The complete guide to The Maldives

A string of more than 1,000 islands, the Maldives offers idyllic beaches, outstanding water sports and a population of friendly people whose culture is a blend of Islam and indigenous Divehi. But this is also a nation whose time is running out


Er, could you just remind me where they are?

Er, could you just remind me where they are?

The Republic of Maldives (independent from Britain since 1965) is made up of a long, thin, north-south string of atolls in the Indian Ocean, south-west of Sri Lanka. The country's 26 atolls contain 1190 islands. Around 200 are inhabited by Maldivians; 87 are resort islands set aside for tourists.

Atoll? That's an odd word

Atoll is just about the only word in English that derives from the national language of the Maldives, Divehi. Atolls, or atholhu, are rings of small, low-lying islands around a central lagoon. From the air they look like delicate green garlands tossed casually on a turquoise sea. They are one of the most beautiful geological formations on earth.

Atolls are created when an extinct volcano collapses on itself, creating a white-sand-and-green-palm necklace of low-lying islands surrounding a lagoon where the crater of the volcano used to be. The whole is protected from big waves by an encircling coral reef. Since most atolls are in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Indian and Pacific oceans, they act as an essential marine oasis for species that need a bit of land or shallow waters to survive.

But does that make for a good bit o' fun in the sun?

What that means for swimmers is clear: shallow, warm waters with easy, protected access to spectacular reefs, rife with a dense rainbow of tropical fish. As a result, the Maldives has some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.

Even better, the experience is relatively guilt free. The Maldivian government, under the guidance of the award-winning environmentalist and president of the nation, His Excellency Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, keeps a tight control over the environmental and social impact of tourism. The main way this mini-miracle has been accomplished is by restricting tourists to self-contained resort islands. The resorts have to comply with strict environmental controls, such as asking visitors to take dead batteries home with them. If a resort breaks the rules, it's broken its lease. Goodbye.

Seems a bit extreme

For the Maldives, environmental awareness is crucial. The islands are often so narrow that with a turn of the head, you can see both the lagoon and the ocean. Adding to their vulnerability, most are less than 2m above sea level, protected from high seas only by a coral reef. Unfortunately, reef corals are sensitive animals. They prefer pristine water at a temperature of 23-27C and will die if it goes a few degrees either way outside their comfort zone. Nor can the water be more than 30m deep, or the salinity levels drop too much.

Any further rises in sea levels could sink the country. This isn't gloom-and-doom science fiction. In 1987 and 1991, storm surges washed over a central atoll and, at one point, inundated the international airport and one-third of the capital.

So is it safe?

Yes. Experiments are being done on growing artificial reefs and a massive breakwater has been built around the capital to protect it from untoward surges. The government has also banned destructive forms of fishing and coral mining, implemented nation-wide education programs and declared threatened reefs off-limits until they can regrow.

Okay, what are the resorts like, then?

Most tourists book into one of the 87 self-contained resorts. Generally, each resort has its own island. They all also have their own feel and easy access to great water sports. It used to be that each resort targeted a different nationality, but with more and more Brits coming in through major tour operators like Kuoni, the resorts are becoming more polyglot. The divide is now class of service, rather than country of origin. For example, Universal Enterprises (whose Maldivian founder MU Maniku started modern tourism in the Maldives by bringing in a group of 22 Italian tourists in 1972 and putting them up with friends) is the largest chain and owns eight resorts and a cruise ship, each going after a very different clientele. All their resorts have very lush gardens, as you would expect from places run by an ex-minister of agriculture.

Baros Holiday Resort is a small, intimate, upscale destination with 59 cabanas and suites. But their most romantic and exclusive accommodations are the 16 individual wooden, thatched-roofed cottages, built on stilts over the lagoon. You can step from your private balcony straight into the massive tropical fish tank that is the Indian Ocean. It is the sort of refined, no-news, no-shoes place where you can tell the shoes that people aren't wearing are expensive. (www.unisurf.com/baros/intro.html).

If that is all too sedate for you, you can try a place like Full Moon Beach Resort (www.unisurf.com/fullmoon/intro.html), where there are 52 water bungalows, 150 guest rooms, a big pool, tennis courts, gym, heath centre, a cybercafé, copies of the International Herald Tribune on every counter, five restaurants, an on-staff artist and, yes, karaoke, often in the company of the resort's genial manager. All the resorts have great beaches. For a full list of resorts, see www.visitmaldives.com.

Kuoni offers great last minute deals on its website (www.kuoni.co.uk); a recent offer has seven nights' B&B at Full Moon, leaving from Gatwick, for £729.

Resorts are fine, but what if i want to get to know the locals?

In an effort to limit cultural damage caused by the waves of foreigners, most of the 200 or so "inhabited" islands (ie where the Maldivians live) are off-limits to tourists without special government dispensation, though many resorts run day-trips to nearby inhabited islands. That said, the capital, Malé, where about 75,000 people - around a third of the country's population - live, is highly accessible. There are just a few things you should know before you go there.

The Maldives is an Islamic country. Bikinis and booze are allowed on the resort islands but inhabited islands, including the capital, insist on a bit more decorum. Which isn't to say you need be covered from top to toe. President Gayoom (and his highly-regarded wife) are Islamic scholars. He has encouraged a very interesting path of social development for his country. As one woman radio producer describes it: "Our religion is Islam but our culture is Maldivian." The result is a place where they follow the Islamic tradition of the rich donating money to help the poor, but women are able to choose if they want fully to cover their hair (the President's wife, for example, doesn't).

The country has practically no crime. The fact that it is small enough to function like one large extended family has a lot to do with it. Everyone knows someone who knows everyone else. Lack of anonymity leads to lack of opportunity. Also, the laws tend to be clear, simple and flexible, within very well-defined limits.

Or as, Cal Bailey, a Canadian who worked in the Maldives puts it: "I think the rules are, that if you abide by certain rules, you can break a lot of others, but if you break even one of certain rules, you're a pariah."

How do i meet some of these interesting people?

Maldivians tend to be shy, but curious and charming. A great way of hanging out in a relaxed atmosphere is to go down to Malé's artificial beach in the evening, when the kids are finished school and the work day is ending. Entire families wade into the protected shallow waters. Women and men swimmers must wear at least T-shirts and knee-length shorts. Some Maldivian women go into the water with long pants and burkas.

If you are in a group of tourists, it is likely no one will talk to you, but if you are a woman on your own, it shouldn't take long before a Maldivian girl "accidentally" splashes you as a way of starting up a conversation. If you are a man alone, it might take a bit more creativity on the part of the Maldivian boys to figure out a way of starting a conversation without causing any offence.

One tactic, used on a travelling companion of mine, involved a teenage boy wading over to him and saying with a smile: "Hey, sorry about yesterday." My friend parried with: "What?". The teen: "Sorry about last night, you know...". At which point the teen's friends showed up and started laughing, explaining: "He's a psycho." So my friend asked: "Are you a psycho?". And the teen replied: "No, but I have a psyche." The ice was soundly broken. Needless to say, many people speak English. Well.

Another option is to keep an eye open for music shows. Maldivian music is a wonderful blend of Hindi musicals, Arabic vocalising and even a touch of Western pop. There are regular concerts around Malé. And if Miriam Didi, the soulful "Blind Singer Of Thinadhoo" (a southern atoll) is playing, don't miss it.

What else goes on in the big city?

Malé (Mah-Lay) is about 2km by 1km, but recent development has turned it into a mini-Manhattan (without the crime but with the traffic). You can find everything from a traditional, dock-side fish-market to a cybercafé (

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform