An atoll beyond imagination, comprising 12 almost untouched islands nestled in a blue lagoon, the color of which is unworldly; this is Tetiaroa — Marlon Brando’s fabled South Pacific island paradise.
Only 50 km/30 mi from Tahiti, Tetiaroa is an oasis of tranquility compared to the busy capital of Papeete. Most people get here by plane, as only the smallest of boats can cross the shallow reef surrounding the lagoon.
Tetiaroa—former vacation place of the royal family of Tahiti
In former times, Teti’aroa belonged to the rulers of Tahiti, the royal Pomare family. The men came here to relax and the women to beautify, which in those days meant eating a lot to gain weight and staying out of the sun to lighten up the skin. Interesting, how standards of beauty change.
Back then, visitors to the atoll could only enter the lagoon and access the island by riding the “perfect” wave with their outrigger canoe—usually the third wave in a set, at high tide. In order not to get stranded, or worse, these early visitors needed to know how to read a tide table and count waves.
One can find a good deal of archeological evidence in Tetiaroa of these early Tahitians, and the non-profit Tetiaroa Society supports programs to preserve these cultural sites. They also work alongside and the Te Mana O Te Moana association to protect the atoll’s marine and terrestrial biodiversity for future generations.
While on Tetiaroa, we visited the island’s research station where the staff was preparing to release small rescued green turtle hatchlings into the ocean. To date, I had only seen sea turtles nesting, but now I got to experience the result and was amazed at how much power these little guys have in their tiny flippers.
Marlon Brando finds his own South Sea paradise
While scouting film locations for the second version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the 1960s, the late Marlon Brando discovered Tetiaroa and fell in love with it. He purchased Tetiaroa’s numerous motus (islets) from the descendants of a Canadian dentist who was given the atoll as a present from the royal family. The lagoon and the reef remained property of the government which is common practice in French Polynesia.
Brando’s idea was to create a self-supportive community where research, training, nutriculture, agriculture and tourism mix within sound ecological constraints.
He also built a small airstrip, but was against the idea of putting a large hotel here. It was his little piece of heaven where he and his Tahitian wife Tarita Teriipaia (his on-screen love in “Mutiny on the Bounty) could enjoy nature and escape Hollywood’s craziness. So, he decided to only build a few basic, thatched-roof bungalows on one of the motus for family, friends, scientist, and a few unspoiled tourists.
“My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night. If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of what they are and what they were centuries ago.”
In his will, Brando put Tetiaroa in a trust so it could be preserved for posterity.
How to get to Tetiaroa
Getting to Tetiaroa is much easier today than it was back in the old days, as you don’t have to “surf” in your outrigger across the reef anymore.
For those who are very “well-healed”, one option is to fly in as a guest of the newly opened luxury resort The Brando that operates on the island of Onetahi. This high-end island retreat is is beautiful and has some great ideas of how to lessen its carbon footprint, but there’s way too much development and they use far too much plastic to be considered truly “eco” in my opinion.
The other option is to be(come) a scientist or student and work at the atoll’s research station. You have a more rough approach by boat which drops you off at a dock outside the reef and a small boat brings you into the lagoon. Instead of the resort’s luxury beachfront villas, you stay in a humble dorm of the research station. Here you can participate in ongoing studies or run your own project.
Discovering the islands with a local
On our second day at Tetiaroa, we met with an employee from the Te Mana O Te Moana association to tour the lagoon and motus and find out about the atoll’s delicate eco-system. Just by accident we learned that this Polynesian tomboy beauty was Tumi Brando, granddaughter of Marlon.
In spite of her famous pedigree, Tumi was down-to-earth and laid back, and she had so much inside knowledge of the atoll, she was the perfect companion and guide for this tour.
Our boat sped across amazing crystal clean blue water so shallow I sometimes was sure we would run aground. But as the boat was specially designed for these kind of waters (very shallow draft), we made it through every sand passage without touching bottom.
Passing the bird island of Tahuna Iti, Tumi pointed out frigate birds, sterns, straw tails, and brown gannets. Colonies of them drew moving patterns into the sky like giant airborne schools of fish; it was a sheer delight to watch them enjoy their sanctuary.
