Tahiti's Brando Resort Wants to Be an Ethical Private Island
Private tropical island. Just three words, but shorthand for the most luxurious, indulgent experience imaginable. It’s Fantasy Island, James Bond villains, and the billionaire’s retreat in the Knives Out sequel. The most quintessentially fabulous private island in the world sits 30 miles north of Tahiti, one nonstop flight (plus a short small-plane connection) from Seattle: Tetiaroa, home of the Brando.
French Polynesia is comprised of 121 islands, a handful of which thrive on tourism—Tahiti, Bora Bora—but many, many more of which are home to a rural population of indigenous Polynesians (plus 50 or so of which are uninhabited). And then there are the private islands sold for $20 million or more (or, on occasion, much less). Tetiaroa outdoes them all, thanks to one of Hollywood's biggest-ever names, Marlon Brando.
The actor visited French Polynesia in the 1960s to film Mutiny on the Bounty, playing a ship’s mate who overthrows a tyrannical captain and escapes to a remote uninhabited island to live with a Tahitian wife. In what’s basically Method acting in reverse, Brando then married the Polynesian actress cast opposite him and secured his own isle, Tetiaroa. Purchased from a Canadian dentist’s family, it had previously served as a retreat for Polynesian royals; today Barack Obama and Beyoncé vacation there. (And Johnny Depp, and Kim Kardashian, and Leonardo DiCaprio, and pretty much everyone else with pockets deep enough for ultimate paradise.)
They come to the resort the actor's children founded after his death, the Brando; 35 private villas lining pristine white-sand beach on the broken loop of motus, or islets, in the turquoise Pacific. The land here is the kind of picture-perfect landscape of wildest dreams and luxury watch ads; the outdoor bars feel like a movie set. Rates start north of $5,000 per night—but the Brando is also the site of groundbreaking sustainability work. How does the concept of a private island in a coexist with 21st century ideas about ethical travel?
To state the obvious, the Brando is a sensational vacation spot. Each villa hides from its neighbors with a wall of palms, every patio opening to an ocean view and a backyard plunge pool. With enough square footage to rival a family home back in Seattle, each villa feels like the opulent pool house at a billionaire’s estate.
Dinner at Les Mutinés, an intimate fine-dining eatery with a soaring roof, is a multi-course feast of French delicacies like compressed mango topped with creative foams. (Sampled as a guest of the Brando—lest the IRS read this and think I’m hiding a secret fortune.) Its new chef, Jean Imbert, earned a Michelin star in Paris. And though the hotel celebrates its ten-year anniversary in 2024, the only things that feel worn are delightfully so, like the rust on the complimentary bicycles used to travel the island. No amount of wealth can counter the effects of salty air.
Marlon Brando’s ownership of the island—technically a 99-year lease—didn’t include the lagoon or beaches, so outsiders aren’t totally prohibited here; charter tours are allowed to approach the island, though the arduous sail from Tahiti keeps those numbers very low. Which means that pleasurable isolation is easy to achieve for Brando guests, from the spa where treatment rooms are separated by inland lagoons to excursions across the turquoise waters to utterly uninhabited motus. Staff live in a village tucked next to the high-end hotel, much of it in buildings initially constructed for a more modest eco-resort on the island, a project that never really took off.
Even before the Bounty’s real-life sailors descended on Polynesia, the South Pacific endured colonialism from European powers. Tahiti and its fellow Society Islands, part of today’s French Polynesia, were later popularized in masterpieces by the painter Paul Gauguin, who wrought dreamy tableaus of tropical, beachy life in a rich palate of reds and browns. (Today, of course, Gauguin is generally considered with additional context, like how he fathered children by indigenous teenagers in the islands and, uh, the syphilis.)
Today, few Polynesians could ever spring for a trip to the Brando in their own backyard; like the luxury overwater huts that have come to define Bora Bora honeymoons, the opulence of thatched bungalows stand in stark contrast to the country’s relative poverty. But the Brando’s status in the world of ultra-luxe accommodations is marked by a distinct awareness of this gulf, and a calling to justify its existence.
For one, there’s the SWAC. The sea-water air conditioning system developed by the Brando and its sister resort on Bora Bora uses a resource plentiful to Polynesia: the Pacific. With a pipe that plunges 900 meters down to the sea floor past Tetiaroa’s reef, the system pumps frigid water up to the balmy surface, transferring the chill to a cross-resort system that keeps buildings at comfortable temperatures in a sustainable fashion.
Though the Brando drives innovation in hopes of modeling sustainable tourism—the resort also sorts trash into 29 different categories for recycling and re-use, desalinates its own water, and runs electrical panels down the side of the airstrip—it has already spread farther than just hotels. The same SWAC design, with outside investment, was implemented in Tahiti’s main hospital last year.
Guests who don’t care about these technologies wouldn’t notice them, but those who do can experience the novelty on a tour of the SWAC center with a Brando guide or do a plunge into a special pool filled by the same very naturally cooled water. Green travel doesn’t have to mean crunchy.
“This island is more accessible now than it has been in forever,” says Hinano Murphy. Given the price tag to enter the Brando’s rarefied space, it’s a strange statement—but she knows what she’s talking about. The Polynesian educator serves as cultural director of the Tetiaroa Society, a kind of high-minded preservation and scientific organization to balance the island’s luxury half. She and her husband Frank, an American who serves as Executive Director of the group, oversee stewardship of the island.
After all, says Hinano, Tetiaroa was never a public space. “It’s always been a secret island, a jewel,” she notes. “It was always taboo, this place.” The Canadians who owned it before the Brandos tried farming part of its land, and before that the royals used it as a private retreat; Hinano can still spot the stony remains of the centuries-old platform where those high-status Polynesians were received on the shore. Today the Tetiaroa Society welcomes scientists to its research station, so shark counts and seawater experiments take place not far from where the finest French wines are poured at dinner.
Already the Tetiaroa Society has seen success in eliminating invasive species on the small plot of land—mosquitos first, now rats. Next is the coconut palms the Canadians tried to farm on the island. Besides the small footprint of the resort, the island is a nature preserve that is slowly recovering from its past usage. Polynesian schoolchildren now visit on guided trips to learn about their homegrown nature.
Hinano is used to explaining the subtleties of her culture to outsiders; she spent years as one of many cultural consultants on Disney’s Moana. She’d share important details as they tweaked the film, even down to how an animated demi-god’s hair should look or how the seafaring early Polynesians didn’t wear flower crowns on lengthy ocean voyages. (You won’t find flower leis at the Brando’s check-in either, for different reasons; problematic insects could hitchhike on such blooms.) That same fidelity to Polynesia’s deep history took root at the Brando via the Tetiaroa Society. Guides leads tours of the other motus across the lagoon from the hotel proper, teaching guests about just how such a paradise has morphed over the centuries—and how it’s recovering.
From her hut in the employee village on Tetiaroa, Hinano explains rahui, the Polynesian concept of a reserve. Roughly translated, it's the idea of managing an area with intention, with ecology in mind, but also in concert with the people who live there. Conservation, but with culture. “As opposed to the western [model], which is you draw a line around and say no one can come in,” she says.
Bringing scientists, kids, and nonprofits to Tetiaroa opens it up, with 70 percent of the society’s operations funded by the Brando. Put bluntly, the hotel is a big part of why Tetiaroa is still such a jewel. “We are canoe people,” she notes. “Even when we are on land, we must work together.”