THE MALDIVES – It is the end of a seven-hour flight from Istanbul when the
window shades start to snap open, grown men and women scramble over each other’s
knees and a collective “oohing” and “aahing” fills the plane.
sophisticated world traveler, I of course, do not participate in such nonsense,
until I catch a glimpse of the view below and hop out of my seat as
Floating below us are the 1,200 islands of the Maldives, only 200
of which are inhabited. The sight is surreal. They look like split open quartz
crystals; clusters of green surrounded by rings of sand then blue stretching
from turquoise to infinity. The islands in the Indian Ocean are spread out over
800 kilometers in atolls: groupings of anywhere from five to 70 islands whose
circular formation reflects the original volcanoes they were born from.
Satellite photos of the Maldives eerily resemble, not the ocean, but
constellations of stars flung across a dark sky.
Most of the islands are
small, and Male, the capital, has clearly taken the brunt of it. One third of
the country’s population – roughly 100,000 people – are packed into 2.5
kilometers. From the landing strip of the airport, it looks like a floating
city; a waterborne urban skyline with the gold dome of a mosque peeking out. I
should be scribbling notes about the European tourists, the 100 resorts and the
45 flights a day, but I can’t stop thinking “Where does all the garbage go?” I
am so busy pondering this I almost miss the ruckus at the customs exit. An X-ray
machine has revealed three bottles of wine in our luggage. Belatedly, I notice
the large sign listing items forbidden to bring into the country: Dogs, Alcohol,
Materials contrary to Islamic beliefs, Idols used for worship, Dangerous
animals, Gunpowder and Explosives and Pornographic materials.
matter how many times we recite the words “kosher” or “Shabbos” the uniformed
customs officials shake their heads. This is alcohol. One suitcase is open, a
bottle is in their hands and they are heading off to store it until we leave. So
being a good law abiding citizen, I race out of the airport with the second
suitcase while their backs are turned.
An hour later I am looking out the
window of the seaplane, wondering where the landing strip is, when I realize
that the ocean is the landing strip. A wooden platform bobs in the water with a
whimsical sign “Soneva International Airport.”
We clamber aboard a
waiting speedboat and are immediately handed yet another cool scented towel and
a chilled island coconut with a straw sticking out.
Our shoes are put
away in cloth bags bearing the logo “No News. No Shoes.”
We are now
entering the actualized fantasy, and in fact the home, of Sonu and Eva
Shivdasani, the founders and directors of the Six Senses and Soneva Spa
All the resort literature loves to tell their story. And it’s a
pretty romantic one. Indian business scion Sonu studying at Oxford meets Swedish
supermodel Eva on a yacht in Monte Carlo. Eva did some photo shoots in the
Maldives and wants to go back there. They fall in love (with each other and the
country) lease an island and set about creating their idea of the perfect
In 1995 they open the Soneva (get the name now?) Fushi that so
redefines luxury travel that it snowballs into the creation of the Six Senses
Resort Spas (fourteen of them), which spread out over Asia, the Pacific, the
Middle East and Africa. And then they sell them. Except for two. The Soneva Kiri
in Thailand and the mother ship in the Maldives, which we have just set foot
The island of the Soneva Fushi is one of the largest in the Maldives,
but that doesn’t mean much. It’s a whopping 1.4 km. long and 400 meters
Since this is Sonu and Eva’s fantasy island, there is an ice
cream parlor with 30 homemade flavors, a chocolate factory and an outdoor movie
theater with a heavily nostalgic bent.
There is also a children’s “den”
which has its own full staff. A million-dollar renovation of the children’s
facilities is in the works, including zip lines through the jungle with tree top
stations for various activities along the way. Clearly the founders have a sense
But the interesting thing about the Soneva Fushi is that it
doesn’t look luxurious. The first glimpse is of a wooden dock leading to a beach
with a jungly area behind it. Everything from the tables and chairs, to the
buildings seem to be made out of various tree parts and branches. The paths are
all sand and the main mode of transportation is a fleet of clompy bicycles
complete with wire baskets. And honestly, it’s hard for anyone to look too
snooty when they aren’t wearing shoes.
But, as our tender urban footsies
touch the wooden dock, I notice that someone has carefully watered it down to
cool it off. The resort’s general manager and the spa director are there to
greet us. Then comes the kicker, we are introduced to our personal “Mr. Friday,”
whose sole job in the resort is to anticipate and execute our every wish. I will
spend the next few days apologizing profusely to Zidan, (I’m not sure about
what. I think I just felt guilty about bothering him) But he is serenity
incarnate. Nothing is a problem. He is there for us when we need him, and then
magically disappears when we don’t. It occurs to me that real luxury is subtle.
It involves things that you don’t actually have to buy, but you seem to need a
lot of money to be around them. Privacy, service or a nonthreatening proximity
to nature, for example.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider private
cooking lessons with a chef from Barcelona, or eating a Japanese tasting menu on
the beach to be camping.
The Robinson Crusoe setting definitely hides a
lot of infrastructure. (Our villa is made out of dried grass and sticks, but it
also houses a fully stocked wine fridge, Wi-Fi, 3 flat screen TV’s, Bose
speakers with a selection of 1,200 songs and a menu offering 16 different
choices of pillows.) The overall feeling, however, is not of glitz and
privilege, but seclusion in unbounded nature – from the calm backdrop of
trickling water in the Japanese garden to the rhythmic lapping of ocean waves
outside our door.
