As the days get colder, wetter and shorter, one of my favourite days of the year in the UK is my annual visit to the World Travel Market in London where I hang out at the Maldives destination stand all for a bit of a surrogate Maldivian experience. The Maldivians staffing the exhibit surrounded by Maldives imagery provides just enough of a sense of the Maldives itself to take some of the sting out of encroaching winter. And the video tunnel of swimming whale sharks and mantas provided an extra touch of virtual reality to the escapist experience (video at bottom).
And this year’s stand was the biggest one yet. Check out the photo below which shows the entire length as everything in the picture is the booth. I spoke to countless resort reps including Madifushi Private Islannd, Robinson, Pullman Maamuta, Hilton Amingiri, Kuda Villingili, Amilla, Fiyavalhu Westin, Heritance Araah, South Palm, Ihuru. Riu Palace/Atoll, Brennia Kottafaru, Alia Kothifaru, Oaga.
I got media kits to fill out Resort and Room profiles for the site s well as discovered a number of great “Best of the Maldives” features to post about in the coming weeks. Two of the notable chats included:
Havodda – a BIG question these days is “where is the best coral?” It’s difficult for even veterans like myself to answer because all of our coral experience pre-2016 (with the COTS and El Nino double whammy on top of increased ocean temps and construction disturbance) is pretty much moot. My recent research has been pointing to Gaafu Alifu/Gaafu Dhaalu as one of the brightest spots for coral based both on reports, but also on the topology that this atoll is very wide open with fewer outer shelf reefs so there is more flow of cooler open-ocean water. Chatting about this with some folks, they also noted that the Gaafus are the deepest atolls which also contribute to cooler (more coral-friendly) waters there and they confirmed that this atoll probably does have the best coral
I always bring a few books to the Maldives in the perennial aspiration to sit a read for an extended period (on the long-haul flight at least), but my actual reading never quite meets my intentions. This past trip I brought along not only a book for the Maldives, but about the Maldives – “Misadventures in the Real Maldives” by Tom Chesshyre. And it was so engrossing that I actually finished it.
“The Maldives incorporates 26 atolls in what is described by geographers as a ‘double chain’ and the long, thin outline of the islands resembles a garland – ‘malodheep’ in Sanskrit – which is where the name of the country is believed to have originated. From ‘Money Islands’ to ‘Tempest Haunted Islands’ (as some ancient mariners knew them) via garlands and the ‘necklace islands’ (Maala Divaina) in Sinhalese.”
“The Maldivian connection with the sea is closer than anything an outsider can comprehend. Life on the flattest country on the planet requires mental adjustment…Standing on the beach facing inland to one of the long, straight roads on a little island was like looking along the surface of a spirit level. There are no budges, no hills.”
Chessyre tours the country from bottom to top, but in manner completely the opposite to how I and most visitors experience this tropical paradise. While we take an air-conditioned speed boat, he took a cargo ship. While we sleep on king sized beds with high thread count bedding, he sleeps on a mat. He specifically crafted his trip to explore the non-resort local islands and their daily routines in paradise. The account is a colourful and extensive perspective into local island life and guesthouses.
Despite him exploring such a non-commercial side of this luxury destination, I still identified reading his book with the sentiment he articulated about another travel book that he was reading: “His descriptions gave me that sense of déjà vu that sometimes hits you when you read about a place you’re visiting.”
Published in 2015, it is already a bit dated on some of its references, especially political, as the country is changing so very rapidly. In particular, he delves beyond the palm trees and pina coladas that are the staples of celebrity travelogues and explores such areas as:
Economic development in recent years
Logistics of local travel
Political perspectives among the population
His summary provides a captivating depiction of the Maldives and his distinctive glimpse behind the resort curtains:
“I was in one of the most established places of beauty on Earth (why else would all the 5-star resorts have been built?) and yet no one was about [on the local islands]. From the ground up, I could get a feel for the rich culture of an ancient maritime nation as well as a strong sense of a community of a people living in the middle of a mighty ocean…Other than Bangladeshi workers, few foreigners managed to gatecrash paradise…With the blazing sunsets on the South Equatorial Channel, gyrating currents in deserted lagoons, kaleidoscopes of coral, cascades of fish, crescents of perfect white sand, peaceful coral-stone villages, colourful birds, emerald jungle…there is no doubt about it, the Maldives has to be one of the most beautiful, colourful – and sometimes complicated – places on Earth.”
After reading the book, I reach out to Tom to see if he would do an interview reflecting on his adventures and he kindly obliged with some bonus gems:
What did you pack that you didn’t use? On my very first visit to the Maldives, a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, which was confiscated on arrival as I hadn’t known the rules (but should have).
