It all started when three guys from Newport Beach left the Golden State in the early 1960s and headed south — way south to the enchanting Islands of Tahiti — with nothing more than some clothes and a dream of a different life. Jay Carlisle, Hugh Kelley and Don “Muk” McCallum, who would come to be known as the Bali Hai Boys, vowed never to look back.
Even when only 400 acres of the farming land they’d bought could be cultivated, even when their visas were good for just six months, even when the price of vanilla crashed — they pressed on, images from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific fueling their belief that they could succeed.
In March 1962, the Bali Hai Boys bought a junky hotel on Moorea and named it Hotel Bali Hai, as a nod to Michener, of course. They didn’t know anything about running a hotel, but surely their former lives as a salesman, a securities trader and an attorney could help somehow. The boys got the hotel fixed up just in time for a chance feature in the December 1962 issue of Life Magazine, and the story spread like wildfire.
The Hotel Bali Hai quickly grew into one of French Polynesia’s largest resorts, and by 1967 the boys were running another property on Raiatea. It didn’t have a beach, but it had a beautiful reef. Hugh had the thought of building bungalows on the reef, pointing to the Tahitians who would spend all day out in the water in fishing huts. And so the overwater bungalow was born. What started out as a practical answer to a logistical problem has turned into more than 900 overwater oases across Tahiti’s 118 islands and 7,000-plus more worldwide.
In the 50 years since the Bali Hai Boys debuted their stilted shanties, overwater bungalows have sprouted up in Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, the Caribbean, even Switzerland. But nowhere has the surge been as prolific as in the Maldives, which is home to two-thirds of the world’s overwater bungalows.
Through the decades, the bungalows have become increasingly more lavish than the Bali Hai Boys’ rustic huts. From palatial suites with private butlers to digs with infinity pools and rooftop terraces, simply being over the water is no longer enough.
Enter the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, which unveiled 86 new overwater bungalows in April. Built in a private cove on tiny Motu To’opua off Bora Bora’s coast, the resort features the region’s only two-story overwater suite. The Presidential Overwater Villa sprawls over 3,229 square feet, outfitted with separate dressing rooms, two bedrooms, three bathrooms and several glass-floor viewing panels (aka Tahitian TV).
Fifty years ago, the Bali Hai Boys had to decide what kind of materials and engineering feats it was going to require to build these rooms over the water. Today, tough decisions include whether to take in the epic views of Mount Otemanu from your private second-story terrace or your plunge pool.