blue shimmered in the lagoon stretching out in front of me, I wondered about the other differences.
Lavish resorts are scattered down the 960-kilometre length of the Maldives on small private islands of pared-down beauty: shady palms, white sand, iridescent lagoons, abundant reefs and blue sky.
At Per Aquum Niyama, my family checked out the luxury resort option and discovered our plush, lagoon-front bungalow was so well appointed it would be easy to spend an entire holiday wandering between our private infinity pool and giant outdoor bathtub while eating the free ice cream stocked in our freezer. But that would have meant missing out on the tranquil spa and the excellent dining options.
Instead, we struck out at each mealtime for one of Niyama’s six restaurants – each one a mini-destination in itself. For dinner we took a speedboat off-island to Edge restaurant. Seated over the water, I watched the moon rise while savouring the six-course tasting menu. Edge, like most resort restaurants, makes use of a few available local ingredients (fish and tropical fruit), but mainly the menu highlights imported international fare, which includes an excellent wine selection.
For activities, there’s a range of water sports including guided snorkelling through the lagoon’s unique rehabilitated coral gardens with the resident marine biologist, diving, sailing and jet skiing. While on land there’s yoga, a well-stocked library, a games room and a glitzy underwater nightclub where you can boogie with the fishes.
Unlike the resorts, the locally owned guesthouses are found on inhabited or “local” islands. Mostly of new construction, the rooms run from basic to moderately luxurious and offer warm hospitality along with traditional home-cooked meals.
Guests interested in staying on the more remote islands (where there may be only one or two guesthouses) need to realize they’ll be visiting conservative Muslim communities that aren’t accustomed to Westerners. Alcohol is illegal, women are often fully covered and the main entertainment runs to Quran-reciting competitions and evening bashi ball games (a surprisingly fierce traditional ball sport played by women).
Ilyas Ibrahim, the manager at TME Retreats, a waterfront inn on Dhigurah Island in South Ari Atoll, explained, “I’ll often talk to people for an hour before their first visit, to make sure they’re comfortable with the cultural restrictions. But then they come back a second time because they’ve made such good friends in the village.”
Beyond the cultural differences, most guesthouses offer some of the same types of aquatic activities resorts do. Off Dhigurah Island, which is famous for its whale sharks, we set off twice in search of the huge creatures, but just missed them both times. We had better luck diving on the protected reefs, which teemed with a seemingly endless variety of rays, turtles, reef sharks and some of the biggest grouper I’d ever seen.
On other islands, the highlights might include dolphin or whale watching, surfing or deep sea fishing, so Ibrahim suggests visitors narrow down what it is they want to do before choosing a specific atoll and guesthouse.
Over a leisurely dinner with Mashoodh and his family, I asked if it was the novelty of having outsiders on the islands that made Maldivians so friendly to guests.
He seemed surprised by my question and said that while guesthouses may be new to the Maldives, hospitality isn’t. He explained that in a country of remote islands, when a guest arrives it’s important to give them refreshments and then show them around and make sure they’re comfortable and happy.
“Isn’t that what all people do?”
IF YOU GO
Flying to the Maldives from Canada requires one or more connections routed through the Middle East or Asia. The main airport at Malé is served by airlines including Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Mega Maldives Airlines, the islands’ new international carrier flying from several Asian cities.
Where to stay
Your resort or guesthouse will advise you of your best option for interisland transfers, which may include ferry, speedboat, sea plane or domestic flight depending on the location.
Magoodhoo Island Inn’s six-room property will offer snorkelling, diving, sunset fishing and boat excursions to neighbouring islands and resorts. The new guesthouse is set to be listed on the government guesthouse registry: tourism.gov.mv/facilities/guest-house
Per Aquum Niyama is located in Dhaalu Atoll and is made up of two islands: “Chill” and the newly opened “Play.” Play’s offerings include beach-front villas with casually luxurious indoor-outdoor living starting from $915 (U.S.) a night including breakfast. niyama.peraquum.com
TME Retreats Dhigurah mixes village culture with relaxed lagoon-front living. Comprising three guesthouses, with a combined total of 17 rooms, popular activities include diving, snorkelling, sailing and whale shark viewing. Rates from $50 a night plus meals and transfers. tme.mv
Meals and accommodation at Niyama Per Aquum were covered by the hotel. It did not review or approve this article.