In the first installment of this three-part series on backpacking Maldives, I mentioned two things my friend Jana and I did that made it possible for us to stay within budget:
1. We took the public ferry.
2. We stayed in Maafushi.
I promise to get around to the third and last thing we did, but I would like to tell you more about Maafushi. There’s not much written about this lovely island yet because Maldives is still associated with luxury private resorts, but I think that’s bound to change in the coming years.
On the day we arrived in Maafushi, we didn’t have time to go on any excursion, including night fishing which I had planned to do. The stress of the long journey to reach Maldives from Manila (for Jana) and from Miri (for me) finally caught up on us. By the time we got settled in our room at Shadow Palm, it was already 6:30 p.m.
I wanted nothing more than to retire for the night, but the Arena staff invited us to join their pre-Valentine dinner buffet by the sea right in front of Arena Beach Hotel. They also said there would be a cultural show for the guests. I got excited when I heard them say ‘cultural show.’ These are the kind of things I seek out on a trip.
The dinner buffet was only 15 USD with all taxes in, so we went for it. It was our first night in Maldives and the eve of Valentine’s Day — reason enough for a splurge.
I tried taking pictures of the dishes but the whole buffet table was under an unappetizing blue light. The food looked horrible on display, but we were so hungry we didn’t care. As it turned out, the food tasted much better than it seemed to be. Not extraordinary, but it was more than just passable. It was worth the money we paid for considering the multiple trips we made back to the buffet table.
The food was mostly Western. The menu included pasta, French fries, dinner rolls, baked potatoes, fruit salad, brownies, cakes, and other standard dishes. I tasted all of them, but I wanted to sample something uniquely Maldivian. One of the servers led me to a humongous grilled tuna at another table near the dessert stand. Oh my, that tuna was amazingly juicy and tasty. I’ve got to hand it to them — they know how to prepare and serve fish. When it comes to seafood, Maldives got it down pat.
After dinner, the staff moved the tables away and cleared a small area in front of the hotel. Then, a group of young men wearing traditional costumes and carrying bodu beru drums lined up in front of the hotel. They started playing Boduberu music.
A lone young man walked out from the other side and danced to the beat.
His movements were fluid and nuanced. I felt rather envious because he made it look so effortless. He danced under the bright full moon without stopping for almost half an hour, seemingly unaware of his admiring audience.
At the end of the performance, the staff encouraged the guests to dance. A server urged me to get up, but I was too full, tired, sleepy and self-conscious to embarrass myself in front of total strangers. I was also too sober. A glass of Jack and Coke could have changed my mind, but alcohol was nowhere near Maafushi that night.
But there were braver souls who joined in the fun. A couple of kids, an older gentleman, and a young lady took the stage and danced with so much glee and enthusiasm that the audience couldn’t help but cheer them on.
Jana and I went back to our room at around half past midnight. We wanted to watch the sunrise the following morning, so we needed to catch some serious shuteye after a long and eventful day.
At 5:30 a.m., we woke panicking because we thought we already missed the sunrise. After dressing up as fast as we could, we left the hotel only to see that it was still dark outside. The receptionist who had been sleeping behind the front desk woke up and told us we were too early, and that sunrise was at 6:20 a.m.
But since we were already up, we decided to take a leisurely walk and explore the island. A hint of light was starting to show; it won’t be long before the sun would come out.
We were the only people outside. It seemed both tourists and locals alike slept in that morning. I wasn’t surprised — Friday is a holy day for Muslims. I found the solitude refreshing. It was as if we had the whole island to ourselves.
We went to the public beach where the best view of the sunrise could be seen.
The last sunrise I had watched was in Bagan, Myanmar. That one was a cloudy day so I hoped the sky would be clearer this time in Maldives.
I didn’t get the cloudless sunrise I wished for, but there was something captivating about how various shades of orange and red pierced through the fluffy clouds on the horizon. It was a differen kind of beauty still worth my appreciation.
