Unpaid advertisement | Disclaimer: Soneva invited me to spend three nights at Soneva Fushi with full-board and they also covered my transport in the Maldives.
They have yet to offer me a permanent position as resident manta whisperer.
I have admitted quite frankly that I am lazy when it comes to travel and to being more environmentally conscious in general. Over the last year, I have implemented a few simple things to travel greener and to counterbalance my environmental impacts of tourism. I invested in a Grayl bottle so I can filter tap water, started to use plastic free shampoo and deal with the occasional pink argan oil stain, got a bamboo toothbrush and a diva cup, and I have also started to offset my carbon footprint.
Those are things that won’t change the world but they are easy enough to implement even for a lazy bum like me. It always strikes me as weird that while we complain about what locals in any given destination presumingly do or don’t do to live more sustainable we rarely question (or don’t question enough) what luxury hotels do. I was quite shocked to check into an otherwise beautiful property in Bali that at $700 a night still provided me with little plastic water bottles in my room. Environment aside – who wants to drink out of yucky plastic bottles if you just dropped that kind of money?!
Certainly, some hotels have caught on to the ‘trend’ (can and should we actually call living more sustainable a trend?) and with that greenwashing has become a whole new thing. It is far too easy to slap the tag ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘barefoot luxury’ onto your branding, call it ecotourism holidays, and be done with it. Unfortunately, the average consumer won’t know any better or simply doesn’t want to – after all, holiday time is the one time a year one can be utterly hedonistic and if that comes with little plastic bottles and towel animals (Norwegian Cruise Lines just announced that they would stop putting towel animals in the cabins for environmental reasons and the internet went crazy) so be it.
I think the issue here is twofold – we as consumers need to start giving a shit as do hotels and businesses and both go hand in hand. Especially when it comes to a certain hotel category it should be their duty to lead the way into a greener future regardless of location and laws because not having the money to do so is simply not an excuse anymore.
It was during my first trip when I was ‘stranded’ in one of the top resorts in the Maldives when I became very aware of the fact how small the space around me and how vast the ocean was. It gave me a slight sensation of agoraphobia and with that, I started to wonder – where does the trash go? I know that my revelation makes me sound somewhat naive but to be honest I never really thought about this issue at home. There was a bin in my house, a bigger bin in front of my house and there seemed enough space in an obscure ‘elsewhere’ to dispose of it. But the Maldives with its teeny tiny islands? Not so much.
Last year I returned and hit the jackpot without even knowing it. I found not only what I now consider one of the best Maldives 5-star hotels but also a barefoot hotel deluxe: Soneva Fushi.
The Soneva brand has been at the forefront of sustainable tourism for years now and they take their role quite seriously, showing not just their guests but also the local communities the benefits of sustainable tourism. The group was founded by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani and Soneva Fushi was the first resort of its kind in the Maldives, opening its doors in 1995. They have since become a leader as a sustainable luxury resort operator and are the original barefoot luxury hotel brand.
Soneva Fushi – A Barefoot Hotel Deluxe
S oneva not only seems to agree with me that a company of this caliber should be leading the way into a greener future but also makes it ridiculously easy for their very high profile guests. While literally a barefoot hotel (more on that later), Soneva is not just your average eco-friendly resort. Guests don’t have to make any sacrifices in the name of the environment because let’s be honest – if you are forking out some serious cash for a Maldives holiday, you don’t want to make any sacrifices, the environment be damned. Lucky for you, at Soneva you won’t feel or miss a thing.
Staying at Soneva Fushi
As I mentioned before while I think the term barefoot luxury is horribly overused, I secretly really like it and it describes my travel style well. As a proper barefoot resort, this motto is taken very seriously at Soneva Fushi. Someone will take your shoes while you are still on the speedboat approaching the island and put them in a neat little shoebag engraved with the resort’s motto ‘no shoes, no news’. Even the pilot of the local seaplane seems to know about it.
While I love this concept I come to regret it on my last day when I sport a big blister thanks to the insanely hot jetties at Soneva. Bring your flipflops when you walk to the Big Blue restaurant or be very, very fast.
Most of the island though is covered in soft sandy forest-floor and your feet will be absolutely fine. Unlike their sister resort Soneva Jani there are no overwater bungalows so typical for the Maldives at Fushi but only jungle villas of various sizes. One even sports 9 rooms with its own pool and slide, making it the biggest hotel villa in the country. Cutting of the trees is limited to be minimally invasive when it comes to the island’s nature which means you are quite literally living in a jungle and under a green canopy.
Villas are rustic and all technology for music, wifi, and TV is cleverly hidden amongst wood furniture with a driftwood feel and warmly colored canvas cushions. The bathroom comes with various washing facilities including a bathtub outside, a shower in the jungle, and another semi-outside shower. The fourposter bed is all soft cottons and gauzy curtains and of course the pillows I have preordered from their very extensive pillow menu are already waiting for me. In addition, Soneva’s welcome email also asked for my favorite ice cream flavors and alcoholic beverage preference and has promptly delivered because a bottle of bubbly is waiting for me. All in all, I feel like a very fancy Robinson Crusoe, a feeling that goes nicely with the fact that I have a personal butler, aptly named Mr. Friday.
Activities at Soneva Fushi
Needless to say, Soneva being a Maldives luxury resort it offers an almost never-ending array of activities. Its center is Big Blue where you find various restaurants and a communal area with hammocks, sun loungers and of course a slide into the ocean. Who needs a pool if you have water this clear?? I am a huge fan of the hammocks, something that seems the ultimate Maldives experience to me and I am thrilled to learn that I can, of course, have my lunch while lounging like a mermaid in a net.
