A Guide to Addu Atoll – The ‘Real’ Maldives

tropical beach in Maldives

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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 Maldive 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 Atoll from the air

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.  

boat in Maldives

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.

road on Maradhoo

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.

dock in Addu Atoll

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.  

Maldives cat

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.

beach debris in Maldives

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.

crab on beach

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.

fishing nets in Maldives

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 and especially manta ray encounters, 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. 

passion flower in Maldives

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.

Staying Away From Resorts

Getting away from life in the resorts is quite difficult in the Maldives, but slowly things are changing. AirBnB now has a number of places to stay on Addu Atoll that will allow you to explore this small atoll at your own pace.

Have a look at AirBnB options on Addu Atoll

Once way to see the real Maldives and experience a number of atolls is with smaller tour companies who work with local operators to provide small group trips. One of these is run by Exodus Travels who offer a journey around South Malé Atoll and South Ari Atoll on a Turkish gulet. This adventure allows you to see the islands away from resorts and experience wildlife in a way very few stuck in their resorts ever will.

Explore and book the Marine Wildlife in the Maldives adventure with Exodus Travels

sunset in Maldives

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 although there are now options on AirBnB. 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.

Have a look at AirBnB options on Addu Atoll

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 post-COVID 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. Things have changed slightly with the events of 2020, but over time independent travel to these islands will become easier again.

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.

If you would rather experience a number of islands and lots of wildlife then it is worth considering this trip with Exodus Travels for a range of Marine Wildlife in the Maldives trip.

18 thoughts on “A Guide to Addu Atoll – The ‘Real’ Maldives”

  1. Bernie Jackson

    It’s great to read about the real places, beautifully observed in detail from cats to bats. This is the kind of place I would love to visit – real and raw.

  2. Love the Maldives, I am going again next year!! Your photos are gorgeous and I love the variety of your pics, showing the others things in Maldives. Great info and tips.

  3. What an interesting read! You are right when I think of the Maldives I am thinking pina colada in a luxurious resort. An eye-opener!

  4. Wow, great tips on Maldives. I always see the list of beaches in Maldives, but I see an exotic list of wildlife too. Thanks for all tips about Atoll.

  5. A very refreshing read – shows a very different side to the Maldives than what I have heard about through people who have visited for beach holidays only. The diversity of wildlife looks incredible, and you’ve captured some incredible shots – love that bat!

  6. [object Object]

    Not the typical Maldives photos that you’ll get. This is indeed good to promote the other beauties in Maldives. At least this place would not be as populated as the tourist places but at the same time you still get the appreciate the beauty of it!

  7. WOW! Your pictures are so captivating and makes me want to visit the real Maldives soon! Its been on our list for a while. Glad to have stumbled upon this post!

  8. I hope to visit the Maldives next year so I really enjoyed reading this post. It great to see the other side away from the glamour. It makes it so much more real than just staying in a fancy resort. There are some excellent tips here as well that I have made a note of for when I finally get there. Thanks so much!

  9. In the US to preserve typical places from over tourism and their consequences they forbid some chains to open stores. Do you know if in the Maldives are taking similar measures?

    1. Meandering Wild

      I haven’t been able to find out an answer to that, but a number of the large multinational chains have stores on the islands so I assume there are no controls at the moment.

  10. I kind of have a follow up question to this article then. How do you think the over-tourism in the Maldives should be managed? I know in Hawaii they put a limit on the number of cruises to the islands to help curb the number of tourists (it honestly doesn’t really help). Do the Maldives attempt to do anything of the sort?

    1. Meandering Wild

      Good question! There are strict controls over island development, but it is so tied up in politics that as the government changes so do the policies. The tourism industry is also caught in the very big threat to the islands from climate change and whilst previous governments were very focussed on renewable energy and issues that affected the local population the current government are much more focussed on mass tourism and it is believed that they have sold an entire atoll to the Saudi government. Their plans for increases in tourism don’t address the infrastructure or the rights of the workers within the industry and certainly don’t consider the environmental impact in terms of pollution that an increase in flights or tourists would bring. The plan currently focusses around moving the local population to bigger atolls so the smaller atolls can be sold to develop super-resorts. I am not sure as an ‘outsider’ I have an answer for how they should manage it but there is a very strong number of residents who have their islands and its tourism at the front of their campaigns.

  11. woahh!! this post is refreshing!!! takes me back to the time i visited maldives!!! indeed it is a dream destination!! next time i’d surely go back and vist other atolls like addu!!!

  12. It looks amazing, I’d love to visit The Maldives one day, and I’m definitely not a resort person, so your tips are perfect!

  13. The debris on the beach makes me sad and upset, but it is a big problem in many places. The worst case I have ever seen was a beach in Rome area, Italy, after a flood. It remained covered with trash and dirty diapers for days, if not weeks after…

    Thanks for the information and tips!

  14. WOW, now THIS is why I read travel blogs! This is a place I’d never heard of before and I lived the historical and cultural explanations you gave. I’d really love to explore Maradhoo!

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