Brando fell in love with Tahiti while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in 1960. (Photo: Mondadori/Getty)
Marlon Brando In Rainforests In 'Mutiny On The Bounty'

We Had Marlon Brando’s Island Utopia to Ourselves

In 1967, Marlon Brando bought a tiny atoll near Tahiti with the aim of preserving it as a tropical paradise. That effort continues, supported by a resort where Beyoncé, Obama, and other big shots chill next to a stunning private lagoon. Hampton Sides went there to meet with scientists and splash around an eco-fantasy island.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
(Photo: Bettmann/Getty)

“Now just remember what Huey Long said—that every man’s a king—and I’m the king around here and don’t you forget it.”

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951

Our prop plane climbs away from Tahiti and heads north over the whitecapped Pacific. Leveling off at a few thousand feet, the French pilot turns from the cockpit and flashes a thumbs-up to me, my wife, Anne, and the handful of other passengers in the half-empty cabin. Twenty minutes later, we glimpse our destination through the tiny window: a pristine atoll consisting of 12 islets—or motu—arranged in a circle, like a necklace of emeralds laid upon the sea. 

The effect is jaw-dropping as we dip through the clouds. A bloom of surf breaking along the reef. Then a golden ring of submerged coral; then a turquoise band of shallow water, followed by a blinding sliver of beach. Jungles of waxy green—breadfruit and ironwood, pandanus and palm. All told it adds up to about 1,600 acres of South Seas paradise, nodding in the ocean breeze.

You’d never know that on one of those motu lies one of the poshest hotels in all of Polynesia, its clusters of blond-wood buildings and 35 thatch-roofed villas so unobtrusively tucked into their environment that we don’t see a thing until we fly right over it. There are none of those annoying over­water bungalows that have become a cliché of French Polynesia, the romantic architecture honeymooners supposedly love. 

We bank above the stunning inner lagoon, which has been called the Billionaire’s Bathtub. It’s the flooded caldera of a volcano that sank into the sea eons ago. There are said to be 32 shades of blue in the lagoon, but who’s counting? Cerulean. Azure. Robin’s egg. Delphinium. Cobalt. Indigo. Ultra­marine. Aquamarine. Teal. I’ve heard it described as “ludicrous” blue, “electric” blue, and “Hockney” blue; none of these seem hyperbolic.

Our puddle-jumper lands on a small airstrip lined with solar panels. Stepping off, we hear the thrum of a ukulele and are saluted by a regal-looking Polynesian man. Standing nearby is a phalanx of staff dressed in white linen shorts and white leather loafers. It feels like the whole island has been waiting for us, eager to deliver miracles.

(Photo: Courtesy the Brando)

Welcome to Tetiaroa atoll, home of the Brando, possibly the world’s most exclusive eco-resort. Since its launch in July 2014, the island compound has striven to become carbon neutral (if you don’t count the carbon it takes to get there) and a living laboratory for what’s possible in the niche of very high-end sustainable tourism. 

Somehow, serendipitously, we’ve gotten in just under the radar. It’s March 11, 2020, and COVID-19 is descending on the world. The Brando is still open, but in a couple of weeks it will be forced to shut down for three months.

Yes, Brando, as in that Brando: the greatest actor of his generation; the Oscar-winning star of such landmark films as On the Waterfront, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. Marlon Brando bought this atoll in 1967, and for the rest of his life it remained his abiding love and fondest obsession. “If I’ve ever come close to finding genuine peace,” he wrote in his autobiography, “it was on my island.”

Brando was one spectacularly eccentric dude, and he grew more eccentric as he aged and the psychodramas of his personal life began to take a toll on his health and outlook. But he was a ferocious champion of the environment, far ahead of his time, and he had big green dreams for his island. Tetiaroa became, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the truest mirror of Brando’s search for purity.” He wanted to build a resort that was environmentally and architecturally sensitive, and he wanted to restore the atoll to something closer to its primeval state. “My greatest hope,” he wrote, “is to return it to what Polynesia used to be. If I can do this, it will give me more pleasure and satisfaction than any acting I have ever done.”

