“People who live in cities seek a holiday in harmony with nature, doing something as simple as walking barefoot on the beach,” he says.
Shivdasani calls his resorts “intelligent luxury”, a concept he has perfected at Soneva Fushi, which opened 20 years ago after the Indian-British businessman and his Swedish designer wife, Eva, took a 50-year lease on a 40-acre island in the northern Maldives in 1990.
Soneva Fushi features 55 villas and appears to exert a gravitational pull on guests — during my visit I met three London couples who, between them, had visited the resort 25 times.
It is also a popular bolt hole for celebrities, with Madonna and Paul McCartney among the star names who have checked in down the years to enjoy a castaway-style holiday on an island shaded by palm trees and surrounded by crystal clear waters.
To reach Soneva Fushi from London, guests take a direct 10-hour British Airways flight to Malé International airport, followed by a 30-minute hop on a seaplane to the resort.
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In 2011, after the Maldives government allowed foreigners to own property, Soneva Group became the first company to offer homes in the Maldives. It has sold 13 properties on 50-year leases at Soneva Fushi, priced from £1,657,000. All are in the hotel’s rental pool, with returns averaging four to five per cent.
MAKE DESERT ISLAND DREAMS COME TRUE
These rustic homes are set in private, densely planted gardens leading directly to the beach. Building materials include bamboo and eucalyptus with palm leaves on the roofs. Open-air bathrooms are a feature, while pared-back interiors feature chunky wooden furniture.
Soneva has now secured a lease on a new island, Soneva Jani, an hour by speedboat from Soneva Fushi.
Currently home to only a handful of farm labourers who tend the abundant papaya and banana trees, Jani is a coral reef-encircled island with a two-mile lagoon of gin-clear waters lapping a white sand beach.
Due to open in August next year, building started this month on 54 villas — 24 over water and 30 on land — with one third for sale. One- to three-bedroom homes similar to those at Soneva Fushi are priced from £1,989,000, including all furniture. Annual maintenance costs will be two per cent of the purchase price.
“The Maldives has great access and high tourist demand, so completed hotels sell quickly,” says Shivdasani. “Developing a resort, however, is complicated as you have to be both builder and utility supplier and the government has a glut of available islands.
“We considered more than 40 before we found Jani. The lagoon in front of the island is a perfect marine reserve.”
It is a rarity in the luxury hotel market to be an owner and operator, but the Shivdasanis’ expertise brings a charming quirkiness to their resorts. Former Vogue model Eva sources sustainable materials and thinks of alternative ways around design problems.
For example, the vast, wooden reels that bring power cables to the island are turned into bar tables, while she was probably the first designer to introduce freestanding ladder towel rails. The inspiration came when she walked past bamboo scaffolding in Bangkok.
Elsewhere in the Maldives, building has started at The Ocean Flower, a joint venture between Dutch Docklands and the Maldives government. Fifteen minutes by boat from Malé airport, it will have 185 fully furnished two- to four-bedroom floating villas and townhouses priced from £635,000, with no maintenance charges if placed in the rental pool.
The much-photographed 1,192 coral islands of the Maldives set in the vivid-blue Indian Ocean are holiday and honeymoon gold. Fewer than 200 are inhabited and there are 126 resorts — the government has a policy of one resort per island — which attract an annual 1.2 million visitors.
At Soneva Fushi, most guests come from the UK, followed by Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Russia, but the Chinese market is booming and now accounts for 40 per cent of all arrivals.
“In the 20 years since we opened, tourism has changed dramatically,” adds Sonu Shivdasani. “It used to be all couples, but we have had a huge growth in families coming for multi-generational holidays.”
The Maldives is an Islamic republic. Last month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised visitors to avoid large gatherings after street protests were held in Malé following the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed under anti-terrorism laws.