Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Paradise Found

Soneva Jani’s recently launched Chapter Two, in the Maldives, a cluster of 27 overwater villas, have been designed to generate such a profound sense of equanimity and pleasure that it is easy to feel a meditative calm descend upon you
When Sonu Shivdasani – scion of a genteel and philanthropic London-based Sindhi clan –and Eva Malmström, a former top fashion model, first chanced upon the inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean 25 years ago, they were a haven for low-budget group tours. Slowly, the couple created the resort of their dreams, a place for people like themselves who appreciate that true luxury lies not in objects and brands, but in the appreciation of nature. (Matt Porteous)
When Sonu Shivdasani – scion of a genteel and philanthropic London-based Sindhi clan –and Eva Malmström, a former top fashion model, first chanced upon the inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean 25 years ago, they were a haven for low-budget group tours. Slowly, the couple created the resort of their dreams, a place for people like themselves who appreciate that true luxury lies not in objects and brands, but in the appreciation of nature. (Matt Porteous)
Published on Nov 19, 2021 08:59 PM IST
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ByMalavika Sangghvi

Not the hedonism of champagne-quaffing oligarchs, nor the giddy getaway of party-hearty bikini babes, but a measured, deeply immersive experience of serenity, harmony and natural beauty, Soneva Jani’s recently launched Chapter Two, in the Maldives, a cluster of 27 overwater villas – said to be the largest and most luxurious of their kind in the world, each featuring vast indoor and outdoor living spaces, sweeping terraces, sumptuous private pools and breath-taking water slides – have been designed to generate such a profound sense of equanimity and pleasure that it is easy to feel a meditative calm descend upon you, as you give yourself over to the endless blue ocean, panoramic skyscapes and the sound of the gentle, ebbing and flowing of the waves under you.

A lucky break has brought you here, your first trip abroad since the pandemic and divested of your mask and shoes, you can feel yourself unwind, relax and breathe…

Gradually, you begin to notice the artistry of your surroundings: the undulating sensuality of the resort’s unvarnished wood; the delightful idiosyncrasy of cutlery and clothes pegs, fashioned to look like fish; the retractable roof in the master bedroom, which slides back at the touch of a button, so you can lie in bed and gaze at the stars at night; the sumptuously inviting day beds which allow you the luxury of lounging whenever you please, without having to worry about ‘evening service’; gentle, subdued lighting, emanating from lights made to resemble giant sea animals, which cast dreamy sensuous shadows; outdoor showers and bathtubs that allow you to contemplate your surroundings in solitary splendour. And the flickering of a thousand small lamps as night descends, making the resort appear as a magical utopian neighbourhood in some sci-fi fantasy and not another luxury resort operated by a large faceless conglomerate obsessed with its bottom line, unconcerned with how its guests sleep, dream, are nourished and unwind…

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What is remarkable in the Soneva story is that the redefining of the conventional luxury resort, and in fact, the creation of the Maldives as one the world’s leading luxury holiday destinations, is the handiwork of an Indian businessman and his Swedish wife.

When Sonu Shivdasani – scion of a genteel and philanthropic London-based Sindhi clan and Eva Malmström, a former top fashion model – first chanced upon the inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean 25 years ago, they were a haven for low-budget group tours. Slowly, assiduously, the sophisticated world-travelling couple created the resort of their dreams, a place for people like themselves who appreciate that true luxury lies not in objects and brands, but in the appreciation of nature, slow living, simplicity, conscious consumption and privacy. Ideas that had seemed almost eccentric 25 years ago, but which today, in a post-pandemic world have become not only de rigeur but imperative.

That luxury can be intelligent and responsible has always been at the core of the Soneva story. As concerned as they are about affording their guests with unforgettable bespoke one-of-a-kind experiences, there is also deep thought given to the underpinning philosophy on how to create this. In fact, Sonu has always envisaged Soneva as being a platform for great minds and path breaking, thoughts and ideas.

Which explains why next year, for the first time, the group has partnered with the Jaipur Lit festival to set up tent at one of its resorts in the Maldives. “The theme of the festival is very much aligned with our core brand philosophy. Environment, travel, wellness, history, sustainability, poetry, astronomy and more, will be part of the panel discussions, events and workshops,” says the man whose vision not only transformed a group of islands into one of the world’s premier luxury destinations, but also made his resorts the go-to choice for some of the planet’s wealthiest and most famous personalities, who recognise and appreciate what true luxury really means.

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Thanks to her parents and her Swedish heritage, Eva says she was always brought up thinking of the planet. “No one understood my wish to take care of the environment, including my husband, who at the time thought ‘green’ was just a colour!” she laughs. Nevertheless she soldered on, stressing the need for sustainability and protection of the environment long before it was fashionable and earning for herself the sobriquet ‘The Conscience’ amongst her colleagues.

This heightened sensitivity to Mother Earth made her ensure that not a single tree was to be cut and only sustainable wood was used for the construction of the resorts and their furniture. Thanks to Eva‘s insistence, the group bans the use of unethically produced feathers for pillows and duvets, the sale of coral and shells, endangered animal skins and the consumption of unethical, cruel food such as wild caviar, foie gras and Bluefin tuna (as they are almost extinct) and recycles all its waste even as it protects the coral reef and shoreline.

The other belief that Eva and Sonu subscribe to is that true luxury is eating fresh, healthy food. Thus, every resort has its own organic garden where it grows fruit, vegetables and herbs, so guests can savour their meals knowing that the food they consume is free of chemicals, and fair-traded and sourced sustainably.

“I think real luxury is freedom, privacy and time to relax in a laid-back environment,” says Eva. “Our beaches are designed so you don’t see a soul; to be able to sit in the open air, with your toes in the sand, not having to wear shoes – that’s a big luxury.”

India has always been a key market for the Maldives because of its proximity, but since the post-pandemic reopening of the borders earlier this year and the air travel bubble between the two countries, this has accelerated, resulting in more flights between the two countries and even a daily direct flight to Male from Mumbai. Over 157,000 tourists arrived from India from January to August – a 300% over the earlier year, according to authorities. The opening of its Chapter Two during this period is a validation of this demand. In many ways, it symbolises a kind of ‘Chapter Two’ for the group as it enters its 26th year, with further plans of expansion and talks of opening new properties in South East Asia (though a resort in India, unfortunately, is not on the anvil at the moment).

Also, as the world recovers from the cataclysmic pandemic, hopefully, the planet itself could embark on its own Chapter Two – with a new-found appreciation for the environment, sustainability and living harmoniously with nature, concepts that have been the hallmark of Sonu and Eva’s philosophy.

“The past 20 months have been a challenging time for everyone, and I think it has made people rethink what is important in their lives. I believe the world is striving for real experiences now,” says Sonu.

Eva agrees. “Looking to the future, as we come out of the pandemic, I think that global travellers will be seeking more health-focused travel options, and hopefully become more aware of the natural environment around them, and as a result more sensitive to the challenges of the planet.”

So forget all those Insta pics of bikini babes and filthy rich plutocrats partying on yachts; the big boys and girls know that ‘Chapter Two’ – intelligent, sustainableluxury, is an idea whose time has come.

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Thursday, December 09, 2021