I’d been in the Maldives for two weeks. I’d fallen in love with beautiful Maafushi and quiet Fulidhoo and it was time to visit my final local island. Like with the previous two islands, I didn’t know what to expect from Guraidhoo — all I knew was that it was a surfing hotspot.
Maafushi was one of the most touristy islands in the Maldives for independent travellers and Fulidhoo had no other tourists. A hippie surf-haven sounded like a fun way to end our time in the country.
Our arrival in Guraidhoo didn’t leave me with a great first impression. There were no beaches, no turquoise water and no white sand. The ferry terminal was noisy, full of construction workers and scaffolding-covered buildings. I plastered a smile over my grimace and leapt off the ferry, eager to meet our guesthouse owner.
“That’s weird,” I mumbled to Dave a few seconds later. “He said he’d meet us from the ferry. Should we wait?” There was nobody meeting people from the boat and the passengers had quickly dispersed. We were the only people who weren’t building, uh, buildings.
He shrugged. “I dunno. You spoke to him.”
“Yeah. He said he’d meet us here.”
Fortunately, like every island in the Maldives, Guraidhoo was small and walkable. If the guesthouse owner had forgotten about us, we’d easily find our way. I dropped my bags on the concrete and sat on my backpack with a sigh. It had been a long day: A two hour ferry from Fulidhoo, six hours of waiting around in Maafushi, and an hour-long ferry to Guraidhoo. I was drugged up on motion sickness pills and sweating under the late-afternoon sun.
“Shall we just go find it ourselves?” I asked, desperate for a nap.
Dave looked up from his phone. “Yeah. It’s marked on this map as being 200 metres away.”
I pulled my backpack on and walked along the sandy path. It was a hot day — close to 40 degrees — and I was burning up. As a sign of respect, I’d tried to cover up as much as possible, but because of my limited wardrobe, that meant wearing jeans, socks, sneakers, a t-shirt, a hoodie, and a shawl. All of which were now drenched.
My skipping turned to trudging as I followed Dave around a corner and onto a stony beach. Pink Floyd’s Us and Them blasted out from a nearby home and lyrics from a Bob Marley song were scrawled across the nearest wall. I stared at the ocean, waiting for our guesthouse to materialise. “So my phone marks the guesthouse as being here,” he said.
“On the beach?”
“No. Next to the beach.”
“Well it’s not here.”
“I know that.”
“What’s the name of it?”
“Didn’t you book it?”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember the name.”
“How can you not remember?”
“Because I’m an idiot, clearly.” I rolled my eyes. “Just tell me the name. Please?”
“Okie doke, lemme find it.” I swung my backpack to his feet and set off along the beach, peering in every doorway to try and find Coral Heaven. I let myself walk 100 metres before my confidence faded. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so optimistic about the the map’s accuracy, given that it only marked three places on the island.
“Nothing,” I sighed, returning to Dave.
I felt like crying when I saw him tighten the straps of his backpack and start back the way we’d come. “It can’t be hard to find,” he called out as I stumbled after him.
“This is ridiculous,” I moaned, one hour later. “This guesthouse does not exist!” I was in desperate need of a glass of water and my shoulders were raw from carrying my backpack from door to door. It was starting to get dark and I was exhausted, frustrated and in pain. Dave focused straight ahead as we walked down the main road for the twentieth time that day. “Seriously, Dave. Shall we just find somewhere else?”
We passed a couple sitting in chairs outside their house and the man stood up to greet us. “Good day!” He called. “Can I help you? You have been walking on our island for many hours!”
“Coral. Heaven?” I panted, receiving little more than a frown in response.
Dave ambled up beside me and held out his hand. “Hi! We’re looking for a guesthouse called Coral Heaven. Do you happen to know where it is?”
“Coral Heaven. Hmmm.” He clicked his tongue and looked up and down the path. “Yes. Two minutes. Please sit.” He pulled out his phone and we eased ourselves into the seats next to his wife. She smiled and I attempted to smile back, concerned that my wild hair, lobster red skin and teary eyes made me look like I belonged in the jail on Maafushi.
“He is here,” my hero announced a few minutes later, putting his phone in his pocket and pointing towards a young guy walking towards us. “He can take you to Coral Heaven.”
“Thank. You. So. Much.”
“You have reservation?” The young guy asked, leading us down a path we’d walked a dozen times before.
“Yep,” I said.
I looked at Dave but he wasn’t looking at me. What if there wasn’t a room for us after all this walking around? I tried to telepathically pass on my fears to him so we could prepare.
