Luxury in the time of coronavirus | Rehab in the Maldives | Make mine rare

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

What’s the new centrepiece of luxury travel? Ahead of the re-opening of the Maldives to tourists this week, premium hotelier Sonu Shivdasani has been recalibrating…

Recycling, rethinking … Sonu Shivdasani’s brainstorming iso. Photo: Alicia Warner

The new luxury, post Covid-19, mused Sonu Shivdasani towards the end of a lockdown on one of his island paradises in the Maldives, will build on rarity.

“The majority of our guests are self-made, living in urban environments,” he says. “They are no longer landed gentry who’ve inherited wealth. Much of what the wealthy of the past took for granted is now rare. And essentially that’s what luxury is about – that which is rare.

“For the urban rich, fresh air is at a premium, privacy and space are challenging, fresh food, too. More than ever, people want the rare experience – being able to walk barefoot for a week, have leaves for their salad plucked from the garden that morning, watch the stars through a powerful telescope with an astronomer to explain the skies, shower beneath a full moon with your favourite music on the in-room sound system … that’s rare luxury…”

Leaf bar at Soneva Jani, fresh from the garden each morning

Ironically, travel itself is a Very Rare Thing right now, dictated by border closures and re-openings, quarantines, social distancing and numerous other logistical challenges.

Many people, Shivdasani believes, will emerge from the coronavirus crisis being more sensitive. Habits will have changed: a disregard for cost and consequences will be replaced by a desire to travelling sustainably and seek out environmental experiences built around community interactions.

Luxury hotels and resorts will be the first to pick up, he anticipates, due to what tends to be the risk-taking nature of their operators. People will travel less but stay longer.

Shivdasani has been setting standards in luxury for 25 years. With his Swedish creative director wife, Eva, he founded the Six Senses Resorts & Spas across South East Asia and Europe in the mid-1990s (sold in 2012), and in tandem developed the Soneva brand which includes the resorts Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives, Soneva Kiri in Thailand, and Soneva in Aqua, a super luxury yacht.

Rustic, ritzy, remote: the double beach villa, #65, at Soneva Fushi

The Maldives sits in 298 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean south-west of Sri Lanka and India. It’s an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls. Most of the resorts are on the North Male, South Male, Ari, Felidhu, Baa, and Lhaviyani atolls. Visitors fly into Male and then go by seaplane or speed boat to their island. A kind of self-isolation in paradise (with requisite temperature-taking, social distancing and Covid-19 testing).

It’s a place that shimmers with rare experiences. The 150-plus resorts understand the need for points of difference in paradise … powdery private sandbars for sunset cocktails, specialty chocolate and cheese boutiques (Soneva Fushi); a private observatory (Anantara Kihavah); surf breaks (Como Maalifushi); dive wrecks (One&Only Reethi Rah); big game fishing (Kanuhura Maldives); an overnighter in an inflatable, Instagrammable beach bubble (Finolhu); retractable roofs and waterslides to channel your inner child (Soneva Jani).

Would you like Cognac with that?

It’s not often that one of the most compelling aspects of a resort is the waste recycling. But Soneva Fushi, located on the eastern edge of Baa Atoll, a UNESCO heritage site, is an island that seeks out the intersection of authentic and sustainable travel. It’s an example of elegant environmental endeavour.

Eighty per cent of waste is recycled. Polystyrene boxes are broken up and mixed with cement to make bricks, neatly cut as “canvas” for kids’ club painting activities or made into beads for bean bags. Eco Central takes bottles from all over the Maldives and mixes crushed coloured glass with cement for building. Clear glass is upcycled into sculpture, vases, drinking glasses, decorative insets, arty bar tops and cool bar stools.

Twenty percent of the island is powered and lit by solar panels. There is a desalination plant: all the drinking water is made on the island and bottled in recycled glass. They have ditched the bottles of branded water. Rice sacks attached to sticks become eco rubbish bins around the island. Plastic is all but non-existent, and guests are provided with a calico bag in which to take home anything that can’t be recycled.

As with many other Maldivian resort owners, lockdown has provided rare thinking space. Sonu and Eva have dreamed up new initiatives such as plant-based restaurants, kitchens in canopies, eight new Water Retreats claimed to be the roomiest in the Maldives – from 584 square metres and separated by 40 metres, advanced composting sewage systems, wellness centres, new cross-function gyms, Ayurvedic immune boosters for breakfast, and menus that go easy on ingredients that contribute to greenhouse gases. They have also had time to draw up a 2020 guest list that will appeal to sporty guests, on it former Swedish tennis champion Jonas Björkman and former champion footballer, Mikaël Silvestre.

New Water Retreats will feature the signature Soneva waterslide

The days of pesky mosquitoes are numbered. “Last year we decided no more toxic spray,” Shavdasani says. “Using them had just become a habit. But it was ineffective.”

Seeking an alternative to harmful chemical pesticides they called in Bart Knols, a Dutch entomologist with a speciality in malarial mosquitoes, who pioneered traps that use a combination of carbon dioxide and lactic acid to attract and kill the insects. There are two kinds of traps, one to catch feeding mosquitoes and the other which targets those ready to lay eggs.

Some 495 mosquito traps were installed at Soneva Fushi last year. “When we started, we caught 9000 mosquitoes, 20 a day, in each trap. Recently we caught only 45.

“Covid has allowed us to pause, think, and reflect on stupidities like insect spray, on the crisis that is global warming, and come up with solutions. When it comes to sustainability we are constantly peeling the onion.

“I am guided by Einstein who said you must be willing to give up what you are in order to become what you will be. You don’t want a glass that’s so full there’s not room for anything else. When we go back to normal, are we going to fill the glass with the same water or put some new liquid in that glass and start to change our habits?”

A welcome to the Middle Of Nowhere

Photos by Susan Skelly and supplied


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.