From barefoot travel to slow living, intelligent luxury is what hotelier and hospitality maverick Sonu Shivdasani aspires for, be it in his life or in the award-winning Soneva Resorts he has so carefully curated.
Travel changes perspectives. It imbues a vision that hotelier and hospitality maverick Sonu Shivdasani has made his life’s work over 25 years. From barefoot travel to slow living, intelligent luxury is what he aspires for, be it in his life or the award-winning Soneva Resorts he has so carefully curated. In the Maldives and Thailand, Soneva continues Sonu’s legacy, winning awards for a sustainable vision, and being the epitome of luxury. It was included in the Condé Nast Traveller ‘s Best Hotels and Resorts in the World: The Gold List 2022. Offering unique experiences like zipline dining have only added to its verve. Shivdasani is creating travel that exudes sustainability in a beautiful marriage that is responsible.
Sonu, incidentally was the founder of Six Senses Spa (now sold), and has made winning awards common place. A lot of heart goes into his philosophy, with an uncommon belief in sustainable living. Today, his testament to wanderlust has created its own ecosystem of eco responsible travel.
The journey begins barefoot in the Maldives sands
It was providence that turned a deep love for travel into a business idea that flourishes – for humans and nature in tandem. Sonu and his Swedish wife Eva, a former model, are partners in business, and life since they met at Oxford. Creating a bespoke destination in Maldives all started on a Maldivian holiday.
For the Eton and Oxford graduated Britisher, meeting Eva during his first year at Oxford was fortuitous. “I have wonderful memories of the first years with Eva at Oxford. My best friendships are also from my time at both Eton and Oxford. I feel blessed to have experienced both,” Sonu Shivdasani recalls. Incidentally, Soneva, their labour of love is the combination of Sonu’s and Eva’s name. After graduating from university (1988), Shivdasani spent a couple of years in Geneva where his brother was running the family business with interests in Nigeria. The unbridled joy of sinking their feet into the sand as the waves kissed them on a beach in Maldives was a memory the Shivdasanis wanted to capture. In 1991, Sonu and Eva were introduced by a Swedish lady’s Maldivian husband to the island which today is the splendorous Soneva Fushi. It was a tryst to offer luxury and mindful travel – Sonu a connoisseur of architecture enthused in structure, while Eva took the interiors to exalted highs. “I loved the untouched, simple way of life, and we decided to open a resort like no other whilst protecting the environment,” recalls Sonu, who believes in purpose beyond profit.
“It was love at first sight. It was our dream. We had my mother’s support, and some equity, not enough to build a resort. We started nonetheless, convinced a bank of our vision. We opened in 1995. Over the years, Soneva Fushi has kept our soul, evolved and discovered new ways to create experiences that are sustainable, healthy and rare,” says the founder and CEO who calls himself the Guardian of Culture. A responsibility that has heightened over the years for the dashing and happy-go-lucky Sonu from a jetsetter to a mindful entrepreneur.
This legacy in travel exudes a deeper ecological philosophy. Business was something Sonu took to after he met Eva, and an upbringing in a business family guided him. “I had a fantastic childhood. My father was my best friend. He worked hard, played hard, loved travel, and loved to experience great things. I was lucky to be able to follow him, and see the world at such a young age,” says the itinerant traveller who loves living near the Maldivian sea.
An endeavour for bookish experiences
Studying Shakespeare at Eton, Sonu finds the Bard’s insights into human nature profound. Shivdasani believes his leadership style is influenced greatly by Hostage at the Table by George Kohlrieser. He devours books on strategy by Jim Collins – Good to Great and Great by Choice, and has used some strategies in business too. Peak – How companies use Maslow to drive their organisations by Chip Conley, and Drive by Daniel Pink also feature on his list.
From the first Soneva, an abandoned resort on the far flung 100-acre Kunfunadhoo Island in the Maldives – Soneva Fushi (1995) which was also the first luxury resort in the Maldives, in 2011, theirs was the only company to offer luxury resort real estate to foreigners with the Soneva Villa Ownership programme (now also at Soneva Jani in the Noonu Atoll).
A meeting of minds
The couple shares a deep passion and commitment to sustainability and call themselves custodians. Yet, working partners is a tightrope, one where they have found a balance. “Eva allows me total freedom on the architecture, and the design, and I give her total freedom on the interior design. Communication is so important,” he says, admitting that it can be both an advantage and a challenge to have a spouse as a working partner. “Years ago, Eva would read emails at midnight as I was reading myself to sleep, and ask questions. That did not work. We now have clear boundaries between work and time off.”
Shivdasani studied at Le Rosey in Switzerland for a year as a 17-year-old. He recalls the amazing winter term in the Gstaad mountains for skiing most afternoons. It also gave him a strong footing into hospitality that Soneva is a testament to. Travel no doubt awakened in Sonu a desire to give the world a living and breathing eco-friendly destination. Today, his resorts are nurtured to be a part of the environment.
As the travel industry is still finding solid ground in the pandemic, Sonu shares his lessons. “The Chinese word for crisis – is two characters – danger and opportunity. I have realised that these crises are opportunities to learn, grow and develop. Certainly, we have no control over the hand dealt, but we have total control on how we play it. The manner in which we respond to these crises defines future success,” says Shivdasani who has battled with 9/11, Sars, tsunami, bird flu, financial crisis and cancer with a mindful that has made him more thoughtful. Urging others to learn from Maldives’ success story during the Covid crisis, he says, “The government’s brilliant policies helped overcome catastrophe and thrived. The Maldives has become a Covid recovery success story.”
Overcoming the big C
In October 2018, diagnosed with stage 4 Lymphoma, Sonu has thankfully been in remission for over 12 months. His cure was a result of following traditional medicine – chemotherapy, combining it with alternative healing and a change in diet. I dramatically reduced my consumption of sugar, white flour and (most) importantly, dairy, and red meat, especially beef,” says the Cancer survivor.
A wine aficionado, 70 percent of the wines at his resorts are organic or biobynamic agriculture. A lunch on the terrace at Villa San Michele with Eva looking down from Fiesole on Florence with a nice glass of 1988 Sassicaia. Or a Chateau Figeac 1966 began his tryst with wines and terroir. Travel to Budapest, St Petersburg, and Turkey are what the Shivdasanis love. A believer of the slow life, it is core to what he offers travellers with “Intelligent Luxury” which combines the traditional opposites of sustainability and wellness with luxury.
An exploration of design
The design element in the resorts sees the couple deep in thought. Not many know that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum inspired a mews house Sonu designed in London years ago. Frank Gehry’s architecture has also inspired some of the buildings at the resort bringing in the reptile-like roofs. “I liken what we create in our resorts to a pointillist artist like Seuret, a combination of all the little dots that create the overall impression,” Sonu explains.
As travel and hospitality hope to revive after two years of mayhem, he hopes that “some of the terrible habits that we have had to drop, will remain abandoned.” To quote Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland:
‘One day, Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
“Which road do I take?” she asked.
“Where do you want to go?” was his response.
“I don’t know” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “It doesn’t matter.”
“I do hope that we will clearly know where we want to go,” concludes the travel life conjurer Shivdasani.