Paradise Found – Soneva Gili / Maldives

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Maldives - Soneva Gili | Posted on 01-04-2012

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[If you’re here looking for information or tips about Soneva Gilli, you can find some tips down here]

I’m writing this post at the tail end of what’s been a honeymoon beyond anything I could have dreamt of…

It’s been 6 months since we got married, as we’ve been travelling on the road with work until now, so with a couple weeks off and some frigid winter at our backs, we needed some sunny pastures. We’ve little need for second toasters, so at the wedding, rather than a gift registry, we’d set up a Honeymoon Registry to which friends and family had contributed quite generously, so the question became: what do two people who travel constantly, and live in hotels do when it comes time to take a vacation?

We’d both forever had dreams of staying in a house on stilts over blue water, so that was our primary mission. We were leaving from Rome, and returning to Morocco, and decided to look at options normally beyond easy access for Canadians. We did a lot of research, and with the help of our travel agents decided on the Maldives, and focused in on a few options. The whole 400-room US name brand hotel was completely unappealing, so we looked at smaller companies and properties and it came down to two: Hufaven Fushi and Soneva Gili. Both were small luxury properties, where one catered to a bit more of a shine and flash, and we were drawn more to the rustic remoteness of Soneva Gili. Our travel agents negotiated a great deal with a honeymoon package and some nice extras, Chris used his airline ninjitsu to some first-class/roundabout airfare completely on points (yay massages in the in Bangkok first-class lounge!), and we were off…

Upon arrival at the Male airport we were greeted by a host from the hotel, and after a short wait in the humid 30 degree tropical night air, we were taken to the beach across the street from the airport and us and our luggage was loaded onto the boat. We’d arrived at 11pm, so our speedboat trip roaring through the darkness with only an occasional cluster of lights in the distance was a little unnerving, but some smiles from our hosts and some fresh fruit juice put us at ease. During the trip the host asked for our shoes, and placed them into a bag and said “You can have these back when you leave – you won’t need them”.

A half hour later we rounded a sandbar with a single palm tree upon it and pulled up to a long wooden jetty with some trees and a bit of white sand at the far end. We were greeted immediately by Mustho, who introduced himself as our host for the week as we walked down the wooden jetty as the illuminated waters below glistened blues and greens as I’ve never seen before. Mustho put us on a golf cart and said that since we’d come in so late he would give us a tour in the morning and would just take us to our villa so we could get some sleep, so we cruised through the shadows of palm trees and onto a long triangular jetty that stretched out over the water with villas along the outsides. We pulled up to our unit (#19) which looked like a rustic thatched roof house on stilts, and we opened the door to an open air living space filled with the rush of waves crashing in the distance and florally fragrant salt air, and our jaws dropped. The villa looked rustic, but was subtly luxurious and had everything we needed for our stay on hand: to the right was the changing room, washroom and overwater shower, and to the left the bedroom with fantastically plush bed and daybed, and in front of us the living space dropped right down to a deck where we could barely see lounge chairs and hammocks in the darkness. Mustho had set up a chilled bottle of champagne for us, but when he excused himself with the promise to meet up with us at breakfast, we chose to put the champagne in the fridge and crawl into bed to sleep away the 30 hours of travel time…

The next morning, we came out of our room to one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen — the view from our villa was a lagoon of the clearest light blue-white water that stretched out before us to waves crashing on a reef break, and beyond, nothing but blue sky horizon. The living room dropped directly down to a well equipped deck (hammocks, lounge chairs and day beds), and with the nearest other villas in view on a jetty at least half a kilometre away, we felt completely private, contentedly isolated, and wonderfully unto ourselves.

We’d planned to meet Mustho at breakfast, so we dragged our tired asses into the open air double headed shower (you can watch the fish swimming by while you’re showering!), got dressed and walked down the jetty to the island. The island itself is a coral atoll of pure white sand that is about a metre above sea level at it’s highest point. Lush green palm trees and foliage abound, hermit crabs and cute little lizards scurry out of your path, and all you hear is the calls of tropical birds while drinking in the sweet air.

