To date, the magic of The Maldives has eluded me regardless of the regular encounters I have with euphoric ambassadors who are willing to preach its virtues the world over.
As someone who likes to think they have a strong eco warrior side, I have perhaps a rather misguided ideal that if I avoid these precious islands, I will protect them from the ravages of tourism. The very essence of The Maldives, their purity, rarity and fragility is what has kept me away. In hindsight I have acted as a latter-day conscientious travel objector, I have withstood the pressure to visit in my rather grandiose desire to single-handily protect these precious islands and ensure their existence outlives mine.
The Maldives seems to sit as some sort of earthly Rivendell, a dream destination to know about, wistfully imagine but never visit. That is until now. I too have now joined the ambassadorial chorus, having found the perfect islands to ease my squabbling eco warrior who demands high-end luxury with low-impact travel in equal measure.
Let me introduce you to Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani, two distinctly different but exquisite islands in The Maldives that have been created by a visionary couple whose powerful ideology has quelled my conscience. Set up in 1995 by husband and wife team Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, Soneva Fushi quickly established itself as the trailblazer in desert island barefoot luxury with a large helping of conservation. The inspiring matrimonial team’s mission being to create unforgettable, luxurious travel experiences whilst treading lightly on the earth.
They call it Intelligent Luxury, a way to rejuvenate every guest’s love of a SLOW LIFE (Sustainable, Local, Organic, Wellness, Learning, Inspiring, Fun, Experiences) whilst being diligent to mitigate tourism’s impact and make a positive contribution back to the planet. A heady promise but having made a very quick pitstop at the two sister islands in the Maldives I have now experienced Slow Life in all its glory and I am here to preach to the congregation.
And clearly this intoxicating SLOW LIFE and Intelligent Luxury is connecting with a committed fan base having met guests that were on their eighth or ninth trip to Soneva. It appears once you have visited these islands, you’ll be back again.
First stop, the original barefoot luxury island and one of the largest in The Maldives. Whilst it may have been the first that many have emulated, it is this very heritage that keeps it passionate to protect its best in class position.
Ilfan, our own dedicated Mr Friday island butler, had already won our hearts from the moment he met us at Male airport and whisked us through to our waiting speedboat. He asked if we were happy to swap our shoes for the “no news, no shoes” way of life on the island. Thankfully pimped and pedicured I was happy to abandon my shoes for the short stay and step into the barefoot bliss and simplicity, which is an essential part of this experience. This simple idea of removing your shoes is an effective way to shift from normal life, connect to the beautiful island environment and yourself. “With bare feet you simply feel everything”.
The eco-chic villa keeps the Robinson Crusoe feel with a voluminous indoor-outdoor vibe; an open garden bathroom that includes a sunken bathtub, two showers and your very own private waterfall. The interior design is rustic-chic with lashings of driftwood and crisp cottons and linen. A few footsteps from the villa past the inviting hammock is your own piece of crystal clear turquoise Indian Ocean, fully stocked by Mother Nature with an abundance of snorkel friendly sea-life not to mention a few Blacktip Reef Sharks.
The island offers 57 private villas on its 100 acres, each one discreetly hidden among natural dense foliage that then spills onto its own stretch of pure white beach and access to the pristine Biosphere UNESCO protected reef. Whether it’s being barefoot or using the only mode of transport on the island your designated pushbikes, there is a wonderfully childlike feeling in this laid-back playground of desert-island indulgence.
The Island is of course stocked with a veritable buffet of active options. The private beached has a vast array of waterspouts on offer not to mention a jogging trail and floodlit tennis court if you get bored of sunning yourself. You an of course turn the dial down even lower and opt for a yoga or a Tai Chi class in the Island’s wellness centre. Fear not though, luxury is still in full effect. You can take dinner at a starlit table at The Observatory in the Fresh in the Garden restaurant, then saunter to the Maldives only open-air cinema. Devine. The resort even has it’s own cheese humidor, a six foot by eight foot glass display area offering up the worlds finest dairy. Not to mention the ice cream and chocolate rooms equipped to have you in a diabetic coma in no time.
If your lactose intolerant and not feeling the dairy, the underground wine cellars 300 wines should keep you occupied. Once you are thoroughly inebriated, the team at Soneva will even take the recyclable glass to their glass studio to turn into works of art.
Soneva is more than the sum of its parts though, sure it has first class facilities that adhere to its Slow Life principals but for me, it’s the delivery of these programs and activities that really sets Soneva apart.
