Sometimes a resort is more than a resort. In the case of Tetiaroa, an atoll made up of 12 motus (small islands – more below) surrounding a lagoon, often referred to as Marlon Brando’s private island, its existence as a luxury resort today is due to a boardroom brawl of the 18thcentury. For those of us in business, that conflict still holds valuable lessons. At the same time, it also fulfills the dreams of the late actor to pay homage to the land that he loved. The great actor discovered his personal paradise in 1960 while on location in Tahiti filming a remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
What’s often overshadowed in the famous seafaring tale was the amazing technical accomplishments and business success of CEO “Bill” Bligh, who as Captain Bligh is a universally disdained villain. The chief of the Bounty in the British Royal Navy, Bligh has been the subject of no less than 15 books and four movies. The fact that he accomplished his original mission of successfully transplanting breadfruit from the South Pacific to the Caribbean, a feat critical to the British economy, is often overlooked. Secondly, after being overthrown in his own boardroom brawl and set adrift in a lifeboat some 3,000 miles from civilization, he successfully made it back for Act II in what is still considered one of seafaring’s most revered examples of navigational skills. Of course, it was Bligh’s poor management skills and foul treatment of his team that has put him in the annals of history as a despised figure, a boss whose significant accomplishments get little play.
When Marlon Brando came to Tahiti to film Mutiny, he, like its leader Fletcher Christian, was in a troubled period of his career. And while Christian “retired” to paradise, before later fleeing to Pitcairn Island, Brando was able to make the South Pacific paradise his ongoing escape from the pressures and people of Hollywood. Bligh, it is reported, was the first westerner to visit Tetiaroa, when he came back in search of Christian and his compatriots. It was, in Bligh’s opinion, the type of place if visited, one would never want to leave.
Tetiaroa has an important history in Tahiti as well. It was once a retreat for female members of the Royal Family. Legend has it that kings used its atolls to hide treasure. In modern times, Brando built a small compound on Motu Onetahi (see Tetiaroa overview below) along with an airstrip.
The island became a mix of locals and friends with a low-key vibe, featuring bungalows that blended into nature. However, the Academy Award winner saw his escape as more than just a place to kick back and relax. His vision was for Tetiaroa to be a base for important marine and ecological research as well as a tribute to the Tahitian lifestyle before the tourism boon, which it is fulfilling. The design honors Brando’s vision of Tahitian perfection, which was to be in tune with the low-lying topography (villa exterior below). In other words, no overwater bungalows that he believed impinged on nature’s splendor. All power is produced by sun and coconut oil.
The resort itself has generated global press coverage beyond travel (see Recommended Reading below), from affluence magazines such as Centurion, Robb Report and Departures to fashion titles Tatler, Paris Match, Vogue and Elle, as well as business titles, including Forbes, The Financial Times and Germany’s Stern. At just 35 units, it is a partner hotel for luxury travel agency groups Virtuoso, Signature Travel Network and Traveller Made, plus National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. In Trip Advisor it has a 5-star rating, with 66 of the 69 reviews as Excellent and the remainder Very Good. A common sentiment was The Brando is a “bucket list” trip.
The Wall Street Journal wrote, “For the Paul Gauguin in all of us…unspoiled nature is on display…there are outriggers for the taking and a Tahitian pearl boutique, in case you can’t find an oyster in the wild.” At night, it feels like you can reach up and touch the stars.
Still, the resort is probably not for everyone. It can be had for full takeovers, and destination weddings. It is a good spot for families of all ages, multi-generational groups as well as romantic couples. That said, the nightlife is what you, your party and whomever else is on the island while you are there make of it. If you are looking for Ibiza, go to Ibiza, not The Brando. Anne Scully, a travel advisor with McCabe Worldwide Travel visited in October, and recommends Tahiti first timers combine The Brando with one of the other luxury resorts featuring overwater bungalows to provide a contrast.
She recommends the InterContinental in Papeete, both for convenience and construction. She says, its overwater bungalows are fairly close to shore, whereas others have lengthy walks to get to land, which gets old after a couple treks. Back to Tetiaroa, Scully, who travels globally to inspect 5-star hotels she sells, says she already has several clients who are now planning to go. She says, as a fan of Brando, visiting the resort is an emotional experience. “I’ve cried three times in my life, and I had a tear in my eye when I was leaving. To see that they have accomplished his vision of providing a place that fulfills his dream of honoring Tahitian culture, you just wish the man was alive to see it.”
She credits Pacific Beachcomber, which manages the resort, and its leadership team that has been in the islands for decades, along with a unique combination of Brando’s descendents, who are actively involved in the resort’s operations and mingle with guests. Daily activities, Scully says, are a combination of lounging in “marshmallow-like” canvas beach beds on the white sand beaches, soaking in your outdoor tub, and sunning on your deck, interspersed with a variety of diversions from bicycling and tennis to visiting the various islands, each which are bit different.
To that end, there are dozens of options. There is bird, turtle and nature watching (there are 38 species of indigenous plants, 6 very rare), swimming alongside Lemon Sharks, snorkeling, diving or paddle boarding along the reef (167 different species of fish have been observed). If you want an expert eye to guide you, tours with naturalists and researchers are available. From July to October, there is whale watching. There is even a photo safari led by a professional photographer. Other activities include lessons teaching Polynesian dance, music, cooking and handicrafts. There is a “Lagoon School” for children 6 to 12. The spa, which includes yoga lessons, will customize programs to all aptitudes, Scully says. “It is really nice, because no matter what your age or what shape you are in, they do an amazing job,” she says.
