The Maldives vs Bali: Which Tropical Paradise To Visit?

The Maldives vs Bali
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The Maldives vs Bali is a tough one. Both of these destinations have garnered a rep for being bona fide tropical paradises. They both reign as two of the most popular honeymoon escapes in the world, touting five-star hotels with infinity pools that gaze out at the sparkling Indian Ocean and runs of eye-wateringly wonderful coastline. However, there’s actually quite a lot setting them apart…

Bali is one of many islands in the transcontinental nation of Indonesia. Located east of Java, it connects the Bali Sea with the Indian Ocean and is famed as one of the world’s surf meccas. The Maldives, meanwhile, is its own archipelagic territory off the coast of Sri Lanka. It’s made up of something like 200 tiny coral islands, many of which are little more than a dash of cotton-colored sand and a cluster of palm trees.

This guide weighs up both locations, delving into everything you should consider before deciding where to go this year. It’s a 101 on the Maldives vs Bali, with info on the weather, the food, the ease of travel, and a whole load more. Let’s get started…

The Maldives vs Bali: Geography and landscape

The lush interior of Bali
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The Maldives is 99% water and just 1% land. 1,200 islands make up this archipelago, which stretches some 541 miles through the midst of the Indian Ocean just west of Sri Lanka. Most are what’s known as coral atolls – ring-shaped reefs that encircle lagoons. These turquoise tidal pools make the Maldives unrivaled when it comes to snorkeling, offering glimpses of resplendent coral gardens that are well protected from the open ocean. The land here is mostly flat (the highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level) and the beaches are largely brilliant white sand.

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Bali is a whole different beast. A volcanic island with great black sand beaches and three active volcanoes, it’s a world of soaring peaks that are haloed in lush rainforests. The northern reaches are the most mountainous. Around the muscly silhouettes of Mount Agung and Mount Batur (both volcanos, one active, one dormant), you can hike to waterfalls that roar through the jungles. The south is the most built up region. It’s got runs of brownish-black sand at Kuta and beyond but quickly turns into the Bukit Peninsula, where high cliffs are buffeted by huge swells.

Winner: Bali has to win here. The Maldives are stunning but they lack diversity – one island can look very similar to the next.

The Maldives vs Bali: Travel

Seaplanes waiting in the Maldives
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Being one of the largest islands in Indonesia, Bali has its own international airport, a highly developed infrastructure, and well-maintained highways. All that makes it one of the easier places to get to in Southeast Asia, especially since Bali’s Denpasar airport receives flights from all over the world, including budget arrivals from Thailand and Vietnam, and long-haul routes in from the US and Europe. It’s also possible to reach Bali by boat but it is the way less traveled these days. Connections come in from the end of Java Island (the home of Jakarta) or next-door Lombok.

The Maldives also boasts an international airport that connects the islands to a lot of major Southeast Asian countries, also welcoming direct flights from Dubai and Europe. Hulhulé Island, where the Maldives’ international airport is located, has hotels and beaches, but it’s considered one of the least desirable places to stay. Chances are, you’ll need to take a ferry, speedboat, seaplane, or most likely, a combination of all three to reach your final destination. This makes traveling to the Maldives not only expensive but time-consuming, although transfers are sometimes organized by your hotel.

Winner: Bali – you won’t need a seaplane to get to your hotel!

The Maldives vs Bali: Things to do

A temple in Bali
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Vacations on the Maldives really revolve around R&R. These Robinson Crusoe islands are for unwinding and rejuvenating. Basically anywhere you go, including the built-up capital, you’re never too far from a beach – and we’re not just talking any beach but a talcum-powder, turquoise-sea beach. It’s possible to spend whole holidays simply lazing and reading and swimming on those, and lots of people do just that. The other thing that stands out here is the diving and snorkeling. It’s arguably the very best in the world. Most atolls have access to protected lagoons filled with turtles and corals, while scuba schools exist all over.

Bali is a wonderworld of adventure. Culture buffs can explore the mystical temples of Uluwatu and the Monkey Jungle in Ubud. Shoppers can scour the Ubud bazaar for artisan coffees and batik fabrics. Hikers can head north to conquer Batur and others. Beach bums can hit Nusa Penida or the south coast to chill beside hip beach bars. Surfers have some of the most iconic waves of all time to score – think Ulus, Padang Padang, and Keramas.

