A 4-foot lemon shark flashed by my bare legs as we waded in shallow lagoon waters. I grimaced and hoped it wasn't hungry.
"Everyone, stop. Just stop where you are for a moment," came the quiet voice of our naturalist guide, 27-year-old Tumi Brando.
Our group had spent the morning exploring the small uninhabited islands that make up the atoll of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia. We watched armadas of colorful fish sail by us in the crystal-clear lagoon, marveled at down-covered baby chicks in their nests on Bird Island and played hide-and-seek with hermit crabs along the shoreline. In such an idyllic place, you don't think about danger.
When the shark turned and swam away, there was a collective sigh of relief. Our guide smiled and gave us the all-clear sign: "We can go on now," she said. "There's more to see."
She would know. As the granddaughter of actor and activist Marlon Brando (1924-2004), Tumi grew up here and on the island of Tahiti, 35 miles away. For more than three decades, Tetiaroa had been her grandfather's personal paradise.
It recently opened its doors to the rest of us as an exclusive, expensive, eco-friendly resort called the Brando.
The site seems like a castaway's fantasy: palm-fringed islands, brilliant turquoise water and a magical array of coral, fish and other colorful marine life. The godfather of all islands.
Brando discovered it while filming "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962) on the nearby islands of Tahiti and Moorea. To prepare for his role as head mutineer Fletcher Christian, he collected more than 100 books on Tahitians, their history, culture, language and way of life. When he spotted Tetiaroa, he was captivated by its beauty and felt that the island — long a favorite of Polynesian high chiefs — brought him closer to paradise.
Five years later, he worked his way through a maze of bureaucracy and bought it, settling here with Tarita Teriipia, the Tahitian who starred as his leading lady in "Mutiny on the Bounty." Their sometimes-troubled relationship lasted more than 40 years.
Brando was passionate about preserving the island. "My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night," he said. "If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of what they are and what they were centuries ago."
Sharing the legacy
Tumi, who grew up fishing in the lagoon with her Grandmother Tarita, seems equally passionate about preserving the island's natural resources. "It's a legacy," she said. "I just want to share it with others."
She works with the nonprofit Tetiaroa Society, a scientific and cultural organization that was founded by the Brando estate, which owns the atoll, and Pacific Beachcomber, the company that runs the resort. Her schedule requires her to work on the island three weeks out of every month; she then takes one week off in Tahiti.
"Sometimes I don't even stay there a week," she said. "I love it here too much."
It's easy to understand why. The island's stunning 3-mile-wide lagoon is encircled by a rectangular reef and a dozen small islands, or motus. The scenery is spectacular. And the Brando takes full advantage of it without turning the island into a mini Maui.
The resort is unobtrusive: no over-water bungalows, no high-rise buildings. It's barely visible if seen from the sea. That's the way the actor wanted it.
That doesn't mean management has skimped on any facet of the development. Guests — the maximum number is 84 — arrive on a private plane, a 20-minute flight from Tahiti, and are escorted to one of 35 beachfront villas that range from one bedroom to three.
Each of the bungalows could qualify as a mini-resort unto itself, with a media room, plunge pool, indoor-outdoor bath, giant flat-screen TVs, mini-bars stocked with beverages of the guest's choosing and a private yard that backs up to that amazingly blue lagoon.
I sat in the pool outside my bungalow's living room one night, staring at the sky and listening to the ocean pound in the distance. The only other sound was the intermittent rustle of wind in the palm trees. Above, I could see the Southern Cross and puffy white clouds drifting by.
After an hour or so, I got out of the pool, dried off and walked 100 feet to the lagoon's edge, where the moonlight made the water glow with a luminescence that almost made it seem alive. "The water's so bright, it seems like daylight," a friend said.
I'd come here because I love the South Pacific: Bora-Bora, the Cook Islands, Tonga. Brando Island was on my list for years as construction progressed.
When it opened last summer, I planned a trip, talked a well-heeled friend into accompanying me and visited last month. Our timing could have been better; January and February are the hottest months in French Polynesia, and the temperature was close to 100 degrees. Next time I'll avoid those months.
The actor had discussed the resort with Tahiti hotelier Richard Bailey in 1999 and sketched a plan for a self-sustaining environment. Technology helped it happen, but getting it all to work took time.
The Brando's air conditioning is powered by a deep seawater system, an idea that originated with the actor, and its energy is provided by 2,500 solar panels and a biofuel power station that uses coconut oil.
The resort's remote location complicated things and held up construction. "We can only depend on ourselves out here," said general manager Silvio Bion.
But it was hard to imagine there were ever any problems as I sat the next day at Bob's Bar, a thatched-roof hut near the pool and restaurants; Bob's was named after a longtime buddy of the actor's and is known for its Dirty Old Bob, a mixture of pineapple juice, lime, honey and Jack Daniel's.
It was nearly sunset, and the late-afternoon light was casting a warm glow over everything. Or maybe it was the Dirty Old Bob I was drinking.
Luxury and privacy
I struck up a conversation with a couple I had seen several times in the hotel's two restaurants. Eventually we started talking about Brando Island. They were in love with it, they said.
"We've been on several islands in the South Pacific, and there's just something amazing about this place," said Emilio Cousino, who was from Santiago, Chile. "There's a mixture of luxury and privacy and a feeling of pristine wildness here that we've never seen."
His wife, Maria Luz, was equally impressed. "I love the way they have two bicycles at each villa," she said. "You can go everywhere on your bike. Or you can just sit back and enjoy all the service they provide. We're very happy here."
This kind of luxury, in a place that's so remote, is pricey, with rates starting at $2,735 a night. But unlike some high-end resorts, almost everything is included: meals, activities and daily spa treatments.
You can't jet ski — there are fears it might disrupt the environment — but you can snorkel in the lagoon, canoe, kayak, hike and bike. And you can learn about the environment on educational outings, such as the one we took with Tumi Brando, or at evening lectures at the resort or by visiting the island's research center.
While I was here, naturalists at the center rescued 38 newly hatched green turtles before they became a meal for predators.
But you really don't need to try to stay busy here. Biographer Susan Mizruchi wrote that Brando "could be happy sitting in the doorway of his thatched hut watching the colors and clouds drift across the lagoon."
It worked for me too.
THE BEST WAY TO TETIAROA, FRENCH POLYNESIA
From LAX, Air Tahiti Nui and Air France offer nonstop service to Papeete, Tahiti, and Hawaiian and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares range from $949 to $1,059, including taxes and fees. Air Tetiaroa flies from Papeete to Tetiaroa for $339 round trip on an eight-passenger plane.
WHERE TO STAY
Brando, Tetiaroa, http://www.thebrando.com. Luxury eco-resort on the late Marlon Brando's island near Tahiti. All-inclusive rates start at $2,735 per night, double occupancy. Children 11 and younger stay free.
If you need to spend a night in Tahiti to make connections, here are a couple of hotels not far from the airport:
InterContinental Resort Tahiti, Faaa, French Polynesia; (800) 496-7621, http://www.intercontinental.com. This well-developed resort, which has newly renovated rooms, offers a great location with excellent views of nearby Moorea from private balconies. Overwater bungalows available. Rates start at $303 per night, double occupancy.
Manava Suite Resort, Punaauia, French Polynesia; http://www.spmhotels.com/resort, (866) 209-3901. Farther from town and the airport but has stylish rooms with lagoon or garden views. Kitchenettes. Rates from $185 per night, double occupancy.
TO LEARN MORE
Tahiti Tourisme, (310) 414-8484, http://www.tahiti-tourisme.com