IS THERE ANY VACATION fantasy as durable—and rarely realized—as the one where you’re sprawled out on the deck of a cushy bungalow perched above the sea? If you’re determined to stop merely dreaming, the website overwaterbungalows.net lists some 165 resorts around the world, from Panama to Malaysia, that offer variations on the room-on-stilts.
Purists, however, may want to stick to French Polynesia where the first such bungalow hotel was reportedly erected some 50 years ago, off the island of Raiatea. Inspired by Tahitian fishermen’s huts, resort owners hit upon the overwater bungalow as a nifty way to reel in guests if you don’t have a beach. Or even if you do: Over the years, even the dozens of white-sand properties that encircle the islands of Bora Bora and Moorea built guest rooms perched over lagoons and placid bays. The cost of perching tends to be steeper than that of lodging on terra firma, but you’re also likely to spend more time in an overwater bungalow, which delivers all the benefits of a yacht without the pitch and roll. Here, four modern approaches to the life aquatic.
Conrad Bora Bora Nui
This former Hilton re-emerged as a 114-room Conrad resort last year after a $45-million renovation. It sits on 16 terraced acres on Motu To’opua, a coral islet inside the Bora Bora atoll and its uninterrupted stretch of white-sand beach is impressively long.
OVERWATER ROOMS: 88, including a pair of two-story “Presidential Overwater Villas” that sleep up to six people in two bedrooms. If six feels like a crowd and you can live without your own butler, the standard overwater bungalow should suffice. Even the smallest ones offer 1,249 square feet and when you tire of sunbathing on your deck—or in the catamaran nets doubling as hammocks above the water—just dive right in. The plentiful, healthy corals and relatively deep water here guarantee some of the best snorkeling in Bora Bora. (Twenty rooms also come with plunge pools.) The teak sleeping quarters are also big on tech, with a Bluetooth speaker by the bed and a TV that rises from the foot and spins 360 degrees, which means you can also watch it from outside. Resist the urge.
PRIVACY FACTOR: Moderate. The resort’s one shortcoming: With all of that tech (that swiveling TV, another Bluetooth speaker outside), your neighbor might take full advantage of it.
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH ALONE TIME: Borrow one of the resort’s bicycles and explore the grounds. On Tuesdays, take one to the Tamure Beach Grill for its weekly Polynesian show with fire and hula dancers.
BACK ON LAND: The resort is large enough to merit six dining options, including Upa Upa Lounge Bar, where the glass floor panels let you watch reef sharks swim beneath your table. From about $845 a night for overwater rooms, boraboranui.conradhotels.com
Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora
What makes Bora Bora famous is its lagoon, and no resort has a better location. Set on the slender barrier islet of Motu Piti A’au, it faces the 2,385-foot volcanic peak of Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora’s highest mountain.
OVERWATER ROOMS: 100, 15 with private plunge pools. Built in 2008 from tropical woods, the bungalows aren’t the most modern, but there’s a sizable pampering factor: You can use the Four Seasons’s app to summon a golf cart if you don’t want to walk farther than your deck.
PRIVACY FACTOR: High. Unlike those at other overwater resorts, the bungalows here are farther apart, situated along two walkways.
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH ALONE TIME: Book one of the resort’s Manta Ray and shark snorkeling safaris on a motorized outrigger canoe.
BACK ON LAND: In the evening, order the grilled spiny lobster at Faré Hoa Beach Bar & Grill, where the DJ plays music at a surprisingly civilized volume. Standard breakfast fare: fresh coconuts served with a straw. From about $1,234 a night for overwater rooms, fourseasons.com/borabora.
InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa
The focus of this resort, built in 2006 on the detached southern arm of Motu Piti A’au, is on the seawater coursing through and around it: “Thalasso” refers to “thalassotherapy,” therapeutic spa treatments that use seawater. Exhibit A: The cool air in your overwater villa, care of cold water pumped through an A/C system. Above the villa floors, glass panels slide open so you can feed the fish. Getting married? The sea will attend the ceremony, via a similar all-glass central aisle in the resort’s Blue Lagoon Chapel. Want breakfast in your room? Have it delivered by outrigger canoe.
OVERWATER ROOMS: 84, 14 with private plunge pools. Choose one of the 1- or 2-bedroom “Brando” suites where the bed overlooks a plunge pool that overlooks the lagoon, with a distant view of the mountain.
PRIVACY FACTOR: Moderate. Don’t be surprised to see inflatable floats cruise by your private deck—the resort doesn’t supply them but guests often bring their own.
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH ALONE TIME: Hit the sprawling Deep Ocean Spa, run by French company Algotherm, the only thalasso spa in French Polynesia, where three of its 14 treatment rooms also have floors of glass.
BACK ON LAND: Le Corail restaurant, nominally situated on land but overlooking the lagoon, has the largest wine collection in French Polynesia—Bordeaux and champagne are important liquids too. Dishes, like hibiscus flowers filled with lobster mousse and sea urchin, attract chefs from around the atoll after work. From about $667 for overwater rooms, thalasso.intercontinental.com
Manava Beach Resort & Spa, Moorea
Inexpensive overwater bungalows don’t exist in French Polynesia (or anywhere else), but you can save a few francs by skipping Bora Bora and the added fare of another plane ride, and opting for the 30-minute ferry from Papeete, Tahiti, to neighboring Moorea. Just outside the north shore village of Maharepa (conveniently near some of the island’s best surfing spots), Manava can get you ensconced overwater in little more than the 15 minutes it takes to drive there from the ferry terminal.
OVERWATER ROOMS: 28 (plus another 62 on land), all with “Tahitian TVs” (glass panels beneath the glass-topped coffee tables). The 18 premium bungalows are in deeper water, where the snorkeling is better.
PRIVACY FACTOR: Low. Avoid overwater bungalows 401 and 402, which you may find too close to the resort’s dive center, or any of the non-premium ones, which may be too close to the stand-up paddleboards, canoes and kayaks
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH ALONE TIME: Book a diving excursion at Manava’s scuba center; some sites are only 10 minutes away by boat.
BACK ON LAND: Rent a car to explore the heart-shaped island. It’ll take a half a day to circumnavigate its 37-mile coast, leaving you time for a lunch of poisson cru (fresh fish marinated in coconut milk and lime) at any of the beach-front restaurants on the island’s north shore. Also recommended: an upcountry stop at Belvedere Point, for views of Opunohu and Cook’s Bays, with the jagged spire of 3,960-foot Mount Rotui between them. From about $600 for overwater rooms, manavamoorearesort.com
The LOWDOWN / How Best to Reach French Polynesia
Getting There: Air Tahiti Nui flies to Papeete, Tahiti, from Los Angeles; Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu. On Oct. 30, United Airlines added its own nonstop from San Francisco. Air Tahiti flies from Papeete and Moorea to Bora Bora, as well as to other French Polynesian islands. All Bora Bora resorts run water shuttles from the local airport to their properties, with helipads on site as well. The Aremiti ferry runs between Papeete and Moorea, aremiti.net