The interview: Sonu Shivdasani, co-founder of Soneva resorts, on buying into paradise
By Hamish McDougall
Pioneering hotelier and co-founder of Soneva, Sonu Shivdasani, launched the brand’s first resort with a view to having a residence in the Maldives. Now, many of his guests do too.
The water is so blue it hurts. Sparkling off the blindingly white sandbar, lapping from every direction in its azures, teals and ceruleans, the water is definitively, viscerally, the paradisaical blue for which the Maldives is renowned. There are a little over a thousand islands and hundreds of resorts sharing these sublime, iconic waters, but this one, this resort, is in a class of its own, charting new territory in the fields of sustainability, wellness and intelligent luxury.
Founded by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, Soneva has pioneered a vision of hospitality that has reshaped the space of resort luxury. “Essentially, luxury is not about gold and marble,” says Sonu Shivdasani. “It may have been in the past, for those who were living in the countryside – if you’ve got mud under your feet all the time, you want to drive into London and go to the Café Royal and have a four-piece band, and lots of Champagne and big chandeliers, and a lot of gold and marble. But if you’re urban, you’re exposed to that every day, so what’s rare is being able to walk barefoot for a week. Or having a salad that was plucked from the garden that morning.
Or just going to the observatory – where we have our resident astronomer – to look at the stars. These are things you can’t do, however successful you are, in an urban context.” When the brand’s first resort, Soneva Fushi, launched in 1995, this vision marked a significant departure from the mainstay of luxury hospitality, which consisted of opulently appointed accommodation, cocktail dress at dinner, exquisite ingredients flown in from all corners of the world. Soneva retained the pieces that genuinely add value (the resort has its own caviar label in partnership with Rossini), but steered the offering towards intimate, intelligent, rich and yet relaxed experiences – towards ‘barefoot luxury’.
It was a new direction for the industry, but also a radically new step for the Maldives. “When Eva came here in 1981 – for one of the first modelling shoots in the country – there were only four resorts. They served fish and bananas, that was it, and if you wanted a shower, it was all salt water, so they’d have to run with buckets and fill up a water tower.”
“In ’87, the resorts had saltwater showers, plastic chairs, and everything came out of tins.”
“We came together in ’87, and there were about 20 resorts by then,” he continues. “The resorts had white-tiled floors, neon lights, plastic chairs; and everything came out of tins, even the fruits and vegetables. It was like being at school. Again, it was salt-water showers. Coral was used from the reefs to build the hotel rooms. So not terribly sustainable, not luxurious, and we felt we could do something different.”
The push towards barefoot luxury was no mere translation of polished marble into natural wood, with restaurants arrayed across the sand and a spritz of peppermint oil as guests remove their shoes at the arrival jetty. It took shape, and continues to evolve, as a whole ecosystem of experiences, design, details, execution, and – perhaps above all – imagination.
At Soneva Fushi, there is the observatory complete with resident astronomer, a restaurant set amidst the organic gardens where much of the produce is grown, a world-class wellness centre featuring Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, hyperbaric and IV therapies, and extensive beauty treatments, as well as bars and cellars staffed by no fewer than five sommeliers, a zip-line through the jungle leading to a treetop private dining experience, an eco centre that recycles the majority of the resort’s waste, an outdoor cinema, and an outstanding programme of visiting ‘stars’ – from Michelin-starred chefs to renowned wellness practitioners and sporting legends.
“Our creativity is inspired by this phrase, ‘intelligent luxury’,” says Shivdasani. “So it’s important to be creative, but that creativity needs a railway track to drive the bullet train of energy, and for us it’s that principal of inspiring a lifetime of intelligent luxury.”
The creativity also seems to derive from the desire to push beyond the shorter stay, the one-off vacation, instead catering to longer stays, repeat guests, and, ultimately, to residents. Again, it was (and largely remains) a wholly new direction for the market. There’s a reason why five or seven nights are the mainstay of the Maldives: they’re small islands, and even paradise can lose its shine after a time. But the Shivdasanis didn’t see it that way.
