Tetiaroa Atoll is controversial. When he was alive, actor Marlon Brando, a devoted conservationist, owned it. He made the movie Mutiny on the Bounty in the Society Islands. He let visitors stay on these dozen or so small islands called motus. After he died, a deluxe eco-resort that Lonely Planet calls “outlandishly plush” was built on the most northerly motu and named for Brando. Some call this resort incredibly destructive to the local environment, but archaeologist Mark Eddowes, who has 35 years of experience in the area, shrugged his shoulders and told us that The Brando is actually preserving Tetiaroa.
This atoll had become a party hangout for young Tahitians who sometimes burned seabirds and generally trashed it. A caretaker, Eddowes told us, could not save the green turtle nesting grounds, the bird habitat, etc. However, putting a hotel on Onetahi Island for people for whom money is not an issue might save this place of rare biodiversity and a natural sanctuary for the birds and marine life that Brando loved.
There are only 2 ways for travelers to visit Tetiaroa. Booking the resort also necessitates booking a flight that will take you from Faaa International Airport on Tahiti Nui, which is about 37 miles from the resort, to its landing strip. Most visitors rate The Brando 10.0. What is will cost you, if you can book it, is mysterious and flexible. Eddowes said it’s about $3,000 per night. Others told me that it can run up to $10,000 per night, but that a multi-night booking reduces the amount. I also heard that a one-night-stay is not possible. The other way to experience Tetiaroa is to take a catamaran or sailboat or yacht out to the atoll’s closed lagoon where you can visit a couple of motus that are protected, natural sanctuaries. This costs about $150 and involves a rather rough, 5-hour voyage. I saw many passengers take seasickness pills, the catamaran was often swamped, the toilet was downstairs, and the crew prepared not-so-great food and supervised water sports after a tour in French of only 2 motus. The islands visited are kept in their natural state, and getting to both of them involved getting quite wet. We were not allowed to visit the bird island, for example, by walking on the beach. It was hot. I saw sharks in the water. We were not allowed to visit the Brando. If it’s important for you to see 15 bird species like the Brown Booby and the Black Noddy, that have been identified on the bird motu, then go. Only 4 of the species are migratory.
Eddowes is very interested in Tetiaroa’s archaeological future. It was historically and for centuries a vacation spot for Tahitian royalty. There are several temple foundations called maraes, actually platforms, that have been identified. Eddowes told us about the beautiful males and females who were brought here to have their skin bleached and tattooed. They were fed 10 meals a day that included breadfruit mash. Massaged to get as big as force-fed geese, they were described by Eddowes as Rubenesque as they became admired examples of Polynesian beauty and grace. Visited by Europeans, these royal retreat islands were disliked by missionaries who wanted their true function to disappear. That almost happened. But many of the platforms used for ceremonies and dancing have now been identified, and I had the impression that Eddowes plans to learn enough about them to reconstruct at least one of the temples devoted to human beautification that once existed on Tetiaroa.