Escaping the city heat
Over the past few weeks, the Maldives has been hitting record temperatures – well above 30°C throughout the day and barely dropping at night. In Male’, it has been unbearable. Walking its narrows streets, you can feel the concrete walls and roads radiate heat. Throngs of people jostle uncomfortably on the capital’s outskirts, desperate for a mere hint of a breeze or a sliver of shade. So when I was invited to escape the city and visit Bodufolhudhoo’s newest guesthouse Castle Inn, it didn’t take me long to agree. Although the temperature is the same, in the scattered local islands the heat is more forgiving. Large trees replace towering high-rises, and sandy paths replace the burning asphalt. And at any given moment, the sea is always just a spontaneous dive away.
Our 4pm transfer from Kalhuthukkalaakoshi Jetty (also known as Petrol Jetty for those like me who find that completely impossible to say) was arranged by Hassan, one of the owners of the guesthouse. As we stand by the harbour under a single branch of a doleful roadside tree, I can sense an urgency amongst those waiting for the transfer. More than just wanting to ensure a seat, people are itching to leave, to escape. And when a few minutes later we feel the rush of sea air on our faces as we set out from the port, there is a collective expiration – we can finally breathe.
The journey is smooth and lends itself to dreaming. No islands are in sight as we pass between two atolls and the endless sea is welcoming and welcome. After a short stop in Ukulhas (you can read about my visit to the island last year, here), we arrive in Bodufolhudhoo. As I step out onto the bow, a hand reaches down to me from the pier. I grasp it and look up.
“Welcome to Bodufolhudhoo, Mrs Ali,” says a smiling face as I am helped onto the jetty.
“How was your journey?” says another.
As our bags are unloaded, I learn that my welcome party are Adil and Iqbal – the guesthouse’s guest relation officers. Over the next few days, they would be on hand to ensure our stay would be perfect, they tell me.
“Which resorts did you used to work in?” their flawless English and professional attitudes make me ask.
“I worked at the Constance Moofushi [a nearby five-star resort] for twelve years as a guest relations officer,” Adil informs me.
“I’ve worked in many resorts, all over the country,” replies Iqbal.
And boy, over the next couple of days did it show. Nothing was too much for these two, who are truly the best thing about the guesthouse.
Castle Inn by Tripping Maldives
As we enter Castle Inn through it’s cute exterior wall of turrets and battlements, Iqbal hands us fresh young coconuts (kurumba in the local language) to drink and shows us to our room with ‘WELCOME’ written on the bed in palm fronds.
The rooms are large and spacious. There is a huge wardrobe, dressing table, mini fridge, TV, bedside tables and a table to sit at. The A/C worked well during our entire stay and made minimal noise. The TV channels are mainly local and Indian so you might want to bring a few movies on your tablet. In the fridge there are non-alcoholic minibar items; a few treats and drinks.
The bathroom is modern and the shower pressure is strong (one of my pet peeves in hotels is a shower that feels like a dripping tap!) and the guesthouse provides free amenities.
The outside space is generous, with a swing to relax on and several tables for meals. There’s a buffet counter but as we visit in the opening week, Hassan and his business partners are still searching for a chef that is up to their standard.
As such, all our meals are ordered from local cafes. They are simple but fresh and delicious. On our first night, we decide to eat in the café itself, to enjoy the breeze of its harbour-side location. Adil takes our order in the afternoon and asks when we would like to eat. Later, he walks us there and the food is brought out straightaway. We share a small grilled reef fish, a vegetable curry, fried rice and Maldivian salad of dark green leaves known kopi faiy. On our way home, Adil greets us and we ask if there might be somewhere to buy an ice cream. He accompanies us to a small general store and we walk back to Castle Inn, munching on Magnums.
The next morning, after a deep, restful sleep (we tell Adil we will be awake at 8, we eventually open an eye at 9.30), we step out to see a lovely table set up for breakfast. We are brought coffee and fresh mango juice made from local fruit. This is accompanied by a local-style breakfast – mas huni (tuna with coconut, onion and chilli – amazing), coconut chapattis, eggs and sausages.
Jumping ahead slightly, one of the most wonderful experiences at Castle Inn was the dinner later that night. To celebrate its first guests – a Swiss couple who have been travelling around the world for the past 8 months, and the two of us – the Castle Inn team prepared an incredible BBQ dinner. The exterior space was decorated with palm fronds, lights and flowers and we were treated to wonderful barbecued grilled fish, chicken, pasta, fried rice, salad and roshi (very thin local chapattis). The fish was marinated in what tasted like lime, chilli and coconut – and when I inquire to the recipe, Hassan laughs. “A local islander makes it, but he won’t tell anyone his recipe – he’s like KFC!” And I can understand why – all four of us had second and third helpings. The care and attention put in by the Castle Inn team was truly touching, and to share a table with the Swiss travellers and to hear of their adventures in Iran, India and the Middle East was wonderful.
