There's nothing more transporting than a room whose foundation is the bottom of the sea. Michael Gross samples the aquatic life
I needed a clear blue break, and it looked as if cabana No. 55 at 9 Beaches, a new resort on Bermuda, might be it. Occupying what is arguably the best position of any hotel room on the island—at the very far end of a wooden pier that feeds six cabanas—it stood almost by itself, facing due west over a narrow, quiet channel between Daniel's Head, a crab-shaped peninsula at Bermuda's westernmost point, and tiny, uninhabited Daniel's Island. From its terrace, I had to crane my neck to see the neighboring cabanas. Fish darted in the shallows below. I felt like a ship at sea, anchored in my own private paradise of water.
My pulse has always quickened when I see photos of resorts in Tahiti and the Maldives, where rooms sitting on stilts over blue lagoons promise Robinson Crusoestyle solitude and five-star solicitude. When I heard that 9 Beaches was offering such cabanas much closer to home—Bermuda is only a two-hour flight from New York—I figured it was my time for a similar experience. No. 55 wasn't the sybaritic teak-and-mahogany haven of my fantasies, but it was close enough: not just near the water but suspended right over it, a tent-cabin hybrid, vinyl and canvas on an aluminum frame, with a Plexiglas fish-viewing panel set into the floor.
Credit for the first overwater hotel rooms goes to French Polynesia's legendary Bali Hai Boys, who, in the 1960's, turned a vanilla plantation on reef-encircled Moorea into a tourist village called Bali Hai. They "saw the calm water and realized it [would be] perfect to extend the hotel into the lagoon," says Monty Brown, now area manager for Amanresorts Indonesia. Brown was part of the team that was about to build what is now Aman's Hotel Bora Bora, which, inspired by Bali Hai, offered overwater rooms on that island: 15 pandanus leafroofed bungalows. They were soon booked solid virtually year-round.
Although the concept of overwater rooms did spread to other Polynesian islands, they remained a local phenomenon until the late 1980's, when the idea traveled halfway around the world to the 1,190 low-lying islands of the Maldives, an archipelago that is similarly protected by reefs. More than a decade later, both Polynesia and the Maldives have become their own floating fantasy worlds. The appeal is obvious. "It's the wow factor of living over water," Brown says. "Waves lapping against the pilings. You can swim anytime you want or hand-feed the fish. Dangle your feet and they nibble on your toes. Watch a manta ray ballet off your deck. We very rarely saw our guests after they checked in."
As overwater rooms have gone from unusual to explosively popular, hoteliers have refined them to avoid what Jean-Michel Gathy, designer of celebrity-favorite One & Only Maldives at Reethi Rah, frets is the overpopulation of some of the world's most beautiful lagoons. Sonu Shivdasani, who founded the company that owns the Six Senses Soneva Gili Resort & Spa in the Maldives, where all 45 rooms and suites sit over the Indian Ocean, achieved his desired effect—"the dream-like experience of feeling as though you are on a boat, while being spoiled by the utmost privacy and creature comforts in harmony with the environment"—by lengthening the walkways that lead to the rooms and spacing them 65 feet apart.
At 9 Beaches, the very best overwater rooms rent for about a third the price of those in more glamorous, but far less accessible, climes. The Bermuda resort has many charms—those nine beaches, in particular—and the incomparable views and closeness to nature that so attracted me. At night, rows of tiny pixie lights along the boardwalk pointed the way to my cabana. It was somewhat spartan compared to a $2,000-per-night villa, but the chic and simple sea-blue-and-white décor was charming, and the all-important basics were there: hot water flowed in an instant in the bathroom; the mini-fridge was cold; there were electrical outlets to charge my computer and the complimentary cell phone the resort lends to each guest; and the queen-size bed was comfortable. Every evening, I sat on the terrace, enjoying a glass of red wine and savoring the thick, luxurious silence. Gazing out at the night, I almost fell asleep right there, lulled by the quiet rhythm of gentle wavelets beneath me. I returned to that terrace often over the next few days to read or watch the fish swim a few feet below, but mostly, just to stare out to sea.
The food was good at Hi Tide, the resort restaurant where full breakfasts and dinners are served on an open terrace overlooking the sea. It was even better at Dark N' Stormy, an informal beach bar and grill on a big wooden dock. Next door, the Surf Shack was stuffed with water-sports equipment. I spent my days wandering from beach to even prettier beach—most of them nearly empty, though the hotel was full—swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling (there is even a low-lying wreck a short distance away). I only left the property twice: once to take a resort bicycle to the nearby village, and once for dinner. Neither trip was worth the effort; all I really needed were those beaches, the view from my terrace, the breeze, and the sea.
There was a downside to the illusion of solitude at 9 Beaches. The peaceful, easy feeling was interrupted by a noisy boat circling the island one night and by a fiercely arguing couple in the nearest overwater cabana on another. On my last night, nature woke me up with a majestic performance: the thunder and lightning of a tropical storm that shook the canvas roof and lit up the room for an hour as rain swept in through the open windows. But each time, I drifted back to sleep and awoke to the sound of waves and a lone whippoorwill.
The final morning, as I stretched and savored the view, I recalled a story Monty Brown had told me about two guests at Hotel Bora Bora who decided to ride out a tropical storm back in 1982. All the remaining guests were huddled together in the bar when one couple, after a few too many Cognacs, wandered back to their room and fell asleep. "At one a.m. I saw an overwater bungalow drifting out into the lagoon," said Brown. He ran back to the bar and realized that the two guests were missing. "I swam out and they were sound asleep in their bed. They were quite shocked when they woke up in a half-sunken room." That may be the biggest problem with an overwater room: even if it floats away, you might just want to stay where you are.
