Masks are not just to protect from contagion, but also to protect the aesthetics of a stay in paradise as Soneva Jani craftily demonstrated with its hideaway suitcase television. When not in use, it just looks like an unassuming trunk at the foot of the bed. But if you feel like a little bedtime entertainment, like the roof above, your remote can fire up some distraction.
One doesn’t typically think about a “cold brew” first thing in the morning to start your day. But cold brew coffee is a made by using time rather than heat to coax the coffee flavour out of the beans. Using cold water can take between 18 and 24 hours, in fact! The result is a brew which is a bit lighter, more floral, less acidic and more caffeinated than hot brewed coffee.
Soneva Jani not only offers cold brew, but actually has a collection of cold brew concoctions:
- Tropical Pandan Brew – fresh banana, coconut milk, cold brew pandan coffee
- Sparkling Brew – cold brew esperesso, homhade hibiscus syrup, top with tonic
- Tumeric Latte – cardamon, cinnamon, honey, coconut milk, turmeric, top with espresso
- Lemon Grass Cold Brew – homemade lemon gress syrup, top with cold brew coffee
· Cold Brew Latte – cold brew coffee, top with milk
International Book Day today. And no better place to be in the Maldives than the home of Maldives own resort bibliophile Malsa Maaz, overseer of Soneva Jani’s bookshop. Yes, the Soneva sister property, Soneva Fushi pioneered the bookseller concept, but Soneva Jani adds the extra distinction of being over water (like most of Soneva Jani) so you can browse with azure vistas around you. The other distinction is that the “Barefoot Bookseller” is a Maldivian herself. Maldives Complete was fortunate to catch up with her during its recent tour and she provided an exclusive interview with her own riveting story. For many of us, the pandemic lockdowns resulted in more reading than ever, and for Malsa it changed her life…
- Where are you from in the Maldives?
I am from Malé, the capital city of the Maldives. I grew up and finished high school there.
- What was the first book you remember loving?
The very first book series I remember falling in love with was the Magical Faraway Tree collection by Enid Blyton. The story revolved around three children who discover the Enchanted Woods with its magical folk. Enid Blyton’s books such as the Famous Five and Secret Seven were quite popular with Maldivian children and were readily available in the school library or bookshops.
- What did you study?
For my Bachelor of Arts, I studied Archaeology and Anthropology and I have just finished my Master of Research in Engaged Anthropology in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I focused on documenting the Maldivian cultural heritage and learnt a few traditional arts & crafts such as coconut thatch weaving and lace embroidery weaving using traditional tools. It is a brilliant discipline that allows me to work just about anywhere.
- How did you learn about the bookseller role?
Over the first lockdown, I joined a lot of bookclub groups where I saw an article about a dream job selling books in paradise. I didn’t even realise it was the Maldives at first! But I was still studying at the point, so I couldn’t apply then. Few months later, as I was finishing my thesis, I saw the job role advertised again on a local news article and it said they were looking for a local candidate. It was perfect timing – so I applied as quickly as I could and now here I am!
- What was a question that they asked you in the interview?
I was asked about my previous work experiences and how I would utilise them in the Barefoot Bookseller role. My answer: I was working whilst in university to support myself and have experience in research, retail, hospitality and F&B. All of that work experience and studying a humanities degree has allowed me to improve my people skills especially when it comes to communication and engagement which the Barefoot Bookseller would require.
- What is your favourite non-fiction book about the Maldives?
The Maldives Islanders and Folk Tales of the Maldives by Spanish anthropologist Xavier Romero-Frias. He has lived and done fieldwork in the Maldives for a number of years and has contributed to documenting our unique cultural heritage and history.
- What book have you re-read (the most)?
Probably Pride and Prejudice! Elizabeth Bennett is one of my favourite literary characters of all time and I somehow always associate with her as she is not scared of breaking barriers. That inspires me – so I always end up re-reading it whenever I feel like I need a little motivation boost.
- What book are you reading now?
I am currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – recommended to me by a lot of guests. I am also reading The Apollo Murders which is a space mystery thriller by my favourite astronaut Chris Hadfield.
