Mention Maldives and dreamlike images of pure white sandy beaches, large schools of colourful fishes swimming in crystal clear water and luxurious water villas will invariably drift into mind.
I'd always wanted to visit the Maldives, but put off doing so because I'd always assumed it would cost an arm and a leg. Well, that was true until a few years ago when the government allowed locals to open up their islands to tourists. Before that, tourists could only stay on islands developed by foreigners into pricey resorts. After all, the Maldives was and still is a conservative Muslim nation.
When local islands opened up, Maldivians built their own vacation properties to host tourists and the prices of holiday accommodation became much more affordable. On those islands, tourists were free to wear skimpy bathing suits on the part of the beach designated for tourists only. Although the sale of alcohol continued to be prohibited on those islands, "party boats" laden with booze would be docked a distance from the islands and tourists could still make their purchases from those boats. That was how Maldives on a shoestring budget became possible.
Maldives is made up of 1,192 coral islands. Tourists will fly into the capital city of Male, and make their way to various coral islands by speedboat or seaplane. Oftentimes, the cost of getting from Male to the coral island of choice exceeds that of the air ticket from one's home country to Male!
With so many islands to choose from, distilling the right island with the idyllic white sand beach, inviting house reef with an abundance of marine life, value for money accommodation and low cost of travel from Male became a gargantuan task. I started by searching for islands closer to Male. Any island too far from Male would only be accessible by seaplane and that would certainly cost much more than taking a speedboat. I crossed out islands which I felt were overbuilt or would be too crowded with tourists. I further narrowed down my search to islands with newly built accommodation at attractive prices. Once I did that, I only had a handful of choices and could zero in on other important aspects like presence of a white sandy beach, quality of the house reef, etc.
In a nutshell, I decided on The Beach Villa on Ukulhas.
The island is only one square kilometres in area with about 1,000 inhabitants. Located 72km from Male, it took about an hour and a half to get there by speedboat at the cost of USD50.00 per adult and USD25.00 per child (up to 12 yrs). Our return transfer was organized by our accommodation, so payment was not made on board, but I believe the actual price per ticket was actually much lower as many locals took the same boat.
A pair of Maldivian brothers named Zamicko and Chiko built The Beach Villa, a cluster of 3 huts directly opposite the powdery, white sandy beach of Ukulhas. They charged USD140.00 nett per night per hut on a twin-share basis, inclusive of breakfast. As we had 6 persons (4 adults and 2 kids) on that trip, we booked all 3 huts so we could have exclusive use of the whole place plus that stretch of the beach.
However, several months after our reservations were made, one of the brothers contacted us with some news. They had inadvertently double-booked one of the huts and they proposed a compromise. In exchange for us giving up one of the huts, they'd add 2 more beds into one hut, and throw in a bunch of free excursions for our group of 6. The free excursions were a trip to a nearby picnic island, a manta ray safari and a trip to a sandbank. Those excursions would have cost us more than USD800.00 in total. Too sweet a deal to refuse for just getting the 2 kids to squeeze into our hut!
Even with 2 additional cots, there was still sufficient room to move around our hut. We had our meals outdoors all the time, and there was little reason to stay indoors when the dreamlike beach and beautiful house reef were just across from us.
The beach was a treasure trove of unique seashells, large and small. The girls couldn't get enough of picking shells, building sandcastles and burying each other in the hot sand. Stroll along the beach and one could see baby sharks swimming at the edge of the shore. I couldn't believe they were sharks at first until I was snorkeling one day and came within metres of 2 large sharks. I literally froze in the water till they moved away, and swam as quickly back to shore as I could afterwards. It was the single most frightening, yet exciting, moment of my life. We were later told that the locals in Ukulhas fed a school of large sharks. These sharks visited daily and had never harmed anyone.
Aside from sharks, the house reef of Ukulhas was teeming with thousands of sea creatures. The corals might have been bleached by depletion of the ozone layer, but it was still like swimming in a gigantic aquarium once we entered the water with colourful fishes swimming in every direction. With our full face snorkeling masks and water booties from Decathlon, we spent hours in the water each day and never tired of the ever-changing seascape before us. The house reef went on and on until a sudden drop off. We always turned back as we neared the edge of the drop. The darkness beyond sent chills down our spines.
