DUBAI: Being greeted with a handshake shouldn’t be such a jarring experience. But stepping into the restaurant at the Soneva Jani resort in the Maldives’ Noonu Atoll, this is how you’ll be welcomed. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels, well, strange.
Strange but safe: Masks are cast aside. Open buffets exist. Hands are shaken. On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist.
The Maldives reopened to all international travellers on June 15, 2020, with the exception of the capital, Male, which remains largely off limits, due to COVID cases often emanating from there.
At the time of writing, the Maldives had recorded about 24,000 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths, from a population of roughly 531,000 people. It has administered around 233,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The country also has strict regulations and guidelines in place for managing resorts and guesthouse facilities, should an outbreak take place — so be prepared to pay (in most cases) for two weeks of quarantine in your luxury overwater villa if you do test positive.
Due to this perception of being a safe travel destination during the pandemic, tourists have been flocking to the island archipelago. In March, about 110,000 tourists arrived at Velana International Airport, compared to 59,630 in March 2020 and 156,553 in March 2019. Currently, around 3,550 people are arriving every day. Staff at Soneva say the resort is perhaps even busier now than it was over the 2019/2020 festive period.
Clearly, it’s vital to them that the Maldives continues to be a safe destination — and that their resort, especially, stays COVID-free. So safety (theirs and yours) is paramount.
While Velana is thronging with arrivals from all corners of the globe and your seaplane to Soneva will likely be full, there’s no chanting crowd awaiting your arrival to offer refreshments and a change to mingle . Instead, you’re picked up by speedboat and whisked off to your villa in isolation, where you’ll need to stay for most of that day, since Soneva requires you to take another PCR test on arrival, separate from the one you’ve already taken to board your international flight.
Fortunately, indoor quarantine here is luxurious. The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. The island’s newest set of bungalows, its 27 ‘Chapter Two’ villas, are bigger than most Dubai apartments. There’s enough seating to comfortably host a football team, freshwater infinity pool, kitchen, retractable roof for stargazing, rooftop dining area and in some, a slide that will transport you from the villa’s rooftop to the azure waters below. Frankly, you’ll struggle to fit it all in during your 12-hour quarantine.
In-villa dining, courtesy of a team of cautious staff, is dropped off while you wile away your quarantine by the pool or in the ocean.
Once your results are through (between six to 12 hours), life goes back to normal. As in, pre-COVID normal. Staff and guests alike are free to go about their days without masks. High-fiving and handshakes are common. Physical distancing isn’t imposed — but is easy to achieve if you’d prefer to be extra-cautious.
Soneva Jani is based on a large island, and despite being home to 51 overwater villas and three island villas, most of which are full during our stay, it is blissfully quiet. The restaurants never seem to have more than a few other families or couples in at a time, and as most of the options are outdoors (Cinema Paradiso, the overwater, open-air theatre, being a very 2021 way to take in a movie), you’ll never feel cramped.
Excursions on the island are just as pandemic-friendly. The boats that provide dolphin cruises or snorkelling trips are huge, and the water is the perfect place to social distance.
At Soneva, the pre-pandemic holiday still exists. For a few nights, at least, you won’t be rushing back to your room to retrieve a forgotten mask, or feel the need to stare down anyone who accidentally gets a little too close.
The resort’s extra PCR test is imposed for this reason. If you do test positive, your quarantine is free. If you don’t, then the anxiety of travel in 2021 is relieved. For that reason alone, if you’re in need of a holiday at a time when safety is key, Soneva is a great option.