Maafushi Island: A Few Days in Paradise

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Can we all just agree that this winter has been absolute shit? Cold, miserable, and full of vomit-worthy headlines.  I knew early on that I needed to feel far away from everything on this vacation.

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The Maldives had been on my radar for a few years, having seen a slew of impossibly beautiful photos from all over the internet.  When I did my usual Skyscanner search for flights, I decided to turn a blind eye to Europe and really seek out Asia for the first time. As fate would have it, the cheapest flights into Asia from Istanbul were to Male.  A few days on the beach with my love, sans stress and schedules (and with an extra dose of sunshine) sounded perfect to me.

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We landed in Male early in the morning, greeted by the sight of sparkling turquoise waters that were somehow ten different shades of blue at the same time.  We decided to head to one of the closest islands – Maafushi- to make the most of our limited time there.  It was only a 30 minute journey by speedboat and we enjoyed every second of the warm weather and sea breeze.

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An employee from our hotel was waiting by the docks to greet us and then walk us over to where we would be staying for the next few days.  As soon as we set down our bags, he rushed to the kitchen and came back clutching two glasses of fresh mango juice.  We knew right then that we’d made the right choice.  We spent our first day getting to know the island (you can walk from end to end in about 10 minutes), playing in the sand, and consuming papaya milkshakes.

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Day two was beach day (actually, every day was beach day…but especially day two).  After a fabulous breakfast of pineapple juice next to the Indian Ocean, we walked over to the bikini beach for a morning of swimming in the most beautiful water I have ever seen in my life.  This was also the day that I got the most epic sunburn I have ever had in my life, despite liberally applying sunscreen all over my entire body three times.  That equatorial sun is no joke.  After a few hours, we headed back to our hotel so I could nurse my wounds and only reemerged after the sun had set to spy on baby sharks and sting rays by torchlight.

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Day three was the indisputable highlight:  the snorkeling tour.  Keep in mind that my husband and I are certified land creatures, born and raised in the landlocked Land of Oz…this was a big deal!  Neither of us had ever been on a proper water tour and we were super stoked to see the coral reefs and some tropical creatures.

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

The tour did not disappoint in the slightest.  After a breezy ride on a speedboat to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we jumped into the mouthwash-colored water (I’m not kidding) to see what we could see.  At the first point, we saw several large mantas.  I wanted so badly to swim down and touch one, but I couldn’t hold my breath long enough; I guess I need to take some diving lessons.  At the second point, we saw turtles, eels, more sting rays, and all kinds of incredible tropical fish…it was hard to breathe, and not because I was underwater.  Point number three was the fish feeding and my personal favorite.  It was so fun to toss the crumbs into the water and see all the fish suddenly swarming around me!

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

After the snorkeling, they took us out to a sand bank for a picnic lunch of tuna fried rice and oranges.  The views were truly surreal.

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When it was time for us to go on day four, we packed our bags with heavy hearts.  We were excited for our next destination, but also sad to leave the beautiful island behind.

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In his natural state

Some things to know about the Maldives:

  1. It is a conservative Muslim country.  Most of the islands do not allow alcohol (outside of the super expensive private resorts) and many of the beaches do not allow men or women to enter without at least a t-shirt and shorts.  If you want to go to the beach to party, this is not the place.  Personally, I kind of appreciated being able to enjoy the beach without a bunch of obnoxious drunk people around.  It was not terribly crowded and very relaxing.
  2. Despite its reputation for being super expensive, it can be done on a budget.  If you stay away from the pricey luxury resorts, you can find good accommodation (even right on the beach!) for $30-40 a night.  Food is not very expensive and some of the tours are as low as $10 and are well worth what they cost.
  3. It is extremely safe and friendly.  It seemed like everyone was ready to greet us with a smile!  One of the most eye-opening moments of the trip was when we were on the ferry to head back to the airport and the captain noticed a stray swimmer struggling in a current  well past the swimming area.  He turned the boat around and saved her and then took her back to shore.  Needless to say, my faith in humanity was temporarily restored.

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I can fully recommend the Maldives as a fantastic beach destination.  Despite its recent notoriety, it is much less touristy than I was expecting (even in high season) and comes with a much different flavor than a lot of other islands.  Both of us fell head over heels with this tiny island nation and have already daydreamed about going back someday.  At least now I have some photos of that beautiful blue water to help me escape on difficult days.

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Free

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I know a lot of people who are afraid to fly, thoroughly convinced that to set foot on a plane is to willingly sever one’s Earthly bonds.

Once in a blue moon, I suppose that’s true.

