We’re not flush with cash, but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on the overwater-bungalow fantasy, because who hasn’t dreamt of staying in a cabana stilted over shimmering water, fish cruising below. So we combed the world and came up with five stellar stays (like Punta Caracol above) where you can score that stuff-of-fantasies experience without the dream-deflating prices.
Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, Panama
This hideaway, in the teal-blue Caribbean off Isla Colón, has fewer cabanas than you have fingers, all of which are crowned with palm fronds, painted Caribbean colors, and powered by the sun. And each—surprise, surprise—is a two-story affair with a four-poster bed tucked into the top floor. The laid-back vibes, the isolation, the limited electricity means there’s nothing much to do here, and that’s exactly the point. Your go-to outfit: a swimsuit; your go-to hairstyle: wet; your go-to cocktail: a piña colada (the bartender makes a mean one); and your go-to mindset: totally blissed out. INSIDER TIP As tempting as it may be to veg out on your patio for a week straight, get the hotel to boat you over to one of the deserted nearby isles so you can play Robinson Crusoe for a couple hours on an empty beach. Room rates from $350, including most meals.
4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Cambodia
Arriving at this remote eco-luxe lodge is half the adventure: A 4-hour drive from Phnom Penh, followed by 30-minute boat ride down the misty Tatai River, thick jungle on either side, that recalls the Heart of Darkness journey in the best way possible. Once you spy the 12 handsome tented villas, inspired by African safari tentalows, you’ll realize that this is glamping—on water. Bathrooms hold wine-barrel showers and striped umbrellas shade chic chaise lounges, but you might be awoken at sunrise by gibbon call and the best massage around comes courtesy of a nearby waterfall. INSIDER TIP For a look at local life, take the resort-offered excursion to a nearby fishing village where houses are on stilts and boardwalks stand in for sidewalks. Room rates from $220, including breakfast.
Royal Huahine, Huahine
So you’re set on the islands of Tahiti. But you’re balking at the prices. Consider Huahine, which is as wildly romantic as Bora Bora (it was named Hermosa by Captain Cook), but is less known, less touristed, less talked about. And, consequently, less pricey. Which means that you can “splurge” (a relative term) on this rustic-luxe hotel, the swankiest digs on an island with one supermarket, eight small villages, and countless bays and sugar-sand beaches and still make your mortgage. Your room, one of 11 over the water, is west-facing for prime sunsets and has a soaking tub that probably won’t see a lot of action given that you also have a private deck from which you can dive directly into the lagoon. INSIDER TIP Stock up at the grocery store so you’re not locked into eating every meal at the hotel’s on-the-pricey-side restaurant. Room rates from $301.
Thatch Caye, Belize
Step outside on the deck of your bungalow, one of five overwater accommodations on this private island that’s a quick jaunt from the U.S., and you’ll quickly realize that the spot to be for the duration of this vacation is that Mayan hammock swaying in the breeze. So it’s only a matter of calling dibs before your travel partner does. Or, you can play nice and alternate days. When you’re not on hammock duty, practice floating in that clear Belizean water like you were five years old in guppy class again, or convince your companion to go on a little adventure. River tubing two miles through a nearby five-cave chain is one for the bucket list. However you spend your day, it’ll end much the same way: with a belly full of fresh fish and local Belikin beer. INSIDER TIP To mix things up, head over to nearby Coco Plum Resort for lunch one day (the water is shallow enough to wade, or you can kayak or paddle board). Room rates from $295.
Reethi Beach, Maldives
The Maldives. A dreamy sprinkling of palm-tufted islets across crystal waters. It’s a legendary place with legendary prices reserved for marquee life moments like honeymoons (and even then, it’s a budget-busting proposition). Or so you thought. This hideaway, on a petite private isle in the Baa Atoll, gives you the Maldives’ experience at a surprisingly reasonable rate. Drop your bags in your bungalow, throw open the sliding glass doors, take in the shimmering ocean, and give your plus-one a big high five because this is your home for the next week. Now all that’s left to do is decide which of the three beach bars you’re going to hit first. INSIDER TIP Early on in your trip, take advantage of the resort’s daily free 30-minute snorkeling excursion—Reethi Beach has one of the Maldives’ best house reefs—then later in the week graduate to a day of diving. Room rates from $268, including breakfast.