Over the years, I’ve toured a lot of fantastic hotel rooms and even stayed in a handful of truly memorable ones—the room with the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Hong Kong harbor, the suite with the grand piano and Manhattan skyline view, that room in Botswana with the balcony draped with monkeys… All great memories, but I challenge anyone to name a guest room as perfectly wonderful, as inherently motivational as an OWB.
That’s “over water bungalow” for the uninitiated, and whether that calls to mind a thatched hut, a houseboat, or a luxury villa, a bungalow on stilts over a crystalline lagoon feels like a little bit of each.
French Polynesia is the birthplace and epicenter of this rare room category, and on a recent trip to Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora—three islands in the mid-Pacific French territory—I got an education in these stunning accommodations. It’s the geology that makes it possible. The ancient volcanic islands are encircled by reefs, which create calm, shallow lagoons just right for the whimsical idea of building guest rooms over the water.
Visitors get their first taste of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti. International flights land in the capital, Papeete (pronounced with four syllables), and many arrive in the evening, which means travelers must overnight before their connecting flights. (No night flights operate out of Bora Bora.) The InterContinental Resort Tahiti is the largest resort on the island, with 250 rooms, including 26 OWBs; a dramatic view of the island of Moorea; and a relaxing atmosphere that would make it a great host property for a couple of days before a group heads on.
Planners who take their groups to Bora Bora will find movie-set worthy views at every turn, and a number of top-end incentive properties with extraordinarily spacious OWBs. For example, at the Four Seasons Bora Bora, 96 of its 100 OWBs are 1,080 square feet (the other four are more than 1,500 square feet and include a plunge pool). This picture-perfect, two-year-old property is doing 80 percent of its business with the U.S. market, with corporate groups typically booked in February, March, and May. (The North American summer and the Christmas and Easter holidays are high season.) While luxury and leisure are the heart of a trip to French Polynesia, the Four Seasons had groups in mind at the outset. Dedicated meeting space includes the 753-square-foot Pahia meeting room and a 1,851-square-foot, open-air pavilion adjacent to a private, events-ready beach set off from the rest of the property. There are also seven two- and three-bedroom beachfront villas that can be set for small meetings and, in the case of a buy-out, a range of spaces that can be converted for group use, such as Chill Island, a beach and clubhouse usually reserved for teens.
A short boat ride from the Four Season is the St. Regis Bora Bora, which, if you’re up on your Hollywood gossip, you might know as the honeymoon site for Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban. Its opulent three-bedroom, 13,000-square-foot “royal estate” villa would make a huge impression on even the most jaded of incentive winners, and the resort’s 77 OWBs may be the largest available, ranging from 1,550 to 1,905 square feet. There are also 13 beach and pool villas on property. Opened in 2006, the St. Regis is still relatively new to the corporate incentive market, says U.S.–based Director of Sales and Marketing Tracey Fentem, but its luxe accommodations and service are a natural fit. The largest private banquet room can seat 80 people, and an outstanding restaurant, Lagoon, run by Michelin-starred celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, also lends cachet to the property. Lagoon has been included on Food & Wine magazine’s list of the world’s most beautiful dining rooms.
The magazine cites Lagoon’s fantastic view across the water to lush Mount Otemanu, but truth be told, nearly every resort on Bora Bora has a drop-dead view of the landmark mountain, because most are not located on the island proper, but rather on the ring of small motus, or islets, that surround it. Even the airport is on its own motu, and after touching down, visitors fan out to the island’s resorts via water taxi. On the east side, Bora Bora’s sandy offshore ring is home to not only the Four Seasons and the St. Regis, but also InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa and Le Méridien Bora Bora. On the west side, Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort and Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa are standouts.
At the Hilton, the 122 lodgings include 82 OWBs, two royal OWBs with a Jacuzzi on the deck, and two enormous, two-level 3,229-square-foot OWBs, each with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi (nice touch: solar panels on the roof of every bungalow). U.S. popular culture got a taste of the property last summer when the reality television show “The Bachelorette” filmed its end-of-season proposal episode there, showcasing the million-dollar views from the hilltop spa, the overwater bungalows, and the many shades of blue of the surrounding lagoon. Of note for groups is a banquet room seating 60 guests as well as a small, private island that can be used for get-away-from-it-all picnics or receptions (showers and bathrooms are on site).
With Moorea just a comfortable, 30-minute ferry ride from Papeete (or a seven-minute flight!), some incentive groups never make it to Bora Bora, or take a detour before they get there. This spectacular, if lesser-known, island, just 36 miles around, is a quiet paradise of steep, green peaks and a clear blue lagoon. Two properties stand out for the incentive market. The InterContinental Moorea finished a renovation in 2010 that added a lovely beachfront infinity pool as well as plunge pools on the garden bungalow decks. The property offers 144 units overall, including 49 OWBs, and is home to the Moorea Dolphin Center, a boat rental dock, and a dive center. A dedicated meeting room seats 100 theater-style and 60 for a banquet, while larger groups can host receptions poolside, on the beach, or on a private motu.
Not far from the InterContinental on the north end of Moorea is the recently renovated Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. The 106-unit property, with 50 OWBs, is ready for groups with event spaces that include a banquet room for up to 100 people, an over-water deck that can host 50 for a reception, and the circular, over-water Toatea Bar, which specializes in crepes and great views. Neither the Hilton nor the InterContinental on Moorea has rooms as large or amenities as rich as its sister resort on Bora Bora, but both are standout properties that can comfortably cater to high achievers.
There’s Always a “But”
To be sure, a French Polynesian incentive program requires a hefty budget. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s an expensive destination, but incentive planners get what they pay for in flawless views, high-end hotels, and a motivating allure conjured up by thoughts of the South Pacific, over-water bungalows, and just the words “Bora Bora.”
While the Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti is three hours longer than a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii, the destination feels far more exotic and pristine. Tahiti is just below the equator, almost directly south of Hawaii—and in the same time zone, and more or less equidistant from Australia and South America.
You won’t find high-rise hotels—the properties are relatively small, and the typical group size is about 50 rooms, or 100 people—but you can expect world-class service. While things do slow to a pleasant island pace, a mix of Polynesian, French, and luxury hotel cultures blend to create a standard of hospitality that will make any incentive winners feel like they’ve arrived in paradise.