Brando died in Los Angeles in 2004, at the age of 80, and his ashes were scattered over Tetiaroa. When the resort opened in 2014—ten years, to the day, after Brando’s passing—it represented the consummation of his vision for a kind of island utopia. I’ve come to Tetiaroa to see what Brando’s dream looks like today.

(Photo: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty)

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

—On the Waterfront, 1954

“The Godfather of tropical getaways,” the travel writers have called it. “An Island Named Desire.” Others have described the peculiar ethos here as one of “eco-splendor,” “responsible luxury,” “barefoot elegance,” and “castaway chic.” Only a rarefied clientele who can afford rates that start at $3,500 a night can even think about staying at the Brando: Hollywood A-listers, business moguls, royals, sultans, sheiks. It’s a one-percenter’s paradise, a paparazzi-proof getaway for people who’ve got Bitcoin to burn but might also possess a green conscience. Those rumored to have graced the place with their presence include Beyoncé, Prince Albert of Monaco, Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp, and Ellen DeGeneres. 

Leonardo DiCaprio is said to have come with his mother and whichever supermodel he happened to be dating at the time. President Barack Obama worked on his memoirs here in 2017. In October 2020, as COVID-19 cases surged again internationally, Kim Kardashian West drew attention to the Brando, and widespread criticism to herself, for throwing a bodacious 40th-birthday bash on Tetiaroa. She reportedly chartered a private jet and took over the whole resort so that she and some 30 of her best friends could “pretend things were normal just for a brief moment,” as she put it in a much maligned tweet.

Meanwhile, scientists from around the world come to work at Tetiaroa, too—they study the sea turtles, the health of the reef, the warming of the ocean, the behavior of sharks, and dozens of other things. The scientists are housed in dorm rooms at an eco-station on the other side of the motu from the Brando resort. That’s where Anne and I will be bunking. 

Beside the tarmac, we’re greeted by Frank Murphy, executive director of the Tetiaroa Society. We toss our bags into an electric golf cart and are whisked down a concrete path that swerves through the clattering fronds. The Tetiaroa Society is a nonprofit dedicated to studying the atoll and conserving its ecology; it’s a kind of South Seas environmental think tank funded in part by the resort. For Murphy, a California geographer who came to French Polynesia back in the 1990s, running the day-to-day operations of the Society is a fantasy job. 

Today, Murphy’s wearing his usual office attire: sandals, shorts, a sun hat. His ginger goatee is speckled with gray, and a traditional Polynesian design is tattooed around his left arm. He takes us by the shack where he stays when he’s here. (The rest of the year he lives on the nearby island of Moorea.) His bungalow is a Robinson Crusoe–esque joint, with driftwood, old buoys, and miscellaneous pieces of found art decorating the premises. On a shelf sits an empty double magnum of an 1896 Dow’s vintage port that was left in the villa of a fantastically wealthy Hollywood star. (Like everyone who works on Tetiaroa, Murphy isn’t allowed to name names—discretion is the watchword here.) “There were just a few dregs left,” he reminisces. “But man, was it good.”

(Photo: Courtesy the Brando)
President Obama worked on his memoirs at the resort in 2017.
President Obama worked on his memoirs at the resort in 2017. (Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/Getty)
A prop plane that flies to the atoll
A prop plane that flies to the atoll (Photo: Courtesy Kris Koeller)
Tetiaroa Society executive director Frank Murphy
Tetiaroa Society executive director Frank Murphy (Photo: Courtesy the Tetiaroa Society)

Continuing on our golf-cart tour, we pass the organic farm and the beehive colony. We pass the desalination plant, the rainwater-catchment facility, the outbuildings packed with lithium batteries, and the digester that turns food waste into compost.