Rewinding back to the morning, after breakfast we head straight to the beach, which is just a few minutes walk away. We take beach towels provided by the guesthouse and settle down on sun loungers that Adil had personally set up for us. A half dozen other tourists are there, dotted under the trees or soaking up the sun. Although tourists can wear bikinis here, neither of us enjoy sunbathing so it’s not long before we’re in the water with our snorkelling gear. The drop-off of the island’s house reef is less than 100m from the beach – so it takes very little effort to swim out and enjoy the beautiful coral and its inhabitants. This morning, the current is extremely slow and we swim against it with ease. Huge shoals of fish swarm beneath us as well as a stunning array of angelfish, parrotfish and surgeonfish. We stay in the water for well over an hour before we start to swim back to shore. Just before we reach the entrance to the beach we spot a large hawksbill turtle, which is a real highlight. (Please watch the video above for some snorkelling footage!)
After a light lunch, Adil leads us to the harbour for an afternoon excursion to a nearby uninhabited island. We hop on a small fiberglass dinghy and watch as the sea turns from navy blue to aquamarine as we enter a beautiful lagoon. The island, which sits just opposite another local island called Mathiveri, is deserted when we arrive. We spend the next two hours enjoying the isolation. We spot a huge feathertail ray as we snorkel amongst the bushes of healthy, multihued coral in the shallows. Pink and blue-tipped varieties, spiky like bracken, sit next to species with thick long stems, like the pipes of a church organ. We see groups of Mathiveri women fly-fishing on the opposite shore and children swimming in the evening sun.
Bodufolhudhoo – An Eco-friendly Destination
When we return, we find a similar scene in Bodufolhudhoo. Many islanders who had been sheltering from the heat of the day are now in the streets. Children race in wheelbarrows and teenagers are painting a nearby wall. The community is active now that the heat has dropped.
Later that evening, I’m invited by Hassan to meet members of the local council to learn more about the island. I had mentioned to Hassan that I knew Bodufolhudhoo had recently become the first island in the country to ban plastic bags, and that I was keen to hear more about the scheme. Without any hesitation, Hassan assures me that I could meet the island’s elected councillors. Unlike where I come from, in the Maldives islands you don’t have to go through miles of red tape to be able to access your local government representative. On these islands, the council president shares his walk to work with you, drinks his coffee in the same café as you, and prays beside you in the mosque. However, their willingness to speak to me, an outsider, is very heart-warming.
I am introduced to Council President Shujau Adam, Council Director Ahmed Umar and Council Member Hassan Mahir and as we sit in the reception of Castle Inn, they tell me of their decision to ban plastic bags.
“The idea actually came to us from outside,” explains Umar, “from the owners of Maldives Getaways [the company that publishes Guesthouses Maldives magazine] when we were discussing the problems of excess plastic waste on the island.”
“The idea really struck a chord with us and within a week we put the idea to our island residents to see if they supported it,” he continues. “We felt that this would be good not only for Maldivians, but also for tourists – this is something people actively look for these days – for ecotourism – and we wanted our commitment to the environment to be part of our island identity.”
After receiving widespread support for the initiative from residents, the council began implementing the scheme with the backing of local shop owners on January 1st this year. Plastic bags were replaced with cloth versions, (each islander was gifted a bag) many of which were donated by Maldives Getaways and locals NGOs such as the IUCN. In addition, islanders are encouraged to bring pots or even buckets to buy flour and sugar. As we speak, the island is reaching the end of its three-month trial period and results look positive.
“I have received calls from other island council presidents asking how we implemented the scheme,” explains Adam, “and we are advising them on how to proceed.”
There is no punishment for plastic bag use, the councillors emphasise, but rather they work hard to ensure islanders back the scheme. As well as this initiative, the council employs a team of island cleaners and is now planning to bring biodegradable bags to the island. There is even talk of producing biogas, the councillors tell me, as a local engineer is very interested in doing so.
For those who know the island, the initiative might not seem very surprising. In the past, they’ve partnered with Banyan Tree resort to plant 5,000 trees, as well as several coral nurseries in the lagoon. They also band together to ensure that there are no breeding grounds for mosquitos on the island (which might explain why I don’t even see one during my stay).
The next morning as we head towards the harbour to catch the 6.30am speedboat back to Male’ we are flanked by Adil and Iqbal. I think to myself that only one person is necessary to see us off so early in the morning, but that is clearly not how they think at Castle Inn. This small but special guesthouse goes the extra mile in every sense, in keeping with its island location. And as we race east towards the rising sun and the concrete city of Male’, I feel grateful to have been welcomed there, if only for a weekend. Before the island is out of sight, I already start wondering when we might go back.
I lean over to my other half. “Adil said the island really goes to town when they celebrate Eid,” I say loudly into his ear.
He laughs at me, understanding my hint.
“Alright,” he smiles.
We both look back to the island and then prepare to fall asleep.
