TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
STAYING IN THE MALDIVES
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip to the Maldives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After nine days in the Maldives, we are on a boat bound for the seaplane jetty at Soneva Jani, from which we will be flown back to the real world. After we had boarded at the resort’s main dock, we’ve bounced through the sea to the dock at the Soneva Jani’s spanking new “Chapter Two.” A very chic couple clamber aboard, their arrival heralded by porters heaving quantities of hard-sided Vuitton luggage. Both the suitcases and their owners look mid-fifties. I chat with the lady. They’re from Brazil. They first visited Soneva Fushi fifteen years ago. This is the end of six weeks in the Maldives during which they’ve stayed at eight resorts. Although I’m tempted to quip “how exhausting” as I imagine unpacking and packing that mountain of Vuitton sixteen times, I uncharacteristically manage to hold my tongue.
“Which was your favorite?” I ask.
“Each was very diff-errr-ent,” she responds in perfect English rich with Brazilian Portuguese r’s and l’s. “One & Only Reethi Rah was all marble and Botox. The Four Seasons was Botox and Prada. The Waldorf felt like Park Avenue with thatched (she pronounced it ‘thatch-ed’) roofs. At Soneva, you feel you’re in the Maldives, and you feel you’re doing something for the ‘planete,’ so I guess it’s our favorite.”
The fact is that 95% of visitors to the Maldives don’t really ‘visit’ this Indian Ocean archipelago nation. Well, of course, they do. They land at Malé International Airport, stumble through immigration, and then emerge into an open mall. Here a crush of hosts at little desks bearing the logos of countless resorts corral their charges onto boats and sea-planes that whisk them to paradise. Some are ultra-luxe, some are more modest, all are pretty, with overwater bungalows stretching into the turquoise ocean.
This is my fourth visit to the Maldives and only once have I actually set foot in Malé. After spending a week at Soneva’s two Maldive resorts with actor, Alan Cumming, and his husband, Grant Shaffer, we were confronted with a five-hour layover between the last seaplane to Malé and our Turkish Airlines midnight departure. So instead of sitting beneath the swirling fans of a dismal airport lounge, we found ourselves a taxi-driver who became our guide. Malé aped a provincial Bangladeshi capital. Traffic-choked streets, curry smells, third-world shops, honking cars, giant mosques, and a Thai restaurant, where we consumed a delicious alcohol-free dinner that cost about a thousand dollars.
Although it feels like a lifetime ago, my family and I had arrived in the Maldives from Dubai a mere nine days ago, destined to spend four nights at Soneva Fushi, and a further four at Soneva Jani. On arrival at Soneva Fushi, we’d been whisked by Micky, our barefoot butler, through the jungle to our palatial three-bedroom waterfront villa, where a nurse in a hazmat outfit tested us for COVID. Micky helped us order a room service dinner, and then told us we must remain in the villa until the test results are back. Some hardship: immured in a villa with a large pool that led to a Jacuzzi that led to a perfect sandy beach.
“When you wake up in the morning,” Micky promised, “I’ll have whatsapped you the COVID results – and hopefully you can come to breakfast.”
It’s morning now, and I reach for my phone. As expected, we’re all negative. We wake the kids, we dress in shorts and tee-shirts, and Micky is at the door with his electric golf cart to drive us to the central area of the resort. Micky is not wearing a mask. He tells us we needn’t either. The fact is that Soneva Fushi is as Covid-free as is possible in the summer of 2021: vaccinated guests are tested on arrival; non-vaccinated guests are tested every three days; the staff is tested every other day. For the first time in almost eighteen months we are maskless. It feels liberating but it also feels naughty. We can’t quite believe it’s sensible, but it seems it is.
The breakfast area is an array of wooden tables and chairs in the sand, each set with curiously beautiful crockery and thick cotton napkins. We, like the staff and all the other guests are barefoot, and will be for the duration of our stay. There are thatched-roofed open-air stations, where fleets of cooks concoct every possible breakfast fare, from eggs, to pancakes, to waffles, to Asian dumplings, to curries. The airconditioned open-air pastry room is piled with every imaginable version of croissant, baguette, bread, rolls, bagel, pastries – all warm from being baked overnight. A corner is dedicated to the gluten-free and the vegan. There are a dozen kinds of granola, porridge, cereals, nuts, dried fruits. Then there is the cheese and salami and smoked salmon room. Then there’s the airconditioned fruit room with its staggering array of papaya, melon, watermelon, pineapples, dragonfruit, passionfruit, yogurts, honeys. It’s challenging to know what to choose. Then there is a stand of Ayurvedic potions – each is caramel colored, contained in a small glass bottle sealed with paper and twine and labeled with the condition it is designed to address or the body part to salve: stress, anxiety, aches, pains, humors, heart, kidneys, liver and more. I select aches, my son, Liam, general-well-being.