Halfway through our stay, I realize that we have not
worn shoes or locked our door in days. We have not once signed anything, told
anyone our room number, or in any way identified ourselves – not in the spa, the
dive shop, or anywhere on the island.
Somehow, the staff just knows. They
know that I don’t like air conditioning and my husband does; that I drink
sparkling water and he drinks still. They know that our food is cooked in a
separate new pan and utensils provided on our arrival. And after telling the
story about the confiscated wine, a bottle of Katzrin Odem Chardonnay or Yarden
Pinot Noir (?!) sit on our table every night, no matter which of the resorts’
five restaurants we are in.
In the Soneva the staff are referred to as
Eighty percent are Maldivian, many of them from the adjacent
island, and most of them live on the island.
“We empower the hosts,”
explains Anthony Paton, managing director of operations, whose own resume
includes running the palace household of King Hussein in Jordan.
encourage them to come up with solutions on their own. When hiring, we do
360-degree interviews, where other members of the team, even waiters or busboys,
can give their opinion. Our biggest problem is that nobody leaves.”
I know it sounds kind of hokey to call the guy who cleans your room or cooks
your omelet your “hosts.” But this is the weird thing. It actually starts to
feel that way. If I ask anyone directions (I get lost a lot the first few days),
they walk or even bicycle with me there.
I open the book I am reading and
find a handmade paper bookmark placed there. Ceramic dispensers of mosquito
repellent and sunblock, and even baskets of umbrellas, are strategically placed
all over the island. I feel like the guest of an omniscient host who anticipates
my every need, then gets to it before I even realize it myself.
Third World this kind of service usually comes with a bit of an edge to it. I
didn’t feel that here, and perhaps it’s in part because the Maldivians are
trying to take control of their destiny.
The main industries are tourism
and fishing. The larger hotels have apprenticeship programs, but the fishing
industry is in flux. Night fishing (which can destroy the reefs) and catching
endangered species (sharks in particular) are discouraged, but it’s not a
compelling argument when you have nothing to eat.
Here’s an interesting
fact. In 1992, tourists in the Maldives paid $2.3 million in shark tourism
(dives, etc.) as opposed to the $700,000 made in shark fishing and
Someone must be paying attention to this trend, since the Baa
Atoll (the island group of the Soneva Fushi) spent years lobbying the government
to attain status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Their literature now is filled
with phrases like “sustainable development,” “healthy ecosystems” and
Just one peak under the water justifies their
The reefs of the Baa Atoll are a legendary wonderland of coral of
all descriptions, sea turtles, giant clams, yellow moray eels, eagle rays, reef
fish of every color and shape, vast schools of tuna, sharks, manta rays and
dolphins. And I haven’t even gotten warmed up yet.
It’s like popping up
inside an aquarium, but with a marine biologist at your side (Fredericka, bless
her soul) and a turquoise wilderness all around you.
As the Maldives set
out to walk the fragile line between prosperity and conservation, they have an
unexpected partner in the luxurious Soneva Fushi.
According to the resort
brochures, they are trying to be “carbon neutral” within the near future. For
years they have been not just desalinating, but filtering and bottling their own
mineral water in glass bottles.
There is no plastic on the island. Guests
are asked to take home batteries or large plastic containers. Shampoos, soaps,
body lotions etc. are dispersed in refillable ceramic bottles. Towels and linens
are sewn on site with fabric imported from India. Even coconut shells are turned
into charcoal for BBQing. Two large organic vegetable gardens supply produce for
the restaurants and in turn use kitchen waste as fertilizer.
I go on a
tour to the island’s “eco Centro” and finally get my answer to the garbage
question. According to Gordon, who runs Soneva’s massive recycling project, most
islands burn it, and some just dump it. One of the problems is that very little
food is grown in the Maldives and almost everything is imported. Gordon points
to a towering pile of Styrofoam coolers and lists some of the current
experiments, which include reducing them to little beads for chairs, or using
them to insulate the walls.
Along with the recycling and conservation
efforts, the resort has its own “no-no list” – things they will not do, no
matter who is asking. These include serving endangered species (shark fin soup),
unethically and cruelly produced foods (foie gras or factory fished tuna) and
use of any non-biodegradable products.
Maybe I’m naïve to feel that
social responsibility and commitment to the environment offset the usual
clinging tinges of indulgence. Perhaps the ultimate luxury of our time is to
immerse yourself in an environment completely free of stress, however you
achieve it. Fifty-two percent repeat business at the Soneva Fushi shows that
something in this combination works.
Despite being ready to return home
after eight days, it wasn’t that easy to say good-bye. We walked down the wooden
dock after dark to take a boat to the regional airport. Zidan accompanied us
(barefoot) all the way. We strapped on our shoes and turned our backs on the
lantern lit tables, but not before we took one last look at the blue shimmering
beach behind us. The shoreline was lit up with bioluminescence; microorganisms
in the plankton that light up in flashes as the waves hit the sand, then go out
as the water retreats.
A final note: Taking home corals or shells is, of
course, forbidden. So I brought home a collection of the chef’s recipes instead.
In honor of the 100 coconuts consumed there a day, I am sharing this one:
Fushi’s Coconut Tofu Dessert
Combine - 1 liter of coconut cream with - 200 grams
of caster sugar - 5 tablespoons of Agar-Agar.
Simmer until all the
ingredients have dissolved and the mixture has thickened slightly. Pour into
individual silicon molds and chill for at least four hours. Serve with passion
fruit, mango and pomegranate seed garnish.