What didn’t you pack that you wish you had? War and Peace by Tolstoy or Ulysses by James Joyce – a long book I’d always meant to read.
What did you pack that you used the most? My backpack, every day, hopping on and off ferries.
What did you break or lose? A pair of flip-flops, but easy to buy another.
What most exceeded your expectations? The calm on board the cargo ship from Male to Addu – and the camaraderie with fellow passengers and crew.
What most disappointed you? Getting ferry timetable information was sometimes tricky when I went, about a decade ago.
What food did you most enjoy? Garudiya tuna broth, served with chili, lime and rice.
What food did you least enjoy? A boring hamburger at a resort hotel.
When did you laugh the hardest? During a neighbourhood party on the remote island of Makunudhoo.
When were you the most nervous/anxious? When visiting certain politicians on Male.
What surprised you most about the destination? The great distance between north and south, 500 plus miles (and the rumbling political unrest).
What was your favourite day? It was an evening, night and morning when I joined a commercial tuna fishing boat on Hulhumeedhoo on Addu Atoll.
What was your favourite photo? Passengers clambering on and off the ferry by the beach at Utheemu on Haa Alif Atoll (see below)
What item (smaller than a bed) that you saw would you most want to take home with you? No item… just memories.
Name a word you learned in Dhivehi? In Dhivehi, ‘minivan’, which means ‘independent’. Each day I would read the then ‘Minivan News’ online bulletin.
Name a fun fact you learned about the place? The highest natural point in the Maldives is 2.4 metres above sea level (I went there and ‘climbed’ it).
What tip would you give someone about to embark on a trip like yours? Pack light.
What would you do (if money and logistics were no object), if you had an additional day to spend at the destination? Sit on a jolie – a simple string mesh seat – in the shade of a palm tree by the beach on Makunudhoo, sipping lime juice, watching the waves.
As I discussed in my post “Maldives Methadone”, one of the most frequently discussed topic amongst Maldives addicts (known as victims of “Maldivitis”) is the question “Is there anywhere else on Earth like the Maldives?” (hopefully a little cheaper).
If you truly take the unique blend of characteristics that make the Maldives the very definition of Bounty-bar iconic paradise, then the selection is rather limited. So to extend the boundaries a little more generously, I’ve assembled a second tier collection of tropical islands that are like the Maldives in every way except elevation.
Unfortunately, adding a bit of topological height doesn’t really seem to lower the price that much. Most of the rates are comparable to top high-end 4-stars or value priced 5-star properties in the Maldives. But if you are okay with a largish pile of rocks instead a smallish plot of sand for your tropical island, then here are some Maldives cousins…
If you can only dive one dive. This is the question we often find ourselves asking during our tours as we will typically spend only one or two nights at a resort and so only have the opportunity for one dive. So when we are planning our dive, we will ask, “well, what’s the best dive around here?” Even for people with the luxury of an extended stay, this is a fairly typical question. When we were having longer stays with the family years ago, we would still ask this question. Many times, we loved the dive so much we just opted to keep repeating it through the week (we went to Manta Point during our Kurumba stay three times).
One common feature that I noticed about many of the selections is that they are situated in channels at the edge of the ocean where the open water merges with the protected inner atoll waters. Such dives will often have a degree of current to them which limits them to AOW divers, but it is the current which contributes to the marine life and activity there.
For the research, I relied on the input from a range of dive schools and dive masters I have met over the years as well as Sam Harwood’ and Rob Bryning’s superlative book “Dive the Maldives” with occasional reference to Tim Godfrey’s “Dive Maldives”.
The list below is admittedly extremely subjective, but the choices are as good a place to start as any. I welcome suggestions and alternative proposals in the Comments section.
Addu: Maa Kandu East (Mudakan) – 3 of the 7 top dive sites reviewed by Harwood here have the top 5-star rating, but Mudakan is the most accessible and the only one with also a 5-star snorkelling rating. “With magnificent table and brain corals, schools of fusilier, turtles, eagle rays, and sometimes manta make this beautiful dive an absolute joy.”
Baa: Hanifaru Bay – This Marine Protected Area has become so legendary that the government has actually put up restrictions on diving there. Still, divers can dive around the limits with the best chances to see its bountiful mantas and even the occasional whale shark.
Dhaalu: Fushi Faru – Recommended by St. Regis Vommuli dive centre Manish Mahadik saying, “An abundance of marine life including big schools of reef fish, colorful coral, lobsters, occasional Eagle Rays, Moray Eels and sharks…suited for all experience levels from beginner to advanced.”
