News & Reviews Indian Ocean Maldives Review: Soneva Jani, Maldives

Soneva Jani, Maldives
Room type: 1 Bedroom Water Retreat With Slide
Duration: 13th > 16th December, 2019

Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Award; GQ Travel Award; Robb Report Best of the Best; National Geographic Traveller Family Favourite; The Good The Bad and The Luxurious’ HRDSDFFCP.  For the uninformed, that’s Hotel that Resembles Dog Shit Deep Fat-Fried in Cat Piss.  It’s a prestigious award that will finally give the Soneva Jani trophy cabinet a sense of reality it was previously lacking.

Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with here.  Soneva Jani is part of the Soneva family, a collection of eco-friendly resorts in Thailand and the Maldives.  Their Greatest Hits include that one time we stayed at Soneva Fushi and the only staff interaction were the continued breakfast interruptions. Like clockwork, half the workers would disrupt our breakfast to offer discounts on anything they could think of.  It was only a matter of time before someone came over with a trench coat and tried to sell us stolen property.  Fushi was a place where no matter what you asked it would never get done, where the most attentive were the mosquitos and the food tasted like it was on a flavour cleanser.

Now you may think: why would you go to Jani if you hated Fushi so much, Tom, you moron?  To that I say: shut up.  Jani was new, the talk of the town, the apparent next Cheval Blanc.  And it had a slide.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, kids, let me tell you a story.

Into paradise

As we departed our pleasant stay at Kudadoo, we were in a whimsical mood.  This was for my wife’s birthday; this entire trip across Dubai, Sri Lanka and now the Maldives was all for this.  For those of you counting, we stayed in for my birthday, but I digress.

She looks calm, but she will beat me up for this

Soneva Jani collected us on their boat and 25 minutes later we arrived.  I couldn’t help but notice how the crew all put on their life jackets, whilst we were not offered one.  That’s the problem these days –  at least 24 influencers would have taken our place if we had met our demise.  Just staying alive is now a competition.

But It felt good to be alive, as the location is beautiful.  Not just the location, but the scale of the work that took place to achieve it and the desire to preserve it. Almost all rooms are overwater, so you’re fortunate enough to enjoy the incredibly pleasant waters and see the tide changing so often that you can either walk or swim in it, in the space of hours.  Sharks, sting rays, needlefish and pufferfish are just a few of the beneficiaries who occupy the alluring, transparent turquoise waters.  The setting would have been perfect for a Pixar movie, just one with only the bad guys. We immediately created a Ray and Life Preservation Society, where each other would ensure none are directly beneath the slide when we use it, as those damn influencers would be unpacking in my room before I was unplugged from the machine.

No animals were harmed in the making of this picture

Soneva has one of the most impressive pre-arrival questionnaires of any property.  It goes into so much detail that it could comfortably be used to answer any of your Secret Questions for any number of your off-shore accounts.  But just like those lawyers in Panama that told you your money was never safe, Soneva also can’t be trusted.  Whether it’s for the room or the spa, they ask extremely specific questions, then surprise you by ignoring all of them.  None more so than our butler.

Soneva calls their butler Mr. Friday.  Not because this represents Robinson Crusoe and it wants to be more quirky and authentic, but because I believe they only work on Fridays.  That is the only explanation I can find as to why ours was so useless and why we rarely saw him thereafter.  Within 10 minutes of arrival, ours gave us an island tour and admitted he had been either fired or quit working at Soneva Jani four previous times; the first for assaulting a referee during a staff football game.  The GM, of which there have been 5 since opening, must have been as forgiving as Jesus.  Whether he was electronically tagged and was not allowed to spend time around us, or whether he was lazy, I cannot say.  If I understood him correctly, he was responsible for looking after 35% of the rooms at the resort, which makes him a glorified buggy chauffeur.  I do know that calling him a butler is an insult to the trade; if Jeeves heard such nonsense he’d fence the shit out of him in the Kew Gardens carpark.