We sit, and are welcomed by Sadha, elegant in a lemon linen suit. She is beyond gracious, beyond charming. She is from Simla, India’s Himalayan hideaway to which the British Raj once retreated during “Indian summers,” luxuriating in clubs and guesthouses from which the “natives” were barred. She explains the resort to us and tells us that after breakfast Micky will take us on an orientation tour. We eat shaded by towering palms, cooled by Indian Ocean breezes. It’s all delicious. Waiters in linen bring us coffee, tea, juices. Liam and I muster the courage to knock back our potions, which Sadha has told us should be downed in a single shot. However curative they may be, Liam and I find them shudderingly nasty. We erase the taste with scoops of yoghurt.
We stroll through the heart of the Soneva Fushi where just about everything is wooden, or thatched or brilliantly executed in stucco or glass. Micky shows us the art gallery which displays treasures created in Soneva Fushi’s glass foundry by some of the world’s most renowned artists. We board the buggy and visit the Den, possibly the most seductive children’s retreat anywhere in the world. Pinocchio sized doors in various heights give us entry. The pool is massive, entered down curvy slides. Counselors help kids create art projects. Upstairs, a Lego room contains enough bricks to build a metropolis. In the music room, there are drums and pianos and guitars. There are books, mostly unread.
We visit the vast kitchen garden where almost all the vegetables, salads and herbs used in Soneva’s various restaurants are grown organically. We see – in the jungle steps from the sandy pathways - some of the hundreds of uniquely Soneva-designed mosquito traps that leave this tropical utopia 95% mosquito free. It’s 2021: we’re in the tropics, there is barely a mosquito, and we are seemingly safe from the pandemic: tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.
Soneva is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It was in 1995 that British-Born Sonu \ Shivdasani and his Swedish-born wife, Eva Malstrom Shivdasani, discovered the Maldives archipelago, this particular tropical isle and created this resort. One can reasonably argue that it was the Shivdasanis who gave birth to the transformation of this exquisite mass of atolls and islands. Before their arrival, it was where backpackers came to snorkel and groove. Sonu and Eva double-handledly had the vision that this could become the most luxurious tropical vacation destination on earth. The Shivdasanis founded Evason hotels and Six Senses – but sold both in 2012 to concentrate on the Soneva (SONu-EVA) brand. They since opened Soneva Kiri in Thailand, launched Soneva in Aqua in the Maldives, and have plans for a new secret resort in the Maldives and a Soneva resort in Okinawa.
But they are not standard hoteliers. Malstrom’s design sense, and Sonu’s passion for both ultra-barefoot-luxury and the environment, ordered that everything built at their resorts should be homemade, all-natural, all-sustainable. Absolutely nothing is store- or wholesale- bought. Native woods are employed to create stunning architecture that is utterly distinctive. Soneva Fushi’s ninety or so villas range from one-bedroom to eleven. Many are for sale, many are sold as third or eighth homes, but most are returned to the rental pool when the owners are absent.
We are taken to the Eco-Center where my woke kids and we are fascinated to learn that fully 92% of the waste produced at Soneva Fushi is recycled. This includes food; glass that is turned into art and the uniquely shaped glasses used throughout the resort; coconut shells (400 a day) transmogrified into wood; compost turned into the source of exquisite mushrooms. The only plastic on the island? Some of the of parts of the recycling machinery and the filter wracks surrounding our pool, but artfully concealed by rocks. Two decades ago, the Shivdasanis banished anything that wasn’t planet friendly – substituting copper pipes and paper straws.
