Spoiler: I didn’t hate it.
When describing five-star resorts, the adjective “once-in-a-lifetime” tends to get thrown around a lot. How often is it that we have the privilege of staying at a property so unique that characterization is truly deserved? The Brando, set on Tetiaroa — a private atoll just 30 miles north of Tahiti — sparks inimitable magic. Once a sacred place of sanctuary, ritual, and relaxation for Tahitian chiefs and princesses, Tetiaroa also enchanted Hollywood royalty. In the 1960s, Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando fell in love with the atoll’s untouched motus and turquoise lagoon while filming Mutiny on the Bounty.
Determined to preserve this South Seas paradise, Brando — a champion conservationist — purchased Tetiaroa from a wealthy dentist who had turned some of its motus into a coconut plantation. “My greatest hope is to return it to what Polynesia used to be,” he wrote at the time. “If I can do this, it will give me more pleasure and satisfaction than any acting I have ever done.” Today, the actor’s vision has transformed into a reality. Since opening in 2014, The Brando has earned a reputation as a standard-setting eco-resort; it was the first in the industry to be awarded LEED Platinum certification for its carbon neutrality, the ultimate environmental accolade.
The Brando also happens to be one of the most exclusive — and star-studded — resorts in the world. A favorite of tech moguls, royals, and A-listers, it’s where Pippa Middleton celebrated her honeymoon and President Barack Obama checked in for a month to write his memoir. (While the staff is notoriously tight-lipped and requires all guests to sign a privacy agreement, some information inevitably gets out). For one glorious long weekend, I was lucky enough to count myself among the elite and experience Tetiaroa’s Polynesian retreat. Here’s what it’s really like to stay there, from the luxury villas and wagyu dinners to private eco-cruises and a historic royal bath.
Where I Stayed
After a breezy 20-minute ride on The Brando’s prop plane, I landed on Onetahi, Tetiaroa’s only inhabited motu. Rather than a formal check-in process, staff warmly greeted me by name and ushered me straight to my temporary beachfront home via electric golf cart. Of the property’s 35 standalone villas, the majority are in one-bedroom (1,033 square feet) configurations with a living room, separate office with a pullout bed, dressing area, massive bathroom with dual vanities, and an outdoor soaking tub. Considering the generous layout is larger than a lot of one-bedroom apartments in New York City, this “entry” room category will suit most people just fine. Sleek, high-end extras, like iPads and a mini fridge stocked with champagne, are everywhere. Even the TV in the bedroom pops up from the cabinet at the touch of a button.
The highlight, though, is what’s outside. Hidden by a natural screen of verdant pandanus, miki miki, and coconut trees, each villa feels blissfully isolated on its long swathe of white sand. (I spent hours swimming, snorkeling, and zoning out in my own private patch of ocean, and never saw another soul). Villas branch out on either side of the island, and while there are certainly no bad rooms at The Brando, each have their advantages. Located along the lagoon nicknamed “Billionaire’s Bathtub,” Mermaid Bay boasts soft sand and shallow water perfect for swimming. Other guests — me included — swear by Turtle Beach for its breathtaking sunsets and prime access to pristine coral and colorful reef fish. As if that’s not enough, each villa comes equipped with an infinity pool, hammock, and alfresco dining area. Trust me when I say it’s almost too easy to stay hidden away here for your entire vacation.
Where I Ate
Of course, you must eat — the resort offers five different restaurants and bars, as well as 24-hour room service. To make the most of your time, I recommend splurging on the all-inclusive package, which covers most meals, drinks, excursions, tours, and spa treatments for a starting rate of $3,700 a night. (It’s not like you’re going to hop on a plane to eat somewhere else, and frankly you’d be nuts to miss a meal here).
Each morning begins at the alfresco Beachcomber Cafe, where guests dig into a decadent buffet of tropical fruit, poisson cru, pastries, fresh juices, and made-to-order crêpes and omelets. My favorite: the homemade coconut yogurt and fresh honey from the atoll’s own busy hives. Beachcomber is also open for lunch, but I made a habit of pulling up a chair at the more casual Bob’s Bar, named after Brando’s beloved factotum on film sets, where you can order poke, burgers, and the platonic ideal of a club sandwich. Admittedly, I kept returning for another reason: the signature Dirty Old Bob. Made from Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, honey, pineapple, lime, mint, angostura bitters, and egg white, it’s the ultimate Polynesian cocktail — sweet but not cloying, and much like The Brando itself, refreshing with substance.
Dinner at The Brando somehow managed to surpass my high expectations. Nami, managed by Japanese chef Kaito Nakamura, could rival the best teppanyaki in Osaka. Les Mutinés, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, fuses French and Polynesian cooking in creative dishes like gnocchi with passionfruit and vanilla, wagyu with roasted coffee juice, and madeleine with creamy Tetiaroa honey.
What I Did
While I was tempted to spend my whole visit at The Brando eating and counting the shades of blue in the lagoon, the atoll has a lot to explore for a resort that’s so off the grid. True to its mission, many of its activities are run by The Tetiaroa Society, an onsite nonprofit dedicated to studying the atoll and conserving its ecology. From Polynesian dance and weaving lessons to collecting data on boobies, terns, and egrets with one of the program’s naturalists, guests can be as hands-on as they like. As a passionate scuba diver, I opted for Reef Quest, a two-hour snorkeling excursion with a Tetiaroa Society guide who showed me around the property’s plentiful coral and introduced me to its many residents, including blacktip reef sharks, triggerfish, damselfish, and trevallies.
I also signed up for the Ultimate Tour, a comprehensive boat ride through the motus on Tetiaroa’s north and east side that ends in the famed Queen’s Bath, a sacred location identified by archaeologists as the spot where the Tahitian Queen herself used to bathe in the calm, warm waters, using the soft, wet sand as an exfoliant. Framed by towering coconut trees, it’s easy to see how the glassy pool was chosen as a natural spa.
If you’re looking for a massage to go with your soak, The Brando’s Varua Polynesian Spa, similarly set on a tranquil pond, offers a complete menu of tension-relieving treatments inspired by Polynesian wellness traditions. (Not that you’re likely to feel stressed here.) But my most impressive excursion was the Green Tour, which gives backstage access to The Brando’s sustainable facilities and practices. I received a thorough overview of how the property uses a pioneering deep seawater-based AC system, grows much of its own produce including some of the world’s best vanilla, powers an electric plant with coconut oil, and eradicated mosquitoes with a pesticide-free program.
None of these eco-friendly initiatives would be possible without the funding of the for-profit resort, while the success of The Tetiaroa Society secures the future of the atoll, ensuring it’s a peaceful place to live for all creatures. Both a fantasy island where you can order foie gras in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and a center of scientific research, there’s nothing else quite like it.