The Story Behind a World’s First Overwater Bungalows

The overwater bungalow is a tack of barefoot oppulance resorts opposite a world—those thatched roof wooden huts are regretful hideaways tailor-made for a permanent Do Not Disturb sign. Yet a now quintessential honeymoon accommodation isn’t some folk tradition co-opted by shrewd hoteliers. Rather, it’s a finish invention—and a initial one was built fifty years ago this year.

The story of a overwater bungalow starts on a tiny Tahitian island of Ra’iātea, where a contingent of American expats was using one of a country’s beginning hotels. Jay Carlisle, now a brisk 83-year-old, was one of them. “We were perplexing to get broadside for a island—it doesn’t have any beaches, yet we were right on a reef, so we wanted to put in something different,” he tells Conde Nast Traveler.

Carlisle, a SoCal internal and former stockbroker, had come to Tahiti in 1959 with dual of his best friends from behind home: sales repute Donald ‘Muk’ McCallum and over counsel Hugh Kelley. “We had really good jobs, sure, yet we couldn’t conflict a captivate of Tahiti—we talked it to genocide for years,” Carlisle says. It was Kelley who finally swayed his friends to sale their jobs, pool their assets and buy a patch of land in Polynesia. His daughter Vaihiria, now an executive with Air Tahiti Nui, says such buoyancy was standard of her father, who died in 1998. “My father went to USC law school, yes, yet he was always very, really wild, usually kind of a crazy guy. He was a kind of chairman who went during 100 miles an hour all of a time.”

Early visitors enclosed Marlon Brando, Cher, Bette Midler and Burt Lancaster.


Unfortunately, a trio’s intitial devise foundered: a land they bought wasn’t suitable for tillage vanilla, as intended, so they scraped a small additional income together to buy a rickety four-room hotel. They called it a Bali Hai, a curtsy to a renouned strain from South Pacific. “It’s not a Tahitian name, yet we were perplexing to attract tourists, and if it done them consider of paradise, it was a good name,” Carlisle admits.

It valid ideal timing, as Tahitian tourism was about to explode. The reasons were two-fold. The islands had prolonged been available usually by boat, yet a new airport, a first, non-stop on a categorical island of Pape’ete in 1960 (Fa’a’ā airport is still in use today). Two years later, a sensuous impressive in Life magazine decorated island vital in Tahiti as a ultimate Robinson Crusoe-meets-Hugh Hefner idyll. It was a liberality home run. “My father told us many times that when that essay came out, that’s when it put them on a map for travelers. It portrayed a island as so visionary and beautiful,” says Kelley. “And it was.” 

Overwater Bungalow

Nowadays, a night in an overwater bungalow can fetch adult to $5,000 per night.

Thanks to a tourism boom, a Bali Hai boys could now enhance over their initial hotel, adding dual some-more properties, including a second one on Ra’iātea that, as Carlisle noted, lacked any beach. He credits Kelley with a artistic solution: 3 bedrooms on stilts, from that we could snorkel directly around a reef. They were to turn a world’s initial overwater bungalows.

Kelley expected drew impulse from a rickety perches internal fishermen cobbled together in a waters, temporary yet shadowy from a sun, and a ideal place to fish. The overwater bungalows, though, were dictated to be fast and permanent, featuring a plexiglass row in a building with lights underneath it to attract sea life. They were basic, yet good appointed, and cost $30 per day per couple, all dishes included. (Compare that with a St. Regis Bora Bora Resort today, where Nicole Kidman honeymooned with Keith Urban and a two-bedroom overwater villa costs $5,000 per night.) “Muk came adult with a name for that: he called it Tahitian television,” Carlisle says of a bungalows’ pure floor. “I mean, we didn’t have TV—we didn’t even have telephones.”

The overwater bungalows were an present hit, so a contingent fast cloned them, this time on a site of their hotel on Moorea. Far closer to Pape’ete, it was after they built 6 bungalows here that other hoteliers began duplicating a design. Sadly, a strange Bali Hai hotel on Ra’iātea is now shuttered, yet a strange bungalows still stand, while Bali Hai on Moorea now operates as a (Manava Beach Resort)[]). The final of a strange hotels was sole in 2001; today, Carlisle still lives and works in Tahiti, during another hotel, a Club Bali Hai Moorea.

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As overwater bungalows became synonymous with oppulance tourism in a tropics, developers began fixation them wherever conditions permitted, generally in a Maldives according to Roger Wade, who runs “There are about 170 resorts with overwater bungalows in a universe now, and 2/3 of them are in a Maldives,” Wade explains. “The topography is perfect: an atoll stretching out for 1000 miles or so, with so many small sandbars.” The Caribbean was prolonged a holdout, yet hotels have even managed to overcome issues with hurricanes and tides to begin building them–just in time for a invention’s 50th birthday.

Does Carlisle ever bewail not patenting their creation? After all, he and his friends would be rich men. “No, not during all. We have a opposite attitude, we don’t consider that way,” he laughs, “We were usually perplexing to get people to come to the small hotel. Who dreamed it would freshness like it did?”

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