The overwater bungalow is a staple of barefoot luxury resorts around the world — those thatched roof wooden huts are tailor-made romantic hideaways for a permanent “Do Not Disturb” sign. Yet the now quintessential honeymoon accommodation isn’t some folk tradition co-opted by canny hoteliers. Rather, it’s a complete invention — and the first one was built more than fifty years ago.
They conjure up images of dream holidays in far-flung lagoons, and over water bungalows were invented in French Polynesia on an island off the coast of Tahiti. Here’s a closer look at the history of these hotels that are as exotic as they are iconic.
In 1963 three Californians – Hugh Kelly, Muk McCallum, and Jay Carlisle – fell under the spell of French Polynesia.
Unfortunately, the trio’s intitial plan foundered: the land they bought wasn’t suitable for farming vanilla, as intended, so they scraped a little extra money together to buy a four-room hotel ramshackle.
With no prior experience in tourism, they opened two more hotels called Bali Hai on two of the Society Islands, Moorea and Raiatea. Because Raiatea has no sandy beaches, the three business partners had the ingenious idea of placing their rooms … over the sea! Rooves thatched from pandan leaves and pillars made from coconut palm trunks … they were inspired by traditional Polynesian homes and fishermen’s cabins to build bungalows on stilts so that they were clear of the water. It was a look that soon became the destination’s signature.
Cradled by the rhythm of the waves, slip into the water in total privacy from your bungalow’s terrace and swim or explore the seabed in flippers, mask, and snorkel. Watch the sunset with your feet dangling over the water, and watch the fish swim by in the lagoon, visible through your room’s glass floor. And who could refuse breakfast delivered by pirogue?
Today water bungalows are widespread throughout French Polynesia and in Moorea and Bora Bora in particular. Spa, private pools, attentive service… They provide luxury accommodation often in equally luxurious establishments, with a backdrop of lush, verdant mountains and peaks. In an ironic twist, the island where over water bungalows were invented has none left.
As overwater bungalows became synonymous with luxury tourism in the tropics, developers began placing them wherever conditions permitted, especially in the Maldives.