Condé Nast Traveller - Soneva Jani
December 2016

When Soneva Fushi arrived two decades ago on a tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean, its loosened-up, barefoot look became the prototype for a new generation of beach hotels. Now the team have returned with an opening set to redefine the Maldives yet again.

It’s a wonder the Maldives isn't running out of islands. This past year a new hotel seemed to open every month, from the party hangout of Finolhu to the family-friendly St Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, and the Four Seasons Private Island Voavah with its own 19-metre yacht to explore the Baa Atoll

But the biggest opening by far is Soneva Jani, the third property from the smart, spirited Soneva team that pioneered around-the-clock butler service, a strong environmental code and a determination to disconnect from the noisy outside world (guests are gently asked to remove their shoes on arrival, which are then slipped into a linen bag until their departure).

Soneva was founded by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, he a British-Indian businessman, she a former Swedish model. Their first hotel, Soneva Fushi, opened in 1995 and remains a firm favourite. Soneva Gili followed five years later, showcasing the first overwater villas in the Maldives. After that the group - now operating under the Six Senses banner - expanded so quickly it ran into trouble and the Shivdasanis ended up selling 26 hotels, including Soneva Gili, and 41 spas.

Elements of Soneva Fushi and their other hotel, Soneva Kiri, a jungly beach retreat in the Gulf of Thailand that opened in 2010, are evident here, but what sets Soneva Jani apart - and from hotels across the Maldives - is that it's actually made up of five little islets in the Noonu Atoll. Snaking off the biggest island, a former vegetable farm, is a 1.8km jetty with 24 overwater villas, each one bigger than some hotels (I was still discovering doors to little rooms and alcoves on my last day). The largest can fit a family of 10. Next year the island will also be home to a couple of dozen beach villas, hidden in the forests of screwpine, banyan trees and sea trumpet, which will all be for sale - although available to Soneva Jani guests when the owners aren't around. A tented restaurant serving seafood lunches will be set up on another island and the other three will remain entirely undeveloped, so there will always be somewhere to play castaway.

The scale of the villas may be extraordinary, but everything else about this place is understated. It's not about name architects, tricksy interior design or superstar chefs, just simple open-plan, open-air living. Rooms built in renewable plantation wood sprawl in great sweeping curves, each a charming jumble of pitched roofs and rondavels with fairytale turrets to climb up for the views; ladders lead directly from decks into the Indian Ocean; windows fold away; portholes in the floors reveal marine life below; a push-button retractable ceiling above the bed unveils the starry night skies.

Thanks in part to Eva, the interior design - all light and bright with vaulted ceilings, bamboo floors and white rattan furniture - shows admirable Scandinavian restraint. Sandblasted pine is sawn into soft organic shapes; there are oval windows and round, sunken sofas with hand-dyed cotton cushions from Sri Lanka. Lampshades are made using rough marble slabs, or thickly stitched cream cowhide.

The restaurant is headed by Japanese chef Kengo Tomita, who I immediately recognised from Soneva Fushi, and who greeted me like an old friend and brought me a steaming bowl of soba noodles because he remembered I like them. The bar and wine-tasting room, spa, gym, yoga studio and kids' club are connected by a series of glass bridges (the spa director is the brilliant Meena Gurung from Sikkim, who says some of her best therapists are from the Himalayas).

Across a wooden bridge is a wonderful observatory with a telescope rising up from the floor and live monitors that share the view through the eyepiece. Bicycle across the island to the open-air, floating cinema, where guests wear Bluetooth headphones to avoid any sound effects disturbing the turtles.

Sonu tells me he has plans to open two more groundbreaking hotels in the Maldives - so they'll have to dream up some more ideas to play with. But for now, this is absolutely the new place to stay, for the creativity, the sensitivity, and above all for somewhere happy to act as both backdrop and foil to the outstanding beauty of the islands of the Maldives themselves. Which might just be the greatest compliment of all.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Red Savannah (