On the Waterfront
Once the actor's Polynesian paradise, a private atoll is home to The Brando, an eco-resort of 35 beachfront villas.
A half-century ago, Marlon Brando seduced us with the lush scenery and golden light he found in French Polynesia when he led a celluloid mutiny on a ship named Bounty. Today he’s sharing that sensuous beauty with us again, this time posthumously. And, as always, the great actor knows how to steal the spotlight.
The Brando resort, which opened last year on the 10th anniversary of Marlon’s death, is an exclusive, eco-hotel on Tetiaroa, an atoll the actor discovered while filming “Mutiny on The Bounty” (1962). He eventually bought the French Polynesian island and made it his home. It’s no wonder; the site is a castaway’s fantasy, complete with palm-fringed islands, brilliant turquoise water, and a magical array of coral, fish and other colorful marine life.
Although the resort is named for him, you won’t find any photos of Brando here. But you may be lucky enough to meet Tumi Brando, a naturalist and guide at the resort, whose goal is to protect and share her grandfather’s favorite place. She calls it “our family legacy.”
Brando was passionate about preserving his private island. “My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night,” he once said. “If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of what they are and what they were centuries ago.”
Once a retreat for Polynesian chiefs and royalty, the island now beckons the rest of us. Because of its emphasis on ecology, it’s a change of pace in French Polynesia, which has its share of glamorous, world-class resorts. The Brando takes it one step further: it’s green, glamorous and world-class.
Like other guests, I noticed the difference as soon as I arrived. The resort is unobtrusive: no over-water bungalows, no high-rise buildings. It’s barely visible if seen from the sea. That’s the way the actor wanted it.
But it doesn’t mean The Brando is rustic; on the contrary, it most definitely is a luxury property. Management hasn’t skimped on any facet of the development. Guests – the maximum number is 84 – begin their journey at a special Air Tetiaroa terminal in Papeete, Tahiti, and take a 20-minute flight on a private eight-seat plane. After a welcome ceremony, they’re escorted to one of 35 beachfront villas that range from one bedroom to three.
The bungalows are so secluded that you feel like you have a private lease on paradise. Each could qualify as a mini-resort unto itself, with a media room, plunge pool, indoor-outdoor bath, multiple giant flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, mini-bars stocked with beverages of the guest’s choosing, outdoor dining area and a private yard that backs up to an amazingly blue lagoon. (If you’re staying in a two- or three-bedroom villa, you also have a small kitchen.)
Unlike some green resorts, where air conditioning is non-existent, The Brando has harnessed the sea to cool the air. A pipe brings cold water from the ocean floor, an idea that originated with Brando. And the energy the resort uses is also sustainable; it’s provided by 2,500 solar panels and a biofuel power station that uses coconut oil.
One more nice touch: Two beach cruiser bicycles are parked in the front yard of each bungalow, so you can get your bearings by either strolling or biking the landscaped grounds. I used my bike to visit the beach and extensive spa facilities, where massage rooms encircle a natural pond.
I also used it to access the main hotel buildings and two restaurants, which showcase Polynesian-inspired dishes, East/West fusion and classic French cuisine. The tonier fine dining room, called Les Mutines (The Mutineers, a reference to the film) offers wines up to $6,000 a bottle. “It’s a special feeling,” said maitre d’ Pierre Mattern, “in a place this far from everything to be able to offer guests wines of this quality.”
One day I rode around the island photographing the turquoise three-mile-wide lagoon. Stunning views awaited no matter what direction I turned. The lagoon is encircled by a rectangular reef and a dozen small islands, or motus. The scenery is spectacular. And The Brando takes full advantage of it without turning the island into a mini Waikiki.
Visitors can’t use personal watercraft – there are fears it might disrupt the environment – but you can snorkel in the lagoon, canoe, kayak, hike and bike. And you can learn about the environment at evening lectures at the resort or on educational outings with naturalists like Tumi Brando – a three-hour tour travels through the lagoon to pristine islands inhabited only by birds and other wildlife — or by visiting the island’s research center. On the day I arrived, naturalists rescued 38 newly hatched green turtles before they could succumb to predators.
One night at dinner I struck up a conversation with a couple I had seen several times in the hotel’s two restaurants. Eventually we started talking about Brando Island. They were in love with it, they said.
“We’ve been on several islands in the South Pacific, and there’s just something amazing about this place,” said Emilio Cousino, who was from Santiago, Chile. “There’s a mixture of luxury and privacy and a feeling of pristine wildness here that we’ve never seen.”
His wife, Maria Luz, was equally impressed. “I love the way they have two bicycles at each villa,” she said. “You can go everywhere on your bike. Or you can just sit back and enjoy all the service they provide. We’re very happy here.”
This kind of luxury, in a place that’s so remote, is pricey, with rates starting at $2,613 a night per villa (two adults and two children). But unlike some high-end resorts, almost everything is included: meals, beverages, activities and daily spa treatments.
I sat in the pool outside my bungalow’s living room one night, staring at the sky and listening to the ocean pound in the distance. The only other sound was the intermittent rustle of wind in the palm trees. Above, I could see the Southern Cross and puffy white clouds drifting by.
After an hour or so, I got out of the pool, dried off and walked 100 feet to the lagoon’s edge, where moonlight made the water glow with a luminescence that almost made it seem alive. “The water’s so bright, it seems like daylight,” a friend said.
I wished I stayed longer. It takes time to decompress and I hadn’t been here long enough. But I appreciate General Manager Silvio Bion’s words, “This is a magical place where you can escape for a while, appreciate the beauty of the lagoon and connect with nature.”
I’d made the connection.