The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
The Maldives reopened to all international travellers on June 15, 2020. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 April 2021

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
  • Get your negative test and enjoy a pre-COVID vacation throwback at the Soneva Jani resort

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. 




The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. (Supplied)

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.




On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist. (Supplied)

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. (Supplied)

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.




Soneva Jani has outdoor cinema. (Supplied)

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.


Elton John positive for Covid-19, postpones Dallas shows

Elton John positive for Covid-19, postpones Dallas shows
Updated 58 min 37 sec ago

Elton John positive for Covid-19, postpones Dallas shows

Elton John positive for Covid-19, postpones Dallas shows
  • "I'm so sorry to anyone who's been inconvenienced by this but I want to keep myself and my team safe," said John
  • The concerts, part of John's "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" tour, were scheduled for January 25 and January 26

NEW YOTK: Pop megastar Elton John on Tuesday postponed two concerts in Dallas — part of what is expected to be a lengthy farewell tour — after testing positive for Covid-19.
“It’s always a massive disappointment to move shows and I’m so sorry to anyone who’s been inconvenienced by this but I want to keep myself and my team safe,” said the British musician, 74, in a statement on social media.
“Fortunately, I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and my symptoms are mild.”
The concerts, part of John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, were scheduled for January 25 and January 26. Both John and the American Airlines Center, where the shows were to take place, said they will be rescheduled and fans should keep their tickets.
John said he expected to be healthy enough to play his show on January 29 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The tour, which is anticipated to be Sir Elton’s last, has run into pandemic-era cancelations and postponements, like many other performing arts events.
The pop legend also recently had a hip operation that forced him to push back several dates.
Last year, John released an album entitled “The Lockdown Sessions,” which was recorded entirely under Covid-19 restrictions.


Virtuoso keeps Afghan music alive despite Taliban ban

Virtuoso keeps Afghan music alive despite Taliban ban
Updated 25 January 2022

Virtuoso keeps Afghan music alive despite Taliban ban

Virtuoso keeps Afghan music alive despite Taliban ban
  • Afghanistan's rich musical culture is under threat as the Taliban have banned music since their return to power last year
  • "Right now we don't have music in Afghanistan," says Homayoun Sakhi

LONDON: Homayoun Sakhi closes his eyes and runs his fingers along the long neck of his wooden instrument encrusted with mother-of-pearl.
“I feel like I have my Afghanistan in my hand,” says Sakhi, one of the world’s most renowned performers on the country’s national instrument, the rubab.
He is jet-lagged after flying in from California to perform at London’s Barbican concert hall to raise funds for emergency medicine and education in his homeland.
Along with the growing humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan’s rich musical culture is under threat as the Taliban have banned music since their return to power last year.
Widely shared videos have shown them smashing and burning instruments. Musicians have fled the country.
“Right now we don’t have music in Afghanistan,” says Sakhi.
“It’s really difficult because there are no concerts, there’s no music, and (for musicians) it’s very difficult to be without any money and without a job.
“That’s why they’re trying to go somewhere to play.”
The Taliban clampdown is a repeat of the hard-liners’ previous time in power between 1996 and 2001, when they banned music as sinful, under a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The rubab dates back thousands of years and has enjoyed a revival thanks to Sakhi, who is known as a musical innovator and has developed a more modern playing style.
BBC Music Magazine called him “one of the greatest performers” on the instrument.
Born in Kabul, he left Afghanistan with his family in 1992, in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, moving to Pakistan.
He later settled in Fremont, California, which is known for its large Afghan community, and has launched an academy teaching the rubab.
“Each time I’m playing, I’m home, I feel like I’m in Afghanistan,” he says.
Music including pop was allowed a free rein during the past two decades in Afghanistan, with local television even showing a “Pop Idol” talent contest equivalent.
But following the Taliban’s return to power, traditional Afghan music now relies on devotees overseas.
The “Songs of Hope” concert at the Barbican last Saturday was organized by Afghanistan International TV.
The London-based channel was set up by Volant media company, which also runs a Persian-language channel for Iranians.
It will screen a documentary about the concert in March.
In the first half, Sakhi plays classical Afghan pieces, followed by folk music that gets the audience clapping along.
He performs with UK-based virtuoso Shahbaz Hussain on tabla and Iranian musician Adib Rostami on the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument.
“I had the idea to do the concert — that was the only thing I can do as a musician,” said Rostami, one of the event’s organizers.
“As we know, now the music is banned in Afghanistan — they cannot ban this from the people around the world.”
“We have to try as musicians, as music lovers, to find a way to keep this cultural heritage for the future.”
The current situation for musicians under the Taliban is “back in the 1990s,” he says.
“Again, you cannot be a musician in Afghanistan.
“As far as I know, most of the musicians... are trying to get out of the country.”
A group of students and teachers from a national music school in Kabul arrived as refugees in Portugal in December, after the Taliban’s takeover earlier last year.
Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra, set up in 2016 and named after a Persian goddess of music, has moved to Qatar.


