Experience the Maldives from a floating 'villa' with the new Soneva in Aqua private yacht

The day before we board our private yacht in the Maldives, our chef, Shresh, meets us to plan our menu. We can have almost anything we want, he says, so we are limited only by our imagination, bar the odd ingredient or two. Having eaten to excess over the past few days at Soneva Fushi […]

The day before we board our private yacht in the Maldives, our chef, Shresh, meets us to plan our menu. We can have almost anything we want, he says, so we are limited only by our imagination, bar the odd ingredient or two. Having eaten to excess over the past few days at Soneva Fushi Resort on Kunfunadhoo Island, we ask for healthy cuisine with a local flavour. “I can suggest grilled local fish with a green salad,” he offers. This might sound dull to some, but we know it won’t be an average grilled fish and greens. Guided by Shresh, we plan another salad for lunch, some tropical fruits for breakfast and a few wicked treats for dessert.

Next, we ponder our itinerary. Not only do we have a chef at our disposal, but we also have the luxury of deciding where the yacht should go. Baa Atoll, one of 20 administrative areas in the Maldives, is about half an hour’s seaplane flight north-west of the capital Malé. It comprises 75 islands – only 13 are inhabited – and offers smooth sailing and many areas for underwater exploration. The atoll became a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve in 2011, which makes it a protected area, because of its rich diversity of marine life. And this is one of the reasons why sailing in the area is such a luxury.

We’re on board the 19.3-metre “floating villa”, Soneva in Aqua, which launched late last year as an extension of Soneva Fushi. It sleeps up to six guests (four adults and two children), as well as five staff, but for our one night it’s just my husband and me with the crew.

Soneva says its floating villa is the first of its kind in the Maldives. However, hotel-owned-and-operated vessels aren’t a new concept. Four Seasons has a 39 -metre floating “resort”, a luxury liveaboard with an on-board Padi dive centre and capacity for up to 22 guests, stays on which are about US$2,100 (Dh7,700) per night. On Four Seasons’ Explorer, however, unless you book a private charter you will be sitting down for meals with strangers – not that they’ll be strangers for long – and you won’t be deciding your own itinerary. In comparison, Soneva’s floating villa is all about exclusivity and intimacy – with a fair share of luxury, too.

We’re collected from Soneva Fushi’s jetty on Kunfunadhoo Island and taken the short distance by speedboat to Soneva in Aqua. We’re joined on the speedboat by our butler (or Mr Friday as they’re known at Soneva), Husham, who is at our beck and call while we’re on the yacht. The rest of the crew – chef, engineer, masseuse and captain – eagerly await our arrival.

During a tour of the floating villa, Husham, who is from Thulhaadhoo Island at the southern end of Baa Atoll, points out the main features of the vessel and gives us a safety briefing. He is knowledgeable and completely at ease answering our questions.

We’re shown the Jacuzzi on the main deck (which is comfortable for two people), one of the outdoor lounge areas under the sails (which doubles as an eating and relaxation area), the bridge (with the captain at the helm) and into the living area (where there’s a sofa, dining table, small library, television and a large-screen Apple desktop computer – and yes, there’s Wi-Fi too). From here it’s downstairs to the guest bedroom, where there’s a double bed and a smaller bed for children.

One thing that stands out is the size of all of the areas. Cabins and living areas on most yachts are quite pokey and dark, but that is not the case here. The cabins may not be the size of a hotel room, but they’re not far off, and the views are much better.

We make our way to the master bedroom. Husham presses a button on the wall, and the floor beside us slides away to reveal a glass-bottom Jacuzzi. We’re sailing at the time so the water beneath us is turbulent, but when we’re not moving, we can see fish swimming beneath the yacht. The Jacuzzi can only be used when the yacht is not moving, so we make a plan to try it later. For me, this is the standout feature of the yacht. Glass-bottom view panels are common in the Maldives – whether that’s in kayaks or living-room floors of overwater villas – but to have it in a bathtub on a yacht is quite out of the ordinary.

Our plan for the afternoon – after a light salad for lunch – is to go snorkelling with Husham, and we’re really hoping to see a whale shark. Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, about 30 minutes from Soneva Fushi, is one of the best places for viewing whale sharks in the Maldives, and the best time for spotting these gentle giants is August to November. It’s also well-known for sightings of manta rays during monsoon season from May to October.

Our masks and fins are already on board, so once we arrive at the desired location, we step off the back of the yacht and start paddling to the reef. There are so many fish and marine creatures of all shapes, sizes and colours. As we make our way along the fringe of the reef, we see a spotted eagle ray. Farther along, a blacktip reef shark swims beneath us, heading in the opposite direction. My husband is so busy looking at the coral and other fish that he completely misses the 1.5-metre shark.

Husham tells us later that it’s uncommon to see them so close to the reef. During our 90-minute snorkelling session, we see loads of butterfly fish and, my favourite, a hawksbill sea turtle being cleaned by smaller fish to remove barnacles. Unfortunately, though, no whale shark.

Once we’re done, Husham signals to the yacht and a smaller boat is sent to collect us as we’ve swum a fair distance.

We get back on board and shower (even the shower has a view), then head upstairs for an hour-long full-body massage by our personal masseuse on the deck near the Jacuzzi. The temperature is perfect and it’s not too sunny – a storm is brewing, which shades us from the sun and brings a nice breeze, which fills the sails and helps us power along.

While my husband is having his massage, I relax on the deck admiring the scenery. I’m surprised that there aren’t more yachts. Aside from small diving boats, we only spot one other superyacht, the identity of which I can’t determine.

After our massages we head to the living area, where Husham grabs some books from the library collection to show us the fish we had seen during our snorkelling. The storm gives us a little sample of its might, and although it’s a bit wet and windy, the water doesn’t get choppy as the atoll is so well protected.

Once it’s calmed down, we move on to the top deck to watch the sunset. Chef Shresh prepares some light canapés – olives, cold cuts, cheese and nuts – but insists that we can’t spoil our appetites. We stay up here for a while, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and searching for dolphins. The previous evening, while staying at Soneva Fushi, we took a private sunset cruise to spot dolphins and were spoiled by a pod of at least 70 or more spinner dolphins swimming and jumping around our boat.

We aren’t blessed with any dolphin sightings this evening, but when we go downstairs for dinner, we discover that the crew has decorated the deck with candles (battery-operated ones for safety reasons). Our entertainment for the evening – along with each other’s company – is a lightning show courtesy of the storm that threatened earlier.

We’d been looking forward to our dinner since our meeting with chef Shresh the previous day. Our starter is stuffed avocado, followed by the local jobfish, grilled, with a side salad for mains. For dessert, I have dairy-free pistachio milk ice cream and lemongrass sorbet, while my husband tucks into cheesecake. About 30 per cent of the produce served on board and at the resort is grown in Soneva’s organic vegetable garden, and all fish is local except the salmon, which comes from Tasmania.

We enjoy our three-course meal and the light show in the distance and eventually decide to call it a night. The captain has found a secure location to moor for the evening and we are rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the ocean.

The next morning after a light breakfast of fresh mango and papaya, wholemeal croissants and strong coffee, we bid farewell to Soneva in Aqua.

Our marine adventure isn’t over as we still have a few days at Soneva Fushi where we’ll scuba dive, snorkel and eat to our hearts’ content. But we won’t have our own private chef, our own masseuse or a glass-bottom Jacuzzi in our bedroom. Knowing, however, that Soneva is opening another resort next month, Soneva Jani in Noonu Atoll, we’re thinking it would be a pretty good excuse to return.

Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 29.

atomlinson@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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