Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

Paradise on three bucks a day

The Maldives on three dollars a day: does that sound like your kind of February? This Indian Ocean cluster of atolls approximates as closely to paradise as most people need. Honeymooners converge on the Maldives by the Airbus-load, as does anyone else keen on sun, sea and seclusion. All this, plus some of the best scuba diving in the world, does not come cheap: £1,000 is the usual starting price for a fortnight's basic package. So how can you get along on just $3 (£2) a day? By reading on – and forsaking a fortnight's affair with the place for a one-morning fling. But you will love every precious minute of it.

The Maldives on three dollars a day: does that sound like your kind of February? This Indian Ocean cluster of atolls approximates as closely to paradise as most people need. Honeymooners converge on the Maldives by the Airbus-load, as does anyone else keen on sun, sea and seclusion. All this, plus some of the best scuba diving in the world, does not come cheap: £1,000 is the usual starting price for a fortnight's basic package. So how can you get along on just $3 (£2) a day? By reading on – and forsaking a fortnight's affair with the place for a one-morning fling. But you will love every precious minute of it.

To keep your (half) day in heaven down to a couple of pounds, plan carefully. Arrange connecting flights between, say, Colombo and Dubai to allow a gap of several hours in the Maldives. You can do so without adding to the overall cost of a ticket between the UK and Sri Lanka, thanks to the fact that Emirates owns a chunk of SriLankan Airlines. Flights on the two airlines are interchangeable without putting up the price. I paid just short of £600 for a London-Colombo-Dubai-London flight that squeezed in a morning in the Maldives.

"Male" announced my boarding-pass at Colombo airport for the one-hour hop to the Maldives. Correct in terms of my gender (though it said the same on women's boarding passes). But strictly, the destination should have been spelled Male', because the official name of the Maldivian capital ends in an apostrophe.

Male' was originally styled Malé, so the story goes. But the British typewriters that were shipped out to the islands' bureaucrats were not equipped with a key for the acute accent, so in official documents the name became Male'. These days, every word-processing programme can shower a place-name with accents, but the Maldivians are not inclined to give up the distinction of the only national capital whose name ends in a punctuation mark. At least it does most of the time; besides boarding passes, many holiday brochures style it Malé on the grounds that this makes the capital appear more exotic and less like a typing error.

When you have only four hours in a country, the last thing you want is a hold-up at passport control. Fortunately, it appeared that half the population of the Maldives had donned immigration uniforms to speed the process; they outnumbered the passengers on the sparsely populated SriLankan Airlines jet. Every possession is X-rayed by customs officials, looking for forbidden "alcoholic beverages, idols of worship, live pigs and exobiological materials". Nothing to declare.

Hello Maldives; that was what I thought, and also happens to be the title of a handy tourist brochure given away to new arrivals. It was to be my constant companion for the next 240 minutes. The text begins perceptively – "You have just arrived at the Male' international airport" – but then ventures into speculation: "Realising that there is ample time at your disposal, you begin to ponder as what is to be done with it." Reading on, the numbers looked overwhelming: "A beautiful string of 1,190 low-lying coral islands scattered across the equator". In the time I had available, that worked out at five islands a minute. I would have to apply a little selection, and concentrate on the egg-shaped main island, Male'.

The Maldives gave the world the cowrie shell as a unit of currency, but these days the republic prefers visitors with paper money. "Visitors should be in possession of at least US$25 per day of stay." I had only three dollar bills. Fortunately, no one asked. I was not willing to dent my meagre funds by changing the trio of notes into Maldivian rufiyaa at the bureau de change; handily, US bills are accepted. So I hit the ground – and the water – running.

That boarding-pass was right about my gender but wrong about the destination. Ryanair's imaginative approach to naming airports has caught on in the Indian Ocean. The plane actually landed on Hulule' Island, 2km from Male'. So within minutes of touchdown, I was enjoying some Maldivian island-hopping.

My first dollar went on Male' 's version – that's the last time I make it a possessive – of the airport bus. The 10-minute cruise to the capital was aboard a brightly painted launch. Even for the transit traveller, it is a superb way to arrive: skimming across the warm water that is the same translucent turquoise that the holiday brochures claim. The capital gradually expanded to fill the horizon, a serrated skyline of modern blocks and ancient minarets ("100 per cent Sunni Muslim", explained the Religion section of Hello Maldives).

