Welcome to The Brando: exploring Marlon Brandoʼs private-island paradise

Welcome to The Brando: exploring Marlon Brandoʼs private-island paradise

In 1960, the Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando was hiking in the lush mountains of Tahiti in French Polynesia, scouting locations for his next epic film, Mutiny on the Bounty, when a speck of aquamarine on the horizon caught his eye. It was Tetiaroa, a volcanic atoll so beautiful that for centuries Tahitian kings and queens had used it as their private spa. By the Sixties, however, it had become a neglected coconut plantation owned by a blind woman called Mrs Duran, who lived there alone. Captivated by this tiny slice of paradise, Brando commandeered a group of Tahitians and two outrigger canoes to navigate the 30-mile trip from Tahiti. As they approached the barrier reef and finding no way through, the crew tried to use the waves to propel them into the crystal-clear lagoon. Brando’s boat mistimed its attempt and capsized on the corals, leaving the actor bloodied and bruised. To add to his humiliation, once they righted the vessel and made it to shore, the men were greeted by a formidable Duran brandishing a rifle.

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The Brando

"It was an inauspicious start to what would become a long love affair with the island," says Richard Bailey, Brando’s friend and former business partner. The actor eventually charmed Duran into selling him Tetiaroa in 1966, and for the next 25 years used it as his escape from Hollywood, sometimes alone, sometimes with starry friends such as Quincy Jones and Robert De Niro. A-listers flocked there, attracted by its otherworldly perfection and utter remoteness.

It was Brando’s dream to create a fully sustainable hotel that left the lightest of footprints on his beloved atoll. When he died in 2004, Bailey purchased Tetiaroa from the actor’s estate, and in 2014 opened a luxury resort on its islet Onetahi in homage to his friend’s vision (leaving the remaining 11 as uninhabited nature reserves). Called The Brando – "[Marlon would] shoot me in the head if he knew I’d made this about him," says Bailey – it has won awards for its carbon-neutrality, and quickly made a name for itself as one of the most exclusive and extraordinary resorts in the world.

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Marlon Brando and Tarita Teriipaia filming ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ in 1962 Getty Images

The Brando certainly takes discretion very seriously, and new arrivals are asked to sign a document to say they won’t take pictures of other inhabitants. "If we have a very, very important guest coming, we discreetly screen everyone else who has booked," Bailey tells me. Barbra Streisand, Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Beyoncé are all fans. When Barack Obama turned to Leonardo DiCaprio for advice on a place to hide out after his presidency ended, the actor had only one recommendation, and Obama spent five weeks at The Brando in 2017, writing his memoirs. This was also when Margot Robbie was there on her honeymoon. She tells a funny anecdote about her new husband donning revealing pink exercise shorts ("Who are we going to see?") for a session in the resort’s gym, only to bump into Ellen DeGeneres on the treadmill and the President doing weights. But as Bailey says, "No resort can only work with celebrities," and The Brando is keen for people to know that there’s more to it than NDAs. And so, in its 10th anniversary year, it was the turn of a mere mortal like me to see what all the fuss is about.

As it did with Marlon Brando six decades earlier, Tetiaroa seduced me even before I set
foot on its pristine shores. Like all guests, my husband and I arrived by air, in the resort’s 14-seater propeller plane. The flight from Tahiti is only 20 minutes and as the aircraft hummed over the vast expanse of cobalt ocean, and a sliver of turquoise came into view, I realised I was holding my breath in anticipation. The 12 islets that make up the atoll form the outline of a long-sunken volcano and now frame a lagoon so bright that astronauts have marvelled at its luminosity from space.

We were greeted on arrival by the melodic call of a conch-shell trumpet and the tucking of a tiaré flower behind one ear (the left side if your heart is taken, the right if you are open to finding love). The sweet smell of gardenias hung on the breeze and the air was deliciously warm, hugging your body in a way that made you forget what it ever felt like to be chilly. Within minutes of stepping off the runway, we were already admiring our suite.

There are 35 villas at The Brando, each of which contains up to four bedrooms. All are set back among the palm-trees for extra privacy and are exceptionally well appointed, with a deck and pool, twin bathroom sinks, a media-room complete with a colossal TV, piles of rolled-up beach towels and an alfresco double bathtub. Everything in the minibar, from the Pringles to the Rothschild champagne, is included. A few days into our trip we met an American couple who were delighted to find Pop-Tarts and Cheetos in theirs. These, it transpired, were snacks the hotel had flown in for Britney Spears, who was due to land that week but cancelled at the last minute. (The singer is a great fan of The Brando for another reason, but more on that to come.)

