I last wrote about Sonu Shivdasani four or five years ago on these pages so some of you may remember the details. Sonu is part of the Shivdasani family who set up the Inlaks Foundation (full disclosure: I am a trustee of the foundation) to send young Indians to university abroad. As befits somebody who was born into one of the richest NRI families, Sonu went to Eton, Institut Le Rosey and Oxford, and married a glamorous Swedish model whom he met on his sister’s yacht while visiting Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix.
So far, so predictable.
But then, the story changes. Eva, the Swedish model in question, was deeply committed to sustainable development, to a green future and to a holistic view of the world. So, rather than continuing to lead a glamorous jet-set existence and join the family businesses in England, Europe and Nigeria, Sonu and Eva came to the Maldives more than two decades ago.
At first they just wanted to build a home on one of the islands and feel close to nature. But then they had an idea: what if they built a hotel on their island (as well as their home)?
At the time it was a daring idea because the Maldives were largely unknown to the world and packed out with groups of mid-market European tourists who lived on basic all-inclusive resorts near the airport and the capital Malé. (As you probably know, the Maldives comprises thousands of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean).
But Sonu and Eva wanted to build a hotel far away (six hours by boat) from the airport in an unspoilt atoll. Plus, they wanted it to be a luxury resort. And they wanted to build something that few people had tried before: an all-natural hotel that took the remote island experience to its fullest by working in a Robinson Crusoe theme. Against the odds, they pulled it off. Their resort, Soneva Fushi, was the first to bring luxury tourism to the Maldives and the first to move out of the Malé atoll, using seaplane transfers (about 25 minutes or so) to fly guests in from the airport.
Last month, Sonu and Eva celebrated 20 years of Soneva Fushi by hosting a party for their friends and their regulars on the island. Though the Maldives now has more luxury resorts per square mile of sea than any other country in the world (the population of the Maldives is only three lakh), Soneva Fushi is still the original. And rather as there used to be Aman junkies in the heyday of Aman Resorts, Sonu has a fair number of people who keep coming back. Many of them are famous and I will respect their privacy by not naming the actresses, models, pop singers etc who turned up.
But Sonu had planned the anniversary weekend with his usual attention to detail. Soneva Fushi has always been famous for its observatory (because the nights are so clear in the Maldives), but this time around, he had Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, on hand to show us the moon and explain what it felt to actually touch down on it. And so on.
The highlight of the weekend was the actual party. Sonu’s team had laid a trail across the island, and everywhere we wandered, we came upon a new stall. At the Italian stall, an opera singer belted out arias while a chef shaved white truffles on to fresh pasta. At the French stall, a guy in a Breton tea-shirt sautéed foie gras (from Spanish geese who had not been force-fed) while the sommelier poured Sauternes. A little further, there was shadow dancing and a Sri Lankan stall. A short distance away, the island’s Japanese chef seared wagyu and dressed scallops. And so it went till we reached the beach where Mark Jones and his wife, Lottie, the celebrated British DJ, played dance music. And if we got tired of dancing, there was a spa section where you could go for a reinvigorating foot massage!
Sonu’s current obsessions include the yacht, Soneva Aqua, designed to his specifications, with two cabins and James Bond-like features. It doesn’t cost much more than taking two villas at Fushi, but you get a chef and a dedicated staff to take you where you want to go to. And there’s a new resort, Soneva Jani, in one of the Maldives’ most beautiful lagoons, due to open next October, which mixes residences (now fast selling out) with hotel villas.
Cheval Blanc is an hour or so away from Soneva Fushi by speed boat and is probably the swishest resort in the Maldives. Sonu booked me in and the manager of Cheval Blanc mailed him to say ‘our two maisons perfectly complement each other’, which I guess they do. If Soneva is about sustainable development, natural goodness and the Robinson Crusoe experience (with a luxury touch), then Cheval Blanc is about unadulterated pampering. If Soneva Fushi is Gwyneth Paltrow, then Cheval Blanc is Angelina Jolie.
I first heard of the resort when Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge went there for a week. Much was made of the fact that the royal couple did not take the Owner’s Villa, a complete residence located on its own tiny island, and stayed in a normal villa.
But having seen the normal villas, I’m much less impressed by the apparent self-denial. They are, quite simply, the best hotel villas I’ve ever seen. Most hotels make the mistake of trying to build little bungalows but Jean-Michel Gathy, the designer has thrown out those old-fashioned concepts. The Cheval Blanc villas are linear, with swivel doors that you can use to turn each villa into three separate rooms or just one vast space. Unlike most expensive, designer-type villas, these are not just exceptionally luxurious but are also super comfortable.
The Cheval Blanc chain is owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, and the idea is to create hotels that reflect the style of the group’s brands (Dior, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Guerlain, Dom Perignon, and of course, Cheval Blanc, one of the world’s greatest wines). So everything is at least one notch above what you would expect to find in a normal super-luxury hotel.
All villas have large private swimming pools, a small garden with a dining area and either a private beach or, in the case of the water villas, direct access to the lagoon with its transparent, shimmering water.
There are only 45 villas and 400 staff. So, as you can imagine, service is not a problem. The Guerlain spa occupies a tiny island of its own and is visually stunning. There is also no shortage of dining options: modern Japanese (high quality) at Diptyque (unfortunate name; sounds like you are eating a candle); excellent Italian at Deelani by the sea; a huge complex called White, which includes a bar and various seating areas for a multi-cuisine menu; and 1947, a haute cuisine French restaurant (I didn’t try it so I can’t comment), which is reported to be good.
Overall though it is not the facilities but the air of stylishness that dominates. The main bar is made from Carrara marble and there are art works by Vincent Beaurin everywhere. As The (London) Daily Telegraph commented: “All in all, every corner looks good enough to be a fashion shoot backdrop”.
As you might expect, Cheval Blanc is meant for the well-heeled traveller and it gets a lot of rich Indians. When I was at a neighbouring resort last year, I shared a sea-plane to the airport with the celebrated musician Clinton Cerejo. Clinton and his musicians had been hired by a couple from Pune to perform for them as they celebrated their anniversary at Cheval Blanc.
And at dinner at White, a remarkably indiscreet waiter listed out all the Bollywood celebrities he had seen at the resort over the two years of its existence. Deepika Padukone (“very nice girl”) Akshay Kumar (“he call me buddy!”) Twinkle Khanna (“very quiet”), Katrina Kaif (“pretty”), Ranveer Singh (“pony-tail guy”) and so on. He also said he had served Pitbull, Shakira and many others whose names, I am sorry to say, I have now forgotten.
I guess celebrities like Cheval Blanc because it not only is super-luxurious, it is also relatively private. If you stay in your villa, you won’t see a single guest from your window. Your beach will be completely private. And even if the resort is full, it is hard to find crowded areas because it is just so massive. It must have the highest guest-to staff ratio and the highest guest-to-space ratio of any resort I’ve been to recently.
I enjoyed both Cheval Blanc and Soneva Fushi. One is the newest significant resort in the Maldives and the other is the pioneer that started the whole luxury tourism thing. Both have completely different styles and yet both are the best at what they do!
But even if you don’t want to splash out on super luxury, go to the Maldives. It really is one of the world’s greatest destinations.
From HT Brunch, December 6
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