Monday July 13, 2015 (Asia, Maldives)
Let’s talk about Maldives. To begin with: don’t make the same mistake we did. It’s not “The Maldives”. Even though there are a bunch of islands in Maldives, it’s not supposed to be a plural. It’s just Maldives. Also, it’s pronounced "MAUL-DEEVES”. Now when I type it, I know you’re going to be saying it the same way in your head, and that’s very important to me.
Can you travel in Maldives cheaply? We sure tried. Did we succeed? Partially.
When we first planted the seed of heading to Maldives (by buying a return ticket to Male from Kochi), it felt like we were doing great. We’d nailed down a return flight on SpiceJet for 450 CAD for the two of us, or about 225 CAD. It was supposed to be even lower, but don’t even try to book SpiceJet online with a foreign credit card. That’s a disaster. So after a bunch of extra fees incurred via booking through a third party, we got to 225 CAD. You can do better, but it still felt pretty reasonable to us.
Next up was accommodation. We discovered Reethi Beach Resort on Fonimagoodhoo Island. We managed to get six nights at our resort for 555 USD. That’s 92.50 USD per night. Sorry about the change in currencies here from CAD to USD, but I just record prices in the currency we paid with rather than messing around with exchange rates. So, 92.50 USD per night! Not bad, eh? It’s certainly above what we’d generally budget for accommodation, but this is Maldives. The high season price for this resort is 850 USD. Per night. I think you now have your answer about whether to travel in Maldives during high season. We would gently recommend against it. Finally, our accommodation included breakfast only, so we knew lunch and dinner would be extra, but how expensive could food really be, right? Right?
So we’ve found this great accommodation and a reasonably priced flight. Next up is the process of realizing that Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male is nowhere near the island on which we’ll be staying. We’re expecting we can take the equivalent of a local bus: there must be some kind of ferry that putts around to the islands and acts as a cheap little shuttle. I’m sure of it. But it’s not the case, unfortunately. We receive a quote from Reethi that the return transfer cost from Male to Reethi and back via seaplane will cost us (drumroll please) 450 USD. Oh, wait: per person. In other words, it’s cheaper to fly yourself all the way to Maldives and pay for a resort for six nights than it is to get a transfer to said resort. That was a surprise to us. Be ready for it.
We did the natural thing, of course. Responded in an email saying, “Buhhh, whaaat? Is there any other option? What about that great little ferry that just shuttles locals around to all of the islands?” Doesn’t exist. The cheapskate option that we partook in was to board a domestic flight from Male to Dharavandhoo airport, then take a 20 minute speedboat ride to the resort. Cheaper? Yes. 320 USD. Per person. Still ridiculous? Absolutely. But now our total transfer fees are 640 USD instead of 900 USD. As my dad always says, “The more you spend, the more you save!”
You’ve arrived at Male airport. You buy a small bottle of aloe vera for 11 USD (hint: don’t buy anything at the airport) and then wait for your domestic transfer. You need something to eat, but your only options are Burger King and Thai Express, so you pick up a cheeseburger combo for 12 USD. But you get caught up in Burger King’s sneaky little scam. I look up at the big menu and puke a bit when I see the prices, but fine, let’s go for it. I ask for the combo. “Would you like medium or large size?”, the cashier asks. I opt for medium. The tally on the till adjusts to 13 USD. I ask, “Is there some kind of tax or something?”
“No, that’s the price for a medium combo.” “OK, but this little sheet here says that one size up is called ‘large' and the next size up is called ‘king size’. I asked for a medium.” “Our medium is our large, sir.” “Your medium is your large? Do you hear what you’re saying?” “Yes sir.” “OK, then please give me the… small?” “Small combo then.”