We eat at Out of the Blue, a giant out-in-the-water edifice that looks like something from Star Wars, reached by a curvy wooden walk-and-bicycle-boardwalk. It’s a palace made of wood. It’s is if the soaring art-nouveau constructions of Belgian tile-master, Rafael Guastavino, have been reimagined in exquisite woods. Out of the Blue is surrounded by hammocks that project over the waves and where guests laze atop pastel cushions. Children (and adults) climb stairs to descend a giant curvy slide that deposits them into the Indian Ocean.
The cuisine here is eclectic, from exquisite sushi and sashimi fashioned by the fabulously talented Abdullah Sobah, to European, Indonesian and Thai fare all produced in an open kitchen. Everything is served gracefully by waiters in white linen, and male and female sommeliers in burgundy (makes sense, right?). The service is three-star Michelin-level, yet adjusted to the casual nature of the resort, to our shorts, our tee shirts and our bare feet. There are menus, but you can readily order anything you want and it will appear. To augment the delicious fare, the Shivdasanis’ regularly host Michelin 2-star and 3-star chefs to come for a week or two to provide gala dinners.
For the active, there is the aquatic sports center, with everything from surf boards to scuba lessons, to jet skis, to catamaran rides, to dolphin cruises, to replanting coral, to turtle egg watching, to you name it. For the less active, comme-moi, there are breathtaking beaches, one’s own pool, two-and-three-times a day housekeeping, a spa whose treatments range from Sweden to India and Thailand. Overall, there’s an atmosphere that blares “You want it? You shall have it.” And for the active and the lazy, everywhere is reached by bicycles – although a quick whatsapp to Micky will have him and his electric buggy at your service within minutes. During school holidays, there are ecology adventures and soccer camps for children.
Our final evening at Soneva Fushi takes us to dinner at In the Garden, a complex of wooden levels within the mosquito-free jungle. The lighting is subdued and flawless. The cuisine is eclectic and scrumptious. Even though the unfriendly-to-the-planet beef is not on the menu, steaks can be ordered. Liam determines it’s the most perfect steak ever known to man. The wine list is mammoth. The service is both professional and smiley…and perfect. We feel like strangers in paradise, except that after four days we don’t feel like strangers but part of a kindly, nurturing family.
After breakfast, next morning, it is time to move to Soneva Jani, opened six years ago on Medhufaru island in the northern Atoll of Noonu. Unbeknownst to us as my wife, Noa and I down trowelfuls of papaya, and my children eat pancakes smeared with an island-made version of Nutella, barefoot-butler Micky has packed for us. The ocean is too rough today for the one-hour sea voyage to Soneva Jani, we’re told, so we are back on a seaplane snazzily painted grey with the Soneva logo in maroon – and after a 28-minute flight, barefoot pilots land us at the dock of Soneva Jani’s “Chapter Two” On the plane we wear masks, but there is no testing required because we’ve remained in the COVID-free Soneva bubble.
Soneva’ Chapter Two was opened in 2020 and comprises a string of overwater villas, all wood and uniquely fashioned, that connects to the main island, where multiple restaurants and bars line the sandy beach. We have lunch at the Crab Shack, and momentarily we’re transported to the Turks and Caicos, although the cuisine is all Maldive-spiced and all-crab. Yet the level of service is impossible to imagine in the Caribbean, with the arguable exception of St. Barth, yet mercifully sans Gallic snootiness.
We are golf-buggied through Medhufaru, which seems vaster than the island that houses Soneva Fushi. Giant crabs scramble across the sandy walkway. We see and smell mangrove swamps. We lurch into an arched tunnel of vines and momentarily we’re in the Loire Valley. We see the massive kitchen garden and the water sports center. And then we are back on a curvy wooden jetty and drive past two dozen overwater bungalows to Villa 5 which contains a living area, an office, a vast main bedroom with indoor-outdoor bathroom, a second living room and bathroom that my son Liam, commandeers and, upstairs, a giant bedroom and bathroom for Zoë. All of the main floor rooms are glass doored, opening onto a villa-wide patio, massive pool, a circular down-at-the-water dining table, over-water hammocks and ladders down into the ocean. While the color-palate of Soneva Fushi has fabrics in orange, lemon and lime, Soneva Jani’s is purple, mauve, lilac. When Noa and I lie on our kingsize bed, we press a button and the giant carapace-shaped roof gently slides open so we can sleep under the stars. As at Soneva Fushi, the bed linens are blissful, and there are enough towels to dry the entire population of Portugal.
