A brass symphony shatters the quiet as the Star Wars theme song booms through the twilight, the anticipation building into a spine-tingling crescendo. The floor opens like a missile launch on the Death Star and Eleos rises from the darkness.
"Welcome to the biggest game of peekaboo you've ever played in your life," astronomer Mike Dalley says. "This is the only observatory like it in the world, you're never going to see anything like this again."
I'm in the Maldives at the brand new Soneva Jani resort, and Eleos – a shiny $30,000, 16" Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope – is my unlikely dinner date. And she sure knows how to make an entrance. Mounted on a six-metre, custom-built mast that's more at home in warships than over-water chalets, Eleos is something of a metaphor for a property that is out of this world.
Opened in Noonu Atoll at the end of 2016, Jani unfurls in symmetrical curves across the Indian Ocean – an immense 1.7-kilometre ribbon of timber boards connecting just 24 villas. The centrepiece is The Gathering, a gargantuan, three-storey cavernous structure – the largest of its kind in the Maldives – that serves as the wining and dining mothership. The proportions of everything here are epic. The lagoon, measuring 5.6 kilometres, is the largest in the Maldives. The entry-level villas are the biggest. There are five islands that inhabit the lagoon, the largest of which, Medhufaru, is connected to the resort by that over-water highway Soneva calls a jetty. If there were measurements for sand purity and water colour, Jani would be off the charts.
Arriving by speed boat from its sister property, Soneva Fushi, Jani appears like a Super Star Destroyer hovering on the horizon. As we near, the water shifting through every hue of aqua in the Microsoft colour wheel, it's clear my Star Wars references are askew. But for the over-water locale, Jani looks more like the Ewok colony on planet Endor, what with its timber ramps, spiral staircases, minarets and enchanting rondavels. The cutesy hedgehogs dotted along the jetty (for brushing off sand, not that some guests' feet ever touch the ground) fits the narrative.
Where Fushi is down to earth and understated – with its luxurious villas hidden in the forest – Jani is flashy and superlative-inducing in its design and dimensions. The villas, ranging from one to four bedrooms, each has a 13-metre private swimming pool running the entire length of the living and sleeping quarters, fringed by glass bi-fold doors. It doesn't matter that the whole structure is over a lagoon with possibly the most inviting water you will ever encounter. There is a sunken lounge with a glass porthole floor, an outdoor bathroom with a large tub, a rooftop terrace and a retractable roof over the master bedroom for stargazing in bed. Some of the villas have private waterslides into the lagoon, while the rest of us have to contend with taking a rather public slippery dip on the slide by The Gathering.
"There are lots of ladders everywhere," Lana, my delightful Ms Friday butler (of Robinson Crusoe fame) says as she shows me around my villa. "We just want you to get into the lagoon." Happy to oblige. If I'm not wet, it seems Soneva Jani wants me horizontal. Catamaran nets with floating cushions are slung over the pool, numerous daybeds furnish the villa – including one in the bathroom that resembles an oversized fluffy pillow – and sun loungers vastly outnumber guests. Even The Gathering is replete with over-water nets, recliners, swinging seats and day beds that are tucked in hidden pockets among its labyrinth of mezzanines, staircases and glass bridges.
Soneva is all about the "slow life", an ethos rooted in the notion of "intelligent luxury", which loosely translates to wellness, fun and sustainability. The latter is not just lip service. At the flagship resort, Soneva Fushi, 80 per cent of materials are recycled on site at the innovative waste processing centre, Eco Centro. A similar facility is nearing completion on Jani. In The Gathering, disks of recycled glass made in Fushi's glass studio are stacked into bar stools, and 14,000 teak leaves imported from Thailand line the ceiling. Fruit, herbs and vegetables are grown on Medhufaru, which used to be a working farm, and water is desalinated on site. The hosts (there are no "staff" here) play jazz to the drinking water before it's poured into glass bottles. It's got something to do with enhancing the molecular structure. "When I first heard it, I thought it was bogus," says Lana, a petite early 20-something with a beaming smile and cheerful disposition. "In Soneva the water is happy, it makes you happy."
The creators of all this happiness are husband and wife owners Sonu Shivdasani (a British-Indian businessman) and Eva (a former Swedish fashion model). They'll see to it that your preferences are known before you arrive – soap fragrance, wine, pillow (there are a dozen styles to choose from). The couple prefers you don't leave plastics behind and encourages guests to turn Wi-Fi off at night, for health's sake. And they're rather fond of the adverb "so". It's used liberally to describe Soneva's culinary offerings and experiences: the complimentary cheese, charcuterie, ice cream and chocolate rooms are "So Cool", the food "So Fresh", and the wine-pairing tasting sessions "So Imaginative". Within a few hours I have a few of my own: So Decadent, So Spoilt, So Amazing.
Then there's So Starstruck, a three-course observatory dinner and intimate sky show served on an elevated, over-water platform set under the glistening heavens. Dalley, a self-confessed space nerd and Australian expat, formerly of Ayers Rock Resort, speaks with almost biblical zeal as he teases glimpses of Saturn and Jupiter from Eleos, while the tropical breeze tickles the hairs on the back of my neck. They're standing on end. So star struck.
Later, Lana chaperones me in a golf buggy, past scurrying mud crabs, to Cinema Paradiso, an over-water silent cinema at the far end of Medhufaru (it's a little too far to ride my villa's bike). Sonu prefers the old classics, but tonight '80s Hollywood star power lights up the screen. I lie back on another one of those ubiquitous loungers with popcorn, a glass of sparkling and petit-fours. I have the cinema to myself. Lana tucks a blanket around my toes as Tom Cruise shakes his first cocktail in the movie of the same name. Flying mixers, spirits and glassware illuminate the gulf of water between my snuggly toes and the screen as music pours through my headphones (we wouldn't want to disrupt the nesting turtles). So Surreal.
That night I flick the switch inside my bedside table and the roof peels back, revealing a glittering canopy of stars. I lie transfixed by an in-bed view normally associated with swags in the outback, as the ocean's breath keeps harmony with my own. Shortly before dawn I wake with moonlight dancing off the covers. I look up and the roof cavity is orbiting a bright, gleaming orb. In a few minutes, I'll slide out of bed straight into the pool.
So not ready to leave.
Fly to Male via Singapore Airlines and take a 40-minute seaplane flight with Trans Maldivian Airways direct to Soneva Jani. (If it's your honeymoon, Singapore Airlines will surprise you with champagne and cake.) See singaporeair.com and transmaldivian.com
Soneva Jani has 24 over-water villas and one four-bedroom island retreat. All villas have private pools and direct lagoon access, and some have waterslides from the upper deck. Prices start at $US1870 a night. You can combine your visit with a stay at Soneva's flagship resort, Soneva Fushi, about 1½ hours from Jani by speedboat. See soneva.com/jani
Catherine Best was a guest at Soneva Jani and travelled with the assistance of Singapore Airlines.