Your Mr. or Mrs. Friday will inform you about various activities, some of which are included in the rates. Movie night aptly called Cinema Paradiso, glassblowing lessons, sundowners on a sandbank, and various watersports are on offer as well as all sorts of romantic activities. Mind you, those are never in the face of us poor singletons and I am actually quite happy to return to my villa after the sundowners and the fact that I don’t have to sleep on a sandbank, romantic endeavor or not.
My favorite experience during my stay is a sunset cruise to find dolphins and snorkeling with mantas. I have never seen a proper dolphin in the wild before so I am delighted by the show they are putting on for us as well as by bottomless champagne and canapes. Nature and luxury really go hand in hand here.
Even better is our snorkeling excursion as we follow a group of mantas that has been seen in Hanifaru Bay the day before. Thirty-something mantas are still there and they are ready to play, an experience that words cannot describe. Having only seen the lone manta here and there when diving, this is an absolute treat for me only made more special since Soneva’s resident marine biologist is accompanying us. She is not only watching over us but also the mantas as some come all the way to the surface and get very touchy-feely. With that said, no manta was harmed in the taking of this picture and any manta-Annika contact was purely instigated by the manta. I can keep my fingers to myself!
Manta season is from June to November and of course, sightings cannot be guaranteed. However, if they are in the area I definitely recommend you hop on a boat to go look for them. Alternatively, Soneva has its own dive center that will take you to explore the spectacular underwater world of the Maldives all year long.
The Eco Centro
The heart of the Soneva barefoot hotel and its sustainable effort is the Eco Centro where trash is quite literally turned into treasures thanks to its manager. With their efforts, Soneva has managed to recycle and reuse 90% of all the trash they produce, an astonishing number.
Literally, everything is either recycled or reused. It starts with a huge steaming compost heap and even seemingly innocent coconut shells are turned into charcoal and used for heating. Food deliveries in the Maldives come in styrofoam boxes, a necessary evil that even Soneva cannot prevent. What they do instead is shred the styrofoam and turn it into bricks. While the island is completely plastic-free, plastic still finds its way to the shores of Soneva. To recycle any plastic, they are using their latest venture a 3-D printer that turns the plastic into something new and useful. In addition, Soneva has launched the first fully sustainable surfing programme in the world for which they build eco-friendly surfboards made from waste.
A big part of the Eco Centro’s success is the fact that it almost operates at a profit already, selling its product to the hotel and thus showing that sustainability and recycling can be a lucrative enterprise. In addition, community involvement is a big deal here and skills are passed on to the local communities of the surrounding Maldives islands. This includes all aspects of greener living from a water filtering system to swim classes for local kids to encourage and foster a relationship with the ocean in order to protect it.
Not your average eco hotel
While the Eco Centro is the definite star of the resort in terms of sustainability I also believe it is the little things that count and where Soneva really shines. Because let’s be honest, some people might just not care to look at a compost heap during their holidays.
Luckily there are many details at Soneva which not only add to your holiday experience but also help the environment:
- Complimentary bottled water in glass bottles in the rooms and restaurants – still or sparkling, just tell your Mr. Friday what you prefer.
- No tiny plastic toiletries. In fact, you order your favorites beforehand online and things like razors or toothbrushes are put in your room only upon request. You can choose between a few fragrances but all products come in refillable ceramic bottles.
- Soneva is completely plastic-free so needless to say, there are no plastic straws or stirrers. They are simply made from paper or wood. In addition, if you ask for ice in your drink you will get ice cubes according to your drink i.e. coffee ice cubes for iced coffee or lemon ice cubes for iced tea.
- The food at Soneva is incredible and that holds even true for their buffet food (I am usually so not a fan of buffets!). Lots of fresh and healthy options are available including an impressive array of vegetarian and vegan choices. In addition, Soneva does a meat-free Thursday. During that day only vegetarian dishes and fish/seafood is on offer unless you explicitly ask for it. The cheese and charcuterie room is only stocked with cheeses on Thursdays while a sign explains the concept and benefits of going meat-free for one day each week.
- Soneva has a glass blowing studio with a resident glass blower. He and his team work exclusively with recycled glass, creating masterpieces that are used in the Soneva restaurants and their little shop but also export internationally. In addition, traveling artists are free to join the studio and create pieces for the adjacent gallery.
- Last but not least, all Sonevas have a separate chocolate and ice-cream room which is at your disposal 24/7. While that might not be good for the environment per se, it definitely makes you happy and doesn’t the world need more happy people?!
In true barefoot hotel fashion, I leave limping thanks to my blister, but also inspired and impressed, something that doesn’t happen very often anymore. While I understand that the level of luxury Soneva offers is unattainable for most travelers, I don’t believe the concept of a sustainable barefoot hotel should be, especially if more were to realize that sustainability can make a profit.
What can we do as travelers?
While I wish I could exclusively stay at the Sonevas of the world from now on, the reality is a different one. Sometimes it is not easy to see if a hotel is truly eco-friendly or just greenwashing even once you have arrived, so I try to make sure I do my part. In addition to packing a filter water bottle and reusable straw, I demand more and better from hotels of all calibers. I ask for options on where to fill my bottle and if there are none, I explain why I don’t want to use plastic bottles (a concept some still don’t seem to grasp), straws or plastic cups. I make sure towels don’t get replaced unless I ask for it and bring my own toiletries so I don’t have to rely on little plastic bottles. And if all else fails, I have also started a piggy bank so I can hopefully go and visit Soneva Kiri in Thailand soon.
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