Planning a budget trip to the luxurious Maldives
We’ve all seen the jaw-dropping, wanderlust-inducing posts on Instagram. The images of pristine turquoise waters and white sand beaches dotted with overwater bungalows. The exotic posts that we linger on just a little bit longer but then quickly dismiss as only a destination for the rich and famous.
Or just rich.
With many resorts going for thousands of dollars per nights, the Maldives is just not a destination for regular folk…
Or so they think.
Contrary to what Instagram leads you to believe, the Maldives offer exactly two types of vacations: one for the rich and famous, and one for everyone else. Our perfect week in the Maldives was of the latter type. Keep reading and we’ll share the secret to your family’s budget vacation in the island paradise of Maldives.
Maldives resort island tourism
The Maldives is an island nation off the southern tip of India in the middle of the Indian ocean. 1200 individual islands grouped into 26 different atolls make up the Maldives. Of these 1200 islands, approximately 130 of them are resort islands, and 200 are “local” or inhabited islands. These are the islands where the real Maldivians live. The remaining ones are undeveloped islands surrounded by coral reefs.
Each resort island is owned by an individual hotel or resort company, so each island is an entire resort. From the time the Maldives opened for tourism in the 1970’s until 2009, if you wanted to vacation in the Maldives you would choose a resort island and book your stay there. Resort island stays ranged in price from pretty expensive to obscenely expensive. There were no other options.
Maldives local island tourism and Sharia law
In 2009, the Maldivian government allowed the local islands to open their doors to tourists. Since then, boutique hotels, guest houses, dive shops, and gift shops have been popping up on the local islands. Meaning you can now book a stay on a local island, where the locals live, rather than being limited to the uber-expensive resort islands. And as a bonus, you can visit many of the resort islands as a day visitor, for a fraction of the cost.
However, before you book the next flight to Male, you need to know a thing or two.
The Maldives is a strict Muslim nation. There is no religious freedom and the nation is governed by Sharia law. The resort islands are exempt from Sharia law and operate just like any other resort destination in the world. However, visitors to the local islands are required to abide by the local laws. Now I’m not gonna lie. The words “Sharia Law” are enough to make any Westerner at least a little bit nervous. In reality, it wasn’t nearly as scary as it sounds.
The local prohibitions basically boil down to two main points: 1) alcohol, and 2) attire.
First, on the local islands, there is no alcohol.
None. Not a drop. Anywhere. And DON’T EVEN think about smuggling it into the country. Just don’t. Oh, and leave the pork rinds, Slim Jims, or any other food containing pork at home.
Second, women must adhere to the conservative dress code on the local islands. This means you cannot wear your bikini or any other attire that reveals knees or shoulders in public.
However, in an effort to appease Western vacation expectations (and capture tourism dollars) while still honoring their Islamic laws, many local islands have “bikini beaches.”
What are bikini beaches?
Since most Westerners can’t imagine a beach vacation without sporting a typical swimsuit, many of the local islands provide bikini beaches. Bikini beaches are designated beaches on local islands (from which the locals are prohibited) where the tourists can wear their bikinis.
When you leave the beach, you simply need to wrap a sarong around your waist and throw on a t-shirt. That’s all there is to it. It’s not nearly as draconian as it sounds.
Choosing a local island
With 300+ resort and local islands, it can be confusing deciding where to go. We stayed on two different local islands–and visited two different resort islands–during our week in paradise. The local islands vary in terms of infrastructure, accessibility, and amenities. Also, not all local islands have bikini beaches. Be sure to do your research before you book your lodging.
Local island #1–Maafushi
The first local island we visited was Maafushi. Maafushi is probably the most developed of the local islands. Maafushi offers an abundance of lodging choices at many price points. There are also a dozen or so speedboat ferries from Male each day. The speedboat costs $20/per person each way and takes ~45 minutes. In short, it is the easiest and busiest of the local islands to visit.
Our three nights at the Kaani Beach Hotel cost $150/night for a triple room. This rate included a buffet breakfast each day. Best of all, it was just steps from bikini beach. Smoothie stands flanked the entrances to bikini beach and water sports operators were plentiful.
On the downside, tourism on Maafushi is exploding and the bikini beach is pretty small. Translation: bikini beach gets pretty crowded. Furthermore, a huge hotel is under construction next to bikini beach. If Maafushi doesn’t expand it’s bikini beach soon, there may be trouble in paradise.
Resort island #1–Adaaran Club Rannalhi
From Maafushi, we took a day trip to Adaaran Club Rannalhi. For $100/pp including transfers to/from Maafushi, we spent the day experiencing the Maldives of our dreams. Considering this price covered all of our food and drink (alcoholic drinks included) and plenty of photo ops, it was an economical way to experience a resort island. In addition to a lovely resort with excellent food, the house reef was spectacular. The offshore snorkeling on Adaaran Club Rannalhi teemed with colorful, tropical fish in massive abundance.
Local island #2–Dhangethi
While we chose Maafushi for convenience, we chose the second local island for scuba diving. Dhangethi does not have the well-developed tourism infrastructure of Maafushi, but what it is does have: 1) a jaw-dropping, uncrowded bikini beach, and 2) manta rays.
Dhangethi is located in the South Ari atoll and is one of the best spots in the world to dive with manta rays. Diving with mantas was super high on our bucket list, so we arranged for Riley to get her PADI scuba certification with South Ari Dive Center while in the Maldives. This paid off big time!
We stayed at the Mala Boutique Inn for four nights. The resort is very basic, but the staff and scuba diving were world-class. Rates for a triple room including all meals run around $150/night. Contact the resort directly for the best rates. Only one ferry a day services Danghethi from Male. The cost is $35/pp and takes ~1.5 hours.
Resort island #2–Amaya Kuda Rah
From Dhangethi, we took a day trip to the resort island of Amaya Kuda Rah. Again, for $100/pp including food and transfers, we spent another day in paradise. Although the house reef didn’t impress like Club Rannalhi’s, the Insta-perfect infinity pool more than made up for it.
As my watch ticked closer to 5 p.m. (the time of our return pickup), we felt like Cinderella watching the clock hands move toward midnight. We knew that when 5 p.m. arrived, our perfect Maldives dream vacation would turn into the Maldives vacation for regular folks.
But who’s complaining when this is what that looks like?!
A 5-star family vacation in the Maldives on a 3-star budget
To summarize, a family budget vacation in the Maldives is not unlike a budget trip just about anywhere else. It often boils down to where you sleep each night. Just like you can save a bundle on a Disney World vacation by not staying on-site at a Disney property, or by booking a room in the ski town as opposed to on the ski slopes when you ski, the same goes for the Maldives. If you’re willing to stay on a local island with a great bikini beach, and take some day trips to the fabulous resort islands, your family can enjoy a 5-star Maldives vacation on a 3-star budget!