- What is the most popular book requested recently?
I have had a lot of requests for the new Bill Gates book – How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and we should hopefully have it in stock soon.
I’d actually been on the lookout for something like this my latest “Not Yet Seen” draft when I came upon an outdoor sauna pod doing Christmas shopping. Not a sauna, but a steam bath at Soneva Jani with a bonus twist of being perched on the deck of one of their water villas. The room was sensibly designed with two large floor-to-ceiling walls facing the turquoise vista of the lagoon (I didn’t get to try it out to see how much the steamed glass affected the view). Still, I love the idea of relaxing in the soothing heat coming from something other than rays of sunshine while still taking in the outdoor scenery (as opposed to being sequestered away in some nook of a spa facility).
Steamy room with a view!
I’ve already featured the striking artistry of Soneva Jani’s arrival jetty, but it wasn’t until our visit there that we could appreciate the ubiquitous artistry of all its jetties. Unlike its sister resort which is primarily land oriented (and only recently added water villas), Soneva Jani has been from its inception very water oriented. So it is fitting that the byways connecting all of the (striking) constructions should itself be an aesthetic journey. Details like the Soneva signature driftwood pieces (see bottom) to the lit glass room numbers inlaid into the walkway timber as extra flair (see photo below – thanks Poala!) to the Suess-like whimsy of these central design elements.
Not all enchanting water creatures in the Maldives are under the water. Soneva Jani has a dazzling display of creatures on the water.
The air above the Maldives is regularly filled with both the colourful plumage of various tropical birds as well as their distinctive songs composing the melody line of uniquely Laccadive soundscape. The songsters are often hidden in the lush foliage, but Soneva Jani has the best place in the Maldives to see not only the water fowl varieties, but also a range of other birds drawn to its expansive mangrove lakes.
Such an avian attraction would be distinctive on its own, but Soneva has gone ahead and made this nature preserve a special feature with an inspired bird blind. First of all, the blind allows guests to get a good view of the flocks of ducks, terns, koels, herons, etc. without disturbing them. Then, for an even better look, the resort has set out a pair of binoculars at the blind for guests to use. And if you do spot a feathered friend that you want to know more about, they have posted an array of laminated bird identification posters (with 80 different birds) for reference. On top of all that, the blind is constructed with characteristic flair with the “wood scrap” aesthetic used at the Crab Shack and elsewhere.
Our butler Aysha told us that she has seen birds there that she has never seen growing up in the Maldives. And while we were there, we spotted a dramatic Glossy Ibis (see photo at bottom).
I might have to break my own advice with Soneva Jani. My most frequently asked question is “What is the best resort?” and my steadfast reply is “There is no ‘best’ resort overall…just the ‘best resort for you’.” Each resort has its own individual personality and distinctions that appeal differently to different people. The question is like asking, “What’s the best ice cream flavour?” But, I’m afraid that after 20+ years of visiting the Maldives and 100+ Maldives resorts stayed at, Soneva Jani might just be my “best resort” (or at least “best” in the “big island” category). It is my “Rocky Road” (my favourite flavour) of resorts.
When I make that “best” assertion, I am not really talking about the most desirability because that is so individual and so subjective. For starters, Soneva Jani doesn’t have the classic house reef and that is an absolute deal breaker for many Maldives afficionados. Secondly, Jani is one of the most expensive standard villas (not talking about the special “Presidential” one-offs often found on islands) which is a wallet-buster for many. Finally, the property is not quaint, but expansive and imposing. It is in the top ten of largest islands and the two sets of jetties extends its reach even further. Not great for the people who come to the Maldives for that diminutive plot of sand in the middle of the ocean experience.
When I talk about the “best”, I am really talking about the resort as a creation. As an almost artistic rendition of the paradise experience. Like the art-world itself, the collection of tropical styles found in the Maldives is quite varied – sleek post-modern, traditional artisan, baroque ornamentation. Soneva’s style would best be described as neo-rustic fantasy. It takes the primitive naturalism of a Swiss Family Robinson mystique and propels it into the future with imaginative innovation.