And the price goes back to the price on their big sign: 12 USD. It’s really interesting how they do it – they make it seem like you only have two choices of combo size. “Would you like medium or large?”. They must be taught to do this because it’s super-confusing, especially when their other literature refers to “Large” and “King Size”. They don’t frame it as “Would you like to UPGRADE TO medium or large”, but instead they imply you have only two choices. Even their tone implies it’s one or the other. But if you pick one of the two given to you, the price jumps. In order to get the price on the menu, you have to deny both options given to you. The correct answer to “medium or large?” is “NEITHER!”. That’s a big tangent I went on there, but I felt it was a valuable PSA about Maldivian Burger King. It’s a trap! I actually watched this tactic work wonders on the couple in front of me as we left Maldives. They both got the silent upgrade treatment and ended up paying several dollars more than they should have. I hate stuff like that.
Phew. OK, so now you’ve made it to Maldives, and you’ve transferred to your resort with your breakfast paid for every day. If you’re incredibly clever like us, you’ve also made sure to pack heaps of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and chappathi to act as snacks/lunch. This way you can make it until dinnertime without incurring any extra costs! Brilliant! As a “Bed & Breakfast” guest, you have the option of eating at any of the "A La Carte” restaurants at the resort. We checked out a bunch of them, but only one (called Moodhu Bar) was very affordable by our standards. The big steal was a Margherita pizza for 9 USD. A 330mL draft beer was 5 USD. These prices are distinctly elevated from what we’ve been paying in India and Sri Lanka (duhhh), but Reethi is apparently considered a very affordable resort in terms of its food prices. Other places have the same beers pegged at 10 USD. Rough. The pizzas were tasty enough and large enough that we would sometimes pack up half a pizza each and use it as lunch the next day. This strategy allows you to stop eating chappathi smothered with peanut butter every day. Clutch!
One thing that got really frustrating for me, though, is that basically every cost you incur on the resort has a 12% goods and services tax tacked onto it. Oh, and a mandatory 10% service tax. Somehow, the quoted sum of these two taxes is just over 23%. Not sure how that math works out, but I didn’t bother asking about it. Now I could kind of understand a mandatory service charge for food and drink, but sometimes they get tricky with it. The gym membership, for instance, is quoted everywhere as being 50 USD for a couple for one week. That didn’t seem crazy to us, so we signed up. And of course, when we get our bill upon departure from Reethi Beach Resort, the bill shows the actual cost is more like 67 USD. I’m paying GST and a mandatory 10% service charge on a gym membership? Uncool.
And there are two flavours of icing on the payment cake.
The first is that the gym membership gives you access to everything: badminton, squash (!), tennis courts, rackets… but no tennis balls. If you want tennis balls, that’s 8 USD. Obviously. I’m paying you 67 USD to run on your treadmills for a couple of hours and you won’t throw in a couple of tennis balls? That really grinds my gears. On the plus side, the gym also gives out free water (which you have to pay for everywhere else on the island), so if you drink a ton of water just pretend you’re constantly working out and get it for free!
And now for the second flavour of annoying payment icing: the resort rounds up the bills! It’s ridiculous of me to complain about this because it’s such a tiny amount, but our bill came to 335.60 USD. That’s a gym membership, six dinners, a couple of drinks, and a one day snorkel rental for the two of us. I look at the last line of the bill, and they have a line item called “Round Off”, which takes the total to 336 USD. I’m paying with a credit card – can’t you just punch in 335.60? Nope, because “some people pay with cash, and we don’t deal with coins”. Ugh. In all fairness, they apparently round down as well (depending upon the total), but that doesn’t really help my eye stop from twitching as we watch more money rapidly disappear.
When we tally it all up (and assume 1 CAD = 0.8 USD), we get a total of about 2100 USD all-in. That’s with our airfare from India to get us there. Is that crazy cheap? Nope. But reasonably affordable considering Maldives’ reputation as being an incredibly expensive destination. Could it be done cheaper? Absolutely. There’s one big thing you can do to save a bunch of money: stay on an inhabited island!
