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Cruise on a boat villa

Soneva Resorts launches a two-cabin yacht with crew members including a spa therapist and a chef

Eco-luxury Soneva Resorts group will launch its first "boat villa" at its flagship resort Soneva Fushi in the Maldives next month.

The 20m-long, 6m-wide yacht, called Soneva in Aqua, will be the first of what Soneva Resorts plans to develop into a global aqua-resort, with 20 boats located around the world in destinations such as Indonesia and Thailand.

The two-cabin yacht will cost $5,000 a night and take a maximum of four guests.

Six crew members will tend to the guests. They include a spa therapist who doubles as a housekeeper; a Mr Friday, who will be an entertainer and expert in such topics as astronomy, wine and water sports; a dive master and a dedicated chef.

Guests will be able to cruise around nearby islands for four hours a day while enjoying onboard facilities such as a master suite with shower facilities and a glass sunken bath, a raised sun and dining deck, a lower-level bar, library, dining area, lounge seating and a jacuzzi. An additional lower-level sun deck is ideal for spa treatments.

The people behind this bespoke yacht charter are husband-and- wife team Sonu Shivdasani and Eva Malmstrom Shivdasani, who run the Soneva group of spa resorts. He is the chief executive and chairman, while she is the creative director. Indian-British Mr Shivdasani hopes these boats will fit the niche between luxury liveaboards and mega yachts for wealthy executives.

"We found that more than half of the people renting yachts for $100,000 to $150,000 a week were only using two of the five or six cabins," he says in an interview with Life while in Singapore as a guest speaker at the Julius Baer Next Generation Summit about global trends earlier this month.

The hotelier couple opened their first resort, Soneva Fushi, in the Maldives' Baa Atoll in 1995, championing a back-to-basics concept that melded luxe hospitality with environmental sustainability.

In 1995, they also started the spa and resort management company Six Senses, through which they popularised the spa resort concept now ubiquitous in Asia. After seven years, they sold the business for an undisclosed sum to private equity investment firm Pegasus Capital and returned to their eco-luxury roots.

In addition to Soneva in Aqua, the couple are launching Soneva Jani, a new resort with 24 one- or two-bedroom water villas in the Maldives in October next year.

The resort will be built over water within a lagoon of six islands. Villas will be connected by a jetty to the clubhouse, but the nearest island will be half a kilometre away and only accessible by boat to minimise the resort's environmental impact.

Mr Shivdasani feels luxury hospitality is becoming institutionalised and is at risk of becoming homogenous. When hospitality brands such as Accor and Starwood Hotels, which announced a US$12.2-billion (S$17.2 billion) merger with Marriot International last Monday, focus on asset-light, hotel management structures, many of their hotels begin to look and feel the same, no matter where they are located.

Brands such as the Starwood- owned W Hotel risk becoming the Hilton and Conrad hotels of the 1920s and 1930s, he says.

The answer is a return to family- run businesses such as Soneva, which is a blend of both his name and his wife's.

On where luxury travel is headed, Mr Shivdasani says that having a celebrity chef restaurant or bar in a hotel no longer cuts it, simply because these can so easily be found in cosmopolitan cities around the world.

"An air-conditioned, marble- floored designer restaurant with a branded chef is expensive. It might be attractive, but it's not a luxury because you can get that every day in London, Paris or New York.

"If you're living in the city and you're living quite a stressed life, you're normally entertaining all year, it is nice when you go on holiday, you can be on your own with your family. Walking barefoot becomes a luxury."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Cruise on a boat villa'. Print Edition | Subscribe