Soneva Fushi, in the Maldives, is a stylish mix of nature and luxury with coral reefs, dolphin cruises and a celebrity clientele. Anthea Ayache dives in to discover what this secret eco resort has to offer
‘There’s a whole other world going on down there,’ I think as I float, mesmerised by the sheer volume of activity happening mere metres below. On the surface the sun shines, and the crystal-clear water laps gently against the sides of the speed boat that whisked us here just moments ago. But beneath the water, there’s an entire underwater world that most of us rarely glimpse.
Shoals of translucent bait fish speed past in their hundreds while giant clams suck the ancient boulder coral, star fish lie camouflaged and motionless while bright yellow puffer fish swing angrily by. A wide-winged manta ray lies on the shallow and sandy reef floor while two moray eels slither past. Giant grumpy-looking grouper join the lively crowd before being shown up by darting and dazzling parrot fish. It’s a kaleidoscope of colours and a constant rush of activity, normally only observed through the glass cage of an indoor aquarium.
But this is the Indian Ocean and we are in the Maldives, where fish swim free in crystal clear, turquoise waters and colourful coral reefs, in parts, still thrive. While much of the country is water – 90 per cent in fact – the Maldives also has a vast and breath-taking array of 26 atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs that encircle lagoons) in the form of islands and reefs.
Our awe-inspiring snorkelling excursion takes place off the Kunfunadhoo Island, on the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to the country’s number one natural hideaway, Soneva Fushi. This resort, unlike most open beach hotels in the Maldives where villas yawn out into the ocean, is hidden under a canopy of tall trees. Dense foliage covers the island, creating a natural form of shade and allowing for a unique forest feel.
Barefoot and back to nature
From the moment we landed, (by sea plane no less) and were whisked away on a small but luxurious boat, we were asked to relinquish our shoes. Our Man Friday – every villa has a devoted personal assistant for the entire stay – placed them in a bag with the hotel’s policy beautifully hand-sewn on the front: No shoes, No News. Soneva Fushi believes in the healing properties of walking barefoot, allowing your feet to feel the sand, the sea, and the soft wood. While it may take some getting used to for the real city slickers, in the end we find that walking barefoot for your entire stay does, in fact, leave you feeling liberated and at one with your natural surroundings.
The exclusive, celebrity-loved resort (we won’t namedrop, but lets say A-listers), which was founded 23 years ago by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani – also founders of the global Six Senses Spa brand – on what was then a deserted island, abides by a long-standing philosophy of sustainability and authenticity or what they refer to as SLOW LIFE, an acronym for sustainable-local-organic-wellness-learning-inspiring-fun experiences.
All 70 villas that dot the periphery of this award-winning island – allowing each access to their private slice of sea and sand – are locally crafted and environmentally responsible. Beautifully unique in shape, size and design, they have been inspired by nature and built using sustainably sourced wood.
Shrouded by abundant greenery, the villas are luxuriously rustic, light, and airy with splashes of bright Soneva Fushi colours thanks to locally handmade covers and quilts. And each bathroom is a world unto itself being open air, including a deep-set tub surrounded by water and towering trees, with the natural sounds of swaying leaves and the ocean as a personal soundtrack. But it’s not only the bathtub where you can immerse yourself in water, our Crusoe villa had a perfect temperature swimming pool that could easily accommodate 20 people. It would be very easy to lie in one of the strategically placed over water hammocks and while the day away.
True to its appreciation of Robinson Crusoe simplicity, guests are not ferried around the island on buggies. Rather, each villa is equipped with bicycles (thoughtfully the pedals have even been covered with soft neutral material to cushion your bare feet) so its residents can cycle the one kilometre length of winding wooded pathways that lead to alcoves of soft white sand that blend seamlessly into bright turquoise blue seas. And don’t be surprised if wild bunny rabbits pop out to say hello en-route – they have been on the island longer than Sonu and Eva!
It’s all in the Itinerary
While a stay at Soneva Fushi is no ‘extreme adventure’ holiday (water sports that do not respect the environment such as jet skis are not allowed), for those that choose to be more active, it can be more than just lying on the pristine beach, by the privacy of your villa pool or at the Sunset Beach Bar, cocktail in hand.
An array of timetabled activities including yoga, snorkelling, diving, paddle boarding, glass blowing, cooking classes and picnics on nearby remote islands, are available. Guests can even watch movies under the stars at the island’s very own outdoor Cinema Paradiso!
For those most interested in seeing the underworld however, you can sign up to search for Manta Rays in the waters of the Baa Atoll. A 20-minute speed boat journey takes you to Hanifaru Bay, an area with one of the world’s largest population of these large yet harmless creatures. If you’re there at the right time, and with a little luck on your side, you’ll witness hundreds of the rays feasting in the plankton-rich waters.
Soneva Fushi is fully equipped to be family friendly. The children’s club, The Den, is a playground for kids of all ages. Decked out with a pirate ship, two swimming pools, a lego room, dress-up area, cinema, library, learning area and a music room filled with instruments, you’ll be hard pressed to get your little ones back to the villa!). For those adults who wish to leave their children there supervised while out on an excursion, there’s an additional daily rate of $25 (AED92).
In the evenings, Soneva Fushi offers an array of activities from sunset cocktail parties to dolphin cruises. The latter involves heading out to sea on a yacht, sipping organic bubbly (Soneva Fushi has a cellar that boast over 900 organic vineyard varieties) and eating locally sourced canapes while a scout searches the sea for a pod of dolphins to watch. This all takes place under a dramatic Maldivian sunset that turns the sky from blue to pink to gold to red. Our experience – although the dolphins sadly stayed away – did involve a rainbow at the start. We were dropped off at the Bar(a)Bar with a stunning view out to sea for an evening aperitif.
Food at the resort is as out of this world as the setting. Soneva Fushi prides itself on the quality and variety of its menus, growing fresh, organic vegetables on its own on-site garden. From lime basil to rocket, tomatoes to squash, chard to pumpkin, the garden even has its own mushroom farm. Dinner is often served on the beach so you can run your toes through soft white sand while you eat fresh fish under the stars. And for those with a sweet tooth, you’ll be delighted by the 24-hour organic and handmade ice cream and chocolate rooms. Choose from over 20 flavours such as sweet basil sorbet or pineapple and chili to the more reserved salted caramel or cappuccino. Whatever the choice, you can be sure the ingredients are all fresh, pesticide free and handmade.
Upcycling and reducing waste is paramount on the part solar-powered resort which even has its own ‘Eco Waste to Wealth’ centre. Here, everything that can be recycled or upcycled on the island is given a second lease of life. Coconuts are turned into coconut oil for cooking and toiletries while the old shells are used to make decorative objects sold in the gift shop. Polystyrene that is brought to the island filled with outsourced food products is broken down and used to make breeze blocks for building. Even charcoal for their many barbecues held at sunset on the beach is made from the islands’ coconuts.
Sustainability and a love of the environment pervade this back-to-nature resort so perfectly that far from deter guests, it resonates with them, be it the first, second or tenth time they visit. For once you have experienced the signature style of Soneva Fushi, that proves luxury can be effortlessly combined with the environment, we can be certain you’ll be back for more.
Prices start from AED6,500 per night.
A 30-minute return seaplane journey from Male costs $400 (AED1,470) and will be organised by the resort.
Fly Dubai flies twice daily with prices starting from AED980