Maldives and The Secret

As the Maldives opens its inhabited islands to tourism, Heidi Fuller-love island hops and meets locals in three remote destinations.

My coccyx squeals as the tatty speedboat bucks and thumps us over the waves to Maafushi in the Kaafu Atol. Used to this brutal form of transport, Mohammed lounges on the bench next to me humming a song dedicated to Al-Sultan Ghazi Muhammad Bodu Thakurufaanu, the sea captain who liberated The Maldives from Portuguese conquerors in 1573.

I’ve been to many exotic destinations, but often felt that they’d been over-hyped. The Maldives, however, are as good as in the brochures: beneath our boat the water shimmers clear as turquoise glass as we bump across the waves, past tiny islands set in the sparkling sea like green egg yolks surrounded by the blue-white waters of their coral lagoons. “Most people come here for the diving – it’s the best in the world,” says Mohammed, who I met whilst waiting in line to take this ferry to his island.

Although tourists began to visit the Maldives in 1973, travellers were only allowed to stay on the resort islands and the only Maldivians they encountered would be cleaning their rooms, or serving them dinner. Luckily, a few years ago, ex-President Nasheed authorised islanders to open guesthouses. Nowadays it’s possible to live like a local in the Maldives and pay money directly to the people who live here. Unlike ‘most people’ who make a beeline for the luxury resorts, I’ve come to the Maldives to visit some of the lesser known islands and meet locals like Mohammed.

I arrived at Ibrahim Nasir International airport the day before. It was a hot June afternoon, humidity was fierce and my clothes were soaked with sweat by the time I hopped aboard the traditional wooden dhoni boat that chugged me over to Male.  Traditionally known as the King’s island, because it was the seat of the dynasties that ruled here for centuries, few tourists bother to spend time in the capital of the Republic of the Maldives and yet this tiny city, which measures only one square mile, is well worth a visit.

I wandered through narrow streets lined with trees that were heavy with lumpy black growths that turned out to be fruit bats, flapping overhead as I walked. In another bustling street I entered a shop decorated with balloons and tinsel garlands and discovered dozens of excited children whose parents welcomed me with sticky fried banana cake and invited me to join their circumcision party. Later I saw the little boy who’d been operated sitting pale, but proud, in his bed surrounded by presents.