Here are a few of our favorites, and some of the newest.
441/239-2999; www.9beaches.com; doubles from $240.
Bora Bora Lagoon Resort & Spa
Breakfast arrives via outrigger canoe. 800/237-1236; www.orient-expresshotels.com; doubles from $576.
Hotel Bora Bora
800/477-9180; www.amanresorts.com; doubles from $700.
InterContinental Resort Bora Bora
Opening this month: a chapel where you can tie the knot above the waves. 800/327-0200; www.intercontinental.com; doubles from $765.
St. Regis Resort Bora Bora
An all-suite resort with butler service; some of the accommodations have pools suspended over the lagoon. It's no wonder Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban spent their honeymoon here. 888/625-5144; www.stregis.com; doubles from $950.
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa
When it reopens this month, the Four Seasons' original Maldives property will have a fresh look. (In November, a sister resort will debut on the island of Landaa Giraavaru.) 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $590.
One & Only Maldives at Reethi Rah
866/552-0001; www.oneandonlyresorts.com; doubles from $810.
Six Senses Soneva Gili Resort & Spa
011-960/664-0304; www.sixsenses.com; doubles from $1,145.
Formerly Soneva Gili by Six Senses
On the private island of Lankanfushi in the North Malé Atoll, the Soneva Gili resort is situated on one of the largest lagoons in the Maldives. Jetties provide access to the 45 thatched-roof villas, all of which are built on stilts over the water. Each villa has an open-air living room, a sundeck cantilevered over the lagoon, and an outdoor shower near a private water garden. By the Sea restaurant provides Peruvian-Japanese fusion fare in a treetop dining room, and dinner is also served in the wine and chocolate cellar. Activities range from spa treatments to picnics and diving classes.
You no longer have to travel halfway across the globe to sleep in an overwater villa. 9 Beaches brings these chic and simple bungalows to Bermuda (for a third of the price of those found in Polynesia). The 84 cabanas are really tent-cabin hybrids, constructed out of vinyl and canvas on aluminum frames. The sea-blue-and-white décor is charming, and the all-important basics are there: hot water, cold mini-fridge, electricity, air-conditioning, and a complimentary cell phone. You can rent one of the villas situated either hillside or oceanfront, but the overwater ones are clearly the most appealing. There’s a special Plexiglas fish-viewing panel set into the floor, and each night you fall asleep lulled by the quiet rhythm of gentle waves.
St. Regis, Bora Bora Resort
Bora Bora has been in a glamour arms race since it started seducing the likes of Marlon Brando in the 1970s. But the St. Regis seriously upped the ante when it opened in 2006 with 79 thatched overwater villas, outdoor showers, a fleet of butlers, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, and a spa set on its own island. Thankfully, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The humorously named Lagoonarium is filled with native fish and is ideal for snorkeling. And for a flashback to the ’70s, there’s a swim-up bar in the pool.
One&Only Reethi Rah, Maldives
A definitive sign that the Maldives are on the road to recovery after the 2004 tsunami: the debut of One & Only Reethi Rah, the archipelago’s newest retreat. The luxe experience begins at the airport, where custom yachts (which double as check-in desks) greet guests and whisk them to the North Male atoll. There, 130 villas—many of which have private lap pools or hover above the sapphire lagoon—have been crafted with tropical touches, such as coconut-shell sconces, sea grass thatch, and bamboo arches. Should you tire of sipping mango smoothies on any of the resort’s 12 secluded beaches, there are dozens of diversions, including an orchid farm that supplies the property with freshly cut arrangements, a tennis academy, the 100,000-square-foot E’Spa with overwater treatment rooms, a PADI dive center, and pedal-boat rentals. The island chain may sit 300 miles from any major landmass, but dishes from every corner of the globe are presented in three restaurants—or on your villa’s private teak deck, with no company other than the swaying palms.
Intercontinental Le Moana Resort Bora Bora
The closest many people will get to a tropical beach in French Polynesia is a longing look at a cubicle calendar, but the reasonably-priced Intercontinental on Bora Bora's southern tip aims to change that. Some 62 rooms (or perhaps they should be called “islands”) make up this Matira Point resort, which features two private, white sand beaches that offer easy access to the calm, clear waters of the lagoon. The thatch-roofed bungalows are decorated with quintessentially Polynesian elements like hand-carved wooden statues and woven pandanus, and most have sundecks and soaking tubs. Rental gear available includes snorkels and kayaks, and the Noa Noa Terrace restaurant serves French-influenced cuisine.
Hotel Bora Bora
This hotel is currently closed for a complete reconstruction. No date has been set for reopening.
Bora Bora Lagoon Resort
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa
Located on a private coral island in the North Malé Atoll, the Four Seasons Resort at Kuda Huraa has 96 bungalows and suites, some built on the white-sand beach and some on stilts over the water. Cream-colored furniture and canopy beds compliment the bungalows’ thatched roofs, timberwork, and white stone walls, all of which were made using local materials. The resort has four restaurants, including the acclaimed Baraabaru Indian restaurant and the Kandu Grill, which hosts a poolside barbecue every Friday. Accessible by dhoni (Maldivian sailboat), the spa is set on its own separate island with over-water treatment rooms.