We walked across the island to the restaurant – a large open air hut with tables set up between the palm trees on the beach in front. We were a little concerned that we’d missed breakfast, as there were only 3 other tables of people, but we’d soon learn this was just as should be expected – with only 45 units on the entire island (average maximum number of guests is 100), it was truly a place that you felt alone with space to breathe.

As we walked up to the restaurant, we were greeted by a smiling face who introduced himself as Soda and guided us to a lovely beachfront table under the shade of two palm trees. He took our tea and coffee orders, and recommended some of the fresh fruit smoothies and juices and set us loose upon the breakfast buffet which was nothing short of fantastic – fresh fruit, pastries, fish, champagne, waffles, omelettes… and that was just the buffet – there was an entire a la carte menu as well! As we filled our bellies with deliciousness and our eyes with beauty, Mustho appeared out of nowhere to check on how we were doing, see if we needed anything, and once we were finished our meal showed up again to take us on a tour.

We did a lap of the island in the cart while Mustho oriented us to our home for the next 10 days, and we ended up at the spa where he told us that part of our honeymoon package would be an couples massage which we booked for the following day before he took us back to our villa. We ordered lunch in to the villa, and the rest of the day was spent hanging out on the deck, throwing ourselves in the water occasionally to cool off and napping and relaxing. Sunset was about 7:30, so we freshened up and wandered down to the bar and were seated in some lounge chairs with a perfect view as we sampled their exceptional cocktails and applauded the setting sun. As darkness set in, we strolled over to the restaurant and were greeted again by Soda, or waiter from the morning who seated us and set us up with menus, and it was then that we really began to get a sense of the quality of food we were going to experience that week – the set menu was mouthwateringly fantastic, and the food was all perfectly cooked, incredibly fresh, and wonderfully presented. A small note here, that the resort actually grows all of it’s herbs and most of their vegetables in gardens on the island. The Maldives do not allow net fishing, so all the fish (save a few exotic imports) are line caught that day by fishermen from the neighbouring islands, and the freshness shows – the only tuna I’ve ever had that fresh has been in Hawaii where it’s all caught that morning! Dinner was amazing and with good food and some wine in our bellies, we retreated back to our villa to lay on the rooftop deck under the stars listening to the waves crash on the reef in the distance…

On our second day on the island, we got up, had a swim, and wandered off for breakfast where again we were greeted by Soda who remembered all of our drinks from the previous morning. We clued in about then that when you arrive on the island, you’re assigned a waiter who serves you every meal at the restaurant – and Soda was great, remembering and having our drinks ready for us every morning, knowing what wine we’d ordered at dinner… A very nice touch which speaks volumes to the top notch service and attention to detail everywhere on the island. Just as we were saying “I wonder if Mustho will be around”, he popped in at breakfast to check on how we were settling in and check if there was anything we needed – as he would do every morning, and eerily almost every time we though of him or said his name.

We grabbed some books at the library, and after some reading, swimming, lounging, and lunch in the villa, we strolled over to the spa for our treatment. As we walked across the jetty to the spa, an attendant came out and greeted us with cold towels and offered us some lemongrass iced tea while we waited. The spa building is out over the water, with one side of it almost completely open with infinite views of the blue white lagoon. Our masseuses came and introduced themselves to us and took us to a treatment room where we got on side by side massage tables, and when we looked down realized that the floor was glass under the tables and we could see directly down into the water and watch the fish swimming by the coral below — stunning, and wonderfully relaxing. The next 80 minutes were absolute bliss and some of the best massages we’ve ever had, as the little thai girls worked us over with shockingly strong hands, and left us so relaxed at the end that we were in a walking dream state. We hung around, had some juice and ginger tea before floating back down the jetty to the island. More villa relaxing before our regular evening routine of sunset cocktails and delicious dinner with Soda wrapped up a blissful second day.