Forget it "If it's Tuesday this must be Belgium"; if it's 8am this must be Male'. Fortunately, this is one capital city cut out for instant exploration. Male' is shored in by the sea to a tiny oval, one-and-a-half miles from east to west and barely a mile north-south. Despite some bold attempts at reclamation, you cannot walk for more than half an hour in any direction without falling into the sea – or, more likely, being hit by a car.

If any city needs a congestion charge it is Male'. Tourism has brought many benefits to the Maldives, but the motor car cannot be counted among the blessings. This is one place in the world where almost nobody needs a car, yet almost everybody has one. The absurd density of traffic means it is almost always quicker to walk than to drive. Or cycle: this is, after all, the world's flattest country, with no land more than 4m above the Indian Ocean.

You could hike around the perimeter in an hour, but this would miss the point: to find the soul of a city in a couple of hours, you need to delve into its heart. Hello Maldives has a detailed map on the centrefold, showing the dozens of streets that carve up the capital. Challengingly, it awards names to only four thoroughfares.

You need no street names to identify the presidential palace: it's the big building behind a tall fence bearing the impressive national emblem (a palm tree plus three crescent moons,), with soldiers who peer down from observation turrets at suspicious tourists. The last coup attempt, 15 years ago, involved mercenaries who landed as visitors, so claiming touristic immunity here will do you no good. Beneath the machine-gun nest, a woman was sweeping up the flower petals that had fallen during the night.

Men will find a warm welcome at the Queen of the Night. Its clientele, and staff, are all Male. This is not a bordello for Maldivian sailors, but a tea shop. It stands on the road that I discovered – no thanks to the Hello Maldives map – to be Marine Drive. Dollar two was squandered on a delicious plate of Maldivian snacks. Given the limited options for arable farming and livestock, fish feature heavily on the menu. I munched through kulhi borkibaa (a spicy fishcake) and theluli kavaabu (deep-fried fish rissole) and swigged a cup of strong tea.

The oldest structure on the island is the Friday Mosque, built in 1656 from coral stones. You can still make out the intricate carvings despite more recent corrugated-iron amendments. I asked a man who had just emerged if I might look inside; he pointed at the sign explaining I needed prior permission from the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. So I carried on ambling and soon found myself on one of the streets with a name: Chandanee Magu, which appeared to be the commercial heart of Male'. Two T-shirt salesmen were chatting outside a souvenir shop about the prodigious amount of cash they had made the previous day when a British cruise ship had called. "Male' is the ideal place for shopping," asserted Hello Maldives. I was not financially equipped to find out.

The south-east corner of Male' is pinioned by a strange monument: a tetrablock. This is a four-pointed lump of concrete, which when stacked along the shore can subdue storms. The Japanese donated hundreds of them to protect the south coast of Male'.

Back on the north coast, as I hurried to the ferry for the airport, I met a woman who told me the secret of enjoying a proper holiday in the Maldives on $30 a day. She bases herself in a cheap hotel in Male', and each day goes out to a different island. The trick is to travel out on the morning boat that carries workers from Male' out to the resorts, and return with them in the evening. The day can be spent snorkelling through some of the world's most alluring reefs, and enjoying more elaborate cuisine than the Queen of the Night can provide.

Regrets? I had a few as I handed over my last dollar to the ferryman on the cruise back to Hulule'. There had been no time to call into the Transit Inn in Male' to sample what it boasts is a "sweetwater shower". But at the airport, the financial advantages of being a transit-lounge traveller became evident. I had avoided the $6 per night accommodation tax and the $10 departure tax.

And what of the "Over 80 resort islands, each of them surrounded by a halo of sugar-sand beaches and crystal-clear seas, cloaked in lush palm groves"? Easy. I requested a seat on the left-hand side of the plane and saw a good half-dozen of them as the aircraft climbed away from the airport en route to Dubai.

The jewels of the Indian Ocean will need to wait for another day and a thicker wallet, I thought as the last sparkling lagoon faded. I may be the lowest-spending visitor of the year to the Maldives, but that has its own compensations: no one is likely to order yet another unnecessary car as a result of my benevolence.

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