The best all inclusive resorts in the Caribbean are infused with dreams and imagineers!
From imagining to reality can be quite a journey. But 50 years?
The overwater villas at the Sandals Royal Caribbean are only reachable by boat, though a boardwalk connects them to a private island with a hidden Jamaican jerk shack and clothing-optional beach.
French Polynesia and the Maldives had them for decades, but by the power of social media and hard work, Jamaica now has overwater villas.
After Adam and Jill Stewart married in Jamaica in 2009, they packed up and traveled for more than 24 hours to have their dream honeymoon in an overwater villa in the Maldives. That’s not so shocking, really—the Maldives’ collection of more than 110 luxury resort islands makes them a magnet for honeymooners—but the Stewarts’ choice to fly to the other side of the world for their trip is surprising, given that Adam is the CEO of Sandals Resorts. Honeymoons are his bread and butter.
The couples-only, all-inclusive resort chain averages 8,000 weddings and 75,000 honeymoons every year across its Caribbean properties. So what did the Maldives have that the Caribbean didn’t? Overwater hotel rooms, says Stewart. He mixed romance with research as a plan to bring them nearer to home, and to American travelers, slowly moved forward. Finally, on December 1, 2016, Stewart cut the ribbon to open the Caribbean’s first overwater villas, at the Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, only a four-hour flight from New York City
Overwater rooms are suites on stilts, private pavilions for vacationers to quite literally surround themselves with ocean and sky. The more elaborate bungalows have terraces with infinity-edge pools, hammocks, glass floors with a view down to schools of fish and, wonderfully, no views of anyone else. All this luxury comes from a humble beginning, however; overwater rooms debuted nearly 50 years ago in French Polynesia, with a trio of American entrepreneurs who copied the design of traditional stilted coral homes for four barefoot casual resorts scattered across three islands. The trend spread, the Hotel Bora Bora added overwater suites in 1970 for an extra $10 per night on top of its $55 landside room rates, and an article in the Chicago Tribune the same year introduced “over-the-water bungalows” as the “newest gimmick.
In the decades since, overwater villas have spread to the Maldives and Malaysia, to Cambodia and the Philippines, but the Caribbean lagged behind. French Polynesia had a history of stilted dwellings to give birth to the style, but both regions where the overwater trend took off—French Polynesia and the Maldives—have the natural environment to thank for providing the perfect conditions. Resorts on land could branch out easily, into the calm waters of natural lagoons formed by atolls, where islands and their surrounding waters are protected by barrier reefs and other, smaller islands. The Caribbean, on the other hand, has no large atolls.
Combine this with the region’s colonial past, and you have both nature and bureaucracy as roadblocks to overwater development.
In Jamaica, where the seabed in many places is still property of the Crown, Sandals made the structures work by positioning its first overwater villas within the protection of an outer reef, branching out from its private island, a five-minute boat ride away from one of its landside resorts. “The major obstacle was that Sandals was the first to conceive and build over-the-water accommodations and facilities in Jamaica, so there was no legislation in place to consider legalities of what would be required,” Stewart tells Condé Nast Traveler. “We did copious due diligence from other jurisdictions, pulling principles and laws from places such as the Maldives as examples for review with the government. Ultimately, our work in concert with Jamaica established a new set of carefully considered criteria that put safety as well as long- and short-term environmental impact at the forefront.”
The World’s Clearest Waters
After refining proprietary construction techniques for the Caribbean and doing environmental studies—the latter seeing acres of sea grass transplanted and not merely trashed—the Caribbean’s first overwater suites took form. Sandals’ villas also claim another title: At $1.7 million each, these are the most expensive individual hotel rooms ever constructed in the Caribbean. When the going got tough or pricey, social media bolstered the project. The image of a thatched-roof villa casting its shadow over a calm cerulean sea is Instagram catnip, and the rising popularity of personal photography drones has only increased the appeal of overwater suites. It’s a trend Sandals has taken to heart, literally; Stewart told Condé Nast Traveler that the next 12 bungalows will be arranged in the shape of a heart, saying that “everything we do—the roof finishes and everything—is built with photography in mind.”
Guests pay upwards of $2,700 per night for two people, all-inclusive, to enjoy one of the five villas, each 2,000 square feet with one bedroom, one bathroom, kitchen, infinity pool, two outdoor showers, indoor shower and soaking tub, direct ocean access, outdoor deck, overwater hammock net for two, pour-your-own cabinet of top-shelf liquor, unlimited scuba diving, ultra-fast Wi-Fi, and, of course, butler service. Later this spring, the 12 smaller overwater bungalows will join the villas at the Sandals Royal Caribbean before they’re followed by more to debut at Sandals South Coast, Sandals Montego Bay (the original Sandals), Sandals Royal Plantation, Ocho Rios, and at Sandals Grande St. Lucian on the island of St. Lucia. Mexico has already jumped on the trend too with the “Palafitos” at the El Dorado Maroma on the Riviera Maya, and work is under way for the 2019 debut of 42 overwater villas at The Viceroy Bocas del Toro, in Panama.
It may have taken half a century for overwater hotel rooms to open in the Caribbean, but the struggle is already paying off. Honeymooners who don’t want to spend their first 24 hours as a married couple on airplanes have booked the Sandals villas clear through the middle of 2018.