By Chris Dwyer
Jan 19, 2021
WITH THE ABSURDLY BLUE INDIAN OCEAN shimmering gloriously beside us, we step from a seaplane jetty into a sleek white launch and are then asked for our shoes. We won’t be needing them during our stay at Soneva Fushi, a pioneer of barefoot luxury hospitality. Our footwear is ceremonially placed in a white drawstring bag with the Soneva mantra, No shoes, no news, scripted across it in elegant italics.
In 2020, however, they could have added the words No masks. That’s because they purchased a machine from the Swiss company Roche, costing hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars, that has revolutionized the COVID-era travel experience, leaving Soneva Fushi as one of the few destinations on the planet where neither guests nor staff wear masks.
The only exception was the masked and gloved duo who met us on arrival en route to our accommodation, a brand-new Water Retreat, a mind-blowing 575 square meter, two-bedroom overwater villa, the world’s largest. Once there, a nurse administered a nasal COVID test that took five seconds and was wholly painless, before we kicked back in quarantine paradise awaiting the (hopefully) negative results. You get an F&B voucher to dial for room service in the meantime.
Then, barely 16 hours after our seaplane had landed, a note under the door let us know we were still virus-free and could join all the other guests and staff in the remarkably liberating ability to pack our masks away entirely. That meant breathing in the warm ocean breezes without a care in the world, agonizing over what to eat first from the stunning buffet spreads with not a plexiglass divider in sight, and making new friends on sunset cruises as we spotted dolphins frolicking.
Had we tested positive on this end, we would have had a 14-day quarantine in our villa, during which the tab for the room rate would have been picked up by Soneva Fushi. It wouldn’t have exactly been a hardship.
Highlights of our trip included breakfast in our villa that offered an aquatic double-whammy: clear glass under our table let us inspect the sea life below, while views to the reef included rays and black-tipped sharks. We played like six-year-olds with a button beside the bed that retracted the roof to let us sleep under the stars or even sunbathe(!). As for the famed 19-meter slide from the villa’s top floor straight into the ocean? There can be few better ways to start the day.
“The southeast and north Asian markets love overwater villas, often combining them with a beach villa,” Soneva’s co-founder Sonu Shivdasani said. Their addition to the resort doubles down on both the luxury and tradition: “They’ve also added to our feng shui, because if you looked at the island from above, it looked like a fish – now we’ve added a tail to the fish.”
Discovering the island’s jungle pathways by bamboo bike – both of which bore cute wooden plates with our initials carved in them – made me and my wife appreciate the fact that Soneva Fushi has also all but eradicated mosquitoes. That’s thanks to another ground-breaking investment in science and a partnership with Dr. Bart Knols who has helped pioneer sustainable mosquito traps, a project that Soneva hopes to eventually extend all the way across The Maldives.
But it’s the investment in that Roche Life Cycler 96 COVID testing machine, which can process up to 75 tests at a time and is located in a facility on a neighboring island, that has delivered extraordinary results. Resort staff are tested every five days, as are guests (well, those of us able to luxuriate in paradise that long). Not only has Soneva Fushi not closed at all since the start of the pandemic, but their November and December 2020 bookings were up when compared to 2019.
Famous folks from Beyoncé to the Beckhams to Prince William have stayed here in part because of the outstanding level of privacy – a benefit synonymous with health and safety, and in this era, therefore, something we’re all in search of. And there’s an awful lot to be said for total peace of mind and a vacation that is the one thing the past year hasn’t been: normal.