I had my first high in 2005, when I visited Pangkor Laut Resort in Malaysia. The villa, attached to a bridged walkway, floated above the sea, where colorful fish swam below and my bathtub had unobstructed sea-level views of the sunset, which I watched from my private deck. I listened to the water lapping at the stilts below me, creating a soundscape that oozed with a sense of place.
This was my first-ever stay in an overwater bungalow. And you know what they say about experiencing such luxuries: It’s bound to ruin you for anything else.
In the decade since, I’ve stayed in almost a dozen overwater bungalows in bungalow-iconic places, among them Bora Bora, the Maldives, and Mexico. My overwater bungalow obsession is a strange travel addiction, much like my penchant for complicated frequent-flier mileage runs and dangerous selfies. The only drawback to my dedication to this particular type of lodging? It certainly doesn’t come cheap.
Overwater bungalows are ludicrously expensive because they’re so rare
There’s a certain thrill involved in the travel addictions I’ve accrued over the years. But unlike trekking the globe to reach Diamond Medallion status or falling over a cliff clutching a selfie stick, booking a bedroom that juts out over the open ocean requires simply peacing out and doing absolutely nothing at all.
Overwater bungalows are synonymous with privilege, which is why honeymooning bucket-listers and celebrities alike famously flock to them (remember when Kim Kardashian lost her potentially uninsured earring?). They’re extremely private (unless you’re Justin Bieber, of course). They come equipped with private pools, sun decks, glass-bottom floors, and occasionally a doting staff delivering breakfast to you in canoes. Not to mention that each morning, you can literally roll out of bed and straight into the sea.
Due to this caliber of opulence, overwater bungalows are one of the most expensive room categories in the world. They’re also extremely unique. You might be able to use points for an upgrade to a presidential suite in a standard hotel but, at the end of the day, you’re still stuck in a room inside a building. With overwater bungalows, however, there’s no need for an upgrade—no matter the room number, every doorway leads to unparalleled vacation bliss.
Since the “Bali Hai Boys” purchased a rundown Moorea hotel and decided to erect a string of thatched-roof bungalows atop the property’s sparkling lagoon back in 1967, the generations of hoteliers that followed have built relatively few of them. They’re also generally located in tropical, hard-to-reach destinations like French Polynesia and the Maldives, where the sea is calm, protected, and clear as the night sky. These are places that, for the most part, are exempt from hurricanes, cyclones, and other natural disasters. The ones that do exist, then, are nothing short of the platonic ideal of perfection.
There isn’t just one way to sleep directly above the fishes
There’s no denying that these extravagant slices of paradise will certainly set you back more than your average double room. But overwater bungalows, which until recently were debuting at upwards of $4,000 a night with less pricey versions still lingering in the four-figures, have taken a post-pandemic turn for the (relatively speaking) wallet-friendly.
For example, Anantara The Palm in Dubai starts at $989 a night, while Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy’s spare-no-expense Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives start at about $1,500 and the breathtaking Conrad Bora Bora Nui rents out their picturesque overwater villas—with or without private infinity pools—for a starting rate of $2,160 and $3,350, respectively. Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica lays claim to the first overwater bungalows to land in the Caribbean, with all-inclusive rates starting at $2,350 a night—not a terrible price tag when you consider that American honeymooners won’t be trekking halfway across the globe to get their villa fix. Down in Mexico, El Dorado Maroma ($975 and up) and Rosewood Mayakoba ($1,875 and up) offer a similar incentive to North American travelers.
Looking for the best of both worlds? Consider booking a resort that offers both overwater and on-land accommodations. That way you can splurge on an overwater villa for one or two nights before retreating back up to your (still incredible) grassy retreat on dry land, cutting your expenses down significantly without disrupting your dream vacation.
If you can’t make those numbers work, consider dipping your toes in the overwater, er, waters at the many toned-down options that have sprung up in less tourist-driven locales. Panama has about a dozen overwater bungalow resorts of varying sizes and formats, with many weighing in at just $100 per night. Over in Honduras, you’ll find three stellar options with rates falling between $195 and $580 per night, while Malaysia sports 15 different resorts, the majority of which run under $250 per night. And hell, do your Googles well enough, and you’ll find that even the Maldives has affordable overwater bungalows (albeit not as blinged-out as its magazine-ready properties), with many booking for less than $300.
Erring on the rustic side, these spots may not come stocked with top-notch amenities like canoe breakfast, glass-bottom floors, swaying hammocks, and private pools. But it sure beats shuffling around some regular hotel room in your socks.
If you can swing it, the expense is definitely worth it—at least once
Overwater bungalows are sort of like African safaris. The first experience is truly unforgettable, but even if you’re lucky enough to go back, you might find it slightly less thrilling. Not that it dampens the obsession. Resorts that offer these room types are keen on making every part of the experience epic. You can leave your bungalow and sprawl out on virtually deserted beaches (or, in the case of the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, an entirely separate deserted island), dine in gourmet restaurants, get fully pampered in unbelievable spas, and explore the entire property on bare feet, all-terrain golf cart, or complimentary bicycle. The bungalows are just an extension of the resorts themselves, which almost always come in at five stars, give or take.
The truth is, when you’re kicked back in your private pool, gazing up at the cloud-free starscape, and sipping from a glass of locally produced rum as tropical fish splash around you in all directions, whatever sacrifices you had to make to get there will assuredly be last thing on your mind. They don’t call it a bucket list for nothing.