Best Boutique Hotel in the Maldives under $500: Drift Retreat

Just the notion of the Maldives conjures up immediate thoughts of idyllic blues, sands often touted as the softest in the world… and iconic over water villas with price tags to match. Luxury and value are words that are rarely synonymous with each other, and yet Drift Retreat managed to strike a balance so sweet, I hesitate to gush about it too loudly, lest I not be able to find a reservation to return myself.

Drift Thelu Veliga is a small, locally owned and operated private island in the Maldives which boasts an intimate 30 rooms total (20 water villas, 10 beach villas. A mere 35 minutes by seaplane from the Maldivian capital, Male, and you set foot on a gemlike isle in the South Ari Atoll. Ringed entirely by a protective reef, the lagoon within remains nearly without waves — waters so still that beautiful sand ripples are formed as the tide inches in. With one of the smaller islands in the Maldives, a castaway feeling for those inclined to relax is all but guaranteed.

Property highlight: If you are seeking barefoot luxury in a comfortable ambiance, look no further. There is nothing more in this world that I love than a luxurious hotel that encourages you to leave your shoes behind for dinner, and Drift Retreat is no exception.

Upon our arrival, we were shown to our water villa on the sunrise side of the dock. For couples, I recommend requesting this side, as it has far more privacy facing away from the island towards the reef and open ocean. The Water Villas are complete with high vaulted ceilings, and a king sized bed set directly in the center of a hexoganally shaped bedroom. A large ceramic tub sits against the window, giving you the opportunity to bathe with views of the lagoon. The shower features windows that open to allow fresh air to enter as you freshen up, giving the feeling of an outdoor shower.

The highlight of the Water Villas are definitely the deck, which is generously sized to allow for two lounge chairs, a table and chairs, as well as a shaded lounge pod — perfect for afternoon naps. A wooden ladder leads down into the lagoon, which is alive with sea life. From tropical fish, turtles, octopii, and even reef sharks chasing squid, the snorkeling is abundant with creatures. The reef itself did exhibit some bleaching in the shallower areas (as all Maldivian islands suffer from), but in the deeper spots and along the reef walls, is very much alive, thriving, and colorful.

We opted for the Half Board plan for our meals. Breakfasts were a generous spread with Maldivian, Middle Eastern, European and American options on offer daily, as well as a “live action station” where a chef prepped a specialty dish to order. We took our lunches a la carte, with meals coming in at a good value around $12-15 USD. Those who drink more than a couple drinks per day, or need a hearty lunch may find value in the All Inclusive Plan (it also includes water sports), but it was not necessary for us. Of note, a beer is about $5 here, bottles of wine coming in around $30-40, cocktails around $12 (depending on your liquor choice). On the whole, an exceptional value for the remote location. Dinners were buffets that changed themes nightly, and all meals were divine, leaving plenty of healthy options and vegetarian choices. The Maldivian curries on offer still make me salivate!

The restaurant and bar are open air, lending themselves to beautiful sunset views of the lagoon. Once per week on Fridays, Drift Retreat hosts a free Happy Hour for guests to enjoy cocktails/mocktails and light appetizers before dinner at sunset. It was a beautiful opportunity to be social with other guests as the sky glowed orange as the sun sank below the horizon.

We opted to take an excursion to a local sandbar for a morning picnic. Just ten minutes away, the sandbar was right around the corner, yet couldn’t have felt further away. I do wish the excursion had been longer, because I was relishing my time there! (*Please note that the sandbar excursion is not guaranteed to be private despite the language in the brochure, as another tour group turned up while we were enjoying our picnic. We were told by the hotel that despite it being bad form by the other group, it was not technically prohibited as it is public.)

Other than our excursion, we chose to spend our time physically in the lagoon for the most part — either wading/swimming or snorkeling. The beach fringes 3/4 of the island and has cabanas, loungers and umbrellas available first come first serve. We truly never had to fight to find a place to sit, because at any given time, many people are enjoying the privacy and serenity of their decks! Often, it was only my husband and I and perhaps 1-2 other couples enjoying the lagoon. Solace seekers, you’ll feel right at home!

Service at Drift Retreat was friendly without being over the top. Drift’s GM and owner, Moomina was friendly and provided excellent customer service when we addressed the issue with the sandbank excursion not being private. She takes special care to get to know her guests, periodically checking in on their stay, and to greet everyone who arrives on island when she is there. Special kudos goes to our waiter in the restaurant, Tikitte, who was the first to greet us with a friendly smile in the morning, and knew our wine preferences for dinner by our third night.

Drift Retreat was by far and away my favorite of the two properties I stayed at during our 8 days in the Maldives. For those seeking a true boutique hotel experience at a family owned property that highlights the beauty of the Maldives in a very pure form, look no further. But I might ask for you to keep it secret for our own benefit!