On our third day, we went for breakfast and then over to the dive shop, as I wanted to do some scuba diving while I was there and Chris, who’d snorkelled but never Scuba dived decided he wanted to give it a try. The guys at the dive shop were exceptionally friendly, and Tom and Andy had us set up that afternoon for Chris to do some basic skills followed by an “experience scuba” drive, and I would do a checkout dive. I figured this’d just be us bobbing around on the shore proving that we could breathe, but after Chris did just that, they loaded us on a boat and I was happy to learn that we were going out to a nearby reef and doing a full on dive, each with our own one-on-one instructor/guide. We hopped off the boat into the blue water, and dropped down onto a big sloping reef wall that was covered in corals of every color possible, and waves of fish of all sizes and colours grazing up and down the wall. It’d been a while since I last dove, but a few minutes in and the breathing came back and it was sensational to be doing such a beautiful dive with Chris for the first time. Once back on shore, Chris was pretty hyped about the diving and with not much coaxing from Tom signed up for the PADI Open Water course over the next few days – of course, this was more expensive than doing it elsewhere, but he was getting one on one training with a great instructor, confined water dives in water vs pool, and boat open water dives to some of the most beautiful dive sites I’ve ever seen. So over the next three days, Chris would go off to scuba class, and I’d snorkel in the lagoon, go to the gym, meditate, and read around our regular routine, and in the evenings we’d do his homework and make snide comments about the 90’s training video — which was just an absolutely perfect state of bliss.

On the 4th day, after Chris’ diving, we decided to vary the routine slightly and check out the By The Sea restaurant, which is their asian/seafood restaurant. The 12 booths were already booked, but we were happy to sit at the sushi bar, which worked out very well as the chef was a joy to watch, and we chatted him up throughout dinner – he’s a stocky Sri Lankan guy who’s been a sushi chef for 23 years, including 5 years training in Japan and working at some high end resorts around the world, and he settled on the Maldives because he could get the freshest fish there (his eyes lit up when he said this). We ordered some appetizers and rolls, and then decided we’d each order the “chef’s suggestion platter”. He asked us what we like, and I gave him a few suggestions, and when Chris got excited about the tuna, the chef asked if he wanted all tuna, which got an emphatic yes. Chris was served a plate completely covered with beautiful rolls and sashimi of the reddest, juiciest most amazing tuna we’ve ever seen, and I received a variety of rolls and the most exquisitely carved sashimis I’ve ever tried – absolute art! We eat sushi 3-4 times a week back in Vancouver, and depending where we are, frequently on the road, but we both agreed that this was *the best* sushi we’d ever had – so perfectly presented, and fresher and tastier than anything we’ve had before. Mmmm!

On our 5th day, we had another perk of our honeymoon package, which was a cooking class with Nicholas, the chef from the grill restaurant. The class was right on the beach by the open air stone oven, and they’d set up two tables facing the water. Nicholas showed up and introduced himself, had the ingredients for us to make a seafood risotto, including *fresh* lobster, scallops, crab, and calamari. Chris nominated me to be the helper, and himself for the role of cheerleader so he sat back to watch. I love to cook, but I don’t get much opportunity being on the road without a kitchen most of the time, and admittedly my skills are not quite on the level of a world class chef – so after throwing me a few tasks that left me confused and violently abusing the seafood, we decided that Nicholas would cook and teach us along the way. It was great – he was a good teacher, and threw us a lot of techniques and tricks, and answered our questions (even though some I’m sure were silly to him), taught us ways to make it in advance and store it, and in the end served us a private meal of a fresh and amazingly delicious seafood risotto on the beach. He stuck around and chatted and answered more questions for a while, but then had to get back to his restaurant to finish prepping for dinner service, and left us to happily munch away and finish off the risotto before Chris headed off to scuba class, and I headed to the gym to burn off some of the risotto.

Day 6 was Chris’ 4th and final dive for his class, and the day before the instructors had suggested that I come along as they were going to take him someplace cool and since Chris’d be finished most of his skills work I’d be welcome to dive along with them – and man was I glad I did. We went out about 20 minutes by boat to a place called Banana Reef that was just a bit of surge at the surface, but was a round circle of reef from just below the surface to about 20m. There was great visibility, and just a little bit of current to carry us along the edge of the reef as I stared with wide eyes at the walls and waves of fish unlike I’d ever seen before – there were thousands of fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors just hanging out around grazing on the corals with no where else to be. If you looked back into the blue darkness away from the reef, you’d see the occasional big shadow swim by like tuna or things you didn’t want to think about. We saw a giant leopard printed moray eel, and at one point there was a school of about 300+ yellow snappers that was a little aloof at first, but then relaxed and their synchronized movements wrapped around me and they enveloped me inside their school — a surreal experience to be staring out at nothing but an all-encompassing wall of shimmering yellow, blue stripes and eyes. Back on shore, Chris was a certified diver, so after a quick shower we met up with Chris’ instructor Tom for some celebratory cocktails before again hopping on a boat just before sunset and being shuttled off to our private honeymoon dinner.

