The Birth of the Overwater Bungalow

12 January 17

Author: Alexa Crow

When you think of a relaxing, remote getaway, what comes to mind? For a lot of people, it is an overwater bungalow with a clear glass floor. These unique structures, which teeter on stilts over the South Pacific Ocean, certainly have earned their popularity in the world of travel and tourism.

We at Global Escapes recently met the overwater bungalow pioneer’s daughter, Tekura Kelley, who currently serves as Trade and Promotions Manager for Tahiti Tourisme North America. She gave us the fascinating story about the bungalows’ origin.

Let’s rewind to the 1960s. Ah yes, a time where the phrase, “what’s the wi-fi password?” still didn’t exist. It also was a wonderful time to move to the Tahitian Islands! That’s what three Americans from California–Hugh Kelley, Muk McCallum, and Jay Carlisle–a.k.a. the “Bali Hai Boys,” thought, so they packed up their personal belongings and made the move to the South Pacific. Little did these men know what success was in store for them.

Their first order of business was to open hotels in Moorea and Raiatea, two remote islands near Tahiti. Moorea showed far more success than the latter, due to its beautiful beaches and convenience for snorkeling. This popularity made the gears start turning in Hugh Kelley’s mind. Raiatea lacked the abundance of sandy beaches, equaling a major turnoff to some tourists. So how could he make this area a success?

“In searching for a solution, Hugh had an idea that would revolutionize the country’s tourism for decades to come,” his daughter Tekura Kelley explains. Cue the imaginary light bulb: bungalows that would sit right above the water to give guests direct access to the lagoon.

Hugh Kelley didn’t just stop there…he recommended the addition of the famous glass-bottomed floors to add a unique touch to people’s stays in the bungalow. He wanted guests to be able to look straight into the ocean.

Amidst Hugh Kelley’s ideas posed a major concern from the locals: preserving the coral. But because Tahitians had been building fishing huts on the water for many years by this point, he was confident that coral would not be harmed in the making of these overwater bungalows.

After the Tahitian authorities and local government agreed to Hugh Kelley’s plan, the first three overwater bungalows were built at the Bali Hai Hotel on Raiatea in 1967. These three were then followed by the overwater bungalows at Hotel Bali Hai Moorea. It wasn’t much longer before some of Kelley’s friends at Hotel Bora Bora started constructing overwater bungalows, inspired by the Bali Hai Boys’ design.

“Today, overwater bungalows are sought after and desired by millions of people all over the world, and they are the quintessential icon of paradise,” Tekura Kelley said.

If you haven’t already added a stay in an overwater bungalow to your bucket list, you may want to consider it. Relaxing in a hut overlooking the South Pacific is certainly an experience worth living. Contact our South Pacific specialists to begin planning your getaway today!

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