Reiono—the island with pristine rain forest and plenty of wildlife
We finally stopped in knee deep water off the beach of Reiono, the only motu that has preserved its primitive, original rain forest. This means in addition to the ubiquitous coconut palm trees (an invasive species here) there were also many local trees that used to be abundant before the coconut took over.
Remote beauty comes with a price; a short minute after exiting the boat, I was forced to return for some mosquito spray. No paradise is perfect, not even Reiono.
Properly sprayed I headed off down the beach but only got a few feet before I realized the beach was moving! I thought perhaps I’d put on too much mosquito repellent that made me dizzy, but to my surprise (and relief) it turned out that the beach at Reiono was alive with hundreds of strawberry hermit crabs. These guys are seriously big, and derive their name from their beautiful intense red color. Of course I couldn’t hold back and had to play with them, always trying not to get too close to their pincers.
Once I had satisfied my fascination at these curious creatures, I got up and stared into the curious face of a red-footed booby baby. (By the way, if anybody knows the origin of this bird’s name—it always makes me smirk like a teenager—let me know!) The young bird was already pretty big and was sitting just a few inches above my head in the green of a tree, covered in fluffy white and gray feathers. It appeared as though it couldn’t decide whether it should be scared of my presence and hide, or be curious and examine this rare visitor to its island.
I didn’t bother it too long as I was afraid of scaring it too much, which might have caused it to fall out of his nest. So then our tiny group of three explorers headed inland where we found ourselves surrounded by majestic trees that provided great shade and caused a microclimate.
After a few seconds, we suddenly realized that some birds had chosen us as a target. We probably got a little bit too close to their nest, as beautiful white terns hovered over heads. Unfortunately their efforts didn’t pay off for them, as they were just too beautiful with their sparkling white feathers and the long forked tail. But after some time they seemed to have gotten used to us, and calmed down.
And while all of this was very entertaining, the main reason for our visit was to find the elusive coconut crab. This giant can weigh up to 4 kg/9 lbs and grow up to 1 m/3 ft from leg to leg. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, they can open a coconut with their super strong claws. Anybody who has ever attempted to open a coconut will know what this means. (My first effort actually included smashing a coconut about 50 times on empty, tarred parking lot, trying to break it open with a crow bar, and driving across it in a 4WD—none of which worked.)
Tumi spent much of her childhood on these islands, and knew exactly where these crabs like to hide. After a few minutes, we found our first specimen. And what a beauty it was! It was about a foot wide, and decked out in a wide range of beautiful rainbow colors. We got close enough to get a good view of these amazing creatures while also staying out of range of there massive claws (they can take your fingers right off).
Oroatera’s natural spa
If you care not only for natural beauty, but also for your own, you should go and take a mud bath in the lagoon next to Oroatera. Tumi showed us how to find the best mud and I think the quality is defined by how bad it smells as the hands full she gave me were always the worst.
Having our bodies covered from head to toe with grayish sludge, we waded across the shallow part of the lagoon. We were such a sight that even a small lemon shark who came up to check us out took off in a hurry.
Once we had set foot on Oroatera, we had to fight our way along a rarely used trail through high grass to a beautiful, tranquil lake in the center of the island. We were tempted to wash the mud off here, but the water and the algae at the bottom looked so untouched, that we didn’t want to disturb it.
So we gave our beauty treatment a few more minutes to “cure” and then washed it off back on the beach. Laying in the shallow water under the shade of swaying palm trees, with crystal clear water stretching out in front of me, I totally realized why this was a royal get away and Brando’s private paradise.
As we slid back over the water of Tetiaroa’s lagoon by boat, across the most intense blue I’ve ever seen in French Polynesia, the wind playing with Tumi’s wild curly hair, I knew this would not be the last time I would visit this South Sea Paradise. But next time, I’ll come during whale watching season, as I heard they get so close to the reef that you can swim with them!
If you are considering to spend some time in French Polynesia and would like to see some other island highlights like Tahiti, Bora Bora or some atolls in the remote Tuamotu Archipelago, have a look at our Top Spots in French Polynesia and get inspired.
If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at our list of Top Spots in French Polynesia which shows you more great pictures, and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.