As reputations go, the Maldives is probably best known as a place to rest and recuperate beside the perfectly flat, aquamarine sea. But the country has an adventurous side — one that uses that same sea for kitesurfing, deep-sea fishing and surfing crowd-free waves. Many of the activities revolve around the water, and for snorkelling there are few better places in the world. Here's how to get active among the picturesque coral atolls.
Expert kite surfers may find the Maldives to be too tame. But just consider its benefits for beginners: modest winds, warm and flat lagoon waters, and chilled-out beach bars with accommodation close at hand. It really is the perfect place to learn and improve. Prime season is from May to October, when southwesterly winds average 15 to 22 knots. The few Maldivian resorts with unobstructed, wind-facing lagoons include on-site surf schools offering rental and instruction. Top picks include Cocoon Maldives, Carpe Diem and Sun Siyam Olhuveli.
Beach-club dinghies and Champagne cruises on traditional sailing dhows are fine for excursions. But for real escapism, seek out a catamaran — the most spacious and stable of charter yachts. By untethering themselves from hotels, novice sailors can embark on voyages through the South Malé and Ari atolls: island-hopping between dreamy resorts and villages. Whether learning the ropes from a professional skipper or snorkelling over pristine reefs fringed by uninhabited islands, it offers the chance to play the windblown vagabond in relative luxury. Catamarans also come at a fraction of the price per person of many hotels.
In the Baa Atoll, a quirk of oceanic geography funnels plankton into Hanifaru Bay, transforming the reef into the ideal spot for Maldivian marine life. From June through to November, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve welcomes vast schools of rays, becoming one of the world’s largest oceanic feeding grounds. The fish whirl in so-called cyclone feeding frenzies, with silversides and sharks frequently joining the feast. Stay on the island of Dhigali, in the remote Raa Atoll; it’s not far from Hanifaru, making it the perfect place to snorkel. Expect indigo waters teeming with parrotfish, clownfish, sea turtles and hard and soft corals.
It’s a taste of paradise that also benefits the world — a conservation week on Naifaru island working alongside the marine biologists of the Atoll Marine Center. Their focus is turtles, whether hatchlings rescued from the illegal pet trade or wild specimens being rehabilitated for release after becoming tangled in fishing nets. The programme also gives volunteers the chance to tend coral gardens and collect data alongside local fishing communities. They leave with first-hand experience in international marine conservation for a non-governmental organisation and the glow that comes from a holiday that’s helping threatened ecosystems to flourish.
For a slice of authentic island life, book a cooking class with locals, beginning in the ramshackle markets of the capital, Malé. The waterfront produce market has fruit and vegetables, clothing and crafts plus coconuts sold with a straw. The fish market, meanwhile, is the epicentre of the nation’s key industry. Once you’ve gathered a world of wonderful ingredients, it’s back to a home kitchen to prepare lunch with a local family: perhaps mas huni, a mix of tuna, onion, coconut, lime and chilli, or barabo riha (pumpkin curry) served with rice, with fresh fruit for dessert.
Given that ocean-dwelling species are a mainstay of the Maldivian economy and that most hotels offer fishing excursions, it’s imperative that holidaymakers ensure trips follow sustainable policies. On a fishing excursion from family-friendly Kuramathi island, guests sail out of the shelter of Rasdhoo Atoll to deeper waters, where the big game of the Indian Ocean swim — giant trevally, grouper, tuna, wahoo and barracuda, all impressive species. But after the thrill of a landing, every single catch is released back into the brine. Good for future fishermen and the Maldives alike.
7. Dive in
The dilemma for divers in the Maldives is one of too much choice. In a country that’s 98% sea, how do you select just one resort hotel? The answer: you don’t. On a liveaboard dive boat, Ari Atoll and the North and South Malé Atolls become a giant smorgasbord of world-class dives where the best sites change depending on the season: a mesmerising drift dive here; a ray-cleaning station or shoal of Moorish idols there. Or go remote in the southern atolls, where pristine coral reefs swirl with all manner of marine wildlife.
Palm trees rustling in the warm breeze. Icing-sugar sand and the slosh of sea. The power of small tropical islands to refresh and restore makes them ideal yoga retreats. Several times a year, the island of Thoddoo hosts a teacher-led training programme in Yin-Yang yoga, a Taoist practice. Blending dynamic sequences and static poses held for up to five minutes, it’s all about tuning in and slowing down. This isn’t your typical fly and flop; this is a chance for genuine self-renewal.
