Dining in the jungle canopy and movies under the stars are some of Soneva Kiri’s signature experiences, but there’s an inspiring message behind the fun, as Cathy Wagstaff learns.
I’m sitting in a nest, high among the treetops of Koh Kood, eagerly awaiting the moment my lunch arrives. While I’m excited for the meal – all the food at Soneva Kiri is exquisite – it’s the means of delivery that has me on the edge of my seat: ziplining waiters. Talk about making dining fun. A whirring in the canopy alerts me to the impending arrival, and I watch on in awe as the waiter deftly lands on my wooden platform, his tray undisturbed by its jungle flight.
Back on the ground, I’m torn between continuing my culinary journey in So Chilled (the ice-cream parlour with more than 60 flavours on display), So Chocoholic (the chocolate room) or So Deli-cious (a smorgasbord of cheese and charcuterie). There’s even a five-course feast dedicated to the mushrooms grown in the resort’s extensive gardens, served in a fern-concealed cave.
An epicurean playground
Having fun with food is one of the signatures of this playful brand. Sonu and Eva Shivdasani almost single-handedly created the concept of barefoot luxury when they opened Soneva Fushi in 1995. A chilled-out castaway vibe, disconnection from the problems of the outside world, reconnection with the surrounding community and environment … then as now, these are the defining features of Soneva’s first Maldivian playground.
Soneva Fushi has since been joined by Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. Along the way, Sonu and Eva have opened integrated waste management centres, funded hundreds of projects around the globe through The Soneva Foundation and become the first hospitality brand to ban plastic straws, way back in 1998.
The founders call this ‘Intelligent Luxury’, which they summarise in an acrostic poem of a philosophy: SLOW LIFE (Sustainable, Local, Organic, Wellness, Learning, Inspiring, Fun, Experiences). What this amounts to is respect for the location, the locals, the earth and ourselves.
One of the most memorable dining experiences sees me cruising through the mangroves to Benz’s, the rustic overwater restaurant that serves some of the finest Southern Thai cuisine I’ve ever tasted. Chef Benz was discovered by Sonu and Eva nearly two decades ago, and she has been delighting international guests ever since with her hot and spicy nine-course menus, created with produce from Koh Kood and nearby Koh Chang. It’s the epitome of SLOW LIFE, where locals lead the way.
Life under canvas
Koh Kood is Thailand’s fourth largest – but least populated – island, located in the crook of the Thai-Cambodian border and blanketed in thick jungle that extends all the way to the water’s edge. I take in its untamed appearance as Soneva Kiri’s elegant speedboat skims me across the waves from Koh Mai Si, the island home of the resort’s private airstrip. The tented villas are nestled into its sweeping coves, huddled amid the foliage. My one-bedroom Beach Pool Villa is enormous, sprawling over 403 metres, with a stretch of white-sand beach just footsteps away. Tida, my Ms Friday (a nod to the Robinson Crusoe flavour of the original Soneva), is on hand for any requests and bookings. A free-form pool – easily large enough to do laps in – curves around a deck studded with butter-yellow sun loungers and day beds. The king-size bed faces out to sea, my uninterrupted water views only impeded by the popup TV that emerges from a stack of vintage suitcases at the foot of the bed.
Other villas feature up to six bedrooms, some by the beach, others in the hills or perched atop cliffs. Among them are residences bought by families who love Soneva Kiri so much they have become a part of its story. The most spectacular is the Sunset Ocean View Pool Reserve: a sanctuary of six bedrooms spread over 2,928 square metres, complete with kids’ treehouse, games room, outdoor bathroom and a water slide swooping into the pool.
01. 4 Bedroom Sunset Ocean View Pool Reserve © Asit Maneesarn. 02. 6 Bedroom Sunset Ocean View © Richard Waite. 03. 2 Bedroom Junior Beach Pool Retreat
Beyond my villa, my first stop is the Six Senses Spa, which balances ageold herbal wisdom with the high-tech Wellness Screening. The non-invasive test gives a holistic overview of my state of health, based on body composition and biomarkers. The results have me heading straight for a yoga class to relieve pent-up stress and then Ayurvedic practitioner, Dr Dinesh, for further treatment advice. He suggests Malida’s Himalayan singing bowl treatment for a mix of healing and rejuvenation.
The activities on offer are similarly designed for reconnection, ranging from a butterfly quest through the jungle with the resident ecologist to dining with a local family in a fishing village, or a full-day exploration of Angkor Wat by helicopter. Even the open-air movie theatre, Cinema Paradiso, does things with Soneva flair, immersing us in the dark beauty of the jungle. Lanterns light the way to my cushioned seat, hovering over the lagoon. Cocktails accompanied by gourmet flavoured popcorn add the final flourish to this inimitable movie-going experience.
Soneva Kiri goes above and beyond to create a resort stay that you can feel good about, in more ways than one.
Thai Airways International flies from Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Bangkok. From Bangkok, fly in Soneva Kiri’s private plane to Koh Mai Si (a flight time of one hour, 15 minutes). A five-minute speedboat transfer delivers you from the airstrip to the resort jetty.