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Tahiti – where it all began

For most of us a week or more in a stylish Tahitian over water bungalow is the ultimate extravagance. Just you, your significant other and the gently lapping, calm, crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Pacific surrounding your little piece of paradise.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent Life

2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the distinctive overwater bungalow and some of the magnificent 5-star properties of Tahiti are celebrating with panache.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows

In Eisenhower’s conservative America, James A. Michener’s short story collections such as Tales of the South Pacific inspired some Americans to consider abandoning their day jobs and escaping to a tropical idyll. It was then that three Californians – a stockbroker, a lawyer and a salesman traded the daily grind for the treasures of Tahiti.

Jay Carlisle, Hugh Kelley and Don ‘Muk’ McCallum took the plunge. Hugh had crewed a yacht across the Pacific and found a vanilla plantation on Moorea. After the price of vanilla crashed, the trio met a local politician with a run-down hotel. They made a deal and secured coveted 5-year visas and 4 bungalows that had seen better days.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent Life
The ‘Bali Hai Boys’

By day they repaired their hotel and by night they partied. Hard.

Tahiti wasn’t really on the map and pre-jet travel meant they struggled to find guests despite being located just 12 miles from Papeete. They named their hotel for Michener’s fictitious island ‘Bali Hai’. And, the legend of the ‘Bali Hai Boys’ soon spread.

Famed photojournalist Carly Mydans detoured after his Life Magazine assignment to stay a night with the boys. He stayed three weeks.

In December 1962, pictures of the three living the good life in Life made them overnight celebrities and reservations took off.


Life Magazine – Vol. 53 No. 25 – December 21, 1962

Soon, the resort expanded to 65 units, they bought more properties and in 1967 they built their first overwater bungalow in the lagoon of Raiatea. They adapted the traditional Polynesian pandanus-leaf thatched roof hut and built three on the water’s edge to give their guests direct lagoon access. The accommodation landscape (or should that be horizon) was never the same again.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent Life

Fast forward to the 21st century and there are more than 900 overwater bungalows scattered across Tahiti’s 118 islands. Most are lavishly appointed with some featuring ‘Tahiti TV’ – glass floors and insets to watch the sea life below. There is also the last of the ‘Bali Hai Boys’ resorts – Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel.

InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa

The InterContinental Bora Bora is celebrating the anniversary with the unveiling of new pool villas and Brando Suites to join the 80 spacious, contemporary overwater villas.

With breathtaking views of Mt Otemanu the Brando Suites feature large terraces and private outdoor pools. King-size beds and bathtubs are positioned to take in the breathtaking views of the lagoon and the island.

The Brando Suites and new pool villas are scheduled to open in December:

Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort

Nothing says romance quite like a heart shaped island. Moorea is endless cornflower skies, hypnotic blue lagoons, warm breezes … you get the picture.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent Life

The French do know a thing or two about the art of living. Wine and food experiences are part of the Sofitel DNA. Former private chef to Francois Mitterand and Bill Clinton, Guillaume Burlion has also worked alongside the legendary Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse. The Ia Ora Beach cellar is considered one of the finest in the South Pacific.

Tahiti This Magnificent Life

The over water bungalows do come complete with the aforementioned Tahiti TV and every amenity against a backdrop of white sand and rugged green mountains.

Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel

Although not the property where it all began the Club Bali Hai is still owned and operated by two of the surviving Bali Hai Boys. The trio took over the hotel in 1982.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent Life

Part time-share, part hotel the property sits on the eastern side of Cook’s Bay surrounded by picture perfect Gauguin views. What’s missing in luxury touches is more than made up with charm. Muk McCallum still holds court most nights telling stories and sharing his love for Moorea.

Tahiti Over Water Bungalows This Magnificent LifeClub Bai Hai Moorea Hotel features all of the natural splendour that the big resorts share without the price tag.




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Liz Bond

Liz Bond comes from a PR background and loves fine wine, great food and rewarding travel - all the magnificent things in life. She prides herself in an innate ability to meet famous celebrities at baggage carousels.

  1. Perhaps, if I could turn back the clock, I’d make it June, 1963. I had just come back to the States from a diving-for-diamonds expedition to British Guiana, was home in West Los Angeles, and decided to go to Tahiti and Moorea. Also, I had only recently seen the Bali Hai Boys spread in Life Magazine and was very much impressed. Have been back only twice, and would like to go again! That first time, I ‘fell’ hard for a young Tahitian lass, stayed, besides in Papeete for a buck fifty, also at the Hotel Eimeo in Moorea, which later became the last of the Bali Hai Boys properties – their only remaining one. Most of the time in Moorea back then I spent at the Bali Hai Boys’ first property which had a noisy generator accompanying each very small bungalow, and it was programmed to shut off at 9 p.m.! Suddenly, I was left all soaped up in the shower with no electricity. The predicament made me laugh out loud. I was invited to stay in the hillside home of a European who spoke good English (Swish, as I recall) but I refused, thanking him. He was probably all of 55 or so but seemed rather old to me, as I was barely 22. I did ask him if he was happy that he came over to Moorea something like 40 years before 1963 and he said, “No”. He eventually had his own little “motel” of sorts called “Motel Albert”. It was the romantic scenery which outdid every place I’d ever been (except maybe for Yosemite). plus the little Tahitian girlfriend that I was serious about (thought of returning to her and wrote, but never heard back, once I Ieft. She cried heavily and continuously at my departure. The “little things meant so much: the two of us sitting on the edge of a tiny pier with our feet in the lagoon – splashing the water and making the reflecting sunlight ripple. Or taking a walk into the interior, perhaps awesomely stand before those stone pillars that Chiefs would, in ancient times, lean against and conduct their own religious practices. There’s an old song called “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. If the beautiful word MOOREA were to supplant “San Francisco”, that song might be my long-time lament.

  2. I’ve always loved the Bali Hai beginnings. Actually, I was one of their first guests, so long ago – in June of 1963! Have returned twice and Still wish to go back. Jay was “hawking” on the Papeete waterfront for passengers to Moorea in a little boat that also hauled a couple of pigs. Arriving at the Bali Hai dock, Hugh was sitting on a fence, plucking a ukulele with a big smile on his face. Muk seemed a little more serious (in the beginning, anyway) and was very helpful. Life, back then, was idylic! Cherished memories.

  3. We spent our honeymoon with the Bali Hai boys in Dec. 1975
    My bride and I actual stayed in the Lagoon Bungalow on Raiataea !
    The Honeymoon Suite ! Fantastic memories as we all fade into
    The Sunset ✝️?❤️

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