If you hear the term Viajate el Mundo Conmigo (travel the world with me), you should let your imagination run wild, for these words are the trademark of María Villar, a travel designer who will take you on a holiday with a difference every time. Once a year I sign up for her trip of adventures to be shared with a handful of like-minded souls, and this time the Maldives were the destination. But typically, this wasn’t about the Maldives everyone knows. Swimming with sharks, travelling on a seaplane and burnt bums were compulsory!


If you hear the term Viajate el Mundo Conmigo (travel the world with me), you should let your imagination run wild, for these words are the trademark of María Villar, a travel designer who will take you on a holiday with a difference every time. Once a year I sign up for her trip of adventures to be shared with a handful of like-minded souls, and this time the Maldives were the destination. But typically, this wasn’t about the Maldives everyone knows. Swimming with sharks, travelling on a seaplane and burnt bums were compulsory!


Setting off to visit the Maldives filled us all with anticipation knowing that María, as always, has as many irregular experiences packed into our trip as possible, and the details are only revealed on the go. We had envisaged seeing many facets of the region for which the logistics had to be subjected to serious planning but as María is a master of this, the size of our suitcases was the only thing we occupied ourselves with. Although I must admit, I can never get this one task right!

The Island Kingdom

Although considered an aseismic region today, the Maldives were formed on top of volcanoes active millions of years ago that have since sunk to the depts of the Indian Ocean. Corals growing, building up on the circular ridges of the corroded submarine craters formed barrier reefs called Atolls, each enclosing a shallow lagoon area protecting hundreds of small islands in its heart. The Maldivian islands grow exclusively on coral material, coming to life as sandbanks, ascending and sometimes disappearing, then reappearing again when weather conditions and sea levels change. As it’s called by locals, The Island Kingdom (Dhivehi Raajje), includes 26 Atolls and 1200 small tropical islands, many of which are owned privately, some bustling with local life, and lots that are just quiet or outright uninhabitable.

Resort Chilling

The most popular and known way to visit the Maldives is flying to the capital Malé, then taking water transport over to one of its privately owned islands. You may know the resort as the Anantara, Marriot or the Sheraton but the Maldives ensures its properties remain in local hands, to then be leased to world-class operators that establish the luxury resorts visitors enjoy so eagerly. The picture is pretty uniform — independent villas set over the azure ocean in wavy designs with private terraces directly accessing the water. Typically there are various restaurants, bars, a gorgeous pool, a spa with massage and beauty treatments and maybe even a watersports centre.

For your food and drinks, different all-inclusive packages are usually available. The level of luxury and the amenities the resort provides are in relation to the price tag, which can move between 1.000-50.000 USD per room per night. Be aware that this setting is not a party atmosphere, although alcoholic beverages are available, the evening scene is normally filled with couples in a sedate mood, with food service stopping at 10pm and bars closing at midnight at the latest. Considering the high price even at the lower end, up until recently a trip to the Maldives has only been affordable for the wealthy or used for special occasions such as by honeymooners. However, although it’s a great opportunity to take out an expensive week to relax in paradise, this way you are not likely to experience the vast geographical and cultural dimensions the country has to offer.

Covid Restrictions

The Maldives prosper mainly from the tourism industry, so to avoid any controversy they ask for a negative PCR test on entry and on departure as well. The private resorts do everything in their power to keep the resort clean and disinfected as even one Covid case, by Maldivian law, would mean a full quarantine for the entire resort. Therefore, once you set foot on a local island like Maafushi, you would have to subsequently exit the country all together to be allowed back to a resort again. Some local islands or specific hotels may also ask for a PCR test when island hopping, but it is easy to obtain at the local medical centre, or organised by the hotel you are staying in.

Flora & Fauna

Due to its isolated nature, apart from tiny geckos and the likes not many animals are found on dry land, but the 28-30ºC turquoise waters are home to a breathtakingly rich marine life that includes many aquatic species specific to the area. A diverse array of coral with over 2000 species of fish ranging from tiny colourful reef fish to the larger tuna and sharks; moray eels, rays and dolphins can be found there and five out of seven sea turtles are also native to the Maldives. Some real eye candy to the diver or snorkeller are the 2 meters-span giant manta rays and the 7 meters long whale sharks that are fairly easily spotted. The Maldivians are very serious about their wildlife conservation and many of the species and all the corals are protected. Most islands are covered with tropical vegetation including a variety of trees like coconut palms, mango, plantain, papaya, banyan and types of ficus. There seemed to be an endless supply of fresh fruit, and the chopped-off coconut with a straw inserted is always a pleasure when the sun beats down with heat.

Up For The Adventure!

After spending a couple of nights on such a pristine island, the Centara Ras Fushi Resort in North Malé Atoll, we were all de-stressed and ready for adventure. There is a complicated network of water infrastructure around the Maldives which includes slow ferries, speed boats and private boats. Centara was a 20 minutes ride from Malé where we were to catch the next one to our new destination. María chose the island of Maafushi on Kaafu Atoll for our programme which is one of the most popular local islands in the Maldives. It also houses Maldive’s only prison (as a separate island off-site) which gives plenty of well paid jobs for the 2700 locals who live in relative prosperity.

