The wonders of French Polynesia await discovery by well-heeled adventurers…
In the spring of 1768, the French explorer, mariner and anthropologist Louis-Antoine de Bougainville first spotted the Tuamotu archipelago, a chain of almost 80 islands and atolls in what is now known as French Polynesia. Later, upon arriving in Tahiti, its white sand beaches must have shaken and elated him to the core; so taken by the tropical scenery and numerous nearly naked young women, he and his crew compared it to the Garden of Eden.
As de Bougainville wrote in his widely read travelogue Voyage Autour du Monde (Voyage Around the World), Tahiti, one of the area’s largest islands and now its most important, was utopia, an earthly paradise of blissful innocence, untouched by the corrosive tentacles of civilisation. While much has changed in the quarter-millennium since de Bougainville arrived, the transformative spectacle of French Polynesia — the raw, visceral nature of the place — has not.
You need not stray far from the Tahitian capital of Papeete to find sights you will not soon forget. As soon as you step onto this otherworldly agglomeration of archipelagos and atolls you will feel, to paraphrase what French painter Gauguin wrote circa 1901, civilisation falling away from you. In the Marlon Brando film Mutiny On the Bounty, his character Fletcher Christian does not go ashore after stoking the eponymous uprising. Depressed and facing the gallows back in England — never mind incontrovertible Royal Navy career suicide — he lets his sailors return to the many fruits of the nearby Polynesian archipelago while he drinks himself into a stupor back on the HMS Bounty.
In real life Brando had a much different reaction to French Polynesia: he became fascinated to the point of obsession. While filming 1962’s Mutiny, the famously reclusive actor preferred thecompany of local fishermen to his fellow thespians, and on one excursion they passed Tetiaroa, a small atoll of 12 motus, or islets.
A sacred place for the Polynesians, Tetiaroa, 30 miles north of Tahiti, was only used by royalty for feasting, prayers and conflict resolution. Since the place was taboo, forbidden to common Tahitians, it remained pristine even by their standards. Only half a decade after first rowing past, the opportunity availed itself for Brando to acquire the atoll for less than US$300,000 from the heir of Johnston Walter Williams, a British consul who obtained it from the Royal Family. Brando had already married Tarita Teriipaia, the Polynesian beauty who seduced Christian as Maimiti in the film. He had won over his princess, and now he had his treasured kingdom as well.
Fast forward just over a half-century and The Brando — a 35-villa resort located on Onetahi motu where the actor once built his home — is a singular expression of luxury unlike anywhere else on the planet. That may sound hyperbolic without context, but after spending just one night here, your body recedes into a level of tranquility that no marble staircase, white-gloved spa or gajillion thread count linen could ever duplicate. After only a few days spent languidly absorbing this paradise, you will begin casting away the cares of the modern world like a snake shedding its skin.
There is no resort quite like The Brando because there is no location quite like Tetiaroa. As with its sister islands Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, the small atoll was once also a volcano. Tetiaroa was geologically suppressed, eventually creating a dozen motus crowning a ring around the crystalline lagoon. There are allegedly 32 hues of blue to be found in that 4.3-mile wide pool, although one wonders how someone would even begin to count before losing themselves in the diamonds of its surface.
There are many luxuries at The Brando, like multilevel villas each with a pool and access to a private beach looking out onto warm, glasslike cobalt water. There’s a restaurant by two-Michelin-star chef Guy Martin, and a world-class spa next to a natural freshwater lily pond. The resort keeps its client list under lock and key, but recent guests have reportedly included Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres and Margot Robbie. Barack Obama is said to have spent several weeks here working on his memoir; Leonardo DiCaprio has allegedly made repeat visits with both his mother and supermodel du jour. While it boasts nearly every luxury one could hope for, The Brando’s unmatched remoteness, anonymity and peerless sense of privacy might be its greatest indulgence; it’s more like a secret club than a hotel.
