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Overwater bungalows around the globe put your cares and woes at bay

They say no man is an island, but I've found an exception to that rule: Just spend a few nights in the fantasy world known as an overwater  bungalow and you'll feel as though you're adrift on your own private slice of paradise.

I tried it myself a few months ago. I needed a saltwater break from my normal life to clear my head and connect with some of my favorite underwater creatures. 

When I realized the overwater bungalow — those romantic, thatched-roof cottages on stilts — had reached a 50-year milestone, I knew exactly where to go: French Polynesia, where it all started. 

I would while away the day on the deck of a postcard-perfect bungalow looking down into the brilliant  turquoise lagoon. Then I would slip into the sea and commune with brightly colored tropical fish.

Thanks to three former Newport Beach guys, it worked out exactly as planned.

They have my thanks, and the thanks of countless honeymooners, lovers, families and friends who have stayed in overwater bungalows in the last five decades all over the globe. 

For many, it's a bucket-list dream come true.

The Orange County men, known as the Bali Hai Boys, took a detour to Tahiti in the early ’60s and decided to stay.  

Eventually the three friends, Hugh Kelley, “Muk” McCallum and Jay Carlisle, became hoteliers, founding a small chain of French Polynesia resorts called Bali Hai Hotels.

When one of the hotels didn't have a sandy beach that would support beachfront rooms, Kelley suggested they build cottages on stilts over the water to give guests direct access to the lagoon. 

Although homes on stilts were nothing new in Asia and other parts of the world, this was said to be the first time they had been used as posh hotel rooms.

The idea revolutionized beachfront resort architecture. Some locales, such as those subject to hurricanes, rough water or tides, aren't feasible, but in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, where reefs create calm lagoons, overwater bungalows can provide magical accommodations.

They may be as close as you can get to having your own island.  

Today there are about 167 resorts with more than 8,000 overwater bungalows around the world, said Roger Wade, who runs the website OverwaterBungalows.net

"About two-thirds of them are in the Maldives," Wade said, "but Bora-Bora, Moorea and Tahiti have some of the world’s best and most famous of these resorts, with the Caribbean also adding these luxury rooms."

The newest overwater resort in the South Pacific is the reincarnated Conrad Bora Bora Nui, which opens in April. 

I stopped by for a visit when I was in the area. The upscale Conrad sits in a private cove with panoramic views of the island's lush green mountains and electric-blue water.  It has the region's only two-story bungalows, which are 3,229 square feet and feature two bedrooms, three baths, a private pool and a whirlpool. Talk about a room with a view.

The double-decker bungalows rent for $3,305.40 per night.  The smaller bungalows, about 1,250 square feet, start at  $880 a night. 

Not surprisingly, Bora-Bora has 11 resorts with overwater bungalows, including posh versions at the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, the Four Seasons Bora Bora  and the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa.  

Bora-Bora is just one of 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia; overwater bungalows can also be found on six other islands, including Moorea, where I stayed, Tahiti and Raiatea.

One luxury resort where you won't find them is the Brando, about 30 miles northeast of Tahiti on the island of Tetiaroa, also known as Brando Island.

The high-end resort has only beachfront villas, thanks to the efforts of actor Marlon Brando, who owned and lived on the island before his death in 2004.

Many conservationists fear the damage overwater bungalows can do to delicate coral and fish. But French Polynesia developers say they mitigate the damage by reestablishing coral gardens, hiring onsite marine biologists and contributing part of their profits to local environmental projects.

In the Maldives, environmental impact assessments are required before construction and some building practices have been banned, according to developers, leading to safer construction methods. 

I could see new coral gardens in the water near my bungalow at the Manava Beach Resort & Spa when I went snorkeling. And there were plenty of little yellow butterfly fish darting in and out of the coral, playing catch me if you can.

I chose this resort because it was built on the bones of one of the first Bali Hai hotels, where the suites-on-stilts trend originated. I couldn't tell that from the accommodation itself, but my snorkeling adventure had taken me near full coral heads that had been in place for many years.

There was still an hour or so until sunset; I climbed up the steps to my deck and lounged on a patio chair, listening to waves lap against the pilings.

The sky slowly turned gold and then darkened into night.   

I was drifting in a peaceful place. Big Blue had done its job again — this time with a little help from a floating island.

Where to find bungalows

Dreaming about a vacation in an overwater bungalow?

Here's the bad news: They're pricey, most costing at least $1,000 per night, and they're also far away.

Tahiti, where the bungalows were originated, is in the South Pacific. It's an eight-hour flight from LAX, a little more than two hours farther than Hawaii. If you're going on to Bora-Bora, add a 45-minute flight.

But transportation to the Maldives can eat up your vacation time quickly. Reaching the Indian Ocean nation, which has two-thirds of the world's overwater bungalows, requires at least two flights totaling 30 hours or more.