On our first day there, Chiko took us on our first excursion to a nearby picnic island called Ukulhas Fushi. The island was a mere 10-min speedboat ride away from our villas. It was very striking with 3 little trees resembling beach umbrellas. We laid out our picnic mats and, right away, they were invaded by little hermit crabs. We swam, snorkeled and relaxed on the beach till the sun went down. It was an enjoyable afternoon, but it couldn't rival the snorkeling off Ukulhas beach. The sea was calmer so we could snorkel for lengthy periods without feeling seasick, and the reef yielded much more marine life.
Bright and early the next morning, we climbed back on board the speedboat for our manta ray safari, with Chiko accompanying us. His friend who drove the boat had the sharpest eyes ever. As we cut across the brilliant blue seas which went into eternity, he could spot turtles and manta rays from afar and alert us all. As we neared the rays, he turned off the engine and signaled to us to jump off.
We didn't get to go as close to the rays as we'd liked in the water, as they promptly swam away when we jumped in. We actually had a better view of them from the boat. Nevertheless, the safari was one of the most unforgettable experiences we had in the Maldives. Taking the plunge into the middle of the deep blue sea knowing there was a squadron of manta rays beneath us was a truly indescribable feeling. A mix of adrenaline, anxiety and fear rushed through our veins. The boat ride itself was magical, as we traversed sea so aqua blue we never imagined possible.
Another highlight of our trip to the Maldives was our excursion to the sandbank. Maldives in the lowest lying country in the world, and most sandbanks are submerged at high tide. Chiko timed our visit at low tide late one afternoon. The boat ride to the chosen sandbank took only 15 mins. We jumped off our boat to wade across the waist deep water to the sandbank, whilst the boatman returned to Ukulhas. Only Chiko's cousin ("the Cousin") stayed with us. The 7 of us were literally alone in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from civilisation.
We laid out our picnic mat, planted our beach umbrella, and unloaded our belongings before racing into the crystal clear water with our snorkeling gear. The Cousin guided us to the best snorkeling spot in the area, and showed us sea cucumbers, giant clams and sea urchins. We went to the edge of the drop off before turning back to the sandbank.
Fresh fruit and drinks were passed round and we enjoyed the refreshments whilst we watched the ebb and flow of the tide. At sundown, much to our relief, our boatman returned for us.
When night fell on Ukulhas, stars filled the dark skies and the beach twinkled with millions of bio-luminescent phytoplankton. We ventured onto the beach in pitch darkness one night to watch the beach sparkle in green. It was a surreal experience. In the dead of night, we could almost hear the sound of thousands of hermit crabs scurrying across the sand as we walked slowly along the beach.
Those phytoplankton also made the seawater glow in green at night. We learnt this one evening when we chartered a boat to go night fishing. We paid USD70.00 per adult for the charter. Kids went free. The boat was an actual Maldivian fishing boat which the villagers used. It was huge, with 2 decks, and it came along with a crew of 5. To steer the boat, the captain actually had to use his foot to move the rudder! None of us had been on a boat like that before.
We didn't have to travel very far to go fishing. Barely 10 mins out of the harbour, the captain dropped anchor and the crew went about handing us the fishing line for us to catch our dinner. We were expecting fishing rods with bait etc, but no, they handed each of us a reel of fishing line and nothing more. We wandered aloud: "How on earth are we going to catch anything with no bait?"
No sooner did we voice our bewilderment than the first fish start biting our empty line. It was amazing. Fish after fish got plucked out of the water with barely any effort. In less than 45 mins, we had caught 5 large ones and were ready to call it a day. The crew were so disappointed when we said we wanted to head back. They were ready for a whole night of serious fishing, but we amateurs were terribly seasick from the boat yawing from side to side!
The fish we caught were brought back to The Beach Villa, grilled on a spit and a magnificent candlelight dinner was prepared for us. We invited the occupants of the third hut to share the scrumptious meal with us.