Maafushi, which stretches only 1.2 km long and 300 meters wide, offers a completely different and culturally immersive perspective. Unlike at the resorts, here locals run their own businesses, the island has several hotels of many floors of a really nice standard (and price), guesthouses, salons and shops, and the oceanside is packed with shacks offering watersport experiences, snorkelling safaries, night fishing, scuba diving and excursions to sandbanks or other points of interest at nearby islands and Atolls. It exudes a cool surfer/diver ‘Tarifa-like’ vibe, it’s pretty well organised and it has a buzzing night life often with live music.

It’s important to know that the Maldives being a Muslim country, alcohol is not sold or consumed anywhere where locals live, but the beach shacks offer amazingly fruity combinations of mocktails, and just about any kind of coffee creations you can think of. You can find international food as much as the freshest most beautiful seafood, but don’t think of dressing up for the occasion. In fact, don’t bother taking any shoes with you to roam around the Maldives, as a pair of flipflops will do perfectly!

We stayed in the Arena Beach Hotel with lovely ocean views and hung out with a group of local free divers from the Triton who took us around on their speedboat every day for four days. Not being used to a group of ladies making havoc, they were extremely polite and professional to start with, but in no time our relationship transformed to friendship based on trust as we all practically converted into fish in the water together. We pulled up our own reef fish in the dark from the bottom of the ocean to be BBQ-ed on the beach for dinner. Organised by Sunny, executed by Saadde, Hussain and our cool captain, we swam with beautiful turtles at the reefs, a crowd of stingrays in dragging currents and with about 30 nurse sharks in the open sea! And when we accomplished all this alive, we beached a random sandbank and packed out a picnic lunch to enjoy under the sun. I would have not missed this experience for any luxury resort boredom.

Bikini Beach

When you are exploring the Maldives on your own accord you have to educate yourself on a number of cultural restrictions which apply as soon as you mix with the local population. Being a fairly strict Muslim enclave, alcohol is forbidden and ladies cannot appear uncovered even on the beach, or swimming in the water. As a visitor, you will always have to cover yourself wearing at least shorts and T-shirt; in some more traditional areas you have to wrap your legs too with non transparent fabric. Each island has, however, a dedicated beach for tourists called the ‘Bikini Beach’ where wearing swimming costumes are allowed. Out on the sea, on private boats these restrictions don’t apply so Maafushi created a ‘Floating Bar’, a boat moored off its coast where tourists can be taken for a few hours of ‘relaxation’ with some beer and wine. Clever!

A Diving Paradise

After a few hectic days of hard speedboating and bravery blowing up our Instagram we moved onto our third Maldives experience. The beautiful narrow island of Dhigurah is situated 100km south of Malé on the Alif Dhaal Atoll, where the majestic whale sharks are resident all year around. María chose this island for its quiet but picturesque nature, with only 640 habitants and a great reputation as a diving spot. The Boutique Beach All Inclusive Diving Hotel is the coolest of the handful of hotels that Dhigurah contains and is set in natural surroundings of unspoiled jungle with a little village of locals nearby. The other end of this long-shaped charming island stretches out as an impressive sandbank where you can enjoy peaceful walks and unforgettable sunsets.

The story goes that a British lady on her diving holiday fell in love with the spot and its marine landscape, and created this hotel for herself. And indeed the rooms are very comfortable with beautiful open air bathrooms and rooftop dining, chef Shanti preparing near gourmet food with the freshest local ingredients. Their private boat goes out twice a day to the best snorkelling and diving spots and they offer all equipment and training necessary, included. The hotel is run by a super friendly Maldivian, Afzal, and a Danish diving instructor lady, Mette, who practically became family by the end of our visit. They made sure we left with the mesmerising experience of seeing the whale shark, gracefully gliding eagle rays, reef sharks and an array of other beautiful aquatic animals that are found in the area. For added fun they dropped us at the nearby LUX resort’s aviation platform where we took the famous seaplane back to Malé, to catch our international flight back home.

I am only back a short while and still dreaming about swimming in the turquoise ocean with wonderful creatures. However, even at such a heavenly place, it was a sad experience seeing that the supposedly vibrant coral reefs were mostly bleached. They died as a result of the sudden heat wave in ocean temperature from a couple of years back. Divers report that deeper down they are recolouring, which is great news meaning they can recuperate in time unless we continue to destroy them. Also, we saw sugar-white, pristine sandbanks with plastic bags and bottles washed up all over them and they weren’t left there by tourists. The problems with our oceans are super real ­— you only need to take a holiday to see them for yourself. We should all work together to reverse the deterioration we cause to the planet if we are to prevent magical places like the Maldives from ultimately disappearing.