Enjoying paradise in the Maldives

2017 was a crazy year.  The first half, I was busy preparing for my wedding, and the second busy adjusting to being married. Luckily, we could still squeeze in a trip to Da Lat, Vietnam, which doubled as our pre-wedding photo shoot trip, a quick weekend getaway to Binh Dinh, Viet Nam, and of course, a meaningful honeymoon to the Maldives.

It’s been my life-long dream to have my honeymoon at the Maldives, to indulge in the sun, in one of the iconic overwater bungalows, watching fish and stingray swim by right around my feet. But for years, I thought it would be impossible. The Maldives have always been associated with high-end travel and luxury. While I don’t consider myself a backpacker anymore, especially after having a job and I could save money for trips where I stayed in hotels, getting around by taxis and eating at sit-down restaurants, the Maldives still seemed a bit out of reach for me.

Turned out it isn’t.

Thanks to budget airlines, getting to the Maldives doesn’t cost a hefty amount of money anymore. And with more competition among resorts, finding an affordable one is not so nerve-wrecking either (and by affordable, I mean by Maldivian standard). Although still a bit pricey, the Maldives turned out to be completely within my reach, especially since I don’t get to have honeymoons too often.

Flying to the Maldives

When I first heard of this dream honeymoon location, which is about 10-15 years ago, the cheapest round-trip flight tickets cost a shocking $1,000. However, about 3 years ago, I discovered AirAsia and FlyScoot (previously Tiger Airways) offered reasonable flights from Vietnam (Hanoi and Hochiminh City) to Male. The price remains the same whether it’s low season or high, as long as you book it in advance, 2-3 months before your trip.

Tiger Airways is half the price of AirAsia’s, but the flights make a 24-hour stopover in Singapore. To many who don’t have much time, this lengthy stopover might be a setback, but to us, it was perfect. So without skipping a heartbeat, I booked 2 round-trip tickets to Male for $600, where my husband and I would be spending 1 day in Singapore and 3 days in the Maldives.

Choosing which resort to stay

It can be a very exhausting task to choose where to stay in the Maldives. We went at the end of November, which was the high season there, and prices of resorts posed a huge setback to us, especially when we were determined to be satisfied with overwater bungalows only.

I spent days browsing all Agoda’s options (I always booked through Agoda, since I could enjoy multiple discounts from both my banks and Agoda). When I filtered out resorts without overwater bungalows, the amount of options wasn’t that intimidating. And, I started with the cheapest one, going up until I found the one I liked.

There were 3 resorts that made to my shortlist – Meeru, Paradise Island, and Thulhagiri. Meeru seemed to have the best rooms, but also around $100-200 more expensive than the other 2. Between Paradise Island and Thulhagiri, I chose Thulhagiri because Paradise Island seemed like a Chinese tourists’ favorite, and both my husband and I wanted to distance ourselves from them.

Our 3 days in the Maldives

We came to the Maldives with the intention to enjoy a typical honeymoon – meaning no exploring local islands, just chilling in an over-water bungalow at one of the resorts.

We arrived in Male at Velana Airport around 9 pm. The arrival hall was tiny, hot, and looking run-down.

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Velana Airport arrival hall at night

We decided not to waste $700 that night just to sleep in a bungalow, so we rented a room at the guesthouse in Hulhumale for that first night.

Getting from Velana Airport to our guesthouse in Hulhumale was super easy. This was my actual conversation with one of the guards at the airport:

–          Excuse me sir, where can we take a taxi to Hulhumale ?

–          There is no taxi at the airport, you’ll need to take the bus over there.

–          Ah, thanks. Which bus number?

–          (Smiling mysteriously) Just get on the red one.

Turned out there was only 1 bus shuttling between Velana and Hulhumale, like literally 1 vehicle going back and forth. We waited for a few minutes before the first bus arrived, however, it was quickly filled up and we had to wait for the next one. We were impressed. Normally, we would think if there was no seat left, we could just stand like in any other country’s bus.

We stayed at UI Inn – reasonable price and very good reviews on Agoda. The front desk contacted Thulhagiri to arrange a speed boat pickup time for us. (Thulhagiri has contacted us before saying they would be in touch with UI Inn, which I thought was strange because I was their customers, not UI Inn.) A guy, tanned and smiling, who took care of our luggage the moment we got off the bus, brought us a couple glasses of grape juice, with a hint of alcohol, and a pair of wet tissues. Even 4-star hotels in Vietnam don’t have this level of hospitality. We were impressed again.

Our room at UI Inn was small, but very clean, romantic, and fully furnished. For a short 1-night stay before heading out to the resort, this guesthouse was more than good. Besides the necessities like air-conditioning, hot water, towels (which were folded into a couple of swans), TV, coffee, tea, and minibar, there was an electric kettle. We made some hot water and had 2 cups of instant congee – it was almost 2 am to us and we were starving.

The morning of the first full day in the Maldives, we checked out early after having a hearty buffet breakfast with French toasts, scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, orange juice, grape juice, vegan sandwiches, assorted fruits, etc. We were planning to have the first morning to take part in some activities – either taking a seaplane photo trip or a submarine dive. However, seaplane turned out to be very difficult to book. With limited number of seaplanes, and resort guests being their first priority, having a seaplane ride for 15-20 minutes during high season became very illusive. Submarine dive was easier, but we weren’t guaranteed being back in time for our speed boat to our resort. Plus both my husband and I were uncomfortable thinking about being trapped in a metallic tube traveling feet under the sea. So, instead, we decided to spend the first morning wandering around Male – the capital of Maldives.

