KEY LARGO, Fla. — In the two months since Jules Undersea Lodge opened, about 65 guests have dived five fathoms under the turquoise-green surface of Bora Bora Lagoon to spend a night in the world's most unusual hotel.
The youngest was 9, the oldest was 70, and one of the most enthusiastic was Virgil Reece, a 60-year-old stockbroker from Tulsa, Okla., who visited the hotel off Key Largo Sound in mid-December.
"For a scuba diver it's the greatest thing in the world," said Reece, who began diving as a Marine in World War II. "I was as excited as if somebody said I could go up in the space shuttle. Not very many people get to spend 24 hours underwater."
Jules is the only underwater hotel in the world and is dedicated to giving humans a fish-eye view of the ocean.
80% Occupancy Rate
"It's not a new idea. Jules Verne wrote about it," said Gary Gerberg, scuba instructor, marine entrepreneur and hotel president.
Reservations for the lodge are projected to be near 80% by the summer, and Gerberg and his associates are already looking ahead to similar underwater hotels, especially in the Caribbean.
"We're onto something hot here," Gerberg said. "The world really wants to get more involved in the oceans."
The Florida hotel, named for the author of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," is carpeted in ivory with gray and maroon furnishings, sleeps up to six people at a time and costs $300 a night.
There are two 8-foot by 10-foot bedroom chambers with berth-style beds. A larger middle chamber holds a kitchen and dining area, and a padded maroon banquette that converts to a near-double-sized bed serves as a third bedroom.
The chambers are connected by large round hatches, suitable for swinging through, and 42-inch portholes give every room a unique ocean view.
The furnishings are compact and the efficient use of space is evocative of an over-large recreation vehicle, except you won't see an underwater sunset or a lobster parade from a Winnebago.
Each room has a stereo and videocassette recorder, with a tape library that includes "The Blue Lagoon" and "Beneath the Twelve-Mile Reef."
Guests check in by swimming down to the hotel from a floating wooden platform, breathing through regulators and hoses that carry air from the surface. The hoses eliminate the need for cumbersome scuba tanks and provide an unlimited air supply for exploring the two nearby barnacle-covered boats sunken in the lagoon.
To enter the hotel, guests dip under a metal wall and surface in an indoor "moon pool" where a yellow plastic duck bobs on the surface. Once in the pool chamber, or "wet room," visitors hang up their masks and fins, shower off the salt water and change into dry clothing.
The bottom of the hotel is 30 feet--five fathoms--below the surface, deep enough to make the ears pop but shallow enough that visitors can stay an unlimited time without risking decompression sickness, known as "the bends," when they surface.
"We have to leave open the possibilities of our guests wanting to return to the surface at any time. There just is no way anybody could get into trouble at five fathoms," Gerberg said.
Guests are advised to pack no more than would fit in a carry-on suitcase. Towels and terry-cloth robes are supplied, and wardrobe requirements are limited to bathing suits, warm-up suits and wetsuits in the winter.
"The experience is really to go down and stay on the sea floor, not to come back, change clothes and go out discoing," Gerberg said.
Luggage is ferried down in waterproof black plastic suitcases with 50-pound lead weights on the bottom.
Cigarettes, aerosol cans and plug-in appliances are forbidden. Aerosol sprays could foul the air, and plug-in appliances run the risk of creating a spark--not a good idea in the pressurized, oxygen-rich air.
'Out of This World' Trip
Guests pay a hefty $300 each in groups of four, or $250 each in groups of six, including the meals they usually cook themselves for just one night.
"It's not cheap, but it's a trip that's out of this world," Gerberg said.
The cupboards and refrigerator are stocked with snacks and meals, which the guests choose when making reservations and cook using instructions in a microwave oven.
Menu offerings range from filet mignon and lobster tail to waffles and submarine sandwiches.
From inside a "command center" trailer on shore, employees monitor the arrival chamber by television, and guests can keep in constant contact with the shore through telephones and VHF radios.