Returning to Paradise: Revisiting Marlon’s Island at The Brando

Five years ago I got a call from Mike Medavoy, the CEO of Phoenix Pictures, one of the big-time Players in Hollywood. Medavoy was a studio exec at United Artists, co-founder of Orion Pictures, and chairman of Tristar before this, and was involved in producing 16 Academy Award films, among them Philadelphia, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raging Bull, Annie Hall, Silence of the Lambs, and Apocalypse Now. “I just read your Conversations with Brando,” Medavoy said. “I enjoyed it. But I don’t agree with what you wrote at the end, about him not being happy with the development of a resort on the island.” The reference was to Brando’s private island Tetioroa, an atoll 30 miles north of Tahiti’s capital, Papeete.

Brando had named Medavoy one of the three executors of his estate, which came as a surprise to Medavoy, and after Brando’s death in 2004, plans began to turn his island into an eco-friendly luxury resort. After his call, I got to know Mike Medavoy and saw how seriously he took his role as a gatekeeper of the Marlon Brando brand.

The resort was called The Brando, and when it opened for business in July 2014, he suggested I go there and see for myself what they did to improve the island since the time Brando was there. So I went. Or, more accurately, I returned, for my Conversations with Brando were done on this island over ten days in the summer of 1978.

From the air, it looked the same. One could hardly see the 35 new bungalows that were built, because they didn’t line the beach or protrude into the lagoon, as so many resorts do in French Polynesia. But on the ground I immediately noticed a difference. There were no flies or mosquitoes! When I first went there, Brando met me at the airstrip and even carried my bag to my palm-thatched hut. I probably got bitten a half dozen times on the short walk. The hut I stayed in lacked air conditioning and it was hot and humid. Once Marlon came by and said, “There’s not enough air flowing through here,” and called for one of the workers to bring a machete and cut out another window. That helped circulate the air, but it also brought more mosquitoes into the room. By the third day Marlon noticed the bites on my arms and legs, and had a net installed over my bed.

This wasn’t a problem at The Brando because Richard Bailey, the Chairman and CEO of the Pacific Beachcomber Hotels, understood what made guests happy—and that meant securing the privacy of each of the 35 bungalows, eliminating the bugs and cooling the rooms. To get rid of the flies and mosquitoes, he brought in the machinery to remove 1500 tons of landfill garbage that had accumulated over the years Brando was there. Get rid of the waste, you get rid of the flies. Get rid of the fallen coconuts that breed mosquitoes and you get rid of the mosquitoes. And using cold seawater as the way to air condition the bungalows—an idea Marlon had when others scoffed at him—made the place comfortable. Build a giant central swimming pool and individual plunge pools for each bungalow, create a jaw-dropping spa and fitness center, build a tennis court, have a boat available for tours of the other 11 islands that surround the atoll, install Wi-Fi and big screen TVs, have bicycles and electric carts available, hire a top-rated master chef, and employ 160 people to cater to your 50 or so guests. Then make it an all-inclusive stay (meaning the drinks you consume at the bar and restaurants or have brought to your room, the 24-hour room service, the food and desserts, the juices, beer and peanuts in your refrigerator, the wine and champagne in your room are all included in the 3000 euro a day price), and you’ve created a small piece of paradise in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Brando wasn’t opposed to having a hotel on his island—in fact, he already had one when I visited in 1978. But what was there was crude and elementary compared to what Bailey has created. It’s expensive, yes. But the money goes to help fund two environmental societies, a research lab, and scientists to study how to preserve the environment. And because it’s small, it has to be exclusive. Thirty of the bungalows have only one bedroom, with a living room, an elegant bathroom, an outdoor private bathtub, a media room, and a private pool. The other five bungalows have two or three bedrooms. They are all completely private and you can skinny dip in your pool without fear of anyone seeing you. “I don’t believe there are many places left in the world where you can go to a resort and take your clothes off and run around on the beach,” Richard Bailey told me. “I thought this should be a place where, if you want to do that, you can.”

At night you can walk from your room into the warm lagoon and wade waist-high for hundreds of yards. You can walk around the island, paddle board out to the coral reef, get up close to the numerous species of birds on Bird Island, or just lay on a comfortable beanbag looking up at the stars.

I remember going on a picnic with Marlon and his Tahitian “wife” Tarita and their two children, Cheyenne and Teihotu. Cheyenne wanted a Coke and Marlon tried to open the bottle with a bottle of Fanta. When the top opened, the Coke sprayed all over him. “Here you go,” he said to his daughter, “try the Fanta.” When Tarita caught a fish, Marlon squirmed as she chopped off its head to prepare it for our lunch. “Isn’t that horrible?” he asked. “But that’s the nature of the beast. They don’t want to eat cornflakes.”

Brando loved Tetioroa. He would greet me each morning saying, “Another day in Paradise.” He loved taking walks, showing me the turtle cages, and the pier where he often sat to look at the lagoon, with the hermit crabs he liked to study. “Once I was the only person here,” he told me. “I was absolutely alone on this island. I really like being alone.” He knew about the island’s history (it was used as a royal playground and there’s evidence of temples that were built there), and he promised the previous owner, a blind woman named Mrs. Duran, that he would take care of it.

“Marlon had trouble trusting anybody,” Richard Bailey told me. Bailey worked with Brando over nine meetings discussing how he could build a luxury resort and meet Marlon’s anti-pollution standards. “He liked it here because he could walk around and people didn’t care that he was Marlon Brando. He never had that anywhere else.”

When tragedy hit his family and he wasn’t able to return to Tetioroa, he asked Richard Bailey to make the planned resort as self-sufficient and environmentally safe as any resort in the world. Mike Medavoy thought Bailey was the right person for the job. And the LEED’s platinum label The Brando has received confirms that.

“Today,” Bailey said, “the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design is pretty much THE label. Why do we need a label? Because people are not generally experts and don’t believe us. If we say we’re good, they say, you’re just green-washing and everybody says that. We felt it was important to have a third-party validator, so we went for the LEED label. It’s a system of points for energy, water, air quality and materials. For energy, if you produce 15% of your own energy with renewable methods, you get all of the point allocation under the LEED system. But if you go from 15% to 100% renewable energy produced on site the way we have, you don’t get any more points. We deconstructed all of the basic requirements: power, water, wastewater, etc., and used that approach in terms of conserving energy. So from a LEED standpoint, we’re off the scale. I make the claim that we’re the only 100% energy carbon neutral resort in the world, and no one has yet contested that. For luxury resorts, I’m pretty sure we’re the only one. They’re now evaluating whether to create a new label.”

When Leonardo DiCaprio came to the island, the first thing he did was thank Richard Bailey for donating three nights to the highest bidder at an auction benefiting DiCaprio’s Foundation dedicated to protecting Earth’s wild places. It went for $350,000. That’s approximately 35 times more than a normal-paying guest would pay. By that standard, the price for three nights at the most eco-friendly, romantic island in the world seems like a steal!


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