“I have a problem.”
Those were the first words the owner spoke to us. Fresh from ninety minutes of sapphire oceans lapping sweetly at the lazy hull of our ferry, fresh from a sea-breezed nap on the sun-drenched top deck, fresh off cruising the palm-studded isles draped in royal luxury, through the ancient spice isles, through deep blue pageants teeming with spotted whale sharks and dancing manta rays, fresh from all the glory of the Maldives—and this guy says he’s got a problem?
Curiously enough, those words were also the same ones to start our last conversation with him four days later.
We were here to relax, and we were here to experiment, and here’s what we wanted to know—is it possible, is it remotely, conceivably, by any stretch of the imagination feasible to step into the realm of some of the most sinfully luxurious and ridiculously expensive vacation villas on the planet, and pull it off on a budget of a working-class teacher?
It was the grand experiment. And it started and ended with that owner’s problems.
No, wait, that’s not true—it started well before that. It started on a midnight search for cheap flights to Sri Lanka, and I ran across a low-cost carrier running a route to Male, capital of the famed Maldivian paradises.
“Hold them ponies!” I shouted. Andy nearly slapped me to my senses. But who could blame me? Or her? A low-cost airline running a route to the Maldives? That must mean…
It’s true, I confirmed it moments later: lodging also stood to be had on the cheap—that is, in double-digit rates rather than the quadruple-digit nightly figures I was expecting.
So was it possible, then, to bag the gems of the Maldives islands on a shoestring budget? Could we somehow land the suns and beaches and secluded seascapes on my not-so-princely salary? It was a gamble, to be sure.
But could I resist the call to such a grand experiment? Not quite—we locked in our Christmas in the Maldives as soon as humanly possible.
And we wrung our hands, anxiously waiting to see what our experiment would yield—was this going to be the bucket-list event we’d waited years to behold, or would it end up a ratty, Destin, Florida beach week? What would our four days in supposed paradise hold?
Here’s what it held upon landing—a white, breezy, pristine airport open to ocean scents and turquoise lights shimmering through walls that didn’t exist, two dozen smart-dressed resort transports holding signs and slight smiles for their wealthy clients and arm-and-a-leg pricetag destinations, and a one-minute walk to a public ferry where Andy and I booked a short ride from the airport island to Male city—for just over 1 USD.
And that’s Conclusion Number One if you’re serious about trying to string these Maldivian gems together on a shoestring budget: Do Your Homework. We booked the low-cost flight, of course, but unless you read up a little on the islands, you won’t know that a speedboat to your destination can cost more than that flight that brought you down from the skies to the isles. That’s right: triple-digit speedboat transfers through those dolphin-filled, sunshiny blue waves are the norm.
But—good news to all us budget-minded people—there’s also a public ferry to many of the islands. It’s a bit trickier, it takes a bit more calculating, but it’s perfectly do-able. Our well-researched route ran something like this: Baggage Claim to Male Ferry, Male Ferry via taxi to Public Ferry Dock, Public Ferry to Maafushi Island. Total cost, something like 10 USD for the two of us. Our new-found friends on the island ran it in the speedboat for a cool two hundred bucks.
Some may say the public ferries are slow; I say they’re smoother than the wave-pounding speedboats. Some may say they’re crowded with locals; I say they’re chock full of vibrant, authentic island color. Some may say they reek of diesel exhaust, are so noisy you can’t carry on a conversation with the person sitting next to you, and are cramped so tight your knees fall asleep quicker than a toddler on Nyquil; I say just head to the upper deck and stretch out and soak in all the sunshine—that’s why you came to the Maldives, right? The ferry beats the speedboat, hands down. Do your research and book an island with a ferry.
Even after a blissful ferry transfer, though, you may be greeted with a guesthouse owner with a problem. That brings me to Conclusion Number Two of our experiment in stringing gems on a shoestring: Beware the Bamboozle.
So, here’s the lowdown—in Maldives you have two types of islands: “resort” and “local.” Because you’re booking on a budget, you’ve chosen local, of course, since resorts are rather ostentatious and overly expensive and entirely out of the price range of your next half-dozen paychecks combined. Local islands, are, as the name implies, where the locals live and work and carry on their normal Maldivian lives.
