Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Beyond Oman: A long weekend in the Maldives

It feels like an age since I came back from holiday. In my last post I mentioned I wasn’t sure if I should share my travels, but then remembered that I have a tab on this blog labelled "Beyond Oman,' which means I must have already thought and decided at some point that I should.

I’ve been lucky enough to go on two holidays in the last three months, one was our main "summer holiday" to Singapore and Bali, the second was a short break to the Maldives to take advantage of the national day holidays.

We booked the Maldives on a whim and made the mistake trying to be clever by predicting the dates of the national day leave, which cost us an extra 80 OMR in changed flight fees. We flew with Oman Air, which is a direct flight and takes around 4 hours. I’m the type of person that irrespective of impending holidays hunts for deals and the best hotel and places to stay so I already had in mind that — as much as I would love a luxury resort — because the main focus of this holiday was to go diving, we would opt for an affordable hotel on one of the inhabited islands. 1) To save on cost and 2) because if we were under the sea for the majority of the days, we wouldn't actually get to properly enjoy any fancy resort. I’ll add a third reason here, 3) I already knew I would want an excuse to go back!

The hotel we chose was called Stingray Beach Inn, on the Island of Maafushi, which is one of the larger and well-known inhabited islands. It had great reviews on TripAdvisor and I was impressed with the communication of the owner before our arrival. It turned out to be a great choice. While the room was nothing to write home about in terms of decoration or facilities, it did have a very comfortable bed, which after a long and tiring day was wonderful to collapse onto. We paid $100 a night, plus taxes (peak season rates) for bed and breakfast. Another really nice addition was that the hotel organises day trips. We did one our last day, and the trip was planned so that we could still come back to the hotel, shower, and then leave for the airport. It's such a small detail, but having the trip organised around our schedule and still having our room to use after the usual check-out time meant we got to enjoy our last day rather than wasting the time waiting to leave. The trip consisted of dolphin watching, snorkelling (twice) and lunch on a sandbank (which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen). And that was all for $30 each.

We arranged our transfer to and from the airport via the hotel, too. This transfer, irrespective of where you are staying (be it Maafushi or a private resort) is almost as expensive as your flight to get there. For a private speedboat, the price is around $300 for a round trip (this goes up in peak season) or if you are willing to share (of course you are) that drops to half the price. Each hotel seems to have its own speedboat and I really can't figure out why the costs are so high, possibly because your only other option would be to swim. That's a lie, there is a ferryboat to Maafushi, but this takes four times as long and is only once a day. Transferring from a plane to a boat is a unique experience, the journey took about 30 minutes and in that time you get to appreciate why the Maldives is such a dream destination. There are clear blue and green waters and huge white clouds that seem close enough to touch, and the weather that is just right.

Maafushi itself is an interesting island and I appreciated getting to see this real side to the Maldives. You are warned that being an inhabited island you must be respectful of the people and culture (because it is an Islamic country), which means no walking around in a bikini (although I did see girls in hot pants). Apparently, the island has 2500 inhabitants, although in our four days there I struggled to figure out where they were, we seemed to see the same staff and tourists roaming around, and even walking around in the "back streets" I could barely recognise what peoples homes were. The island takes about 30 minutes to walk around, on one end you have the guest houses/hotels and bikini beach, and as you walk towards the other you get to a football pitch, mosques, a rubbish dump, and then a prison — maybe that’s where the rest of the inhabitants are?

As I mentioned, this was predominantly a diving holiday. We booked six dives over two days with Maafushi Dive, who were great. On a few occasions, we had the whole crew and boat to ourselves, the team did everything for us in terms of set-up and took us to some fantastic sites. The highlight of the trip for me was hanging out with a turtle for a good five minutes (they are normally quick to swim away) and seeing grey reef sharks and eagle rays. Probably the only downside to Maafushi was the food, the quality wasn't that great and neither was the service in some places. If you like grilled fish, that is really your best choice. We did find one place where I got to try a traditional Maldivian dish, which was very nice. It was described to me as tuna in a sauce with chapati, but it was all mixed together. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name.

Now, would you believe me if I told you that after describing what a great time we had that it actually rained the majority of the time? December happens to be the wettest month. I think that's the funny thing about living in Oman. A couple of years ago I would have cried if I had paid to go on holiday and it rained. Now a bit of rain anywhere is welcome.

Well, that was a lengthy post, and that was only to cover a four-day trip! I’ll leave you with some of my favourite shots above and below sea level.