By John O’Ceallaigh
In travel writing, the word “unique” is misused almost as much as “iconic”, but it slots in nicely when describing The Muraka. While some other hotel suites and villas, such as The Manta Resort’s Underwater Room in Tanzania and Atlantis Dubai’s aquarium-facing Underwater Suites showcase life below the water’s surface, nothing comes close to the extravagance and immersion offered by this knockout abode at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.
I was the first guest to spend the night in The Muraka after its opening in late 2018, and I doubt I’ll ever stay anywhere like it again. A split-level villa with its acrylic-roofed master bedroom set on the ocean floor five metres below sea level, The Muraka stands away from the rest of the resort at the end of a slender pier, looking at first glance like a Palm Springs-style bungalow afloat. Guests who spot it from a distance would have no reason to assume it includes another underwater level. All that indicates the property’s standout attribute is a discreet emergency escape valve that cuts just above the sea’s surface.
With the villa coming in at 550sq metres (5,920sq ft), the overwater floor is immense and already contains everything most guests might require in order to enjoy a truly extravagant stay. Alongside two generously sized bedrooms and standalone staff quarters, it offers a spacious lounge and dining area with bar, an infinity pool and expansive terrace that also serves as a yoga deck. The larger upstairs bedroom includes a striking standalone half-sphere bathtub that offers 270-degree views of the ocean.
Should the little elevator that descends from the upper level to the ocean floor prove too claustrophobic, guests can also make their way to the master bedroom via a spiral staircase. That first glimpse of their underwater bedroom should leave even the most privileged, seen-it-all-before guest giddy, breathless and likely a little bit nervous.
At the end of a corridor which connects to the glass-walled en suite on the left and a walk-in wardrobe on the right, the bedroom internally is mundane. There’s the predictably comfy bed flanked by bland banquette seating and, just beyond, a nook with coffee table and two chairs set towards a curtained, cinema screen-style window. That’s about it.
What’s remarkable is everything that surrounds it, with the curved acrylic roof providing an uninterrupted view of the sea life that is still so incredibly abundant here despite the Maldives’ reefs having suffered so severely in recent years from coral bleaching. Walking in, I was transfixed by the shoals of fish drifting overhead as I walked beneath them and over the two nights of my stay I admired iridescent bluestripe snappers, goofy-looking parrotfish, and darting tangles of tiny silver fish that swished overhead like murmurations of starlings during day and resembled streaks of shooting stars when illuminated by moonlight at night.
Particularly special moments came at dusk, when I was awed by the experience of watching the sun set from the ocean floor, dry and cosy and with a glass of Ruinart in hand. Cutting through the sloshing water, golden shards of light cast bright beams of celestial light on my bedroom floor; the spectacle was remarkable. As darkness took over, the pulsating, multicoloured spotlights that are embedded into The Muraka’s exterior caught the eye of passing sealife and I found myself engulfed by a kaleidoscopic throng of luminous fish. Another incredibly special moment.
It’s experiences like these that the Conrad team hope will convince the world’s wealthiest travellers to dismiss the many other standout signature villas on offer at the Maldives’ best resorts, though interestingly the development hasn’t quite attracted the premium the team seem to have initially expected. When I stayed in November 2018, rates were listed as $50,000 per night. Now the resort is quoting starting rates of $20,955 per night.
Muraka rates include seaplane transfers, the services of a private chef and access to a customised bar, and various other privileges will await the villa’s VVIP guests over the course of their stay. However, this unprecedented launch begs the question as to why such a high-end offering, representing a £11.5 million investment, has been incorporated into the inventory of a Hilton property that is perfectly pleasant but by Maldivian standards comes nowhere near the highest levels of luxury or prestige.
An understanding of the resort’s history shows the launch isn’t as incongruous as it initially appears. Hilton has always been something of a pioneer in the Maldives, becoming the first international hotel brand to debut in the country, back in 1997, and this was also the first Maldivian resort to launch overwater villas. More significantly still, the property debuted Ithaa, the world’s first underwater restaurant, in 2005 and its challenging construction process and subsequent success provided the knowledge and inspiration for the development of an underwater hotel suite that would be completely unlike any other resort room in the country.
The PR value alone of the worldwide publicity that surrounded The Muraka’s launch has already paid back a chunk of that initial investment, and draws attention to a lingering Maldives shortcoming. For all the country’s immense beauty and the calibre of its luxury resorts, many of them are more or less the same. While I’ve enjoyed my many visits to the Maldives’ best resorts, universal programmes of dolphin-watching cruises, candlelit beach dinners and generic spa experiences make it hard to distinguish one property from another. Rich holidaymakers who dismiss the likes of Velaa Private Island for a stay at The Muraka will experience an encounter unlike any other, one that’s truly unique.
You can find out more about The Muraka via the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island website.