Call it a villa or a bun­ga­low, but the over­wa­ter ho­tel room has come a long way since its in­cep­tion in the South Pa­cific 50 years ago.


Over­wa­ter vil­las around the world.

Glass floors, but­ler ser­vice, in­fin­ity pools, pri­vate pa­tios with steps lead­ing down to an azure la­goon—these are just a few of the lav­ish touches we as­so­ci­ate with over­wa­ter vil­las to­day. But the con­cept of perch­ing ho­tel rooms above the sea has much hum­bler be­gin­nings. Back in 1967 in the So­ci­ety Is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia, a trio of Cal­i­for­nian en­trepreneurs known as the Bali Hai Boys de­cided to em­u­late the de­sign of tra­di­tional Tahi­tian fish­ing huts by cre­at­ing rus­tic over­wa­ter bun­ga­lows at their ho­tel on Ra­iatea, which lacked a beach but had a beau­ti­ful reef. The idea was not an in­stant hit. Still, the Amer­i­cans rec­og­nized its po­ten­tial and quickly im­proved on the for­mula in Moorea, build­ing larger rooms and in­sert­ing glass pan­els in the floors (“Tahi­tian TV,” they called it). The now-de­funct Ho­tel Bora Bora fol­lowed suit in the 1970s, adding 15 stilted bun­ga­lows to its reper­toire and charg­ing just US$65 a night for the priv­i­lege of sleep­ing above the waves.

The rest, as they say, is his­tory. The trend took off across the South Pa­cific and beyond, with ac­com­mo­da­tions grow­ing ever more lux­u­ri­ous as the decades passed. From the Mal­dives to Malaysia, Cam­bo­dia to the Caribbean, here are 10 resorts that best epit­o­mize the evo­lu­tion of the now iconic over­wa­ter villa.


In the ar­chi­pel­ago where it all be­gan, the St. Regis Bora Bora stands out as much for its gen­er­ously sized over­wa­ter bun­ga­lows as for its round-the­clock but­ler ser­vice. Backed by Mount Ote­manu and sus­pended over one of the most beau­ti­ful la­goons on the planet, the thatched-roof vil­las come with ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect in this part of the world: taste­ful Tahi­tian-in­spired fur­nish­ings, glass floor pan­els, whirlpools, and spa­cious out­door ter­races with di­rect ac­cess to the reef ( streg­is­b­orab­; dou­bles from US$1,454).


A 35-minute boat ride from from Ra­iatea, Taha’a is known for its vanilla plan­ta­tions, pearl farms, and jun­gle-clad moun­tains. It’s a dreamy back­drop for this in­ti­mate re­sort, set off­shore on the coral islet of Tau­tau. The Over­wa­ter Suites here are the epit­ome of Poly­ne­sian style, crafted from bam­boo and other lo­cal ma­te­ri­als and fea­tur­ing decks from which guests can kayak to and from their room ( leta­; dou­bles from US$1,670).


De­spite its boun­ti­ful nat­u­ral as­sets, Fiji has been slow to adopt the sleep-where-you-swim trend. Leave it to Mar­riott to make up for lost time. The group’s de­but Fi­jian prop­erty, which opened in April at Momi Bay, is the first to bring over­wa­ter vil­las to the main is­land of Viti Levu. Styled af­ter the lo­cal bure, they’re decked out with Fi­jian mo­tifs and nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als—sim­ple yet so­phis­ti­cated so as to not dis­tract from the eye candy out­side ( mar­; dou­bles from US$556).


Short on real es­tate, Mal­di­vian resorts be­gan build­ing vil­las over the wa­ter al­most three decades ago, and col­lec­tively they’ve pretty much per­fected the form. So it’s hard to sin­gle out a fa­vorite (for four daz­zling new­com­ers, see this is­sue’s Mal­dives fea­ture). That said, Co­coa Is­land in the South Male Atoll de­serves a shout-out here for its Dhoni Suites, the only over­wa­ter ac­com­mo­da­tion in the coun­try shaped like the tra­di­tional dhoni fish­ing boat. White-on-white in­te­ri­ors with pops of blue are the em­bod­i­ment of un­der­stated el­e­gance, while pri­vate ter­races al­low for easy ac­cess to the la­goon ( co­mo­ho­tels .com; dou­bles from US$810).


With its opening in the early 1990s, Pangkor Laut, the sole oc­cu­pant of a lush, 120-hectare is­land in the Strait of Malacca, was one of the first resorts to take the over­wa­ter con­cept beyond the South Pa­cific. There are hill­side and beach­side vil­las here as well, but the money shot has al­ways been the Sea Vil­las: pitch-roofed wooden chalets perched above a shal­low bay. Deck chairs are not the only place to soak up your sur­rounds; floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows in the bath­rooms mean un­ob­structed ocean views from the shower and deep soak­ing tub as well ( pangko­r­lautre­; dou­bles from US$357).


