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Tetiaroa: For Whom the Atoll Tolls

Ed Rampell: For me, experiencing Marlon Brando’s private atoll was akin to one of the legendary Method actor’s performances.

A supporter of civil rights, the Black Panthers and Native Americans, Marlon Brando was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actor/activists. In 1973 Apache woman Sacheen Littlefeather declined Brando’s Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf at the televised live awards ceremony because of Tinseltown’s celluloid stereotypes of America’s tribal people. In 1976 Brando gave refuge to American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks who was wanted by U.S. law enforcement authorities at his South Pacific island. Today, a luxury resort stands on the sands of bewitchingly lovely Tetiaroa, providing a haven for world-weary travelers - instead of indigenous militants.


For me, experiencing Marlon Brando’s private atoll was akin to one of the legendary Method actor’s performances.

For me, experiencing Marlon Brando’s private atoll was akin to one of the legendary Method actor’s performances. Arriving early morning at Tahiti’s Faaa Airport amidst a torrential downfall, winds howled like Brando’s Stanley Kowlaski bellowing “Hey, Stella!!!” in A Streetcar Named Desire. Waiting in Air Tetiaroa’s lounge I feared a hurricane would smack French Polynesia; predictably, the 30 mile flight was postponed. Along with a Swiss couple I was transferred to the nearby InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa and advised to standby, in case the weather broke.

Since I’d been scheduled to subsequently stay at the InterContinental, after checking in the Deep Nature Spa there switched my appointment to that morning. Following all the hubbub, it was delightful to just lie back as my Polynesian masseuse, Poe Rava, caressed my flesh, front and back, barehanded with a scrub consisting of sea salt, sugar and algae oil. “I will give you skin like a bébé,” Poe purred. As she removed dead cells and I drifted off, literally in Poe’s capable hands, InterContinental’s concierge burst into the treatment room, excitedly shouting: “You must go this split second to Tetiaroa!”

Clad in a scanty sarong, still oily, I leapt off the table, hurriedly packing in my room - talk about greased lightning. The squall passed and I was rushed back to Faaa, where I boarded a puddle jumper bearing the Swiss couple and, with a bone rattling racket, our young pilot started the four-seater’s engine. The propellers whirled and we were off on the road to Tetiaroa. Like Marlon’s mercurial mood swings in movies from Streetcar to Last Tango in Paris, the downpour had given way to sunshine and the atoll shimmered brilliantly when we landed.

Tetiaroa is a low lying coral atoll of 13 pine- and palm-fringed white sand islets bounded by lagoon and sea. Once Tahitian royalty’s refuge, Marlon acquired Tetiaroa after shooting 1962’s Polynesia-set Mutiny on the Bounty. The atoll is adorned with the simplicity of eternity, an eco-topia for marine life and seabirds where one of Earth’s most luxurious, remote resorts, with only 35 thatched villas built mostly with local materials, is ensconced.

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The Brando’s all-inclusive packages include spa treatments; Spa Varua is set apart from the rest of this heavenly haven. If Tetiaroa looks like something Gauguin would have painted, the water lily-strewn freshwater pond Varua is perched above suggests a Monet mural. Much of this eight unit Oceanic oasis is linked by a boardwalk, crowned by Fare Manu, or “bird house,” a nest-like double suite with an outdoor bathtub 20 feet high amidst treetops, often frequented by honeymooners and couples celebrating anniversaries. The wellness complex also features a cold plunge; teahouse; four treatment rooms; and relaxation lounge, where the only sound one might hear are waves pounding the distant reef.


Aloft in Fare Manu Frenchwoman Elodie Fouchet, who’d worked as a spa therapist at the south of France and Iceland, performed a volcanic stone massage on me. After heating them in a rice cooker that enabled her to control temperatures, Elodie rubbed my body with the hot rocks, using a slow movement, applying some, but not a lot, of pressure. Using the Varua brand monoï (derived from tiare, or gardenias, soaked in coconut oil) scented with pineapple, Elodie also executed Taurumi - traditional Tahitian deep massage - on me, using her fingers, forearms and elbows (80 minutes/$260).

Varua is Tahitian for “soul” and this unique spa is regarded as Tetiaroa’s spiritual center. Following the discombobulation caused by the morning’s storm and ensuing getaway flight, after Elodie’s soothing heat massage and my overnight stay at this five star South Seas sanctuary, my tension was released. My soul and senses were replenished when I reluctantly departed The Brando. Instead of Apocalypse Now, as I soared above Tetiaroa, looming below like an emerald necklace stretched across a sea of turquoise, it seemed more like “Paradise Now.”

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based culture and travel writer. The third edition of the film history he co-authored, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, drops in March 2018. Rampell will lecture aboard the Aranui’s April 17-30, 2018 cruise commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of singer/actor Jacques Brel, who is buried near Paul Gauguin in the cemetery at Atuona, Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas Islands.