Jul 11, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Thailand.
Say Soneva to almost anyone in the travel industry, and they immediately think “Maldives.” Which is not entirely unreasonable. It was Sonu Shivdasani, and his wife, one-time Vogue cover model, Eva Malmström Shivdasani, who, in 1995, combined their first names when they opened Soneva Fushi. Since then, about twelve zillion international and local hotel chains have opened resorts atop atolls in the Maldives. Yet it is fair to state that it was the Shivdasanis who gave birth to the Maldives as the international jetsetters’ dream destination. And 27 years later, Soneva Fushi, and its newer neighbor Soneva Jani, not to mention the cruise boat, Soneva in Aqua, remain the optimum, unspoiled, jungly-yet-glamorous, chic-yet sustainably sensible resorts in the Maldives. (Eva banned plastic straws decades before anyone dreamed it would matter.) Sonu and Eva call their resorts’ style “intelligent luxury.”
Yet, 2,000 miles to the Maldives’ northeast, there’s another Soneva: Soneva Kiri, opened by the Shivdasanis on the Thai island of Koh Kut (Ko Kood) in 2009. Koh Kut is the fourth largest island in Thailand, yet it is its least populated.
My limousine driver from Bangkok’s gorgeous Siam Hotel knew exactly at which entrance to drop me at the Thai capital’s massive Suvarnabhumi International Airport, so I would have easy access to check-in desk K24, for the private 80-minute flight to Koh Kut. Gorgeous ladies gave me warm Thai smiles and delicate hand-bows as they tagged my bags and handed me my boarding pass. I was then personally escorted through security to the Thai Airways lounge, where because I am a neurotically early checker inner, I spent two hours munching hefty chunks of mango and papaya, and happily gazing at planes, which happens to be one of my very favorite pastimes.
Another gorgeous and gracious lady returned to walk me down escalators to a minivan that drove about 100 miles around terminals and across the tarmac to Soneva Kiri’s private Cessna 208 Caravan. This aircraft, built to accommodate 13, has in the Soneva version only eight spacious leather armchairs. The flight is scheduled as 80 minutes, but mine was just over an hour of flying over Bangkok suburbs, each embroidered with a pointy pagoda-temple, then over rice paddies, then eventually over the Gulf of Thailand. The landing on a private, uninhabited island was effortless, as was the greeting at the bottom of the stairs by a beaming Thai woman in a snappy white linen shirt and shorts, who introduced herself as Esther, my “butler.”
The other seven passengers and I clambered aboard a shiny white motor launch for the five-minute whoosh to Soneva Kiri’s private jetty. During the ride, Esther offered moist towels perfumed with lemongrass, a refreshing drink, and performed the ultimate Soneva rite, collecting each passenger’s shoes and placing them in silk bags emblazoned with the Soneva ethos: “No news, No shoes.” I’m an old Soneva hand, with problematic feet, and I elected to keep my loafers – but nobody frowned or gave me the impression I was naughty.
Back in 1995, when Sonu and Eva created “no news, no shoes,” it was a literal break with civilization. Soneva Fushi was and is all sand, and no shoes are a perfect solution. Before the Internet and WiFi, it was possible to spend five or ten or fifty days on a tropical island isolated from what was happening in the world. That “luxury” is (sadly/happily - you choose which) behind us, and I discovered that the WiFi at Soneva Kiri was possibly the speediest I have ever encountered in America or anywhere in the world. But there is one remnant of “no news” at Soneva Kiri: the vast television that appears magically from a Vuitton-style cabin trunk at the end of your bed had no news channels.
At the jetty, we were greeted individually by hotel manager, Patrick, also in white linen shirt and shorts. To describe Patrick as handsome would be like calling Coco Chanel a seamstress. Patrick, with his English accent, dimpled smile, and salt-and-pepper hair, possessed a kind of infuriating handsomeness only seen in Hollywood. Yet he seemed not to know and was humble and affable. Esther escorted me to a golf-buggy and off we noiselessly whizzed to explore the resort.
Everything at Soneva Kiri is built of wood. But "built of wood” sounds misleadingly pedestrian. The Shivdasanis have created wooden structures at Soneva Kiri (and in the Maldives) so splendid and so daring that they ape in wood the perfection of what the Spanish-American architect, Rafael Guastavino, fashioned a century-and-a-half-ago in porcelain tile. Wood is used to create vaulted ceilings, gothic arches, soaring naves, and curvy columns with such precision and grace that the mind boggles. The other ubiquitous Soneva “signature” is the infinite parade of pastel pillows inspired by Eva, lining couches, banquettes, chaises, sofas, bean-bag chairs. Sometimes the parade is lime, lemon and orange. Sometimes hot-pink and purple. The bold colors provide a dramatic contrast to the calm pallor of the wood.
We drew up at my one-bedroom villa. The golf buggy was now mine for the duration of the stay (gnomes come in the middle of the night to wash it and recharge its battery). A wooden walkway led through jungle to the wooden gate that led to a vast terraced patio, leading down to a giant, kidney-shaped private pool, private beach, chaise longues, and the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The patio led to my bedroom – a vast space with a vast bed beneath a vast vaunted wooden ceiling. Flawlessly airconditioned, the gently swirling fan reminded me (as if I needed reminding) I was in the tropics. Off the bedroom was a small toilet, ideal for middle-of-the-night sleepy peeing. The dressing room, complete with dressing-table and mirror surrounded by film-star bulbs, was fitted with enough drawers for a month of never doing laundry. Except that the contents of the straw laundry basket in the dressing room are whisked away in the morning and returned the same evening, washed, ironed, folded – without charge.