The beauty of booking here, for you, is that in the last two years, about every last local family on every tiny island has decided to invest in “local tourism,” meaning they each set up a family business of an affordable guest house—catering exactly to the budget you can swing. The mom will cook, the husband will handle administration and extra excursions, the sons will carry your bags and clean your room and give you private tours of the island life.
That’s all well and good and fine and even attractive—resorts even run excursions to local islands so the high-end clientele can dip their toes into local color whenever they get bored with endless massages and sunset yoga and fresh-fruit daiquiris in the evening breeze. But for you, this means you need to expect some local tricks when dealing with them. Here’s the one we ran into—“I have a problem. . . your room has a problem with the pipes.”
“Really, the plumbing?”
“Uh, the pipes.”
“Or the air conditioning?”
“Yes, yes, the pipes are bad, but I am fixing them.”
“When will they be done?”
“Uhhh. I am currently not sure, because I am fixing them now. But I have arranged for you to stay at another hotel—this more expensive, room, actually.”
He’s obviously overbooked his guesthouse, and he’s kicking us out, in this case, because we’re staying fewer days. Fortunately for him, every other guesthouse on the island is owned by his brother or cousin or friend or classmate, so he can easily ship you out to any number of similar rooms and keep his longer-staying guests for himself.
My best advice here: just sigh, meet the surprise room with a smile, and roll with the punches—it’s not like you’re paying any extra, and it’s still a nice place. For us, we ended up a couple blocks further from the cosmic glows of the diamond-water beach with long-necked palms we craved, but hey, the island can be crossed in less than five minutes, so what’s the big deal? Plus, we were the first-ever guests in the entire hotel, and we even got upgraded to an ocean view.
Our experiment came to this conclusion: beware the bamboozle, but it’s best not to sweat it. As long as you’re still getting your money’s worth, that is.
Since we’re talking about local color, let’s move on to Conclusion Number Three of the Maldives-on-a-budget grand experiment: enjoy the anthropology. In our case, the owner’s sons walked us around each inch of public areas in Massfushi—they showed us a boulder as big as a Lexus dumped by the ’04 tsunami; they told us of their soccer matches in progress when the firehose waves started spraying metric tons of water all over everything; they talked of school tests and future dreams and cell phone coverage; and they named all the local plants and people who lived in each house up and down the sandy, narrow little streets.
At dinner we asked for Maldivian flavors, and the mother beamed and brought out her personal favorites—sticky salsas that blaze the tongue, dried tuna flakes to crunch up any rice, seasoned and fired drumstick leaves to make a flavorful indentation forever on your pallet. Add to that the breakfast tastes—soft, tortilla-like roshis perfect for scooping the morning mashes into you mouth, and the fresh-squeezed juices that rinse it all down in colorful style—and you’ve got a local breakfast delight each day.
We reveled in the experiment, even if at one point Andy wondered aloud, “Is this a vacation or an anthropology class?” Answer: It’s both if you play your cards right.
Conclusion Number Four for budget Maldives: Get ready for the Russians. They’re everywhere. And when I say they’re everywhere, I mean it looks like the whole St. Petersburg got a Groupon for Maldives hotels. I guess South Asia is the Caribbean getaway for the Ruskies, and the snowbirds migrate in droves. Not that that’s a problem—they’re friendly, they’re funny, and some come speaking so little English, and even less Maldivian, that you’re amazed at their courage to step off the plane and try to track down this tiny dot of an island. Hats off to the frozen neighbors up north: I say they’ve earned their days tanning and toasting under the palms after so many frigid winter evenings spent shivering and suffering.
But since I mentioned the language, let me mention another conclusion from our experiment in cheap island hopping: Speak in Clear Words. That’s Conclusion Number Five, if you’re still keeping track. The guys you’ll be staying with, after all, are locals; English is their second, or even third, language. And while they get along quite well, considering they probably never use English outside of watching subtitles on the Bollywood hits that flood their cable TV networks, Andy and I wondered how much they understood us.
