TETIAROA, FRENCH POLYNESIA
The 30-minute flight north to paradise starts at a private air terminal on the fringes of Papeete but the story of my intended destination begins much earlier. It’s hard not to feel a little bit Hollywood when headed to an atoll that was owned by Marlon Brando and is now run as a resort in conjunction with his estate and US-born hotelier turned Tahiti local, Richard H. Bailey of Pacific Beachcomber.
The actor fell in love with Tetiaroa (and local beauty Tarita, who he married) while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in French Polynesia in the early 1960s and purchased it as the ultimate retreat from Tinsel Town. At what was then a simple beachcomber’s pad, Brando wore a sarong and kept his hair in a ponytail; apparently he used to say his mind was “always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Seas island at night”.
The reimagined resort is a contemporary take on the original that blends clever design with casual, sand-between-the-toes chic. Brando’s vision was based on sustainable resources and an embrace of Polynesian culture; his wishes have been fulfilled with organic plantings and alternative sources of energy, such as sun, coconut oil and seawater. The non-profit Tetiaroa Society runs an on-site marine research station often staffed by visiting conservationists and scientists.
Brando believed the overwater villas so popular at French Polynesian resorts to be an encroachment on nature. At The Brando are 35 villas of one, two or three bedrooms, with high thatched roofs and ironwood pillars. These chiefly-looking abodes, with smart, spacious interiors, are strung at generous intervals along the shore of Mermaid Bay, all with private pool, and the beach a few idle steps away. There are all the tech bells and whistles, smart European-design furniture with witty island twists, and dressing rooms so commodious you could park your steamer trunks and stay forever.
The architecture, at times almost camouflaged amid palms and flowering trees, is low-key, organic, muted and nicely earthed despite the resort’s newness (it opened on July 1, the 10th anniversary of Brando’s death). There’s a palette of coastal colours, scuttling strawberry crabs with dotted rosy shells and passing humpback whales; pandanus throw striped shadows on the sand.
It is instantly head-cleansing; I remember how to breathe deeply. The island has not been cleared or made to look postcard-pristine. Coconut groves are sweetened by clumps of white tiare ( Gardenia taitensis); there are red-footed boobies with long blue beaks and wide-winged frigates wheeling overhead. Sea creatures have names as beguiling as lemon peel angelfish and honeycomb grouper; behold the radiata lionfish with its mardi gras headdress. Nature is always at elbow, even in the open-air bathtub surrounded by a wooden screen, the tousled topknots of palms peeking above, parakeets squawking as they whoosh past in flashes of lime green.
The island was the site of an ancient mare, or burial site, a retreat for Tahitian royalty and paramount chiefs to idly feast and fatten their voluptuous women, and still an archaeologist’s treasure with more than 30 significant sites. It feels authentic and imbued with a kind of mysticism that, in the end, has nothing to do with Hollywood. Susan Kurosawa is The Australian’s travel editor.