The Ultimate Maldivian Eco-Stay
April 23, 2014
Merritt Gurley checks in with Maldivian Queen Soneva Fushi and the other dreamers, innovators and sun-worshippers that took home accolades at 2013 Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards.
Published on Apr 23, 2014
I am lost on an island that might be sinking.
I start at the beach, an empty stretch of snow-white sand outlined in those turquoise waves the postcards promise. Then I pass the 10-meter long private pool (a pretty solid landmark) and continue onward through the villa and out the door, down a stone path, alongside a wading pool, weaving through palm trees and banyan trees, here to this stonewall waterfall. I have no idea where I am or how to get where I want to be going (to lunch). I walk the length of the waterfall and at its conclusion I spot a shower. It dawns on me. I turn around in slow circle, and it hits me full force. I'm in the bathroom. In the 20 minutes that I've been wandering aimlessly, I never left my own villa.
My pitiful lack of an internal compass conspires with Soneva Fushi's pitch-perfect harmony with the natural landscape—and its good fortune to be situated on one of the Maldives' biggest islands, at 1,400 meters long—to create an environment where I'm often not sure if I am inside or outside. Yet design is only a part of why the Soneva brand was named Most Inspiring Responsible Tourism Accommodations Provider at 2013 Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards. Soneva's founders, Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, tailored the Fushi's sustainable practices to the pressures looming largest in the Maldives. They call their mission the SLOW LIFE, a resort-friendly acronym for the more cumbersome Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences. This duo launched an international movement to improve access to drinkable water across the globe and they've poured millions of dollars into minimizing their resorts' impact on their surrounds. These efforts have paid off in a slew of Earth-saving innovations that are, in no small feat, actually of interest to their guests.
Image Courtesy of Soneva Fuhi; Jago Gazendam
There are few places on earth that are as worthy and as deeply in need of preservation as the Maldives. The republic takes its name from the Sanskrit words for "garland island," as each of the coral islets is surrounded by a reef lagoon. The approach by seaplane is spectacular: the ocean dressed in emerald and sapphire bracelets of various sizes and shapes... or perhaps Davey Jones' Locker finally sprung open, its bounty having floated to the surface in all its glittering glory. But the splendor is of the vulnerable variety. This is the smallest country in Asia, both in terms of population and landmass, made up of a collection of 1,190 atolls spread over 764 kilometers of the Indian Ocean and with an0 average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level—which is gradually rising thanks to global warming. Recent studies released by the United Nations predict that the ocean will increase by more than a meter by the turn of the century, which could mean lights out for the Maldives.
That would be disastrous for a country that derives most of its revenue from honeymooners and other sunseekers. Back in the mid-1970's, author Clarence Maloney bemoaned how quickly infrastructure was developing in the Maldives: "Now nine islands have hotels designed to accommodate a total of over 1,000 tourists, of the sort who relish basking in the equatorial sun and who come during the European winter." Boy would he be pissed today. Tourism developments have broken ground on 14 virgin islands in Maldives this year alone, there are at least 124 resorts, and visitor arrivals last year topped 958,000.
Though there are some scientists who write off the environmental concerns as hype, leaders in the Maldives seem to take them pretty seriously. This is a country, after all, that so esteems the power of nature that a coconut was officially arrested during the recent tumultuous election for giving off bad vibes near a polling station. In 2008, then-president Mohamed Nasheed held a cabinet meeting underwater, signing a document that called for global cuts in carbon emissions, all decked out in his scuba gear, making the not-so-subtle point that the country could be swallowed by the depths. He vowed to make the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020 and even set aside a sovereign wealth fund from tourism capital and was in negotiations with Australia to set aside land for displaced Maldivians should the country be washed away. Despite current governmental upheaval, plans seems to be continuing to construct artificial islands that can withstand an oceanic surge, complete with resorts, golf courses and the other trappings of high-end tourism.
