Surf and sustainability at Soneva resorts

With waste management becoming a huge concern, you would think at least big cities like Hong Kong and New York would be setting an example. But Sonu Shivdasani says they recycle only 50% and 65% of their waste respectively. At the hotelier’s Soneva resorts, however, the figure is a whopping 85%. Yes, the properties cannot be compared to congested metropolises, but it is significant in an industry that is usually known for greenwashing (misleading consumers with planet-saving policies).

Surf and sustainability at Soneva resorts

When I meet Shivdasani on his recent trip to Mumbai, I realise that like most people who have studied in the UK (he is a graduate of Eton and Oxford), the founder-CEO still holds on to the accent. The address on his business card, though, lists Bangkok, where his sustainable luxury resort brand, Soneva, is headquartered. With two island properties in the Maldives — Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani — a private island in Thailand, Soneva Kiri, and, most recently a yacht, Soneva in Aqua, his company is niche, but has become a favourite of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Celebrating the uncommon

Reams have been written about how a trip to the Maldives in the 1980s inspired the entrepreneur to “do something a bit more sustainable, a bit more luxurious”, in the country. “The standards in those days were simple — plastic tables, neon lights, and everything came in a tin,” he shares. But I am interested in what design and luxury mean to him. “Our design philosophy is to try to create the reality of the destination, even while creating a sense of space and lack of clutter,” says Shivdasani, who is credited with pioneering overwater villas and barefoot luxury. “My wife Eva is our creative director and she is responsible for the interiors. Her Swedish background lends to her minimalistic design aesthetic,” he adds.

Surf and sustainability at Soneva resorts

Intelligent luxury is what the duo practise — where the emphasis is not on objects, but on what is not commonplace. So for their guests who already enjoy the high life, Soneva is about space, privacy, fresh air and unique experiences. Their massive properties (Soneva Kiri is located on 400 hectares) come with desalination plants — where drinking water is processed to the sounds of classical music. At makers programmes, guests can use the plastic that washes up to create souvenirs, and the popular Chocolate Room has a changing selection of delicacies. He is especially proud of the resorts’ use of non-tropical timbers, which “grow rapidly in plantations and are great carbon sinks”.

Message in a bottle

Shivdasani’s focus is on creating concepts that reinforce their sustainable culture, like Glasscycle, the glass studio at Soneva Fushi. What started out as a way for the property to recycle its glass bottles, has now become a revenue earner. “I was reading about the Murano glass industry and its decline,” he says, explaining how he bought a glass furnace in Italy. “Now we have three talented glass blowers, and four to five times a year we invite artists.” Designer Manish Arora made four pieces on a recent visit. “One sold immediately, we’ve kept another and he has the third. The last work is up for sale.”

Surf and sustainability at Soneva resorts

Another concept is their fully sustainable surf programme — using eco-friendly surfboards, fins, sunscreen, board wax and more. They also help provide equipment, training and opportunities for aspiring Maldivian surfers and encourage the younger generation to understand the power and vulnerability of their ocean home. Meanwhile, about the Chocolate Room, he believes their “fair trade and dark chocolates are a perfect example of our slow life core purpose. If the chocolate is fair trade, it is supporting rain forest communities and, of course, if it’s dark, and taken in moderation, it can be quite healthy”.

In a quest to cater to guests of all interests, the Maldivian properties also play host to specialists who conduct one-on-one sessions. Lars Lindberg Christensen, the head of the European Southern Observatory’s education and public outreach department, is one among the group of varied professionals — which includes winemakers, tennis coaches and yoga instructors — who have visited the resorts. It would be fair to say Shivdasani has created Soneva balancing luxury, sustainability and the bottom line.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 12:22:18 AM |

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