John Thatcher finds that Maldives’ Soneva Fushi delivers the ultimate island adventure for kids
Every day started the same. Every day started differently. At sunrise I’d be sat in a swing seat on the top-floor veranda of our villa, my eyes glued to the ever-changing vista before me. The glistening strip of light that the rising sun imprinted on the rippling ocean – sometimes shaded orange, on other days a deep pink – would swiftly advance to the shoreline, where it would come to rest, illuminating a half dozen crabs who scurried to bury themselves in the sand to avoid detection. Only the gentle break of the waves beyond the house reef made a sound, and even it was hushed, as if respectful of being present at the birth of a new day.
All was calm, the peace enchanting, a world away from our family life in Dubai, where at the same point of the morning my wife Victoria and I would be racing against the clock to get our girls dressed (difficult), fed (very difficult) and into the car in a desperate attempt to get a five-minute head start on the other competitors in the school run.
Our daily duel with time suddenly seemed so superfluous. But almost as sudden as that thought had formulated did it dissipate.
“What time does the kids’ club open?’
asked my eldest daughter Aerin (aged seven), freshly sprung from bed and already wide-eyed in anticipation.
“9am,” I replied, folding the page in the book I’d started and aborted countless times since Aerin’s birth.
“Is it 9am now?”
“No, not yet, another two and a half hours to wait.”
“How long is that?” asked Aerin.
“About six episodes of Sofia The First,” I replied, to a despondent groan.
This is how I now compartmentalise time. My trusty weapon against the onslaught of ‘are we there yets’, ‘is it ready yets’ and ‘can
we go nows’ is to state the length of some of Aerin’s favourite TV shows. It’s surprisingly effective, too, for at least one third of an episode of Doc McStuffins, anyway. Then impatience takes hold.
The Best Holiday Ever
Yet there’s every need for a child to grow restless awaiting entry to The Den, Soneva Fushi’s kids’ club-cum-fantasyland. Hidden away behind dense foliage, a telltale sign you’re close to it is the screams of delight emanating from high up in the treetops, through which you can glimpse the tip of a giant water slide. I looked around to determine just how wide the smiles were on the faces of my two girls (Pandora, aged five, completing the double act) but only their haphazardly discarded bikes remained, the handlebars lodged in the powder-soft sand.
There’s every need for a child to grow restless awaiting entry to The Den, Soneva Fushi’s kids’ club-cum-fantasyland
“Best. Holiday. Ever!” exclaimed Aerin, once I’d caught up with her inside, her excitement forcing her to gasp at breaths. “Look!” she then ordered, pointing at everything around her with one full sweep of her arm.
My eyes first met that tree-high, twisting slide, which shoots its riders into one of two swimming pools. Then I was dragged by tiny hand to, in no particular order, a pirate ship, a Lego room, another room containing a range of instruments sufficient to service the New York Philharmonic, a mocktail bar with enough different juices to float that aforementioned pirate ship, and a cinema. It sure beats the den I fashioned from a sleeping bag and stick when about the same age as Aerin.
At a loose end
With our kids in The Den, Victoria and I were at first thrown by the very idea of having time to fill. What was it we actually did before we had the girls? I’m sure it wasn’t snorkelling. But with our feet wedged into flippers, we flopped from the speedboat that had ferried us a few hundred yards from the island into an aquarium-esque world where we were all but guaranteed to spot turtles, apparently. Not as certain, though possible, was the likelihood of encountering the scary-sounding titan triggerfish. I’d never heard of it before, let alone seen one, but our fellow snorkeller, Judy, told us of how she was attacked by one, only yesterday, in this very same stretch of water.
“What do you mean by ‘attacked’?” I asked.
“It came at me, bit my behind, and kept on coming, despite me swimming frantically away,” she recounted.
“Did you do anything to annoy it?”
“I just swam, is all.”
At that point, the snorkel trip wasn’t quite as appealing as it had been only seconds earlier, given that our chances of avoiding an attack seemed to rest on not actually swimming while in the ocean, which would presumably bring about drowning. Thankfully, our guide was on hand with the knowledge to bridge the gap between reality and fear-induced fantasy. The titan triggerfish could get angry and attack, yes, but it did so only to protect its nest during the reproductive season, which was coming to an end. Besides, our guide would point out any nests and ensure we avoided them.
