Soneva Fushi celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is still owned and operated by its founders, Sonu and Eva Shivdasani. The couple have a second hotel in Thailand, Soneva Kiri, with a further three planned for the Maldives. They were also the founders of the Six Senses hotel and spa brand, which they sold in 2012.
Soneva’s success is shown in its exceptional 52 per cent repeat rate – this is a hotel that guests return to again and again – and in its celebrity audience including Paul McCartney, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite this starry roll call, it is the most private resort: understated and delightfully low key.
Sonu and Eva’s main home is Soneva Fushi, from where Eva oversees the company’s creative design. She is Swedish, a former high-flying fashion model-turned-clothes designer, and is responsible for the simple but luxurious signature and strong eco-credentials that Soneva has boasted from its earliest days.
“When we started Soneva Fushi in 1995 'green' was only a colour and most people thought I was mad,” comments Eva on her long-held beliefs. She would never use coral or any wood from a non-sustainable or rainforest source, just as the restaurants would never serve lobster or foie gras. Two per cent of all room revenue goes to mitigating the hotel’s carbon footprint.
As the original desert castaway destination, Soneva Fushi has perfected barefoot luxury. Laid-back and rustic but with the highest levels of service, the 55 villas have thatched roofs made from palm tree leaves and feature generous, open-air bathrooms. The villas are hidden among the island’s banyan and palm trees and all have private paths directly to the soft, white sand and the bluest sea.
Eva describes the house style as one of comfort and functionality with a fun and quirky edge. “I love odd things,” she says. “And I think hotels should be made for the guests, not for someone’s ego.”
So there are huge, comfortable day beds that invite you to lie back and soak up the natural beauty around you. Bamboo and eucalyptus wood is used extensively, mostly recycled to avoid cutting new trees and generally without any varnish. “Its better to oil the wood or just keep it unprotected,” says Eva. “There is more upkeep but it is more beautiful with a distinctive patina and occasional holes here and there.”
Get the look:
Fabrics are in single colourways of burnt orange and yellow, and all come from Barefoot, a company employing women in rural Sri Lanka.
Eva designed the vintage-style travelling trunks in each room which hide the televisions, using leather from sustainable sources. “I do use leather from livestock but would never use any fur or skin from animals that are not in the food chain,” she adds.
“I generally design everything, with very few things coming ‘off the shelf’,” says Eva. “This is more fun – for me at least – and also gets less dated over time as it hasn’t been seen elsewhere. I like to make quirky things and to use items for things they are not made for. For example, when I am in London I go around admiring old manhole covers. I found some amazing ones in reclamation shops - they make beautiful side tables.”
Eva’s recycling skills include the massive wooden bobbins used to bring cables to the island which, when upended, now make perfect high tables at the waterfront bar.
Her top tips for replicating Soneva style are to think creatively about how you can use what you already have, and not to try too hard. “I would say keep everything simple, let the eyes relax,” she says. “I always use single colours and mix them. Very rarely do I use a pattern.”
Hidden design gem:
The open-air bathrooms mean there are few walls where a towel rail could be attached and this meant Eva had to think creatively. She was probably the first designer to introduce a towel ladder to bathrooms.
“I was thinking about the solution when one day I walked past a construction site in Bangkok and I saw it,” she recalls. “In Asia they use bamboo to make the construction scaffolding as well as the ladders to climb on. A light clicked in my head and the ladder towel holder was born. At that time, 23 years ago, I had never seen it anywhere before.”
Eva knows each villa intimately and picking a favourite room is difficult. “I think I would pick the master bedroom in Villa 11 where the whole wall behind the bed is covered in clusiana sticks, a type of gum tree. When it is lit up in the evening it is quite magical and romantic,” she says. “I also like the enormous desk that covers the whole wall in that room and is made from pieces of left-over wood. I always feel good to be able to recycle items and follow the three Rs: re-use, reduce and recycle.”
Soneva Fushi: www.soneva.com; 0800 048 8044