As I sat there watching the sky, some locals went into the water for a morning swim. Women in trousers, long-sleeved tops, and hijabs waded in without removing an article of clothing. This caught my attention. I was aware of their tradition, but to see it in action was fascinating. Then one of the women caught me staring. I felt embarrassed; I didn’t mean to gawk at them. I was about to avert my eyes, but she smiled at me, perhaps to let me know that it was okay to be curious.
Jana and I went back to the hotel for a quick shower and breakfast. While eating, we discussed what we were going to do for the day. Because we were staying in Maafushi, we agreed to spend a bit more on excursions. We could have chosen to hang out on the island for the duration of our trip, but it didn’t make sense for us to leave Maldives without getting up close and personal with its famous water villas.
I suggested Holiday Inn Kandooma. I fell in love with the photos I saw online, and I really wanted to see the place with my own eyes. But there was a catch: The private resort’s day trip rate per person was not the normal rate of 120 USD which I expected, but 250 USD for Valentine’s Day! Only 150 USD was consumable for food, drinks, or activities, while the remaining 100 USD would be considered as a landing fee. The price for the speedboat was not yet included in that amount. For a day trip, we would have to spend almost 300 USD each.
We got discouraged further when the Arena staff told us there wouldn’t be an available speedboat until 11:30 a.m. They said we should have told them about our plans the night before because rentals for speedboat are on a first-come, first-served basis.
We didn’t want to spend almost 300 USD for a half-day trip, but it seemed we didn’t have a choice. Then Diane, the girl we met on the plane, sent a message via Viber to Jana. Diane said she and her boyfriend Jesehl would go to Fihalhohi Island Resort with a group of other Filipinos they met at Dhonveli Inn where they were staying. Perhaps, we would like to go, too? They would be leaving at 9:00 a.m.
Since we almost stayed at Fihalhohi, we figured a visit would be nice. We checked out of Shadow Palm, moved in to Arena Lodge Sky, then ran to Dhonveli Inn as fast as we could. There, we met seven other Filipinos who also managed to book glitch flights. They had been there since Tuesday and would leave on Sunday.
Because there were seven of them, the budget for their whole six-day trip was only 400 USD per person. That was inclusive of accommodations, meals, transportation fees, and entrance fees. The more people you’re with, the cheaper it gets.
So that brings me to the third factor:
3. We found strength in numbers
It was a great thing we met Diane and Jesehl. Not only were they awesome people to hang out with, but they also split the bill with us.
The group of seven already had their own package, so we couldn’t avail the same rates they had. But Dhonveli Inn still gave the four of us affordable rates for Fihalhohi: 88 USD each with all taxes in — 40 USD for the transportation, and 48 USD for the entrance fee and lunch buffet. We thought of skipping the lunch buffet for a cheaper rate, but beach bumming was hard work! We needed to refuel.
We reached Fihalhohi after a 45-minute speedboat ride. As I already expected by then, the port looked clean and inviting.
When we got to the reception area, it was already full of tourists. To distract myself while in line, I looked around and noticed two of the clocks on display: One showed Malé time and the other showed Fihalhohi time.
The receptionist explained that we should still follow Malé timezone. Although Fihalhohi is indeed an hour ahead of Malé, the Fihalhohi timezone was for the staff to follow so that they would have more time to prepare for the guests’ arrival.
After each of us paid 48 USD, the receptionist put a wrist tag on Diane. She was instructed not lose this tag because she would need to show this before we could enter the dining hall later on.
Jesehl got a map and we started to explore the island. We went around in circles for several minutes, but we finally arrived at the area where the water villas are located.
Here’s my first glimpse of the Maldives I’ve always imagined it to be:
How can I describe it without sounding like a cliché? The water — crystal clear. The sand — powdery white. The water villas — postcard-worthy. It was breathtaking.
I couldn’t believe I was there. And sometimes when I reminisce, I still can’t. 🙂
The curious thing about the sand of Fihalhohi’s beach is that it doesn’t get hot. Despite the sun beating down on us at noon, the sand felt cool under my bare feet. The same thing could be said for the water.
