Nature’s always put me in my place, reminded me of how small I am. At the same time, while immersed amid the outdoors, I feel the most alive. I suppose that’s why something Marlon Brando said, which was quoted in his 2004 New York Times obituary, resonated deeply with me.
"When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe. Then I think: 'God, I have no importance. Whatever I do or don't do, or what anybody does, is not more important than the grains of sand that I am lying on, or the coconut that I am using for my pillow.”
Just as much as they did then, Brando’s words move me. I like knowing that he felt small sometimes, that nature had an effect on him. I like that connection between him and me, one all humans share. I suppose that’s why I always wanted to go to Tetiaroa, Brando’s own island in French Polynesia, now a highly touted eco-resort.
When I finally get there, I arrive to the scent of gardenia and the din of the wind shuffling coconut fronds. Right away, I rush to the beach, stand near the water, perhaps in the same place where he once pondered, and reconsider his words. “Here’s where he felt that,” I think, feeling the grit of the sand between my toes, awed by the still, azure waters of the lagoon. I imagine him drinking the scene up like a curative elixir. I follow suit. The very terrain has healing powers.
Disenchanted with Hollywood, on a quest for meaningfulness, Brando is said to have caught sight of Tetiaroa when filming "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1960. It took some scheming, but he managed to acquire the island, which he refused to develop. Instead, he erected some rustic huts, married, had children and lived a simple life, following the example of many generations of Tahitians before him. Throughout the years, silver screen friends visited Tetiaroa, hosted by Brando and entranced by his world. I imagine them wonderstruck by a place where paradise’s rules trumped Hollywood’s — where bare feet, sarongs and hammocks replaced stiletto heels, fur coats and four-poster beds. Brando must have enjoyed the gift he gave his guests. He sent them back better prepared to navigate the urban chaos and buzzy lives they lived in Los Angeles. Perhaps this realization triggered Brando’s eventual idea for a self-sustained hotel, one that would celebrate the island’s biodiversity, one where he could share Tetiaroa’s tranquil largesse with the world.
In 1999, in collaboration with Tahitian hotelier Richard Bailey, Brando seriously began work on his concept. The project underwent many iterations before it opened at last in 2014 (sadly, after Brando’s death) as one of the world's most ecologically forward resorts. Today an intimate bastion that has housed Leonardo DiCaprio numerous times, Barack Obama for a month while he wrote his memoirs and myriad luminaries from Pippa Middleton to Beyonce, the Brando is most proud of its LEED Platinum Certification, its commitment to paying homage to Tahitian culture and its low-key, understated endowment of Brando-style chill.
Within an hour of being at the Brando, I’m almost bored. That’s the beauty of the place. To get here, I’ve taken a 20-minute flight on Air Tetiaroa's private plane from Papeete, which is an eight-hour flight from California. I land on an airstrip, a gravelly rivulet amid an orchid sea. Right away, greeted with flowers and songs, I take up residence in one of 35 thatched villas — each opulently but simply appointed, each glamorous — all far enough away from the others to make me feel I am the only human occupying the island. Outside my door, I spy a personal pool and private beach. The package comes complete with a butler. Mine shows me around, pointing out my bike, which I can’t wait to use to explore the island. He gives me my snorkeling gear and points to the coral garden beyond my back door. I hate to admit that I ask about Wi-Fi — it’s there, strong and waiting when I need it. There’s a television, too, but I don’t care about that. “The less news the better,” I say to myself (though I know that’s selfish in these rollicking times). The fridge, pre-stocked with my preferences, calls — and I open some French rosé. (This is French Polynesia, after all.) After a few sips, I pedal away, only a danger to myself and the occasional lizard that passes in front of me.
A paragon of green tourism, the self-sustaining hotel grows large amounts of the food it serves, uses solar electricity and coconut oil generators for its energy and pumps cold water from the depths of the sea for its innovative air-conditioning system. All construction comprises local, renewable and recycled products, and all on-island transport is electric. Add in that it holds a cultural and biological research center, chock-full of scientists (they’ve done such things as eradicated the mosquitos on the island naturally), and offers a range of cultural courses for guests, and Tetiaroa clearly fulfills Brando’s dream.
The Tahitians believed that mana, earth’s sacred energy, helped adjust the universe. Loosely translated, the word means soulfulness. Brando knew his island had mana. You’ll feel it, too.
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