Beyond the dressing room was the bathroom. But it’s not a bath-ROOM, it’s a bath-GARDEN. Larger than most Manhattan apartments, and covered by a pointy canvas roof, the bath-garden is, above a craggy stone wall, open to the elements. The garden is filled with trees, and plants, and palms. At the center was a cushiony day bed. Two massive, upturned cabin trunks have been niftily fitted out as vanities and sinks. There’s an indoor shower, and, across steppingstones, an open-to-the-sky shower. There’s a bathtub for four. And yet another private toilet. At Soneva, as in France, toilets are always private, which to me makes total sense. I recently visited an aristocratic rental villa in Sorrento whose six bedrooms each had marble bathrooms large enough for one to happily host 40 for cocktails. But there in the corner was a toilet. Now, I am far from prudish. But when I’m sharing a bathroom, I like privacy for me and my wife for the various activities we all have to perform every now and then. And TWO private toilets in a one-bedroom villa? So much the better.
On the villa’s patio was a dining table and leather directors’ chairs – room service is 24/7 - as well as a not-so-mini-bar, coffee machine and plentiful crockery and glassware. Try as you might, you will not find an inch of non-reusable plastic at Soneva Kiri.
I spent four days at Soneva Kiri and never once ordered room service. After Esther showed and explained every corner of the “villa,” she handed me a smartphone. “Call me whenever you need anything,” she said, and off she went, leaving me mercifully alone to swim naked in my pool. In addition to the mosquito net, the villa was supplied with assorted sun-blocs, after-sun creams, as well as electronic mosquito repellents, liquid mosquito repellent, roll-on mosquito repellent. But I’m fortunate to have one of those bodies to which mosquitos give one yawn and then fly off to find someone juicier.
There is so much to do at Soneva Kiri (water sports, yoga, tree-pod-dining, a very spiffy spa, boutiques, a library, excursions to different beaches) that it is impossible to be idle, unless, like me, you want to be. I didn’t come all this way from crazy New York to be in action all day. I want to laze, and read, and, unfortunately, LogMeIn into my office every day; and swim, and read, and sleep and read.
Instead of room service, I found a plethora of eating opportunities at Soneva Kiri. From the giant breakfast buffet (for me – granola and about 250 slices of papaya), to the bar and delicious snacks at Colours of the Garden, to dining at The View, up on a promontory overlooking the ocean. Then let us not forget the all-day chocolate room, with a giant selection of homemade chocolates and macarons. Or the all-day cheese room, with a choice of at least thirty cheeses, from subtle to smelly, with a side of prosciutto or salami, washed down with a cornichon or two. Or the all-day multi-flavor ice cream room, once self-service, and now, post-pandemic, with a server.
The ratio of staff to guests at Soneva Kiri is one of the most guest-pleasing I’ve ever encountered. Most of them are gorgeous, and they all smile. It wouldn’t occur to any of them to be disagreeable or merely distant. I traveled everywhere throughout Soneva Kiri in my golf-buggy. For me, it’s much more pleasant than biking barefoot in the Maldives. But on the couple of occasions I’d imbibed a wee bit more gin than makes for happy driving, a quick call on my smartphone had Esther whizzing to collect me within minutes. And in the morning, my buggy was miraculously back in its port, washed and charged.
And then there is dinner at Kruua Mae Tuk, an authentic Thai restaurant on a wharf which is the only time you remember that Soneva Kiri is part of Thailand’s fourth-largest island. You drive your buggy to the staff village, where you transfer to an SUV and are driven along winding lanes through hamlets where, to the accompaniment of fluorescent lights and television, Thai families are eating dinner, kids are playing, dogs are racing, motorbikes are zooming. Suddenly, you’re in the backwoods of Thailand and it’s wonderful. At candlelit Kruua Mae Tuk, I sat at a plain wooden table and a waiter recited the menu of crab, and fish, and noodles, and curries, and more crab. I asked that my dishes not be spicy. And he nodded eagerly, “yes, very mild.” The problem is, you see, that I grew up in England with Marmite and marmalade and sausage rolls, and there is a cavernous difference between my sense of “mild” and a Thai’s sense of “mild.” Someone once quipped that it’s extraordinary how the English spent centuries searching the East for rare spices, and then forgot to use them in their cooking. Let’s be kind, and just say that my “mildly spiced” dinner at Kruua Mae Tuk was not the highlight of my visit.
On my last morning, Esther asked if I’d like her to pack for me. I declined. As luxurious as being butlered is, I have my own way to pack, so that I can instantly find what I need at the next stop. (The last time I let a butler UNpack for me, it took me two days to find my socks.) I lunched on a mojito and crisply fried prawns at Colours of the Garden, and Esther brought me my bill. I have a thing about hotel bills. In advance, I calculate in my head what I think it’s going to be, and when it appears and is less than I expected, I don’t bother to check it line by line. And, as usually does happen, my bill was substantially lower than I’d calculated. A quick tap of my card, a generous addition for tips to the staff, and I was back in the buggy being driven to the ferry, and the plane, and the bustle of Bangkok.
A big hug to Esther, a handshake with movie-star Patrick, and a line of staff waved until the ferry was out of sight. As the Cessna droned back to Bangkok, I realized that one of the many beauties of Soneva Kiri, is that you can slide a few days of this tropical paradise into a busy vacation in Southeast Asia. One doesn’t just pop to the Maldives for a few days – it's a place you go for a week, or two, or a month. And, if you have the leisure, so is Soneva Kiri. But it’s also the ideal downtime resort in between the touring, the shopping, and the traffic-choked fascination of the big cities.