The Maldives are a dream destination for many. An escape from real life and a week or two of luxurious bliss on a tropical beach. Even those who “don’t do” beach holidays fall in love with the white sands and turquoise seas of the Maldivian Islands.
There is however another side to the Maldives that many do not see. This is an island nation, spread along a chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean. Many atolls are uninhabited, some are only used as luxury resorts and only the capital of Malé in the north and Addu Atoll in the far south have larger populations.
Where is Addu Atoll?
Addu Atoll is the furthest south of all the Maldivian atolls and is 335miles south of the capital Malé. It just tips over the equator and along with Fuvahmulah is the only Maldivian Atoll in the southern hemisphere.
Addu City is the main hub of the heart shaped atoll and like Malé in the north is developing like any other town or city. Addu Atoll is a natural anchorage and this was used by the British during World War 2. It was a secret base missed by the Japanese throughout most of the war. The island village of Gan is now the airport but was originally built as a Royal Navy base by the British in 1941. It is a strange place with the feel of a military base from the past. All the old barracks and buildings are still there, slowly being converted to residences, hotels and shops.
There are a number of luxury resorts within Addu Atoll, but we wanted to see the real Maldives around our diving. The resorts could be anywhere on the planet and this unique country deserved exploring.
We chose to be based in Maradhoo, south of Addu City on the west side of the atoll. A small town (larger village), the 17th most populated area within the Maldives. Addu Atoll is protected from storms by a heart shaped barrier reef and is the home to a range of unique fish, mammals and birds. The corals here escaped the 1998 bleaching event that destroyed the rest of the coral reefs in the Maldives but has been effected by a more recent event in 2014, but the reef is slowly recovering.
Maradhoo - Life in the Maldives Beyond Tourism
Our plan was to explore Maradhoo. Primarily as our base for diving we were able to explore the village in the evening. This village has 3000 residents who are friendly and as the only tourists in town we were welcomed by everyone we met. The two main roads in the village run along the length of the island and are joined by a number of dusty lanes that link the coast on either side of the main roads.
The centre of the village is overlooked by the mosque and the call to prayer fills the village each day. The Maldives is a Muslim nation and the mosque is central to the community.
The tuna fishermen return to the harbour after 5 days at sea with holds full of tuna and the ensuing blood bath as they gut and fillet the fish on the waters edge is an experience that you will not get in the luxury resorts. Just off shore is a tuna processing ship. Regularly visited by smaller boats, this ship is surrounded by sharks and sting rays feeding on the discarded catch. It may not be everyones idea of a holiday experience but if you are here to see Maldivian life then it is a core part of life in Maradhoo.
The beach to the south west of the island is a reminder that this is a tropical island. Each evening collections of younger people meet on the beach as the sun sets. The calm water is edged by the roaring waves of the ocean beyond the protective barrier reef. Large waves can be seen off shore, buffeting the reef constantly. Small crabs run all over the sands and the local cats with their strange gait and corkscrew tails lurk in the shadows.
The beach looks perfect from a distance, but as with any beach, the debris on the high tide mark is not the dream tropical island. Everything from bottles, shoes and tin cans to bags and discarded clothing lies forgotten on the beach. These beaches are remote, there is no other landfall before the Chagos Archipeligo 300miles further south. They aren’t the dream beaches of the more northerly atolls, but have a character all of their own. These beaches are rugged and exposed with erosion evident at low tide when ancient reefs are exposed. The exposed beaches are however fantastic for beachcombing and rock pooling, something that just isn’t possible on the pristine sand of a luxury resort.
From the beach, nets are strung to catch fish within the reef. Smaller scale than the tuna fishing it is another reminder of the importance of the sea and fishing to the local communities.
Each evening after dark the town comes to life. The local restaurant is small but busy. The food is mainly fish and rice based with Indian and Sri Lankan influences. A beautiful blend of spices and flavours mingle with the warmth of the tropical evening and the bubble of local chat. Meats and fruits are expensive as this small island has no means to cultivate or farm, but the fish dishes more than make up for this.
Wildlife on Addu Atoll
Many people visit Maradhoo for the diving, but there is wildlife all around.
The white terns found on the islands are unique to the atoll. They can be heard high above the water and will announce the presence of a fishing boat long before it can be seen. Very few birds make it this far south and these islands aren’t on the migratory paths to anywhere making the terns very special to the islanders.
Frogs and land crabs live in the moist mangroves along the shore as well as gardens and geckos and lizards enjoy basking on sunny walls. The sound of crickets becomes a constant background hum for most of the day. Sitting in the garden after dark allows the local residents who hide from the heat of the day to emerge. Large bats fly at dusk from the coconut and banana trees that are everywhere. Flowers are in all the gardens but also on the road side, bright colours contrasting against the sandy streets.
