The Maldives is much more than luxury resorts. Male, its candy-coloured capital, springs pleasant surprises.
Much of the Maldives, as experienced by Maldivians, lies undiscovered by travellers. But the country has so much more to offer than luxury resorts: the world's best beaches, spectacular reefs, ancient ruins and the candy-coloured capital, Male.
Male is a densely concreted warren where the all the world's problems - political, social, religious and environmental - are played out in microcosm, but beyond it lie 200 inhabited islands, where people have been scratching a living in much the same way for thousands of years.
If Male's maze of alleys and careening mopeds seems insular and impenetrable - you're unlikely to run into the burgeoning death metal scene, for instance - the inhabited islands are just the opposite. Islanders are famous for their hospitality and friendliness, and the novelty of foreign visitors ensures a warm welcome. Small guest houses are springing up all over the country, and a room and local fare can usually be arranged — simply ask at the island office. But don't expect to sunbathe without sparking a scandal that will be talked about for years to come.
Getting around on a budget in a country designed for yacht charter remains a challenge. The timetable for the government's new ferry service remains arcane, while private inter-atoll ferries are mostly unscheduled, unregulated and rely on you asking the captain where he feels like going that particular day.
The locals do it, and there's nothing stopping you either. For a leisurely island-hop down to the former British airbase on the southern island of Gan, simply walk along the jetty next in front of Male's vegetable market and ask anyone loitering on the pier about the ferry to Addu Atoll/Gan.
Give yourself a day in Male and make a point of talking to people. English is widely spoken, but you'll have to initiate conversation. Meeting up for coffee (lavazza) is very informal, always welcomed, and usually followed by leisurely chewing of the popular national stimulant, areca nut.
An independent holiday in the Maldives needn't be liquor-free. Catch a free transfer from Male to the only watering hole in town, the soulless airport hotel bar, and commiserate with the expats during Thursday evening's weekly session. Or partake in the nearby Sheraton Full Moon's infamous weekly beach party, transfer GBP6 (6:30 & 8pm, jetty seven).
You could then perhaps head north to Hanimaadhoo, a long thin island in Haa Dhaalu Atoll with a small landing strip, used as a transport interchange for several upmarket resorts nearby and the occasional intrepid traveller visiting the remote islands of the north. One-way flights with Maldivian (maldivian.aero) from Male cost about GBP80.
Basic guesthouse accommodation near the terminal will cost about GBP22 a night, and you can eat cheap local food at the sleepy airport canteen. A 10-minute stroll will bring you to the island's village, population 1,000, and you'll have all the sweeping beaches, scenery and serene isolation you'd pay 20 times the price for at the nearby Waldorf Astoria. The former president's Northern Palace is 10 minutes' walk away in the south of the island.
Guest houses charge about GBP55 a head. There are regular flights to Gan, and connections back to Male with Maldivian. If you don't mind getting your feet wet, hiking the Maldives is also possible.
Last year a group of 150 Maldivians hiked 35km and 103 islands along the rim of Gaafu Dhaalu, one of the world's largest natural atolls, wading through water waist-deep at times.