An egret strolls the beach
What's so inspiring about Soneva Fushi is that they needed no governmental nudge to go ecowild. One afternoon I tour the atoll, on a mission to uncover the innerworkings of its green innovations. I discover that all leftover metal is sorted and sent to India. Styrofoam is sliced up and used in construction for insulation. Waste wood is used to create charcoal for the resort's many barbecue grills in such bulk that none needs to be imported.
Unlike most resorts in the Maldives that simply chuck their food waste out to sea, Soneva uses this nutrient-rich trash for compost, which has resulted in the speedy growth of eggplants, tomatoes, herbs and other vegetables in their burgeoning on-site garden. This is of paramount importance for the island nation as its loose sand is poorly suited for agriculture, "It is almost impossible to grow fruits and vegetables without compost," says Sophy Williams, public relations for Soneva Resorts. "We need this compost to become more self-sufficient." The compost is so effective that they've started selling it to neighboring islands for US$6 a bag. "Recycling is still a good business and that's what the world needs to wake up to," Williams says.
Veggies in the garden at Soneva Fushi
Recycling can also be a beautiful business. In one room there are bags of sparkling glass, pieces of crushed wine bottles used to supplement cement, reducing the carbon footprint. And the rows of solar panels, bathing in the Maldivian sun, have a sharp metal dazzle of their own.
Everything is looking up to snuff when I stumble on a room full of empty plastic bottles—the very kind I'd been assured had been banned back in 2008. Busted. "Ah ha!" I say. "Where did these come from?" Well, as it turns out, the staff goes on recycling runs to pick up plastic bottles at nearby islands and found floating in surrounding waters and collects them to be crushed and sent to India where they are repurposed. Of course they do.
There's a sad irony to sitting on a dock with a 360-degree view of the ocean and realizing that there is, as Coleridge nailed it in The Rime of the Ancient Marine, "water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." In addition to plastic control, water shortage is a big issue plaguing the Maldives. Once again, Soneva plays part-scientific/part-spiritual leader on this front. Guests pay US$6 per bottle of water at Soneva Fushi and if this sounds steep, realize that this is some seriously pampered aqua—they play Bach and Mozart to the high-class H2O as it is filtered, which they believe improves the taste. For an extra US$2 you can request various crystals be submerged in the water for their supposed healing properties. Half of this water revenue is poured into the SLOW LIFE foundation, which, according to Arnfinn Oines, who heads up the environmental efforts at Soneva, has helped 600,000 people get access to clean drinking water or basic sanitation over the past four years.
In fact, this on-site water purification and glass bottling system has been so successful that it sparked the Whole World Water campaign, which aims to contribute US$1 billion per year from the sale of filtered water towards providing safe drinking water for communities around the world. Essentially hotels pay a licensing fee for membership, which includes branded Whole World Water bottles and associated marketing materials. In turn, 10 percent of the proceeds from the water they sell goes back into the project. Big names like Edward Norton and Richard Branson are advisors, while hotels like the Dusit, the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, the Banyan Tree and Jetwing have already joined the collective.
Water isn't the only high-end commodity at Soneva Fushi. I spend my time on Kunfunadhoo Island cycling sun-dappled trails that lead through arched jungle canopies to stilted yoga studios and hidden beaches, snorkeling the parrot-fish-infested waters, and gorging on salted caramels. At sunset I head to the overwater bar for a chilled Corona and the warm rush of sea air, that's just a little cooler as the sun ducks beneath the horizon. And for dinner? Grilled Maldivian reef fish and butter-drenched lobster. There is an entire room, open round the clock, full of just chocolates. Another room is devoted to breads and ice cream, and yet another is chock-a-block with cheese and cured meats. When I lose my way through this paradise, I enlist the assistance of my personal butler, known as Mr. Friday.
Sunset beers and champagne at Bar(a)Bara, Soneva Fushi's overwater bar
It is hedonism at its best in a setting that's as spectacular as the service. And yet, knowing that part of the profits go towards philanthropy and preservation, that at least some of the energy is being offset by solar power, and that the waste will eventually help a garden grow, takes the guilty edge off of an indulgent vacation. Isn't that the ultimate luxury?