November 25, 2011 10:01 pm

Savoy faire

A distinguished career in hospitality has taken Alan Thomas from south Wales to the Indian Ocean

It seems appropriate that Alan Thomas, who is based in the Baa Atoll region of the Maldives, should have grown up surrounded by the sound of sheep on his parents’ farm in Wales. Today baaing is replaced by the sound of dolphins splashing through the sea at the end of his garden.

The Maldivian island of Soneva Fushi is so idyllic and remote that celebrities such as Paul McCartney, in need of discreet R&R, head there to unwind. It is a holiday retreat for the seriously well-heeled – not that you will see many heels there because, in the name of relaxation, guests and staff are barefoot. Thomas, managing director of Six Senses resorts in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, sticks to the barefoot tradition despite the formative years of his career spent in the elegant formality of the Savoy.

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Thomas, 53, met his German wife Ute at the Savoy. They married in Hong Kong while he was working at the Mandarin Oriental. “It was a 15-minute wedding and a couple of nights’ honeymoon,” says Thomas. “She’s never forgiven me since, until we ended up in the Maldives.”

They have lived in the Maldives for 18 months and they love it, although they still hanker after life in San Francisco, where Thomas worked for three years. He has not been back to the UK for two years but his children Byron, 24, and Katarina, 21, regularly visit from their university lives, respectively in Bristol and Bath.

The white sand garden around the Thomases’ thatched bungalow is surrounded by rainforest vegetation, which shades the beating sun and provides shelter for creatures as varied as those on the island’s reefs. The laid-back atmosphere veils practical challenges of remote island living such as how to source drinking water and fuel, and they are solved with an eye to sustainability. The resort’s reverse osmosis desalination plant provides drinking water, and an increasing amount of solar power is reducing the amount of diesel that is shipped in.

Travel takes up about half of Thomas’s working life because he is involved in the opening, next year, of a new resort near Colombo, Sri Lanka, an hour’s flight from Male, the capital of the Maldives. He also visits resorts on other islands regularly, leaving Ute to do meet and greet duties.

“She has an ambassadorial role. For instance, she looks after schoolchildren visiting from other islands, many of whom may not have been off their own island before. They learn about composting, how to improve the soil. And we take them snorkelling with our resident marine biologist,” he says.

This is an unlikely career path for a farming boy from Wales. “I didn’t like farming and at that time farming was getting harder. I worked my way through school holidays with hotels, at the King’s Head in Monmouth and Beaufort Arms in Raglan. I started off cleaning the toilets because I was 16, so I couldn’t work in the pubs or the bars. When I reached 18, I started doing local hotels, serving in the bars.

“On the school noticeboard I saw an advert for the Reeves-Smith scholarship for the Savoy Hotel in London; and I thought, ‘That sounds quite nice.’ So I wrote an essay and submitted it.”

Thomas won the scholarship and spent the next eight years working at the Savoy and then Hôtel de la Paix in Geneva before heading off to San Francisco and, from there, to Asia.

The only regret that Thomas seems to have about his tropical life is that rugby is not played in Asia – and, apart from the BBC website, there aren’t many ways to watch it. It is a blow for a man who used to play for local teams in England – and who has followed international rugby throughout his life.

“There’s something about watching international rugby at Cardiff. You can’t replace it. There’s a tingling about it. Once, when I had connection problems during a match I was watching in Asia, I had to Skype my son in Bristol and get him to show me the match being played on TV in the UK.

“This September Ute and I went to New Zealand for the World Cup. It’s a sort of reward for being here, which is paradise – but it is hard work,” says Thomas, who supports London Wasps.

Despite the British sporting allegiances, Thomas and his family have an international mindset. His son was born in Hong Kong, his daughter in San Francisco. “We will probably always keep a base in England but we are struggling with the question about where to live when we retire.”

Last week the Thomases left the Maldives and transferred to Thailand’s Six Senses Hua Hin

Savills, www.savills.com/international or, for holiday lets, www.sixsenses.com

Jane Owen is the editor of House & Home. She was a guest of Six Senses

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Buying guide

Pros

● Where else can you live life with no shoes, shorts and a T-shirt?

● Peace, exclusivity and the best of western food and wine (all shipped in and at a price)

● Financially it works well. There is nothing to spend anything on, and non-doms are not taxed

Cons

● No rugby. No golf courses. No hairdresser

● If diving, beachcombing and being pampered doesn’t tick all your boxes, island life may become dull

● Buying property is challenging for outsiders and, according to some, rising sea levels threaten the islands

Buying in the Maldives

Very few properties are available to outsiders. A 34-year leasehold is the maximum allowed to outsiders, and properties currently start at around $2.5m. There is no guarantee about what happens at the end of the lease.

Sinking

In 2009 the Maldives government famously held an underwater cabinet meeting to flag up concerns about rising sea levels. However, not everyone agrees that there is cause for concern. Dr Nils-Axel Mörner, who has been studying the subject for 40 years, reckons there isn’t a problem. On the other hand, the highest point in the Maldives is barely more than two metres above sea level.

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