Luxury with a conscience

A stay at the Soneva Fushi Spa resort in the Maldive islands offers a unique balance between prosperity and conservation.

Maldives 370 (photo credit: Yossi Medved)
Maldives 370
(photo credit: Yossi Medved)
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.
Being a 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 well.
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.
Oops. No 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 resorts.
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 resort.
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 on.
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 across.
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 of fun.
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 “hosts.”
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.
“We 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.”
Now, 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.
In the 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 products.
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 “conserving biodiversity.”
Just one peak under the water justifies their status.
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:
Soneva 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.