Maldives: Paradise Gets Real

The Maldives is just sand, water and luxury resorts, right? Not so. Visitors can opt to stay within a local community to experience the real Maldives – a more authentic, varied and affordable holiday

Once a year in Kulhudhuffushi, an island in the Maldives’ northern Haa Dhaalu Atoll, residents parade in an event called Mashi Maali – which roughly translates to ‘mud costume’. Men slathered head to toe in mud, or covered in charcoal and black oil, parade down the streets while raucously clanging on makeshift drums. Some wear traditional palm frond skirts and don grotesque face masks and crude wigs. They’re meant to evoke monsters and ghosts – a sort of Halloween.

But the occasion is Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival marking the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid al-Adha is celebrated throughout the Maldives (11-15 August this year), but Kulhudhuffushi is arguably the most enthusiastic community when it comes to festivities. The mud-covered parade is unique to the island. And over the festival’s five days, residents are also treated to performances of traditional drumming, singing and dancing.

For many, the festival highlight is the parading of an outsized, pointy-toothed fish crafted entirely of woven palm fronds – a tradition found throughout the Maldives. Typically over six metres long, the fish is paraded by a team of men enveloped by the structure, their nimble footwork barely visible beneath the fringe hanging from the fish’s underside.

Too few tourists ever see these intriguing, uniquely Maldivian sights. The country is made up of 1,322 islands arranged into 26 atolls – ring-shaped coral reefs – and it’s known around the world as an otherworldly tropical paradise, dotted with resorts of extreme luxury. The resort attractions are apparent: private villas stand in turquoise lagoons, restaurants display spreads of gourmet food and butlers cater to your every whim. Guests are very much ensconced in their chosen resort – each occupying an island – save for the occasional excursion to dive or watch dolphins.

Cinoby / Getty Images

But Ruth Franklin, the founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, a tour company specialising in local experiences, says demand for more authentic encounters is growing. ‘Certainly we are seeing a larger number of enquiries for local travel and experiences than we did five years ago,’ she says. ‘However, the Maldives is still generally deemed to be a luxury resort destination by a large proportion of travellers and the travel industry, and therefore many are not aware that there is an alternative to the traditional resort holiday.’

Secret Paradise’s tours feature activities such as cooking classes, meals in the homes of local families, and learning about or assisting in environmental programmes like coral preservation.

Sunset Maldives
Aishath Naj/Two Thousand Isles

‘The best way to experience the stunning natural beauty of the Maldives and gain an insight into the local culture is to stay on a local island and travel with a professional guide. This helps visitors gain insight into local Maldivian life, culture, history, traditions, food and language,’ says Franklin. ‘All of this is fused with the exploration of picturesque islands.’

The islands that are home to local communities are also well equipped for tourists, with guesthouses for all budgets and easy access to beaches and other nature sites.

Visitors to Kulhudhuffushi, for instance, can enjoy hikes through the island’s lush vegetation and wade through its mangrove lake, the source of the mud that covers paraders during Eid al-Adha. Go for a dip in the beach’s blue waters or wander through the harbourside fish market, where fishermen might offer to take you on a fishing expedition at sea. And come dinner time, visit small restaurants to taste the island’s speciality dishes, like masbondi, made from ground rice, fish and fragrant spices, which are rolled into balls, then wrapped in leaves and baked to perfection.

Secret Paradise
Secret Paradise

The Maldives is the smallest country in Asia, so one might expect the culture to be quite homogeneous across the country. However, with over 400,000 people scattered across tiny isles in a chain of 26 atolls, the Maldivian archipelago is one of the most dispersed countries in the world. As such, culture and tradition have diversified over centuries. See the next page for a few more islands to explore, each offering a different look at the country’s heritage and landscapes. 

Cathay Pacific flies to Malé from Hong Kong four times a week

4 islands to visit

Top places to dive deeper into Maldivian life and culture

Malé City, Kaafu Atoll

Secret Paradise
Secret Paradise

On first glance, the capital seems to be tightly packed with nothing but tall buildings. But dotted on the urban landscape are heritage sites that reflect the culture of the Maldives. These include Hukuru Miskiiy mosque, with its ornate coral carvings and minaret; the presidential palace, colourful in its pinks and blues; a bustling fish market; and the Grand Friday Mosque, featuring a golden dome. They’re all located within a 15-minute stroll from the island’s main harbour. Getting there from Malé airport: ferry (15 minutes)

Dhigurah, Alifu Dhaalu Atoll

Its name means ‘long island’, thanks to its narrow, elongated shape. Part of the South Ari Marine Protected Area, Dhigurah is a place to spot whale sharks year-round. After an active day of snorkelling with these gentle giants, wind down with mouthwatering dishes at Hermit’s, or have a picnic on the pristine, secluded beach. Try Dhigurah’s famous home-grown chilli, if you dare. Getting there from Malé airport: domestic flight (20 minutes) or speedboat (2.5 hours)

Gan, Laamu Atoll

Aishath Naj/Two Thousand Isles

There’s plenty to see on Gan, from the red-tinted Paree Fengandu, or ‘fairy pond’ – which according to myth is bottomless – to old Buddhist ruins. Its speciality reef fish curry golha riha is a must-try, as is a ride along Link Road, a boulevard of palm trees connecting Gan to the islands of Fonadhoo, Kadhdhoo and Maandhoo. Together these make up the largest settlement in the Maldives. A 10-minute speedboat ride will have you at Baresdhoo island, known as a filming location of the Star Wars franchise’s Rogue One. Getting there from Malé airport: domestic flight to Kadhdhoo (50 minutes) + car transfer (15 minutes)

Fuvahmulah, Gnaviyani Atoll

Aishath Naj/Two Thousand Isles

Fuvahmulah, a single-island atoll at the country’s far southern end, is a thrill-seeker’s dream, offering wild, surf-ready waves at Thundi beach and heart-pounding dives with tiger sharks off the harbour. For more leisurely exploration, head to the wetlands and lakes, climb the ruins of a hawitta – mysterious mounds once part of Buddhist temples – or visit 900-year-old mosques. Then sit back for a delicious meal of kattelhi, a deep-sea fish particular to the region. Getting there from Malé airport: domestic flight (1.5 hours)

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