THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
05 AUGUST 2017
THE MALDIVES - TOO SPOILT FOR WORDS
Seven-star luxury? No, this is better... CHRISTA D’SOUZA thought the Maldives were just perfect – then she discovered a new eco-resort setting a whole new standard.
As beach holiday destinations go, the Maldives is about as good as it gets. Hot sun, over-water villas, white, talc-like sand, psychedelic snorkelling, glittering turquoise water stretching for miles… it’s all par for the course if you book a holiday here.
Soneva Jani, the new luxury eco-resort and latest A-list bolt-hole on Medhufaru in Noonu Atoll, about 125 miles north of the country’s capital Malé, is on quite another almost nutty level.
Set on a lagoon large enough to hold 7,000 Olympic swimming pools, and so fluorescently blue it looks as if someone has switched on a lightbulb underneath the sea, it almost doesn’t feel real when you arrive.
Imagine Cubby Broccoli’s reinterpretation of Robinson Crusoe, and that goes some way to describing the childish wonderment we felt after stepping off the seaplane and being greeted at the dock by our ‘Man Friday’, Roman.
A young ex-soldier from Ukraine with flawless English, Roman welcomed us with fresh coconut water and icy towels infused with orange water. Then he golf-carted us through forests of screwpine and banyan trees to our villa, the last on the bleached-wood boardwalk that runs higgledy-piggledy through the middle of the island.
To the south are four more islands that belong to Medhufaru – an archipelago, really, more than an island – all of which are deserted.
In terms of space, Roman told us, Soneva Jani (the Sanskrit word for ‘wisdom’) is one of the lowest-density resorts in the world, with only 25 villas on 150 acres of land. If you are seeking seclusion – like former guests Will Smith and Kate Winslet – then this is the place for you.
Many of the villas have a water slide running from the living room to the lagoon – though sadly not ours.
However, we did have a remote-controlled retractable ceiling over our bed so we could stargaze from our pillows – forget rose petals strewn over the sheets, this, surely, is the definition of romance, no?
Oh, and the view. We could have gone on a dolphin cruise but often we could see them from our villa. Sightings of 100-strong pods of bottlenoses spinning and somersaulting along the reef are by no means an unusual sight, according to Roman. (There are harmless baby sharks too, deposited by their mothers in the lagoon to avoid predators.)
Sonu Shivdasani and his Swedish wife Eva, pioneers of the luxury eco- resort concept and founders of the Soneva ‘chain’ (Soneva Fushi, Jani’s sister resort, is about 80 minutes away by speedboat, and there is also Soneva Kiri in Thailand), they know their jaded luxury traveller inside out.
The guest who wants something a bit purer, a bit more authentic than the normal, no-holds-barred, seven-star experience, but at the same time needs his or her creature comforts.
From our lime-green Smeg fridge to the undulating roof shingles of the villas mimicking the ocean; from the purple cushion pads on our pedals so we could ride our bikes everywhere shoeless; to the glass floor in the guest bathroom so you can watch the fishes while you, er, ablute… no detail has been overlooked.
In the ‘gathering’, the three-storeyed beating heart of the resort, eerily lit at night by giant neon-blue jellyfish sculptures suspended from the ceiling, there is a sushi room, a 24/7 home-made chocolate and ice-cream room with 50 flavours, and an overwater spa.
At So Starstruck, the resort’s turreted open-air observatory, the first of its kind in the Maldives, you can have dinner with the resort’s resident astronomer Mike Dalley (low-light pollution means the Maldives is a magnet for astronomers all over the world) and, while you’re having dessert, witness the resort’s ridiculously large telescope emerging silently, like something devised by Q, out of the glass floor in the middle of the deck.
The high-tech experience is the perfect foil to the resort’s ‘No Shoes, No News’ ethos (each guest is given a beautiful linen bag to put his or her shoes in at the beginning of the holiday and strongly urged not to put them back on again until they leave).
Only marginally less Bond-like than the telescope is the overwater ‘silent’ cinema, again the first of its kind in the Maldives, kitted out with divinely comfortable, yards-deep sofas and overwater hammocks, where guests are all provided with Bluetooth headphones.
This is in part not to disturb the giant mangrove crabs which, like all the flora and fauna here, are treated with the utmost respect (golf carts brake for them and they are never eaten). They are out in force immediately dusk falls and, with their massive pincers, you wouldn’t want to brave this particular part of the island shoeless at night.
The Shivdasanis are passionate environmentalists and the resort’s central ethos is to keep its ecological footprint as faint as possible.
Light shades set out on the beach for night-time barbecues are made out of recycled bedsheets, straws out of recycled paper, and drinking glasses out of recycled glass… with no plastic bottles anywhere.
Solar is a big part of the resort’s power source and each of the pools uses seawater that has been UV-filtered. All the fresh water is also produced on site, via the resort’s own desalination system, and, through the resort’s Eco Centro ‘Waste to Wealth’ Centre, 81 per cent of waste products are recycled.
An extensive organic vegetable garden supplies most of the resort’s produce. (Tomatoes, apparently are tricky, but the rocket, asparagus and baby bananas are absolutely to die for…)
Home-made kiln-baked pizza, ‘build your own’ stir-fries, giant grilled shrimp or freshly caught reef fish, burrata and heirloom tomato salads… the food caters to the fussiest eaters.
Please, though, try the Maldivian cuisine, especially a local breakfast speciality called mashuni, a mixture of freshly grated coconut, chilli and canned tuna.
The icing on the cake was the last day when I wistfully put on my ‘real’ clothes to go home. I didn’t hold back on the basil and yogurt sorbet or focaccia bread and tapenade, and yet, amazingly, my jeans felt at least a size too large.
I returned home a week ago, and ever since I’ve been plotting ways to somehow get back.