Finally, we arrive at the eco-station, with wet labs and dry labs and enough beds to accommodate 18 visiting scientists. This week’s roster includes a climatologist from the University of Washington, who’s studying ocean acidification, and an invasive-species expert from France’s Réunion island. The scientists’ flip-flops are strewn about the front steps, beside a sign that proclaims: “Save Tetiaroa. Save the Planet.” A research vessel is anchored nearby. The place has a kind of Wes Andersony Life Aquatic feel—tan young scientists adventuring smartly in a marine paradise. 

The Tetiaroa Society has been described as the “moral authority” of the island. If the Society is about maintaining the island’s health, the Brando is where it gets much of its funding. The Society trains the guides who lead the lagoon and wildlife tours, but the resort keeps the wheels turning. Richard Bailey, chairman and CEO of Pacific Beachcomber, the company that runs the Brando, has said that he wants to create a “virtuous cycle”—instead of the usual vicious one—between paying guests and the protection of the environment that lures them in the first place. 

In the eco-station office, a large portrait of Marlon Brando as a winsome young star stares down from the wall; it’s one of the few places on the island that pays overt homage to the man behind all this. “Brando’s obsession is our obsession,” Murphy tells me. “His dream for Tetiaroa is our dream. We’ve just carried on, in agreement with Marlon’s ideas.”

One of Brando’s notions was to make Tetiaroa a gathering place for cutting-edge scientists. Faithful to that concept, in late 2021 (subject to COVID-19 restrictions, of course), the Tetiaroa Society hopes to host a high-level summit here and on Tahiti. The aim is a kind of environmental Davos, bringing together some 300 scientists, engineers, activists, politicians, and influencers of all kinds. As part of something called the Blue Climate Initiative, they plan to discuss solutions to climate change. “It’s a fantastic thing to contemplate,” says Murphy, “that here on a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific, we might be able to have some effect on the future of the planet.”

(Photo: United Artists/AF archive/Alamy)

“Terminate the colonel?”

“Terminate—with extreme prejudice.”

—Apocalypse Now, 1979

While Tetiaroa may aspire to be a laboratory for the future, one of its abiding mantras is to turn back the clock: way, way back, before the coming of European explorers to the South Seas, before Bligh and Bougainville and Cook, before the arrival of the Polynesians even. The Tetiaroa Society is determined to eliminate all invasive species that were brought to the place—starting with the Polynesian tiger mosquito, Aedes polynesiensis.

Likely introduced by ancient voyagers who reached these islands about a thousand years ago, the Polynesian tiger mosquito is a vector for such diseases as dengue, chikungunya, and the Zika virus. The pests were rampant on Tetiaroa, but a few years ago the resort approached Hervé Bossin, a medical entomologist at Tahiti’s Institut Louis Malardé, who pioneered an innovative eradication protocol. Bossin’s program breeds and releases untold thousands of male mosquitoes infected with a bacteria called Wolbachia. When the Wolbachia-tainted males mate with wild females, the eggs are not viable. In less than a year, without using pesticides or genetic modification, Bossin’s regime eliminated 95 percent of the mosquitoes. In another year, two motu will be entirely free of the biting menaces.

But a different pest is the real public enemy here. Like most islands across the South Pacific, Tetiaroa is crawling with rats—specifically, the Polynesian rat and the black, or ship, rat. Human voyagers introduced them long ago; the rats were inadvertent hitchhikers on boats. Since the rodents have no predators on Tetiaroa, their population has swelled. On most of the atoll’s motu, they’ve become ravening armies, scrabbling over the beaches and the forest floor, gorging on everything in sight: eggs, chicks, even some adult birds, as well as land crabs, lizards, insects, and pretty much every kind of vegetation they encounter. A research group working on Tetiaroa has captured infrared footage of rats descending on baby sea turtles just as they emerged from their eggs and were making their first wobbly pilgrimage toward the surf. 

