The Maldives are the stuff dreams are made of -- as in dream vacations inspired by those impossibly idyllic screen savers, or those pesky fantasies about quitting your day job to live on an exotic island for the rest of your life (or at least a week or two). You know, the places that can't possibly live up to your expectations of beauty and wonder. Well, we found out that the crazy thing about the Maldives is, this destination does. This place really looks exactly like those stock images floating across your screen: bright sun, transparent blue lagoons, house reefs teeming with fish, low waters with baby reef sharks and rays, and white sand beaches that stretch out into nothing but miles and miles of turquoise waters and blue skies.
We all know this familiar picture, but there are a few surprising things you just might not know about this South Asian island nation. Whether or not you've got a trip in the works (or in its fantastical planning stages), you'll want to know these 17 facts about the Maldives before you go.
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1. It's Made Up of Almost 2,000 Small Islands
Yep, you read that correctly. The Maldives is made up of around 1,190 individual islands, peppered across the Indian Ocean, just below India and Sri Lanka. Some are so small that you'll have to zoom waaaaaaay in on your Google map before you even notice they're there.
2. Not All of the Islands Are Inhabited
Out of the nearly 2,000 islands within 26 different atolls (or collections of islands), only about 200 are actually inhabited by people. These include islands with year-round, permanent populations living in the likes of farming towns and fishing villages. Uninhabited islands are used for farm land or industry, or as "picnic" islands for resorts, which tourists can visit for the day for private, romantic meals.
3. Not All of the Islands Are Natural
While it's believed that most of the islands in the Maldives were formed by volcanoes (and that most of the islands themselves are the very tippy tops of what's left of the volcanic islands), some islands are actually manmade. For example, Huhulmale, the island closest to the main airport, is a "reclaimed" or "artificial" island that was created in 2004 by dumping loads of sand and concrete to make a foundation. Today, it looks like a full-fledged town with paved roads, shops, housing, and coastline.
4. Some Islands Are Disappearing
If you need any kind of encouragement to get you to finally take that dream trip to the Maldives, let it be this -- it's disappearing. In fact, over 100 islands have already disappeared thanks to natural erosion from the sea and rising water levels. For many of the remaining islands, beach erosion continues to be a huge problem -- so don't be surprised if you see seawalls built around the islands to help break waves or pumps on the beaches, pumping sand back onto land.
5. There's a Glow-in-the-Dark Beach
Guests staying at Dusit Thani Maldives in the Baa Atoll are in for a real treat. During certain times of the year, this resort's beach comes alive with light -- at night -- giving off a starry sky look in the dark waves. While some other resorts claim the presence of bioluminescent plankton, we know without a doubt that you can catch a glimpse here. It's an unforgettable experience, but be sure to check on the timing of this spectacle with the hotel if you're booking specifically to witness the lights.
6. It Has a 100-Percent Islamic Population
The only other country in the entire world with a 100-percent Muslim population is Saudi Arabia. This is good to know when planning your trip, since during the month-long holy fasting of Ramadan, most of the local staff you'll be encountering at the airport and resorts will be unable to eat or drink anything during daylight hours and many shops and services -- including on resort islands -- will be closed at certain times for prayer.
7. Alcohol, Bathing Suits, and Public Displays of Affection Are Illegal
Since the Maldives is a Muslim country, there are a few extremely important and strictly enforced rules that you may not know exist. For example, there is no alcohol available -- strict Muslims aren't even allowed to touch anything that contains alcohol. Homosexuality is also highly frowned upon and illegal. Women are barred from wearing bathings suits or revealing clothing (i.e. nothing revealing the elbows, shoulders, or knees), there are no pork products, and public displays of affection, even just quick kisses, are agains the law. While they are a bit more lenient on clothing restrictions at the airport, we think it's always good form to be respectful when in a foreign country.
8. Except on Resort Islands
But there is a silver lining! All of the above rules do not apply on resort islands (although -- Europe, we're looking at you -- there's absolutely no nude sunbathing). Tourists, while at the resort islands, are free to booze it up, eat pork, canoodle, and wear bikinis, spaghetti-strap tops, dresses, and shorts. But please do remember, if you take a day trip to a local island, you'll be expected to follow the local customs, particularly when concerning women's attire.
