To reach the most exquisite resort in the South Pacific, you must first travel to Tahiti in French Polynesia. From there, it is a 20-minute ride in a small twin-prop plane across the wild sea to Tetiaroa, a private coral atoll that encircles a shallow lagoon and a dozen sandy islets.
Hundreds of years ago, Polynesian royalty would visit Tetiaroa to partake in celebrations on the beaches and frolic in the shimmering blue water. Then, in the 1960s, Marlon Brando happened upon the atoll while filming Mutiny on the Bounty. He was captivated, awestruck. Tetiaroa soon became his tropical hiding place.
Today, Brando is gone, but the mark he has left here is indelible. The resort that bears his name is a manifestation of his dying wish that Tetiaroa not only be maintained, but also improved. Yes, the 35 beachfront villas are luxurious – but, more important to Brando, they are also carbon-neutral. When Jean-Philippe, the resort’s head concierge, shows me around mine, he rushes me through the hi-tech media room with its wall-sized television but lingers when describing the seawater air-conditioning system and the materials used to build the villa, such as locally sourced ironwood.
Brando was a forward thinker. He advocated the idea of seawater air-conditioning – using cold water from the deep ocean as a coolant – long before engineers wrapped their heads around it. And he dreamed of restoring the atoll to full health by eradicating poaching and subsequently growing the numbers of tropical fish in the lagoon.
“Marlon was passionate about preserving Tetiaroa’s natural beauty, biodiversity and cultural richness,” hotelier Richard Bailey tells me later as we walk along a white-powder beach and watch an evening storm roll in. “He was determined to find a way in which Tetiaroa could be a centre for research and education and a model of sustainability. He was convinced that this small atoll could bring good to the entire world.”
Brando and Bailey first began discussing the concept of a luxury eco hotel in the 1990s, but their plans were imprecise. After Brando died in 2004, his estate ruminated. When Bailey finally got the go-ahead to build, it was under strict instructions to abide by Brando’s wishes. Six years of meticulous construction followed.
“The remoteness was a challenge,” Bailey admits. “We used methods that were in many cases unknown or had never been implemented in French Polynesia. Sometimes, things take longer when they are innovative or haven’t been done before.”
The Brando is not the only resort to marry conservation and luxury, but it is arguably the most sophisticated. Solar panels and a coconut-oil power station provide 100 per cent of the electricity, which is stored in huge batteries made from recycled materials. Near the airstrip, at a dedicated research station, marine biologists analyse tide and temperature data, monitor fish stocks and nurse injured baby turtles. These scientists double as tour guides – they will jump on a boat at a moment’s notice to show you the atoll’s marvels. One morning, they take me to an islet where long grass and dainty orchids surround a freshwater lake. On the shore of another islet, we encounter bright-blue crabs, while slate-grey manta rays ripple and skulk in the shallows.
The colours of Tetiaroa are shockingly vivid. At sunset, the sky glows a deep pink, and at dawn, the horizon is as thick and orange as an egg yolk. During the rainy season, the entire colour palette can change in a matter of minutes. When storm clouds approach the atoll, the foliage turns a richer shade of green and the waters of the lagoon suddenly appear as white as porcelain. The rain is as intense as you would expect, but it mostly falls at night, and the sound of it hitting the roof of your villa will put you to sleep almost instantly.
Jean-Philippe tells me that some guests arrive at The Brando and cocoon themselves inside, emerging only when the plane arrives to take them home. This is not surprising. Each villa is supremely comfortable and contains everything you might need, including an open-air bathtub and a perfectly proportioned plunge pool in the garden. Upon request, the staff will bring you breakfast, lunch, and dinner, announcing their arrival with a soft knock on the door and the Tahitian greeting ‘Ia Orana’. It is easy to spend a day sitting in the back garden, watching the waves bash on the distant reef and eating Polynesian salad made with swordfish and mango.
The resort is not short on five-star amenities. Michelin-starred French chef Guy Martin helms The Brando’s two restaurants and is also in charge of the room service menu. The spa, which sits at the edge of a lotus-covered pond, offers steam baths, papaya body scrubs and Polynesian touch therapy. There is a tennis court, a large gym and a library. But, impressive as they are, these are not the things that make The Brando what it is. Instead, the real joy is found by snorkelling over the lagoon’s untouched coral; counting the little lizards that dart across the resort’s sandy pathways; or taking an evening walk along the shore of South Mermaid Bay and realising that you have the beach all to yourself.
There are white bicycles stationed in front of each of The Brando’s villas and on the morning of my departure, I take one for a ride around the resort – around the organic garden where herbs are being picked for lunch and past the gardeners diligently raking leaves and clearing palm branches that have fallen in the night. Keeping The Brando running is a precise operation, but today it seems uncomplicated. Back at the villa, Jean-Philippe arrives to escort me to the airstrip. Before we head off in one of the resort’s buggies, a Polynesian luggage porter with quiet eyes solemnly places a heavy shell necklace over my head.
The Brando will not be here forever. The atoll sits atop an extinct volcano that is slowly sinking into the ocean, taking the islets down with it. Meanwhile, the world’s seas continue to rise. The time to visit is now.