Visitors to the Maldives have always found it a tourist-only zone. But a new resort on one of the locally populated atolls means you can now mix with residents to sample real life in the Indian Ocean
Forty miles south of the equator, on the southern tip of the Maldives, Hulhudhoo is a sleepy, sun-baked village where few tourists have ever ventured. The streets are made of crushed coral and lined with palm trees, and there is a small harbour where flatbed fishing boats are brought in for repairs.
Overlooking the water are a mosque and an open-air cafe with wooden chairs and white tablecloths. When the sun sinks low in the sky, you can – as I did – repair to the cafe for hedhikaa, the savoury snacks traditionally served with afternoon tea.
Beneath the shade of a breadfruit tree, I tucked into curry puffs, boakiba (spicy deep-fried fish cakes) and masroshi (tiny pancakes filled with fresh tuna, chilli and grated coconut). It was delicate, explosive food and, tea included, cost a total of 40p – about the price of the foam on a glass of beer at a five-star resort hotel.
Mingling with the locals and eating at street cafes has never been part of the tourist experience in the Maldives. Most visitors are content to be whisked off to remote islands where they can lie on beaches and paddle in the shallows. The arrangement has also suited the Maldivian government, which, though happy to reap the financial benefits of tourism, has regarded western influences as pernicious – alcohol, for instance, is permitted only on tourist islands.
This state of affairs will change later this year with the opening of a 300-room hotel on the island of Herathera, a short walk from the village of Hulhudhoo. You might expect, at this point in the story, the sensitive travel writer to decry the advancement of package tourism and the likely damage such a hotel will cause to the fragile local environment. Far from it.
The hotel on Herathera is the first of 15 resorts to be built and run by a new public-private partnership, the Maldives Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). Part of its aim is to share the wealth created by tourism throughout the country, and to bring jobs to impoverished islands.
Last year, almost 2m shares in the MTDC – 55% of the company – were sold to the public. Individuals could invest as little as £40 and no more than £400, with the result that 10% of all Maldivians are now shareholders. When the company goes public, possibly later this year, share values are likely to soar in value.
However, the project will bring more than monetary reward. For many people in the Maldives, the most pressing issue of the day is not global warming or cultural imperialism, but the fragmentation of families. Most of the workers on tourist islands – the waiters who serve your drinks and the boatmen who take you on excursions – get to visit their wives and children only once a year.
This has caused the collapse of close-knit island communities, as young people leave in search of work and families up sticks to move to the already overcrowded capital, Malé. By building hotels near densely populated outer islands, rather than around Malé, the MTDC hopes to reverse this.
Hulhudhoo certainly had a ghostly air. Many of the coral-built cottages appeared abandoned or unoccupied, and the streets were empty save for a few children riding bikes and a group of old men sprawled on armchairs beside the harbour wall.
According to Mohamed Salih, MD of the MTDC, however, some of the villagers who had left Hulhudhoo are beginning to return. Many more are expected back when the hotel starts recruiting for a planned opening in November.
Salih gave me a tour of the hotel site, where teams of workers were building luxury wooden villas between tall coconut palms. All of the work was being carried out by Maldivians, he said. “Most contractors use workers from Bangladesh, but we decided to use local people. We pay, and treat, them well. Many of them are shareholders.”
The island of Herathera forms part of the rim of Addu Atoll, the most southerly of the 26 atolls that make up the Maldives. Herathera is three miles long, and so narrow in places that hotel guests will be able to walk a few steps from the turquoise lagoon inside the atoll to the inky-blue Indian Ocean on its perimeter. If they can drag themselves away from this idyllic setting, they will be able to rent bicycles, pedal along to Hulhudhoo and stuff themselves full of curry puffs.
Most of Addu can be explored by bike. Unlike the majority of atolls in the Maldives, which are made up of tiny spits of sand dotted in the ocean, the islands that make up Addu are relatively large, and connected by causeways. You can spend many happy hours pottering along perfectly flat roads, exploring villages, boatyards and bird sanctuaries.
The place to start is Gan, a half-hour boat ride from Herathera and one of the most extraordinary islands in the Maldives. Used as an RAF base until 1976, it has a large airfield, an abandoned golf course, an art-deco cinema, a second world war memorial and low-rise military buildings dating to the 1950s.
The former officers’ mess buildings have been converted into a cosy little hotel, the Equator Village, which attracts an intriguing crowd of independent travellers and experienced divers.
The coral around Addu is among the best in the Indian Ocean, with little sign of the bleaching that has devastated reefs elsewhere in the Maldives. Sightings of sharks and 6ft-wide manta rays are numerous.
The British are remembered fondly. On the frangipani-lined road that leads to the airport, I met three old men employed to keep the island spick and span. Keen to practise their rusty English, they greeted me with, “Good afternoon, how are you today?” and “See you soon, sir”. One had worked as a groundsman at the golf course, and grabbed a broom to show off his swing.
Gan may be a curio, but neighbouring Feydhoo is a place of real charm. In the island’s only village, I found neat rows of houses with names such as Valentine and Villadelight, and gardens crammed with potted plants and banana trees. Teenage girls played badminton in the street and young children waved, giggled and yelled “Hello!” as I cycled past. Curry smells wafted over the low coral walls.
Several children implored me to take their photograph, and one young man invited me into his home, where we chatted – bizarrely – about Champions League football as his mother hastily prepared tea and fresh mango. It was a life-affirming experience.
For dinner, I went to Centre Park, a roadside restaurant where I sat in the garden under the stars and ate the most sensational Maldivian food – a subtle and intense fish curry, rice, chapatis with a large glass of fresh lime juice, all for £3.
Next day, I visited Mohamed Abdullah, who worked as a batman for British officers and now, at the age of 70, runs a cafe near the Equator Village. If he likes the cut of your jib, he may invite you back to his home in Feydhoo, where he keeps an exhaustive collection of RAF memorabilia, including photographs, press cuttings and handwritten references (“Mohamed is an honest man who knows how to make a decent cup of tea,” says one).
With his wife now on tea duty, I asked Mohamed how he felt about the prospect of the British returning to Addu as tourists. I imagined his disappointment at seeing baseball caps and sunburnt thighs where once had been crisp blue uniforms and waxed moustaches. But he smiled widely. “That would be really quite marvellous,” he sighed.
Mark Hodson travelled to the Maldives as a guest of Hayes & Jarvis
Travel details: Herathera Island Resort (www.herathera.com) is due to open on November 1, with discounted rates until December 17. With Hayes & Jarvis (0870 850 3565, www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk), a week, all-inclusive, in November starts at £1,315pp, including flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Malé with First Choice Airways, a connecting flight to Gan, then a speedboat transfer to the hotel. Other operators include Airtours (0871 664 7657, www.airtours.co.uk) and Kuoni (01306 747002, www.kuoni.co.uk). The Equator Village (www.equatorvillage.com) has simple bungalows, a small pool and a narrow, sandy beach with great snorkelling. A week, all-inclusive, starts at £859pp with Cosmos (0871 622 4317, www.cosmos.co.uk). Or try Elite Vacations (01707 371000, www.elitevacations.com).
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