I tried accommodations at $100 per night and $1200 per night to see what was possible.
The Maldives is a honeymooner’s dream, a decadent destination for global elites to descend upon and indulge their every tropical-themed whim. Some would even say it is the best vacation that money can buy. Ever since the Maldivian government lifted restrictions on foreign visitors to inhabited islands, the tourism trends of the world’s most beautiful island paradise have begun to change. Now you can stay in comfortable, family-run guesthouses all across the island nation for a fraction of the luxury resort price tag. Backpackers and vacationers of all backgrounds and budgets can now have the vacation of their dreams.
But does the budget-friendly version of the Maldives live up to the sky-high expectations sold on private island retreats?
In the spirit of duality, I visited the Maldives with my partner, where we split our time between two very different budgets. We dined, snorkeled, and slept for under $100 per day, and then again for $1,200 per day. The result was two very different vacations within the same country’s borders. Although similar in setting, our underwater (and above water) experiences could not have been more different.
Kuramathi: A 100% Locally Owned Luxury Resort – $1,200 per day
I’ll preface this by saying I am not a resort traveler by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that rarely, if ever, sitting in a hermetically-sealed bubble of Western culture is the best way to see and understand a destination. But unlike the many corporatized Maldivian resorts scattered across idyllic private islands in the Indian Ocean, Kuramathi is locally owned. This fact, in addition to its commitment to an eco-conscious and environmentally-friendly stay, lured me into giving luxury travel a try. At least I could feel good about where my money was going.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
We were whisked away from the airport via an air-conditioned speed boat to the palm-fringed shores of the long and narrow island. The water was more vibrantly blue than the cloudless sky. Every last detail, from the crisp pandan-scented towels to the all-electric buggies shuttling guests up and down the nearly two-mile-long island, was carefully planned and executed.
For $1,000 a night, we had full access to one of three buffet restaurants overlooking the ocean and our very own overwater bungalow. The grey-scale cabins were equipt with a generous mini bar, a modern white bathtub, and a king-size plushy bed all facing a wall of paneled glass that opened fully to a breezy seaside patio. My morning swim from the bungalow included an encounter with a green sea turtle, a pair of large yellow Titan Triggerfish, and a handful of harmless reef sharks, quickly followed by a rinse in the outdoor shower and sipping coffee in the soft glow of the pink rising sun. It was the single most exquisite room I’ve ever stayed in.
The buffet food was top-notch (especially the breakfast), usually consisting of a variety of made-to-order international cuisines and a handful of local favorites like reef fish or fish curry. We had another $200 in our allotted budget to spend at one of the more lavish à la carte restaurants on the island. Succulent and saucy steak Diane is flambéed table-side at Island Barbecue and the freshest filets of local fish served while dining over the waves of the Indian Ocean at The Reef were among the foodie highlights worthy of splurging on.
Kuramathi’s island is lush, far greener, and cleaner than any of the inhabited islands we visited. Flying foxes soar through the tangled banyan trees and the local reef, easily accessible from shore, had the best snorkeling we experienced in the country. Sharks, rays, massive tropical fish, and live mountains of coral were just steps from the white sand beaches. There was a hydroponic garden, numerous pool bars serving classy island cocktails, an on-site marine biologist, a verdant botanical walk, and a lagoon large enough to hold all the SUP, jet ski, and kayak riders exploring the island.
Overall, Kuramathi is the ultimate vacation. Pure relaxation and rejuvenation. I didn’t feel like I learned much about the country culturally. But I got to experience the best of its natural landscapes and biodiversity. The luxury of the Maldives is worth the once-in-a-lifetime splurge.
Green Leaf Guest House Omadhoo – $100 per day
Unlike the resorts and their private islands, guesthouses are on “inhabited” islands. As the Maldives is a Muslim country, tourists on these islands must abide by local rules. This means no alcohol and a strict dress code. Each island has one designated section of beach where tourists can wear bikinis and shorts, but otherwise, your knees and shoulders should always be covered.
The inhabited island of Omadhoo is home to about 500 Maldivian residents and some of the country’s most stunning white-sand beaches. It’s also one of a handful of islands that’s relatively easy to reach on the $4 sluggish local ferries from Male. This is how budget travelers to the Maldives get around.
After four-and-a-half grueling hours bobbing on choppy water in the scorching sun, we met our guesthouse owner at the pier. For around $80 a night, Green Leaf Guest House offered us a comfortable but simple air-conditioned room just a 5-minute walk from “bikini beach.” Technically speaking, everything on Omadhoo is a 5-minute walk from the beach.
The owner also gave us a walking tour of the island. We walked past the wooden pier where we could see resident nurse sharks thrashing and fighting over the days’ scraps of fish, a stretch of beach where sting rays, some as large as four feet in diameter, floated about like underwater Roombas, and a cluster of lounge chairs tucked inconspicuously within the palm trees that he reserved specifically for his guests. Snorkels, fins, and SUP boards were also provided 100% free of charge. His property even had a rooftop star-gazing bed for cool evenings underneath the stars. The best part about the budget guesthouses was the enthusiasm of the residents for you to see and enjoy their home islands.
Our room rate included a simple egg breakfast with coffee and fruit. We spent the rest of our meager budget on $5 meals at the adjoining restaurant. Mostly on savory cheese kottu and tuna fried rice, the inhabited island staples.
We sizzled under the equatorial sun, thankful for our beach umbrellas and loungers, and explored every sandy street. One night our host made us dinner on the beach while the blue fairy dust of bioluminescent plankton washed onto our feet. Pure Maldivian magic.
Similar to the resort island, the ocean water was crystal clear and the snorkeling was exceptional. Unlike on the resort island, we were plagued by sandflies and mosquitos morning and night. The quiet of Omadhoo was interrupted only by the serene call to prayer from the local mosque and begging meows of sandy beach cats.
It was rustic relaxation. The budget-friendly version of the Maldives was not only possible—it proved to be enjoyable. For less than 1/10th the price of luxury resorts, you can experience the underwater playground and stunning beaches, albeit with more trash, bugs, and a different dress code.
Kuramathi is the epitome of Maldivian luxury, a feeling the country is deservedly famous for. But a budget-conscious trip to Green Leaf Guest House offered many of the same attractions for travelers seeking a frills-free exotic beach vacation. The Maldives isn’t just a playground for the rich and famous anymore.