Sadly, he was not to be the exception.  I can only assume they have an ex-convict rehabilitation scheme here, as most of the staff were just as charming.

Room

The villa was a significant improvement on Soneva Fushi.  For a start, it didn’t smell of my grandma’s underwear (don’t ask how I know that, this is a safe space with no judgement) nor contain an ensemble of mosquitos dancing on my face.  The first impressions were good; certainly it was spacious, light and managed to maintain the rustic look, whilst being more modern.  The two stand-out features are the water slide and stargazing roof, which opens at push of a button and allows you to stare into the heavens and look at….hang on…what’s that?  A drone?!

Just because you cannot see them, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you

Soneva Jani is Pro-drone, whilst I find myself more on the Drexit side of things.  As with all well thought through policies, you only find out about it when one flies past and you’re tagged on Instagram or see yourself in the Daily Mail the next day.  This must be one of the most stupid policies I’ve ever seen in a hotel: three days a week, for a hour, you’re allowed to use a drone.  It’s restricted to your own villa, but they’re so close to each other that it’s the same as a security policy being “don’t look” when someone enters their PIN in front of your face.  What days and hours these are restricted to, I do not know.  You need to carry around a guide to know whether one will be hovering over the toilet as you defecate or surveying your phone calls to your publicist.  Is this place so in fear of losing social media influence that it cannot outright ban drones?   I suspect so, as there is nothing of substance here beyond the beautiful lagoon.  It was like going to Westworld and finding it’s all made of cardboard and every voice is provided by Pee Wee Herman.

The issues with the villas are numerous: privacy is a serious issue.  Let’s ignore the drones for now.  Were you unfortunate enough to be in villa 12, your deck is facing The Gathering – the main overwater area that contains all their facilities – yet even in ours, 8, we could hear and see the neighbours, whilst our deck faced directly at the arrival/departure jetty.  There is some pathetic attempts to offer some privacy with sheets that cover about 30% of your body, so anyone cycling, walking or driving their drone past, is starring at your deck.  Ok, I couldn’t get over the drone, let me try again. I have said it before: I have a real issue with privacy.  I’m pretty sure nobody wants to spend their holiday starring at my ugly mug, but I’d rather be certain.  The villas are amongst the most exposed I’ve ever experienced.

From what I could tell, the villas were constructed out of recycled toilet paper and the lighting system was designed by the Jigsaw Killer.  My last ounce of remaining pride is having never phoned reception to get help in turning the lights off, but by god I was close.  Given another minute, I either had the choice to burn the room down or phone and I couldn’t tell you which one I’d have gone for.  Are the activities so boring here that Treasure Hunt the lights is the only way to add some excitement?  It’s possible and just in case you find that too easy, the sliding doors – all that stands between you and an army of drones – don’t often close properly and cannot be locked, so the wind bashes against them and creates a noise similar to a lawnmower chomping some puppies.

If the wind doesn’t get you, next up are your neighbours listening to music, or the ocean.  Every morning, as the tide came in around 2am, I was awoken by what sounded like an Etch A Sketch made of ballbearings being rattled inside my brain.  It would keep me awake for 3 hours every night, enough time to go over everything else I hated about the villa.  I would have snuck into another room and watched TV, but the AC is only within the kitchen and bedroom whilst the humidity was so high that even with all the fans on in the living area, we were sweating like Boris Johnson near a lie-detector test.  I could never spend more than a few minutes around the bathroom, as it has no door on it and the shower has some novel gaps, so neither are bug free zones.  If bugs are your thing, there is an outdoor shower, but it’s so public that you would get arrested if you used it, or promoted to head of PR for Soneva.

“If you could just stand here and wait for Hello magazine to arrive”

And then they saved the best until last: it leaked.  The geniuses managed to build a resort almost entirely overwater, yet didn’t make it waterproof.  I’m not talking a little drip of water, I mean the type of leak that normally happens on Christmas Eve, can’t be fixed for 3 weeks and results in Christmas dinner being a BBQ in the snow.  Water got into the dressing room, toilet and soaked our living room after heavy rain. A living room shower was not on the feature list, but what a surprise. It will disappear later and reappear whenever – surprise!

