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Barefoot Bleisure … the Soneva story in the Maldives and Thailand

“I was already in Thailand in 2020 just before the Lockdown for bleisure in Soneva Kiri. Now I had the chance to visit Fushi as the mother of all Soneva islands in the Maldives and learned: a great concept stays a great concept.” Kai Böcking

It’s a cloudy day on Soneva Fushi when I get lost. The Maldives island is not as small as I had expected. Densely forested, guests usually explore it on bicycles. I am walking to the beach restaurant according to the Soneva credo “no news, no shoes”, and soon a slim man on a bicycle asks me if he can help me. He can and recommends me: “Just follow the path and you’ll find it. I hope you enjoy paradise here with us.”

What an encounter … My guide was indeed the founder and owner of Soneva Properties – Sonu Shivdasani, with Indian heritage and elite British school background. Together with his wife Eva Malmström Shivdasani, a former top Swedish model and now an interior designer, he had founded Soneva and Six Senses Resorts & Spa in 1995, selling the latter in 2012. Six Senses has been part of the InterContinental Hotels Group since 2019.

Sonu Shivdasani still owns Soneva Fushi on Baa Atoll, Soneva Jani Soneva on Noonu Atoll and Soneva Kiri on the Thai island of Koh Kood. They are among the most sustainable resorts in the world. Even the occasional mosquito that flies around is kept away from the paying holidaymaker with a chemical-free trap specially developed for Soneva.

Soneva Fushi
Soneva Kiri

Transfer to paradise

Anyone who has ever landed on Male knows that they don’t want to stay on this island. Overdeveloped, no Maldives feeling, for almost all arrivals Male is simply a means to a (luxury) end – as a hub to paradise. Soneva does well to start its feel-good and sustainability concept right here: an ecologically sound gullwing Tesla picks us up at the international airport and drives us to the seaplane, which flies us to Kunfunadhoo in the Fushi in just 40 minutes with just eight seats.

The journey to Soneva Kiri on the small Thai island of Koh Kood is similarly spectacular. Landing in Bangkok, a nice hostess guides the guest to the Soneva Propeller Clipper, which lands in less than an hour on the tiny, resort-owned airstrip on Koh Kood.

The Soneva principle begins in all resorts with the idea of picking up the guest where he enters the country. There is no such thing as self-arrival in the DNA. And no matter where he lands, everyone is greeted by a personal barefoot butler. The guest has a contact here in him or her for all needs, no matter what time of day. The good spirit takes care of all wishes from reservations for restaurants, boat transfers and excursions to a well-filled fridge in the villas. And this in such an amiable, unobtrusive and respectful way that you would love to take him or her home with you.

Soneva Kiri: Eco Den
Soneva Kiri: 2 Bedroom Junior Beach Pool Retreat

Sustainable water slides, stargazing, living

Another, even more famous DNA is that of “no news, no shoes” – the slowlife as well as “feel at home” philosophy of Soneva. It works the same on all three islands – and of course other luxury islands around the globe have discovered it for themselves. But the original feels even more special – in many ways.

For one thing, there are the houses and villas, which come in different categories. From the “small”, two-storey beach house to the overwhelming water villa with its own water slide and a self-opening roof in the bedroom for stargazing.

Most of them are built from sustainable materials, usually from the immediate neighbourhood, supplied and built by local craftsmen. And if need be, recycled back on the islands. Glass waste, for example, is shredded and ends up as sand on the beach.

Soneva Fushi: 1-Bedroom-Water-Retreat

There are no water villas in the only Thailand branch of Soneva Resorts, but even here the 33 villas offer exceptional privacy. The Beach Pool Villa Suite, for example, is over 400 square metres, has a huge pool right outside the bedroom door, a garden with patio and a truly gigantic bathroom that is partly open. Built with wood, smooth stone, minimalist design. Secluded, with a view of the sea – you can’t ask for more.

At Soneva Fushi, the barefoot guest lives either directly on the beach, set back in the palm grove or in one of the huge water villas, which are built along a wooden walkway into the deep blue water. One bedroom and all around a 585 square metre secluded paradise. With pool, outdoor swimming pool and – wow – the water slide from the roof into the sea.