Here, for example, is one morning’s exchange with reception.
Me: Hey I just wanted to check on a couple things real quick.
Reception: Everything is not OK, sir?
Me: No no no, everything’s fine, but breakfast is going to be ready for us at 8:30, right?
Reception: [stammering and fidgeting] You want breakfast now, sir?
Me: No. Eight. Thirty. We want breakfast. At, Eight. Thirty.
Reception: OK, sir. [smiling widely] thank you sir. Have nice morning, sir.
Me. Wait, there’s one more thing.
Reception: [worried again, fidgets with a pen]. Sir?
Me. The water’s kind of rough outside, and it looks like it’s going to rain. Do you think we can still cross over to that resort island we talked about yesterday? I know sometimes you guys don’t travel in rough waters.
Reception: [looking helplessly back at the kitchen door where a cousin who speaks better English might be] Yes sir, raining sir.
Me. So can we still travel to the resort?
Reception: Breakfast now sir?
Me: No. No. Travel. To. The. Resort. Can. We. Still. Go?
Reception: You don’t want to go?
Me: [looking helplessly at the kitchen door] I. Want. To. Go. Is. Ocean. OK? Is Boat. OK?
Reception: [smiling broadly] Yes sir. I’ll bring your breakfast right away, sir.
You get the picture—some speak better than others; be ready for a bit of confusion, and remember that the best English speakers probably are all whisked away to work swanky jobs at the resorts, so be patient with these guys—most are still really new to the guest house business.
Did you notice that I was trying to book a trip to a nearby resort in that conversation? We wanted to dabble in the resort island life as well, and Maldives offers speedboats slamming local-island riff-raff across the waves, for an exorbitant fee, of course, to spend the day like a celebrity in a resort. Simultaneously, they sweep out the red-carpet over the blue waters to taxi VIPs to local islands. They make money coming and going—literally.
And so here’s Conclusion Number Six of your Shoestring-Gem vacation: Book Excursions Wisely. Here’s what I mean by wisely: shop around, recruit more people for you trip, and make sure you fix the price beforehand.
Different hotels run the excursions for different rates: some have discounts on dolphin watching, others specialize in snorkeling. All will take you to resorts, but all have different fee scheduled for doing so. Sand Bank tours are the best bargain, by far, but I’ll elaborate on that later.
Here’s what we found in our experiment—the night after our trip to the resort, we were sitting back at the café on the local island, waiting out the rainstorm that was splashing the streets in sandy goo, and we started chatting with a fellow tourist who was also with the us at the resort—we saw him on our speedboat, we caught him lounging on the beaches, he waved to us as we fixed the tripod for our next photo, he sampled the world-class buffet while we waltzed out on the pier over the emerald surf to point and stare at the wriggling stringrays in the shallow currents. We knew the guy, and there in the rain in the local café, we started chatting.
Eventually, we started comparing prices. He’d paid fifteen more through his hotel for the same resort excursion.
Regardless of the hotel, though, all base prices on how many are going. If just two, you’re going to pay more per head. At four and six, the prices step down. So—the conclusion is obvious—get friendly at the cafés and the breakfast lounges. Meet some people. Get in on some quality money-saving times if you can coordinate your excursions. If not, they get expensive. Recruit and persuade and save money—you’ll probably end up meeting some interesting new friends along the way.
Lastly—for the excursions conclusion—fix the price first. And then confirm it. And then speak more slowly and confirm it again. We didn’t. We saw the published chart from our hotel and mentioned the price and let it slide like that. We figured the owner would go by that chart; we figured mentioning it was enough.
We figured wrong.
We enjoyed the day stepping into luxury we couldn’t afford. We enjoyed the private beaches where Western (non-burka) swimwear is allowed, and even encouraged. We tasted food from chefs who specialize in culinary masterpieces, and we strolled through gardens and rainforests on our way to pristine beaches and water bungalows.
But the next day, our last on the island, our owner came to us with a problem. In the middle of a rushed breakfast to catch the early (cheap!) ferry back to Male and the airport, he came and sat at our bamboo table, stared at his knuckles, and told us he had another problem.