Sitting under the stars, popcorn in hand at Cinema Paradiso is already really special, but what really dialled up the bragging rights for me was one of the actors from the film had been flown in for a Q&A with the guests. Priceless.
Arguably the Maldives is one of the worlds most abundant locations for snorkelling and diving with some magnificent sea life to behold. Soneva has two marine bioligists on location, Jess and Tom, who’s passion for the study of the sea is palpable. On our third day at the resort, they tracked down the feeding grounds of the great Manta Rays. As the Rays fed on the annual flux of Plankton we swam with them unabated but still aware of the need to keep a distance that wouldn’t encroach on this majestic creatures grounds.
But before my luxury barometer goes off the scale, let me switch to my eco warrior outfit.
Responsibility and sustainability does indeed appear to go hand in hand with every aspect of the resort and they are very proud to share it. Every guest is charged a 2% levy, which has raised over $ 5.7 billion towards environmental projects. Tick. Since 2008 all drinking water is created on site through desalination and the savings from no longer importing water have been invested in the SLOW LIFE Foundation that gives 600,000 people access to safe drinking water. Tick. Soneva Fushi has one of the largest solar power plants in the Maldives and its mission is to be totally powered by solar energy alone. Tick. The resort recycles over 80% of its waste through its Waste to Wealth Programme. Tick. Food is grown organically and sourced locally wherever possible and fish is only bought from sustainable local sources. Tick. Various marine conservation programmes have been set up to support the local turtle population and Soneva has created its own coral nursery. Tick. There is even a Stay for Good programme that allows guests to combine a stay with helping out with some of the conservation programmes and offset some of their stay costs. Double tick.
In my view, this island is green and glamorous, chic and conservationist but definitely leave your Laboutins at home. It epitomises barefoot luxury.
The second resort, which sits just 5 degrees north of the Equator, seems to rise up out of the crystal clear lagoon like some latter day luxury Waterworld minus Kevin Costner.
Medhufara Island was an uninhabited agricultural island prior to becoming the latest Soneva destination offering the signature bare foot luxury in 25 deluxe over-water and island villas. As we arrived by speedboat it really feels like you are arriving into a different realm where the natural world is king.
The stilted whitewashed villas offer uninterrupted 360-degree views of the Indian Ocean and are connected to the main island, by a meandering tentacle like 41-meter jetty. The island itself is home to four mangrove forests and the Soneva signature facilities such as Cinema Paradiso, its own organic garden and its Waste to Wealth plant that recycles the majority of its output.
Designed to reconnect owners and guest with nature in every way possible the over-water villas embrace the ocean with floor to ceiling wall panels that stretch along the entire front of the property. There are also quirky windows in the floor that reveal the colourful marine life as it swims below. Each villa has its own infinity salt-water pool and in their indoor-outdoor bathrooms there is a discreet plunge pool. Another first for Soneva are the spectacular retractable roofs on each of the villas, so at the flick of a switch the roof moves majestically back revealing the vast magnificent star filled sky. Where else can you can lie on your bed in the middle of the Indian Ocean and stargaze.
Jani in Sanskrit means wisdom, and it appears that many of the lessons learnt from Soneva Fushi have been rolled into a new wisdom to create this spin on barefoot luxury with sustainability at its heart.
Everything is made on the resort with materials from the habitat with only one exception, which is the pine from a sustainable source in Australia. Driftwood has been used to create stylish furniture and lampshades, wood from the red river shingle gums are used for the roofs and recycled glass from its sister resort Soneva Fushi is used throughout.
The signature Mr Friday butler and the ability to reconnect with nature are as much a part of the fabric of Soneva Javi as they are it’s sister resort. The highlight for me was dining at The Observatory at the Stargazing table and being given a guide to the heavens by leading astrologers under sterling silver. It probably helps that they have the largest telescope in the Maldives. Seeing Saturn, the Scorpio Constellation, Jupiter and its Gallileo moons was pure wonderment and exactly what Soneva seeks to impart upon its well healed guests.
Soneva made history in 2012 by being the first resort to offer private homes in The Maldives. So now a limited number of these exquisite Soneva private residences are available both on Fushi and Jani for purchase on a renewable leasehold basis.
On Soneva Fushi there are one and two-bedroomed villas available on the sunrise or sunset side of the island from $3.5m, or three and 4-bedroomed villas on the sunset side from $8.5m. On Soneva Jani your real estate choice is between the main island with villas starting at $3m or overwater villas starting from $4.5m. So now you can own a little piece of paradise on earth.