As day trippers, we didn’t have an assigned beach chair, but we didn’t know it at that time. We found several empty chairs on the shore, each one with a number behind written on the back. We thought the numbers were for keeping count. We took two chairs and put all our stuff on them before heading to the beach.
We went swimming and snorkeling to our hearts’ content. We even saw a stingray!
After a couple of hours in the water, we went back to our chairs only to find them occupied by a retiree-age Caucasian couple. They told us that the chairs were assigned to their villa (which explained the numbers written behind them). That sucked, but we soon found shade under a nearby palm tree.
When it was time for lunch, we headed back to the dining hall. Women weren’t allowed to come in swimsuits, so we wore our coverups before stepping inside.
The buffet spread reminded me of Buffet 101 and Vikings. There were plenty of choices with dishes from different parts of the world, perhaps to cater to the assortment of foreign guests. I was glad we opted for the buffet because it felt good to stuff myself with food after a morning of beach bumming. I managed to take a few pics, but I was too busy eating to take more:
As I mentioned, the water and the sand don’t get hot at all under the afternoon sun. The only reason we didn’t venture in the water after lunch was because we were wary of getting badly sunburned. What else can we do, then? Take photos by the water villas, of course!
But even after our impromptu photo session, the sun was still too high in the sky for us to take a dip. So we took the logical next step: head to a resort bar and drink beer.
I usually don’t drink as early as 3 p.m. but we had not much choice. We would be heading to alcohol-free Maafushi by 6:00 p.m. at the latest, so this was our only chance to get a buzz.
Love your own, we said, so we bought a pitcher of San Miguel Beer. It cost us 22 USD for 1.5 liters. It was expensive but hey, a beach adventure wouldn’t be complete without alcohol (for us, anyway).
A pitcher of beer divided among the four of us couldn’t get us drunk but it was a nice touch for the resort bar to offer this in the menu for those who end up with too much to drink:
As the sun was about to set, we decided to take one last swim and snorkel. It was quite hard to say goodbye to this beauty:
At around 5:30 p.m., we started packing up and headed to the entrance where I paid for the beer. Then, we went to the dock to wait for our speedboat. I was amazed at how many people were leaving for the day. There were plenty of folks like us who visited only for a day trip.
Did I regret not staying at Fihalhohi as I had originally intended? No, not at all. I was working within a limited budget so visiting the resort as a day tripper was the perfect plan for me. But if I come back to Maldives, I would consider staying there. Fihalhohi is not fancy, but it sure is charming. I can see myself enjoying two or three days of pure beach bumming there.
That evening, Jana and I walked around to see how Maafushi celebrated Valentine’s Day. It turned out that things were pretty low-key in the area, so we dropped by a souvenir shop to check out the local wares. Little trinkets like key chains cost 3 to 5 USD a piece, so it was kind of pricey. I didn’t do more than browse, but they did have a lot of cute stuff:
After walking around, we were still so full that we ended up sharing a big burger with French fries on the side. The dinner cost only 10 USD with all taxes in, much to our surprise.
Of course, I ended the night with a wonderful cup of coffee which I got for free from the kitchen of Arena Lodge Sky. I didn’t even have to make my own — I ordered it and had it delivered to our room. Indeed, these thoughtful little touches make a hotel worth staying in.
To wrap this up, let me list the expenses I mentioned in this post:
15 USD — dinner buffet at Arena
40 USD — speedboat to Fihalhohi
48 USD — Fihalhohi entrance fee and lunch buffet
5.50 USD — my share for the beer
5 USD — my share for the dinner
I spent a total of 113.5 USD for the activities and meals I wrote about in this entry. Add this to the 137 USD I spent in Part 1 of this series, and I get 250.5 USD. Not bad at all for two days so far in paradise.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of my Maldives series. I sincerely hope I would be able to publish that one before the year ends.