The island of Thulusdhoo, in the Kaafu Atoll, doesn’t look like much: one half a grid of sandy lanes, the other parched scrub. Its surrounding waters, however, are the stuff of paddleboarding dreams. The west end of the island offers calm, shallow, bath-warm sea all the way to neighbouring Gasfinolhu, where white sandbanks rise like whalebacks. Off the southeast shore there’s a pleasant route around the wild islet of Furaagandu. Here you’ll find mellow waves peeling over a reef with marching regularity.
10. Surf empty waves
While the celebrated breaks of the northern atolls now suffer crowds, Ying Yang on the outer reef of Hithadhoo attracts just a few surfers and perhaps the odd dolphin. Expect a mellow wave that accelerates into a fast barrel. It’s the star break among several made accessible by Tropicsurf, an Aussie surf outfit with a base at Six Senses that offers lessons, board hire and trips to surrounding atolls. Once you’re back on shore, try the yoga and spa treatments to ease those tired limbs.
What should I bring?
Aside from the usual essentials, it’s worth bringing a waterproof camera such as a GoPro, a dry bag for safely transporting non-waterproof items to islands and a quick-dry towel. Don’t bring your own snorkel gear and flippers if you’re travelling on an organised tour, as this is usually provided. That said, it’s worth investing in a prescription snorkel mask if you usually wear glasses. If travelling on a cruise, bring a small, soft-sided suitcase rather than a hard-shelled one, as you will have to be comfortable carrying it on and off boats and space is usually limited. Bring everything you think you’ll need, as shops can be few and far between away from the residential islands.
What should I wear?
With most activities focused around the ocean, you’ll generally spend the majority of your time in your swimming gear, so it’s worth bringing a spare to wear while the other is drying. The sun can be strong in this part of the world, so it’s also good to bring a decent hat, high-factor sun cream and a long-sleeved shirt to wear while swimming. Bring modest clothing for visits to any residential islands (which are more conservative than the resorts) including loose, long-sleeved shirts and light trousers or a dress that falls below the knee.
How can I stay safe while I’m snorkelling?
While the waters around the Maldives are generally safe, the usual hazards of open ocean swimming apply. Ensure you can swim without the help of a floatation device and follow the advice of a guide. Be sure you’re aware of your surroundings and stay with the group at all times. It’s worth also knowing how to escape a riptide: swim parallel to the shore, out of the path of the current.
Is there any danger from sharks or other wildlife?
While sharks in the Maldives, from nurse sharks and whale sharks to white tips and black tips, are generally harmless, tiger sharks, which can be more aggressive, visit the atolls at the far south of the country and their presence can never be ruled out. Avoid touching any reefs, both to protect them from damage and to avoid being stung or bitten by wildlife such as scorpionfish and stonefish. As a rule, keep your distance from wildlife at all times — even turtles can bite if provoked.
How much should I allow for spending money and tips?
There are no ATMs outside of Malé, so make sure you bring all of the cash you will need with you. US dollars are the best currency as the Maldivian Rufiyaa is non-convertible and cannot be purchased beforehand. It’s customary to tip service providers such as waiters around 10% of the final bill, and ship crew around US$10-15 (£8-12) per person per day. For religious reasons, alcohol isn’t available for purchase on residential islands though it is on resorts and on board ships — but it can be expensive: budget around US$40 (£31) for a mediocre bottle of wine.
There are direct flights to Velana International Airport (MLE) in Malé with British Airways. Indirect flights via Doha are also available from various UK hubs, including Newcastle, Glasgow and Manchester, with Emirates and Qatar.
Average flight time: 10.5h
Once in the Maldives, the best way to get around is via domestic flight, speedboat or seaplane. Local airlines include Maldivian and Trans Maldivian Airways, and other transfers can be arranged via Atoll Transfer. If you’re staying on a resort island, check whether transfers are included in the cost of your booking as they usually are. Cheaper public ferries to residential islands are also available, including from the airport into central Malé; for the most accurate timings, check at the booking desk once there. Islands are generally small, and most are car-free, so walking is the best way to get around.
When to go?
Temperatures generally remain between 25-30C all year round. Peak season is typically between December to April, when the weather is at its driest and humidity at its lowest. The rainy season runs from May to November. It’s also worth noting when Ramadan begins towards the first half of the year, as there may be some restrictions around food and drink on residential islands. Migratory wildlife such as whale sharks and manta rays are generally in the area in the greatest numbers from June to October.
More info: visitmaldives.com, Lonely Planet Maldives (2018). £14.99.
How to do it: G Adventures has the seven-day Maldives Dhoni Explorer cruise itinerary to the South Malé and Felidhu atolls from £1,579 per person, full board, including transfers, activities and snorkelling equipment, excluding flights.
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