Right now, Tetiaroa is engaged in a systematic program to rid the island of these omnivorous vermin, an ambitious endeavor led by researchers from the University of Auckland and the California-based nonprofit Island Conservation. Deploying helicopters, drones, and ground walkers to drop precisely measured doses of anticoagulant rat poison in grid patterns, the specialists hope for a complete eradication this year. The bait is not especially harmful to the environment; birds aren’t interested in eating it, and though land crabs are, the poison doesn’t seem to affect their metabolism. The eradication protocol being perfected here is one that could be followed, with minor variations, throughout all tropical islands, and the meticulous baseline studies and mountains of data from the project will likely be analyzed by island-biodiversity experts for years to come.

A ride through Tetiaroa village
A ride through Tetiaroa village (Photo: Courtesy Kris Koeller)
A juvenile red-footed booby
A juvenile red-footed booby (Photo: Courtesy Kris Koeller)
A Polynesian greeting at the Brando
A Polynesian greeting at the Brando (Photo: Courtesy David Littschwager)
The resort’s organic garden
The resort’s organic garden (Photo: Courtesy Kris Koeller)

Of course, a rodent apocalypse, however necessary or environmentally sound, doesn’t make for pleasant conversation in this otherwise idyllic place; as one can imagine, the resort doesn’t go out of its way to advertise the rat problem to its well-heeled guests. Yet it’s a subject that Frank Murphy tackles head-on. “For me it’s a question of rats versus all other kinds of native life,” he says. “Humans brought them here, and only humans can take them away.” The arrival of COVID-19 did offer one tiny sliver of opportunity: Murphy and his scientists were able to proceed with early phases of the eradication program while the resort was shut down.

One morning I paddled by sea kayak to an outlying motu with French conservation biologist David Ringler-Veillon. He needed to download images from a number of wildlife cameras he’d set up in the underbrush of the coconut trees to monitor the week’s rat activity on a particular grid of the motu. Over the years, Ringler-Veillon has been intimately involved in eradication programs on other islands around the world, targeting feral goats, cats, and mice, as well as rats. 

Ringler-Veillon admires rats for their tenacity, their survival instinct, and what he calls their “ecological plasticity.” “I’m amazed by their way of thinking,” he says. “The strategies they use to colonize new environments. They can adapt to any climate, any resources, any food, almost any landscape. They’re excellent opportunists.”

There’s no getting around it, though: rats have no natural place on these vulnerable islands. “People tell us we’re playing God. And I say, I’m not here to kill rats. I’m here to defend biodiversity,” Ringler-Veillon says. 

Scientists believe that rats have been responsible for many extinctions across the South Pacific, effectively erasing eons of evolution. Not only that, but in the tropics rats carry numerous diseases, including leptospirosis, which can be fatal to humans. And rats harm the marine environment just as they harm the terrestrial one: a study showed that on rat-free islands, where seabird populations are much larger, more guano, which is rich in nitrogen, enters the sea and feeds the coral reef, helping to sustain all manner of marine life.

The real trick to Tetiaroa’s rat-eradication program, and the reason for the obsessive science surrounding it, is that a 99 percent mortality rate won’t cut it. If even just one male and one female survive the blitz of poison bait, they’ll quickly reproduce. Rats can swim more than half a mile; it would be only a matter of time before they spread to all of Tetiaroa’s other motu, and this elaborate, expensive operation would be a bust. “Almost isn’t good enough,” says Ringler-Veillon. “With rats, it’s either complete success or nothing.” 

Extreme prejudice, indeed. And yet there’s one species, Ringler-Veillon notes with a grin, that’s even more devastating to ecosystems. “We are the ultimate invasive species, of course. We are the king rats!”

(Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty)

“I’m not leaving you, Mr. Christian, not ever. Go to the dirtiest little corner of the world and I’ll be there, right behind you, with a rope in my hand.”

—Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962

In the Tahitian language, Tetiaroa means “standing on the ocean horizon.” For centuries, families from the ruling clans of Tahiti came here to get away and relax, and sometimes to fatten up their soon to be married daughters. These royals brought black volcanic rocks from other islands, some of which were used to construct stone temples, called marae, in which to conduct their rituals. Archaeologists have identified more than 90 sites of interest on Tetiaroa’s motu and found evidence of Polynesians residing in the area as far back as 900 A.D.

Frank Murphy’s wife, Hinano Teavai-Murphy, is the cultural director of the Tetiaroa Society and an expert on Polynesian history and ethnobotany. (She was an adviser to the Disney animated musical hit Moana.) To hear her tell it, Tetiaroa was the Hyannis Port of Tahitian aristocracy—a place of seasonal retreat, where chiefs and their families came to solidify their alliances through ceremonies, games, and archery contests. “I get emotional about Tetiaroa,” she says. “It has a special energy. My ancestors came here to find inspiration, to be one with the ocean and the sky and the gods.”

Throughout most of the 1800s, Tetiaroa was controlled by the ruling Pomare dynasty of Tahiti, but in 1904, that family bequeathed most of the atoll to a wealthy Canadian dentist, Walter Johnston Williams, who turned parts of it into a coconut plantation. In the early 1960s, the island’s only inhabitants were an elderly woman named Marjorie Doran and a friend who helped her. A direct descendant of Williams, Doran lived with 40 dogs and cats in a modest house of coral and cement, and as the story goes, she sometimes confronted visitors with the report of her .22 rifle.

It was in 1960, while working on a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, that Marlon Brando first learned about Tetiaroa. He was cast in the role of Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate aboard the Bounty who led the mutiny against Bligh. On a day off, Brando climbed one of Tahiti’s highest peaks and spotted Tetiaroa shimmering on the ocean horizon to the north. He hired a fisherman to take him out to the island and caught Doran on a good day. He found that the half-blind proprietress had devised a system for ambulating around the property, holding on to a network of wires strung between trees. Some months later, he returned and asked her if she was interested in selling the atoll. She wasn’t. But a few years later, facing health problems, Doran changed her mind. Tetiaroa was Brando’s for the low price of $270,000.

While shooting Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando had fallen in love with the actress Tarita Teriipaia, who played his inamorata in the film. Teriipaia was born on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora, and when filming began was only 18—to Brando’s 36. After having two kids, the couple separated in 1972. Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Brando mostly used Tetiaroa as a personal escape hatch. For weeks at a time, he’d fish and swim and drink. He liked to wear a battered straw hat and a flowing sarong. He’d lie down on the sand at night and stare at the Southern Cross, or sit in his hut for hours at a time, gazing through the shell curtains at the changing colors of the lagoon. 

“Dad liked everything that lived on this island,” his son Teihotu told a filmmaker in 2016. “We did a lot of stargazing on the beach, we sailed on the full moon. A lot of not talking. Just looking. At this place, you have all the answers.” (Teihotu lives on Tahiti and Moorea, and remains quietly involved in the development of the atoll.)

Brando eventually built a small resort, which Teriipaia ran for a time. Consulting with people as diverse as Jacques Cousteau and counterculture figure Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, Brando considered scores of projects—like establishing a lobster farm. He set up a program to save the atoll’s threatened population of turtles and founded a marine academy called the University of the Sea, the seed of the eco-station that’s on Tetiaroa today.

