It’s not something that one often gets to say, unless you are fabulously wealthy and have a private jet, so I’m going to take the opportunity to say the following sentence because I may never get to do so again… “I woke up this morning and decided to fly to the Maldives tomorrow”. Sounds cool, right? It was just a fluke, to be honest. A chance to accompany my husband on a four-night trip at a severely discounted price, and stay with him in company-sponsored accommodation. The Maldives is not a place I ever particularly dreamt of going, but hey, you only live once, so why not go? Have passport, will travel, right?
But first, for those curious souls, a quick geography lesson.
The Maldives is a chain of tiny coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, just to the south west of Sri Lanka.
With more than 1,000 islands, most barely above sea level and with no natural resources, tourism is the Maldives’ bread and butter. Most of the tiny islands comprise hotels — sometimes the hotel is the entire island — and the Maldives is famous for its iconic water bungalows (which we chose not to stay at; more on this later).
Getting a piece of this paradise is not cheap. Float planes can cost US $300 per head and more just to get there. Premium resorts like the Gili Lankanfushi charge over US $1500 per night. Not including breakfast! So for most people, I assume going to the Maldives is a once in a lifetime experience.
For us, however, it was just a chance to enjoy a somewhat cheap stay in an otherwise extremely expensive place, and just relax. A relatively easy six hour flight from Hong Kong, we landed at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on Hulhule island, a tiny landing strip flanked by a whole bunch of piers which immediately whisk tourists away to other islands. The boats come and go quickly, with wiry brown bodies hauling suitcases and crates of bottled water on board as bewildered Chinese tourists with Gucci bags snap pictures. Buses pick up others to take them to the float plane area, where twin otters take a dozen or so passengers to some luxurious getaway an hour away.
No one really stays on Hulhule island itself, unless you work for the airlines. In which case, you stay at the Hulhule Island Hotel.
The Hulhule Hotel (pronounced hool-hoo-lay) is just a five minute walk from the airport, and the hotel where all of the pilots and cabin crew stay. In the lobby you can see a wide variety of uniforms from Etihad, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airlines, British Airways, China Eastern, and Hong Kong Airlines. It is the only decent hotel on Hulhule island, and, blessedly, the only hotel on the island which has a liquor license. That is, if you are willing to pay US $6.50 for a can of beer. Note that you are also not allowed to bring alcohol in to the Maldives, as it is a conservative Muslim nation, and alcohol, pork products, pornography, and other offending things, such as dogs, are not allowed.
We had four nights there, and had thought about going to stay at another island in the water bungalows, but decided against it, for three reasons. First of all, travelling with a baby means that you can’t exactly take full advantage of the water sports, like diving or kayaking. Secondly, water bungalows, as the name implies, tend to have open patios right in the sea, and I had visions of The Child falling off into the water and drowning in the blink of an eye. Thirdly, we have stayed in similar water bungalows, in places like Indonesia and in Malaysia, and found it overall to be pretty boring to be stuck out there.
So in the end, the Hulhule Hotel turned out to be a great place to stay with a baby, and she got a lot of attention as the only little person in the whole place. The water was amazing and clean and the snorkelling was great fun. We did this twice a day, every day, and were quite content.
There isn’t much around the hotel, and the airport just has a few restaurants, such as a Burger King where a Whopper is US $12. So much to our relief the food at the hotel was extremely good, and the staff were helpful and friendly. The buffet breakfast is US $25, but worth it, considering you really don’t have much options around.
If you’re up for eating what the locals eat, half way between the hotel and the airport is a canteen where airport workers go to eat. The food is great and really cheap. You can get chicken biryani, curried tuna, and other local food for just a few dollars. If you are a woman, I recommend dressing conservatively if you go there because most of the workers are men, and short dresses and exposed shoulders get a lot of attention.
When we got a little bit restless, we did a quick jaunt over to the capital of the Maldives, the island of Male (pronounced ma-lay). A ten minute boat ride from the hotel, Male is not a particularly interesting place to visit. It’s small, crowded, and the streets are full of motorbikes. You hardly see any tourists there, and with good reason. We couldn’t even find a decent restaurant to go to, and the souvenir shops are selling things made in Thailand and Indonesia (like I said, Maldives has nothing but sand). Within an hour we were ready to return to the peace and quiet of the Hulhule Hotel. Male is not a place I’d recommend bothering to check out, and I don’t say that about a lot of places!
One day we also hopped on a bus and took a ride to Hulhulmale town. This is the main town on Hulhule island, and where many airport workers live, including a surprising number of expats who are cabin crew and pilots. We hoped that we’d be able to find some restaurants or some shopping around there, but it turned out to be a pretty dead place with nothing but a bunch of ugly apartment blocks under construction and one public beach. Much to my surprise there were also loads of Chinese tourists, and I have no idea what they were doing there. Why anyone would fly all the way to the Maldives and then stay in a crappy town like Hulhulmale is beyond my comprehension. The Chinese tourists were all walking around looking kind of confused. They had on nice clothes and sunglasses and pretty straw hats, but there was nothing to see and nothing to do. Why were they there? Weird.
So here’s what I have to say about the Maldives. It’s beautiful, yes. But, in my opinion, a bit boring. Of course, maybe if we’d been scuba diving or done a liveaboard it would have been a different story. It’s a great place if you’re on your honeymoon and you want to spend all day making babies and getting massaged and drinking cocktails with little umbrellas. But when I travel I also like being able to have somewhere to go walk around…. things to see, things to do. But the Maldives is just beaches, for the most part. It is also insanely overpriced, with a bottle of water going for US $5, and I don’t like places where you can’t even sit down somewhere and have a beer. I’m sure a lot of foreigners have this idea that going to work in a place like the Maldives is your ticket to a life in paradise. But quite frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to live there.
That said, I was not thrilled to return to Hong Kong after four days of mellowing out in the Maldives. The captain announced that we would be landing shortly, and I gazed out the window at the cloud of grey smog. Then all of a sudden, through the greyness I saw the lights of a ship, right below us, and realised we were in fact about to land on the runway. We were not above the clouds — we were right above the ground, but the pollution was so thick you could barely see what was there. All of a sudden I missed that glorious clean blue sky, and turquoise waters, and my heart sank. Pollution is not just something ‘over there’ in China. It’s all around us, and there’s no way to escape breathing it in. Hopefully one day we will find a place with the right balance between the Maldives and Hong Kong. I hope such a place exists! Any ideas?