Rabbits, Château Margaux, over-water cinemas and so much more… Soneva has it all, and Erica Worth is hooked
The seaplane glides down on the most ridiculously turquoise water I’ve ever seen. A little way off lies the island of Kunfunadhoo, a UNESCO Biosphere reserve fringing the Baa Atoll in the Indian Ocean. My destination is the resort of Soneva Fushi, jewel in the glittering crown of the Maldives. One quick speedboat taxi later, and I’m handing over my shoes to one of the resort’s hosts: from now on, it’s barefoot all the way.
My personal 'Barefoot Guardian', the delightful Sha, walks me over to the Sunset Retreat, one of 72 villas at Soneva Fushi. Sustainable pine, teak and cedar woods supply the raw material for my luxury version of a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ beach hut, complemented by warm shades of terracotta and cornflower yellow for the furnishings. In this sultry heat – a steady 30°C in mid-February – my private pool is calling me.
It’s easy to get into the groove. Each morning I take a stroll over to the other side of the island. Awaiting me from sunrise is a breakfast of exotic fruits and truffle omelettes. Time for some exercise? A walk around Kunfunadhoo takes me less than an hour. Along the way, I see rabbits grazing under shrubs, while crabs scuttle out of my shadow on the pristine sand. Another day, I pedal down winding jungle paths on my personalised bicycle. I find a diving school, tennis courts, the Soneva Soul spa, an observatory, organic gardens and much more.
What’s in a name? Soneva is the brainchild of Indian-British hotelier Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of Soneva Fushi and Jani in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. He has his own villa at Fushi, but he’s away travelling right now. Sonu fell in love with the Maldives in the late 80s, visiting with his wife Eva. He welcomed the first guests to Fushi in 1995.
Sonu’s philosophy centres on ‘thought-leader initiatives’ which offer luxury and unique experiences while making a minimal impact on the natural world. Those initiative include filtering and mineralising Soneva drinking water, recycling waste glass into works of art and the elimination of single-use plastics across the Maldives. Such innovation was recognised in the New Year Honours List of King Charles III with the award of an OBE for services to tourism, sustainability and charity. Ask most seasoned travellers about Soneva, and you’ll get the same answer: there’s nowhere on earth like Fushi and Jani.
Over cocktails at sunset, affable general manager Pjey Mayandi explains Sonu’s Soneva concept. ‘Many hotel chains talk about luxury and sustainability, but it’s hard for hotel owners to make this visible. Sonu’s vision is amazing, and you see it everywhere.’ Another recent ‘thought-leader initiative’ is Soneva’s coral propagation: ‘We take corals and plant them in the ocean,’ explains Pjey. ‘We also do a lot of charitable work: we want to give something back. In the Maldives, a surprising number of the native population don’t learn to swim, so we give them lessons.’
As Creative Director, Sonu’s Swedish-born wife Eva oversees the design of each villa, ensuring that everything used or served at Soneva’s resorts is sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free. ‘We don’t want to be too loud or too edgy on the design,’ adds Pjey. ‘You won’t see many angles, it’s mainly curves. That’s all Eva’s input.’
In-villa dining is a popular choice for many guests, but the nine restaurants at Fushi offer the peak of their respective cuisines. Among my highlights were the Indian Ocean seafood at Out of the Blue and spectacular Italian dining amid the jungle rooftops at Flying Sauces, courtesy of Michelin-starred chef Alberto Faccani.
There’s a serious wine list wherever you dine, the pride and joy of French head sommelier Charles Brun. ‘We have around 42,000 bottles, split between 1200-1400 labels,’ he tells me. ‘Considering our location, that’s quite a list!’ A range of 250 magnums affords guests plenty of choice for wine by the glass. ‘We have a big emphasis on wine verticals, with up to ten different vintages from a single château.’ The list ranges across 27 countries, two-thirds from Europe: Brun draws my attention to a five-figure Romanée-Conti, several vintages of Pétrus and Pingus, and the prized Le Pin, prince of Pomerol. ‘Imagine a vertical of Le Pin!’ he proclaims. He doesn’t sell a 1982 Margaux every day, he admits, but a US$4000 white burgundy is standard fare.
Twenty minutes away in the seaplane, my second Soneva adventure awaits, on the sprawling 150-acre resort of Soneva Jani in the Noonu Atoll. If Soneva Fushi is the pinnacle of Maldives beachside chic, Jani is its classy sister on the water. My huge single-bedroom Water Reserve ‘cabin’ features reclaimed whitewash driftwood, an equally large transparent pool and a Slide down to the calm Ocean waters below. In place of Fushi’s rustic colourways, calm lavenders and creams wash over me. The bedroom ceiling retracts at the push of a button, and I fall asleep gazing at the stars. Environmentally sensitive attention to detail is exemplary, from repurposed light-fittings to curved driftwood door-handles.
The day after my arrival, my charming Barefoot Guardian Aslam shows me around the Eco Centro, which recycles leftover wood into charcoal and waste food into compost. The Soneva Soul spa refreshes tired minds and muscles with a treetop yoga pavilion and an oxygen chamber. Further guarantees of grown-up peace and quiet are furnished by The Den, a huge entertainment complex where children can run wild or join classes in freeze dancing, doll making and cupcake baking.
Marine and sustainable themes infuse the menu of the Dinner at Overseas restaurant, devised by Michelin-starred chef Mathias Dahlgren. His signature dish proves irresistible: buttered potatoes with 100% sustainable and CO2neutral Soneva Gold Selection caviar. After a sunset cruise accompanied by dolphins, my final evening is spent at Cinema Paradiso, the first over-water cinema in the Maldives, where I hoover up fresh Ikura gunkan-maki at the Japanese-inspired Director’s Cut restaurant.
The repeater rate at Soneva is staggeringly high. At Fushi it’s 56%, and some guests make up to 25 return visits. If the gentle pace of Maldivian life proves irresistible, you can become a Soneva Villa Owner. Leasehold ownership at both Fushi and Jani is available for US$4.5m-US$15m, according to Aslam, and villas are being snapped up fast.
The idyllic appeal of both resorts is encapsulated by Pjey Mayandi: ‘We have never changed our promise of a “Robinson Crusoe” retreat combining with luxury with sustainability. People can go to any concrete-jungle hotel with chandeliers and marble floors. We offer that special touch, a connection with nature. Our guests feel it and that’s why they keep coming back.’ The delightful hosts play their own part. ‘We feel we are all part of a family here,’ Pjey confirms. ‘Like we are siblings of Sonu and Eva. And we feel that guests are part of the family, too.’
The Soneva experience is all-embracing. The chill seeps back through my bones on my return to London, but a part of me is still warmed by my stay in the Maldives. Am I really a new member of the family? I hope so – and I’ll be back before long.
Soneva Fushi: 1-9 bedroom villas from US$1450 to US$55,710 per night. Soneva Jani: 1-4 bedroom villas from US$2220 to US$49,070 per night. Rates quoted on Bed & Breakfast basis, excluding taxes and transfers to and from the resort. See more at soneva.com