Soneva Kiri: Private Cliff Pool Reserve

Gastronomy on its own, with everyone and everything on site

You can even eat very well in all Soneva resorts, even in the suites and villas. Fresh vegetables and herbs are grown on the islands themselves and produced sustainably. All other ingredients come from local farmers, fishermen and growers, who are also supported financially. Only soft drinks and the – expensive – alcoholic drinks and specialities are flown to the islands. Luxury is still a must – despite sustainability.

Soneva Fushi: Floating Breakfast
Soneva Kiri: Bay View_Pool Bath Tub

Several restaurants entice guests to leave their private comfort zone, with a gastronomic concept that is uniform on all three islands. This usually includes an appetiser area in the main restaurant, which is located in its own air-conditioned building. At Soneva Kiri, this is also available in the beach restaurant, which opens for lunch. The fresh fish can then be enjoyed directly on the beach.

At Fushi, the choice is even greater. In addition to the main restaurant – with the aforementioned walk-in appetiser palace – there are another ten food outlets here: from the sushi master, the zip-line dinner experience, the garden restaurant in the middle of the island farm to the star menu with international chefs. Two-star guru Tim Raue also cooks here regularly.

My favourite, however, is the “Out of the blue” as a pure Maldivian pleasure dream. You stroll from your villa over a long jetty out to sea, into an airy, high-ceilinged room, have a sunset drink and then let chef Soba cook you Indonesian, Japanese, Vietnamese or Italian food. The service is gigantic. And if you’re still hungry: Homemade ice cream and chocolate dreams as well as cheeses from all over the world are stored in the extra closet.

Luxury holidays on a slow-life level

One thing is particularly exciting about the Soneva story. Despite the pandemic, which also took a lot out of the three resorts, the founders have never doubted their Slowlife credo in 25 years – even with all the financial risk. The idea of offering luxury holidays on a different social level, socially and – as far as possible – environmentally compatible and resource-saving, is a life mission of Sonu and his wife Eva. If you meet a man on a bicycle, you can be sure that he will give you friendly information.

Kai Böcking …

was actually on both islands on business for a shoot with Tim Raue and “just had” to stay longer. Leisure, work, workation – those who stay here for a few days or weeks and don’t need a city, he thinks, can more than celebrate the ideal image of a laptop on the beach. Also with family, by the way.

At a glance – Soneva Fushi (Maldives) and Soneva Kiri (Thailand)

Getting thereFly to Male in the Maldives and use Soneva’s shuttle service: The approx. 112 km to the resort are covered within about an hour by e-car and seaplane. For the workation or bleisure stay at Soneva Kiri, fly to Bangkok and land at the resort’s own airstrip on Koh Kood in just under an hour with the Soneva Propeller Clipper.
Hotels: Soneva has three resorts on two Maldives islands – Fushi, Jani, in Aqua – and one in Thailand: the Soneva Kiri on Koh Kood in Thailand. The latter was opened in 2009 in a tropical rainforest on the Thai island of Koh Kood and consists of 33 luxury villas with one to five bedrooms. The choice ranges from the sprawling 3-bedroom pool reserve on the cliffs to the 1-bedroom pool suite directly on the sandy beach. The gastronomic offerings range from Mexican to Indian and Japanese-Peruvian to traditional Thai cuisine, from Floating Breakfast to Asian Street Buffet. The Eco Den is a children’s club at the resort.
The first ever Soneva since 1995, Soneva Fushi has 63 beachfront villas and eight water retreats, ranging in size from one to nine bedrooms. Each villa has an open-air bathroom, terrace and daybed. Guests dine in the villas or in the restaurants, such as Mihiree Mitha as an international breakfast buffet with live cooking stations, the treehouse restaurant “Fresh In The Garden” or “So Hot and So Cool” with homemade, over 60 types of ice cream.
Working places in hotels: on the beach, on the jetties, in the grove, in the restaurants, villas and perhaps in the fushi high up from the waterslide
Soneva Fushi, Kunfunadhoo Island Baa Atoll – Maldives, +960 660 0304
Soneva Kiri, 110 Moo 4, Koh Kood Sub-District, Koh Kood District, Trat 23000, Thailand, +66 (0) 82208 8888

Photos: © Soneva