9. Every Resort Is on Its Own Private Island
This one may come as shock, but every resort is on its own island. This basically means that any fantasy you've had about whisking yourself off to a remote island in the middle of nowhere can pretty much come true if you visit the Maldives. This also means that most of the islands are extremely small, so you'll be around the same people all the time, and unless you take a day trip, you're on the same small square of sand for the entirety of your vacation. There are no malls, movie theaters, or food, drink, and entertainment options outside of your resort, so be sure to research your digs well.
10. Over-Water Villas Can Be Overrated
Thanks to all those gorgeous screen savers, over-water villas are pretty much synonymous with the Maldives. You know, those little huts, jutting out on stilts over the water? They look so cool and practically epitomize relaxation. However, they aren't for everyone. While they do offer a unique point of view and your own private steps into the ocean, they are usually set on the far end of the resort, making them a hike to other facilities -- and some aren't that private, and have dank-smelling bathrooms, and poorly-lit jetties that make nighttime after-drink navigation a tad scary. But it really comes down to whether you'd prefer your backyard to be a deck over the water or set directly on a tropical beach.
11. The Water There Is Different
This is a big one that we didn't learn until we actually went to the Maldives and had a conversation about drinking water with the folks at Kandohlu Island. Most water you'll be drinking in the the Maldives will have been recycled, treated, and produced via reverse osmosis desalination. While this process makes the water totally fine and drinkable, it also takes out all the natural minerals from the H20, rendering it less beneficial. (For the record, Kandohlu remineralizes their water). Don't think it's a big deal? Read on.
12. There's No Such Thing As Gatorade
What happens when you are sitting on the beach for days and days, soaking in the island sun and sweating out those city toxins? You're also sweating out precious salts and minerals -- and since most of the water you'll find on the islands is demineralized -- you might not feel quite quenched; you may even feel a little sluggish after a few days. Unfortunately, rehydration and sports drinks are virtually impossible to find because "everyone here just drinks energy drinks", but if you are in a bind or prone to getting dehydrated easily, it may be worth picking up some rehydration salt packets at the main airport's pharmacy.
13. Some Items Are Banned from Entry
Again, because this is a strictly Muslim country, there are specific bans on some things you may bring into the Maldives. To avoid any hassle or confusion at the airport, leave the pork products, alcohol (even duty-free from a connecting stop), tobacco products without a health warning printed on them, and any religious texts (including the Bible) that may be construed outside of personal use -- at home.
14. Flights to Resort Islands May Double the Cost of Your Trip Transportation
Your flight from Male airport to your resort island may only be 15 minutes, but that doesn't mean it'll be cheap. We were surprised at the high cost of the short journeys. In many cases, return airfare on a seaplane can be upwards of $800 to $1000 USD per person. Depending on which country you call home, this could double your flight budget. But honestly, the once-in-a-lifetime views are worth every penny...almost.
15. There Are No Schedules for Seaplane Flights
Speaking of seaplane journeys, don't be surprised if you roll up at the Male airport seaplane terminal after a 12- or 22-hour flight only to wait for another four hours for your seaplane to take off. Why? Well, because of the way the flights work out and the daily change of pickups and drop-offs, there's no set schedule for seaplane flights. In fact, they only even get a general idea of flight routing the night before the flights themselves. Tip: This airport is really sparse, so those of you that snag hotels with airport lounges (we love the lounges for the W and Constance Moofushi) will be in the best position.
16. You've Got Some of the Best Odds in the World to See Large Marine Life Here
The Maldives have some of the best marine life viewing, both above and below the water. The South Ari Atoll is well-known for having a year-round population of whale sharks, making it one of the top spots to see them in the world. There's also a big chance you'll spot some active pods of dolphins around this area as well. In the North Male Atoll, there's a high concentration of Manta rays; it's sometimes possible to see them from the air as your seaplane glides past Manta Point. And for a real thrill, the Rasdhoo Atoll is one of the only places in the world that is able to boast Hammerhead shark dives! This is all in addition to the usual suspects of sea turtles, rays, colorful fish, and reef sharks that are commonly sighted along most resort house reefs.
17. You Can Actually Snorkel Underneath Some of the Islands
If diving with Hammerheads seems a bit too life-threatening (we don't blame you), there's another unique experience you can have underwater in the Maldives. It's rare, but unlike most islands that are "built" from the seafloor up, creating lots of layers of coral shelves to snorkel and dive down to, some Maldivian islands are actually concave. This means you can snorkel and dive underneath them, giving you a totally cool and absolutely unique point of view.