MALE, The Maldives - These may see more than 500,000 foreign visitors a year, but almost all of them overlook the capital Male, a dense grid of narrow bustling streets that covers the whole of one small island.
There is no room for the airport, which instead occupies all of an adjacent island shaped like an aircraft carrier, and at which most visitors make direct connections with seaplanes or speedboats and continue straight to a resort for a few days' roasting in reliable sunshine.
But joining local people for the brief crossing of a narrow stretch of water on a wallowing wooden ferry is one of the planet's more pleasant airport shuttle journeys, and this can be the start of a fully independent tour that includes both relaxation and real Maldivian life for a fraction of the cost of an all-inclusive resort package.
Male's streets are thronged with two-stroke traffic, and everything is within about 10 minutes' walk of everything else, although there are also taxis waiting to take you to guesthouse or hotel for around $2.
The key sights are the cavernous National Museum with its exhibition of archaeological bric-a-brac, piratical pistols and the former possessions of assorted Sultans. Nearby stands the 450-year-old Friday Mosque with its elegantly carved tombs, whose freestanding lighthouse-like minaret is the nation's most recognisable monument.
Time can be pleasantly whiled away at the Sea House cafe-restaurant above the main ferry terminal with views across the low-rise roofscape, tousle-headed palms, and brilliant tropical foliage. Here's where The Maldives' foreign diplomats, aid workers and airline staff - the only people able to find the access staircase tucked away at the rear - eye each other up over iced-coffee or watch assorted craft squeeze through the tiny harbour's narrow mouth just below.
In the afternoons an ancient wooden ferry, cheerfully painted in red, green, and yellow departs from another terminal on the opposite side of the island, shouldering its way between similar rocking vessels before increasing the engine note to a roar and sliding from turquoise shallows to sea of a deeper blue.
Families occupy wooden benches to either side while the centre is filled with cases of instant noodles (curry flavour), pineapple slices in light syrup, and deodorant, alongside a row of motorbikes. Narrow steps at the rear lead to the roof where groups of young men play cards or doze, and young women in pretty headscarves sit along the low guard rail, gossiping and texting, and paying no attention to the vessel's sole foreign passenger.
The sea is vast and glassy, the horizon occasionally pricked by the green lumps of distant islands. Sometimes the ferry passes peninsulas of thatched-roof huts projecting from some thousand-dollar-a-night resort, with bikini-clad holidaymakers seen downing multi-coloured drinks on verandahs with steps straight down into translucent shallows.
It's a different world from the ferry's destination of Maafushi, $3 and 90 minutes from Male, where women may only swim at the single small beach if they do so fully dressed, alcohol is forbidden, and imams offer amplified calls to prayer five times a day from 5.30 a.m. The island's main employers are the jail that occupies one tip of 1-km-long island, and the small fishing fleet that bobs in the tiny harbour.
But circumstances in the grid of sandy streets with their compounds cheerfully painted in mauve, pink, pale blue, lemon yellow or lime green, and drenched in gaudy Bougainvillea are set to change. Regulations now permit some of these residences to open as guesthouses for foreigners, and newer, purpose-built premises are also under construction. Rates range from around $60 to $120 including simple breakfast, for plain, tiled rooms with fierce air-conditioning and attached showers, but little if anything in the way of window so as to keep the midday heat at bay.
To stay on a typical resort island, formerly the only option, requires adding a zero to these figures. But many resorts, easily accessible by guesthouse speedboat, also offer day passes and together with drop-off and pick-up costs can still come to less than $30 - snorkel, mask and flippers thrown in.
Maafushi is the base from which to sample an assortment of different islands on successive days, including perhaps the top-end Anantara resort, whose day pass costs $100 although this is returned as a credit to be spent on resort services - perhaps enough for lunch and a drink.
But the various resort island specks all feature the same palm-fringed white sand, turquoise bathwater-warm waters, and coral reefs thick with rush-hour quantities of iridescent fish in Finding Nemo varieties. It's all exhaustingly beautiful wherever you are, and every photograph is perfect for envy-generating posts to social media.
En route there's the chance of spotting dolphins or flying fish. These slivers of silver erupt suddenly from the water in small shoals and instantly spread Spitfire-like wings to glide for long distances barely above the wavetips and disappear again just as unexpectedly.
And if the resort beaches seem too crowded, other options include a day marooned on an uninhabited "picnic island" or even tinier nameless sandbar with sun umbrella, snack, water, and nothing but yourself for company.
One nearby treeless oval is merely 171 paces long by 38 wide, and its only other inhabitants are two species of pointy beaked seabird, one white and one mostly black, the two groups apparently not on speaking terms with each other, although after a few hours you may begin to attempt conversation yourself.
Maafushi's minarets are visible in the distance, and speedboats may occasionally pass by, but the sense of Crusoe-like isolation is profound, and even Maafushi's minimal and mostly motorbike traffic seems briefly loud and intimidating on return.
Maafushi itself is perhaps at its best in the early morning, when the soft, horizontal light is perfect for photographing anglers hip-deep in the harbour, removing wriggling flashes of silver from their lines to deposit them through flaps cut in sides of bright orange jerry cans roped to their waists.
Around 6.30 a.m. smartly uniformed children begin padding softly past on their way to school, and men in a corner shops and cafes offer dignified greetings to the curious visitor. One offers Italy's Illy coffee although for now the reality is Nescafe instant.
But there are already signs of increasing sophistication in The Maldives nascent budget tourism industry, with ever more amusements on offer including night cruises to go fishing, trips to top diving reefs, half-day excursions to buzz several exclusive resorts by speedboat, and perfomances by local song and dance troupes in the evening.
Soon Maafushi's cafes may even have affordable Italian coffee.
IF YOU GO TO THE MALDIVES
The Maldives lie in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, and Europe has long been the largest source of visitors. Now Britons, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Singaporeans and Chinese are discovering the more affordable end of travel there.
Mega Maldives Airlines, the islands' new international carrier, flies from several Asian cities making The Maldives an affordable addition to a trip to Korea, China, Hong Kong, and soon Japan as well. Return fares for the six-hour flight from Hong Kong run from around $670 all inclusive. Book through local travel agencies or by calling Mega Maldives direct. See megamaldivesair.com for schedules and booking details.
Maafushi can also be reached directly from the airport by chartered speedboat, sparing one night in the capital, but this will typically cost $135 one-way, as opposed to $3 on the ferry (which does not run on Fridays). For around $80, Mal 's spotless, friendly and efficient family-run House Clover is an excellent choice for overnight. See www.houseclovermaldives.com.
Maafushi will have a total of 145 beds available by the end of this year. Other non-resort islands granted similar allocations will be looking to catch up, and until word spreads more widely amongst independent budget travellers there may even be some downwards pressure on prices. For now a single independent traveller may get away with spending as little $400 for five days/four nights including accommodation, all meals, excursions, and entrance fees, and a couple may pay well under twice that.