Winner: Bali.

The Maldives vs Bali: Cost

A bar in Bali
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Bali is a decidedly cheaper option than the Maldives, with accommodation, travel, food, and amenities costing far less on average. But why is the Maldives so expensive? And does it mean it should be avoided? Let’s break this down…

Accommodation can be snatched up in Bali for less than $10 a night, and you can eat at Balinese warungs (traditional Indonesian taverns) for as little as $2 per person. In exchange for these low costs, you have to be willing to stick to local amenities and budget accommodation. Thing is, it’s also possible to spend thousands of dollars in Bali. There are deluxe hotels with butler service over in Nusa Dua, sleek spas, and private boat charters that could cost you a bucket.

While the Maldives is notoriously overpriced, it isn’t actually these Indian Ocean islands themselves that are so costly. Instead, it’s the experience you’re paying for. Real estate costs, exclusive resorts, high taxes, and the fact that just about everything is imported is what makes the Maldives such a drag on the bank account. Five-star resorts here can go for upwards of $550 a night. Thankfully, there are now some locally owned B&Bs that sell for under $100 a night, too.

If you wanted to slum it in the Maldives like you can in Bali, you’d have a tough time. A holiday in the Maldives is all about luxury, and you’d struggle to find little else. When it comes to fancy hotels, the Maldives and Bali are not as far removed from each other as you might think. Five-star resorts in Bali start at around $300 a night, and the Maldives’ packages at about $550, translating into a weekly budget of something like $13,000 per person! Yikes.

Winner: Bali. Indo’s fav isle is much, much cheaper than the Maldives.

The Maldives vs Bali: Accommodation

Overwater bungalows in the Maldives
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If money is no object, then the accommodation in the Maldives will always steal the win here. With the most common lodgings being signature overwater bungalows, luxury spa resorts, and beachfront adult playgrounds, the Maldives’ accommodation is unmatched. Kaafu is one of the best places to stay in the Maldives if it’s your first visit. As one of the most well-connected regions, boasting some of the country’s top resorts, you can bank on a true upscale experience here. Check out:

  • Summer Island Maldives Resort ($$$) – The thing you’ve been dreaming of: Over-water bungalows by turquoise seas.
  • Paradise Island Resort & Spa ($$$) – This stunning hotel with the full five stars occupies a stretch of impossibly white sand on Lankanfinolhu island.
  • Royal Island Resort at Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve ($$$) – It hardly gets chicer than this. Relax and unwind between the lagoons and the pools.

At the same time, Bali has no shortage of five-star resorts, opulent mansion villas, and exclusive beach clubs where visitors can stay. But perhaps more popular for the average traveler is Bali’s abundance of guest houses, three-star hotels, and backpacker hostels – you can still feel the age of the Banana Pancake trail here. The island really does run the gamut from the classy to the shoestring:

  • Hari Indah Boutique Hotel & Spa ($$$) – A pool-ready spa hotel just above the surf-bashed cliffs of Uluwatu.
  • Astana Swaha Villa ($$-$$$) – A backcountry hotel in the mountains east of Ubud, complete with a pool that gazes over the jungles.
  • Tropical Canggu Hostel ($-$$) – Mingle with the backpacker crowd in this cool dorm spot in hip Canggu, the hottest place on the south coast right now.

Winner: The Maldives – some of the places to stay here are SPECTACULAR.

The Maldives vs Bali: Nightlife

Nightlife in Bali
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Despite the desert island location, the nightlife in the Maldives is much more varied than it is often perceived. The best resorts have vibrant restaurants, live music, and evening activities to keep guests entertained. Visitors can also hop between hotels and bars and visit other islands by private boat for beach parties, jungles cinemas, and even club nights. Attend a jazz night at Karumba, an underwater party at Subsix, or try your hand at night fishing on Bandos Beach. Just don’t come here expecting Ibiza on the Indian Ocean!