The family of our adopted guest house—because of this guy’s first problem—peeked around the corner, tense.
Yep, it was about money.
He’d booked us through the other hotel’s speedboat. He booked us at their prices, though he didn’t know it, and didn’t charge us for it yesterday. He got stuck with the balance from the speedboat guys. Now he was back to collect the difference, plus 10% service charge and 8% sales tax.
We fumed, and breakfast was ruined. The family scurried back around the corner. We shoveled the roshis and spicy dried fish in our mouths, washed it down in freshly blended fruit juice, and stared daggers at the bearer of bad news. This was no way to run a guesthouse.
In the end, we decided to pay—not to drag around a guilty conscience of leaving that owner in his debt to the speedboaters from the resort. But we scolded him, we told him it wasn’t right, we said it was just because he was only four months into his guesthouse managing and maybe didn’t know better than to charge customers a published rate and not come back haggling for more as they’re leaving. It’s not good business acumen—or ethics—we said, and he might have even understood something we said.
The poor guy took his cash, stared at his knuckles still, and then slunk back around the corner like a whipped puppy. I had a bad taste in my mouth—and it wasn’t from the Maldivian goodies.
Even so, that bit of unpleasantness didn’t spoil the entire trip. Here’s a few last conclusions of the shoestring gems experiment that might come in handy for you.
Number Seven: Don’t Skip the Sand Bank. It was the cheapest and closest of all the excursions offered by our owner, and it was probably the best.
If you’re wondering about the name, just think of it as the typical Gary Larson deserted island from The Far Side—minus the lone palm tree. That’s right, it’s just a pile of sand poking out from the sea—and you’re all alone on the middle of that powdery white mound in the middle of the placid sea under the zealous sun, nothing but bathwater-warm, glass-clear ocean surrounding you on all sides.
It’s your own little playground.
The water is waist-deep as far as you feel like walking in any direction, and beyond that, it’s got the best reefs and snorkeling I’ve come across since visiting the Gilis back in Indonesia.
Sand banks are my new favorite place to hang out. The only catch is to make sure you don’t run out of sunscreen.
Speaking of which, Conclusion Number Eight is Never, Ever, Run Out of Sunscreen on the Sand Bank. Guess who learned this the hard way—that’s right, the guy who couldn’t sleep for two nights from incessant needle-pricks of his crispy skin. The same guy who baked off the top layer of his innocent feet for the second time in six months, and the one who also can hardly taste spicy food without the chilis and salt tearing into his salt-water cracked lips.
Yes, that’s right, I smoothed on the last bit of white slime about ten AM. And yes, I was there under that blazing sun until two PM, by that time well-withered and wishing for a less-charbroiled way to make those memories that will last a lifetime.
So when you do manage your own shoestring Maldive adventure, don’t skimp on the sunblock. Trust me.
Number Nine: Skip the Booze, Go For Juice. Alcohol is strictly illicit in the Maldives—at least on the local islands—so this should be easy. Make friends with the rainbow assortment of fruit juices available, and don’t fret about a beer-free sunset.
The Finnish couple we befriended on our way out of town, the ones who boasted a 8.5 USD per day budget for their stay on the local island, whined about unwinding the sunny days’ sunsets in an alcohol-less café. But personally, you can’t get much tastier or more refined than the pineapple and the orange, the papaya and the guava and the watermelon all mixed and blended to perfection.
And if you’re tempted by the thought of packing in your liquor, well, just know that it gets confiscated at airport customs control—to be returned on your departure.
So, in the end, the grand experiment reveals that Maldives on budget is certainly possible. It ain’t the same as a resort pampering—and pocket-plundering—so don’t expect to catch sinewy supermodels staring from catamarans cruising mirror-smooth lagoons and sipping martinis as you glance up from checking the time on your Rolex. Think more dusty streets, more local trickery, more middle-aged Russians in too-revealing swimwear, and a lot more penny-pinching over extra charges. Even so, I don’t recommend scrapping your plans to soak in the pristine glory of the Maldives’ island gems—you’ve just got to learn to string it all together on a shoestring. Our experiment’s conclusions have proved it’s possible.