To get to Male from Hulhumale, we needed to get back to the airport via a bus (yep, we tried a taxi but again the driver said he wasn’t allowed to access the airport, only buses could take us there). Once at the airport, we could deposit our bags at the storage room so we could walk around freely. Then we needed to take a 5-minute ferry from the airport to Male.

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There wasn’t much to see in Male. There was this Islam center and a square which could be called landmarks. We spent most of our time at a souvenir shop and an ice cream shop, since it was super hot and humid that day.

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Islamic Center

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Republic Square

Around 11 am, we took the ferry back to the airport, and had some meal there. So far in our trip, we didn’t find Maldives that expensive, until we sat down at Thai Express at the airport and this meal cost 16 dollars.

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At 12 noon, the resort representative met us, together with a few more guests, at the airport. The 20-minute speed boat trip cruised us into the irresistibly blue ocean, passing by a few other resorts before Thulhagiri revealed in front of our eyes like a jewel among the turquoise water.

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Thulhagiri was built in a rural tropical style – Everywhere we could see thatch-roofed huts and bungalows. The interior of this island resort – which was reserved for employees, was like a tropical jungle. Garden villas surrounded the island, and about 30 water villas stretched out from the island in 2 branchs.

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We were greeted with much hospitality – a greeting letter, a glass of mocktail, a much-needed wet tissue (it was really hot that day, and remember I live in Vietnam). A guy gave us a brief introduction about the island – the activities, the restaurant, the bar, the swimming pool, etc. and gave us the key to our room. A girl collected our speed boat transfer fee ($100 round trip for a person). The concierge carried our bags (which were in fact only my carry-on suitcase and my husband’s backpack) to our bungalow, walking us through the room – the wardrobe, the kettle, the bathroom, the complementary life vests. He offered us some advice on high and low tides and when best we could catch all kinds of marine life swimming by.

The remaining 2 and a half days before the resort took us back to the airport was just heaven for us. Crystal clear water, insanely white sand, gorgeous weather with spotlessly blue sky, very very friendly and helpful staff. We woke up to fish, stingray, shark, and squid swimming leisurely past our eyes. We spent the whole day chilling in the sun, walking on the smooth white sand, swimming in the cool clear water, watching coral and sea life. When the twilight was about to set in, we lay on the bathing chair at the balcony, feeling the ocean breeze, watching the sun gradually set. After dinner, we had a drink at a bar, talking. At night, the sound of waves lullabied us into sleep. 2 and a half days passed by very quickly that way.

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I loved every minute, every second of my time in the Maldives. But if asked whether I would go back, I would say “probably not”. The Maldives were extremely beautiful and lived up to every expectations, but I left this heaven on earth feeling so satisfied and fulfilled that I didn’t have the urge to go back again.

Some tips/advice

Try to bargain while shopping for souvenirs in Male. Or you could buy them at the resort’s shop. I personally felt the resort shop was a better choice, since I could spend hours in there, weighing up and down every piece of souvenirs without being followed by the shop owner.

Don’t eat at the airport. We had to because we were very picky eaters and couldn’t consume local food.

Exchange at least some rufiyah at the airport. The rate is good. Although USD is accepted everywhere in the Maldives, it was cheaper if paid in Rufiyah if you are not at the resort. For example, the ferry ticket is 10 rufiyah, which is about .5 cents. However, if you pay in USD, you will need to pay a full dollar. Same goes for ice cream, meals, bus fare, and all other.

If going on a seaplane and feasting your eyes with the iconic atolls that you usually see in the internet, it’s probably best to book a resort that requires seaplane transfer, for the reason I stated above.

If you’re staying at Thulhagiri

The service is awesome – so friendly, so helpful. The only thing I didn’t like is that I couldn’t request the speed boat transfer time in advance. I called them about 1 week before my trip to request a specific pickup and return time, but they couldn’t find my name in the reservation list. Anyway, they said that the transfer boat time was only confirmed the day before our transfer, and that they would contact the hostel where I stayed the night of our arrival to arrange this, and that when we arrived at the hostel, just ask the front desk there.

Every day, the resort filled up the kettle in the room with fresh water. However, do NOT use that kettle to boil water yourself. The island uses a desalination plant to extract salt from sea water. And since that is an expensive process, the water is still not completely used for drinking. Besides the water provided to you in the kettle every day, you should buy a 1.5-liter bottle of water at dinner. That should be enough for 2 people in a day.

If your departure flight is late in the day, chances are you will be booked a late transfer boat back to the airport, after the checkout time. Thulhagiri offers rooms for rent if you need a place to stay until your boat transfer time (they write that in their letter as well). However, remember to book in advance. We waited until 4 pm (our boat transfer was at 5 pm), after taking a nap in the garden, walking around the island, and dipping into the water to play with the fish, to ask for a room just so we could take a shower before leaving. At that time, all rooms were booked. We didn’t feel much annoyance though.

Thulhagiri only offers half board (meaning breakfast and dinner provided) option. You need to pay for lunches out of the package. You can either eat a buffet lunch that cost $19 per person, which I realized is mostly the same food from previous day’s dinner, or have lunch at their a la carte restaurant. Definitely go for the a la carte option. The price is half that of the buffet one; the portion is, I guarantee you, more than enough; food is, in my opinion, better, too. And after meals of same buffet style, it’s also a good idea to switch to other types of food, like Indian curry and Italian spaghetti.

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