When it comes to Bali’s nightlife, the Maldives is simply no match. This colossal island has one of the most diverse party scenes going, like anywhere in the world. From high-class restaurants to underground techno clubs and local karaoke nights, there’s the whole shebang. We’d center our trip on the clubbing haven of Kuta-Legian if you want to be in the thick of it. That area has access to sky bars and rock clubs that go on all night long. There’s now a bit more of a hipster scene in the beach bars of Canggu too, while Ubud is for relaxed evenings of jazz and cocktails.

Winner: Bali – no doubt.

The Maldives vs Bali: Food

Nasi campur
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The food in the Maldives is an eclectic mix of island ingredients, Indian staples, and Sri Lankan cuisine. Fried yams, fish curry, live lobster, and bis keemiya, the local samosas, are just some of the beloved national dishes. Most hotels and resorts will offer a variety of world-class fusion food and perfectly executed local dishes that vary by region. The best place to sample the national cuisine has to be the capital in Male, though it’s not likely you’ll be there too long.

The cuisines of neighboring countries also influence Balinese food, but some dishes are native to the island. Balinese meat skewers, known as sate lilit, are made from spiced mince and served all over straight from the BBQ coals. Perhaps the most famous Indonesian dishes are nasi and mie goreng, the native fried rice and noodles that pack in chili and veg and sweet kecap manis soy sauce. Both variations are often served with a fried egg and chicken satay and can cost anything between $1 and $5.

Winner: Probably the Maldives but Balinese food is still lovely.

The Maldives vs Bali: Weather

Weather in the Maldives or Bali?
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Both sitting close to the equator, the Maldives and Bali each benefit from tropical climates and warm temperatures all year round. Both destinations also have two distinct seasons: The dry season, which boasts little rainfall and the most sunshine, and the wet season, where temperatures rise, humidity increases, and daily rain is expected. 

The only difference between the Maldives and Bali is that their seasons are reversed. Bali’s weather is predominantly warm and dry from April to October, while the Maldives has its best weather from November to April. Both vacation spots benefit from average highs of 86-degrees Fahrenheit and plenty of blue skies in their dry seasons, making them equally popular for visitors seeking guaranteed tropical paradise. But in their rainy seasons, both the Maldives and Bali face risks of floods, monsoons, and dangerous conditions for travel, though it’s very rarely that bad.

If you’re surfing, then the top time to visit is the period from June to August. That’s the same for both Bali and the Maldives because it’s the time that the best and biggest SW Indian Ocean swells get going.

Winner: Draw.

The Maldives Vs Bali: Onward travel

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Where’s next? Once you’ve conquered the volcanoes of the Isle of the Gods or finished lazing on the atolls, what places can you hit up after exploring the Maldives or Bali? Well…

From Bali, you can easily reach the nearby islands of Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida, Lombok, and the Gilis. They are all accessible on relatively cheap local ferry services taking between 20 minutes and two hours. You can even travel as far afield as the Komodo Islands or New Guinea in a short plane journey. Also don’t forget about the wealth of short-haul flight links from Denpasar Airport. They’re a ticket out to all manner of enticing places across the region, from the buzzy Bangkok to Manila to KL and beyond.

The Maldives is a bit more isolated than that. There are no ferries to any other country from here and the Velana International Airport (the main airport) is a bit limited on short-haul flights. The obvious place to head is Sri Lanka. The Teardrop of India is just across the strait and has spice-plumed curry houses, surf breaks, and wild mountains clad in tea fields. India is also an option on flights that go direct to Kochi and Mumbai.

Winner: Bali.

The Verdict – The Maldives vs Bali

We could argue that Bali is the ultimate winner here since it wins most of the showdowns. However, that still doesn’t mean it’s for everyone when pitted against the Maldives. Basically, if you’re after true luxury, exclusive five-star resorts, and the royalty treatment, then there is no place like the Maldives. The beaches in the Maldives are also some of the finest on the whole planet. You just can’t find such stunning coral reefs, turquoise lagoons, and unspoiled stretches of white sand anywhere else around the globe.

But Bali is a standout for many reasons. It’s wild and magical energy pulls us back year after year. It’s a place where you can pull on the hiking boots to conquer volcanos one day and then hit the surf beaches of the Bukit the next. It’s got beach resorts for honeymooners and party strips for younger folks. And it’s one of the most accessible spots in the whole of Southeast Asia.  

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.