“The idea in first building the resort was that we could spend a bit more time here.”
“Originally, we wanted to buy a house in the Maldives, but the government said no, you have to do tourism. So we looked into it. The idea in building the resort was that we could spend a bit more time here – and now we live here for about six months of the year. We love it,” says Shivdasani. “During the pandemic, we arrived on 24 March 2020, and the borders closed four days later. The Maldives was one of the first countries to re-open, after just three months, because it’s one island, one resort, so there’s 1,200 isolation centres in a way. But we decided not to go to Europe that summer, and so we stayed on, and the next time we put shoes on was June 2021, 15 months later – and we were really sad to leave!”
With the resort being born out of the founders’ desire for a residence – rather than the residences’ being tacked on to a founding resort – Soneva’s approach to hospitality took on a unique perspective. The wellness programme extends well past the usual one-off spa sessions to include weeks-long treatments across sleep, detoxing, longevity, and cutting-edge regenerative therapies. Guests come, in part, to reboot their health or recover from illness, to launch a new beauty or wellness regime, all of which is, of course, completely unsuited to shorter stays.
Then there’s the array of culinary options, which is simply astonishing for a small island resort, ranging from numerous restaurants and the sheer cornucopia of their buffets to curated dining experiences and the likes of salad, snack and jamón bars vying with chocolate, cheese and ice-cream rooms. (“You can stay here for two weeks and still not try every dining experience,” says Shivdasani, who himself had only just taken in the latest offering – Michelinstarred chef Tim Raue’s pop up at Soneva Fushi’s treetop restaurant, Flying Sauces.)
The Soneva Stars programme – of which Raue is exemplary – itself adds yet another dimension to the long-stay/repeat-stay offering. From lessons with tennis champion Anett Kontaveit, to sessions with renowned hypnotherapist Malminder Gill, to lectures and after-dinner stargazing by astronomer and science-writer Lars Lindberg Christensen, it’s largely geared towards longer-stay guests who can bear to drag themselves away from the sublime poolside terraces and unendingly captivating views.
“Most people looking at the Maldives are buying their fifth home.”
And it all stands in stark contrast with the fast tourism – the industrial leisure travel, the ticking of the Maldivian box – towards which even high-end resorts tend to frame their approach. For the Shivdasanis, it’s the opposite. Slow tourism, slow life, which the business has adopted as an acronymic core purpose: ‘Sustainable Local Organic Wellness Learning Inspiring Fun Experiences’. Shivdasani explains: “This idea of having a purpose that goes beyond simply enriching shareholders and paying employees a salary, it’s a purpose that has meaning – slow life – where essentially we’re offering our guests luxuries and enhancing their wellbeing while minimising our impact on the planet. If anything that purpose has become stronger as we’ve evolved.”
For 35 families (and counting), it’s this the sense of purpose, enrichment and intelligent luxury that has inspired them to make the islands home. Or at least, one of their homes. “Most people looking at the Maldives are buying their fifth home, because they’ve bought their house in the city, they’ve bought a house in the counryside for weekends, they’ve then got the ski chalet, and the beach – so this is number five,” says Shivdasani. “And most people think, god, do we want a fifth house? Do we want to be tied down to go to the same place? But a lot of our guests realise, because they’re well travelled, they don’t want to go anywhere else.”
And indeed Soneva’s resorts have become not only a residence, but a ritual. One family stays every year, on the exact same dates each year. Another times its two annual visits to coincide with the two bleakest months in northern Europe. The resorts have become part of their lives, their families, their wellness journey – and, yes, their periodic need for a spot of breathtaking, intelligent and ever-evolving luxury. “It’s never-ending – an asymptote,” says Shivdasani. “We’re always seeking perfection but never quite there.”
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