Overwater Bungalows: The History, Design & Experience

26 May 2015

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When it comes to an idyllic island stay and the ultimate ocean view, nothing says relaxation and luxury like an overwater bungalow. It’s where you can truly immerse yourself in the seascape without actually being at sea.

Also known as overwater villas or bures, you’ll find examples of this unique island accommodation dotted all over the South Pacific with the most popular destinations including French Polynesia, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Maldives as well as selected resort spots in Southeast Asia, Mauritius, and the Caribbean. With calm lagoons, powder white sands and aquamarine waters, the South Pacific is an ideal location for these luxury hotel rooms on stilts.

This image: Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa.

Origins Of The Overwater Bungalow

While you would think that this style of accommodation has existed for centuries, and certainly many cultures still reside in floating houses, the concept of overwater bungalows actually originated in the 1960s.

The French Polynesian island of Moorea was the first to introduce overwater bungalows to the world in the 1960s at the Club Bali Hai Moorea resort owned by Californian friends Don McCallum, Jay Carlisle and Hugh Kelley. The Bali Hai trio, as they are known, were influenced by James A. Michener’s 1947 novel, Tales of the South Pacific, which also inspired the musical, South Pacific. The resort’s popularity rocketed after a chance feature in the December 1962 issue of Life magazine, and the concept spread throughout Tahiti and the South Pacific, Maldives and eventually to the Caribbean in the 1980s. While the style may vary from location to location, the exterior of most overwater bungalows is usually modelled on the traditional village houses of the islands or area, and are connected to the main resort buildings and the beaches by wooden walkways.

This image: Aerial view of The St. Regis Bora Bora, Tahiti.


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Unique Features & Design

Now synonymous with romance, the humble façade of the underwater bungalow only hints at the bliss to be found within its walls where traditional designs and natural materials meet modern luxuries.

Overwater bungalows typically comprise thatched palm leaf roofs and handcrafted timber held together by sturdy bush poles and coconut fibres and anchored deep into the sand with concrete pillars. Inside, walls are lined with woven bamboo and furnished in the style of a 5-star hotel suite with all the requisite amenities. A major drawcard of the overwater bungalow is the planes of glass built into the floors (or glass coffee tables), dubbed 'Tahitian television', which allow an up-close look at the marine world below. Most of these one- or two-storey standalone villas will also have a private balcony where you can snorkel right from your deck. Choose a resort with overwater bungalows that hover over a coral garden to see the most diverse range of technicolour aquatic life.

This image: 'Tahiti TV' installed in the floor of an Overwater Bungalow at Le Meridien Bora Bora.

The Overwater Experience

Exuding intimacy and romance, it’s no wonder overwater bungalows are a popular choice for honeymoons and couple getaways, and a dream destination of many travellers.

The appeal of the overwater bungalow lies in their seclusion and unbelievably idyllic location coupled with personalised yet unobtrusive service. Caressed by balmy breezes atop a turquoise lagoon in a tropical island setting, you can wake to the sounds of water gently lapping at your doorstep, with breakfast brought to your bungalow by a flower-covered canoe. The private villas offer all the luxury amenities you would expect from a 5-star establishment such as stunning interiors that complement the exterior aesthetic, air-conditioning, plasma TV screens, music systems, king beds, and of course, those world-class ocean views from both inside and outside.

This image: A glimpse inside Club Med Finolhu Villas.

Here is where you can stay in an overwater bungalow:

Tahiti, Fiji, Maldives, Vanuatu, Mauritius, Cook IslandsCaribbean, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and Belize.

Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.