While that reassured Victoria and I, it didn’t do much to calm the nerves of Judy, who while snorkelling thought the accidental brush of my flipper on her leg was the triggerfish back for another bite. She did what our guide had told her to do in a repeat situation – lay flat and kick her flippers as hard as she could at the fish, or me, as was the case. In hindsight, I’d have rather been bitten. By the triggerfish, not Judy.
After our girls’ mornings at play in The Den, we spent the rest of our afternoons at leisure in our remarkable residence: the huge, two-floor Villa 1, which looks like it was built by Robinson Crusoe with the aid of Man Friday, interior designer Sunday and architect Tuesday. In its outsized pool (free from the threat of triggerfish) I taught Aerin how to snorkel while Victoria helped Pandora practise her swimming strokes. Later we would run time and again from the in-rushing tide as it swallowed up our private stretch of beach, causing both girls to buckle up with laughter.
“Why don’t fish have legs?” asked Pandora as we made our way back into the villa to change for dinner. “Why haven’t we seen a mermaid yet?” “Do jellyfish taste like jelly?” “Do you think we’ll have jelly for dessert?”
I may prove proficient batting away Aerin’s questions about time, but Pandora is a whole different ball game. Her questions range from the merely curious to the philosophical and fantastical, and those in-between that force you to realise that you actually know precious little about anything mundane (how many countries are there in the world?). The one thing that unifies Pandora’s questions is that they are relentless. They spray from her mouth like bullets from a sub-machine gun held by a man with a nervous twitch, hitting anyone within earshot. Which, during a post-dinner trip to the Maldives’ first on-resort observatory, just so happened to be astronomer Adam.
“What’s that?” asked Pandora, pointing at the brightest star to catch her eye.
“Saturn,” replied Adam.
You don’t need an observatory to view the celestial charms at Soneva Fushi; the night sky is so incredibly star-studded it’s as though it has been Photoshopped for guests. But it’s an incredible facility at which to learn more about our solar system, particularly if you like to ask a lot of questions. And so…
“What’s that?” asked Pandora again, unaware that we had walked full circle around the observatory’s viewing level.
“Saturn,” replied Adam.
“Is there a man in the moon?”
“Not that we know of, Pandora, but man has landed on the moon.”
“Saturn,” replied Adam, laughing.
Adam could thank his lucky stars it was past Pandora’s bedtime.
I’ve been to many Maldives resorts. I’ve been to resorts where at mealtimes (breakfast included) some guests feel the need to flaunt jewellery of such obvious value that if sold it would raise enough cash to wipe out the debt of a small country. I’ve been to resorts where in spite of the fact that the Maldives is 99% ocean, fish are flown in from far and wide to meet the requests of particularly picky guests. And I’ve been to resorts where staff members are trained to only walk sideways when accompanying guests to their rooms so that they can always look them in the eye – unnerving, more than anything else. To my mind, such resorts miss the point. To me, the truly great Maldives resorts are those that encapsulate laid-back, pared-down luxury. Those resorts that serve to reinforce the fact that you’re on a desert island and encourage you to embrace the uniqueness of it. Of all the places I have stayed at in the Maldives, Soneva Fushi does this best of all. It offers every conceivable luxury and indulgence – great food utilising island-grown ingredients, some incredible villas, and spectacular facilities like the observatory and a yacht you can stay on overnight – but it’s not in your face demanding attention. You take off your shoes because you want your toes to sink into the sand; you don’t wear them to impress fellow guests at dinner.
It’s this pervading air that makes Soneva Fushi such a favourite with families and the celebrity set. While we were there, a famous film director and his very famous son (on account of his incredibly famous mother) visibly revelled in their time away from the glare of the public eye (although the son was asked a series of questions by Pandora about what was on his plate when she cornered him at lunch, of course).
On our last evening we took a private cruise at sunset to see dolphins frolic at sea. As we sipped on bubbles and nibbled traditional Maldivian bites, our boat circled around their energetic performance. Then we were taken by another boat from the island’s jetty, 10 or so guests at a time, over to a sandbank on which bars and live cooking stations were set up, lit by flaming torches. It was on account of the resort’s GM hosting a party to which every guest and staff member was invited, a chance to meet and mingle and share tales of that day’s adventures in paradise (such as being kicked to near death while snorkelling).
Almost all the guests we spoke to were repeat visitors to Soneva Fushi. Like them, I’m sure we’ll return here one day and find it just as we had left it: unhurried, unspoilt, unbowed as the original ‘no shoes, no news’ escape. If it has changed by then, I know a little someone who will question why.