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by Claire Wrathall, The Daily Telegraph, October 17, 2016
Back in 1990, when Sonu Shivdasani was 25, he and his wife Eva, a Swedish model whom he met on his sister’s yacht in Monaco while still an Oxford undergraduate, visited the Maldives. They liked it so much that they leased an uninhabited island, Kunfunadhoo, a speck in the Baa Atoll, half an hour by seaplane from the capital of Malé. Five years later, having built a home for themselves there, they opened a hotel. They called it Soneva (for Sonu and Eva) Fushi (‘island’ in Dhivehi).
It was, in several respects, a game-changer; a pioneer of what British-born Shivdasani calls "intelligent luxury" – "from the Latin intelligo: “I understand”,’ he explains. Its motto, and that of the subsequent Soneva hotels he has opened, is "no shoes, no news’" They are the only places I’ve stayed where you are offered a drawstring bag on arrival and encouraged to give up your footwear for the duration of your holiday. Thankfully for those with imperfect feet, it’s not a rule they enforce. Neither is there an actual blackout on media. There are televisions, though they are concealed in artfully arranged vintage trunks at the foot of each bed. And there is Wi-Fi in each villa, though it can be switched off. In fact, resigned to the reality that the high-rollers who can afford to holiday here are probably wedded to their phones, there are little pockets sewn into the mosquito nets so that you can reach for your handset with ease during the night.
Soneva Fushi soon established itself as a magnet for those hoping to withdraw from the world, at least for a bit. Shivdasani does not drop names, but Madonna went public after she stayed there, calling it the "definition of heaven – [a place for] riding bikes in the moonlight and watching movies under a starlit sky". And when I stayed at its sister hotel, Soneva Kiri, in southern Thailand, my personal Friday – as they call the staff members assigned to each guest – happened to let slip that Jenson Button had caused a sensation a week or two earlier with his daredevil handling of a club car. The size of the site is such that each of that resort’s villas and residences has its own vehicle so that you can drive yourself to the beach or to dinner, though equally you can summon someone to chauffeur you. Such was the attention to detail that while I would park nose-in by my villa, whenever I went to get in the car, a member of staff would have turned it around to save me having to reverse out. Nothing at Soneva is too much trouble.
Between Sonevas Fushi and Kiri came Soneva Gili, also based in the Maldives, and the creation of management companies Six Senses and Evason. But by 2011, Shivdasani found they were operating two different business models. "We had begun as an owner-operator, then people started asking us to manage their hotels. We didn’t want to use our name for hotels that we didn’t own outright, and Six Senses and Evason were a mixed bag. But the board wanted us to bring everything together, create one brand and then sell our assets over time to show the owners there was no conflict of interest. Some of them," he adds darkly, "were saying the Sonevas were performing better."
So he decided to sell, and in 2012 control of Six Senses passed to the US private-equity company Pegasus Capital Advisors. He also offloaded Soneva Gili because it lacked the potential to develop private residences. It was also reckoned to be imperfectly close to Malé and rival developments, and perfection is what Shivdasani aspires to. Now Soneva Gili is called Gili Lankanfushi and belongs to Singapore-based HPL Hotels, though it still calls its butlers Fridays and eschews shoes.
Shivdasani’s philosophy now is: "One owner [himself], one operator, one philosophy, one brand", and for the purposes of this conversation, one hotel: Soneva Jani. Also in the Maldives, it welcomed its first guests – Soneva regulars all – on October 1.
If Soneva Fushi is its own island, Soneva Jani (meaning "wisdom"), an hour north-east by speedboat, is its own atoll; a little arrowhead-shaped archipelago of five islets (four of them deserted) within the Medhufaru lagoon, an all-but private expanse of water covering more than two square miles.
Despite the size of the site, for the moment there are only 24 villas, 13 with one bedroom ("At 400sq m they are the largest entry-level villas in the Maldives," Shivdasani says proudly), the rest with two, three or four bedrooms. All of them are built over the water along the west coast of Medhufaru island, which, at 150 acres, is the Maldives’ largest tourist island.
Each villa is an essay in voluptuous curves fashioned from blanched, subtly weathered wood, with shingled rather than thatched roofs, and an interior palette of greens, mauves and purples in keeping with the sublime Indian Ocean seascapes. All have a kitchen and a temperature-controlled wine cellar – though in deference to the Maldives’ Muslim culture, they call it a "walk-in minibar" – a study and, off the bedroom, a separate circular sleeping area for children. "We often found that even in the two-bedroom villas, parents didn’t use the second room because they didn’t want their children so far from them over water," he says.
Naturally each villa also has its own pool, several sundecks and a shaded roof terrace from which an undulating water slide transports guests straight into the lagoon. My favourite detail, however, is the retractable roof above the master bed in all but one of the four-bedroom villas; you can gaze at the Milky Way while comfortably supported by a pocket-sprung mattress and several of the 11 varieties of pillow on offer. "Every night at Soneva Gili at least one guest would ask if we could move their bed up to the top deck so they could sleep under the stars. Here you just press a button, and the roof slides back," Shivdasani explains. It makes life easier for all.
You can watch movies by starlight as well, in the resort’s open-air cinema (another Soneva signature), where guests are given headphones lest the soundtrack disturb the local wildlife – especially the turtles. Which brings us to Shivdasani’s overriding passion: the environment. A decade ago, he told me Soneva Fushi would be carbon free by 2010. So how is it doing? "Well, we haven’t quite got to a stage where we can turn off the generator," he admits. "But we’ve halved our energy consumption at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani will be more efficient with the solar power that will come in the second phase. The big letdown is battery technology. There’s no way to store the energy, but it is evolving." Efforts to pioneer a form of air-conditioning that relied on sea water drawn from depths of 300m, where its temperature is 11.5°C, never quite lived up to its promise, and neither did fuelling the generators with a sort of green diesel derived from coconuts.
But you can’t fault Shivdasani’s zeal for trying to do the right thing and, in doing so, setting an example for the plutocrats who have the power and influence to make a difference to the world. Take waste: "We regard rubbish as an asset," he says, explaining his Waste-to-Wealth scheme. "It can actually generate income. Food and cardboard are composted; fallen branches turned into charcoal; polystyrene made into pellets for beanbags..."
As for glass, Soneva Fushi has its own state-of-the-art glass factory, which recycles its own waste as well as that of neighbouring resorts in the Baa Atoll. Together they are reckoned to generate five tonnes of waste glass a year, but the studio turns much of this into handsome tableware and, thanks to an artists-in-residence programme (to date, Lino Tagliapietra, Sunny Wang, Howard Ben Tré and Clifford Rainey), works of art that are exhibited and sold.
Shivdasani also has designs on improving Maldivian society, not least by empowering local women, only four per cent of whom are in employment. Already 23 per cent of the staff at Soneva Jani are female (the target is 30 per cent). ‘There are a lot of talented women who don’t work because of the culture. But we have dedicated accommodation blocks and lounges for women so they will feel more comfortable, and zero tolerance of any kind of harassment. If we can reach a tipping point, they will become easier to recruit.
"When you’re the owner of a management company," he continues, "you spend at least a third of your time negotiating compromises between your own brand standards and those of your owners." Now, by focusing exclusively on what he believes in, ‘I can spend that time creating things and making them better.’
Soneva Jani introductory offer, $1,934.91 per night including a mandatory two per cent carbon-offset levy; soneva.com
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This article was written by Claire Wrathall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.