Swimming in the lagoon
Swimming in the lagoon (Photo: Courtesy Tim McKenna)
The resort’s water-storage tanks
The resort’s water-storage tanks (Photo: Courtesy Kris Koeller)
The Tetiaroa Society’s eco-station
The Tetiaroa Society’s eco-station (Photo: Courtesy the Tetiaroa Society)
(Photo: Courtesy the Brando)

His ideas were often a bit out there. He wanted to generate power for the island by harnessing voltage from tanks filled with electric eels. He entertained the notion of building a wild-animal theme park (shades of Joe Exotic?), with dolphins in the lagoon and gorillas. But Tetiaroa was costing Brando piles of money that he didn’t have. The place was falling apart, battered by storms, overrun with sand gnats and mosquitoes. Rancid garbage had piled up, consumables were perishing, and the ramshackle bungalows had deteriorated.

As it was reported in a Los Angeles Times article, the former manager of the hotel told Brando that he was “tired of being the keeper of the most exclusive slum in the South Pacific.”

In the 1990s, Brando was buffeted by a series of family tragedies—one of his sons was imprisoned for manslaughter, then a daughter took her own life. Devastated by these and other events, obese and in poor health, Brando realized that his island dream was in danger of unraveling. That’s when Richard Bailey entered the picture. A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, and a graduate of Stanford followed by Harvard Business School, Bailey, who spent time as a child in Tahiti, was an adventurous hotelier who rode Harleys, was married to a French Polynesian attorney, and had business ventures in the islands. In 1999, the two men began meeting at Brando’s compound on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles to discuss the construction of a world-class resort on Tetiaroa. From the start, they had what Bailey calls a “stormy relationship.”

“He was a strange guy, and sometimes we’d have hard debates,” Bailey says. “But when it came to the environment, to his island, and to Polynesians, he cared so much. He was really worried what was going to happen to his island. He had learned the hard way what not to do. Now he wanted to do it right.”

A lot of Brando’s suggestions proved visionary. “I have to hand it to Marlon,” Bailey says. “He had piles of papers and books, and he was extremely well-read. He was deep into island ecology.”

It was Brando who told Bailey about a novel concept for air-conditioning first proposed at a lab founded by a legendary Hawaii-based Navy scientist named John Craven. The idea was to pump cold seawater from the ocean depths into a closed-loop system with a heat exchanger that, in turn, would refrigerate a separate loop of freshwater. The cold freshwater would feed into a network of air conditioners on land, while the seawater would harmlessly return to the ocean. Bailey experimented with the system at one of his other high-end hotels—the InterContinental on Bora Bora—and it worked brilliantly. Today, Bailey says his SWAC complexes on Bora Bora and Tetiaroa reduce the carbon impact of these resorts by two-thirds.

One afternoon a young French resort guide named Boris Kopec took me down into the SWAC cavern and showed me the Gordian knots of pipes, wires, dials, and pumps. It’s an impressive operation that looks something like a Bond villain’s lair. Kopec had me grip the intake pipe, beady with condensation, that comes in from the ocean abyss. That pipe, and the seawater inside it, is 41 degrees, cold enough to put a chill in my bones. “That’s what cools the whole island,” Kopec shouts over the humming machinery. “It’s from one kilometer down. If you swam in water that cold, you’d be hypothermic in minutes.”

(Photo: Warner Bros./AF archive/Alamy)

“This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.”

—Superman, 1978

For our last day in paradise, we stay at the Brando. For 24 luxuriant hours, my wife and I are actual guests, in an actual villa, with its own infinity plunge pool and cabana, its own stretch of baking-powder beach, and limitless drafts of guilt-free air-conditioning. Not only that, but we almost have the resort to ourselves. Because of COVID-19, many guests have canceled. A few other villas are supposedly occupied, but we don’t see a soul.

True to the patriarch’s vision, the Brando is a green gem. The resort, which was awarded LEED Platinum certification for sustainability in 2016, runs almost entirely on solar power and biofuels like coconut oil. The more than 200 people who work here are inculcated with an evangelical fervor for the environment, and with the notion that this place is an ongoing experiment of global import. As the Brando’s general manager, Silvio Bion, tells me: “We educate our staff that they are participating in something unique in the world, something much bigger than a resort.”

