Wanderlust reader Liz Cleere – currently sailing around the world – reports on the real island community behind the five-star stereotype
Political slogans were daubed across stone walls lining the coral sand lanes. The MDP (Maldivian Democratic Party) logo, a set of blue scales on a bright yellow background, fluttered on zigzag bunting in village harbours, between houses, opposite a police station, a mosque and a school.
On Guraidhoo, we watched the fevered election preparations from our boat as a crowd of men erected a 10m high flag pole on the boardwalk and beneath it women swept the sand free of leaves. Among the ‘Anni for President’ and ‘Vote MDP’ slogans in Malé, we came across ‘The Witch is Dead’, a reminder that this capital city was recently held under a dictatorship. For this was the real Maldives, not the string of ‘island paradises’ touted in travel brochures, but a country with politics on its mind.
My guess is that most visitors to the Maldives are oblivious to the frenzy September’s elections whipped up around the atolls. From our anchorage in Hulhumalé, the reclaimed airport island next to Malé, we watched sea planes and sleek motor launches race back and forth from the exclusive resorts, whisking well-heeled tourists to a more elite form of luxury they already enjoy at home.
Jamie and I live on our boat, Esper, and are slowly wandering around the world. We’ve been in India for three years, but in early March we sailed through gliding manta rays into Uligamu, the northernmost port in the Maldives. We were given a three month visa, just long enough to make a slow passage through the atolls to Gan in the south.
We went ashore on Guraidhoo and walked around the village in a few minutes. Like most of the inhabited islands we visited, there were signs advertising guest houses dotted along the route. Since 2010, the Maldives has opened its doors to a different kind of tourism in its villages, and for £40−£55 a night you can enjoy all the same attractions found in the £1,000 a night ‘paradise’ resorts: some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world, palm- shaded coral sand, boat trips to desert islands, pale blue water and cloudless skies.
A smart café called Peach Grill, with a coral-chip floor, colourful umbrellas and murals of burgers and fizzy drinks on the walls beckoned, but we wandered into Nahli Restaurant instead, where European football played on a TV screen high on a wall.
A group of locals were hunched over coffee cups, several of them sporting English football shirts. We ordered ‘short eats’, savoury pastries flavoured with tuna and hot spices, from a shy boy who smiled when we said shukriyya, the local word for thank you.
There is more to the Maldives than a chain of the usual luxury resorts found anywhere in the world where there is turquoise water and sandy beaches. Yes, the diving is great, but its people are friendly and engaging, falling over themselves to welcome you into their homes.
We were soon heading south of the equator to the entirely resort-free Chagos Archipelago, but before hoisting our sails we joined local people on the beach at Maafushi.
We dug our toes in the warm sand while sipping fruit cocktails together as the sun went down. Now that’s the way to see the real Maldives.