Finding Maldivian bliss at Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi

Maldivian islands Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi have gained near-mythical status. Zaneta Cheng travels to the atolls to see if these pioneering barefoot luxury resorts live up to the hype

An aerial view of the Private Reserve at Soneva Jani, the resort’s largest villa with nine rooms.

Nothing quite prepared me for the Soneva properties in the Maldives. Not trawling through Google images showing the outdoor showers and baths of both land and overwater villas. Not reading the reams of reviews that have been written of both Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi’s 24-hour ice cream and chocolate rooms or their famous outdoor cinemas. Not even the hours of scrolling through videos and photos across the social platforms of influencers and guests careening down the two-storey slides that come with each overwater villa or lying languidly on nets suspended above water while having a drink outside either Soneva Fushi’s Asian-cuisine eatery Out of the Blue or Soneva Jani’s restaurant hub The Gathering.

Villas at Soneva Jani allow guests to look out at a limitless horizon or up at the sky through the retractable roof.

Something about the island takes over as soon as I toss my shoes off on the speedboat that takes me from the 45-minute seaplane ride to Soneva Jani’s south jetty, where I’m greeted by a group of waving staff all dressed in white linens, and I get the feeling this is one property that might just live up to its hype.

First, some facts. Soneva Fushi is the brainchild of Sonu and Eva Shivdasani and the first “barefoot luxury” resort that the couple opened in 1995. In fact, they call the island in the Baa Atoll their home – their house is hidden among the dense jungle foliage near the gym and the tennis courts. Considered groundbreaking at the time, Soneva Fushi was the first resort to implement the now commonplace “no shoes, no news” policy and was the first eco luxury property in the Maldives.

Breakfast on the beach on Soneva Jani’s south jetty.

Soneva Fushi is set on Kunfunadhoo island, where the jungly maze hides island villas that contain private beach access, wooden bridges and private pools. Inspired by Robinson Crusoe, the villas were designed to inspire a castaway chic lifestyle, which is where the idea of the brand’s barefoot guardians originated – a modern reincarnation of Man Friday. Lately, Soneva Fushi has seen the addition of eight overwater villas to meet growing demand.

One of the island villas at Soneva Fushi complete with private pool and beach access.

Soneva Jani is about a half hour’s seaplane flight from Soneva Fushi on Medhufaru island in the Noonu Atoll. Soneva Fushi’s younger sibling, Soneva Jani opened half its pristine shores in 2016 and completed the other half in 2019. The property, which still gleams, is a watery kingdom with two jetties snaking away from the island and dotted with a total of 51 villas. All overwater villas come with infinity pools overlooking the reef and Soneva’s legendary two-storey slides.

Cinema Paradiso offers dinner and a movie.

Both properties are completely carbon neutral and generate their own electricity. These islands are about offering a new kind of luxury. It’s easier to indulge when some of the guilt that comes with decadence is taken care of. Each island remains committed to the ethos of sustainability that is at the heart of Soneva, with its own Eco-Centro, where all the waste of the island is treated, handled, recycled or upcycled. Glasses are melted down at Soneva Fushi’s glass studio, which makes much of the brand’s glassware and hosts artists. Much of the aluminium is recycled, so every time I hang up a towel on one of the little fish-shaped hooks in the villas or open a door, I think of the infinite possibilities of soda cans.

Guests can learn about the night sky from a resident astronomer.

Soneva Fushi has also just recently opened a marine conservation centre, which can incubate coral on its premises before replanting it in the reefs and has been engaging in a programme that sees them resettling coral in parts of the reef close to Malé that would otherwise be destroyed to make way for new resort properties.

To visit either (or both, in my case) of these properties is to lose all sense of time and reality. It’s easy to forget the days of the week when every day starts with walking out into a vast expanse of blues. With a hot tea, I tread into the baby blue waters of the infinity pool and look out to the steely blue of the sea, and then further to the wispy-white expanse of blue sky that washes out any trace of cosmopolitan clutter that might still take up space in one’s head. The south jetty at Soneva Jani gives the fieriest sunrises – which makes waking up at 6.15, something I would never be caught doing at home, entirely worth it. At Soneva Fushi, the overwater villas don’t catch the sunrise but, if you’re lucky, the moon will still be high in the sky if you wake early enough to catch daybreak. It’s also because the Soneva ecosystem is so complete, so immersive and so plentiful that any semblance of a world outside of its sandy white shores is rendered nonexistent.

Enjoy a private dinner prepared by one of many Michelin-starred guest chefs at both Soneva properties.

For one, Sonu is said to be something of a gourmand so both islands have their share of eateries. There’s casual dining in the form of the buffet at The Gathering and seafood at The Crab Shack at Soneva Jani. At Soneva Fushi, Out of the Blue serves a plethora of modern Asian cuisines. Both islands have their own plant-based restaurants where much of the greens are grown right on the island. There’s Michelin-quality dining – notably, the most incredible omakase at Soneva Fushi prepared by Chef Soba. For those looking for a bit of excitement alongside their meal, of which I discovered while I was at Soneva to be one, there are dinners held under the stars, led by Soneva’s resident astronomers, zip-lining to a treehouse dinner at Soneva Fushi and private castaway picnics on sandbanks.

Chilli crab at The Crab Shack.

The activities available are also endless. Water sports, dolphin watching, tennis coaching, gardening, glassblowing, yoga, meditation, personal training – there’s something for everyone. Barefoot guardians are there to tailor the stay to suit the penchants of everyone from honeymooners and celebrities looking for a low- key hideaway to families with children.

Out of the Blue is one of the newer restaurant complexes at Soneva Fushi serving a special omakase menu and more casual Asian fare.

My idea of paradise is to be allowed to run amok between my villa and the spa. Soneva Soul at both Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi are paeans to haute-wellness. Set both outdoors and indoors, treatments range from traditional Ayurvedic massages to state-of- the-art facials. At Soneva Jani, my therapist guides me down the winding bridges that suspend the spa above the trees to a private hut overlooking the sea. The sound of waves breaking on the shores of the beach make for a decadent soundtrack while my body is scrubbed with sugar and then massaged with locally produced coconut oil mixed with lemongrass essential oil. A post- massage juice and it’s a bicycle ride back to the villa.

Taking a brief respite from resort activities at Soneva Soul.

Once inside, I fling open all the sea-facing doors that stretch the length of the villa from the living room through to the study and the bedroom and open the retractable roof above the bedroom. At Soneva Jani, the villas are made of white-washed wood with purple cushions while at Soneva Fushi, the villas are clad in warm brown wooden panels all cut by Soneva carpenters. There are loungers and outdoor sofas, but strangely enough my favourite spot in the villa is the indoor lounger in the sink room that looks out to the outdoor bath and shower. I lie down after a few rounds on the slide and dips in the sea while the overhead fan spins away, bathing in the soft glow of late-afternoon sun with music on my phone playing on the villa sound system, and in those moments there is likely no better state of being.

Also see: New Maldives resort opens near UNESCO Biosphere Reserve blue waters

In this Story: #travel / #hotels & resorts