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.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
“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.