At Soneva Jani, our barefoot butler is Yasir, even more smiley than Micky. We think we recognize each other, but aren’t positive. Did he buttle for Alan Cumming and his husband and me at the giant villa we inhabited four years ago? Neither of us is sure. He buggies us to the heart of Soneva Jani, the Gathering. If Soneva’s Out of the Blue is a glorious wooden temple, then this is a cathedral. It’s massive. Built on a sequence of levels it’s another Guastavino-esque extravaganza in artfully crafted wood that soars to a high vaulted ceiling. Here is the bar where stools are made of glass fashioned in the ovens of Soneva Fushi. Here is the all-day cheese-and-salami room, the all-day ice-cream room, the all-day chocolate room labeled “So guilty,” which I think is a pity. I’m on vacation: I don’t want to feel guilty. The kitchen here is open – and an array of the friendliest wait-staff sees to our every want and fantasy. Here too is the spa, and my wife and I indulge in extraordinarily fine massages. And here too is Overseas, the only outside-Stockholm outpost of Matbaren, celebrity Swedish chef, Mathias Dahlgren’s lauded restaurant, except here the couch and table booths are atop stilts over the water, instead of in the cellar of Stockholm’s legendary Grand Hotel.
One of the gastronomic highlights of our visit has the kids ordering burgers in Villa 5, and Noa and I invited to a “Guess Who Is Cooking Dinner” extravaganza back at the Crab Shack. Our table is romantically lit beneath the palms and next to the ocean. The six-member Bucket-List Family (2.6 million followers on Instagram) are dining at the next table. The uniqueness of the dinner is that there is no menu and we are challenged to guess what we’re eating and meet its cooks at the end and try to identify who prepared which. Each dish is curious and delicious. It’s as if we are at El Bulli in Oceania. At the meal’s end, we’re handed a menu and learn that other than correctly identifying a few ingredients, some had been so artfully masked we were largely flummoxed. It appears we consumed celeriac, leek ashes, lemongrass foam, cauliflower jelly, Earl Grey purée, balsamic caviar, sour green king fish with green emulsion and blood orange, lamb loin, green tea ice cream with compote of olives. The five male and female chefs, all Maldivian, come to our table, and we discuss the courses and their craft. Noa correctly identifies which dish three of the chefs had created. Each course had come with a paired wine and, happily, Yasir is here to drive us home, instead of our wobbling along the jetties on our electric bikes and landing in the ocean.
The approaching return to reality dawns. A hazmat doctor comes to Villa 5 to administer PCR tests for our journey back to Dubai and Tel Aviv. We spend most of the last day in the villa that rattles in a mini-typhoon. The storm had appeared out of nowhere as we abandon a catamaran ride, and we struggle home along the jetties, assaulted by wind, hail, and rain. Liam and I cannot ride in the gale and take to walking our bikes. Zoë manages to maneuver her tricycles safely. And wise Noa waits the storm out at the sports center.
Suddenly, the sky clears and we dress in white for the photoshoot Noa has engineered with Shamak, the most gregarious of the Gathering waiters. Shamak turns out to be the Richard Avedon of the Maldives, and he has us walking on the beach, posing on a tree trunk, squabbling, laughing, as he rattles off about 250 images on Noa’s iPhone. Seriously, these are Vogue standard (er, um, the photography, not the models, with the exception of Zoë).
Our final evening is spent at the Shivdasanis’ signature Cinema Paradiso. We dine on exquisite sushi and sashimi. We wear Bose headphones and watch Kung Fu Panda III on a giant screen, followed by Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Quite a contrast in cinematic styles. It’s hard to believe we are on an atoll in the middle of nowhere, downing sake and delicious Japanese fare, watching the Hollywood of 1940 and 2020, beneath a constellation-filled tropical sky. But then everything about Soneva is about creating the unimaginable. I’ve come to consider the Shivdasanis as hospitality versions of Steve Jobs – people who have created things we never dreamed we wanted and without which we now can’t imagine living.
Breakfast is very early on our last morning, as the seaplane is flying us to Malé at 8AM. We are handed printouts of our negative PCR tests. Yasir buggies us to the jetty. He waves and we wave back, moist-eyed, and disbelieving that we have to return to wearing shoes, to wearing masks and to reality.