Where we’re at: I’m recapping my trip to The Maldives in March 2022.
As I shuffled into my 48th country of the Maldives, off a sleepless red eye flight, I felt instantly at home in the humid customs line. Shortly after, I noticed that of the hundreds who disembarked with me, all but a handful of us picked up their luggage and walked directly to the connecting flights terminal. The rest, emerged into Malé.
Malé is the capital of the Maldives, and the largest of the 200 or so populated islands among the nation’s 1,200. Like, I assume, just about anyone who’s ever received a tourist stamp at the Velana International Airport, I was drawn to the Maldives for the crystal blue waters, white sand beaches, and pink-hued sunsets of islands further afield. In fact, I was hosting an entire liveaboard retreat based on them. But, I felt drawn to explore, even briefly, the nation’s enigmatic cultural center.
Tourists were actually not even allowed to stay on islands where locals lived until 2009, and many resorts are staffed almost entirely by foreigners, so it’s almost by design that travelers can have a hard time getting to truly know the soul of the Maldives.
Which is why I created a two day cultural extension to do so. (Not to mention other perks — like adjusting to the local time zone before a demanding dive trip, and kissing any worries about delayed flights leading to missed boarding goodbye.) I was inspired in part by my recent trip to French Polynesia, where I’d been surprisingly charmed by the capital of Papeete, which could only be described as the most hidden of gems. Maybe Malé, too, was just waiting to be sieved out of the sand.
No, Malé is not a tourist destination.
Most travelers transit through, missing a unique opportunity to experience the history, culture, and daily pulse of what I hoped would be a fascinating island nation. As a result, tourist services are limited — I scoured the internet to find a Wander Women-esque accommodation, finally landing on the Samman Grand.
While it lacked the rooftop pool I’d personally have had installed as general manager, it was clean, stylish, centrally located, and had dreamy views over the main mosque. Hearing that haunting call always reminds me I’m somewhere special.
I was so happy to reunite with so many Wander Women alumni in the lobby!
After a brief rest and recharge, we were headed back out for a walking tour of Malé with Secret Maldives, a women-owned local tour company, where our guides would orient us on the island, give us the inside scoop on Islam, teach us a few words of Dhivehi, and answer all our questions about life in the Indian Ocean.
At four square miles, Malé is tiny — but it’s also one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more motorbikes than people. We bobbed and weaved as we walked past colorful buildings, asking our guides how long it would take to circumnavigate the entire island on foot. Maybe an hour, for an American, they replied. What about for a Maldivian?, we asked back, slightly puzzled but catching on that Maldivians move at a more relaxed pace. They laughed. A Maldivian would never walk that far, they winked.
One of the sights I was most looking forward to was The Old Friday Mosque, the coral-carved oldest mosque in the country. Built in 1656, it’s still an active prayer site today.
If there is a super defining characteristic of Malé, it’s that it is super Muslim. It’s alcohol free — get ready for a million mocktails, baby, until you make it to a designated resort where alcohol can legally be sold — and bikinis may only be worn on designated “bikini beaches” for foreign women. Needless to say, we’d packed modestly for Malé.
Our tour continued as we walked past the former Sultan’s palace, the Tsunami Monument, more modern mosques, and our favorite, Sultan Park. We were all dazzled, much to our guide’s amusement, when they casually pointed out the President of the Maldives’ motorcade driving by. I guess over four square miles, it’s hard to find a rare sight.
Sadly The National Museum was closed without warning or explanation, but Lonely Planet Maldives had warned me that was a likely possibility (their lack of a website isn’t inspiring, either.)
Eventually we wound our way to the fish market and fresh food market, the heartbeat of an island capital. The fish market was far from my favorite place I’d ever been — or smelled — but I did love the stingrays swarming the dock to dine on the leftovers.
It was just our first hint of the magic of the underwater world to come as we pushed ahead to further, more remote corners of the Maldives.
We finally made our way to a rooftop where we ordered a round of very sugary drinks — everyone has to have some vice — and enjoyed the aerial views of the busy harbor.
There were a dozen of us on the extension, and it was nice to have some more intimate time with a smaller crew before we boarded the boat. Actually, twelve to fourteen is the usual size of a Wander Women Retreat, so even filling the boat with the most conservative cabin arrangement possible meant we were double our normal crew!
