I’ve never snorkelled next to a turtle more interested in me, than I am of it. I couldn’t get rid of it, not that I wanted to. I’d like to think we’d formed some sort of cross-species bond, but I suspect it was just using me to shade from the hot sun.
To our guide swimming beside us, it was nothing unusual. But for us, it was just one of many incredible things to happen in the Maldives. The tiny island nation is a paradise that for decades has been off-limits to the ordinary traveller, simply because of its hefty price tag.
But thanks to a change in the law, you can now stay for less than $100 a night. The change happened in 2009, and meant so-called ‘local islands’ – home to small Maldivian villages – could open up to tourists for the first time.
While it allows these islands to cash in on the country’s ever increasing popularity, tourists also get to experience a slice of real Maldivian life; a fascinating insight into a culture that has been living on tiny atolls in the Indian Ocean for more than 2000 years.
There are now more than 400 guesthouses, most of which have popped up in the past two years. They far outnumber the 120 odd private island resorts.
We picked our guesthouse because it’s one of the top-rated, and it wasn’t hard to see why.
An ever-grinning man named Abdullah met us at dock, after a one-and-a-half hour speedboat ride from the country’s capital, Male.
Thoddoo Retreat, sitting smack in the middle of the island, has been built from the ground up by Abdullah Shiyaam and his family.
The island is a fruit lover’s paradise; papaya and watermelon plants cover most of the area. Roughly 180,000 papaya are grown on the island each year.
Most of the fruit is destined for nearby resorts, but you can also buy it straight from the farmer; although they were reluctant to take our money – they simply wanted us to enjoy it.
Back at the guesthouse, Abdullah knows he’s on to a winning formula. Having spent years working at a five star resort, the 32-year-old knows that some people just want to experience the stunning nature – and don’t need the luxury room and facilities that are found at the resorts.
A night at Thoddoo Retreat with breakfast costs $90, or around $160 including all meals. You can stay a week for about the price of 1 night at a high-end resort.
But what really makes Thoddoo Retreat stand out is what you can do once you’re there.
Abdullah also spent years working in ocean conservation– and runs fantastic tours to see whale sharks and giant manta ray.
We also visited an abandoned island, where a picnic later arrived by boat. Afterwards we got in the water to find swarming fish of every colour; there were so many it felt like a technicolour vortex.
A dive session costs $65, about half the price of what you’d pay at resorts.
There are of course trade-offs: being a local island with a strict following of Islamic law – there is no alcohol. Women are also asked to dress modestly, and are only allowed to wear a bikini on designated bikini beaches.
Resorts on private islands are exempt from these laws.
Also, your room isn’t beachfront, you need to walk through fruit plantations for about 15 minutes to get to the ocean.
But if you’re happy to accept the trade-offs, and want a more backpacker style adventure – visiting a local island is the best way to tick the Maldives off your bucket list, without breaking the bank.
How budget is budget – what do the extras cost?
· A night at Thoddoo Retreat costs around $90 including breakfast, or $160 including 3 meals.
· Snorkelling at the island’s reef is free
· A picnic on a deserted island with lunch and snorkel trip is $100 per person.
· Whale shark trips: $140 per person.
· Manta ray snorkeling: $70 per person
· 30 minute wakeboarding or skiing: $60
· Diving: $75 per person