But even so, I couldn’t imagine a better way to go out – above it all, weightless and free.

2016

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

What an incredible year I’ve had!  Looking back at each month made me realize how unbelievable it’s all been.  It also made me realize how quickly time is going by.  How has it already been another year?  How?

Here’s to hoping for an amazing 2017 for us all!

A Georgian Christmas

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We had a few days off for Christmas this year and decided to spend them in Georgia, a tiny country neighboring Turkey to the Northeast.  We had been meaning to visit for the longest time and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity.

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One interesting thing about Georgia is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian.  It kind of made it the perfect destination since the city was filled with the anticipation of Christmas, but everything was still open since it wasn’t officially the holiday yet for them.

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We knew we’d made the right choice as soon as we marched up to Passport Control AND WERE EACH HANDED FREE BOTTLES OF WINE.  No, I am not kidding.  What a welcome.  We were also struck by all of the beautiful Christmas lights throughout the city.

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Tbilisi is a remarkably eclectic city that is constantly juxtaposing the old with the new. Modernity effortlessly mingles with ancient traditions, something that can’t be said for many places.  There is an air of seediness as the streets are filled with beggars, casinos, and strip clubs, but there is also an air of welcome and safety.  The people are very friendly and happy to help strangers.  People look out for each other.

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I was totally charmed by this mysterious city and determined to learn more.  I signed up for the Free Walking Tour and it did not disappoint!  Nothing beats walking around the city for a few hours with a local, learning about history, culture, and all the best places to eat.  It is a must for anyone visiting the city.

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One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was going inside an Orthodox church.  Instead of the rows of seats and stained glass windows, there is almost no lighting and absolutely no seating.  The walls are painted with religious scenes and dimly lit by candlelight.

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The country is one of the most religious in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as believers according to our guide.  It’s an interesting statistic when you consider that the country was once part of the Soviet Union, which banned religion entirely.  Tbilisi was very fortunate, however, that when the Soviets took power, none of their churches were destroyed, which was not always the case.  Instead, they were preserved and put to use as storage buildings until the USSR collapsed in 1991.

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I was also stunned by our next stop, the beautiful Peace Bridge, which represents the peaceful connection between the past and the future.  It serves a symbol of hope for people that have endured a lot of war.

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Once across the bridge, you can take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress, which offers stunning views of the old part of the city.

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At the top of the fortress stands Kartlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia, watching over the city.  In one hand she holds a glass of wine; in the other, she holds a sword.  This is meant as both an invitation to strangers who come in peace and a warning for their enemies.
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Fun fact:  there are absolutely no guards or safety regulations at the fortress, so you can climb all the way up to the top at your own peril!

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The bent Georgian cross, representing Saint Nino

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One of our final stops on the tour took us back down and through the historic district to a hidden waterfall, which is often frozen in winter!

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In addition to a fascinating history and culture, Georgia is also home to some spectacular food and wine.  After trying it, I really don’t know why it isn’t a bigger speck on the foodie radar.  Everything I ate there was delicious, from spicy herbed potatoes to a variety of savory breads and pastries.  My personal favorite was a dish called khinkali, which consisted of big, delicious dumplings with various soupy fillings.  They were seriously incredible.  I need the recipe ASAP.

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Now about the wine.  I don’t even know if I can properly describe it.  Georgia has a vibrant wine culture that has been around for centuries, as the region is abundant with grapes. Interestingly, the Georgians have their own method for making wine, which is quite different than that of the Europeans.  The grapes are put in a giant clay pot, buried underground, and then fermented and filtered.

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It’s sweet, smooth, cheap, delicious, and EVERYWHERE.  Nearly every Georgian has their own family wine recipe and makes it themselves.  Needless to say, we got to sample several varieties and tried to take advantage of the good prices and generous baggage allowance we had (thanks, Turkish Airlines!).

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Even Wendy’s sells wine in Georgia.  Also, Bailey’s Frosties.

Even as I’m sitting back home writing this, I can’t fully wrap my head around Georgia.  It’s so curious, confusing, and alluring all at the same time.  As is often the case when I’m traveling these days, I feel the need to go back to get a better feel for the place.  I would love to see more of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian countryside.  Perhaps in warmer weather.

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If nothing else, I hope I can give a voice to this overlooked little country.  It’s affordable, beautiful, interesting, and there’s plenty of wine to go around.  It’s perfect for those who want something a little off the beaten path.

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Nothing in the world can replace Christmas at home with family, but when that’s thousands of miles away, Georgia is a pretty good alternative.

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