Exploring French Polynesia

Georgia Boscawen travels to French Polynesia to discover an atoll that holds one of the most prestigious reputations in luxury travel

The warm, milky turquoise waters of The Queen’s Bath of Tetiaroa, French Polynesia, glow as if fitted with their own set of underwater lights. Named after Queen PŌmare IV of Tahiti, who would retreat here to absorb the restorative powers of the lagoon in the mid 19th century, this luminous body of water is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered, sequestered from civilisation off one of the atoll’s paradisal islands.

“It’s the rich minerals that attracted the Queen here, along with its beauty,” says Teva, a guide from the Tetiaroa Society, which observes and protects the region’s natural environment. “The waters are sacred in that way and offer renewed energy for those who bathe in them.”

Here, 50 kilometres north of Tahiti on the Tetiaroa atoll, which is part of the Windward group of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, a belief in the healing powers of nature is a foundational part of the culture. “We call this Mana,” says Teva. “We believe in spiritual force and energy, much of which comes through nature. So, the wind, the ocean, these waters – this is our spirituality, it gives us energy, rather than something that is solely personified or intangible.”


It’s unsurprising that French Polynesia feels removed from mainstream culture and belief systems, given its South Pacific location, 6,600 kilometres from Los Angeles and 4,000 kilometres from Auckland.

For yachts, however, the South Pacific is a wondrous region for exploration, particularly for those undertaking a circumnavigation, many of which will include the French Polynesia islands in their itinerary (50 yachts visited French Polynesia in 2023). Onward journeys include the secluded Cook Islands 600 nautical miles west of Tahiti.

The trade-off, one might imagine, for paradisal islands in far-flung destinations, is a lack of basic amenities or poor infrastructure, but in fact Tetiaroa is home to a resort that has acquired a reputation as one of the planet’s finest: The Brando.

In the early 1960s, Marlon Brando first set eyes on the Tetiaroa atoll during a hike in Tahiti, while filming the adventure classic Mutiny on the Bounty. Having fallen in love with both its beauty and culture, Brando bought the halo of 12 verdant islands – or motus as they are traditionally named – a few years later in 1966.

Brando spent long periods on the atoll, using it as a sanctuary from Hollywood and dreaming of creating a resort that would be a paragon of sustainability and stewardship, as well as luxury.

In a legacy continued by his children and family trust, this dream eventually came to fruition in 2014, ten years after his death, with The Brando opening its doors. Operating in sympathy with Brando’s missions, the resort now works alongside the non profit Tetiaroa Society.

Reef Shark

Reef sharks inhabit the coral garden, where guests can snorkel or paddleboard

Reef sharks inhabit the coral garden, where guests can snorkel or paddleboard

The world’s most spectacular destinations are studded with sensational resorts, which are also, of late at least, impressively sustainable. This is nothing new. Many of them are also more expensive than The Brando. But this 36-villa property in the middle of the South Pacific has a reputation in luxury travel that tops almost any other.

For all my years in luxury travel, this little atoll has been the place people ask after most. Surrounded by powder-white sand scattered with busy strawberry hermit crabs, I sit for a cocktail at Bob’s Bar, which Brando built himself when he first arrived and which now serves up drinks and bites inspired by his films and refreshing South Pacific flavours.

View from balcony

“We have really cool things on the menu like the Real Bounty, a dessert created by Brando himself,” says chef Jean Imbert, who in 2023 took up residency at the resort at Les Mutinés, The Brando’s fine dining restaurant.

“He opened a coconut in half and placed a little chocolate inside it and left it to melt in the sun – delicious.” In reality, the half-cracked coconut filled with rich melted chocolate is even more indulgent than it sounds, sweet and delightfully refreshing in the strong South Pacific sun.

Given its reputation and the fact we’re in peak season, I’m surprised that I’ve only set eyes on two other couples, and even then, only at one of the property’s restaurants. Is the resort empty? I ask the waiter as he sets a quirky-looking purple cocktail before me. “No, we’re running at about 70 per cent occupancy,” he says.

Yet it feels like my own private island with so few people around; this is what makes it such a favourite among those who want to enjoy the beach to themselves. And while other islands can say the same, this is one of The Brando’s core pillars, to the point where we are asked to sign a document agreeing to refrain from taking photos with any guests in the background.

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Wine bottles
Dining room

Nestled under palm trees and set back from the beach, 36 private villas accommodate guests on the Onetahi motu. Each villa is designed to have as light an environmental impact as possible, using less energy and reducing waste. The Brando was the world’s first resort to achieve LEED Platinum certification

Scrunching my toes in the sand as I stroll back to my villa, which lies behind a large private pool, the feeling of seclusion is total, almost overwhelming, with only a hint of thatched roofs visible from the beach and hidden still among dense vegetation, natural in appearance, but intentional in the name of preserving the atoll.

Wildlife is incredibly active here. I pass a turtle nest, which has remnants of the mother’s tracks leading back to water. Ghost crabs scuttle into their hideouts and reef sharks cruise the shallows.

The strawberry hermit crab is one of many animals that call this atoll home

The strawberry hermit crab is one of many animals that call this atoll home

“During nesting season, the turtles are monitored by the Te Mana O Te Moana turtle care association as they come up the beach,” says Frank Murphy, executive director of the Tetiaroa Society. We try to give the hatchlings the best chance of making it to the water. But to do this we needed to remove the biggest risks to turtles: rats.”

Using natural deterrents, all rats have been eliminated to protect vulnerable prey across the entire atoll. With similar methods, mosquitoes have also been purged, so there’s no need to worry about getting bitten during your time here – a remarkably noticeable attribute.

It’s innovations like this that Brando himself was fascinated with, along with renewable resources and alternative energy sources, long before it became the norm. The Brando has even pioneered an emission-free air conditioning system that operates across the resort, using deep seawater to cool the rooms at no environmental cost.

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Top Right: Les Mutinés offers the resort’s fine-dining experience. Bottom left: The Varua Te Ora Polynesian Spa at The Brando continues the tradition begun by Tahitian royalty and chiefs, who for centuries partook in beauty rituals at this spot

With an intent to honour and respect the land with the Tahitians that came before him, and those who would come after him, Brando’s ethos remains ingrained in the makeup of the entire atoll, which is almost pulsating with life, including seabirds in kaleidoscopic colours, whales and crustaceans. Atolls are home to a great abundance of marine creatures, and few have the resources to protect them in such a way.

In Brando’s words, “You can’t bring culture here, you have to adapt to theirs,” a statement that still rings true today. There are hundreds of resorts you could argue do things to a similar standard – protecting the environment, supporting the culture and the environment, while offering impeccable service – but it’s The Brando’s approach that makes it special.

First published in the March 2024 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.