The first overwater bungalows in the world were built in the Islands of Tahiti in 1967, on Raiatea, by three Americans who had moved there, opened hotels, and wanted to give guests direct access to the lagoon. More were soon built at hotels on Moorea and Bora Bora, and voila, a lasting travel trend was born.
But finding a simple bungalow stilted over the water seems impossible now. Overwater options have evolved into palatial, highly designed suites with infinity pools and private terraces, coupled with promises to provide, plan, and create any experience for guests. You can even sleep underwater in one! (See Conrad Maldives Rangali Island below.)
The Maldives, a nation of more than a thousand tiny islands south of India and Sri Lanka, is home to many of the best overwater bungalows in the world and quick access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
Pro tip: As with many of these far-flung trips, it helps to have a travel advisor or agent assist with the booking. They know the latest COVID protocols in your destination, and can secure perks on arrival like a bottle of champagne in-room or early check-in. If you plan to DIY, we’ve included booking information as well.
Le Meridien Bora Bora, French Polynesia
After you’ve canoed, sailed, scuba dived, and visited the resort’s sanctuary for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, you’ll be ready to recline on your patio for a view of the extinct 2,300-foot Mount Otemanu volcano. —By Brendar Brady, for the September/October 2010 issue of AFAR
Cayo Espanto, Belize
For an easier getaway from most American cities, Cayo Espanto—just off the coast of Belize in Ambergris Caye—has six beachfront villas and an extra-special one-bedroom bungalow with a private dock. Luxury travel company Scott Dunn recommends it especially for the world-class scuba diving experiences in the Belize Barrier Reef, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. If scuba isn’t your thing, try the snorkeling, fly fishing, jungle trips, and tours of Mayan ruins for a bit of historic context.
Arctic Bath, Sweden
The Lule River in Swedish Lapland may not be bath-warm like the Indian Ocean, but to experience a floating hotel here is like nothing else. Arctic Bath, a member of Small Luxury Hotels, offers a standout experience with six overwater cabin options. It’s remote and cozy, outfitted with contemporary Scandinavian textiles and architecture, and it offers a special base for experiencing the Northern Lights—and the healing ritual of a cold bath and sauna at the spa.
Cheval Blanc Randheli, Maldives
As expected from a LVMH-owned Cheval Blanc property, the 30 overwater villas here, out of a total of 46, were impeccably designed by Jean-Michel Gathy, a French-Belgian architect who specializes in luxury hotels. Set in the Noonu Atoll in the northwest Maldives, each villa here has its own infinity pool, multiple private terraces, and a shaded outdoor dining area, something akin to an overwater bungalow mansion.
Cheval Blanc is also home to a “spa island”—a literal island with treatment pavilions, a boutique selling Guerlain products, and a bar serving healthy food—plus a tennis island with two courts, and the spectacular Cheval Blanc Randheli Private Island.
Joali is an art-focused, 73-villa resort that opened in 2018. Each overwater villa has its own infinity pool, outdoor rain shower, and hammock and is adorned with carefully chosen, eco-inspired artwork like those featuring manta rays or underwater coral. Fancy a fresh passionfruit smoothie each morning? Your villa also comes with its own smoothie maker (and coffee machine, of course). The Spa by ESPA offers full fitness and wellness programs, including spin and HIIT classes.
Sustainability is also front of mind here: Choose to offset your carbon footprint with Joali’s offerings or learn about the hotel’s coral garden and nursery.
Kudadoo Maldives, Maldives
Kudadoo is a fully solar-powered private island with just 15 overwater residences, designed with a Japanese aesthetic by Yuji Yamazaki. The resort is fully committed to sustainability, including protecting local green sea turtles and manta rays, sustainably sourcing wood and ecoluxe bath amenities, and investing millions in solar power, which has reduced carbon emissions substantially. Much of the produce is grown on nearby islands, and food is sourced as responsibly as possible.
It is fully inclusive, and its guest service promise is an “anything, anytime, anywhere” concept, achieved with the help of private butlers. Staff have been known to welcome guests by singing their favorite songs on arrival, arranging an American barbecue under the moon at 2 a.m., and setting up outdoor movies and photo sessions.
