Stepping off the ferry on Villingili island at the end of my working day, feels like stepping into a postcard of what the congested Maldivian capital of Male’ once was. Villingili island, or Vilimale’ as it is officially known, is the 5th administrative ward of Male’. And it’s everything Male’ is not.
For a start, on Villingili the streets belong to pedestrians. That’s right, on Villingili island cars and motorised scooters are banned. There are just a couple of licensed taxis and utility vehicles and electronic buggies that come in handy when shlepping your lugguage or groceries to and from the ferry. Coming from Male where pedestrians don’t stand a chance, that’s pure luxury.
And there is remnant jungle here, large shade trees and coconut groves where local youth kick a ball in the afternoons when the sun looses its intensity.
It only takes 10 minutes to get to this satellite suburb of the capital on the slow wooden ferry, but it feels a world away from the concrete jungle of Male’.
Villingili island is also the only place in the capital where you will find natural beaches, complete with a house reef teaming with colourful fish. It’s the best spot in Male’ for snorkeling and training for your PADI certificate.
And what bliss to step into the turquoise waters at the end of the day and look across to the skyline of Male’.
“Nobody wants to live in Male’,” says a woman standing next to me in the water, fully clothed, flip flops, dress, buruqua and all, as is the tradition here.
I know. It didn’t take me long to decide that if I wanted to keep my sanity over the next 5 months, I needed to be based at a safe distance from the pollution and chaos of Male’. I am in the Maldives as an Australian Volunteer for International Development and having a home away from home is important to me. On Villingili island it doesn’t take long to become a local.
Having my bedroom face the island’s ‘recreation centre’ certainly helps to feel part of the community. The island’s playground and sports ground, a simple sandy pitch fringed by coconut palms, are right outside my window. And boy, are they popular, day and night. It comes with a resident handy man who mends and creates Maldivian chairs after hours in his spare times. Yes, it does get a little noisy on my new island home, but I wouldn’t trade it with Male’ if you paid me.
Because that’s the charm of Villingili. There may be some 12,000 people living here, but the island retains a relaxed village feel.
Public spaces are used as communal living rooms here. Much like it used to be in Male’ not even 25 years ago. My favourite is a group of recycled plastic chairs and sofa under the shade of a large banyan tree.
I also love the ubiquitous undhoni, the Maldivian swinging chair.
On weekends hordes of day trippers come from Male’ to relax and unwind on ‘picinic island’. Residential settlement began not even 20 years ago. Before then, Villingili was a tourist resort. When the resort fell into disuse in the 90ies, the island became the capital’s favourite weekend destination.
On Fridays, the day of the week when nobody works, Villingili comes alive with the smell of BBQs. Freshly caught fish or marinated chicken grilled on the embers of coconut shells, accompanied by sweet potatoes. It doesn’t take long before I get my first invitation.
Have I convinced you yet?
Well here’s the flipside. True paradise doesn’t exist. Not even in the Maldives. Until only a few decades ago, 95% of Villingili island was covered by jungle and the reef was a healthy coral garden. The development of Villingili island was begun under a huge master plan, that included jetties and a boat harbour. Inevitably, the island’s natural environment, including the reef, sustained damage in that process.
The shoreline on the eastern side near the ferry is lined by native vegetation. Amongst it you may spot the sign for the capital’s “Detoxification Centre.” On weekends you’ll see recovering drug users chatting to visiting family members across the fence. It’s a sad and unexpected reminder of a wide-spread social problem afflicting modern Maldives. But it’s not one tourists will generally hear about. Even amongst Maldivians it’s a taboo subject.
Next to the Detoxification centre are the dilapidated ruins of the resort. One of several eyesores that spoil this little sliver of paradise.
The other, you may have guessed it, is the garbage! Oh my God, don’t get me started. The local garbage dump is right on the shoreline and a popular fishing spot. Across from Villingili island, you can see Thilafushi, the island where Male’s garbage gets processed. On some days you can see a huge plume of smoke from the beach.
But there is hope. The small local NGO Savethebeachvillingili does address the issue at grass roots level albeit with modest results. Plastic just does not decompose in the way traditional containers made from palm leaves do. It would take a massive nation-wide campaign to get that message across. But that’s another story altogether.
Don’t let me spoil it for you.
Villingili really is a great alternative to Male’ if you have to spend a day or more in the capital. Rents are cheaper here. And you’ll get a taste of what life in Male’ was like before development spiraled out of control. There is a reason why Villingili is so popular with foreign visitors, expats and locals. Try it. Or at least come over for a swim and a snorkel!
You will find everything you need on Villingili. There are plenty of grocery shops and an ATM that takes foreign cards.
The ferry runs 24/7 and costs 3.25 Rufyiaa one way. During the day there are constant departures, except on Fridays when it stops for a couple of hours from 11 am for the midday prayers. Between midnight and dawn it runs hourly.
EATING on Villingili island:
Xie Xie near the ferry terminal is the best spot here or anywhere for views over the turquoise waters of the local swimming beach and the skyline of Male’. They serve all sorts of foods, but my favourite is the grilled reef fish with grilled vegetables.
Gooseberrys is an upstairs restaurant that catches the sea breeze. Coming from the ferry, it’s on the far side of the sandy soccer pitch. It may take a while for your food to arrive, but that’s ok because it means every dish has been freshly cooked from scratch.
Or do as the locals and take a picnic or have a BBQ.
Seahorse Top Deck Hotel is moments from he ferry and is very popular with tourists who have to spend a night in Male’ whilst they wait to connect to go to other islands.
Make sure you also check Airbnb as new places become available all the time.
SWIMMING AND OTHER WATER ACTIVITIES
The natural swimming beach right next to the fishing port is popular on weekends with water sport enthusiasts. There are jetskies, Stand up Paddle Boards, water skis and dive training courses in the shallow lagoon and along the house reef.
There are two dive centres on Villingili and they are very popular with locals and foreigners. You can do your PADI course here or join them on an open water dive. They also take snorkelers along for day trips.
I am doing my PADI course right now with Divers Lodge Maldives and I am loving it!
PLEASE BE AWARE: This is an inhabited island and the beaches are very busy with locals. The mosque is only meters from the beach and local custom of covering yourself when swimming must be observed.
My solution to this is to wear a loose rashie, also known as rash vest, essentially a t-shirt for swimming, and board shorts to the knee. It may not be the most flattering swimmwear, but it keeps everybody happy.
Villingili also gets the best sunset in Male’
When will you come and visit?
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