Faafu: Jumping Jack – Recommended by Werner Lau as “This is one of our top dive sites [in the Maldives]. With milder currents, it offers less experienced divers a really truly pleasurable diving experience. Seven beautifully overgrown tilas on the outer reef edge connect the farus to the north and the south of the channel.”
Gaafu Dhaalu: Mafzoo Giri – One of two dive sites in the entire “Huvadhoo” (Gaafu Alifu and Gaafu Dhaalu together) atoll with 8 stars (out of possible 10 – 5 for Fish and 5 for Coral) by Alexander von Mende who wrote an entire guide book just on diving the atoll. And one of just 2 (with Kondey Kandu) with 5 stars for Fish. “Offers a lot for its size…hosts no less than six residing leaf fishes behind a dizzying wall of glass fish.”
Gaafu Alifu: Mas Thila – One of two 7 star sites (out of possible 10 in von Mende’s book) and described as “a real jewel…one of the best dive sites in Huvadhoo”.
Haa Alifu: Becky’s Caves – Recommended by a number of dive masters to us. The nearest, JA Manafaru’s Sun Diving School describes is as “At the depth of 20 meters, one huge recess of the reef shows on one side a wall completely covered of soft corals of different colors; from yellow, pink, white to orange, a real universe of colors! Bring with you your torch and your camera: one fantastic dive for everybody but one rare show to see!”
Haa Dhaalu: Heaven & Hell Thila– The choice of Miranda Pontiglione, Base Leader at the Barefoot diving center – “For sure this is one of the best diving spots in our area. All the thila is covered by big colourful soft corals. Along the thila wall there are many overhangs where you can find cleaning shrimps, lobster, groupers and moray eels. A couple of canyons located in the deepest part of the thila will make your dive unforgettable.”
Laamu: Fushi Kandu – Commended by Ocean Dimensions’ Petra Hellaman at Six Senses Laaumu who says it is especially great for seeing sharks. “The most spectacular dive is when divers cross the channel…Then, divers can swim inside the atoll to try to encounter dolphins” (Daily Dive).
Lhaviyani: Kuredu Caves – I was told about this site by a number of Maldives aficionados before I finally got there and having dived there it remains one of my top ten most memorable dives ever. The highlight is the turtles. Not just lots of them, but the biggest turtles you will ever see. Honorable mentions to the striking “Shipyard” double (!) wreck site with the distinctive vertical wreck (whose bow protrudes out of the water).
Meemu: Mantas and More – The consensus recommendation from both dive centres in the atoll. “Nearly untouched dive sites are easy to dive and feature a great diversity of corals and fishes. Several spectacular channels, e.g. Mantas & More, count amongst the top ten in the Maldives” -Werner Lau
Noonu: Dhiffushi Kandu – One of two sites called out by Harwood in Noonu “The highlight of this dive are the sightings of the large Green Turtles that inhabit the reef feeding off the sponges and corals. The reef has excellent fish and this is a great dive.”
North Ari: Miyaruga Thila – Tim Godfrey uses a 4-star rating system where only 4 dive sites out of the nearly 300 he reviewed in all the Maldives got the top mark – and 3 were in the North Ari Atoll. Of those, got the strongest coral rating. Godfrey describes Miyaruga, “The landscape is stunning and divers can easily circle the reef in one dive if the current permits…Much of the thila is undercut with caves and the surface is coated in soft coral and colourful sponges.”
North Male: Manta Point – Some of the most reliable mantas in the Maldives at a prominent and conveniently close feeding station. “An astonishing number of manta rays can be seen here with they come to be cleaned” – Harwood.
Raa: Labyrinth – The most frequently sites and raved about Raa site on the web and the Dive Point dive center describes it as, “Medium-sized Thila which has crumbled over the centuries and has thereby formed wonderful canyons and tunnels in the reef. The Thila distinguishes itself with its huge schools of fishes and coral growth (soft- and hard corals). A big number of bat fishes accompanies you on every dive on this reef.”
South Ari: Kudarah Thila – Both Godfrey and Harwood list 2 top rated dive sites in the South Ari, but Kudarah Thila is the only one they both rate tops. “One of the most exciting dives in the South Ari” says Godfrey. I omitted the any of the diving areas on the southern tip famous for whale sharks (also an MPA) because there is no single one that predominates, diving is restricted because of the whale sharks, and snorkelling is often a better way to find and see them.
South Male: Kandooma Thila (aka Ran Thila) – Pretty much uniformly recommended to us by dive centres as Cocoa, Olhuveli, and Rihiveli and the only 4 star dive site in South Male in Godfrey’s “Dive Maldives” (“one of the most exciting dive sites in South Male Atoll and boasts great scenery as well as prolific fish life”)
Thaa: Guraidhoo Corner – The only Thaa dive site noted by Harwood with a 4-star dive rating, “A large crevice in the drop-off with over hangs and caves and swimthoughs. Here as the current eddies, huge balls of snapper, rainbow runner, jack fish, tuna and shark are common.”