The Soneva group has long been a standard bearer in the Maldives for creativity and innovation especially with aesthetics, wellness and sustainability. Like most masterpieces, the property is the culmination of many studies (many of which are themselves considered prized works, for example Picasso’s 42 studies for “Guernica”). In the water villa, you could certainly see the layout, material and other design features that germinated in the early works of Gili Lankanfushi (originally “Soneva Gili”) and Six Senses Laamu. But the Jani product is expanded, refined, updated and innovated. Soneva Jani is to Maldives resorts what Segrada Familia is to cathedrals – futuristic and primal at the same time. The apotheosis of the craft in a jaw-dropping, whimsical tour de force where nothing is ordinary down to the finest detail.
As much as I adore all of the inspired aspects of Jani, it does cause me a bit of inconvenience. So many of my heretofore “Best of the Maldives” posts are made obsolete by Soneva taking so many heretofore leading features just a step further: eg. Crab Shack (Finolhu), Honey (Gili Lankanfushi), Swing Chairs (Malahini Kuda Bandos). Jani hasn’t just outdone others, but they’ve leapfrogged Soneva itself in some areas. For example, Soneva Fushi pioneered the outdoor cinema, but Soneva Jani takes it a step further with an overwater, even larger screen version. It’s like Soneva is a catalogue to “Best of the Maldives” features. Soneva Fushi already has the notoriety of the most “Best of the Maldives” posts – 76 (the next closest being Reethi Rah with 68). Soneva Jani is like a “Best of the Maldives – Water Edition”.
A final treat to our stay was that I not only got to see *the* resort, I also got to meet *the* man behind the resort – Sonu (see photo above with Commercial Officer Carissa Nimah – unfortunately, the woman behind the resort, Eva, was not available at the time). For creativity and distinction, Soneva Jani is a bucket list resort in this bucket list destination.
- “Drinks and tapas can be enjoyed at any time at this day-into-evening overwater bar. As the sun begins to set, ease into an organic aperitif. Our main bar has one of the best selections of freshly made cocktails, spirits and liqueurs in the Maldives.”
Glass has long been a very fitting material for the Maldives with its aqua-green hues and light refracting properties evoking the glassy lagoons themselves.
Forget Book of the Month Club or Employee of the Month plaques, I want the Ice Cream of the Month subscription thank you. Just another ice cream extravagance at Soneva (both Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani) as Maldives Insider reported at its launch last year:
- “Soneva is developing 10 new and unique flavours at Soneva Fushi, Soneva Jani and Soneva Kiri, for a total of 30 flavours. These flavours are only available for the next 12 months, after which time they will change. This is in addition to the regular rotating roster of flavours at each resort. Guests at Soneva Fushi’s So Cool will get to sample new flavours such as: Soneva Bread Fruit and Maldivian Pine Nuts, Strawberry, Aged Balsamic and Green Olives, and Curry Leaves and Sweet Mango. While at Soneva Jani’s So Cool, Yuka with Garden Basil, Seaweed, and Caramelised Young Coconut join the classic ice creams and sorbets. Soneva will also be introducing one new flavour each month inspired by that month’s Festival of Colour theme.”
- The new dining experience has a secret menu concept, where the diners won’t know which chef is cooking or what cuisine they will be preparing until just before the meal. The kitchen is housed within the walls of a Bedouin tent…the lineup of Soneva chefs will include: Chef Kat (Thai cuisine), Chef Sun (Asian cuisine) and Chef Ansari (Indian thali) from Soneva Jani; Chef Sobah (Maldivian cuisine) from Soneva Fushi; and Chef Benz (Thai cuisine) from Soneva Kiri.”
The price per person varies based on the particular menu of the day, starting at $175 for Soneva’s chefs and $350 for a degustation menu by a visiting international chef. “Guess Who’s Cooking” is only available two to three nights a week, seating just 16 diners. Dinner is served from 7:30-10:30pm, while a sunset cocktail experience is offered from 6:30-7:30pm. There will also be the occasional lunch pop-up from 12:30-3pm.
International main of mystery.