Visit the Maldives' Soneva Fushi for the ultimate in exclusivity

Soneva Fushi may just be the secret haven you never knew you could escape to.
Updated 10 March 2018
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Visit the Maldives' Soneva Fushi for the ultimate in exclusivity

MALE ATOLL, Maldives: Few destinations ooze romance as much as these picture-perfect islands in the Indian Ocean. However, not all Maldivian islands are created equal, so for those looking to totally get away from it all, Soneva Fushi may just be the secret haven you never knew you could escape to and although the country has experienced political turmoil in its capital, the tension has not affected the airport and the multitude of far-flung island resorts, almost all of which are only accessible by seaplane or speedboat.
The Soneva experience starts well before you even take that flight into Male. As part of the reservation, you are sent a detailed questionnaire that aims to get to know you and your partner really well — from what your preferred fragrances are, right down to your favorite ice cream flavors and toppings (almond ice cream with brownie crumble topping, anyone?) — just so they can tailor the perfect experience for you.
This sort of personalized attention is what makes Soneva Fushi stand out. Neither is it one of the newest or flashiest resorts in the Maldives, nor does it boast over-the-top over-water villas that are pretty much par for course in this destination. Instead, what it offers is discreet seclusion in oversized villas nestled amidst tropical jungles, built around the local foliage so they can be barely seen from the outside, just footsteps away from the powder-white beaches.
Expansive glass walls allow the outdoors in, while oversized sofas with plump cushions all around, both outdoors and inside — for those afternoons when the odd tropical rain shower might force you indoors away from the turquoise seas and swaying palms — seem designed to encourage lounging.
The spacious villas epitomize rustic chic, with organic design and natural materials used throughout, to offer the ultimate luxury of living simply in nature — not least in the case of the jaw-dropping open-air bathroom which is sized approximately the same as average city apartments! No creature comforts are compromised though, with every conceivable mod-con at your disposal — and then some. A private butler is at your service 24/7, for example.
It is this butler who you can turn to in order to design a romance-fueled experience during your stay. While simply whiling the days away languidly, with the only choices being beach or private pool would probably be all the backdrop you need for quality time together, here it is all about the bespoke experiences, most of which are perfect for Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Splashes of orange at Fresh in the Garden #SonevaInOrange by @aja_ng #SonevaFestivalofColour

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You can also choose from one of their several private dining concepts, which range from a Robinson Crusoe-style castaway picnic on an uninhabited island, to dolphin-watching trips, to an overnight experience on a private sandbank (i.e. your own private island for the night), and jungle dinners under starlit skies. Other highlights include booking out Cinema Paradiso, their beachside cinema theatre for a magical “bbq dinner and a movie” evening; and a private stargazing session with the resident astronomer at the Maldives’ only observatory (astronomy dinner cruises on a private yacht can also be arranged).

Food clearly seems to be an essential part of the narrative, with a lot of emphasis being placed on fresh and local produce, a lot of which is grown on-site in the two organic gardens.
A not-to-be-missed experience is the vegetable garden lunch — a delightful affair where you get to pick your own salad leaves together with the charming chef, who then tosses it together into a salad course, which is followed by a delectable selection of regionally-inspired curries, made using produce from the garden, all of it enjoyed alfresco.

It’s like a heaven#moldiv #sonevafushi #resort

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In fact, growing their own produce is but one small part of the commitment to sustainability here — being green is in their bones. Conceived by hospitality industry pioneers Sonu and Eva Shivdasani (who also founded the Six Senses brand), Soneva Fushi was the first real eco-friendly resort in the Maldives and Soneva resorts have come to epitomize intelligent luxury for the discerning traveller who likes meaningful, conscientious experiences.
Not only do they minimize the environmental footprint of running a remote luxury resort, they go to great efforts to have a positive impact — from offering water in recyclable glass bottles and running their own full-scale “Waste to Wealth” recycling center, to having a glass studio where recycled glass from the region is given new life by glassblowing artists — interactive glass studio experiences are also available as a unique, tactile couple’s activity.

Of course, no trip to the Maldives is complete without some underwater action, and there is plenty of that here too with the waters of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Baa Atoll surrounding the island providing ample fodder for snorkeling or diving — which can be done on a private basis with the in-house marine biologist too.

For anyone who falls in love with this way of life — and it is hard not to, just ask the numerous loyal returners — where being in harmony with nature and each other becomes easier than ever, the island is the first in the Maldives to offer an exclusive selection of residences for private ownership. Now that is a present no one can turn down!


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.