A few more things you might need to know:
How to book:
We booked our room with Castle Inn via booking.com, which meant we could pay in cash on arrival (but be aware there’s no ATM on the island). You can also contact the guesthouse via their Facebook page, or on firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to get there:
There are two main methods of reaching the island. The first and cheapest is by the public, government-run ferry. This option will only cost you $3 but it’s incredibly slow – taking around 5.5 hours to reach the island. There are three departures from Male’ per week – on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The boat leaves from Villingili terminal on the west side of Male’ at 9am. The return transfers from Bodufolhudhoo are at the same time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. If it’s a beautiful day, you’re not easily prone to seasickness and you’re on a tight budget – then I’d say go for it.
The second and most popular method is by speedboat. Speedboats leave Male’ at 4pm and Bodufolhodhoo at 6.30am daily (although times vary on Fridays so double check with your guesthouse about departures). Each one-way journey costs $50 -$60 but only takes 1.5 hours. These transfers are in very high demand so make sure to confirm with your guesthouse at least 2 days in advance.
Of course there’s also the option to take a seaplane (which will set you back over $200 per journey) or to charter a private speedboat if you are travelling in a large group (around $600 each way) but these methods are less common.
What to pack:
In the Maldives, you can definitely travel light. The only shoes you’ll need are a pair of flip-flops and you can leave your hairdryer and straighteners at home and enjoy sundried beach hair! However, Bodufolhudhoo is a tiny island so I’d recommend packing everything you expect to need. Here’s a little list of a few Maldives essentials:
Sunscreen – of course this goes without saying but it’s worth mentioning that sunscreen is pretty expensive here so make sure you bring enough! I would also recommend factoring up – if you normally use factor 30, opt for 50 instead – the sun here is STRONG. This includes a lip balm with a high coverage, too. I’ve burnt my lips a couple of times here – ouch! And I’d also recommend pairing it with a nice aloe vera after sun to keep in the fridge.
Conditioner – when I lived in a local island, conditioner was always tough to get hold of! And after a day in the sea, you’re going to want to easily get rid of the tangles.
Modest clothing (for men and women) – local islands follow fairly strict dress codes and although these are relaxed for tourists, I always emphasise being as respectful as possible. Remember, local tourism is still very new here and many islanders are still getting used to welcoming guests to their homes so a little respect goes a long way. If you’re not willing to cover up a little in the island streets, I’d go so far as to say you’d better stick to resorts. In practical terms, I suggest a shoulders to knees method for both men and women. In my backpack there is always a kaftan, a sarong, board shorts and a t-shirt – simple!
Snorkelling gear – My husband and I are real water babies, so we’re fussy about our gear. Having a great pair of fins actually makes such a difference in the water – personally I am in love with my Mares Volo Race fins – they make swimming so easy and I never get cramps. As snorkels go, the XS Scuba Cargo is the best I’ve ever found. It’s completely flexible so you can roll it up and it has a purge valve so you can completely clear your snorkel without lifting your head from the water. Worth it’s weight in gold! Also, without my ScubaPro prescription mask, I’d just see bright colours! So if you don’t mind carrying these items, it’s worth investing.
A GoPro with housing – If you’re like us and you love taking memories home with you, there’s nothing better than a GoPro – it’s so tiny and the image quality is fantastic on the most recent models. We also use a stabiliser to reduce shakiness and that makes a huge difference.
A few treats – Although I love Maldivian cuisine and there are plenty of shops selling chocolate bars and ice-creams, I always like to pack a few nuts and dried fruits for healthy snacks on the beach. I also always take my own tea (because I’m British and I’m fussy). If you’re stopping off in Male’ on the way from the airport, STO supermarket near Republic Square is a good place to buy a few things that aren’t available on the islands (including a huge range of lovely Dilmah teas – black, Earl Grey, infusions etc…)
What to say:
Over the years, I’ve generally found that islanders can be a little shy at first, but extremely friendly and warm once you’ve established a connection. If you want to reach out to someone, or greet people as you pass by, a simple ‘hello’ can be enough. If you’d like to expand, or try a little Dhivehi, here are a few things you could say:
As-salamu alaykum – literally ‘peace be upon you’ – is the traditional Muslim greeting. You might hear people respond by saying wa-alaikum-us-salaam (‘and upon you be peace’).
Or you could try ‘haalu kihineh?’ which a polite way of saying ‘how are you?’ A response to this might be ‘rangalhu’ (‘good’) or ‘baraabaru’ (‘excellent’). For kids you can just say ‘kihineh?’
Otherwise a simple ‘shukuriyyaa’ (‘thank you’), here and there can go a long way, or at least might make people smile.
Lastly, it’s quite common to call older women ‘dhattha’ (don’t pronounce the h) which means ‘elder sister’, and older men ‘beybe’ which means ‘elder brother’, as a form of respect. So you could say ‘haalu kihineh, dhattha?’ or ‘shukuriyyaa, beybe’.
Have a go! I’ve found that people really appreciate the effort – even if my accent is terrible! And if nothing else, it makes everyone laugh!