Review — Since the first guesthouse opened its doors on Maafushi Island close to Malé in 2010, you can now have a tropical budget holiday on a local island in just about every one of the 26 atolls across the Maldivian archipelago. But getting to the remoter atolls involves costly transfers by speedboat and/or domestic plane and you might wonder whether it’s worth the extra expense.
If you want to experience the real Maldives, if you want empty beaches and authentic experiences, the answer is yes, and yes!
Holiday Home Kelaa in far-flung Haa Alifu Atoll makes visits to the Maldives’ remote far north affordable, by arranging discounted domestic air transfers for its guests.
Wheeling our bags from the quiet and modern arrival hall of Hanimadhoo airport to a wooden pier beyond which stretches a turquoise lagoon as far as the eye can see, we feel as if we have stepped into a Photoshopped brochure of an undiscovered tropical paradise few foreigners have come to visit. A speedboat, aptly named Gaze, whisks us to Kelaa Island, and we gaze in silence for 35 minutes at the incredible colour spectrum.
Holiday Home Kelaa guesthouse manager Morsz, who has come to welcome us, apologises for not having been able to meet us at the airport. There really was no need we say, but it is reassuring to be in the hands of such an enthusiastic and caring manager who makes us feel instantly as if we are part of the family, and indeed of the wider island community.
We have arrived just in time for the annual Eid al-Adha holiday that celebrates the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “It’s a bit like Christmas in your country,” says one man who hasn’t been back to his local island in eight years. “It’s when we get together to visit family and childhood friends to celebrate, relax and eat lots of good food.”
Kelaa is this year’s official Eid island and Holiday Home Kelaa is hosting Vice President Adheeb and his entourage. For us, that means spending the first night of our holiday in the vacant home of a local family who, like so many, no longer live on the island. It adds to the sense of this being a trail blazing adventure into the real Maldives.
For the next three days we are the only white foreigners on Kelaa and the welcoming locals show us a form of genuine hospitality that I have rarely experienced. Before we can even put our bags down, we are invited to our neighbor’s house for sweet black tea and traditional bondibai, followed by an invitation to the home of Nasiya, the cook of Holiday Home Kelaa, for a late morning breakfast of rosewater flavored sweet bokiba and savoury bokiba of grated coconut and tuna.
For the next four days it’s party time on Kelaa. Photographers and cameramen have come from the capital Malé to live broadcast the colourful display of traditional dances, Bodhuberu drumming and energetic Bollywood performances by the local youth group Temperature and cover tunes by the 9-piece band The Olympians from Male’.
The highlights are a waterfight between young and old kids armed with huge fluorescent waterguns and the traditional Kadhamaali parade, of males of all ages dressed up in costumes to represent maali, evil spirits and ghosts, banging on drums and kadhaa (a copper instrument). It’s a bit like Halloween in the tropics.
Once the holidays are over, the island quickly empties, as people return to their jobs in the capital and in the many resorts across the archipelago, and we fall into the daily rhythm of island life and the laid-back pace of Holiday Home Kelaa.
Our spacious room with ensuite is part of a freestanding, self-contained, two-bedroom house that is popular with families; we are lucky and have it to ourselves. It sits on the far side of the large and shady yard that serves as a giant sand-floored outdoor living room. Back and front seating areas mean we almost forget to go to the beach, spending lazy mornings between the shaded privacy of the traditional undhoalige – a thatch covered wooden hut with a bed-sized swing, that used to afford ventilation in pre-a/c days – the hammock and traditional jolie [confirm spelling] chairs in the courtyard.
In addition, there are two adjacent double deluxe rooms with private porches and a shared private courtyard. The up-stairs deluxe suite with its private balcony is the jewel in the crown of Holiday Home Kelaa and becomes the honeymoon ‘penthouse’ of a Spanish-Italian couple and their adorable toddler Ambra, who instantly takes our place as the foreign attraction on the island.
The honeymooners say that they have chosen to ad a domestic flight to their international flight for the privilege of spending their honeymoon on an empty and endless paper white sand beach in an authentic setting. The fact that it will be an alcohol-free honeymoon, does not worry them.
You have chosen well, we say, pointing at the large and shallow lagoon, which is ideal for their toddler and spectacular for romantic sunset watching. The long wide beach, offers several separate patches of ‘bikini beach’, all discreetly hidden amongst shiny lime green shrubbery, complete with deckchairs and beach umbrellas. It makes us all feel as if we are alone on the beach; and as if we are all on honeymoon.
I am surprised to discover that there is plenty to do and see on Kelaa after the excitement of the Eid holidays has finished. Exploring the wide lagoon in one of the guesthouse’s kayaks ensures we work off some of the Eid treats we’ve indulged in. At night we try our hand at billiard, table football and darts, none of which I am good at, but it’s fun all the same. Morsz, ever the enthusiastic host, takes us on a snorkeling trip and when we pass on the sunset fishing trip – we are simply too chilled to move – he finds a freshly caught fish all the same and together we prepare a traditional BBQ over coconut shells.
On bicycles we explore shady coconut groves, ride through fields of watermelons, pumpkin and eggplant and find our way to a mangrove swamp. At night we sit with Morsz and two of his friends on the beach under a sky full of stars, chewing areca nuts and chatting about the differences of our lives. We continue our chat the next day during a spontaneous excursion by boat to Utheemo Island to visit one of the country’s few ancient monuments, the palace of the national hero, Al-Sultan Ghazi Muhammad Bodu Thakurufaanu, who liberated the Maldives Islands from the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century.
We feel so relaxed and at home, we extend our stay and return to Malé on the weekly supply boat that also serves as a weekly passenger ferry. The Arafa Express is cheap and cheerful and as quintessentially Maldivian as it gets. The 18-hour trip across a handful of atolls on a calm ocean, amongst friendly locals many of whom recognize us, is the final highlight of one of the most memorable holidays I can remember.