The level of hoteliering in the Maldives is so fabulous that the resorts are at the cutting edge of global hospitality
The level of hoteliering in the Maldives is so fabulous that the resorts are at the cutting edge of global hospitality

Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: An island in the sun

If a hotelier of Indian origin can transform luxury tourism in the Maldives, why can’t we build better beach resorts in our own country?
PUBLISHED ON AUG 15, 2021 09:29 AM IST

As you probably know, the Maldives has opened up to Indian tourists again. This is good news because most foreign countries either won’t let us in or will put Indians in quarantine when we land.

The Maldives, on the other hand, actually wants Indians to visit. I took the first Air India flight to Male scheduled after the travel restrictions were lifted and there was an air of celebration in the aircraft. Though Air India, (and Indian Airlines) developed and created the Maldives-India sector (I first went to the Maldives in the early 1990s by Indian Airlines from Trivandrum), there has, oddly enough, never been a Mumbai to Maldives Air-India flight till now. So, the cabin crew distributed cake and when we landed at Male airport, there was a warm Maldivian welcome. I spoke to Hassan Areef who looks after public communications at the airport and he told me how delighted they were that Indians were returning to the islands.

Despite the tacky photos of bikini-clad starlets that Maldives Tourism invested in and organised a few months ago, there are really only two good reasons to go to the Maldives. The first is the spectacular beauty of the hundreds of little coral islands that make up the country, each surrounded by a lagoon with the clearest water in the world. You can see the most spectacular sunsets, colourful fish swim in the lagoon and if you take a boat, dolphins will jump all around, giving you the show of a lifetime.

Sonu and Eva have been so far ahead of the times that the world is only just catching up
Sonu and Eva have been so far ahead of the times that the world is only just catching up

The second reason is the quality of the resorts. There are a lot of ugly, nasty resorts in the Maldives which you should avoid and go to Goa or Kerala instead. (Though these days, the Maldives may actually be cheaper.) But the better resorts are among the best seaside resorts in the world. The level of hoteliering is so fabulous that the resorts are at the cutting edge of global hospitality.

All of this begs the question: if the Maldives can do it, why can’t India build such great beach resorts?

What makes us look worse in comparison is that luxury tourism in the Maldives is largely the creation of an Indian. Sonu Shivdasvani and his Swedish wife Eva built Soneva Fushi, one of the first luxury resorts in the Maldives at a time when the country was a low-budget destination catering to groups of Eastern Europe tourists. (There are still Eastern European visitors to the Maldives but they are all millionaires now.)

Eleven years ago, we did a cover story on Sonu and Eva in Brunch and wrote about their role in transforming tourism in the Maldives. We also wrote about a concept that Sonu had pioneered: barefoot luxury.

There are few experiences that can beat watching a movie on a big screen rising out of the sea
There are few experiences that can beat watching a movie on a big screen rising out of the sea

At that time, Soneva Fushi was modelled on a Robinson Crusoe Island, the villas were hidden under lush vegetation by the side of the beach and butlers were called Mr. Friday (after Crusoe’s Man Friday). When you got off the seaplane that brought you to Soneva Fushi from Male airport, they took away your shoes. You were encouraged to go barefoot everywhere and to take a break from the stresses of the world. The idea was so original that many other Maldives resorts copied it. (‘No shoes, no news’ became a sort of slogan for Maldives resorts.)

Eleven years later, it is good to see that Sonu is still launching new trends. There must now be two hundred or more resorts and hotels, but most of them are vaguely similar. If you took pictures of the villas at, say, four of the top Maldives resorts and put them side by side, it would be hard to say which was which.

The thing about Soneva Fushi and its more recent sibling Soneva Jani, is that no picture of either of the resorts could be mistaken for anywhere else. Fifteen years ago, when I spoke to Eva, her ideas about sustainability, about being good to the planet and about avoiding plastic and other non-biodegradable materials seemed a little way out. Today, they are the conventional wisdom.

So it is with Sonu’s ideas on nutrition. From the very beginning, he pushed the resorts into growing their own herbs, mushrooms and other vegetables. (This is a big deal in the Maldives where it is hard to grow anything in the coral islands and most food items are imported.)

The top resorts in the Maldives are now world-famous leading one to wonder why India can’t build better hotels
The top resorts in the Maldives are now world-famous leading one to wonder why India can’t build better hotels

He was talking about avoiding gluten, about reviving ancient grains, about the need to look for lactose-free ‘milk’ and about the dangers to the environment (and possibly your health) from eating too much beef. At that stage, no luxury resort bothered about all these so-called ‘fads’.

But Sonu, who likes and enjoys good food and wine and still retains a Peter Pan-like youthful quality, is proof that it all works. As he said to me years ago, “it is not how much you eat but what you eat and when.”

There are many sides to Sonu and Eva. She was a top model, appearing on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, etc. He was brought up in a NRI family of millionaires (full disclosure: I am a trustee of the philanthropic Inlaks Foundation, run by the Shivdasani family to send Indians to study abroad but Sonu is not involved with the foundation), so they both had glamorous backgrounds. (They met at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, for instance.)

But both have gone beyond those glamorous backgrounds. Sonu is so obsessive about food and wine that it is impossible to eat badly at Soneva Fushi. For instance, the sushi counter is run in collaboration with the three-star Sushi Gyoten in Fukuoka. The right-hand man of Chef Gyoten, a brilliant chef called Akira, makes the sushi in front of you and it is easily the best sushi most of us will ever eat. The teppanyaki counter, also run by a brilliant Japanese chef, is on the roof of a building and designed so that you can see the sun set as your meat grills. (There are two Indian chefs — one North Indian and one South Indian — who will make anything from dosas to chicken manchurian to vegetarian dishes, if that’s what you want.)

Nothing very much grows in the Maldives, so Soneva uses vegetables and herbs from its own gardens
Nothing very much grows in the Maldives, so Soneva uses vegetables and herbs from its own gardens

Then there are the unique Soneva experiences. There’s a picnic to a deserted island where the boat drops you and leaves you alone all day or where, if you prefer, a team of chefs can precede you and cook a gourmet meal. There is the observatory where, on one memorable visit, Buzz Aldrin showed me where he had landed on the moon.

Soneva has always had its share of celebrity guests. You could be sitting next to James Dyson, inventor of those amazing gadgets or the owner of Gucci, YSL and Bottega Veneta and his famous actress wife or opposite a Pussycat Doll. But, here’s the thing: there is no bowing and scraping. Everyone gets treated the same way.

Because Sonu likes going beyond glamour, he will routinely offer free holidays to writers, thinkers and academics. All they have to do is to give a few talks and interact with guests. I found it amazing to go on an island picnic and end up discussing the rise of China with an Oxford professor (and best-selling author). The intellectual component of Soneva easily matches the luxury.

So, at the end of every trip, I ask myself the same question: if Sonu Shivdasani can transform hospitality on a bunch of tiny islands off the coast of India, why can’t we do the same in our country’s seaside resorts? Why do we have to fly over the Indian Ocean to enjoy such stimulating holidays?

After all these years, I still don’t know what the answer to that question is.

And so, I go to the Maldives.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, August 15, 2021

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