When, just over 20 years ago, Sonu Shivdasani opened Soneva Fushi on an island called Kunfunadhoo, in the Baa atoll in the Maldives, he welcomed his guests with little linen bags, embroidered with the words “no shoes, no news”. These were handed to them as they disembarked from the seaplane – intended for their shoes, of course, which would be secreted away and discreetly stored in a wardrobe later. The message was clear: at Soneva Fushi, feet were meant to land directly in sand and, ideally, stay that way for days, unshod and attuned to the tactile pleasures of Mother Nature’s most irresistible flooring. The resort launched with just 42 villas and some of the highest room rates in the Indian Ocean; its reception by a deliriously impressed media almost single-handedly upturned, within a year, the reputation the Maldives had developed – embodied by a catchphrase that was making the rounds – as a “five-star destination with three-star hotels”.
The concept of a no-shoes luxury resort – one that espouses a quantifiable commitment to ecological sustainability alongside indulgent surroundings and world‑beating personal service – is now so familiar, and ubiquitous, as to have become almost axiomatic. But it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time no other resort was really doing what Soneva Fushi did – not in the Maldives, or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. And also that, while instances of hoteliers green-washing questionable sustainability bona fides with expensively commissioned marketing rhetoric has regrettably become rather commonplace, Shivdasani has continued to put his own money where his words have been, quietly promoting by example his brand of “intelligent luxury” in realistic terms.
Both Soneva and the Maldives have evolved, albeit along quite different paths. Though Shivdasani went on to found the Six Senses spa-resort portfolio and its four-star spin-off, Evason, in 2012 he divested his interest in both after a tumultuous few years to concentrate on his two Soneva resorts – Fushi, in the Maldives, and Kiri, in Thailand (a third, Soneva Gili, in the Malé atoll, opened in 2001, but was sold in 2012). Luxury of a whole other calibre had meanwhile proliferated among the 1,190-odd islands of this republic of 26 atolls; some of the more hyper-opulent, hyper-staffed permutations aimed at Russians and Chinese whose ranks here now swell during the Orthodox and Chinese new year seasons. (Though these may not be to every taste, it is hard to argue with them from a commercial standpoint: with its endless white beaches, steadily balmy temperatures, mild rainy season, low labour costs and one of the highest RevPARs – revenues per available room – in the world, the Maldives is a luxury hotelier’s dream).
A 2016 check on life in the Maldives for Maldivians, however, reveals a less uniformly rosy picture. Concerns for its frayed democracy are voiced at international diplomatic levels; in January at a press conference in London, former president Mohamed Nasheed expressed concerns about his country sinking into a state of dictatorship. The Maldives’ first democratically elected president, Nasheed maintains he was forced to resign in 2012 by police officials seeking to scupper corruption suits he brought against his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to whom most of them reportedly remained loyal. Nasheed had then been awarded a 13-year prison sentence on terrorism charges in March 2015 – in a trial at which, The Washington Post reported, two of the three judges also served as witnesses against him. Meanwhile, a widely perceived and commented-on erosion of women’s status continues.
A visitor to one of the Maldives’ luxury resorts is, however, unlikely to feel these political reverberations. Most resorts are on far-flung islands, quite a few of them outside the Malé atoll, where the capital is. Tellingly – and encouragingly – my conversations with various Maldivians, men and women, about the state of their country were for the most part totally transparent; those who support Nasheed (and there are many) were frank in expressing their opinions without apparent fear of repercussions. And while opinions about the state of democracy and human rights vary, a blanket boycott of the country would be wrongheaded: tourism employs nearly 15 per cent of the populace and accounts for almost 30 per cent of its GDP.
Developers and hoteliers, meanwhile, seem undeterred. St Regis is set to debut a resort here in September 2016, on a nine-hectare island in the Dhaalu atoll called Vommuli. The Small Maldives Island Company, which has had enormous success with Amilla Fushi, the youthful, contemporary all-villa resort it opened in December 2014 in the Baa atoll, is shortly to launch Finolhu, a second, more family‑friendly private island just a half‑hour away by speedboat. Patina Hotels – a newly minted luxury brand whose first property, The Patina Capitol Singapore, is scheduled to open in the next few weeks – is reportedly contracted to operate The Patina Thanburudhoo, a private island in the northern Malé atoll. The original site comprised not one but two world-famous surf breaks, known as Sultans and Honkies, a USP that saw multiple luxury hoteliers circling Thanburudhoo in one of the industry’s more competitive recent tender bids. (However, a question mark hangs over the exclusivity of the two breaks in the wake of protests by local surfers and activism within the surfing community.)
At the forefront of the news in 2016, though, is Shivdasani himself. This year Soneva launches two new ventures: the two cabin, 20m Soneva In Aqua, a singular boat that was some five years in the making (her soft launch was in late December); and Soneva Jani, a 50-hectare island – one of the largest in the Maldives – set in a spectacular 5km lagoon in the Noonu atoll, about 65km north of Soneva Fushi.