That evening, we were in for a rare treat.
The capital of Malé technically consists of the island of Malé itself, and its surrounding islands of Hulhumalé and Vilimalé. Our extension took in all three. That night, we were off to Hulhumalé for a local feast. While it is becoming more common for resorts to feature a few Maldivian dishes or even a theme night, it traditionally can be hard for tourists to access.
Lucky for us, Secret Maldives offers a local dining experience. While it’s typically offered in a local’s home, we were a tad too large of a group for that, so we instead went to a beautiful outdoor restaurant where we were served family-style dishes of Maldivian delicacies.
The next morning, we were up early for something near and dear to our heart — an eco day with Save The Beach Maldives!
We loaded into a pickup truck and hopped the public boat even further off the beaten path to Villimalé, also sometimes referred to as Villingili, where we instantly felt we’d stepped back in time.
Our day was beginning with a beach cleanup, before the sun was too high in the sky. Like many nations, The Maldives ships their recycling abroad, an energy intensive effort that reminds me it’s much better to reduce or reuse than to recycle. Since 2008, Save The Beach has tackled this issue by organizing local cleanups, installing public beach bins, and lobbying for environmental protections. We were thrilled to work with them, learn from them, and donate to them.
I love me a beach clean up — you get your steps and squats in while you chit chat with friends and in this case some awesome locals, and at the end you did some good! In this case, about a hundred pounds worth — that’s the amount of debris we removed from the beach, with half being recycling, and half landfill (another island, far in the distance, functions as the nation’s landfill, and is the highest point in the country.)
Our day had been carefully planned around Friday prayers, in which the entire country more or less comes to a pause. And so too did we, returning to Malé for a rest and recharge, as well as a rooftop lunch, back at our hotel.
That afternoon, we were back to Villimalé — luckily the ten minute commute wasn’t too arduous to do twice. This time, we were in for a thorough eco-tour of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-isle, and a presentation about conservation in the Maldives.
Villimalé is meant to serve as an example for green development for other populated Maldivian islands, and we almost unanimously agreed it seemed like a preferable place to live, with a relaxed vibe, many colorful beaches, and copious public spaces for what seemed to be a national pastime in the Maldives — chilling!
After our walking tour, we settled at a local beachfront cafe where we spotted baby black tip reef sharks offshore. Our lovely guide shared a presentation that briefed us on the underwater world we’d experience in the week ahead, taught us about the unique Maldivian ecosystem and the conservation challenges facing this fragile environment, introduced us to their coral nursery (I’m diving it on my next trip!), and gave us environmentally sound tips for safe snorkeling and dive practices.
What I love most about Save The Beach is that it’s a successful marine conservation project run by local Maldivian conservationists — who better to learn from?
That evening, we were up for a night on the town — Malé style! We’d all been totally taken with Sultan Park, and enjoyed a leisurely walk through it to soak up the fun fountains and light-based installations; a playground for kids and adults.
We toasted to a fascinating welcome to the Maldives with dinner at Seagull Restaurant, which delighted me in its resemblance to a treehouse.
After dinner, we were in for yet another true treat. The National Gallery — which was open until 11PM, how’s that for nightlife? — was featuring a show by Samah Ahmed. I truly enjoyed soaking up each of these paintings, and getting to talk to the artist herself.
A show about blue waters like the ones we were about to explore, by a female Maldivian artist? How lucky could we be?
And the next morning, we were off to see some bright blues for ourselves.
So yes, don’t worry, there are plenty of dreamy turquoise waters, idyllic sandbar islands, overwater bungalows, and more headed your way. But I’m truly grateful that I had this opportunity to first explore a side you may not have seen. This was a rare chance to authentically experience the heart of the nation, a stark contrast to the remote atolls we’d visit later in the trip.
The culture of the Maldives can be hard to uncover, with how dispersed its population is and honestly, I was a little insecure about this retreat extension — was this a side of the Maldives anyone really wanted to see? Would my guests be glad they started their trip like this?
Wow — was it a resounding yes. We learned so many fascinating facts, had so many meaningful conversations, and got to see up close how and where a full fifty percent of the Maldivian population lives. It put everything I did for the next two weeks into so much greater context.
Sometimes hidden gems are worth sifting for.
Would you visit Malé before heading further afield in the Maldives?