I don’t want to shit all over their no-plastics-in-sight parade, so let me say this: the room is actually the second best quality of Soneva Jani. I actually liked it, in many aspects, but the negatives outweigh it to such a degree that even the faint praise I will give it may not come across as sincere as I’d hope.  It is the only property we’ve stayed in that has a dedicated dressing area; the use of glass on the floor to reveal the lagoon is very novel, with it even used in one of the toilets; the space and seating areas are considerable; they do have AirPlay available and also have an incredibly novel way of hiding the TV within a luggage case, plus an extensive library of over 700 movies.  There is a lot of space here; enough to add a small room behind the bedroom that I can only assume is for hiding from the oppression waiting for you.

Cruise control

All the staff were on cruise control.  Maybe there’s the equivalent of SAD for the Maldivian’s, but related to rain?  There had been an unusual high rain prior to our arrival.  Quite a lot during our stay too, but that was mostly tears.  The service never once gave the impression of a luxury hotel.

Let’s head back to our Mr. Friday.  After his desire to tell us of his past indiscretions, he made us aware of how he had to turn his phone off previously due to a guest frequently calling.  My hotel nightmares memoirs were shaping up nicely.

On the first day, Jani were offering a buffet on the beach, something that appealed as much as cholera.  It started well, with canapés on the beach, as well as their professional photographer taking pictures.  A nice touch, we though, and it suddenly made sense why they had an empty photo frame as a gift in our villa.  Yet three times I ask for an alternative to the buffet and each time I have staff arguing back with me to question why I would want anything but, like their buffet was some Henry VI infamous banquet that will be spoken of for millennia.  I cannot recall the last time I had to ask for something so simple and get nowhere close to a resolution.  My dinner that evening ended up being some cheese and tomato bread.

The next day we’re booked for lunch, over at Crab Shake, the restaurants at the furthest point of the island.  With it taking over 15 minutes to cycle to, oh how we laughed on the way there that it would be funny if they only sold crab, seeing that I have a shellfish allergy.  Of course, we found only 2 dishes I could eat, both fresh fish, and they didn’t have any.  Somehow a resort in the Maldives had run out of fish, which is like Dubai running out of sand.  This time we decide we’re leaving and receive more attitude from the staff.  Their attitude and naivety or carelessness around allergies was staggering.  We had to do a double take, when the chef approached me to ask me if I can eat crab, after I once again reminded them I couldn’t eat shellfish.  Then they started asking me about every single dish and if I could eat it. “Soy sauce ok?”, “Salmon ok?”, “Lemon ok”?  Yes, I’m not a plant.

On the way to Cinema Paradiso, we decide this time we’re getting a buggy to take us.  They take us to the wrong restaurant, then on the return the buggy breaks down.  I swear if you asked them the time they would have got it wrong.  I cannot emphasis enough about how little attention anyone paid here; nothing was proactive, but even reactive would often end up being wrong. You only hear proactivity if they’re arguing with you.  Where they deliver, they would find a way to get it wrong, such as delivering fruit, but then leaving it in the fridge and having it decay. There was one consistent: asking our room number at every opportunity.  The number one priority is to ensure that they can bill, then everything thereafter is a nice-to-have.

The GM would make the rounds at times, but management was sorely missed. Apparently all the managers were away on Fushi doing training at the time (probably learning how to bulk hire new staff), but to see such a failure when management is not around, whilst nothing new, is a sad sign of trouble. Even when they returned on our last day, they still couldn’t get it right as the chef came to ask if he could make us anything for lunch and had to tell him 5 times we were leaving that morning.