Nine of the 12 sal­vaged-tim­ber vil­las at Cam­bo­dia’s only pri­vate-is­land re­sort are set over­wa­ter, with a bare­foot-luxe ethos that en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from drift­wood tables and out­door show­ers made from tree trunks, to pri­vate pools and muslin-draped four-poster beds. Glass floors al­low guests to catch a glimpse of the marine re­serve that the re­sort has helped es­tab­lish in this cor­ner of the Koh Rong Ar­chi­pel­ago; snor­kel­ing gear is on hand for those who wish to get an even closer look (; dou­bles from US$1,790).

SAN­DALS ROYAL CARIBBEAN, JA­MAICA The five re­cently minted Over-the-Wa­ter Vil­las at the San­dals Royal re­sort in Mon­tego Bay are be­ing touted as the first all-in­clu­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion of their kind in the Caribbean. The Tahi­tian­in­spired digs fea­ture glass floors, in­fin­ity pools, Jacuzzis, and over­wa­ter ham­mocks, giv­ing you plenty of ways to take in the lim­it­less Caribbean views. (Even at night there’s some­thing to see, thanks to un­der­wa­ter light­ing.) The breath­tak­ing price tag in­cludes plenty of niceties, from un­lim­ited scuba div­ing and a bar stocked with top-shelf bev­er­ages to pri­vate boat trans­fers and, of course, the ser­vices of a but­ler ( san­; dou­bles from US$6,381). EL DO­RADO MAROMA, MEX­ICO The own­ers of this adults-only prop­erty on the Riviera Maya were in­spired by the an­cient Aztec city-state of Tenochti­t­lan, where homes were built on stilts over Lake Tex­coco. The re­sort’s 30 new Palafi­tos (Span­ish for “stilt house”) are the first of their kind in the coun­try, re­plete with lo­cal de­sign flour­ishes—think za­pote-wood fur­nish­ings, Mex­i­can white gran­ite bath­rooms, and palapa-style roofs—as well as out­door show­ers, pri­vate pools, and glass floor pan­els through which you can play Spot the Fish with­out get­ting out of bed. A but­ler is on call to ar­range ev­ery­thing from pic­nics on nearby Maroma Beach to spa treat­ments cre­ated ex­clu­sively for Palafi­tos guests ( karis­ma­ho­; dou­bles from US$1,330). ANAN­TARA THE PALM DUBAI RE­SORT, UAE In a city known for its lav­ish resorts, Anan­tara The Palm is sur­pris­ingly un­der­stated, its lowslung Thai tem­ple–style build­ings ar­ranged around three la­goons and edged by a white-sand beach. It’s a wel­come de­sign respite from other os­ten­ta­tious prop­er­ties that call the man­made is­lands of Palm Jumeirah home—though these do cre­ate a daz­zling back­drop for Anan­tara’s 18 over­wa­ter vil­las, which span 106 square me­ters and come out­fit­ted with win­dow-side spa baths ( dubai-palm.anan­; dou­bles from US$996). EL NIDO LAGEN IS­LAND, PHILIP­PINES North­ern Palawan’s re­mote Lagen Is­land is not the eas­i­est place to reach, but the jour­ney here is fast for­got­ten once you check in to one of the re­sort’s eco-chic Wa­ter Cot­tages and take in the panoramic views of Bacuit Bay. Ex­pect plenty of lo­cal char­ac­ter thanks to rich tex­tiles and the thought­ful use of tim­ber re­cy­cled from old Filipino houses. The real al­lure, how­ever, is the set­ting: bun­ga­lows are sur­rounded by more than 50,000 hectares of pro­tected for­est, jagged lime­stone cliffs, and hid­den bays and beaches ( el­nidore­; dou­bles from US$495).

Above, from left: On the jetty con­nect­ing Le Taha’a Is­land to its bam­boo-sided Over­wa­ter Suites; Ja­maica’s San­dals Royal Caribbean now sports Tahi­tian-in­spired over­wa­ter vil­las of its own, com­plete with pri­vate pools and 24hour but­ler ser­vice.

Above: The vol­canic peaks of Mount Ote­manu pro­vide a dra­matic back­drop to the St. Regis Bora Bora. Op­po­site, from

top: The over­wa­ter suites at COMO Co­coa Is­land take their shape from the tra­di­tional Mal­di­vian dhoni boat; in­side an over­wa­ter villa at Song Saa Pri­vate Is­land, Cam­bo­dia.

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