Raffles Maldives Meradhoo, Maldives
With the glossy service of Asian hospitality brand Raffles, this corner of the Maldives feels especially luxurious and idyllic with 22 villas. The colonial-meets-seaside feel evokes the design of its famous flagship sister, the Raffles in Singapore (think blue-and-white striped awnings and bamboo ceilings). The overwater residences with two bedrooms and private pools are a massive 3,229 square feet and have the most panoramic views at the tip of the lagoon, with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Conrad Maldives, Maldives
Conrad hotels, a boutique extension of Hilton, went all out with the overwater—and underwater—Muraka Villa at Conrad Maldives. Sixteen feet below the water’s surface is a bedroom with its own bathroom and television—though you’d probably spend most of your time staring at the fish surrounding you. Plus, there are three other bedrooms, a suite for in-laws or friends, and a private kitchen, gym, and personal butler.
Four Seasons Bora Bora, French Polynesia
AFAR readers named the Four Seasons Bora Bora the “best resort for an epic stay” in its last AFAR Travelers’ Awards. Here’s another reason to choose the Four Seasons Bora Bora: It has just introduced an extended stay program, offering complimentary nights, transfers, meals, and more. “Extended” and “epic” are exactly what we need right now.
There are a total of 108 overwater bungalows—27 with private pools—but the most over-the-top option is the Otemanu Overwater Bungalow Suite with 1,576 square feet of space, a private plunge pool, and views of both the lagoon and Mount Otemanu. The overall design was inspired by a traditional Polynesian village, so it feels perfectly at home in the South Pacific waters.
Bawah Reserve, Indonesia
Stay in one of 11 overwater bungalows at the all-inclusive Bawah Reserve in the Anambas Islands, Indonesia. The rate even includes one spa treatment per person per day, and plenty of activities, like kayaking to the 13 beaches and two lagoons. (They also have a “stay seven nights, pay for six” promotion.)
All suites were designed with recycled wood and recycled copper bathtubs. Staying here also contributes to the Bawah Anambas Foundation, which aims to help support the 45,000 people living across the 200 islands of the Anambas, through marine conversation, education, and financial support.
Bawah Reserve is best tacked on with a stop or stay in Singapore—it offers easy transfer packages (via driver, ferry, and seaplane).
Pangkor Laut, Malaysia
The privately owned island of Pangkor Laut, off the west coast of Malaysia, is a favorite of luxury travel company Scott Dunn, which arranges activities like watersports and daily guided rainforest walks for clients. Out of 140 room options—many built into the rainforest—the overwater suite options are the most appealing, with sea and spa villas, plus two signature suites. Couples may want to opt for a spa villa, with direct access to the resort’s Spa Village, home to an adults-only pool and treatments inspired by China, Japan, India, Thailand, Bali, and Malaysia. There are three “nap gazebos” at the spa—where you can sleep, meditate, or read—but it might be easier to stay in your overwater bungalow for that.
Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia
The overwater villas at Cambodia’s private island, Song Saa, are another pick of luxury travel company Scott Dunn. For clients staying here, the company arranges diving, snorkeling, visits to traditional Cambodian fishing villages, and wellness programs with yoga and meditation.
Located within a marine reserve in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago, Song Saa is home to abundant marine life—including seahorses, turtles, and octopuses. Song Saa also offers opportunities for guests to get involved with its Song Saa Foundation, which focuses on conservation work and marine life preservation.
The Mandina Lodges, Gambia
These floating bungalows and rooms on stilts lie on a tributary of the River Gambia, 45 minutes from the West African coast in the Makasutu Culture Forest. Venture out by canoe in search of the monitor lizards, baboons, and myriad bird species that inhabit the surrounding mangroves. —By Brendar Brady, for the September/October 2010 issue of AFAR
Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, Panama
Off Panama’s Caribbean coast on Colon Island, these palm-roofed cabins perch over a stretch of aquamarine sea. The surrounding Bocas del Toro archipelago is home to sloths, howler monkeys, and scarlet dart frogs.—By Brendar Brady, for the September/October 2010 issue of AFAR
This article was originally published on January 25, 2021. It was updated on January 13, 2022, with additions.
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