Because most of the resorts are on out islands, you will need to take another hop from the pint-sized capital, Malé, to the island of your dreams, adding more time to your journey.

"The trend is really booming in the Maldives," said Roger Wade of OverwaterBungalows.net. "It's a big part of their economy. But it's a long way."

Besides the thousands of bungalows to choose from in the Maldives, you'll also find the largest villas in the world. St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort has one that's nearly 17,000 square feet.

Seal Beach resident Wendi DeBie, who visited the St Regis in January, calls it  "the granddaddy of them all.”

“It has a gym, a theater, two kitchens, separate family and living rooms, private pools and butler quarters,” she said. “I could go on and on."  

Slightly smaller is Gili Lankanfushi Maldives, which has an overwater villa (they're called villas in this part of the world) that's 15,000 square feet. 

If you can afford the price but hate the distance, two of the world’s newest overwaters are much closer to home.

In Riviera Maya, Mexico, 30 overwater bungalows opened in September at El Dorado Maroma. The 811-square-foot bungalows, called palafitos, have glass floors and small infinity pools. Rates start at $950 a person per night and include meals and beverages. 

In Montego Bay, Jamaica, five overwater bungalows opened in December and 12 more are scheduled to debut later this year at Sandals Royal Caribbean Montego Bay.

The suites have infinity pools and glass panels to view fish below the bungalow. Rates start at $1,435 per person per night and include meals and beverages.

You can find other overwater resorts in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turks and Caicos, Panama, Belize, Qatar, Egypt, Fiji and the Cook Islands.

5 reasons to escape to an overwater hideaway

1.  The wow factor: Imagine lying on your bed at night and watching fish swim under your bungalow. Many have lighted glass panels in the floor so you can see.

2.  The wish-I-were-there factor: You've always wanted to stay in one; just think how jealous your family and friends will be when you post pictures.

2. The privacy factor:  Most bungalows offer a bit more seclusion than regular hotel rooms.

4. The bucket-list factor: Go while you can enjoy the snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, fishing and other activities.

5. The most-beautiful-place-in-the-world  factor:  French Polynesia's islands are incredible. You become part of the scene when you stay in an overwater bungalow.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO FRENCH  POLYNESIA

From LAX, Air Tahiti Nui and Air France offer nonstop service, and Air New Zealand offers connecting service (change of planes) to Papeete, Tahiti. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $1,264. From LAX to Bora-Bora, Air Tahiti Nui connects to Air Tahiti. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,474, including axes and fees. Moorea can also be reached by a 40-minute ferry ride from Papeete.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) 689 (country code for French Polynesia) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY

Conrad Bora Bora Nui, BP 502 Vaitape, Bora Bora, French Polynesia; 40-603-300. Beautifully located resort just underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and reopens April 1. Has some of the newest overwater bungalows in French Polynesia. Spa, restaurants, mini-golf course, separate recreational island. Doubles from $434 per night; $1,311 per night for an overwater bungalow.

Manava Beach Resort & Spa, BP 3410 Temae, Moorea, French Polynesia; 40-551-750. Wide variety of rooms, from budget motel-style to overwater bungalows. Infinity pool, restaurant, bar, wade-in beach on the lagoon, where there are coral heads and an abundance of fish. Rooms from $244 per night; overwater bungalows from $529. 

Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, BP 547,  Motu Tehotu,  Bora Bora; French Polynesia;  40-603-130. Luxury resort has 107 rooms, many over water, and is set on a private island overlooking Bora Bora's main island and Mt. Otemanu.

If you need to spend a night in Tahiti to make connections, here is a hotel with overwater bungalows near the airport:

InterContinental Resort Tahiti, Faaa, Tahiti, French Polynesia; (800) 496-7621. Newly renovated rooms and a great location with excellent views of Moorea. Overwater bungalows available. Doubles from $276 per night.

WHERE TO EAT

Moorea Beach Cafe,  Pk6 Côté Mer-Maharepa, Moorea, French Polynesia;  40-562-999.  Fun lagoon-side cafe offers pizza, seafood and pasta, all with a French flair. Free shuttle, music. Entrees from $18.

Bloody Mary's, Povai Bay, Vaitape, Bora Bora, 98730, French Polynesia; 40-6-77286.  This famous, thatched-roof Bora-Bora staple may be touristy, but it's a must. Sit on stools made of coconut stumps, wiggle your toes in the sand, and choose your own seafood from the day's catch.  Dinner entrees from $27.

Les roulottes, Place Vaiete, Papeete, TahitiFood trucks, or roulottes, have been part of Papeete's culture for decades and rank with many visitors as the No. 1 thing to see here. Stroll the waterfront, then pick up dinner at the trucks, which open about 6 p.m. Chinese food, pizza and steaks, all at bargain prices.

TO LEARN MORE

Tahiti Tourisme, (310) 414-8484

travel@latimes.com

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