“My wife thinks it was a honeymoon, but it was really a reconnaissance trip,” says Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International. “It was like a dip in the water of what it would take to do this.”
Over the next decade, Sandals dove all the way in, adding a total of 38 overwater rooms to resorts in Jamaica and St. Lucia starting at the end of 2016. And the all-inclusive Caribbean resort chain isn’t finished: Stewart says that as the company considers new developments at various properties, it would look to add between six and 15 more structures over the water.
Sandals isn’t alone in the Americas, where operators in destinations from Mexico to Aruba to Walt Disney World are increasingly planting their own versions of the kind of water-top lodgings that originated in French Polynesia more than 50 years ago. Royal Caribbean International, the Miami-based cruise line, even added its own take: 20 floating cabanas that opened last month on its newly renovated private island in the Bahamas, CocoCay.
More than 200 resorts around the world offer some type of accommodations over the water, according to numbers compiled by Roger Wade, founder and editor of the online guide OverwaterBungalows.net. Wade started the site about a decade ago after coming across his first such property in Moorea a few years earlier.
“When you see a photo for an overwater bungalow, you say: ‘That’s the greatest thing ever. That’s the greatest hotel room in the world, why can’t I stay there?'" he said. “Then you find out it’s because it’s $800 a night, or higher.”
Wade says that once, travelers might have come across images of bungalows in brochures at a travel agency. Then they were popularized in travel and wedding magazines and films like the Bora Bora-set “Couples Retreat,” which came out in 2009. Reality TV wasn’t far behind.
“They’ve been portrayed as something glam in the media,” says Lin Humphrey, an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University who specializes in digital marketing, social media and travel. “‘Real Housewives of Orange County,’ I can’t remember where they went. They had overwater bungalows. Despite the raging hangovers, it looked fantastic.”
Now, the popularity of social media and influencers have raised their profile even more — and made the category seem more familiar and accessible, observers say.
“Basically, the Instagram era now has made pretty much everyone aware that these places exist,” Wade says.
And now with more locations close to the United States, geography is less of an issue.
Emily Jones, owner of a travel agency called Bliss Vacations in North Carolina, says she first booked an overwater bungalow for honeymooners about 10 years ago, though the distance and travel time made that an infrequent occurrence.
Now, she says, with closer Caribbean options available, she gets far more requests from clients who want “a quick getaway” for two or three nights.
The only problem, Jones says: “They get booked up so quickly. It’s really hard to find more than two or three nights available.”
The growth of the category in North America doesn’t mean the experience is getting any less exclusive, at least when it comes to price. Wade says there are some good deals in the low hundreds of dollars available in Malaysia, the Maldives and French Polynesia, but options closer to home for Americans tend to be priced much higher.
Jones says the least-expensive price for one of the Sandals bungalows in Jamaica was between $2,000 and $2,300 a night. Disney’s Bora Bora Bungalows, which opened in 2015 at the Polynesian Village Resort in Central Florida, start at about $2,600 a night at the slowest time of year. And Royal Caribbean’s floating cabanas start at $999 — which only includes the hours a ship is docked at the island.
“I think there’s incredible pent-up demand in the United States,” Wade says. He points out that geography and hurricane risks make it more difficult to add the structures in the Caribbean than in places like Bora Bora.
And the experience is different depending on the location too, says Greg Kiep, a Beverly Hills-based luxury travel adviser with Protravel International.
He says most of his clients who contact him about an overwater bungalow want to go to Tahiti or Bora Bora looking for the whole high-end package.
“I think it’s a combination between an exotic destination and having the pinnacle experience at that destination,” he says. “It’s sort of everything wrapped into one.”
The bungalows at Disney, Kiep says, are for people who want something different.
“You’re never going to compare the water by Disney World to the water in Bora Bora,” he says. “I think if anything, it’s maybe giving people a taste of something that’s been so aspirational for so long. I don’t think most people would compare it as the same experience.”