The Truth About the Maldives
The Maldives are a beach and ocean paradise for the well-heeled, but the patina of luxury can’t full cover some stark realities.
Hot Take: If you can swing the distance and the dollars, the Maldives are truly worthy of a visit. (4.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Take group transportation to save money and minimize your carbon footprint.
The Maldives are a chain of 26 atolls stretched across 115 square miles (298 sq kms) in the warm waters of the vast Indian Ocean. Year-round temperatures a constantly in the 80s Fahrenheit (~30 C) and the Maldives boasts more postcard worthy beaches and sandbars than we have ever seen in one place. With around 400,000 inhabitants and a maximum elevation of 7 feet 10 inches (2.4 meters), they are also the most likely to be the first nation to perish from climate change. But gloom will have to wait for another day, because we spent a marvelous 2 weeks in this little slice of paradise dominated by mostly amazing experiences (with occasional ugly realizations).
Weather: Many beach island paradises are too hot and humid to really enjoy anything but laying on a lounger with temperatures that regularly exceed 95 F (35 C). Not so in the Maldives where year-round modest temperatures (that cool off at night) provide a tranquil atmosphere that encourages water and beach sports as much as sunbathing.
Water: Due to its unique location in the Indian Ocean and the protective reef system, the ocean water in the Maldives is unbelievably clean and clear (like think of the cleanest dentist office aquarium you have ever seen…it’s clearer than that!). As avid snorkelers and divers across the globe, we have seen some pretty great water, but nothing has come close for us to the 100+ foot (30+ meters) visibility we had everywhere we went in the Maldives.
Snorkeling: The amazingly clear water was full of many of the most vibrant tropical fish imaginable. A confluence of numerous factors (mainly the protective reefs, the low tourist traffic, the shallow depths, the unreal visibility, the perfect water temperatures, and a lack of trash) make snorkeling in the Maldives the best we have ever experienced.
Sand: It might seem strange to think of sand as a highlight, but the Maldivian sand is amongst the softest in the world. Furthermore, due to the unique currents of the area, it forms into mini sandbar islands and peninsulas that are unique to atoll/reef protected areas. This means that you can find your own little private piece of island paradise.
Poverty: Outside of the incredibly posh resorts, lies the Maldives as experienced by the locals. It is poor, dirty, and without much hope of improvement (outside of accepting jobs at the luxury resorts). They are still living in paradise, but struggle to thrive and increase their standards of living.
Repression: Another thing that you won’t see in the glossy brochures are the relatively repressive actions of the Muslim culture. While some of these prohibitions will probably seem minor (like banning alcohol and bikinis on ‘locals’ islands), the systematic suppression of female and minority rights was immediately evident when walking around seeing women in full black coverings whenever they are outside the home (despite the heat) and eating in locals’ restaurants where the only customers are men.
Climate Change: We won’t sugar coat this…we went out of our way to see the Maldives because they are disappearing due to climate change. There is a herculean effort being made by the (mostly poor) government to delay the inevitable by embarking on a seawall building, dredging, and road elevating campaign. But within our lifetimes they will be uninhabitable and that makes us feel incredibly sad (and guilty).
If you can, you should go to the Maldives to enjoy some of nature’s best bounty. It is a treasure that will not be with us a generation or two from now. While we are saddened by the plight of the Maldivian people (caused by themselves as well as others), we firmly believe that engagement (not isolation) is the best policy and we hope that your visit will include resort islands as well as locals’ islands.