SLUMBER ABOVE TRANSLUCENT SEAS AT THESE FLOATING RETREATS, SET IN SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST EXOTIC LOCALES, FROM BORA BORA TO THE PANAMANIAN CARIBBEAN, MALAYSIA TO THE MALDIVES
BY AMANDA McCoy
Cradled by a 3.4-mile cerulean lagoon, this all-villa resort nestled over the mirrorlike waters of the Noonu Atoll offers private island luxury at its most immersive, loaded with thoughtful touches that put overnighters up close and personal with the sea. One of two Soneva resorts in the Maldives (the third is in Thailand), Soneva Jani prioritizes the overwater experience, comprising 51 floating bungalows plus three sprawling island residences. Each water villa boasts a curved slide from the second story, spacious open-air terraces with private pools, outdoor bathrooms with deep soaking tubs, and retractable roofs in the master bedroom to soak the bed in stars each evening. Rooms range from one to four bedrooms, with larger suites adding exclusive luxuries like a personal fitness center, steam room and sauna, and stocked wine cellar.
A dedicated Barefoot Guardian is available 24/7, tending to every wish and whimsy of guests, from in-villa dining at sunken tables on the deck to arranging sunset dolphin cruises. While there’s no shame in planning an itinerary that involves nothing more than lapping in the Maldivian sun on your private overwater hammock, thrill seekers are privy to a vast roster of activities, from planting corals with the resort’s resident marine biologist to exploring the bountiful reefs on a diving expedition. Languorous pursuits span movie nights under the stars at the floating Silent Cinema Paradiso (movie watchers listen through Bose Bluetooth headphones, so as not to disturb the nesting turtles), deserted island picnics, and astronomy experiences. Soneva Soul, the dual-location holistic spa, offers daily pavilion yoga, mediation experiences, and a full range of treatments and healing therapies in open-air spa suites.
Dining is also a highlight, and there are several destinations to choose from based on the day’s cravings, from plant-based delicacies at So Wild By Diana Von Cranach to Sri Lankan crustaceans at the Crab Shack. Rooms begin at $1,700 per night. soneva.com/resorts/soneva-jani
FOUR SEASONS RESORT
Dubbed the Pearl of the Pacific, the island of Bora Bora is a geographical Goldilocks, encased by a coral ring that guarantees the most vivid turquoise waters imaginable, then peppered with sand-fringed, coconut-rich motus (smalls islets along the barrier reef ). Its white sand beaches and pastel sunsets have long been a siren song for honeymooners, and few resorts in the world do romance quite like the Four Seasons Bora Bora. Because the island’s reef only allows one navigable pass, the lagoon waters here remain eternally calm, warm, and immensely swimmable. Overwater guests often begin the day with a morning swim under the watchful eye of Mount Otemanu, the towering jungle-covered peak of an extinct volcano.
The beach villas are massive, reaching up to 5,400 square feet with another 21,000 square feet of outdoor space, but ocean lovers should opt for one of eight types of overwater suites, many with private plunge pools on the terraces. In 2020, the resort completed an extensive renovation, adding seven new beach villas and eight overwater bungalows (bringing the grand total to 115 accommodations) and enhancing the existing suites with refined Polynesian-inspired furnishings and solar panels on the thatched roofs. The prominent San Francisco design firm BAMO was tapped to lead the refresh. Designers commissioned custom-carved wood accessories to dress the walls, and each villa boasts fabric-lined shadow boxes filled with reproductions of original artifacts. Local materials such as shells, mother of pearl, grasses, coral, and basalt were used to craft décor, paying homage to the natural riches of Polynesia. Lighting and technology also saw modern updates, including a chat app for guests to order room service, book excursions, ask for dinner reservations, or even request a handmade flower crown.
