Long before I arrived in the Maldives, I had decided exactly what music I wanted playing in my villa, what bath salts I preferred, what snacks I wanted my pantry stocked with, what extra amenities I needed, what activities I was planning to participate in, etc, etc. All fed into a detailed document called My Soneva Preferences.
Only so, once I was there, I wouldn’t have the distraction of choice. I could tell the stress was going to slip away. It would be like home. Only much nicer.
At Malé airport, I learnt I had missed my seaplane transfer, thanks to the late arrival of my flight from Thiruvananthapuram. No matter, they were putting me on a domestic flight to Dharavandhoo, the closest airport to Soneva Fushi in the serene Baa Atoll. A Tesla X whisked me off to the Soneva Lounge where I waited for my next flight. When I alighted into the speedboat for the last leg of my transfer, I was asked to take my shoes off. They disappeared into the cream confines of a shoe bag which had Soneva’s famous tagline emblazoned across it: No News, No Shoes. Who needs shoes in paradise anyway?
I had been booked into a Crusoe Suite, but that really doesn’t begin to describe the palace of pleasures I was checking into. I had my own pool, beach, several bedrooms, a kitchen, sprawling living room, an open-air bathing area that would put Cleopatra to shame, and numerous other nooks. The mod cons were top notch.
I also had my own gym. Elbow room has long been a marker of luxury. There was nothing garish about this self-assured luxury...no shiny bells and whistles. Just the weathered beauty of timeless materials like old-growth wood and rough-hewn stone. Unlimited lounging areas with oversized cushions encouraging a certain expansiveness of mind. A sense of sanctuary, memories to be made, something to be treasured.
The bell rang. Thank god, it was...Mr Friday. At Soneva you’re assigned a dedicated Mr or Ms Friday who’s in touch even before your trip starts, and then handholds you through the entire stay. Mine was Mickey and he was escorting me to dinner When we stopped the electric buggy and walked—barefoot, of course—over the water to Out of the Blue, Soneva’s funky overwater dining venue, the place was buzzing like a dive in Manhattan (pre- pandemic reference!). This is where I met the charming and cerebral Chrissy Ryan, the resident Barefoot Bookseller. It’s a lovely concept, getting someone who actually knows a thing or two about books—few booksellers do—to run a bookstore on the island. The book collection had been curated with extreme care, as I realised when I visited the bookstore next morning. A pandemic later, Chrissy’s moved back to the UK, and her job caught social media by storm when it was up for grabs a few months ago. I hope the baton’s been passed on to someone as worthy as her.
Over the next few days, I ventured— reluctantly—beyond the comforts of my villa. I had been assigned my own bicycle on which I could zip around the island—it’s called Kunfunadhoo, by the way—at my leisure. The flip side of not having a single plastic water bottle on the island, is having a certain amount of broken glass around. Soneva did the logical thing and opened a glass recycling centre. The Glass Studio makes the most exquisite works of art out of old shards and there are rather-riveting daily demonstrations.
Recycling and sustainability are big on the Soneva agenda. At the Eco Centro Waste-to-Wealth Centre there is impressive waste segregation and management in place. A whopping 90 per cent of the solid waste at the resort gets recycled. One of the culprits is coconut, and every bit is put to use. Don’t miss the all-natural mosquito traps. Food waste gets turned into compost, which nourishes the extensive organic vegetable and fruit gardens (no mean challenge on sandy soil surrounded by salt water). At Shades of Green, set in just such a garden, I had a five-course plant-based meal created with Nordic techniques that was truly farm to fork (or fork in farm).
The food across the venues is stunning, and a big highlight of the stay. There are a startling number of bespoke, gourmet experiences too. But, in a banquet of excess, sambhar and coconut chutney became my basic meal, given the peculiar restrictions of whatever fad diet I was pursuing at that point (this was before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all international travel—the good news is, it’s all up and running, with the Maldives and India having created a travel bubble between themselves). No one frowned, because at Soneva they just let you be, with minimal fuss. You’re on holiday after all. Oh, well, after every meal, I did pop by, shiver me timbers, the world-famous ice cream (So Cool) and chocolate (So Guilty) rooms, where unlimited supplies of these elixirs were on offer. The food at Soneva is super healthy (in fact, they are making a conscious effort to bring down their red meat offerings). But don’t expect to lose any weight while here. Harried parents may, of course, rate the Den—a kids activity zone where they can be left, under watchful eyes, for the day—above all else.
But if you ask someone like me, who has his eyes on the stars, the biggest attraction is their private observatory. The night sky hadn’t cooperated early in my stay, but eventually the heavens smiled and one evening I sauntered over for some stargazing. The sky was magical, but the observatory itself is a thing to behold. Naaz, the resident astronomer, pointed out Canopus, the ‘twinkliest’ star in the sky and Sirius, the brightest. We also spied a deep- sky object, a nebula in the constellation Orion. A place where stars are born.
The Maldives are one of the most beautiful places on our planet. The island heaves with the intense hues of the deep tropics. It’s a self-sufficient world away from the world, so much so that you sometimes ignore the sea and retreat into your own mental island. If you wish to gaze seawards, they’ve just launched overwater retreats, said to be the largest in the world.
I did go on a sunset cruise hoping to spot dolphins, but was so engrossed in the nice food they kept serving up that I failed to notice if any marine mammals had popped their snouts out. It’s priceless, being made to feel at home. And non-transactional, even if momentarily. No one presented me with a bill during my stay, since I had opted to settle in the end. I recommend this strategy.
Soneva Fushi’s inception is well documented, how it brought high-end experiential tourism to the Maldives, so I won’t dwell on it. For a resort that opened in 1995, it has aged well. And if the Maldives don’t disappear from the face of the earth, it will be standing for a long, long time.