The overwater bungalow — that iconic symbol of the paradisiacal tropical vacation, standing in clear blue water on stilt legs — turns the big five-oh this year. The thatched huts, often outfitted with such luxury amenities as plunge pools and glass floors to better see the fish below, are a staple on the bucket lists and Pinterest boards of aspirational travelers the world over. Yet their origin lies in a surprisingly prosaic exercise in problem-solving.
Back in the ’60s, three tanned, party-hearty California kids — Hugh Kelley, Don “Muk” McCallum and Jay Carlisle — left their 9-to-5s in pursuit of their tropical dreams in French Polynesia. Opening hotels on Moorea and Raiatea, the trio was dubbed the Bali Hai Boys, after the mystical island in James Michener’s novel “South Pacific.”
Carlisle, now in his 70s, reminisces about those days:
“Our Hotel Bali Hai on Moorea thrived with its beachfront property, but Hotel Bora Bora on Raiatea struggled,” he says. “It didn’t have any beaches.” A serious problem, indeed. “Inspired by the vernacular thatched-roof fishing huts,” he goes on, “Kelley derived the idea of building bungalows on concrete stilts out on the bay, providing direct access to the lagoon. We drilled down by hand; there were no electric drills or anything. We did all of the work.” That was in 1967.
The trio assured the government that the stilted bungalows wouldn’t damage the environment. “We built small docks that extended out into a flat place in the lagoon and attached them to pylons, “ Carlisle said, “The coral grows around the pylons and attracts the fish.”
They built three bungalows “with Plexiglas on the living room floor so you could see the reef below.” That feature soon became known as “Tahitian TV,” a must-have in any overwater bungalow.
People liked the bungalows, so the Bali Hai Boys built six more. And then another three. Then other hotels in the region started copying them. Even though the originals were never luxe, they ignited a revolution in posh hotel architecture, and French Polynesia became synonymous with tropical glamour.
Today, with the other men’s children, Carlisle oversees the Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel, the smallest and last of their properties. (McCallum now lives on the U.S. mainland, and Kelley died in 1998.) The hotel remains quite rustic, and Carlisle insists that he has no plans to change that.
The other original resorts are long gone, but in their place is a global industry of overwater bungalows.
“By my last count, there were 165 total resorts in the world with close to 9,000 overwater bungalows,” says Roger Wade, who runs OverwaterBungalows.net.
The true overwater bungalow tends to have one thing: turquoise, swimming-pool-esque waters. They can’t be exposed to waves and tides. At the Four Seasons Bora Bora, the South Pacific boasts what is consistently rated as the world’s best.
“We’ve taken the overwater bungalow philosophy introduced by the Bali Hai Boys and have introduced the next level of design, comfort and luxury,” says hotel spokesman Brad Packer. Each bungalow provides two outdoor living areas, one for sunning and one for dining, soaking tubs built for two, and glorious views of Mount Otemanu at every turn.
That said, you’ll find the preponderance of overwater bungalows — two-thirds — in the Maldives. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia have them as well.
Resorts closer to the United States have been feverishly developing overwater bungalows over the past few years, with Jamaica, St. Lucia, Belize, and Mexico all offering the overwater experience. And some, according to Wade, are on par with those in the South Pacific, including Jamaica’s new Sandals Royal Caribbean and the El Dorado Maroma in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Both are luxurious, offering infinity pools, outdoor showers, two-person Jacuzzis and, of course, the glass-floored living room to view the tropical fish. The main difference, Wade is quick to add, is that while these new Caribbean bungalows are set in very clear bays, their waters don’t compare with the crystalline lagoons of the South Pacific or the Maldives.
Other destinations have what Wade describes as “eco-resorts” that take the overwater concept to rivers and lakes. You’ll find them in Guatemala, Panama, even Honduras. “They’re not quite the same,” Wade says. Meaning, they don’t have the beautiful, clear waters that make the South Pacific bungalows so alluring. Nevertheless, they offer the sublimity of being suspended overwater.
According to Wade, the demand for overwater bungalows shows no signs of diminishing. “Resorts have popped up in Qatar,” he says, “even Africa has a couple, in Kenya and Mozambique.”
There aren’t any in the United States — yet. In the meantime, with the 50th anniversary in full swing, including special anniversary packages being offered by hotels around the world, Carlisle admits that the Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel is not noting the occasion.
“I didn’t even know about the anniversary,” he says. “I guess we’re not doing anything special.”
No need. They did that 50 years ago.
More from Travel:
Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel
BP 8, Maharepa, Moorea 98728, French Polynesia
The Club Bali Hai Moorea is the Bali Hai Boys’ fourth hotel, dating to 1982, and the only one still remaining in their island empire. It’s definitely rustic, even a little dated, but that’s the way Jay Carlisle, who still oversees the operations, likes it. The overwater bungalows here are the least expensive in the South Pacific. Rooms from $260 per night.
Four Seasons Bora Bora
BP 547, Motu Tehotu 98730, French Polynesia
The epitome of honeymoon happiness, these luxurious bungalows include plasma TVs, WiFi, marble bathrooms and jaw-dropping vistas of the gin-clear lagoon or Mount Otemanu. Some have a private plunge pool and glass floor panels offering aquarium-like views of tropical fish. The 50th anniversary package, including $2,200 in resort credit on stays of six or more nights and a “make your own mai tai” kit,” is valid through the end of the year. From $855 per night.
Sandals Royal Caribbean
Mahoe Bay, Montego Bay, Jamaica
This newly opened, all-inclusive resort for couples has luxurious overwater bungalows that include a glass floor for up-close fish viewing, soaking tub for two, over-the-water hammock, private infinity pool and private butler service. From $3,080 per person per night.
El Dorado Maroma
Carretera Federal Cancun Tulum Km. 55.3, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Another all-inclusive, adult-only resort, these Riviera Maya overwater bungalows (also called Palafitos-Overwater Bungalows) have glass-bottom floors, private infinity pools, outdoor showers, indoor Jacuzzis for two and a deck with supreme sunset views over the water. A personal concierge will help you arrange beachy activities. The resort also has an overwater spa and overwater grill and wine bar. From $665 per person per night.