Water slides, retractable roofs, Soneva Jani brings excitement to intelligent luxury

In typical Maldivian fashion, it was a gloomy day in late July. But I was excited and determined to beat the South-West Monsoon rain as I boarded the seaplane to Soneva Jani, one of the most exciting new resorts in the Maldives. Since its launch in November, the resort has constantly created so much fanfare both locally and internationally. And I was eager to see it up-close-and-personal!

I am going to skip the personalised care given by the staff at the brand’s lounge at the seaplane terminal and the hassle-free check-in process —  the level of service that you generally expect from Soneva — and fast forward to the end of my 45-minute seaplane flight. As the seaplane descended, I could see the lagoon of Medhufaru from a distance. It was huge by Maldives standard, with a collection of five islands providing it with protection and a majestic view to the visitors that have never seen anything of the sorts before.

As I stepped out of the seaplane and onto the floating platform, located a few kilometres away from the resort, I was greeted by Logie Rañosa-Afsan who introduced herself as my Ms. Friday — Soneva’s own brand of butler service. The waters were choppy, making it almost impossible to stand on the platform. So we hurried to the speedboat, which would take us to the resort in a minute or two.

The concept of barefoot luxury pioneered by Soneva began on the speedboat itself where I took off my shoes and put it in a bag marked with the brand’s “no news, no shoes” slogan. I would not be seeing it, let alone needing it until I take the very last step onto the seaplane after my trip!

Travel Diaries – Soneva Jani

An imaginative journey that began over two decades ago, the Soneva story continues with Soneva Jani, Soneva's newest luxury resort offering. Inspired by a word that means ‘wisdom’ in Sanskrit, Soneva Jani encompasses a collection of Water Villas and Island Sanctuaries set within a lagoon of crystal clear waters, fringed by pristine beaches and blanketed in lush tropical greenery of the #Maldives.

Dikirim oleh Maldives pada 1 Agustus 2017

To understand the story of Soneva Jani, it is important to go back in time to 1995 when Eva and Sonu Shivdasani built their first resort, Soneva Fushi on the deserted island of Kunfunadhoo in the Maldives. Inspired by the couple’s intensely personal vision of a locally-crafted villa and environmentally responsible lifestyle, Soneva Fushi opened its doors as the first ‘castaway’ resort in the Maldives, pioneering a trend for back-to-nature luxury holidays.

With the resort located in the central Baa atoll, Soneva established a blueprint for barefoot luxury holidays in the Maldives and around the world, with several firsts to its name: the Maldives’ first integrated waste management centre, first to introduce a two percent carbon levy to offset carbon emissions, and the first Art and Glass studio in the Maldives.

Fast forward 20 years, Soneva Jani is the continuation of Sonu and Eva’s own brand of luxury tourism and their environmentally responsible lifestyle, SLOW LIFE. Inspired by the Sanskrit word Jani, which means wisdom, Soneva Jani is located on the 150-acre Medhufaru island, the largest of the five islands in the 5.6-kilometre private lagoon. The resort encompasses a collection of 24 overwater villas and one island villa, with more island villas set to be built later on.

I would be making one of those overwater villas, officially called Water Retreats or Reserves, home during my stay. But before taking me there, Loglie gave me a comprehensive tour of The Gathering, the heart of the overwater villas and the central hub of operations. This three-storey overwater building — dubbed the largest overwater structure in the Maldives — houses various dining outlets as well as the spa, library, kids club, retail area and wine cellar.

The Gathering at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

Built from the same untreated wood and given the same ash-coloured finishing, The Gathering lets you enjoy drinks, snacks or global favourites from a carefully crafted food menu while sitting at sunken tables with glass bottoms or lying on daybeds and overwater catamaran nets overlooking the fish-filled waters of the lagoon. After your meal, you can skip dessert and head over to the So Cool to indulge in homemade ice-cream (over 50 flavours to choose from) and handmade chocolates from in-house chocolatiers — a complimentary offering that Soneva is famous for. You can follow it up with some light reading at the reading corners where shelves stacked with an inspiring and informative selection of literature on the Maldives and its magnificent underwater world are lined with. Or just extend the calmness the jelly fish art hanging from the ceiling, which itself has been decorated with dried leaves (I was later told that over 14,000 dried leaves have been used to decorate the ceilings of different buildings in the resort), gives you by heading to the spa for a rejuvenating treatment set against the stunning views of the shimmering lagoon.

The tour had me wanting to explore The Gathering more, but it was time for me to finally enter the two-bedroom Water Reserve that had been booked for me. And so, I got on an electric buggy along with Loglie and made our way through the zigzag-like wooden pathways over the lagoon. I was “so carried away”, as a piece of wood attached to one side of the buggy proclaimed, by the lingering ocean breeze and the azure waters of the lagoon that I did not even realise when the buggy came to a stop at the entrance to my villa.

Entrance to the two-bedroom Water Reserve. PHOTO/ MALDIVES INSIDER

Even from the first glance, it appeared fairytale-esque, with sandblasted pine decking and Shingle Red River Gum tiles adorning the outside. The roof, with a little secret to be discovered once inside, was shaped in such a way that it gave the villa an overall impression of a castle from a Disney movie. The sheer size — 555 square metres to be exact — added to its grandeur, making me wanting to just stay in for the rest of my stay here.

Once the wooden door opened, I was greeted by a large living room with a sunken table like those at The Gathering set in the middle. The villas are made from subtly weathered woods and natural materials in a colour palette of white, pastel greens and mauves. The overall effect is ethereal, light and airy — all in all, encouraging the ultimate state of relaxation.

