Warm clear seas, tropical vistas and utter luxury: say hello to an overwater bungalow or villa vacation in 2023.
Detached villas that seem to float above the sea, these stilt-mounted structures bring the sea to and around you. One of the world’s great luxuries, overwater bungalows are (naturally) found in some of the world’s most exclusive places, including Bora Bora and Mo’orea in French Polynesia, and Maldives.
“It’s completely unique,” says Beverly Hills–based travel advisor Leah Winck of First in Service Travel. “You’re on stilts in this house in the middle of the ocean, completely surrounded by water. There is nothing in the world quite like it.”
Winck recalls her first unforgettable experience in Bora Bora almost 30 years ago, where her villa had a glass-bottomed floor. “I lay right on it, and could have spent hours watching the fish, and all the sea life directly below.”
“The Bali Ha‘i Boys”
Overwater bungalows were first conceived in 1962, when three young Californians decamped to Mo‘orea and opened a hotel called Bali Ha‘i, in honor of the island James Michener anointed “a jewel of the vast ocean” in his iconic Tales of the South Pacific. (It was later revealed he was writing about present-day Vanuatu.) A few years later, the “Bali Ha‘i Boys” were running another hotel on Ra‘iatea, and set off on building free-standing structures that would mimic the shacks hovering above the water where local fishermen passed their days. Thus, the launch of the world’s first overwater bungalows.
Today there are approximately 9000 of these private villas worldwide (1000 in French Polynesia alone) at about 250 separate resorts. The vast majority – about 6000 – are in Maldives. They range from such charming and exquisitely appointed thatched structures as those at Le Bora Bora in Vaitape (some of which have private pools) to bold, cutting-edge design wonders like the the ultra-exclusive Waldorf Astoria Ithaafushi’s Stella Maris Ocean Villas, which float invitingly over the warm Arabian Sea. Many have private butlers, and all have incomparable views of the vibrant sea below and the sky and horizon beyond.
According to Roger Wade, of Sungazer Media and OverwaterBungalows.net, many island and coastal resorts are adding such bungalows to properties in Central America, Indonesia, Mexico and the Caribbean. But purists may have to venture farther for the ultimate magic. Wade considers the two Sandals resorts in Jamaica and the one in St Lucia “some of the best in the world” – but, he adds, “few of the resorts outside of the South Pacific and Maldives are set over calm lagoons with steps into the water. So to get that experience you really have to head to the original places,” he says. “Being able to swim under your own bungalow is on another level.” As is blissful isolation on what seems a completely private island, but which is actually a full-service resort.
The ultimate post-pandemic indulgence
Especially after COVID-19, travelers are seeking transformative journeys to far-flung locales, looking not just for adventure. They want something unique and special, perhaps a profound sense of privacy as well as wide-open space.
On all these new priorities, an overwater bungalow delivers.
“Now, people want to pay top dollar for experiences,” says Winck. “Because most of these resorts that offer overwater bungalows also offer an echelon of service that luxury travelers appreciate – and nowadays almost expect.”
With this worldwide craze for a limited number of private bungalows, demand is far outstripping supply, especially in the more accessible Caribbean. “The tricky part is finding availability,” says Sarah Key, owner of The Keys to Travel (affiliated with Gifted Travel Network). “If you want a full week in an overwater bungalow, you have to book at least a year out.”
While this kind of trip can be prohibitively expensive, bargains (at least for the villa itself) aren’t unheard of. According to Wade, you can stay in an overwater bungalow in Maldives for as little as $300 a night, and one in Fiji for as little as $400. But keep in mind that it can be pricey and time consuming to get to these remote places. “Most of them are out of reach in cost, so they remain a bucket-list or honeymoon goal for most of us.”
With that in mind, here are a few bright spots in the white-hot universe of overwater bungalows.
1. Meeru Island Resort, Maldives
Every resort in Maldives is set on its own private island, since there are 1190 coral islands in the archipelago. The stunning and (relatively) affordable Meeru Island Resort has an all-inclusive option for their Jacuzzi Water Villas, with more amenities than much more expensive resorts.
2. Le Bora Bora, French Polynesia
The thatched overwater bungalows at Le Bora Bora by Pearl Resorts in Vaitape are plunked right atop the crystal-clear lagoon. All have shaded decks from which to observe the green landscape and dramatic, volcanic peaks.
3. Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives
Wade considers the 18,000-sq-ft Private Reserve at Maldives’ Gili Lankanfushi “the ultimate overwater bungalow experience.” Only a 10-minute boat ride from Male airport, this peaceful and spectacularly lovely resort has 45 264-sq-ft overwater villas, each with a private infinity pool.
4. Sandals South Coast, Jamaica
About 90 minutes from Montego Bay, Jamaica, Sandals South Coast is an all-inclusive resort, which raises its booking price considerably. It’s worth it, though: an overwater bungalow is an entirely new way to experience this lush country, thanks to the combination of superb service and exposure to the natural world of the always-desirable Caribbean.
5. Bawah Reserve, Indonesia
“Six pristine islands, 13 beaches and three lagoons,” is how the Bawah Reserve in the remote Riau Archipelago in the Anambas Islands, Indonesia, bills itself. An eco-resort fully powered by solar energy, its 11 1130-sq-ft overwater villas stand right above the warm shoals of the South China Sea, with their ideal conditions for snorkeling and diving.
6. Avani Goldcoast Sepang Resort, Malaysia
As one of the most economical choices for the overwater-bungalow experience, rooms at Malaysia’s Avani Goldcoast Sepang Resort start at about $115 per night, and its 392 villas here are easily accessible from Kuala Lumpur Airport. With views out across the Malacca Strait and the island of Sumatra on the horizon, the sunsets are spectacular from these authentic if simple private villas.
7. Four Seasons Bora Bora, French Polynesia
The Four Seasons Bora Bora makes all the “most beautiful hotels in the world” lists, and for good reason. Modeled after traditional Polynesian huts, the accommodations here have stellar views of Mt Otemanu and (of course) the aquamarine ocean. Of the 108 overwater bungalows, 27 have private pools.