A Small Non-Resort Lodge - Aquaventure Manta Lodge
As we were diving we stayed at the Aquaventure Manta Lodge just off the main road in the village. A great base for diving and exploring, but also really good for a few nights for non-divers. Not attached to any chain this small guest house has a lovely atmosphere with friendly staff. There are currently no other small hostels on Addu Atoll and so the experience here is unique. Just around the corner is a little supermarket that has everything that you could need and meals are served at the Palm Village Restaurant near the harbour.
Tips for Staying Away from a Resort in the Maldives
Visiting Maradhoo isn't like a resort holiday and a few things we learnt will make a stay a little easier. This advice is similar for other villages and towns away from the luxury resorts.
Bring a torch - there are street lights but not on the little lanes and it is very dark
Bring an umbrella - the rain comes with no warning and the puddles form quickly (another reason for a torch!)
Large denomination US Dollars - the island works with dollars and local rufiyaa inter changably. Shops accept $10 and $20 bills and give change in rufiyaa. There is a fixed exchange rate everywhere so there is no need to haggle or hunt for a better exchange.
Credit cards are accepted in a lot of places
Dress code - Whilst people in this Muslim community are accepting of western dress we did find we were more comfortable with longer dresses and covered shoulders. If you are diving then girls need to be covered until the boat has left harbour. The boat crew are fine with changing on deck, but not until away from the harbour
Wi-Fi is intermittent at best and comes and goes with no warning. Do not rely on any service!
Power cuts happen on a regular basis. Every day there is no power between 12pm - 2pm and at other times it does go.
Scooters are everywhere and there are a few cars and vans. Just be aware that everyone drives very very slowly!
Most people speak a little English and are keen to speak English. The local language is Dhivehi, a Indo-Aryan language.
How to Get to Addu Atoll
Gan has an International Airport that is very new and very empty. There are six flights a day with Maldivian airlines from Malé and direct flights from Colombo with SriLankan Airlines three times a week.
The flight takes about 2 hours from Malé and despite having a time at booking these change on the day so always check what the real flight time is, do not rely on your booking to be correct. They are strict on baggage and offer a 20kg allowance with an extra 5kg for diving equipment. Beyond this it is $1 a kg which is paid before you get your boarding card.
Visas for the Maldives
A pre-arrival visa is not required to visit the Maldives. So long as you have a valid passport and a return or onward ticket then a 30-day tourist visa will be issued on arrival.
Travelling around Addu Atoll
Travel around the atoll is easy. The lodge will organise transfers to and from the airport and if you want to explore beyond the village then scooters and bikes are available to hire. The roads are safe and speeds are sensible. Most of the islands (Gan, Feydhoo, Maradhoo-Feydhoo, Maradhoo, Hankede and Hithadhoo) within the atoll are connected by bridges on the main road making exploring easy. A ferry runs from Feydhoo to Hulhumeedhoo, the most north-eastern point of the atoll. Cars and buses are not encouraged and the majority of people will travel by scooter.
Independent Travel to Addu Atoll
Addu Atoll is easy to navigate as an independent traveller and getting to the islands, whilst needing planning is simple to organise. Accommodation is limited and unless you have local contacts your options are minimal. The key to visiting these islands outside of a package holiday is organisation. Ensure you have a plan for travelling and airport transfers, book accommodation in advance and then see where the adventure takes you.
Best Time of Year to Visit Addu Atoll
The Maldives are hot and sunny all year round with temperatures ranging from 25ºC-30ºC with just a small drop overnight. The best weather and therefore the best time to visit the islands is between November and March. The wet monsoon (south-west monsoon) runs from May to October peaking in June with the dry monsoon (north-east monsoon) running from November to April. This is a very rough generalisation and each atoll has its own microclimate. Addu Atoll is over 300 miles from Malé, enough of a distance to have completely different weather. However, when planning your travel there are other factors including when specific wildlife can be seen to consider.
The Future of Independent Travel in the Maldives
The Maldives have tight controls in place for development but changes are happening. More islands are being developed and tourism is increasing. The infrastructure of these small islands is basic and with the increase in tourists supply chains and waste removal needs careful consideration and control. The beauty of these islands is their draw and if the current controls and consideration for the environment are maintained and improved then the tropical paradise can be maintained and continued.
The independent traveller will always be in the minority on these islands, but with planning it is possible and I believe always will be.
An alternative to Addu Atoll for the budget traveller is Maafushi Island. Nearer to Malé this island provides budget hotels and a local feel, similar to Addu Atoll and a long way from the glitzy luxury resorts.