Vaavu: Fotteyo Kandu – One of Harwood’s rare 5-star sites, “This is a stunning, remote place and it is well worth diving here at least twice and at least 4 or 5 times to fully appreciate its beauty.”
One of the more frequently asked questions on the Maldives TripAdvisor Forum is whether there is another other place on Earth similar to the Maldives. People bitten by the Laccadive bug which is known to inflict a lifelong addiction (case in point) seeking to get hooked up with a fix.
Usually the query is inspired by a stretched budget and the enquirer is seeking a generic, store-brand knock-off of the Maldives to satisfy their craving (in the Maldives Forum Search put in “like the Maldives” – here’s the longest thread). Thailand, Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, BVI, Turks & Caicos, Australia are frequently proposed, but a little research shows that nearly all resorts there are all on quite big islands and relatively close together. Aside from the basic similarities of sun and sand, not nearly the “plot of sand in the middle of the ocean” experience of the Maldives. World-travelling friends who introduced us to the Maldives have sent us postcards saying “[Tropical Island X] is wonderful…but it isn’t the Maldives.”. We ourselves have joined this island hunt with our trip to Indonesia which was superb…but it wasn’t the Maldives.
Over recent months I have been digging a bit deeper to come up with the closest facsimiles for those who need an alternative dose whether it be for a change of destination, somewhere less far to travel (the Maldives is quite an expedition for those on the other side of the world in the Americas), or even to save a bit of money. Despite the lattermost inspiration, nearly all the resorts I uncovered came in at just under $500 for entry level BB per person which is not too far off typical Maldives prices for nice 4+ star or a modest 5 star property. The closer the alternative destination property was to Maldives characteristics, the close the racks rate were to those in the Maldives.
There are obviously thousands of tropical island resorts in the world. For my most prominent filters, I excluded the following deal-breakers which keep a property from really having the Maldives vibe:
Big Islands – Must be small enough to walk around in the time it takes to drink a bottle of beer and no elevation.
Mediterranean – Weather and sea life too limited.
Private Islands – Financially inaccessible (for most) properties that rent for tens of thousands for the whole place such as Richard Branson’s Necker Island in the Caribbean, David Copperfield’s Musha Cay in the Bahamas, or Noa Noa in the Philippines.
Local Islands – The islands have to be dedicated resort islands (ie. no local residents), but can have multiple properties like Malaysia’s Mabul Island (and how the old Kuramathi, Maldives set up used to be).
Remote Undeveloped Islands – Great bolt holes for liveaboards and cruise vessels, but that is an entirely different proposition to a resort and not everybody’s cuppa tea.
Middle of the Ocean – Must be surrounded by 90% water with limited proximity, development, or high elevation islands on the horizon to preserve that “middle of the ocean” feel. This was the hardest aspect to adhere to and I bent consideration with a few selections below (eg. Akaiami Paradise Lodge, Le Taha’a Island, and Song Saa)
The top destinations with the most qualifying (and nearly qualifying) candidates are the following:
Belize – Seems the closest as an overall destination – lots of islands, many small, coral and diving. I’ve included in a couple in the catalogue below, but I came across a good deal of others in my research. Also, seems to be considerably lower cost (though also lower standard) than many Maldives properties.
Malaysia – Also, a good number of properties I came across and included a couple below.
French Polynesia – Known most widely for the biggest island Tahiti, but it does have quite an array of smaller gems (again, a couple examples included in the list below).
Below is a list of the most prominent examples of Maldives mould alternatives. This piece will be a living post so if and as people recommend or I otherwise discover other resorts that meet the criteria, I will add them to the post and map.
Price indicated are approximate rates per person bed and breakfast based on queries to the resort website.
Mabul, Borneo, Malaysia ($426pp)
Lankayan Island, Borneo, Malaysia ($183pp)
Coco Plum Island Resort, Belize ($456pp)
Royal Palm Island, Belize ($120pp)
Anantara Medjumbe Island, Mozambique ($390pp)
Denis Island, Seychelles ($600pp) – thanks Moira
Akaiami Paradise Lodge Aitutaki, Cook Islands, New Zealand ($480pp)
Song Saa, Cambodia ($484pp)
Lady Elliott Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia ($145pp)
Vahine Island, French Polynesia ($311pp)
Le Taha’a Island Resort, Tahiti ($517pp)
Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort and Spa, Tahiti ($190pp)