The Upgrade

Hospitality's Next Frontier: Underwater

A flurry of new openings pick up on a trend that began over a decade ago in the Maldives. Our columnist ponders the pleasures of life beneath the surface.

The submerged dining room at the Snøhetta–designed Under, in Båly, Norway.

I was recently engrossed by the 40-second time-lapse video showing the submersion of Under, the first underwater restaurant in Europe. Designed by Snøhetta, the entire project took three years to complete, with the 111-foot long periscope-like structure constructed on a barge off the coast of Båly, Norway. The footage captures the final day of maneuvering and anchoring as the elongated concrete monolith is submerged some 18 feet below the North Sea. 

An abundance of natural biodiversity provides Danish chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard plenty of inspiration for his artfully plated dishes that draw on the surrounding bounty, like local mahogany clams, traditionally used only as bait. As for “fitting contextually into its environment,” as my architecture professor Vincent Scully used to say, the roughness of the concrete exterior shell will support a natural evolution into an artificial reef. How’s that for blending into your surroundings? 

Mahogany clams at Under. The restaurant's above-ground dining room.
Under's 'periscope' exterior.
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The spa at Huvafen Fushi.

The journey of descending from land to sea is told metaphorically through the textile panels lining the oak staircase in shades that evoke the sun dropping into the ocean. To no surprise, the rectangular, 40-seat dining room trains focus to the massive rear window, which reveals the seabed. Another window infuses the pinkish champagne bar with sunlight muted by the ocean. First-time underwater diners will be appeased by the 18 industrial anchor points securing the restaurant to the sea floor.

Despite its gimmicky nature, it’s hard to discount the allure of experiencing life beneath the surface. My first encounter with underwater design came just two weeks after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. I arrived in the Maldives on assignment to cover the opening of Huvafen Fushi, a groundbreaking luxury island resort housing the world’s first underwater spa. At first, I politely declined the hotel’s invitation for a treatment, given the recent cataclysmic event. Eventually, I put on a brave face, and I remember being awed by the otherworldly show once I was down there. The only challenge, I wrote at the time, was resting my head on the massage table, so enrapturing did I find the busy flow of parrot fish, Napoleon wrasse, and, my personal favorite, Oriental Sweetlips.

Inside the underwater guest rooms at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. (Photos by Justin Nicholas.)

I liken the equatorial Maldives to a veritable laboratory of luxury, where almost every one of the 200-plus resorts occupies its own private Indian Ocean isle. Unsurprisingly, many of the most beckoning underwater lairs are built here. The Ithaa Underwater Restaurant at the Conrad Maldives Ranghali Island was the world’s first underwater restaurant when it opened in 2015. Sunken 16 feet under, the all-glass domed space seats 14 and serves such Maldivian seafood as titan triggerfish, baby sharks, and manta rays swish overhead. November’s opening of Muraka, the $15-million sleep pod designed by local architect Ahmed Saleem, made it possible for guests to stay beneath the waves. The duplex structure with calming interiors by Yuji Yamazaki is made of acrylic from Japanese aquarium manufacturer Nippura. The master bedroom is a veritable human fish tank, where schools of angelfish, parrotfish, and fusiliers provide tranquil scenery for anyone willing to fork over $50,000.

The InterContinental Shimao Wonderland occupies a formerly abandoned quarry outside Shanghai.

My sweetest underwater Maldivian memory was made at Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas, the 78-villa retreat in Ba’a Atoll, 35 minutes by seaplane north of the Maldives international airport and a short sail from Hanifaru, the UNESCO-protected lagoon where manta rays congregate. Here, too, visitors dine among the fish: The structure sits at the edge of a 130-foot drop off to the teeming house reef, optimizing the odds of seeing, as I did, a turtle flapping by during dessert.

A recent debut garnering global headlines is the InterContinental Shimao Wonderland, an ambitious resort inside a formerly abandoned quarry in southwestern Shanghai. Two floors housing a seafood restaurant and guest rooms are located beneath the man-made lake, with views into the hotel’s aquarium. A bit cheesy? Sure. But admit it, you kind of want to go. 

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