The on-site spa features a soaring 72-foot ceiling, creating a temple-like environment. The scent of kahaia blossom sets the scene as guests prepare for an afternoon of pampering with treatments like the Taurumi experience, an ancient Polynesian-inspired massage designed to restore balance and harmony to the mind and body. Couples can book the exclusive overwater spa suite, where treatment beds rest on glass panels overlooking the aquatic life below. There’s also a whirlpool tub on the outdoor terrace with uninterrupted views of Mount Otemanu. There are four restaurants on the property, including the floating Vaimiti. Toast smoky Old Fashioneds at sunset before sitting down for a feast of seared den miso salmon, steamed mahi mahi with chili-garlic soy sauce, and crispy pork belly. Rates begin at $1,150 per night. fourseasons.com/borabora
NAYARA BOCAS DEL TORO
Tucked along the southern tip of Isla Colón in Panama’s Caribbean Sea, Bocas del Toro is a small but lively town, a sun-drenched enclave home to more bikes than cars, and more boats than bikes. There’s a surplus of overnight accommodations, from laid-back hostels and boutique hotels to overwater huts, but until recently, the area was short on five-star luxury. at changed in September 2021 with the launch of Bocas Bali (renamed to Nayara after getting picked up by the Costa Rica-based resorts group), an exclusive, Balinese-inspired resort on Frangipani Island, a short 20-minute speedboat ride from town.
The stay begins with a private airport pickup in a Cadillac Escalade that transports you to your dedicated speedboat, where a friendly welcome guide pours glasses of Prosecco before you embark on the scenic journey to the private island resort. As you cruise closer, views of the 16 overwater bungalows dramatically come into view, their tanned thatch roofs offset by the fiercely green waters and overgrown mangroves. Guests disembark at the majestic Elephant House a 100-year-old structure shipped from Bali, Indonesia the resort’s floating restaurant is open for dinner each evening. Guests can opt to sleep in the newly constructed tree houses, suspended 40 feet in the air, or the overwater villas, floating above the Caribbean Sea as giant rays, dolphins, and starfish meander below. The water bungalows feature either glass bottom floors or private saltwater pools. All meals and drinks are included, available at the poolside Coral Café for breakfast and lunch, and the breezy, open-sided Elephant House for dinner. Guests can also place an order for in-villa dining via their room’s iPad. Rates begin at $900 per night. bocasbali.com
PANGKOR LAUT RESORT
When dreaming of far-flung overwater fantasies, locations like the Maldives and Tahiti are typically first to mind (and for valid reasons). But hidden in a private island along the emerald Straits of Malacca, flanked by fine sand beaches and ancient rainforest, lies a stunning overnight experience two million years in the making. Pangkor Laut appears as an extension of its feral surroundings: hand-built overwater bungalows hover over the peaceful waters, walls curve around jungle foliage, and roofs split to allow centuries-old trees to stretch toward the open sky. Of the island’s 300 acres, only a small fraction has been developed, so guests can traipse under forest giants that are as old as time, catching glimpses of long-tailed macaques, large monitor lizards, and white-bellied sea eagles.
Sea villas are the resort’s signature suite, stretching 600 to 1,150 square feet over the wildlife-rich waters of Emerald Bay, each equipped with an oversized spa tub, a large balcony with sun loungers, and ceiling mounted shower that opens onto the sea. The resort is also home to eight exquisite estates along the beachfront, buried deep in the wild vegetation. Each residence boasts two to four bedrooms, plus infinity pools, fish ponds, outdoor Jacuzzis, and resting pavilions. Begin your day with a cup of hot tea on your private terrace, as the high-pitch call of macaque monkeys billows in the background. Next on the agenda is a yoga or tai chi session, followed by traditional Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy in the Spa Village to restore the body’s vitality and enhance spine function. Next up, perhaps a multi-hour jungle trek, fishing trip on a teakwood “junk,” or kayaking tour of the island’s coves. After a full day of excursions (or lazing around your terrace), prepare for a feast at one of the resort’s five restaurants. Traditional Malay cuisine is served at Feast Village, while Uncle Lim’s kitchen introduces the epicurious to Nyonya and Hock Chew Chinese-style home cooking. End the night with a cocktail at Chapman’s Bar, named after a famous British Colonel who sought refuge at Emerald Bay before his dramatic escape by submarine in 1945. Rates begin at $325. pangkorlautresort.com