Just offshore, there’s a small island big enough for a bit of white sand and a lone palm tree, which they’ve dubbed “One Palm Island”. The boat zipped us out to the island, and we were greeted by our chef and waiter for the evening, before being shown to our table – the lone thing on the island surrounded by candles and lights. It was absolutely gorgeous. The chef was preparing us a mixed grill bbq, and dinner was appetizers, soup, heaping plates of freshly grilled meat and seafood (tuna steaks, lobster tails, scallops, lamb, beef, omg!) and desert. We’d picked a bottle of sparkling wine which we’d served at our wedding (Pares Balta from Spain – mmm) and a bottle of The Chocolate Block, so we had bellies absolutely full of good food and wine, as we sat back on our private island, and after dinner relaxed with a couple Cohibas while we enjoyed the glow of the candles and each other’s company. When we were done, the boat came and picked us us, and we giggled and merrily stumbled our way back to our villa for a midnight swim and some sweet dreams.

Day 7 was a “do nothing day” where we just lounged about, read, hit the gym for a bit, snorkelled, and had lunch in the villa. That evening, the resort had organized a cocktail party on the beach and we made the most of the free flowing champagne and cocktails.

Chris got quite chatty and started rocking his schmooze mode and was networking himself around the beach with the staff and other guests, all of whom proved rather fascinating. We realized that we’d been on the island almost a week, and aside from some smalltalk with fellow divers, hadn’t spoken to anyone but staff that whole time — we were craving a bit of interaction, but it’s a solid testament to the island’s ability to make you feel remote and secluded. As the sun set and the party waned, we wandered over for dinner on the beach where Soda’d set up a private table at the water’s edge surrounded by candles for us. It was asian buffet night, and the food tables were set up outside like a street market – two rows of “vendors” each with their own specialty: fresh tempura and spring rolls, spicy noodle dishes, seafood in many forms, handmade wanton and noodle soups… It was all so delicious that I kept going back, but would take little breaks in between to lie in the hammock and just smile at the awesomeness of it all. Full bellies led to midnight swims and sweet dreams once again…

The morning of day 8 I’d signed up for the Sacred Earth meditation at the spa with their visiting practitioner Olaf. I showed up at the spa, and while we waited for another (who never showed) he explained to me that what we were going to do was a dancing meditation that would tap into our trance state and guide us through different harmonic frequencies… He looked as though I should be a little surprised, but t’was familiar territory for someone who’s spent the occasional sunrise dancing with thousands of strangers shooting fractal energies out of my third eye. It was a little strange to be dancing in a room with my eyes closed, but the soundtrack worked well to start on the lower chakras and slowly wave frequencies up and down until the whole body was awakened. Dancing alternated with a shaking technique which was new to me, and managed to throw the body into trance and numb it so that all that remained was thought while you vibrated faster and faster through beta to delta states – and an interesting side effect was that the sunlight flickering in through my eyelids reminded me greatly of the large hypnosis machine I’d seen a couple years back at an electronic art forum I’d attended in Germany. An hour later, thanks to Olaf, I emerged sweaty and glowing and well alive having danced and shaken my ass off and went to meet Chris for breakfast. We spent the rest of the day enjoying lazing about until shortly before sunset when we were to meet Mustho on the beach, where he put us on a little sailing boat (a traditional Maldivian dhoni) for a sunset cruise. The wind was low, so it was a slow go, but that gave us time to recline on the two daybeds, eat the tapas they’d sent along, and work our way through the sparkling wine the captain kept refilling our glasses with. Infinite blues, pink skies, and rosy cheeked smiles mirrored the glowing orb or orange that sank into the sea off the bow of our silent boat.