Review: Now on Netflix, WWII spy drama ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is a mixed bag

Review: Now on Netflix, WWII spy drama ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is a mixed bag
Updated 25 January 2022

Review: Now on Netflix, WWII spy drama ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is a mixed bag

Review: Now on Netflix, WWII spy drama ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is a mixed bag

CHENNAI: After innumerable World War II-focused movies, Christian Schwochow’s “Munich – The Edge of War” is somewhat of a welcome relief worth savoring. The work, based on Robert Harris's novel “Munich,” begins in a delightfully happy atmospheric mood in 1932 with Oxford students celebrating graduation with music and mirth. As the camera zooms in on three close friends – Hugh Legat (George MacKay), Paul Von Hartman (Janis Niewohner) and Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries) – we sense a whiff of what is come, the dark days of Adolf Hitler's (played here by a nasty looking Ulrich Matthes) expansionist plans to take over all of Europe. 

The movie follows three close friends – Hugh Legat (George MacKay), Paul Von Hartman (Janis Niewohner) and Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries). Supplied

After taking the audience to a dread-filled London six years later, Schwochow’s film then veers into the thriller genre, focusing on how Paul and Hugh, now working in government offices in Germany and England respectively, try their best to stop a war that eventually led, as we all know, to catastrophic consequences. Mainly about the 1938 Munich conference and its thwarted peace agreement between the two countries, Munich – The Edge of War beyond this is a fictional account of how the two friends turn spies. Once a passionate advocate of Hitler and his Nazi party with Paul arguing at Oxford how the Germans badly needed an identity that the Fuhrer promised, the young man is later disillusioned by and angry at the way things are turning out. At his brief meeting with Chamberlain, Paul says that it will be a mistake to sign a peace treaty with Hitler, who is nothing but a monster.

The work is based on Robert Harris's novel “Munich.” Supplied

A handsome spy story, it is set in plush offices and pretty gardens (with gorgeous production design by Tim Pannen) where the friends have their rendezvous, often exchanging information and highly classified documents. 

The movie has some tense moments, particularly when Hugh tries to pass off vital information to his prime minister, but on the flip side, “Munich – The Edge of War” can be a little too academic, a trifle too contrived. There is not much to talk about the two lead players — MacKay and Niewohner — who seem more caricatured than real, although Fries is sparkling in the initial sequences conveying a carefree mood that permeated Britain's campuses in the early 1930s. 


US singer-designer Pharrell slammed over accessory’s similarities to Mughal antiques

US singer-designer Pharrell slammed over accessory’s similarities to Mughal antiques
Updated 25 January 2022

US singer-designer Pharrell slammed over accessory’s similarities to Mughal antiques

US singer-designer Pharrell slammed over accessory’s similarities to Mughal antiques

DUBAI: US singer Pharrell Wiliams attended Kenzo’s Spring 2022 show during Paris Fashion Week and simultaneously teased his new partnership with fine jewelry house Tiffany & Co.

The N.E.R.D singer sat front row, next to Kenzo’s new creative director Nigo, donning a pair of diamond-embellished sunglasses that got everyone talking — but not for the right reasons.

Users on social media, including online fashion watchdog Diet Prada, took to the photo-sharing platform to point out the striking similarities between Pharrell’s custom sunglasses and historical Mughal antiques.  

The antiques in question are two pairs of frames dating back to the 17th century that were put up for auction last year by Sotheby’s.

Belonging to the Mughal royals that ruled the Indian subcontinent, the extremely rare Islamic antiques feature emerald-cut lenses and were created to aid a wearer in reaching enlightenment and heal and ward off evil, according to the Sotheby’s website.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Diet Prad (@diet_prada)

Legend has it that following the death of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, in whose honor the Taj Mahal was built, the emperor is said to have cried so many tears that he needed to cure his ailing eyes with emerald stones.

“These extraordinary curiosities bring together myriad threads – from the technical mastery of the cutter and the genius of craftsmanship to the vision of a patron who chose to fashion two pairs of eyeglasses quite unlike anything ever seen before,” said Edward Gibbs, chair, Sotheby’s Middle East & India, ahead of the London auction last year.

The Mughal bejeweled spectacles were commissioned by an unknown prince and fashioned by an artist, who shaped a 200-carat diamond and a brilliant Colombian emerald, weighing at least three hundred carats, into two frames.

Now, social media users are slamming the US singer-designer for the similar shades, although Pharrell has yet to respond to the backlash.


Saudi Arabia’s NEOM advert among nominees for Art Directors Guild Awards in Hollywood

Saudi Arabia’s NEOM advert among nominees for Art Directors Guild Awards in Hollywood
Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia’s NEOM advert among nominees for Art Directors Guild Awards in Hollywood

Saudi Arabia’s NEOM advert among nominees for Art Directors Guild Awards in Hollywood

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s “NEOM: ‘Made to Change’” advert is nominated for the 26th Art Directors Guild Awards, organizers announced on Monday. 

The live in-person event, scheduled to be held on March 5 in Los Angeles, honors production design in theatrical motion pictures, music videos, animated feature films, television shows and commercials.

The 90-second video shows how the $500 billion smart city in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia will accelerate the human drive for progress through technology, energy, sustainability, mobility and more. 

The commercial’s production designer is François Audouy.

Among the nominees for the commercials category is “Gucci: ‘Aria,’” “Apple Music: ‘Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever,’” “Apple: Introducing iPhone 13 Pro” and more. 

“Dune,” the science-fiction epic shot in Abu Dhabi, earned recognition in the fantasy feature film category, alongside “Cruella,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “The Green Knight.”