Many of the islands in Maldives are just one-resort-per-island kind of deals. The bad news is that they’re difficult to get to, but the good news is that you can wander around wearing bathing suits and nobody cares. There are other good news aspects to staying on your own island in addition to the bathing suit thing, but that’s actually a biggie if you think about it. Anyway, if you just want to travel to Maldives to check it out but don’t mind adhering to cultural norms around modesty, alcohol consumption and so on you could easily stay in an Airbnb in Male and save a whack of money. No transfer costs and food could be purchased in grocery stores. Also no incredible beaches to speak of, and it’s fairly crowded, but you asked for cheap!
Enough about the costs. Let’s talk about the experience.
After our domestic flight to Dharavandhoo, we were shuttled to a dock to hop into our speedboat. The only other guests coming with us were a couple from the UK named Bob and Daniella (Dani) – they had just been married days earlier and were beginning a multi-month honeymoon taking them to Australia and Peru! We became great friends over our stay at Reethi. We helped celebrate Dani’s birthday with dancing and drinks, and we enjoyed our last meal on the island at a restaurant overhanging the ocean. Wee!
Reethi Beach Resort was an awesome place. It’s run by Germans, so most of the front-line staff speak German and many of the visitors are also German. I have no idea how a resort can keep such a homogeneous population of tourists after being open for so long, but I guess that says a lot about repeat visitors and word-of-mouth! Another big group of guests is obviously the honeymooners. We felt like maybe we were the only young-ish couple at Reethi who WEREN’T on a honeymoon. There also weren’t a ton of kids at the resort, so it was usually quiet all day save for the hum of the diesel generator that’s running the whole island. That’s a big improvement from India.
The breakfast buffet that we were offered varied a little each day, and was generally of good quality. Sandra loved the turkey bacon and I loved the maple syrup. Aside from the food, the resort also offered a bunch of different tours and activities: deserted island visits, sunset tours, inhabited island trips, and the obvious scuba, sailing, snorkelling deals. We didn’t partake in any of these, because they were generally a bit in excess of what we wanted to pay. It’s funny too: we looked into renting a windsurfer for an hour, but during the time of our stay the rental price rose permanently from 29 USD to 45 USD. Over 50% price hike out of left field? I understand that it’s been below 30 USD for years, but that seems like quite a jump in cost! For an hour of time on a windsurfer! That’s just… steep. Steep is the word for that. I’m realizing how much I’m complaining about money here, sorry. I am probably not the person who’s supposed to go to Maldives – they’re more interested in the “WOOHOO, IT’S CREDIT CARD TIME!” sorts of folks!
The staff at Reethi Beach Resort were mostly friendly and courteous, with the one glaring exception being the cadre of Maldivian ladies in green dresses who swept the pathways to keep them clear of detritus. It’s funny: the problem wasn’t the local Maldivians (of which each resort must employ at least 50% of its staff from), because the males on staff would often make eye contact and give a nice “Hello” or “Good morning”. But these sweeper-ladies in their green dresses: they would without exception turn away from you, often with what appeared to be scowls on their faces. Many wouldn’t even respond if you greeted them. It was like the staff went on strike, but only the green-drees sweeper ladies got the memo. By the end of our time at the resort, though, it was just kind of a game to observe them ignoring you. See how friendly you can be and still have them not say a word in return!
Upon arrival, we got a free upgrade to a deluxe cabin. Although we didn’t see what a not-deluxe cabin looked like, we were told the deluxe version included tea and a nice swing out front just for us. Everybody loves being upgraded for no reason! We also received cool mint towels for our faces and coconuts filled with coconut water (what else?!). We given the rules of the resort, of which only one was a real problem for me: no nude sunbathing. We obviously picked the wrong place, but we’ll make do. Overall, it was a great welcome.
