A paragon of responsible leisure, this pearl of French Polynesia hosts the likes of Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Marlon Brando happens to be the first name in acting just as his namesake island resort, The Brando, is the first name in luxury. Set on the tiny atoll of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia just 30 miles north of Tahiti, it is not unlike one of his performances – understated, from the heart, and unfailingly deferential to its audience and milieu.
Twenty minutes by air from the capital, Papeete, the puddle-jumper touches down on what appears to be an impossibly minute runway; a notch in a verdant speck in an indigo universe. The wheels of the electric cart whoosh along the shady pathways in near silence, arriving at a secluded villa.
Enter a modest living room with local art on the walls and pass through the glass doors opening onto a patio and plunge pool. A media room flanks one side and the bedroom the other, with ocean-view vista windows. Sensors to light your way in the dark, powering down when you leave.
The word “luxury” is of course derived from the Latin for light, a word the resort takes seriously, using the sun to power the villas and to heat water in tanks on the roof. Air conditioning is provided by a state-of-the-art system pulling cold water up from the ocean depths, circulating it through the island’s structures, then returning it whence it came.
A private dining gazebo gives way to a stretch of raked earth, the beach, and cool cerulean shallows that never run more than chest deep. Towel off and lay in a hammock under a coconut palm and read a trashy novel, or a good memoir. (Maybe the one Obama wrote during his stay.) Or, take a walk down to the southeastern tip of the island where a complex of open air structures as white as the sand contrasts coolly with impossible emerald and sapphire layers stacked to the horizon.
Here is a gift shop where Tahitian pearls can be had at prices that would make a clam blush. A few steps away is Les Mutinés, where Chef Guy Martin of Paris’ two-star Michelin restaurant Le Grand Vefour, offers fresh seafood dishes with locally grown fruits and vegetables. A must is the Canette, a slowly cooked duck filet in parsnip stew and blackberry juice. And for dessert, the Mangue made with dill meringue, mango, Tetiaroa honey, whipped cream and passion fruit marshmallow.
Chef Kaito Nakamura’s Nami teppanyaki is a tantalizing sushi alternative to Les Mutinés, while Martin’s more casual eatery, The Beachcomber, opens onto the sand, offering French and Polynesian fare for lunch and breakfast.
Upstairs is a tasting bar, featuring a wide variety of spirits. And the pool bar is noted for the island specialty, a Dirty Old Bob (reportedly named for Brando’s trusty right-hand man); a concoction derived from ingredients like local Tetiaroa honey, half an egg white, bitters and two ounces of Jack Daniels.
And now that you’ve consumed more calories than any self-respecting waistline can absorb, burn them off paddleboarding, playing tennis, kayaking and scuba diving. Not all at the same time, of course, but choose your poison. Or choose an indoor activity from among numerous fitness classes.
The snorkeling off your private beach is fine (rent fins down at the hub), but better hop aboard Captain Thierry’s skiff, which is docked on the pier near the airstrip. Never mind the black tip sharks patrolling the waters, they’re just hoping for a fisherman’s scraps.
The ride out to neighboring islands is a study in blue burnished in wind and sunshine. During low tide, the hull kisses the sandy bottom as Bird Island looms, a sanctuary aimed at restoring seabird nesting habitats. It’s one of many preservation programs undertaken by the Tetiaroa Society, including a fish replenishment effort underwritten in part by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
The canopy is thick, the shade complete, the island small enough to cross in ten minutes. If you are lucky, you might find a coconut crab, a land-dwelling behemoth that looks like a spider so big you could saddle him up and ride off into the sunset. As is common in Tetiaroa, at the island’s center is a pool of water collected from the rainy season. On the surface it is fresh, beneath turns brackish and finally salt water below. The pools are home to freshwater eels with sapphire eyes and tiny fins placed to look like ears.
It is around just such a lily pond the Varua Te Ora spa is situated, offering a menu of treatments such as an Indian Head Massage, an Oriental Blend or a Polynesian Steam Bath Ritual, including a black sand body scrub followed by a coconut wrap.
With villas starting at $3,500 per night for a single residency and soaring to roughly $17,000 for a triple residency that sleeps six, it’s easy to think of The Brando as the brainchild of another pampered movie star making it easier for the uber-rich to mark their territory in every pristine corner of the planet. But, exorbitant prices could be remedied by offering a villa or two via lottery at a more egalitarian rate. Otherwise, The Brando represents the gold standard for responsible luxury, striving not to upstage or augment the incomparable natural beauty of its surroundings, but to highlight and preserve the islands as they are.
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Cover photo courtesy The Brando
With a background in filmmaking, Jordan Riefe worked in the industry before becoming an entertainment reporter covering for The Wrap and Reuters. Currently, he serves as West Coast theater critic for ‘The Hollywood Reporter,’ and writes on culture, art and cinema for The Guardian, ‘OC Register,’ LA Times, LA Weekly and Truthdig.com Twitter: @jriefe. Instagram: jr53o