“I was completely blown away. I’d never seen anything like it.” This was Sonu’s first glimpse of the Maldives, flying in with his then-girlfriend, Eva, in 1987. They never looked back. In 1995 – 25 years ago this year – they opened Soneva Fushi, the very first luxury resort in the Maldives.
Things were very different back then. “There was only a handful of resorts and they were very basic, with plastic chairs, strip lighting, salt water showers – and all the food came out of tins”. But it was the landscape that captivated Sonu and Eva, who married soon after. “The first time I put my head in the water I was staggered. The colour, the coral, the fish – it was like being in an aquarium.”
A Life Changing Idea…
Sonu and Eva fell in love with the Maldives, and returned time and again, but they soon became disillusioned. “We no longer wanted to support the resorts because we could see they weren’t sustainable. Coral was being taken from the reefs to build villas, for example. We felt we could do something different.”
They were right. “Malé, the capital, was tiny in those days, just a few buildings and a handful of cars. The biggest building belonged to the government. I turned up in my shorts and polo shirt and asked if I could lease an island,” says Sonu, with a laugh. It would take several years before the couple received their wish – but it was worth the wait. They discovered Kunfunadhoo, an unspoilt, uninhabited tropical island far from the established resorts, in the pristine Baa Atoll, and began work on Soneva Fushi.
A New Style of Luxury
“It was obvious what needed to be done. We needed to build sustainably, to protect the coral and maintain the vegetation. We needed to make the menus as fresh and local as possible, to offset carbon emissions and to limit and treat our waste. And we needed to get rid of shoes!” That ethos of sustainability – and of chic, barefoot style – has been there from the very beginning.
“The idea of luxury back then was formality and fuss. It was dressing up for dinner, but we wanted to move away from all that,” explains Sonu. Soneva Fushi introduced a “no news, no shoes” philosophy, encouraging guests to disconnect from technology, kick off their shoes and feel the sand between their toes. It struck a chord with those who were seeking a more authentic, relaxed way to holiday – a way that was also sustainable and had a positive impact.
A Team with a Difference
Sonu and Eva introduced the idea of Barefoot Butlers, a bespoke one-on-one butler service for every villa. “We felt we needed to create a personalised service from the start,” says Sonu, and it was those connections between the team and the guests that further solidified Soneva as a brand that was making waves.
New Resorts, New Ideas
Soneva’s tremendous success allowed it to grow. Next came Soneva Gili (which has since been sold) in 2000 with the first overwater villas in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri on Thailand’s rainforest-swathed island of Koh Kood opened in 2009. The ethos remained the same: remote areas, extraordinary natural beauty, and a sustainable thread that runs through everything.
Soneva Villa Ownership followed, offering the chance to purchase a private residence in the sublime surrounds of a Soneva resort, and in 2015, Soneva in Aqua launched, a 23-metre luxury yacht with the experience of a villa at sea. 2016 saw the next Soneva resort open in the Maldives: Soneva Jani in the beautiful Noonu Atoll, a 5.6 km private lagoon with overwater villas (complete with signature waterslides) and island villas with endless views of sparkling turquoise.
Next up: Maldives and Japan
Two more resorts will join the Soneva family in the next few years – one in the Maldives, and another on a jungle island in Okinawa, Japan’s tropical south. What ties all the resorts together is the unwavering commitment to what Sonu and Eva call the SLOWLIFE concept, where incredible experiences create unforgettable memories, all with a minimum impact on the natural world. As well as eliminating plastics, introducing water filtration systems and cultivating organic gardens at each resort, other innovations include building in-resort observatories and glass-upcycling studios. The latest scheme is Namoona, which provides funding, expertise and coordination for waste management systems that clean up local islands.
A True Traiblazer…
“We are incredibly proud of this silver anniversary,” says Sonu. “But what we’re most proud of is how our sustainable practices have been adopted elsewhere. Local islanders have changed how they recycle, how they use water and their attitude and approach to food has changed. And to know that we’ve been pioneers in introducing sustainability to the travel industry – that is a fantastic feeling.”
Facts and Figures
Throughout 2020 – 21, Soneva’s resorts will be hosting a calendar of events and celebrations to recognise its ground-breaking achievements and industry firsts.
Since opening, all three resorts have garnered an impressive list of international awards. In 2020 Soneva Jani was included in the Gold List of Conde Nast Traveler’s Best Hotels and Resorts in the world. In 2019 Soneva Fushi was included on the same list, while Bilanz’s ‘best hotel in the world’ award went to Soneva Jani, and Soneva Kiri was named the ‘number one resort in Asia/Thailand’ in Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
Soneva’s success paved the way for Sonu and Eva’s next brand, Six Senses Resorts and Spas, with award-winning properties in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Six Senses gained a global following before being sold in 2012.
All Soneva properties are 100% carbon neutral.
In 2008, Soneva began producing its own filtered, mineralised and alkalised drinking water, served in reusable glass bottles, and has since been plastic bottle free.
The Soneva Foundation, launched in 2010, funds over 500 projects and charities. These include: the Myanmar and Darfur Stoves Campaigns, which has distributed fuel-efficient stoves to over 230,000 families; the Soneva Forest Restoration Project, planting more than half a million trees in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and a Wind Turbine project in Tamil Nadu, India, producing 80,000 MWh of clean energy which mitigated 70,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Soneva’s latest initiative is Namoona, a partnership with NGO Common Seas in collaboration with the Government of the Maldives and three local islands to radically reduce waste and prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean.
Soneva’s “Waste to Wealth” philosophy, which in Soneva Fushi is focussed on our Eco Centro, means that the company recycles 90% of our waste. Some of the key activities includes composting, building-block making, the maker space where we recycle plastic, and the Glass Studio.
Each of our resorts has its own organic garden where we grow herbs, fruit and vegetables for our restaurants.
Soneva was the first resort to offer observatories for guests to explore the night skies, guided by resident Astronomers.
Soneva Jani has the only overwater cinema in the Maldives. The widest screen in the Maldives is at Soneva Fushi’s Cinema Paradiso.
To view Soneva’s full 25th anniversary campaign including a curated collection of videos by Bruno Aveillan, and Soneva’s gallery of old photos since 1995, please visit: https://soneva.com/25-years-of-soneva