Love over water

Last year, Tahiti's iconic overwater bungalows celebrated their 50th anniversary. Courtesy Tahiti Tourisme.
Tahiti's famed overwater bungalows are the ultimate in romantic luxury destinations.

If you’re seeking one of the world’s most romantic and unique destinations, I’ve got just two words for you — overwater bungalows.

And, more to the point, just one word — Tahiti.

Last year saw the 50th anniversary of the overwater bungalows in the islands of Tahiti. Haven’t you longed to spend time in one such dwelling with your sweetheart? (Hint: How about for Valentine’s Day next year?) 

Tahiti’s overwater bungalows are legendary. They’re iconic. They’re gorgeous. And they’re unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced.

Think about it: Isn’t staying in an overwater bungalow on, say, Bora Bora, with warm turquoise waters and schools of fish around and beneath you, the stuff of dreams?

Guests can feed tropical fish directly through a hole on the floor of their bungalow, which is discreetly covered by a coffee table. Courtesy Tahiti Tourisme.

It certainly was in my expectations ever since I was a kid in fifth grade. After reading “Typee” by Herman Melville, I informed my mother that one day I was going to French Polynesia and specifically to Bora Bora. My mom was a young widow who worked at a factory in Milford, and thus, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay to get there. But I was determined that one day I would stay in a blissful bungalow in one of the world’s loveliest and most tropical destinations, with picture-perfect postcard beaches. It took me 35 more years but I got there, finally, not once but three times now, and the memories of those overwater bungalows are vividly etched in my mind. 

From the moment you see them, you’ll swear you’re in a heavenly place. The thatched-roof huts stand out like little jewels in the water, when seen from above. Walking into your bungalow, you immediately see that there’s a hole in the floor — topped by a glass-topped coffee table — and you can simply remove the tabletop and feed the tropical fish below — right from your living room. Extraordinary.

One morning, my husband, Bill, and I got a canoe breakfast delivered to our “back door,” and, being vegetarians, we removed the little sausages and then got some string from room service. We tied the sausages to the string and repeatedly flung them into the water and then quickly pulled them back up — causing a feeding frenzy among the nonaggressive reef sharks that showed up for breakfast. It was one of the most delightful times of my life. I called it “Fish TV.” Later, we waded into the waist-deep Windex-colored, bathwater-warm water, and reveled in the fish swimming all around us.

The hotel’s bungalow-style lodging is a concept that has evolved over time. Courtesy Tahiti Tourisme.

How did this all begin? It started with three men nicknamed “the Bali Hai Boys” — Hugh Kelley, Don “Muk” McCallum and Jay Carlisle  — who had moved to Tahiti in the 1960s after falling in love with the country. After opening a hotel on Moorea, the Boys searched for a way to give guests at their Raiatea hotel direct access to the lagoon where sandy beaches were lacking. Their solution made history — building the first three authentic, traditional pandanus leaf thatched-roof villas over the water to give their guests direct water access. It’s unlikely they knew the effect their idea would have on tourism, revolutionizing Tahiti’s economy and influencing accommodation design in other locations around the world.

Fifty years on, the traditional overwater bungalow concept has evolved to include palatial suites and villas that offer the amenities of a first-class hotel room. Signature glass floors and insets provide glimpses of the lagoon and its sea life below — affectionately nicknamed “Tahiti TV” — while private terraces, infinity pools, spa baths and hammocks ratchet up the luxury factor. To stay in an overwater bungalow at, for example, Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora — well, luxury doesn’t get any better than that. Today, there are 884 overwater bungalows spread across 22 hotels throughout seven of the islands of Tahiti, offering guests the ultimate in luxury island getaways. 

Surrounded by so much love and beauty, your travel companion is likely to look at you and blurt out those three little words that every woman yearns to hear. No, not “I love you,” but “Tahitian black pearls,” themselves the colors of the waters — with turquoise, purple, blue and pistachio hues that you won’t see anywhere else in the world.

Don’t worry: There are tons of jewelry stores in Tahiti, and even island tours where you can visit pearl farms and take your pick of the beauteous best. 

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