Hurawalhi, Maldives: Dining in the world's largest, Kiwi-made underwater restaurant
The world's largest underwater restaurant – designed and built by Kiwis - gave us quite the welcoming party.
A turtle, stingray, shark and pufferfish swam casually below the walkway heading to the restaurant. At the end of the jetty – a spiral staircase led us to one of the best experiences we've ever had.
Hurawalhi resort is the latest in a long line of jaw-dropping luxury retreats to open in the Maldives. And competition in the picturesque Indian Ocean archipelago has super-sized in recent years. We're talking things like private islands with butlers, even a two-storey overwater bungalow with a water slide from the roof.
But instead of going up, Hurawalhi went down. Five point eight metres below the surface to be exact. And it's worked in creating attention; making headlines around the world.
* Maldives: the best snorkelling on Earth
* Inside Club Med's ultra-luxurious getaway
* The Maldives travel guide: 20 reasons to visit
Our journey underwater started with a 45-minute seaplane flight from the country's capital – giving us a spectacular bird's eye view of dozens of the 1200 islands that make up the Maldives. With a bit of a rough thud, our plane came to a stop next to the tiny atoll of Hurawalhi.
Where is it? A few people were peering out the plane's small windows to try and find the island's star attraction. The only clue was a large building at the end of a jetty, and branching off that a small turret – home to the stairwell descending deep underwater.
The island is a celebration of all things luxury – forget staying on land, two-thirds of the rooms are lavish overwater bungalows. Below them, the ocean is teeming with fish; by far the best snorkelling we experienced in our month exploring the Maldives.
That brings me back to our welcoming party at the restaurant. A day after our arrival, we had a dinner booking underwater. The restaurant seats just eight couples, so is often booked a week or more ahead.
The romantically-lit jetty gently snakes 200m out to the edge of the coral reef, where the restaurant has been placed. We were late to our seating after being distracted by the turtle, shark, and stingrays, which provided the pre-dinner entertainment.
At the end of the jetty is an above-water restaurant, although your eye is quickly distracted by a nearby huge underwater glow. There it is! Hundreds of fish swarm in the light, feasting on small insects that are also attracted to the glow.
From there, you have two choices. Watch it all from the above-water restaurant, or spend the evening underwater. Option B is tightly guarded. Guests are only allowed a look underwater if they book a table – otherwise the glow is as close as you get.
So what do you miss out on if don't fork out the $385 per person to get past the door?
At the end of the walkway is a steep descending spiral staircase. Proudly sitting just off the side of the stairs is a cut-out of the acrylic that the restaurant's windows are made of. It's surprisingly thick (13cm) and before descending, each guest is told the restaurant was designed and built in New Zealand: sure to make any Kiwi proud!
The tight staircase down has 41 steps. Two large windows stop any feeling of claustrophobia on the way down, and there happened to be a large school of angel fish hanging around the first window – like curious kids at the entrance to a party, waiting to see who turned up.
At the bottom of the stairs, we popped through a small serving area to reveal what has to be one of the most spectacular settings for a restaurant anywhere in the world.
I must admit, I thought it would be a bit gimmicky; a bit like Kelly Tarlton's with a few chairs and tables. But it's nothing like it.
Huge schools of fish swarmed in all directions. From bright yellow to red, green and orange. We watched other diners walk in, and just like us, each couple stood at the entrance in silent awe of the setting.
The reef around the restaurant is home to 23 different types of fish, including a lazy octopus and two moray eels.
Seated at our table – it was almost impossible to concentrate on the menu. My nautical neighbour was the resident octopus, soon followed by dozens of other fish that wanted to take a closer look at me. I couldn't help but be amused at how the tables had turned. Fish finally have the chance to watch humans in a tank.
And it really does happen. A coral grouper hovered right next to my head for about 20 minutes, eyeballing me the entire time. Perhaps it wanted to know if I was eating his relatives. For the record, I took the non-fish menu. I thought it would be a little strange eating fish while being watched by them. After all, who sets up a table in the middle of a herd of cows and orders a slab of rump? I was clearly overthinking - everyone else had the fish.
The dinner menu was seven courses, and the food so visually impressive it was a temporary distraction to the show on the reef. It was also fashionably understated. The first course was simply described as 'diver scallop.' What emerged was spectacular.
The scallop arrived in a large clamshell with apricot puree, sliced almonds, black truffle caviar, three different types of seaweed, and a vinaigrette made into tiny pearls so it burst in your mouth. And there was a squid ink cracker on top. A little more than the simple seared scallop I was expecting.
And so it continued for each meal. The blueberry cheesecake was so deconstructed it looked more like an edible miniature Japanese garden. It came complete with tiny balls of blueberry coulis that, once again, burst in your mouth.
But the star of the night wasn't the food – it was the underwater symphony taking place in the reef that we happened to be sitting in the middle of. As the night progressed, large shadows started appearing in the dark turquoise. The small reef fish retreated much closer to the coral, as bigger predators started roaming for their evening meal. Suddenly, we diners weren't the only ones eating.
Next year Hurawalhi will have a special Kiwi guest. The restaurant was designed by Auckland based Mike Murphy and his team at MJ Murphy. At 69 years old, Murphy says he'll retire in 2018 and celebrate with a trip to visit his creation.
The restaurant wasn't just designed in New Zealand, it was also built in Taranaki by Fitzroy Engineering, so there are a few other Kiwis in the queue for a trip to experience it.
Murphy has a pretty impressive record in the Maldives. He designed the first-ever undersea restaurant, now 12 years old, at Hilton's Conrad Rangali Island resort.
That taught him many lessons. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 came within 30cm of entering the stairwell, so the barrier at Hurawalhi was raised even further in the new design.
If the average diner is anything like me – you simply don't give much thought about the design of the restaurant – other than reassuringly noting it doesn't leak and has great visibility.
But the design is a massive achievement when you consider what the 410 tonne structure had to go through. Imagine the stress and pressures it sustained when being trucked to Port Taranaki, a 19 day high-seas journey to the Maldives, being lowered into the water, being secured in place– then having to withstand ever-changing currents and the occasional storm.
For the restaurant to be put through all that, and not leak a drop – is pretty remarkable.
And it's for that reason New Zealand deserves a name-check at the top of the restaurant, just before diners descend. Our talented designers and builders have brought to life one of the best travel experiences on Earth.
More information See hurawalhi.com
Last year Brook Sabin (@brooksabin) and his partner Radha Engling (@globaladmirer) quit their jobs and sold everything to travel. They started a blog onflightmode.com and now call themselves fulltime travellers, making a living selling travel photos and video all around the world. Each week Kiwis in Flight will take you on their adventures.
The writer was a guest of Hurawalhi.