Did you know that over water bungalows were invented in French Polynesia?

They conjure up images of dream holidays in far-flung lagoons, and over water bungalows were invented in French Polynesia 50 years ago, on an island off the coast of Tahiti. Here’s a closer look at the history of these hotels that are as exotic as they are iconic.

An ingenious way to be at one with the lagoon

In 1963 three Californians – Hugh Kelly, Muk McCallum, and Jay Carlisle – fell under the spell of French Polynesia. With no prior experience in tourism, they opened two hotels called Bali Hai on two of the Society Islands, Moorea and Raiatea. Because Raiatea has no sandy beaches, the three business partners had the ingenious idea of placing their rooms... over the sea! Rooves thatched from pandan leaves and pillars made from coconut palm trunks... they were inspired by traditional Polynesian homes and fishermen’s cabins to build bungalows on stilts so that they were clear of the water. It was a look that soon became the destination’s signature.

A glass floor to watch the sea life

Cradled by the rhythm of the waves, slip into the water in total privacy from your bungalow’s terrace and swim or explore the seabed in flippers, mask, and snorkel. Watch the sunset with your feet dangling over the water, and watch the fish swim by in the lagoon, visible through your room’s glass floor. And who could refuse breakfast delivered by pirogue?

Popular with the stars

From the moment they opened, Marlon Brando stayed in Bali Hai Raiatea’s overwater bungalows, and today, the romance of Robinson Crusoe is still a hit with the celebs. Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé, Keanu Reeves, Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Cassel, to name but a few, have all stayed in an over water bungalow in the turquoise waters of Tahiti and its islands.

Bungalows have spread throughout the islands

Today there are 884 over water bungalows in French Polynesia, spread across 22 hotels found on seven islands. All but one are found in the Society Islands, and Moorea and Bora Bora in particular. Spa, private pools, attentive service… They provide luxury accommodation often in equally luxurious establishments, with a backdrop of lush, verdant mountains and peaks. They include the Relais & Châteaux Taha’a Island Resort & Spa on the island of the same name that shares its lagoon with Raiatea. In an ironic twist, the island where over water bungalows were invented no longer has any.

One last stop in Tuamotu

The Tuamotu Islands north-west of Tahiti are an object of fascination with their dazzling atolls, graceful rings of coral sands floating in turquoise waters. Since 2015, Rangiroa Island has been home to the only hotel on the Tuamotu Islands with over water bungalows: the Kia Ora Resort & Spa.

Getting to Tahiti