Tahiti’s Overwater Bungalows & the Bali Hai Boys
Imagine Tahiti—emerald peaks rising from vividly blue waters, islets ringed by immaculate white sand—and you’ll find it’s quite impossible to do so without throwing an overwater bungalow or two into the picture. The image of the thatched huts extending over dazzling turquoise waters has become the default picture that comes to mind whenever Tahiti is mentioned. There are of course other lovely accommodation options in French Polynesia, but the overwater bungalow experience has somehow become synonymous with the “Tahitian dream holiday” that is pretty much a staple in bucket lists and Pinterest travel boards. Not many sights can send romantic hearts aflutter faster than an overwater bungalow standing in one of the world’s most breathtaking lagoons.
How It All Started
One might think that overwater huts have existed for centuries considering its simple structure and the materials used are often found in abundance in tropical countries. Stilt houses along river banks have also been widespread in Southeast Asia and South America after all, so it’s a bit surprising to learn that this accommodation option so popular today has only been in the market for over 50 years.
It all started back in the ‘60s when three Californian guys decided to quit their 9-to-5 gigs, pack their bags and chase after the dreamy, magnetic images in James Michener’s 1947 novel Tales of the South Pacific, the very same thing that inspired the musical South Pacific. Jay Carlisle, Hugh Kelley and Don McCallum bought a 400-acre land in the small Tahitian island of Raiatea with hopes of cultivating vanilla. However, the land turned out not suitable for vanilla cultivation and the plan failed.
As a last-ditch effort, the three friends decided to pool their remaining resources and salvage a junky four-room hotel in Moorea in March 1962. They re-christened it as Club Bali Hai, a nod to Michener. The three—formerly a salesman, a securities trader and an attorney—had no idea about running a hotel but fortune favours the bold and Club Bali Hai got featured in the December 1962 issue of Life magazine, showing Tahiti as a mystical and beautiful destination and in turn staked the island on the map for travellers. The business boomed and the trio then became known as the Bali Hai Boys. With more funds, the boys were able to expand their resort business to Raiatea except for one problem: the property was right on the reef but there were no beaches. Inspired by the traditional fishing huts, it was Kelley who came up with the creative, practical solution of erecting three rooms on stilts, from which guests could directly access the lagoon and snorkel around the reef. “We drilled down by hand; there were no electric drills or anything. We did all of the work,” Carlisle recalls. Thus, the first overwater bungalows were born in 1967.
“We drilled down by hand; there were no electric drills or anything. We did all of the work."
There are now around 9,000 of the much-loved overwater oases in the world, scattered across 165 resorts and with Maldives and the Caribbean claiming huge chunks of the numbers alongside French Polynesia.
The Overwater Experience: Where To?
When you’re presented with hundreds of stunning and equally-tempting overwater villas, choosing where to spend the night can become a nerve-wracking exercise. Trim down the list with this rundown of the most-recommended overwater resorts in Tahiti, Moorea and beautiful Bora Bora.
Decorated in traditional Polynesian style and with spectacular views of Moorea, the InterContinental is a lovely option if you want to have the overwater experience without going far (not that Bora Bora is still far when you’re already in Tahiti). The airport, Papeete’s restaurants and central market are just a short drive away. The resort features two infinity pools, a dive centre, an outdoor aquarium and the Deep Nature Spa where you can relax after a tiring day or a long flight.
- Le Méridien Tahiti ****
Huge, modern and with direct beach access, Le Meridien is the perfect base from which to explore the island of Tahiti. Kill some time by the resort’s large sandy-bottomed swimming pool or by trying out some of the activities offered in the vicinity, including water sports and art classes and fitness classes.
Set against a mountain backdrop and rimmed by a white-sand beach, the Hilton is a perfect retreat for couples and families. The resort features a large infinity pool and Jacuzzi as well as three restaurants including an overwater creperie. With a day spa, tennis court and fitness centre in the vicinity, you’ll never run out of things to do in the Hilton.
Set on Tahiti’s turquoise lagoon, the Sofitel seamlessly blends modern facilities with traditional Polynesian architecture. It is located along a white-sand beach facing the island of Tahiti and its sandy-bottomed restaurant, “K”, is one of the resort’s highlights. Fancy a game of golf? The Sofitel is conveniently situated near an 18-hole golf course!
Located between the mountains and lagoon and close to shops and restaurants, the InterContinental makes for an exciting island getaway! Choose from a wide range of rooms and bungalows and have an epic time trying out the many aquatic an sports activities available. Don’t forget to drop by at the in-house care centre for sea turtles and the Moorea Dolphin Centre.
This charming boutique resort is a paradise from families and honeymooners alike. Perched near restaurants and shops and featuring a dazzling swimming pool, the Manava’s overwater bungalows in traditional Polynesian style are a more-than-welcome retreat after a day exploring the lagoon and local establishments.
The Four Seasons is five-star luxury at its best! Exceptional facilities await travellers at the resort including a state-of-the-art fitness centre with ocean views, a holistic spa, a lagoon-side swimming pool, tennis courts and an inner lagoon snorkelling sanctuary teeming with marine life. There’s also a great kids club, making the Four Seasons a fantastic option for families looking for a luxurious getaway.
Spanning 44 acres of lush landscape, the St. Regis is the epitome of luxury. Take your pick from the resort’s spacious, opulent overwater villas and spend some sweet time by the main pool with swim-up bar or one of the many secluded romantic adult-only pools with private cabanas. If you plan to pop the question or say ‘I do’, you’ll be glad to know that the St. Regis even has an onsite bridal boutique and wedding planner.
- Conrad Bora Bora Nui *****
Nestled on a cove of azure waters, white sand and black lava, the fully-renovated Conrad offers an idyllic escape from the bustle of everyday life. The resort combines Polynesian-style overwater bungalows with top-of-the-line amenities and allows guests to unwind and rejuvenate in style. Enjoy lunch or go snorkelling in Motu Tapu, the Conrad’s very own private islet, just five minutes away by boat from the resort.
Boasting an idyllic setting facing the towering Mount Otemanu, the stylish and modern InterContinental Bora Bora presents guests with unlimited spectacular views of Tahiti’s magnificent lagoon and jagged peaks. Catch the daily stingray feeding on the beach or soak up the spectacular scenery at one of the lagoon-facing beds with a glass wall. And oh! There’s a gorgeous glass-floored overwater chapel perfect for a tropical wedding.
- Le Méridien Bora Bora *****
To those looking for overwater bungalows with the largest glass flooring in Bora Bora, Le Méridien is the place to be! The resort enjoys one of the most beautiful locations in the island and houses Bora Bora’s Ecological Centre and Turtle Sanctuary. Snorkellers are bound to have a great time in the internal lagoon and families can retire in utmost comfort in one of the resort’s richly-appointed two-bedroom pool beach villas. The views of Mt. Otemanu from the resort will floor you!
For more information on overwater bungalows and other accommodation in Tahiti, enquire or call us at 1300 858 305. Our Tahiti travel professionals are glad to offer expert advice on where to stay and what to do in Tahiti.