Yet the Brando is also a place of absolute, hedonistic luxury—with 24-hour room service, a world-class spa, several gourmet restaurants, and other amenities you might expect at a five-star ultra-luxe hotel in Paris or Tokyo. The groundskeeping aesthetic leans toward a neurotic fastidiousness. There are crampon-wearing palm tree climbers who regularly eliminate the risk of falling coconuts, night crews who make sure you’ve parked your bicycles at pleasing angles, and discreet employees who work seemingly around the clock clipping the jungle and keeping the sand exquisitely raked in what looks like Zen-garden patterns.

Originally, Marlon Brando wanted to create two hotels on Tetiaroa, one high-end, another more modest. But the high-end concept proved to be the only business model that worked. “We wanted to show what’s possible in the world of sustainability and carbon neutrality,” Bailey says, “and we had to start somewhere.” That somewhere turned out to be a modern echo of ancient Tetiaroa—an island refuge off-limits to ordinary people. I wonder: Is ultra-exclusivity the only viable way to conserve fragile, faraway places? Maybe the magic offered by Edenic landscapes should be expensive, like an heirloom ruby or an 1896 bottle of port. It’s a starkly inegalitarian notion, but that’s what the story of the resort’s development seems to suggest. And with it has come an irony: Marlon Brando’s dream of escaping Hollywood megastardom has led to an island experience that only Hollywood megastars can afford.

A Tetiaroa Society staffer at work. The Society is dedicated to studying the atoll and conserving its ecology, and scientists from around the world travel there for research.
A Tetiaroa Society staffer at work. The Society is dedicated to studying the atoll and conserving its ecology, and scientists from around the world travel there for research. (Photo: Courtesy the Tetiaroa Society)

For rich and poor alike, the main act here, the center stage, is that Hockney-blue lagoon. The coral-choked waters around the resort teem with marine life, including 167 species of fish: blacktip reef sharks, manta rays, damselfish, trevallies—and, farther out at sea, beyond the reef, ­spinner dolphins, tuna, mahi-mahi. Tetiaroa is one of the largest nesting sites for green sea turtles in all of Polynesia. And the island is a birder’s high church, home to large populations of frigate birds, boobies, brown noddies, white terns, and bristle-thighed curlews. 

The Brando team has always been mindful about developing a largely untouched atoll. “With the lagoon of Tetiaroa,” says Bailey, “it seemed kind of sacrilegious to conjure any sign of human development on such a lovely canvas of nature.”

Ah, the decisions. Bonefishing anyone? Outrigger canoeing? Paddleboarding? Wherever we go on the water, we’re armed with our very own GPS panic button, so that no matter how far we stray into the lagoon, a staff member will speed to our aid. Upon our return, an attendant will wade out and meet us with moist towelettes and a plate of fresh fruit.

The day slides by. The lagoon stirs and shifts. We go on a bike ride around the island. I get a fabulous massage beside a pond crowded with orchids. We take a meal at Nami, the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant. We jump in the plunge pool maybe a dozen times. Flip on CNN, fret at the virus news, and quickly shut it off before the curse gets into the room. So it’s back to the plunge pool. Suck on a papaya. Sip some champagne. 

The next morning, Anne and I take a boat trip out to the surrounding motu. Our young guide, Herehia Sanford, grew up on Tahiti, and she knows her stuff. She brings us to a special place in the shallows where the colors sharply separate, where blue becomes green becomes white. We snorkel in what looks like a neon emulsion, fish darting at our approach, terns flapping over us, madly curious about our presence—their world, not ours. An eagle ray ghosts by and fades away. We hear the surf breaking on the reef, the planet’s insistent surging. 

The plane will be leaving this afternoon—sadly, with us on it. But for now, marinating in the Billionaire’s Bathtub, we just sit and stare. A lot of not talking, as Teihotu Brando put it. In this place, we have all the answers.

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

Lead Photo: Mondadori/Getty