Maldivians love music, and the brothers and their cousin were no exception. They broke into song with their guitar, entertaining us as we feasted on our fresh catch. That was the most memorable meal we had in the Maldives.
Food in Ukulhas was generally very fish-centric. Yellowfin tuna was their staple. For breakfast, minced tuna with chopped onions and habanero would be served in a wrap at The Beach Villa. It was surprisingly delicious, and I preferred that to the western choice of egg, sausages and toast. For lunch and dinner, the menu revolved around tuna as well. Tuna would be battered and deep-fried for fish n chips, tuna would be grilled, there was tuna curry, tuna sandwich, tuna spaghetti, and even tuna fried rice!
If you're not a fan of fish like my younger daughter, meal times could be depressing. The Beach Villa did have some non-fish dishes like chicken and chips, and burgers, but to put it gently, fish was definitely their forte and chicken not. Fortunately, we had brought with us a travel pot, packets of noodles, instant congee and canned food. Those were her happiest meals.
Another advantage Ukulhas had over other islands was the existence of a Thai restaurant there. A Thai family relocated there some time back and they're behind SeaLaVie, a restaurant cum lodge. They served authentic Thai fare which was really yummy, and even had desserts like cakes and passionfruit sorbet on their menu. Food was not particularly cheap there (averaging around USD13.00 per person for a shared meal with rice and a few dishes), but the taste and variety of their food definitely played a key part in helping us maintain our sanity and was worth every penny!
When we were not at the beach or on an excursion, we relaxed at The Beach Villa by playing cards, board games (we had packed Travel Monopoly and Travel Cluedo), knitting and painting.
Time stood still on an island like Ukulhas and there was time to stop to smell the roses. The landscaped garden at The Beach Villa was lush and beautiful. The only problem was the scourge of mosquitoes which lived there. They attacked us whenever we were in the garden having our meals. By the end of our stay, the nectar-blooded amongst us were covered in itchy bites, despite using up all the repellent we'd brought.
We also took walks around the island to explore its nooks and cranny. Shopping was limited to one grocery store near the jetty, one sundry store selling brooms, toys and stationery, and one clothing store. There was no ATM on the island, so the grocer doubled as a moneychanger. However, there was really no necessity to change money because the accommodation and restaurant owners all accepted USD.
Our final excursion for the trip was to one last picnic island called Madivaru Finolhu. We paid under USD75.00 per adult, with lunch included, for the trip. It was about a 30-min speedboat ride away and we sailed past Rasdhoo to get there. Enroute, we cruised alongside flying fish and it was magical watching them fly above the surface of the water. As we neared the picnic island, we saw a large sea turtle swimming in shallow waters.
We brought along packed lunches and spent the next 5 to 6 hours snorkeling and relaxing on the beach. There was no guide with us, but we met a friendly Russian lady who shared with us her secret snorkeling spot. Her private mega yacht was moored nearby and she had spent the last 2 days exploring the area. We grabbed some bread and headed in the direction she pointed. Boy was she right! Schools of fish, some translucent, some silver, some black, etc surrounded us almost immediately. We had been on other snorkeling trips before in the Great Barrier Reef, islands in Thailand and Indonesia, but none could compare to the Maldives.
The wonderful people of Ukulhas were incredibly lucky to be born away from the stresses of the world. Four families with their descendants make up the bulk of the residents on the island. Theirs was a close-knit community where everyone knew and helped each other.
Before tourism came along, all the men were fishermen. Zamicko spent years on fishing trawlers, fishing at over a thousand islands of Maldives. The families never had to worry about putting food on the table, and he told the story of the abundance of yellowfin tuna at Ukulhas. When in season, fishermen would simply scoop them out of the sea and toss them over their shoulders, as if it were raining tuna. When thirsty, they only had to shimmy up a coconut tree to pluck what they needed.
Fresh air, clean water teeming with happy sea life, sensational sunrises and sunsets, and an unhurried lifestyle summed up our visit to Ukulhas. Truly a paradise found.