French Polynesia remains the undisputed capital of overwater escapes, where $700 is the typical starting price for a hut poised on stilts in a tranquil, aquamarine lagoon. But resorts exist that are both far more affordable than Bora Bora and still within belly-flopping distance of the water.
Opened in April 2005 on Bermuda's west side, 50 minutes from the airport, the 18-acre 9 Beaches resort gives the overwater bungalow concept something of a Cape Cod twist. The cabanas are constructed from a breathable canvas fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, for an appearance that's more seaside cottage than South Seas thatched-roof cabin. The design allows cool Atlantic breezes to circulate (though bungalows also have air-conditioning). Of the resort's 84 units, 17 stand on wooden piers over the water; see-through floor panels reveal sea life beneath. 866/841-9009, 9beaches.com, overwater bungalow $340 in spring and winter.
South Pacific bargains, relatively speaking, come in the form of a pair of Pearl Resorts, in popular Moorea (within easy reach of Tahiti by ferry or plane) and less visited Raiatea, which is the second-biggest island in all of French Polynesia after Tahiti (a $297, 40-minute flight from Papeete). Overwater bungalows at the Raiatea Hawaikik Nui Hotel have high ceilings and oversize verandas; at Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa, guests slumber in rooms adorned with fresh flowers and high-thread-count sheets, a quick swim away from white-sand beaches. 800/657-3275, pearlresorts.com, Raiatea overwater bungalow $569 June-November; Moorea $329 June-November.
The El Nido Lagen Island Resort's 51 air-conditioned cabins (18 over the water) are in a protected cove surrounded by lush forests and sheer limestone cliffs. Though the stilts and walls of the overwater units are concrete, the interiors have an elegant warmth, with floors and furnishings made of antique wood repurposed from Philippine homes. A 65-minute flight from Manila ($285) followed by a water taxi (free for guests) gets you there. Note: The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the Philippines, so use caution. 011-632/894-5644, elnidoresorts.com, overwater bungalow $256 June-October.
Two tiny, remote overwater bungalow resorts in Panama do a wonderful job of copying the romantic thatched-roof South Pacific look and atmosphere. Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge is reached via a one-hour flight from Panama City ($140 round trip) followed by a water taxi that's complimentary for guests. The resort has nine bungalows--all two stories, built carefully to avoid damaging the coral below, with solar power and gorgeous palm-leaf roofs. 011-507/6612-1088, puntacaracol.com, $300 mid-May-June and September-mid-December.
Near the San Blas Islands, 25 minutes by plane from Panama City (about $65 round trip), the Coral Lodge's six casitas all sit over the water. They boast soaring roofs and creature comforts like Jacuzzis and air-conditioning. 011-507/317-6754, corallodge.com, $215 year-round except Christmastime.
Because these resorts are so remote, dining on property is often the only option--so ask about meal costs before you book. Also, when checking in, request the most secluded suite available; sound really carries over water.
Two or three overwater nights should suffice. Complete the vacation by staying in a less expensive room or a cheaper hotel nearby that has an equally nice beach. An air/hotel package can also save you money, though companies often only include bungalows at bigger (and pricier) resorts. Request a custom-made package from South Pacific specialists like SunSpots (sunspotsintl.com) and ATS Tours (atstours.com) to see if it'll cost less than booking air and lodging piecemeal.