Seeking paradise with Soneva hotels’ founders


Seeking paradise with Soneva hotels’ founders

The luxury hotel group are known for their honeymoon-ready stays across Thailand and the Maldives. We caught up with the couple that started it all...

Team Smith

BY Team Smith18 January 2024

Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva Malmström are a match made in heaven. Or at least a match that made heaven, having founded Soneva hotels back in 1995. Almost 30 years later, the Soneva group is synonymous with turquoise waters, sun-dappled slow living and an unique genre of responsible travel which places the wellbeing of the planet front and centre. 

Ahead of Valentine’s day, we spoke to the paradise-peddling power couple about their ongoing commitment to environmentally-conscious hotels, what travel has taught them, and plans for the future.

What led you to creating Soneva, and what challenges have you faced along the way?
We first visited the Maldives together in 1987 and simply fell in love with it. There were only about four or five resorts at this time – it was the untouched, laidback way of life that resonated with us. We decided we wanted to open a hotel like no other here. Shortly after, we bought an abandoned resort on the far-flung 100-acre island of Kunfunadhoo in the Baa Atoll and set about creating our dream destination, combining our respective experience in management, style and design.

But we believe that a company must have a purpose beyond turning a profit: for us, that means serving and contributing to the societies in which we operate, and – crucially – not impacting the local environment. 

What’s the Soneva vision?
Our vision at Soneva is to create unforgettable, meaningful moments for our guests while having minimal impact on the environment. Soneva hotels – located in the beautiful destinations of Thailand and the Maldives – are synonymous with barefoot luxury, and aim to provide a place for guests to relax, reconnect with nature and rejuvenate their spirits. We’re also laser-focused on achieving zero-waste goals, designing eco-friendly spaces, and developing community-engagement projects.

Tell us more about those community projects…
We’ve been working with local communities in the Maldives for a long time, but more recently through Soneva Namoona, a Maldivian NGO that we launched in 2019. It works with 22 local islands on waste management and elimination of single-use plastics – supporting zero-waste communities across the country. One of the biggest environmental challenges in the Maldives is managing plastic water bottles. Soneva Namoona operates a glass bottling facility in Maalhos for local communities, with a second bottling operation in the works in Kudafari.

Soneva guests are always encouraged to engage with our communities and sustainability projects during their stay. We also implement a two per cent environmental fee to each stay, which supports Soneva Namoona and other projects.

Is it fair to say that sustainability and the environment are of great importance to Soneva?
They’re not just important, they’re fundamental. Sustainability and environmental preservation are at the core of Soneva’s values and mission. These principles guide every decision we make, from resort design and operations to community engagement. It’s about ensuring luxury coexists harmoniously with nature, leaving a positive impact on the environment and local communities.

Where did you learn the most about yourselves and Soneva: is there a particular trip that inspired you both?
We’ve both been fortunate to travel to many places around the world – Eva through modelling for 15 years, and Sonu during his years of running Six Senses hotels. We explored a lot when we met, and, of course, one always learns from any form of travelling.

A particularly special moment for us, though, was visiting Ladakh, India in 1986. We spent our days driving through the valley and then climbing up to as high as 5,000 or 6,000 metres visiting temples. We were struck by the humility and inner contentment of the people, but also the abundant light and nature. There are only three flights a week by a small plane, so we hardly saw any tourists.

Describe your hotels in five words
Sonu: Inspiring a lifetime of rare experiences.

Eva: Private, atmospheric, ecological, fun, and natural.

What would you say sets Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi – both based in the Maldives – apart from each other?
Both embody our commitment to bespoke experiences and sustainability, but with their own unique charms. Soneva Jani boasts mostly overwater villas, with breathtaking waterslides from the top floor of your villa into the ocean, plus an expansive island with plenty of lush greenery. Soneva Fushi is more focused on private beach residences nestled among wild jungle – offering a close connection to the island’s natural beauty.

You grew up in England (Sonu) and Sweden (Eva). What do you love about each of these places?
Sonu: With England, it’s the British sense of humour, as well as fairness, honour, integrity and justice. It’s easy to take these virtues for granted, but in many parts of the world they’re rare. The English countryside is beautiful: especially the Lake District, the Cotswolds, Devon and Cornwall.

Eva: With Sweden, it’s the clean air and water (where our family holiday home is set, we can drink directly from the lake). The summers are wonderful – the sun never goes down. And there’s no litter anywhere out in nature, everything is recycled.

Do you have a favourite spot in any of your hotels? Perhaps one that you’re most proud of, or where you feel most relaxed?
Sonu: At Soneva Kiri in Thailand, a favourite activity of mine is paddle-boarding from South Beach to Khun Tuk’s, where cookery classes are held, which takes about 30 minutes. Chef Tuk then prepares whatever she has found fresh from the market that morning, or from our own gardens, using generations-old Thai recipes.

Eva: On the swing in front of my house on Soneva Fushi. Though, admittedly I rarely get to use it as we’re always always so busy either building new places or maintaining current ones.

What’s next for Soneva?
A bespoke 14-villa resort called Soneva Secret, which will open on 10 February 2024.

And where’s next for a much-deserved break?
Fittingly, we’re answering these from Ubud, Bali, which is a beautiful part of the world. We first visited Bali and stayed at the Amandari in 1991, but this time we’re at the Como Shambhala Estate – the landscape here is so thought-through and impressive; and the nature is just wonderful. Incredible healers live in Ubud, so it’s also become a nucleus for health and wellness, and there’s an incredible restaurant scene.

Ready to write your own love story? Follow your heart to one of our these Valentine’s day stays…