We turned onto probably the only alleyway we hadn’t walked along on the island and through a gate with Coral Heaven painted above it in large, bright letters.
“Hello!” An older man wandered out of the guesthouse and grinned at us as we walked through the doorway.
“Hello!” I replied with more enthusiasm than I felt.
“I am afraid that the person who runs the bookings did not tell us that you were going to be here. You will wait one hour while we clean your room?”
It had been a frustrating start to our time in Guraidhoo.
The following morning, I was greeted with a solemn meal. I’d fallen in love with Maldivian breakfasts over the couple of weeks we’d been in the country, and eating them at guesthouses was one of my highlights of my day. While the other guests at the table tucked into their glorious plate of shredded fish, garlic and lime, we were given a “continental breakfast”: Slices of bread so sweet they tasted like cake, an overcooked egg and a soggy hot dog. I gazed at the other guests’ plates and considered stealing their leftovers when they returned to their room.
“From now on,” Dave asked, as they collected our half-eaten breakfasts later on, “can we have a Maldivian breakfast every morning?”
Guraidhoo was disappointing. I didn’t fall in love.
Dave and I circled the island after breakfast, searching for a beach to spend our day on. Unlike in Maafushi and Fulidhoo, there wasn’t a stretch of sand reserved for tourists, and the beaches weren’t very exciting. I wasn’t expecting them to be paradise-like after reading that Guraidhoo was a surf, rather than a beach, destination, but it was a little disappointing.
I also wasn’t expecting the surf to be several hundred metres from shore.
So that was a bit strange.
The beach wasn’t great for sunbathing (especially as I had to do so wearing board shorts and a t-shirt) and the water was a bit murky, so I spent much of my time reading in the shade. I didn’t hate Guraidhoo but I sort of wished I was in Maafushi or Fulidhoo instead.
It was time to cheer myself up!
Guraidhoo is near a place called Manta Point, famed for attracting bajillions of manta rays. I’d failed at spotting them in Fulidhoo but taking a trip to Manta Point sounded like it would lead to success. Would a snorkeling trip to Manta Point end up saving my opinion of Guraidhoo? I booked myself on one to find out.
On the morning of our manta ray hunt, we were faced with another continental breakfast, and once more we asked for a Maldivian breakfast in the future. I’m not often fussy about guesthouse breakfasts but we were paying $5 a day for them and the Western ones were gross. Has anyone ever had a good continental breakfast at a guesthouse in Asia?
“It is not good weather today,” our guide told us, five minutes into our snorkel trip. “We will not see manta rays probably, but we will take you to good reefs. The best reefs are far away and petrol is expensive. To see the best reefs we will charge you $50 per person. Extra $20 each.”
I gritted my teeth and mentally composed an angry Facebook status. I wasn’t a big fan of snorkeling and was going on this trip solely because I wanted to see manta rays — not because I wanted to snorkel. Just like the $5 breakfasts, we were going to be paying for something we didn’t want.
Damn, I was being grumpy and ungrateful.
I forced a smile to my face and delved into the bag we were handed, choosing a mask and pulling out some fins to try on.
“You can’t wear those,” Dave said as I slid them over my feet. “There’s so much space!” He ran his fingers around the edge. “They’ll just end up hurting you.”
I shrugged. “These are the smallest ones.”
Don’t be grumpy. I warned myself. You’re in paradise. Enjoy the experience. Be grateful. Wear those goddamn fins.
The driver cut the engine and we drifted over the turquoise water in silence. I watched our guide slip into the water and Dave do the same. I crossed my fingers and followed after them, praying that I wouldn’t be attacked by an octopus.
I bobbed in the ocean, my feet flapping uselessly in my fins. “You ready?” Our guide called out to us before diving underwater and out of sight. In a hurry, I snapped my mask down over my face, shoved the snorkel in my mouth and threw myself face down into the water. I flailed my arms in an attempt to force myself forward, each frantic gasp taking in more seawater than oxygen. I thrashed in the water, gulping down water and retching as I began to run out of air.
Full of alarm, I flipped myself back upright and ripped off my mask, gagging and willing myself not to throw up. I didn’t want to attract a killer octopus with my continental vomit. My eyes were sore and streaming, my hair was stuck to my face, I had snot plastered over my cheeks and I was dribbling down my chin. I felt like Neptune, emerging from the watery depths. That is, if Neptune was known for wailing while drenched in bodily fluids. And was a girl.