At sunset, the wind died down completely, so a boat came out to tow us back to shore where we wandered off to another amazing dinner and our evening routine.

On day 9, we were starting to realize our time was coming to an end, and we’d booked ourselves another scuba dive, and were back on the boat with Tom and the dive crew shortly after 2pm. They took us about 25 minutes out to a reef I couldn’t pronounce that was nearly invisible from the surface, but was 2 spires of rock that dropped down to darkness, but had a nice 20m ledge between the two. We sank down, and cruised around the first spire down about 20m circling the rock checking out the corals and fish, and then crossed over towards the other spire across a field of little garden eels that’d disappear into the sand when you came near. The second spire was teeming with life, and you could barely see through all the fish to the surface. As we swam up, 4 big jackfish came bolting through, but it was the effect it had on the reef right before they hit that amazed me most – they travel so fast that they send out a bit of a shockwave ahead, and when the first fish felt that, they all dropped down to get out of the way, and then their schools would follow. This had the ripple effect of thousands of fish in all directions suddenly and almost simultaneously dropping down 3+ meters which was crazy surprise. We continued around the spire where the ground dropped down and off into nothingness, and when we came around one corner, Tom stopped suddenly and pointed, and I looked ahead where I could just see the shadows of the reef at the edge of view — then I realized that a HUGE piece of it wasn’t reef, but what appeared to be an enormous round dinosaur kissing the reef as it grazed on coral. It was a Humphead Wrasse or Napolean Fish that had to have been almost 2m long, and at least a metre high, and caused me to actually cry out “holy sh*t” when I saw it, I was so surprised and stunned. Luckily, it was a friendly beast which just casually turned and drifted away into the deep blue when it saw us. The rest of the dive was a slow climb up and around the spire until we were at the top of the mountain and ready to surface. The wildlife wasn’t done showing off yet, as on the boat ride back to the island a school of dolphins decided to play in the boat’s wake, full on leaping and jumping to our surprised cries of joy.

We wandered back to our villa smiling and talking about how glad we were that we’d gone out diving this one last time, and opened the door to find a delicious treat – the general manager (a lovely friendly man with a great smile, who Chris had talked to at length at the cocktail party the other night) had sent over a bottle of champagne and some tapas as congratulations for our honeymoon.

The rest of the afternoon was spent putting the bottle to good use, and we watched the sunset from the sunbed on the rooftop deck on our villa, and wandered over to dinner where Soda’d prepared another surprise for us – he’d set up a table away from everyone else, right down at the water’s edge, surrounded by candles. “I wanted to give you something special for your last full night on the island”, he said. We thanked him profusely, and honestly meant it – it was a real treat to have him serve us all visit, he’d memorized our likes and regular orders, and we’d found ourselves looking forward to having breakfast or dinner “with Soda”. After dinner we wandered back, with the unspoken sadness hanging in the air that this was our last night in our villa, which’d come to feel a lot like a dream home over our stay.

The next morning I woke early, and made myself a cup of tea and went up onto the rooftop deck for my morning meditation where I worked through the sense of sadness that I was feeling about departure – that it was pointless to try to hold on to something that’s a temporary gift, and that instead of feeling loss at what we were no longer going to have, tofocus on the memories and time we’d been blessed to spend together. That sounds really hippy-dippyish, but it really rang true and wiped clean my slate to enjoy and make the most of the rest of the day. Chris finally rose, and after breakfast, we returned to the villa to pack our things (a well practiced task that took little time) and enjoy our last swim off the deck. Checkout was at noon, and our flight wasn’t until late that evening, so we’d planned on just spending the day lounging on the beach somewhat homeless, but were surprised when Mustho picked us up, and delivered us and our luggage to a cabin hidden in the jungle and told us that Alex had wanted to make the last day of our honeymoon comfortable and had set us up with a homebase for the day – truly a kind gesture that made rinsing up before departing later that night much easier. We spent the day on the beach and floating in the pool, reading and napping on the daybeds, and taking notes on avoidable parenting techniques.