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Teremoana, one of the 35 residencesThe Brando

Half of the villas are on a beach called Turtle Bay, so named because it’s a nesting site for thousands of green turtles, and where the sinking sun can be seen setting the sky on fire each evening. Our lodging was on Mermaid Bay, a pearly crescent so perfect that it seemed straight out of a Disney movie. When I mentioned this to Valérie Gachon, the resort manager, she gave a knowing smile. It seems the animation studio came to Tetiaroa to research its hit movie Moana – where else! I was also told that Tauira, The Brando’s resident ukulele player, provided the inspiration for the film’s demigod Maui, and the cultural director of the resort’s scientific hub was instrumental in the inclusion of Polynesian songs.

I found myself humming these tunes constantly. When I was floating aimlessly in the shallows of the lagoon and a five-foot blacktip reef shark slunk past me, looking for newly hatched turtles (on one evening we came back from dinner to discover a tiny turtle flip-flopping past our door and quickly redirected it to the water). Or when I was lazing in my beach hammock watching alabaster angel terns swoop and soar in pairs (they mate for life) while dozens of hermit crabs, some the size of a fist and others as small as a little fingernail, dragged their temporary shells across the beach. By the end of each day the sand was criss-crossed with their telltale tracks.

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The Varua Te Ora Polynesian SpaThe Brando

I whiled away many hours admiring that beautiful sand. Around the villa, it felt like cashmere under your feet, but as you neared the water it became a little crunchier. I’d take big handfuls of it to reveal treasures: a piece of pale-pink coral, a cone shell flecked with yellow or a fragment of mother-of-pearl glinting like silver in the sun.

At The Brando, one could easily spend all the time just admiring the infinite shades of blue – the sea, the sky, the indigo petals of the butterfly pea flowers blooming in the resort’s organic garden (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Matisse was inspired to mix the hue for his famous Blue Nudes having visited Tahiti in 1930) – but there is so much more to do. The spa is set inland, surrounded by a fresh-water lake strewn with lily pads. Its main treatment-room resembles a bird’s nest built six metres above ground, with panoramic views of the treetops. There are three restaurants and two bars, with menus conjured up by the French chef Jean Imbert, who has a Michelin star to his name.

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Les Mutinés restaurantThe Brando
the brando in the ultimate travel guide 2024
Bob’s BarThe Brando

We slowly made our way down the cocktail list at Bob’s Bar, a rustic beach hut modelled on one that Brando built in the 1970s and named after his closest friend. The Dirty Old Bob, a mix of whiskey, pineapple, mint and honey from the island’s bees, went down excellently in-between dips in the main pool. There were playful food tributes to Hollywood icons, such as the Travolta Cookie, a nod to John Travolta, who used to fly Brando around in his jet, and the Frankly Sinatra Cheesecake, a reference to a scene Brando shared with the singer in Guys and Dolls.

For breakfast we would cycle to the outdoor Beachcomber Cafe for fresh mini-croissants before an activity such as snorkelling, kayaking or a tour of the Tetiaroa Society, the resort’s groundbreaking scientific hub. We learnt how resident researchers are leading the study of climate change, ocean acidification and mosquito control, and how the resort saves 90 per cent of its energy consumption by pumping cold water from hundreds of metres below sea level to cool the rooms. Another of our favourite trips was a boat ride around some of the other islets, where we went on foot in search of metre-long coconut crabs with claws strong enough to crack their namesake fruit (or, if you get too close, chop off your hand). We also stopped at Queen’s Bath, a part of the lagoon so iridescent it was hard to look directly at it, where Queen Pōmare IV of Tahiti used to exfoliate with the especially fine sand. According to our guide, it was also where Britney Spears stripped and dived off the boat. A quick check of the singer’s Instagram confirmed that she did post a picture on a Brando beach, with the caption: "There’s no paps here, so I can run around naked."

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Queen’s BathThe Brando

The celebrity allure is a thrilling element of a stay at here – what’s not to love about holidaying like Oprah? – but The Brando doesn’t feel like an uptight Hollywood hangout, and that’s probably why the stars like it. Much of this is to do with the people who live and work there. The 200 or so staff and scientists call this paradise home, and you get the sense they are delighted to share it. There was Gigi on the guest-relations team, whose uncle taught her the Aparima, a traditional Polynesian dance that she performed at the resort’s weekly show; or Manahau, our boatman, who was leaving that day to see his four-month-old baby boy; or Tehiana, the trainee Tetiaroa Society guide, who hopes to visit London soon ("Will I need a coat? I’m not sure they sell those in Tahiti"). Tehiana will certainly get a shock if she does come to the UK, but it’s not lost on her that she lives somewhere incredibly special. "I’m so proud of my country. This place is heaven."

Marlon Brando would have agreed. "Tetiaroa is beautiful beyond my capacity to describe. It is really beyond the capacity of cinematography to translate," he once declared. How right he was. The perfection of this place really must be seen to be believed.

The Brando, from £3,713 a person a night.


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