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.
ST. REGIS BORA BORA, FRENCH POLYNESIA
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 ( stregisborabora.com; doubles from US$1,454).
LE TAHA’A ISLAND RESORT, FRENCH POLYNESIA
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 ( letahaa.com; doubles from US$1,670).
FIJI MARRIOTT RESORT MOMI BAY, FIJI
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 ( marriott.com; doubles from US$556).
COMO COCOA ISLAND, MALDIVES
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).
PANGKOR LAUT RESORT, MALAYSIA
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 ( pangkorlautresort.com; doubles from US$357).
SONG SAA PRIVATE ISLAND, CAMBODIA
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 ( songsaa.com; 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 ( sandals.com; 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 ( karismahotels.com; 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.anantara.com; 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 ( elnidoresorts.com; 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.