Birthday surprise

I already knew to lower expectations when dealing with the Jani Life Management Team.  Their only suggestions forthcoming for my wife’s birthday were their activities brochure, that had all the excitement of a lecture on narcolepsy, ran by a narcoleptic.  Just to lower them even more, our Mr. Friday went through the itinerary and it was entirely wrong.

Absolutely no effort was put into her birthday – not even a “happy birthday” from the Mr. Friday, not any room setup, nor anything special for the in-villa dining I organised. All that was waiting in the room were two leaflets, one for a massage specialist and another for a photographer – both are the same person.  Does that mean he photographs you as he touches you?  I couldn’t say.  We came back to the room in the evening, just to find the old pizza still there.  It takes ages to get the food, then even longer to get rid of it.  After phoning about this, we were told the villa would not be setup until we ordered the food, like it makes any difference at all to what we’re ordering.  If we ordered an English Shepherd’s pie, would they have localised it by having some Yorkshireman shout abuse at us whilst we ate it?

As we complain and ask them to setup the room, along comes someone else and he brings 6 candles with him.  It’s not exactly Tōrō nagashi.  Then as they do turndown a cake arrives.  Our stay list highlights our dislike of dark chocolate, so you can guess what it was made of, it may as well have just been a note that said: “here is a complimentary bag of shit”.

The food?  It’s a solid:  “that’ll do, pig”.  The breakfast buffet is one of the most extensive you will see, but it’s everything, yet nothing at the same time.  I end up eating a strawberry yoghurt and cornflakes, and if you want anything from the a la carte it’s either an egg, an egg or an egg. No one ever offered to help carry anything back to our table, so forget any help if you do happen to enjoy the spread-over-2-floors buffet.  The Gathering is mostly simple dishes, like chicken burgers and pizza, and whilst we’ll never know about the quality at Crab Shake, Cinema Paradiso, their Japanese restaurant, wasn’t bad. The problem with Japanese, and notably sushi, is that it looks like the easiest food to make, whilst the reality is it being amongst the most challenging and they never achieve anything similar to Japan or major cities, like London.

Even if the food was gods gift, getting it would be the problem.  Our first lunch took an hour, only for it to be wrong; second lunch took over an hour, for it to be wrong, so we ask them to send it to the room instead and a further 30 minutes later it arrives.  At this point we decide to complain, which of course results in no one ever calling back or acknowledging it.  The Gathering was always empty, so what were the kitchen so busy doing most of the time?  Maybe they thought we were on “full bored” as their strategy was to bore us into not ordering.  Ok, I’ll get my coat

The conspiracy

Everyone loves a good conspiracy.  Weinergate, IceCreamGate and the lesser known Watergate.  Here’s mine: Soneva Jani is paying people off like they’re a Ukrainian politician. They seem sequestered from reality and nothing said that more than the GM’s response to this was to ask that we don’t go public.  Can you guess what we said….?

I give you Exhibit A, another happy customer on FlyerTalk.  Two years ago they went public with their issues, most of which now sound greatly familar, only to take down the review after they were compensated and invited back.  Luckily for you all, I’m a deeply irritating person, so at the time found a back-up on a Russian search engine so the review could live on forever.  How great it was to read it again and compare notes.

This behaviour is nothing new and of course if someone can rectify your issues then removing the original complaint is a fair response, but being asked it during the first complaint we made, as well as seeing similar issues raised 2 years ago, makes me deeply suspicious as to how bad the issues here are.  Five GMs in 2 years doesn’t suggest all is well in paradise.

Getting the hell outta here

That empty photo frame they originally gave us?  Turns out that was the gift.  We reminded our Mr. Friday of the photos taken on the beach, to which he grabbed his phone and AirDropped them to me.  Of course, this is Soneva, so even clicking a few buttons was too much and I was sent an additional photo of someone’s child.  I will cherish that photo of that chubby little kid for the rest of my days.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and an empty photo frame is just that. Still, it could have been worse and it could have been an attempt to sell the villa, just like at Fushi.