A quick stop into the dive shop for Chris to get his PADI card and say goodbye to Tom, was the only reason to get up and as the afternoon progressed and the beach cleared, we watched the yachts cruising past as the sun sank into the sea for our final sunset in this paradise. No sooner had the sun gone down, than Mustho popped out of nowhere to let us know that he’d set up a bottle of Champagne and some tapas for us at the bar that afternoon, but had been unable to track us down. We asked to have it sent over to dinner, and when we finished showering up changing into some suitable off-island attire, we ate like kings at their superb mediterranean buffet one last time drinking great champagne and tripping fantastic on what had been a stay beyond expectations and hopes.

After dinner and some farewells to Soda, we met Mustho at reception and settled our incidentals bill (exactly as expected, no surprises or unexpected charges – a nice treat from most hotel stays), we were walked to the end of the jetty and loaded onto the boat with our luggage and took off into the darkness as Mustho and the rest of the staff waved from the end of the jetty until we could no longer see them. A half hour trip through the night under the moonlight, and we arrived at the Male airport where we flew out…

I cannot state again how impressed I was with our experience at Soneva Gili in the Maldives – from the moment they picked us up, until that final wave from the end of the dock, we were treated to the highest calibre of service, and graced with the luxurious remoteness the property provides. The food exceeded all expectations, the accommodations were flawless, and all services we received (diving, spa, sushi restaurant, etc) were exceptional. The honeymoon package, the extras negotiated by our travel agent, the suggestions from Mustho, and the kind extras from Alex (the GM) just made the entire trip a magical experience, and a honeymoon beyond anything we could ever have hoped for or dreamt of.

If you are considering a trip to Soneva Gili, here’s a few tips that we think are worth sharing:

– Get on the Meal Plan: This is not an all inclusive resort, and you’re on an island with one food provider and your only option is top shelf 5 star dining – don’t think you’ll save money by trying to just order off the menu. We recommend the half meal plan which covers lunch and dinners at the restaurant (it’s extra for their special dining experiences in the sushi restaurant, grill or wine cellar), and you’ll likely be so full and warm that a small lunch in your villa will suffice. If you don’t want to have to think about it at all, just go full meal plan, and enjoy eating like a king.

– Appreciate the staff: they are all subdued and polite, but absolutely fantastic. Pay attention to names, as you’ll be seeing them all again – your server at the restaurant will be assigned to you for the length of your stay. Be kind, and listen to them… there’s a lot of educated speciality hidden out there, and good reason they’re on hand.

– Use a travel agent: You might have a hard time booking through the resort’s website, and will have better luck finding the dates you want through an agent who can go direct to package distributors. As well, an agent will be able to snag you some extras and perks that make your stay more enjoyable.

– Don’t take it for granted: if you go to a property like this, and find yourself thinking it’s not good enough for you, or that life owes you this level of existence, you need to re-analyze your life.

One last note, on the subject of gay travellers… We were a little concerned about going to an Islamic country as a gay couple on our honeymoon, especially after the recent religious extremist uprising the month prior to our visit. We’d emailed our travel agent with our concerns, and they’d relayed it to the resort who crafted a reply that put our minds somewhat at ease. We were still a little nervous upon arrival, which turned out to be completely for naught – it seems that the double-income-pink-dollar keeps that hassle clear of the resort as smoothly as if they’re serving alcohol or pork (also illegal in the Maldives — outside the resorts). We saw many gay couples on the island, but be certain that there’s no nightlife or clubs, and the island attracts a more refined traveller than you’ll find at a circuit party – if you’re looking for pills, partying and hookups you know where to find that… But if what you’re looking for an unimaginably gorgeous and romantic one on one getaway with your partner, then you’ll find yourself in safe, welcoming, good company.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get an opportunity to return to Soneva Gili, but I’ll always be dreaming of the time we spent there and hoping one day to slide back into the tranquillity and first class rustic luxury that made our honeymoon the best trip of our lives (so far!).

(this post has been written from the Male airport lounge, the Singapore T3 lounge, and the Thai Airlines First Class Lounge in Bangkok where my progress was interrupted by a nap and full body massage… Next stop, Rome onto Casablanca, Morocco!)