Before you head back home after an epic time at the Conrad Maldives, there's one thing that the resort can do for you as a send off and this is to hook you up with a local guide to give you a tour of the city island of Malé.
Before I delve into how the tour went, it'll be cool to go through a little bit about Malé except I'll expend with the boring Wikipedia facts and go for some fun facts instead.
- One of the smallest capitals in the world
- 75,000 people live on the tiny island of Malé which is 1/3 of the entire population of the Maldives
- Covers only 2 square kilometers
- The drive around the outer ring is only 4 kilometers around
- The main industry is of course fishing
- Follows the British education system and has a stunning 98% literacy
- Every element in the Maldives flag is symbolic – the crescent moon stands for Islam, the green section represents palm trees, and the red background symbolizes the blood shed by Maldivian heroes
- The country is 100% Muslim, it's pretty much stated in the constitution
- As a Muslim country, the weekends are on Friday and Saturday
- Also as a Muslim country, no alcohol is served outside of resorts
- In accordance to Islamic law, any man can have up to four wives
The Malé tour is completely free from the Conrad Maldives but it's not actively advertised. All you have to do is let your island host know on the day you're checking out and they'll get it organized. That's exactly what we did but beyond that, I had no idea how it was going to go down which is why I hope to put some clarity around how the tour works. For us, we were taking Singapore Airlines flight SQ451 which leaves at 11:25PM and since seaplanes don't fly past sunset, we were put on a 3:30PM flight from the Conrad Maldives. After arriving at the seaplane airport, I don't think we got to the international airport area until 4:30PM. Once we got off the bus, a Conrad Rep with clipboard started directing people to different areas and after everyone had gone into the airport, we were the only ones left (I would like to think smart enough to ask for a Male Tour). He looked up and asked if were part of the Tang group. I nodded and he pointed at a group of dudes just kind of hanging out. At first I was puzzled but then I realized that one of the guys in that group would be our guide for the day. A short Maldivian man stepped up and bigger guy, exchanged some words with the Conrad rep and then approached us. I think what took me off guard was that I guess in my head I was thinking we'd get an official person to take me around, but then I realized that this made a lot of sense. My guess is that Conrad has a bunch of freelance tour guides that they keep in their book and frequently refer guests to them for free. It's a win-win on both sides because Conrad Maldives can offer something for free to guests while at the same time the freelance guide gets a new client that will end up paying him in tips. More on the tips later. I also felt a little bit uneasy about the situation because it did feel like Conrad was handing us over to a non-resort person but having gone through it all, I'd still recommend it. Our guide introduces himself as “Dean” and the bigger guy just asked to take our luggage so he could put it with the storage place for $5 each. Dean then asked us what we wanted to do. I didn't have much planned other than what I had read from other folks so I said we wanted to see a bit of the city and have some authentic Maldivian foods. From the airport, we walked over to the ferry terminal. The area felt a little sketchy but with Dean, he handled the the tickets ($1 per person) and in no time we were on the 10 minute boat ride to take us over to Malé.
When we saw the city from above, it looked like a crazy crammed city of mid-rises from edge to edge but once we started walking around, it certainly didn't feel as packed as I had originally thought. Nevertheless though, it's incredible that they built a completely urbanized city in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I soon felt better about having Dean around because after a few left and right turns, I was completely lost. We also passed through several narrow alleyways but having him around put us at ease. Throughout the way, he was able to explain the history of the country, the city, politics, education, religion and just about every other question we threw at him. I wish I could recount a lot of what he told us but you'll just have to get on the tour yourself ;)
Somewhere in between, Dean brought us to a souvenir shop which he clearly had connections with but we were totally cool with that. We took a look around and ended up picking up a magnet. Now the disappointing part. After a nice round about tour of the key sites of the island and a nice stop at a local market where a few vendors were kind enough to let us try a few things, we were then brought to our restaurant. The hand-off was a bit awkward because we weren't really sure what was about to happen. The restaurant he brought us to was called Baywatch and immediately after walking in the door, I realized that this was a complete tourist trap. All the other people eating were all tourists without a single local in sight. Dean came in with us and made sure everything was okay but this only served to confuse us because we weren't sure if we were supposed to pay for his meal or how all that worked. Ultimately this is how it went down. We reviewed the menu which was completely overpriced and on par with the Conrad resort prices. We put an order in for some curry and fish instead of the uber seafood menu item that they tried to push on us (>$100) and once that was done, Dean said he'd be back after we finished. The food we had were both quite awful and unmemorable so understandably we weren't too happy coming out of the restaurant. I will say though that the restaurant was well kept and clean so it at least had that going for it.
We voiced our displeasure with Dean but explained that as a guide, he has to take tourists to specific restaurants around the city because there was one incident a few years ago where a tourist ate a local restaurant and had really bad diarrhea and missed their flight. After that, the government mandated that guides only used approved spots. That made sense and I could understand that so I suppose one way or another we would've been eating at a some some overpriced restaurant. At the same time though I'm sure he had some sort of kickback for taking us there. After dinner, we checked out a few remaining spots before taking the ferry back. We got back to the airport island at approximately 8PM. Now the last thing we had to secretly communicate with each other on was tipping. We really had no idea what the going rate was and even at the restaurant we consulted with this other tourist couple on how much they were going to be giving their guide. We ended up deciding on $30+$10 for luggage storage between the two of us. We walked back to the airport terminal and met up with the bigger guy who promptly went to grab our luggage. After that, we said our goodbyes and we went off to check-in with Singapore Airlines.
Tips & tricks
- Book your guide the day before or day of with your island host
- Remember to carry some extra USD cash on you for tour guide tips
- I would recommend researching a restaurant beforehand so you don't get pushed to an overpriced one
- Now you know the tip benchmark is around $30 so adjust accordingly based on the service of your guide
- Would I attempt to explore Malé on my own? Probably not. Not that it's not safe but the city is a labyrinth of streets and to be able navigate around to see all the spots Dean was able to take us to would've been way more work than $30 we spent.
The Malé city tour was a great way to do some additional sight seeing outside of your own resort and to get a better appreciation for what local life is like. Dean was a great guide in terms of being highly informative, professional. Safety was a non-issue throughout even though it might feel sketchy at certain points. For $30 it's totally worth it and if you're taking a late flight out, why not take advantage? It's way better than sitting around at the gate for hours with the hundreds of other people waiting to get on their flight home.d
Check out the prices for the Conrad Maldives for when you want to go.