Bligh’s management miscues, once reported back home, did produce some positives. It helped lead to a new attitude in how captains in the Royal Navy were expected to treat their crew. It’s perhaps a good case study for a future issue ofHarvard Business Review. For those of you who like Brando, Christian and many others, are worried you may want to stay forever, there are also lots for sale (starting at about $6 million for a 3-bedroom villa). In terms of service, Scully says, “The Tahitians are gorgeous, but gentle and soft. It’s the culture of that island that they want to serve. In terms of the vibe, she adds, “(The resort team) has such a love of this property, it’s palpable. It’s not, ‘let’s go find fancy land and build a resort for profit.’ This is about bringing Marlon Brando’s dream to a reality, and at the same time sustaining the island’s legacy, which is Tahiti’s legacy.” Thank you Captain Bligh. Tetiaroa Overview (The 12 months)
- Onetahi: The Brando Resort is located on the motu that was once the favored retreat of Tahitian royalty.
- Honuea: Venture the short distance by outrigger canoe to explore white-sand beaches and a shallow, crystalline lagoon.
- Tiaraunu: The largest of the motus with an abundance of coconut palms.
- Tauini, Tauroa & Hiraanae: The northernmost cluster of motus are separated only by little hoa (breaks in the coral reef) and the location of lemon shark nurseries.
- Oroatera: An island paradise with spectacular beaches and a lagoon along with a seahorse-shaped pond, which spawned an ancient legend.
- Aie: The smallest of the 12 motus.
- Tahuna Iti & Tahuna Rahi: A sanctuary for birds such as red-breasted black frigates, phaetons, brown gannets, and other petrels.
- Reiono: The only motu that has preserved its primitive, original rain forest. Reiono also serves as the wilderness home for Kaveu (coconut crabs).
- Rimatuu: The first of these lotus to be inhabited by Europeans, Rimatuu was once a coconut plantation islet with its own village and dock.
There is one 3-bedroom villa (2,648 sq. ft.) with 236 sq. ft. private pool (pictured below); four 2-bedroom villas (1,808 sq. get.) with 1,658 sq. ft. private yard and 140 sq. ft. plunge pool; and 30 1-bedroom villas (1,033 sq. ft.) each with private deck and 107 sq. ft. plunge pool. All rooms have refrigerators stocked to your order. Scully says the 22 villas along Turtle Beach have a sandy, smooth bottom beach, making it perfect for wading, while the ones along Mermaid Beach, with its coral gardens, are better for snorkeling.
There is a fine dining restaurant Mutineer by 3-Michellin star chef Guy Martin (Le Grand Vefour in Paris) along with an extensive wine cellar (picture below). Beachfront offers casual dining, with Polynesian and East/West takes using local fruits, vegetables, fish and shellfish. A vegan menu by Kelvin Au-leong (Montreal’s Invitation V) is served in both restaurants. All menus are available through room service, or if you want the hotel to create a special dinner on the beach or another romantic venue. In addition to a second-floor, open-air restaurant bar with sunset views, Bob’s (named for Brando’s longtime assistant) includes the original bar for the lodge Brando built where he and Bob used to drink together.
The resort is all-inclusive, which includes all dining, including room service (with extra charges for ‘specialty’ items), an excursion per person per day from a list of options, one 50-minute spa treatment per day per villa, bikes, outriggers, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and snorkeling equipment. All beverages except “ultra-premium” wines, champagnes and spirits plus Internet is included.
Tahiti has no rainy season, however, the dry season is April to October, while the humid season runs November to March, although atolls such as Tetiaroa benefit from cool ocean breezes all year. Pack a sweater and long pants for evenings. Temperatures remain 75 F to 86 F and water 73 F to 79 F throughout the year.
123,000 Euros per night plus taxes (for all 35 villas all-inclusive) with a 3-night minimum.
From Papeete Faa’ā International Airport, it’s a 30-mile, 20-minute flight to the north via Air Tetiaroa. Reservations are made when you book the resort. You will be met from your incoming commercial or private flight and transferred to the Air Tetiaroa lounge prior to departure. Flight times are coordinated for your arrival into Papeete.
Conde Nast Traveler – #1 “50 Best Resorts in the World
”Travel + Leisure – #20 Hotel in the World
Brides – Top 10 Honeymoon Resorts in the South Pacific
Conde Nast Traveler – Hot List 2015
Bride’s UK – Best Honeymoon Hotel in Australia/South Pacific 2015
Elite Traveler – 101 Top Suites in the World 2015
Fodor’s – 15 Best Beaches for 2014
HEC Paris/1.618 – Award for Pursuit of Sustainable Luxury – 2013
National Geographic – Award for Sustainability and Authenticity – 2015
Robb Report – Best of the Best 2015
Tatler (UK) – Tatler Travel Awards – Brains and Beauty – 2015
Travel + Leisure – It List – 2015
Virtuoso – Sustainable Tourism Leadership Award – 2015
Centurion: Brando’s Lost Island
Departures: Brando’s Lost Tetiaroa Island
The Australian: Brando Hotel Is Your Island Haven In French Polynesia
Prices range by season and are higher July through October and over Christmas/New Year. They are slightly less expensive for single travelers. Children under 12 are free, with a maximum of two-children in single bedroom villas. Rates range from 2,000 Euros (1-BR villa) to 9,000 Euros per night (3-BR villa), plus taxes, with a two-night minimum, all-inclusive.
Brando representative JoAnn Kurtz-Ahlers at JoAnn@KurtzAhlers.com