Our Mr. Friday had clearly had enough of us.  He almost took one for the team and stopped this review going live, by upgrading from assault to murder, as he was reversing on the pier and almost took us all out as one of the wheels went over the edge.  Being in Soneva Jani felt like the end, but I wasn’t quite literally ready for it.

Facilities

Island

  • Cinema Paradiso. Hats off, this is a cool place; a cinema next to their Japanese restaurant, so you can watch a film whilst either eating or laying down – ideally both
  • Crab Shake
  • Water Sports
  • Tennis court

Jetty

  • Spa
  • 2 floor boutique with changing room; jewellery shop; some art shop
  • Kids club
  • Gym
  • Cheese / wine / chocolates
  • Small ice cream area
  • Observatory deck

Worth Knowing

The resort is split into two areas: overwater and main island.  The Gathering is where all the facilities overwater are held, including their restaurant, where the seats are so far apart it’s like they were for the niche of divorcees who decide to go on holiday together.  The island is in the distance range of “can I really be bothered?” multiplied by Cinema Paradiso and Crab Shake being at the end of the 2.2km stretch of land.  Just like Fushi, they’ve kept with the jungle feel, which makes me feel like I’m in Predator and being hunted, yet this time it’s by millions of mosquitos.  With such huge space, I still cannot figure out why every time they took us to the other end of the island we passed through the staff facilities, but I could probably go work there now as we saw it so often.

The place may – and likely will –  be unrecognisable in 12 months time, when it doubles the number of rooms and a larger spa is built on the island (currently it’s in The Gathering).  Unlike most properties that open and gradually change over time, I can only assume cashflow is an issue here and they need to go slowly, but it means your stay between now and next year could be completely different and I fail to see how it would be for the better.

More people, less sun to go around.

The Good

  • Cinema Paradiso
  • The lagoon

The Bad

  • Service
  • Villa
  • Privacy
  • Food
  • Staff

The Luxurious

  • You read this, so don’t need to go

Conclusion 

Going to Soneva Jani is like entry exam into hell’s management.  Please answer this question: to make somewhere this bad, yet convince people to spend this much, what must you do?  How about put it in one of the most ravishing places on earth, whilst hiring every influencer on the planet to visit it and talk it up. Like other properties I’ve stayed, the marketing does the work and the property does nothing to back it up.  We’re always curious what properties consider to be their competition, so the first warning sign should have been no one else in the Maldives considers Jani.

I’ve learnt something from this though: I dislike environmental lodges.  Hold your horses, Greta, let me explain.  I hate when it’s used as an excuse for everything.  I bet they can justify not bothering to answer the phone because it uses electricity and is poisoning some goldfish in Bora Bora.  How else can they justify the leaking, if not for requirement of using some material made from compost or something equally as nasty?  At Soneva Jani, you’re left with a property badly built, with terrible service, boring activities and mediocre food.

Now I should add that in light of all this, the GM did invite us back.  I’m not sure the terms of that and whether it’s for 3 nights, 30 or unlimited and we can move there, but we declined. You wouldn’t invite Captain Scott back to the South Pole, would ya?  Why would we want to return to somewhere that has twice shown exactly the same issues?  Some were uncanny, right down to the a buggy breakdown in both properties, which makes me think they’re not bugs, but features.

I have stayed in worse hotels, but on a per dollar spend this is the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune of being in.

Why Travel With Us?

  • We Get You

    As members of the same privileged communities we serve, we know what it takes to deliver extraordinary experiences.

  • Connections Count

    Dorsia Travel is always up to speed on the best places to go - and the agency’s clients are always assured the warmest of VIP welcomes.

  • Hands-on and Honest

    We deliver expert recommendations and guidance with unwavering honesty so you can enjoy the best experience with your friends and family.

Your Journey Begins Here

While every trip is fully bespoke and completely unique, Dorsia Travel doesn’t charge its clients fees; trips typically start at US$2,500 per person per day.

Contact Us

Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 22nd Dec '19

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

More About Tom