Watch: Diving in the Maldives

When most people think of the Maldives, they imagine over-water bungalows in the lap of luxury, with private ladders down to crystal-clear turquoise water, relaxing massages on an untouched white-sand beach, butler service, classy beach cocktails, and mouth-watering 5-star cuisine. This far-flung chain of islands sitting southeast of India is the epitome of romance, luxury, and indulgence — the ultimate honeymoon destination.

But that couldn’t be further from the experience that Michael and I had — in a good way.

When we traveled to the Maldives in June, we were nearing the end of our “funemployment” travels, checking off our 11th collective country in Asia. We could have stayed in a luxurious over-water bungalow, but then we wouldn’t have the money for our flight back to California! Instead, we booked a guesthouse on Huraa Island, a secret paradise in the Maldive’s north atoll. Although our accommodation was nowhere near the level of luxury of the nearby Four Seasons, we were so lucky to experience this local side of the Maldives and looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way!

Huraa island is a dot in the Indian Ocean, only half a mile long and less than a hundred feet wide. Beach cruisers and golf carts are the preferred method of transportation, given that the entire island is set in sand, surrounding colorful buildings reminiscent of a scaled-down Havana. With a population of just 750 people, the island is engulfed in a breezy, carefree attitude, fully embracing the slower side of life. We would often walk past a local lounging in a hammock, only to return hours later with him in the exact same spot!

A dream destination for those who crave quiet, Huraa was refreshingly placid, save for the loudspeaker prayers that came from the mosque five times a day. But the best part of all was the beach. It looks exactly like the photos — fine white sand surrounded by endless shades of blue.

The only thing is, you can’t exactly walk around Huraa Island in a bikini.

Maldives is the most Muslim country in the entire world – 100% of the population practices Islam – which means no alcohol and no revealing clothes. Our stay fell during Ramadan, so adhering to local customs was particularly important. Luckily, there was one “bikini beach” for tourists where we bronzed beneath coconut trees and snorkeled with baby black tip reef sharks. Because tourists tend to stay within the bounds of their resorts, we typically had this entire beach to ourselves.

During our trip, we spent two unforgettable days scuba diving, led by an awesome Maldivian guide who took us on the adventure of a lifetime, despite the fact that he was incredibly hungry due to Ramadan fasting! Diving in the Maldives definitely lives up to the hype. Not only is the visibility unreal, but the ecosystem is thriving, partly due to conservation efforts activated throughout the entire country — tourists are even required to pay a “Green Tax” for every day they stay. Five minutes into our first dive, we were surrounded by four or five gigantic manta rays! I’ve never seen these creatures in real life before and I felt like we were on another planet. We also explored coral beds so bright they looked like a cake dripping in neon frosting, and dove 80 feet down where we were surrounded by stingrays, eels, sea turtles, and tropical fish — we even saw a white tip shark from a distance.

While the diving was second to none, the best thing about Huraa Island for Michael was the surf. Our guest house came with unlimited use of a small surf boat; all we had to do was tell the driver when and where to take us, which was usually the offshore right-handers of Sultans or Jailbreaks.

While Michael got barreled in glassy, head-high waves, the boat driver would take me looking for my favorite animal — dolphins. We never had to go far because they were literally everywhere, which brings me to the story of how we got engaged!

On June 8th — World Oceans Day — we booked a sunset “dolphin safari”, which really is as fun as it sounds. It was just the two of us on a small speedboat, while a driver took us to a place where he swore, in broken English, that dolphins “have a party” every night. He wasn’t kidding. We were surrounded by tens, if not hundreds of dolphins, all happily riding our wake and jumping out of the water. We were watching the dolphins from the bow of the boat, when I realized Michael had a cube-shaped item in his pocket. I knew exactly what it was, and it was at that exact moment that he got down on one knee. Although I don’t need a ring or a piece of paper to validate my love and commitment to Michael, this was by far the happiest moment of my entire life. Shout out to Michael for executing it all perfectly.

Between the beautiful beaches, diving, surfing, and a proposal, it’s easy to see why Huraa Island will always have a special place in my heart. But besides that, my favorite part was after the sun went down, when there wasn’t much to do except chat with locals outside the ice cream shop. I loved hearing their stories and picking their brains about life on such a tiny island, a world away from my own. Because it was Ramadan, we had a lot of conversations about their personal beliefs related to Islam, which they shared openly and honestly. While we may have had a more luxurious experience if we stayed at a 5-star resort, we definitely would not have gained the knowledge and insight that comes from authentic exposure to other cultures — my reason for traveling.