It’s funny how there are some places you never thought you would visit. I have a friend who took some teasing for many years about his enthusiasm for the Maldives; he was keen to extol the virtues of these idyllic islands in the sun, with their white sand beaches and stilted bungalows, to anyone who would listen. But I always knew that luxury holidays weren’t for me.
Don’t get me wrong: the idea of paradise is oh, so appealing. The problem is that I will never spend that sort of money on a single holiday when I could do it cheaper and have two(!), plus I know that I can’t lie on a sunbed all day without getting incredibly bored. Couple that with the fact that I couldn’t imagine flying all the way across the world to only see the inside of a resort, however beautiful, and my friend’s idyllic holiday just wasn’t for me.
But then I discovered another way to “do” the Maldives: by dhoni. A dhoni (no, autocorrect, not a drone!) is what the Arabs tend to call a dhow: a long sailing ship with cabins and a high prow, fitted these days with an engine and roof to make the journey that much more comfortable. Still used everywhere in the country as fishing vessels, a number of dhonis are now fitted out for tourists. So it was that I set out for the Maldives one September, to spend a week on one of these boats cruising the islands.
Well, it was bliss. Our dhoni headed south from the capital, Male, for the atolls of Felidhoo and Meemu, making regular stops on the way. Our days were spent on board, sleeping in two-birth cabins and eating the wonderful food cooked by the crew; largely fish-based, the food was spiced in a manner very reminiscent of India which, of course, lies not far to the north-east. Fruit – mango, coconut, bananas – was surprisingly easy to come by, and tasted wonderful in the tropical heat. Our days were spent on deck, enjoying the blue waters and palm-fringed islands, reading and watching spinner dolphins and flying fish (which I was surprised to find actually exist – with wings and everything!) from the deck.
But if this is all starting to sound like a floating resort, it wasn’t. Our week was full of discovery. Twice a day we would snorkel (no dive equipment allowed on the boat), always in a different location, and view the most spectacular corals and sea life I have seen anywhere in the world. Huge shoals of fish would flash past us: angel fish, parrot fish, Napoleon fish, and even the little clown fish making regular appearances. We saw moray eels, turtles, and on one magical occasion, a manta ray that we swam with for a while before it disappeared into the distance.
Occasionally we would moor up near deserted islets, to swim across and sit on the beaches, enjoying the views of our boat moored offshore. We fell into bed exhausted every night, first a little burned and then bronzed despite swimming in shorts and t-shirts for sun protection. The poor red-headed guy in our group was swimming in full length outfits by the end of the trip.
At the time we visited, it was not possible to spend the night on the local islands. So we would moor offshore, and on several evenings were able to visit the villages. We heard mosques chanting the call to prayer as the sun went down, and watched children playing on the beach, making “snowmen” out of the white coral sand. One evening we came across a group of local ladies, hijabs flapping in the breeze, playing a game which involved one friend hitting a tennis ball backwards over her head while the opposing team tried to catch it. I joined in, making a fool of myself in the process but loving the opportunity to laugh with a group of women in a country which is still conservatively Muslim.
On another evening we were treated to a performance of Bodu Beru. This Maldivian tradition involves double-ended drums which are beaten to a frenzied rhythm and which the islanders dance to with abandon. We had the opportunity to try the drumming – much more strenuous than it looks – and then dance the night away to the sound of the musicians who know how to do it properly. It was one of those evenings where you could either sit on the sidelines, too embarrassed to get up, or join in and throw yourself into the fun. I have never yet regretted throwing caution to the wind.
On our last day in the Maldives we moored up at Male, the capital, for a tour of its streets, mosques and markets. A huge contrast to life in the atolls, the city is very built up and has all the shops, hotels and schools you would expect from a city, all on an island a mile square. We visited the fish market, which boasted some impressive catches – yellow fin tuna and many more I could never name.
Our day in Male showed yet another side to this magical country which so many get so close to, and yet never see. For some people, all they need from a holiday is palm trees and relaxation, and that’s fine by me. I just can’t imagine being one of them.
I travelled to the Maldives with Explore!, but there are local tour operators like the one they used (Voyages Maldives) who can run trips independently. My week in paradise cost almost half what I would have paid for a week in a resort, with all food included, and yet I saw so much more than I could have done staying on a single island. If you dream of the Maldives but can’t afford the price tag, give a dhoni a thought. You won’t regret it.
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