“Visitors at The Brando come to share values with us about how important it is to preserve such a beautiful place, and participate in that preservation in different ways,” explains Richard Bailey, President and CEO of Pacific Beachcomber resorts and the actor’s partner in envisioning and developing the resort. “It’s not cheap to come to The Brando, so if you’re a guest, part of the money you’re paying is going to conduct research and engage in conservation.” Rates run about US$4,000 per night. Bailey met Brando in 1999 and spent countless hours with the legendary actor in Tetiaroa, walking its grounds, swimming in its warm, brilliant lagoon and polishing off copious bottles of rum with the living legend — learning his unique perspectives on sustainability and exchanging philosophies of life along the way. Brando was steadfast in his demands that the island remain immaculate, and that whoever developed the atoll in his name would protect it diligently. By the time he passed away in 2004, he had enough confidence in Bailey to sign a letter giving the developer power over the trust that controls the atoll.
“What gradually emerged was a vision where the environment and tourism are not a zero-sum game: more tourism doesn’t mean less environment, and more environment protection doesn’t mean less tourism,” argues Bailey. “In other words, these two things are actually complimentary, and revolve around each other and work in a symbiotic relationship.” The Brando is the first five-star resort in French Polynesia to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification, the organisation’s highest accolade. It boasts the region’s largest array of solar panels, and an ingenious SWAC (Seawater Air Conditioning) system that pumps cold water from the ocean depths to cool the entire resort, consuming 90% less energy in the process. Solar accounts for 70% of the resort’s energy; the rest is primarily generated by coconut oil and other biofuels.
The Brando also employs a low-energy desalination system, a waste treatment system that uses plants and microorganisms to transform waste into clean water, and a composting program that sells its excess nourishment back to Tahiti. Some 50,000, baby turtles started their lives from the atoll last year, so the on-island Tetiaroa Society nonprofit has created sanctuaries for them and for several bird species. The group does not allow nonindigenous plants or flowers in its landscaping. The Society annually invites dozens of scientists here to study the pristine atoll’s algae, sharks and coral reefs.
And while you will want for no luxury at The Brando, its commitment to sustainability and placement at the far corner of the world means you cannot act a spoiled brat. Shrimp ran out for a day during our stay, and refillable aluminum containers are used in lieu of mountains of plastic bottles. If that’s a problem, please go elsewhere — do not bring your negative mojo to The Brando.
The utter remoteness of the locale will imbue a (quite accurate) sense that you’re walking on a grain of sand on the edge of the universe. A deep tissue massage will knead your soul as you sit on a deserted motu, looking out over the lagoon and the rest of the atoll, seeing almost no signs of human activity. No distant rattle of a scooter or Jet Ski, no mansions interrupting the dense plumage of palms, no plastic bottle or stray piece of refuse to rudely pull you back into the anxieties and fears of the 21st century. It’s just you, impossibly blue water as far as the eye can see, and a sense of solace that calms even the most obstinate, difficult-to-soothe corner of your spirit.
Should you be looking for something a bit more opulent and over-the-top in conventional luxury terms, perhaps the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa’s recently unveiled suites will tickle your fancy. At more than 3,400 square feet apiece, these four opulent suites cobranded with The Brando boast of being the largest overwater properties in all of French Polynesia. Impressive 22-foot windows look out onto the lagoon and Mt. Otemanu looming like a mighty sentinel; on one floor there’s an office and relaxation lounge, below them two bedrooms and a dining room in an airy, open loft layout. Subtle these are not, but with access to the InterContinental’s spas, restaurants and activities they offer all of Bora Bora’s pageantry without any lapse in luxury.
From your back deck you can slip into the largest private infinity pools of any suite in Bora Bora, and enjoy piña coladas delivered to your door. Or better yet, dive into the lagoon below — it’s up to 12 feet deep, so cannonball if you must. One element in which Bora Bora surpasses Tetiaroa is in its color palette, reaching levels of blue so electric the ocean looks as if lit from within. The water is also remarkably buoyant: simply float on your back, lolling lazily in the gentle tides, taking in the dramatic mass of Mt. Otemanu (or “The Seabird” in Tahitian); its looming tower of dark volcanic rock and thick green jungle infuses every blink with a sense of the surreal.
Bora Bora is an island of postcards — the name alone conjures up nostalgic dreams of the South Pacific and a time when men crossed oceans in steamships and propeller planes and frolicked with women in grass skirts against dazzling sunsets. Nowadays it may be difficult to find the earthly paradise that snatched the breath from de Bougainville’s lips more than 250 years ago, but you will almost certainly discover that lost utopia throughout French Polynesia. You couldn’t miss it for the world.
BY NICOLAS STECHER
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