Living room of a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

On one side, a door opened to the master bedroom, where a king-sized bed sat in the middle facing the sundeck, which was accessible through floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Through the room, a sliding wooden door opened to a private kitchen and walk-in mini-bar, while separate doors led to a walk-in closet and dressing room, a dedicated toilet, and an open-air bathroom with tub, shower and lagoon access. There was a light-filled study too, but what caught my attention the most was the large outdoor deck and seating area where sun loungers and an overwater swing seat were set. The highlight of this large, spacious deck that offered unfettered access to the lagoon was the 13m salt water swimming pool with catamaran nets and the adjoining water slide, a hit amongst kids and adults alike as it allowed them to be ‘thrown’ into the lagoon in a similar fashion as with a fun slide at a carnival.

The kitchen and walk-in minibar at a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA
The master bedroom of a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA
The outdoor deck of a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA
The outdoor shower at a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

One the other side of the living room, a staircase took me to the second floor of the villa, where a smaller bedroom and outdoor terrace area with cushioned seats formed a separate living area totally detached from your regular space. Although the night was cloudy, I could imagine myself standing at the balcony, staring at the starlit night sky and listening to the rhythm of the waves.

But I had to try out the ultimate showstopper of the villa; the retractable roof. A remote with only three buttons — two arrows (one for opening and the other for closing) and a circle in the middle — lay in the top drawer of one of the bedside tables. I pushed the button and the roof slowly glided open, revealing the night sky. Although I was told that sensors detect rain and automatically close the roof even when I was asleep, I was advised to keep the roof shut when going out or sleeping.

Retractable roof of a water retreat at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

This was next-level stargazing, right from the comfort of your bedroom! But Soneva Jani takes that experience even a bit further with its overwater observatory, located right next to The Gathering. Priding on being the first overwater observatory in the Maldives, it houses the “Rolls Royce” of telescopes; a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain mounted on a 20-foot mast. This telescope — the largest in the Maldives — rises from the ground of the James Bond-inspired observatory, allowing you to zoom in on Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, and the Sombrero Galaxy some 31 million light years away.

The So Startruck observatory deck also transforms into a dining venue, where four dining tables equipped with screens linked to the view from the telescope are set in a circular fashion. Weather permitting, guests sit back on cushioned seats and enjoy great food and drinks from an Eclipse set menu prepared by the chef, as the in-house astronomer takes them through a journey of the night sky and the cosmos. I was booked for this out-of-the-world dining experience, but unfortunately bad weather got in the way.

So Starstruck at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

The Gathering and the observatory lead the way to the Medhufaru island, which remains largely untouched for the time being except for the extensive gardens — from its time as a farm island 10 years ago — that still supply the fruits, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms to the resort’s kitchens. As Loglie and I approached the island on the buggy, I was again “so carried away” by the powder soft white sandbanks that were forming along with the low tide. Through the thick foliage and fully-formed vegetation that lined the sides of the narrow pathways, we stopped by at the areas marked for the second phase of the resort’s development, including the space for a new restaurant, spa and island villas, until we reached an isolated corner of the island.

This tranquil bay on the southern end of the island leads to the overwater, open air Cinema Paradiso — another first in the Maldives. Crossing a pathway made from cylindrical blocks of wood, which in high tide gives an impression of a floating jetty, guests are treated to screenings of movies old and new, with sound piped in via wireless headsets, so the noise does not disturb the underwater life and nesting wildlife of the island. As guests lie on catamaran nets hanging on the water, chefs create a special menu at the adjoining restaurant, which would be officially unveiled later this year as a full-fledged dining venue, to accompany the evening’s movie.

Cinema Paradiso at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

From a distance, I could see a deserted island on the north, one of the four islands in the lagoon that will remain untouched. Named after a local chef, Zuhair’s Beach is accessible by a boat, and is the perfect spot for sunning, swimming and snorkelling. But that is not all you can do here; the island is home to a dining venue specialising in local cuisine. Refreshments are served throughout the day along with delightful lunches cooked only with what the chef can catch and pick. Here, guests can taste the freshest fish, grilled, barbecued or baked in the sand.

Back in the main island of Medhufaru, I was shown the waste-to-wealth Eco Centro. This is where Soneva Jani’s aim of becoming a zero-waste resort — everything composted, reused or used in construction — actively happens. With a strong emphasis on education and training, the practical but very guest friendly Eco Centro will be fully operational soon.

From there, we headed back to The Gathering. But there was one last attraction on the way; the Labyrinth, a meditative maze created out of ficus hedge that follows an ancient circular pattern. A walk or bicycle ride through this maze is so calming and refreshing that it not only helps you rediscover yourself, but also takes you back to the concept of intelligent luxury interwoven in every aspect of Soneva Jani. With buildings made from ethically-sourced highest quality sustainable materials, homegrown produce used in the kitchens and a comprehensive waste management and recycling programme, this is the culmination of Sonu and Eva’s two-decade long knowledge and experience in coining the concepts of SLOW LIFE and intelligent luxury, which recognises the ability for luxury holiday making and care for the environment to co-exist with perfect ease.

The Labyrinth at Soneva Jani. PHOTO/ SONEVA

But it is not just a guilt-free, ethical holiday that Soneva Jani treats you to, but authentic experiences that disconnect yourself from the noisy world out there and reconnect you with the nature that you truly belong to. The “no news, no shoes” slogan is very real here, with TVs tucked away in heavy boxes and mobile phone use in public places discouraged (who needs it anyway at a place like this?). As I put on my shoes on the speedboat ride to the seaplane platform, I took one last look at the lagoon — the most vibrant shades of blue I have ever seen — and the developments around that are in perfect harmony with nature, making Soneva Jani a one-of-a-kind holistic holiday experience inspired by nothing but nature and made exciting by simple yet awe-inspiring additions.

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