Our first night included an invitation to a “Quiz”. There were three prizes up for grabs, including a romantic escape to a deserted island with a picnic basket in hand. It was all supposed to be Maldives-focused questions, so we crammed hard by reading the Lonely Planet before attending the quiz. I rocked a bunch of the early questions, keeping us flawless for a good portion of the questions. I knew the Maldivian flag. I knew the local language was Dhivehi. I educatedly guessed that the maximum elevation in the country is 2.4m above sea level. Watch out for those rising sea levels! I knew the number of atolls (26), which atoll we were presently in (Baa), the number of islands in Maldives (1196), and the number of inhabited islands (about 250). But then the questions drifted into the likes of “How many people work at Reethi Beach Resort? How many of them are female?”. You get the idea. Apparently we would have learned these things if we’d had an opportunity to do the “Technical Tour” the morning of the quiz, but we’d arrived too late for it. Just our luck. Alas, we flamed out hard and didn’t make the top three. I was crushed. No free picnics on deserted islands for us.
The resort was barefoot. Pathways, beaches, restaurants, bars – you walked everywhere on the island along sandy paths in your feet. Fonimagoodhoo island was only about a 1km walk around its circumference, so the most you’d have to endure was an 8 minute stroll to the opposite side of the island. How pleasant! The rooms had little freshwater footbaths in front of them so you could clean all of the sand out of your toes before entering the room. Our cabin also had an amazing half-outdoor shower. The back section of the bathroom where the shower was had the roof removed, so if it was raining you could have a hot shower while it rained around you. How cool is that? As an added bit of fun, the resort is also one full hour ahead of Maldives time. Apparently many resorts do this with the objective of making people feel like the sun goes down late at night and that they’ve had a sleep-in when the sun comes up in the morning. Bizarre.
The beach was spotlessly clean. We had our own reserved sunchairs and umbrella, so we never had to worry about fighting anybody off of our territory. Perfect. Maldives, like many island countries, seems to have this warm, magical breeze gently flowing at all times. It’s that perfect kind of evening weather where you’re comfortable in shorts and the wind is just enough to keep the smell of the sea around you. At night, bioluminescent plankton light up like fireflies on the crests of the waves crashing into the beach. ROMANCE! Speaking of weather, we felt pretty lucky given that we were travelling in the “rainy season”. We had two days that were a bit overcast and we experienced rain for some short bursts throughout our stay. What an inconvenience! Seriously though: if you get weather that’s anything approaching what we got, you’ll be quite happy travelling in low season. Prices are a fraction of the high season costs and the country is still incredibly beautiful.
We had coral reef about a 10m swim from the beach. Thousands of fish – more than I saw at the Great Barrier Reef years ago! Sandra somehow worked up the courage to head out there and check out the fish with me. I couldn’t believe it! She is a big fraidy-cat when it comes to fish. We spent a couple of hours doodling around in the water using only our swim goggles. Poor man’s snorkelling, also known as “Snorkelling without the snorkel”. Which I guess is just “ling”. Then on our last day we rented proper snorkelling gear for 16 USD per day per person. Not a bad price, and the gear was in good shape.
There were some other wildlife, too: an army of lizards (including one inhabiting our bathtub upon check in), speedy crabs diving into holes as you approach them, massive hawk-like bats, and a couple of miniature chicken kind of things running around in the undergrowth. I should probably have gotten a name for those ones, huh? If you’re into wildlife, the staff feed a big group of stingrays every day at 6pm. Many other fish and sharks (small ones) join in to the party as well. In our opinion, it’s almost always a bad idea to feed wildlife, but it’s neat to see how they all come to the beach at the same time each day. They keep accurate clocks, those stingrays.
So how was Maldives? Splendid. It was just the ticket for one of those “vacations away from vacation”. I managed to rip through four books and still have plenty of time to lounge in the shade. Sandra can keep the sun – it hates me. We met some lovely people, saw hundreds of coral islands from the air, got lots of great exercise, and locked away a few more shades of turquoise in the mental almanac of beautiful ocean colours. Although it definitely cost us a pretty penny, it wasn’t as rough as I thought it might be. We give it one wallet down, but two thumbs up!