Snorkeling. I love it.
It was time for another go. With Dave and our guide disappearing into the distance, I ducked my head underwater and cleaned myself off. I carefully pulled my mask back over my face and tugged on the straps, making sure it was watertight. I shook the water out of my snorkel and placed it back in my mouth. I propelled myself forwards. Gently. Gingerly.
I took a deep breath and forced my face into the water, my eyes widening when I saw what was living just a few metres below. Coral of every colour of the rainbow, shimmering under the midday sun. A bright blue fish flitted past my mask, and a pink and yellow one swam alongside me.
I looked ahead to see where Dave was and kicked my way over to him. Touching his side to let him know I was there, I followed his gaze and spotted a sea turtle snapping at the yellow coral, directly below us. I watched in awe as it abandoned the seabed and swam towards us. It flapped its arms as if it were flying and rose up in front of us, now within touching distance. It reached the surface, opened its mouth, took a breath and returned to the coral for a snack.
“Mmmmhmmmgaaaaammmabalooooooommmmmahhhhaaaaaabaaaaaagaaaaahhhh!” I gargled through my snorkel in excitement.
From that moment on, Guraidhoo had redeemed itself. Upon returning to dry land, buzzing after discovering a beautiful world under the sea, everything had changed. Our guesthouse was a little shinier, the sand a little softer, the water a little clearer, the breakfasts a little… uh, maybe not. I was just starting to think that Guraidhoo wasn’t so bad after all.
And then we were scammed by our guesthouse owner.
It was the night before we were due to leave and we were woken in the middle of the night by shouting. The group of friends who were staying in the room along from ours were screaming at the guesthouse owner. I strained my ears and managed to make out that the owner had quoted them a price for a day trip to a nearby island and, upon returning from the trip, was now quoting them double. I rolled my eyes and pulled my pillow over my head, waiting for the arguing to stop.
People really need to make sure of the price of activities before they agree to them, I thought. Translation issues are common and you need to make sure you’re clear on the price. Dave and I had just returned from a trip to Olhuveli Island and we’d made absolutely certain of the price before booking. We’d said, “So, that’s $80 total for a return trip? $40 return for each person? So, $20 per person each way?” And we’d asked three different staff members those same questions. We’d been caught out with so-called translation problems in the past and are always careful to clarify with multiple people now.
But it turns out that the people staying next door were right, and the owner was a horrible person. When it came time for us to pay our bill, there was a surprise $160 scrawled down on a piece of paper.
We had been so freaking careful that there was no way this was a translation issue.
We were also down to our last $100. We couldn’t afford to pay, and we needed to keep some of that $100 to get us back to Male.
I sat in a chair and trembled with rage as I listened to Dave arguing with the owner over the phone.
“No. There is no way we would have agreed to this! We told you how much money we have left — you knew we only had $100 left so why on earth would we agree to pay more than that? No– no! Listen to me. We asked you– we asked three of your staff for the price and you all confirmed it was $20 per person each way. You even quote that as being the price online! You cannot get away with just doubling the price because you feel like it. You did it with the people who stayed last night and now you’re doing it to us! Is this really how you run your business? You’re really going to try and charge us $160 for a 12 kilometre round trip?”
The staff members gathered around and nodded in agreement. We’d spoken with all of them about the price before leaving and they knew we were being scammed.
“Right,” Dave continued. “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. We’re going to pay the $80 we agreed to pay for the trip– let me finish! And then I’m going to pay you $30 extra from my emergency supply of cash.”
“No!” I whispered, annoyed he was giving in to him.
Dave shrugged and hung up the phone, putting it down on the table.
“Sir, we are very sorry,” said one of the staff members.
“It’s okay,” Dave replied. “It’s not your fault.” And it’s true. The staff at the guesthouse were absolutely lovely. The owner was an asshole. We returned to our room and packed our bags. I was fuming. My body can never handle surges of adrenaline very well.
It was our final day in the Maldives. It was the final day of one of the best trips I had and I was leaving with a sour taste in my mouth.
“Fuck this guy,” I groaned between deep breaths.
There was a knock at the door.
“Sir, I am sorry,” the staff member shifted from one foot to the other. “My boss. He wants all of the money. He wants $160.”
“I don’t have $160,” Dave replied. “And you know we agreed on $80.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. It is my boss.”
I watched Dave walk over to his backpack and reach into his emergency stash. He pulled out another $10. “This is all I have left.”
It was time to leave the Maldives.
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