The pioneer of sustainable luxury in the Maldives, Soneva Fushi played host to a tropical edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in May. Travel + Leisure India & South Asia took a deep dive into this unique confluence of experiences and emerged with a few pearls of wisdom. By Sumeet Keswani
I thought I knew the Maldives. Over 700 kilometres away from Asia’s mainland, its 1,200 coral islands and sandbanks exist in near isolation in the Indian Ocean. This seclusion is part of the charm that draws over a million visitors every year to the shores of its 160-plus resorts. I had enjoyed the hospitality of various island resorts over the years—staying in beach and water villas, dining in overwater restaurants and private pools, experiencing an array of spa therapies, watching dolphins ride the bow waves of boats, and feeding stingrays by hand. But then, I arrived at the shores of Soneva Fushi for an unlikely festival.
Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF)
I thought I knew the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Every year, thousands throng the grounds of Diggi Palace in Jaipur to listen to authors, scientists, politicians, artists, and other thought leaders from around the world. From uniform-clad students to notepad-wielding journalists and novel-clutching bookworms, everyone orders the same kulhad chai, queues up for signed copies, and hopes for a private chat with their favourite writer. The delegates flit from session to session, dressed to the nines and sipping on wine in an exclusive lounge. I had participated in this colourful carnival multiple times in various roles—avid reader, journalist, emerging author. I believed nothing could surprise me. But then, I was invited to JLF Soneva Fushi (May 13-22).
JLF Soneva Fushi
The debut of JLF in the Maldives broke every stereotype associated with the event. Instead of the regal setting of a Rajasthani haveli, it took place on an island covered by a rainforest .The clear winter sky of Jaipur was replaced by tropical thunderstorms. In fact, an unseasonal downpour shifted the opening ceremony from Turtle Beach to Out Of The Blue, an overwater dining destination. Aptly, the keynote address by historian Peter Frankopan centred on climate change— and what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable future. When the rain abated, Sonam Kalra & The Sufi Gospel Project played their soulful music on a vibrant beach stage.
At JLF Soneva Fushi, the delegates traded their cravats and cardigans for shorts and sundresses, and went barefoot on the soft sand, encouraged by the resort’s ‘no news, no shoes’ philosophy. When they weren’t debating on panels, they weren’t sequestered to a VIP lounge either. Every meal at Mihiree Mithaa became a buffet of conversations on topics ranging from memoir writing to film adaptations, artificial intelligence, geopolitics, colonial history, and spy stories, among other things. There was no bar between author and reader. I could not only understand the inner workings of the writers I admired but also pick their brains on my personal literary dilemmas and forge lasting friendships.
The panels held all the drama that JLF is known for. André Aciman held everyone in his thrall as he read from his famous novel Call Me By Your Name, Mira Nair shared incredible anecdotes from the making of her seminal film Monsoon Wedding and its upcoming Broadway debut before a nostalgia-evoking screening, Ben Macintyre divulged scandalous secrets from his research for Operation Mincemeat (the movie adaptation of his book saw its world premiere at the resort’s Cinema Paradiso), Patrick Radden Keefe gleefully delved into the criminal mind as he discussed stories from his upcoming book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, Huma Abedin reflected on her life and US politics in a riveting discussion on her memoir Both/And. Delegates, attendees, and organisers alike chose to bicycle between the venues, dipping their toes in the turquoise sea every chance they got.
A Tropical Escape
When I looked for activities to fill the spaces between sessions, I faced an embarrassment of riches. One morning, I snorkelled over the house reef and saw my first wild turtle and a huge blacktip reef shark. On a wetter day, a tour introduced me to the resort’s sustainability initiatives. The Soneva Art and Glass studio held a glassblowing demonstration, turning molten glass waste into an elegant decanter. Eco Centro showed me how it recycled over 90 per cent of the island’s waste, from all parts of a coconut to certain plastics and aluminium cans. Organic gardens teemed with the ingredients of our meals—from salad greens to herbs, fruits, and flowers—and doubled as table settings for two dining destinations: Fresh in the Garden and Shades Of Green. Steps away from the beach, my villa conformed to Soneva’s ethos. The Crusoe Suite with Pool was sustainably built to accommodate the island’s vegetation, which offered a natural veil of privacy to the pool and shelter to rabbits. The decor, too, hummed an eco-friendly tune, with innovative touches like coconut shells holding tea station utilities.
My most memorable activity outside JLF Soneva Fushi was a consultation at Soneva Soul. The wellness concept combines the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) while also offering the latest high-end treatments, like vitamin therapy, cryotherapy, and ozone therapy. Whether you need respite from a chronic illness or a hangover, the wellness specialists at Soneva Soul personalise your treatment. In my case, it was a newly surfaced knee ache that no balm could alleviate. Dr Fabio, the TCM expert, adjusted my body posture and then went to work on my knees. Since I was averse to needles and rejected his repeated assurances about acupuncture, Fabio employed an LED lamp belt and a BEMER B.Spot device for local treatment while I lay on a BEMER B.Box mat. He also targeted specific points in my ear with electrical stimulation. This electrical auricular acupuncture was aimed at finding problematic areas in the body and directing corrective forces in their direction. In fact, all of the interventions were catalysts to the body treating itself. I emerged with renewed energy from Soneva Soul, ears studded with minuscule gilded seeds (stuck to the pressure points); a kintsugi human with imperfections lacquered in gold.
My three-day JLF Soneva Fushi immersion ended with a barefoot culinary journey in the company of the entire JLF contingent. It started with tapas at the rustic seaside shack-like Out of the Sea and ended with a moonlit meal on a beach, with a number of delicious pit stops that saw people burst into song. Dinner was followed by a foot-thumping performance of Kabir Café, a band that packages Kabir’s verses in contemporary rock music and makes it impossible—even for introverted authors and journalists with two left feet—to refrain from dancing.
I thought I knew myself and what I wanted in life: to fill my backpack with as many exotic experiences as I could. But then, I witnessed the union of three great passions: literature, sea, and sustainability. Soneva made me slow down, and JLF made me think deeply about life—in the company of some of the greatest thinkers of our time. JLF Soneva Fushi made me recalibrate my compass and gave me a new north. I hear the festival will be back in the Maldives next year. And I hope that I will yet again be an ingredient in its cauldron of human connection.
Airlines like IndiGo, Vistara, and GoFirst run flights from Indian metros to Malé. There are two ways to reach Soneva Fushi: take a direct 30-minute seaplane from Malé International Airport to the island, or take a domestic flight from Malé International Airport to Dharavandhoo Airport, followed by a 12-minute speedboat ride to the resort.
Soneva Fushi offers a variety of accommodations—on the beach and over water—ranging from one to nine bedrooms. The next JLF Soneva Fushi is slated to be held from May 12 to 21, 2023. Full-board four-night stay from USD8,100 for two guests (includes domestic transfers and full access to the festival).