Soneva Jani: Inside an exclusive Maldives resort

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(CNN) — When it comes to Maldives travel, you have to try pretty hard to have a bad vacation.

Made up of more than 1,000 islands that sit in 26 reef-framed atolls, this tiny nation’s waters of seemingly infinite shades of blue and green slide into patches of white sands and dark corals.

There are now over 100 resorts occupying these tiny parcels of paradise, offering various degrees of luxury.

But few can match the experience you’ll walk away from Soneva Jani with.

One of the newest and most expensive resorts in the country, it’s made up of just 24 over-water villas — plus one four-bedroom beach villa — on the uninhabited island of Medhufaru, which sits within a large, private lagoon in the Noonu Atoll.

In spite of the island’s size, much of the resort was built over the water. This includes the “The Gathering,” — a huge, open-air, three-story structure that houses the resort’s restaurant, fitness center, spa and kids’ club.

The smallest available villas range from $3,000-$5,000 per night, depending on the season, while the largest go for about $20,000 per night.

Soneva Jani: One of the newest luxury resorts in the Maldives, Soneva Jani offers 24 over-water villas and one four-bedroom beach villa. With villas starting from $3,000-$5,000 per night depending on the season, it’s one of the country’s most expensive resorts.

Courtesy Soneva Jani

Not all over-water villas are created equal

In a destination with so many over-water villa options, what justifies the price? The difference is in the decadent details, which guests get a taste of even before they board the seaplane for the 40-minute ride from the capital, Male.

After checking in for your Trans Maldivian Airways flight, you’re shuttled over to Soneva Jani’s private lounge and offered snacks, beverages and massages.

Then you’re asked to make some very important decisions via an iPad-based questionnaire — and by important we’re talking about what kind of pillows you want on your bed (there are about a dozen options).

Next question addresses what fragrance you want sprayed onto that pillow — bergamot, lemongrass, orange or peppermint?

It doesn’t end there.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? Favorite food? Guilty pleasure snack? What music do you want playing in your villa when you arrive?

It’s all there for the choosing.

The arrival into Soneva Jani itself is no less anticipatory. Guests exit the floating sea plane at Soneva’s private “airport” — a small, wooden dock in the middle of the sea — before boarding a speed boat to be whisked to the arrival jetty, where they’re greeted with fresh coconut water.

Retractable roofs, fine Chinese liquor and private pools

Soneva Jani’s 24 water villas range from one-bedroom, 416 square-meter villas up to the four-bedroom 1,226-square meter option.

Each villa has its own lagoon-facing private pool that brilliantly mirrors the colors of the sea — a few come with their own private water slides.

Prefer to stay on land? You’ll have to book into the 1,752 square meter four-bedroom beach villa — the only one that’s not on stilts, well away from the other accommodations.

One of Soneva Jani’s 3-bedroom over-water villas.

Courtesy Soneva Jani

Among the most original options inside the villas, each master bedroom has its own retractable roof that slides back for stargazing.

There’s also an en suite air-conditioned pantry stocked with an espresso machine, a wine fridge, snacks and beverages. A sign of the times, there’s even a couple of bottles of high quality Baijiu liquor to cater to the resort’s growing number of Chinese guests.

For more on the villa amenities check out the above gallery.

Leave the suit and tie at home

So is Soneva Jani worth the price? It all depends on what kind of traveler you are.

Luxurious as it is, Soneva Jani isn’t for everyone.

Traditional luxury travelers who demand dress codes, opulence and formalities will want to avoid this place.

This is a resort for execs who prefer to ditch the suit and tie or the high heels — in fact you’re asked to kick off your shoes and put them in a bag as soon as you land, as part of the resort’s “no news, no shoes” motto.

“The philosophy of the Soneva brand is about slow life, it’s about intelligent luxury,” says Soneva Jani resort manager Fathimath Shaazleen.

“When the guests arrive on the island we want to make them feel relaxed.”

Soneva Jani’s typical guest?

“I would say that the travelers who come to Soneva are well traveled, they are concerned about the environment and the footprint they will be making,” says Shaazleen. “At the same time, they will be looking to have a great experience.”

Mr. and Mrs. Friday

Another highlight of Soneva is getting to know your personal host, Mr. — or Mrs. — Friday.

During a recent visit, our “Mr. Friday ” was the indefatigable Laamey, a born and bred Maldivian.

He pulled quadruple duty as concierge, raconteur, chauffeur and naturist, explaining the flora and fauna with great enthusiasm as he took us on a resort tour in a golf buggy, later joining us on a private sunset boat tour in search of dolphins (we saw several bottle-nosed beauties jumping in front of the boat).

The Mr. Friday idea was hatched at the Soneva brand’s other Maldives resort, Soneva Fushi, which opened in 1995.

“The whole concept of Soneva Fushi, the experience, was based on Robinson Crusoe. And that’s how the concept of Mr. and Mrs. Friday came in,” says Shaazleen, who has worked at all three of the brand’s resorts.

“We wanted to have someone guide the guests through their experiences while they are staying at any of the Soneva properties. That person is not a typical butler, but someone who’s more like a host.”

Privacy guaranteed

Due to the small number of villas, the resort feels blessedly empty and quiet — with the exception of breakfast hours, when many guests pedal their Soneva-issued bikes down the boardwalk to “The Gathering” for their first meal of the day.

Tempting as it is to stay poolside in your villa with a book, there’s a top-class water sports center offering complimentary kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, windsurfing, kite-surfing and catamarans.

Boats can be booked for private or group snorkeling and diving excursions.

Among the must-try culinary options is a private beach dining experience, available for any meal.

When hunger pangs hit outside of meal times, there’s complimentary ice cream, chocolate and cheese in “The Gathering.”

Astronomy buffs can go stargazing at the onsite observatory but for stars of a different sort there’s Cinema Paradiso, the resort’s over-water theater.

During our visit they were screening “Scent of a Women.” Guests curled up in amongst pillows and blankets on the “catamaran nets”– all wearing Bluetooth headphones.

Why the headsets? Turns out the echoes of Al Pacino yelling “Whoo-ah” across the lagoon might spook the area’s nesting birds.

Indeed, Soneva Jani doesn’t just pay lip service to issues of sustainability and the environment.

The resort itself was built with all sustainable material. Most of the menu items are organic, and all waste is sent to the resort’s eco-center for processing. Soneva Jani also produces its own water, which is served in glass bottles to cut down on plastic.

“It’s not just waste management, we call it the waste wealth,” says Shaazleen. “So we make sure that it’s all reused, whatever small thing it is.”

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