Like Soneva in Aqua, Soneva Jani, which will open this autumn, has also been many years in the making. A sneak preview of the 24 overwater villas, island villa and massive, three-storey overwater clubhouse – a complex set about 600m from the island, in the middle of the lagoon – revealed it will capitalise on its extraordinary natural endowments like no other resort here. Among these are an additional four islands, which will remain free from buildings, making this the lowest-density development in the country by a significant margin, and one primed for Crusoe moments of every imaginable sort.
Soneva in Aqua is built to cruise up to about 150 nautical miles from her base at Fushi; she can be chartered for a drinks party of three hours, or a diving cruise of several days. But when Soneva Jani begins to welcome guests in a few months’ time, what the team here imagines she will be used for most often is a two- to three-night journey through Baa (a designated Unesco world biosphere reserve, with more uninhabited islands than not) and up into Noonu. This is essentially a very long, indulgent resort-to-resort transfer, with some first-rate off-the-map diving and snorkelling, deserted-island lunches, late-afternoon massages on the foredeck and sunset drinks atop the wheelhouse.
Soneva in Aqua is bobbing a couple of hundred yards offshore when I stop for a drink at Soneva Fushi’s overwater house bar. Three years earlier, Shivdasani had described to me how he’d wanted to combine the authentic lines of a typical Asian junk with the bells, whistles and state-of-the-art technology found on smaller composite trideck motor yachts, such as those produced by Benetti. In the final analysis, the combination has worked brilliantly more or less across the board, bar one possibly important (depending on the guest who charters her) point: her profile. Junks traditionally have horseshoe-shaped sterns supporting unusually high poop decks. It’s a design conceit that affords interior space, about which neither crew nor guest is liable to complain; but it doesn’t make for the loveliest exterior view. “No, she’s not really very elegant at all at this angle, is she?” concedes Richard Gould, affably. Gould raced yachts and captained private charters in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean before spending the past year based at the famous Tayana boat yard in Taiwan, overseeing all of Soneva in Aqua’s technical and interior fit-outs. Given the sustainability remit Shivdasani set for her, this was no small job; but the result is one Gould reckons is unique to the private‑charter world. Solar and engine-heat recovery technologies heat all fresh water on board; solar electric panels charge all batteries, reducing the generator load; and a sewage-treatment plant – almost unheard of on a boat of this size – was customised and fitted.
Those credentials go some way to compensating for Soneva in Aqua’s rather clunky conformation. What carries her over the line and into the “wow” zone is her interior fit-out, which truly impresses. The wardrobes, cabinetry and lamps are wrapped in soft brown kidskin; the doors leading from the spacious master suite into the lounge glide open soundlessly with the touch of a button; the master’s parquet floor slides back to reveal a deep bathing tub with a glass bottom, for au naturel nature-viewing. Everywhere, attention to detail is exceptional: in the lounge area, a chest of leather drawers ingeniously folds out into a one-person workspace, complete with chair, keyboard stand and 17in monitor mounted on a flip-up panel; walls and floors throughout are laid with maple timber; and hammered-silver sink basins, his and hers, bookend the master’s huge king bed. In the second suite, another king is joined by a raised double day bed, set just under a pane window and reached via a little staircase – clearly intended for children, but so charming I later confessed to Gould that I wished I’d spent one of my two nights on board in it.
Two nights on board, cruising the outer northern reaches of the Baa atoll, was enough to have a real sense of the privacy, access and indulgence her crew can execute in singular Soneva style. We had unseasonal wind and strong currents; Soneva in Aqua’s slightly top-heavy configuration belies a surprisingly low centre of gravity, but in the interest of authenticity, she was crafted without stabilisers – so, occasionally, I rolled around a bit in my glorious feather bed. But in every respect, I was indulged with seamless professionalism. My Mr Friday (as Soneva butlers have long been known) was called Mode, a trained rescue diver/bartender/astronomer/amateur marine biologist with an acute intellect and quiet charm. He expertly gauged the currents at the pristine reefs we snorkelled, just offshore of Dakaandhu island, at the far western edge of the atoll; he extemporised in the galley to produce gorgeous mock-tails, in deference to dry January (though, as at all Soneva resorts, there is a formidable wine list on offer to match the excellent menu of fresh, sustainably sourced fish and produce grown primarily in Soneva Fushi’s three-acre organic garden). He even schooled me in the southern-hemisphere trajectories of familiar constellations one night, after a barbecue staged on empty Mehndhoo island with a multitude of lanterns and braziers, and a table and chairs made of driftwood. To be sure, there is luxury to spare in these islands. But it seemed to me, at the time, that Soneva in Aqua had earned her kudos by taking me to the very pith of it: a place of sand, sea and stars, with pure solitude in between.