On a recent trip to the Maldives, my entire itinerary was planned around one single hotel amenity: an overwater bungalow with a built-in, two-storey water slide – never mind the bedroom’s retractable roof and the floating catamaran nets by the private pool.
Here more than anywhere else on Earth, it’s extravagant design features – rather than a convenient location or knockout restaurants – that make a hotel.
After all, you’re not in the Maldives to explore a new country. You’re there to feel like the world’s most glamorous castaway. Your hotel room is your destination; you’d better pick a good one.
Enter Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, which is shaking up the formula of Maldivian luxury with the region’s first-ever underwater bungalow. (You read that right.)
When it opens later this year, the Muraka, which translates to “coral” in the local language, Dhivehi, will have cost US$15 million to build – but the experience of sleeping 16.4 feet (five metres) below sea level can be all yours for a cool starting price of US$50,000 per night, before taxes.
What you will get
“The Muraka promises a unique experience that is not available anywhere else in the world,” architect Ahmed Saleem says.
And while it’s true that there aren’t many beds suspended below sea level – encased in glassy tunnels and surrounded by tropical fish – Saleem was more concerned with creating a full experience than designing a single, iconic room.
That’s why guests who book the villa get flown to their own private seaplane jetty and get picked up in a speedboat that’s theirs to use for the rest of their stay.
The suite itself is set apart from the Conrad’s beach villas and overwater bungalows so that its residents don’t have to see other humans – or set foot on dry land – during their entire holiday, if they don’t want to.
Four dedicated butlers live in a nearby structure to provide round-the-clock service, and everything –from a chef to cook your meals to a set of jet skis and an on-call fitness trainer – is included in the (hefty) price tag.
Guests are even upgraded to Diamond Honors Hilton status and given a 90-minute spa treatment per day.
The structure itself is made of steel, concrete, and acrylic, with one level above the water and another level below.
It’s more Trident castle than hotel suite, with enough nooks and crannies to sleep nine guests plus a gym, butler’s quarters, and space for a private security detail.
Yet not all the action happens under water.
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The top floor has two bedrooms, a bathroom with an ocean-view tub, a sunset-facing deck, and an infinity-edge pool.
Guests can descend below sea level either through a spiral staircase or down a lift.
There, nothing but a curved acrylic dome separates the king-sized bedroom and living area from the reef just beyond.
The bathroom, with its see-through walls and ceiling, feels like a bona fide fishbowl. Privacy isn’t an issue, unless the fish make you feel shy; the villa is far from the rest of the resort.
The deep underwater darkness – or simply feeling lost at sea – might be more unsettling.
A world’s first
Those with mermaid-like proclivities will know that Conrad Maldives Rangali Island isn’t the first to take on underwater residences.
In Dubai, the developer Klenienst has been creating a community of partially submerged homes called the Floating Seahorse within the cluster of islands known as the Heart of Europe.
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The project was announced in 2015 with a projected completion in 2016; yet, only three such homes have been finished to date.
According to a local news source, one of those sank near the Burj Al Arab, another “toppled into the sea while being transported onsite”, and the third has survived as a prototype that’s being stabilised with sandbags.
That’s all to say: creating a self-contained island residence with undersea sleeping quarters is challenging, at best.
Yet Conrad Maldives Rangali Island had some experience in that architectural arena, thanks to Ithaa, the resort’s famous underwater restaurant, where diners enjoy eight-course feasts below a see-through, acrylic canopy.
Still, Saleem says that “designing an undersea structure such as Ithaa and designing a sleeping and living experience is vastly different”.
Among his main concerns were safety. He says the restaurant is in shallow waters and is always fully staffed; evacuating from the Muraka in the event of an emergency may have to happen unattended.
A sophisticated air-quality monitoring and alarm system will help; so will safety instruction briefings like the ones you see and hear on aircraft.
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The scope of the project presented logistical concerns, too.
First, Saleem had to devise a lighting and design scheme that would not reflect off the acrylic walls. “We couldn’t use bright colours or variations of white, as that would reflect too much and impede the undersea experience,” he says.
He also had to work in tandem with marine biologists to ensure that the villa had no impact on the surrounding corals for which it is named.
Then the 600-tonne structure had to be built on land in Singapore, hoisted onto a crane, and transported in a specialised ship that could moor near the reef and submerge the suite in the ocean.
Even in the luxury friendly Maldives – where resorts are known to command some of the highest prices globally – this type of building is not sustainable as anything more than a one-off.
“There are no immediate plans to create additional undersea residences at this point,” Saleem says.
The bottom line
To Martin Rinck, who oversees Hilton’s global luxury and lifestyle brands including Conrad, the debut of the underwater villa is a way to stay ahead of the industry.
He says it is “a perfect example of the out-of-the-box thinking that meets guests demands before they even have them”.
To Saleem, meanwhile, it is a way to “come up with a unique Maldivian image” – or to have an advantage over the ubiquitous over-water bungalow with something even more envy-inducing.
Nowhere is it more important to drive these types of trends than in the Maldives, where about a dozen ultra-luxe hotels will open this year.
“The Maldives is indeed a competitive destination, but also a destination where guests expect the best,” Rinck says.
It’s also a destination for which travellers are willing to shell out for the best. The starting price of US$50,000 may sound like a lot to pay per night, but the region claims a handful of private island villas at comparable price points – and they’re popular, too.
Plus, after 20 years in the Maldives, Rinck says it is important for Hilton to stay apace with its newer, shinier competitors.
“We need to continue meeting the expectations of travellers looking for that ‘go big or go home’ experience,” he says.
It may not have a water slide, but it’ll probably do just fine.