Sunny Tetiaroa Lives In Brando's Shadow

October 14, 1990|By Suzanne Murphy

What self-respecting film buff can't recall at least some of the details surrounding the 1960 remake of the adventure classic "Mutiny on the Bounty"? The movie itself may not have been all that memorable, but the saga of its leading man, Marlon Brando, and his subsequent love affair with French Polynesia caught the imagination of filmgoers.

Mr. Brando solidified connections to the South Pacific with his marriage to his "Bounty" co-star, the extravagantly beautiful Tarita, and again several years later, when he purchased the palm-studded atoll of Tetiaroa ("far in the ocean"), Tahiti's nearest neighbor in the Society archipelago.

Nearly three decades have passed since then, and Mr. Brando's two island-born children are now adults. And the Hotel Tetiaroa, which dates from 1973, is alive and thriving as well, a small, secluded haven in the middle of a sparkling blue lagoon geared primarily to visitors with a spirit of adventure and a love of nature in an unspoiled setting.

The hotel is located on Onetahi, the fourth-largest

in the circle of 12 islets that comprise Tetiaroa's 1,200 acres of coral. Mr. Brando had a small airstrip hacked out of the coconut palms and is said to have dictated the layout and style of his tropical retreat, including the original 30 Tahitian "fares" or bungalows with their cone-shaped, thatched roofs and broad, covered verandas. Like the island's other tourist facilities, they were constructed primarily from indigenous materials such as coconut palms and pandanus trees, which form a dense carpet at the island's interior.

Today 14 of those sea-view accommodations, staggered along two rows, remain. The others were destroyed in a series of seven cyclones that battered the region in 1983, but plans are under way to restore the hotel to its original size and revamping of the existing "fares" already has begun. Spacious but sparsely furnished, each one-story native bungalow houses up to four guests in two circular rooms linked by a narrow hallway. Bay windows afford extraordinary views onto an adjacent lagoon and the palm-covered "motu," or island, just beyond.

Staying at Tetiaroa is a little like a stint at summer camp, but with decidedly exotic overtones. While the management makes no pretense of providing the full services offered at other top Tahitian hotels, most guests seem only too ready to make do with the rustic amenities, cheerfully hanging out their clothes on porches, sleeping under mosquito nets, making their own beds and adjusting to the routine, daily shutdowns of electricity and water. Happily, the hotel need make no apologies for its kitchen, which serves forth a tasty blend of classic French and Polynesian cuisines -- including an excellent Tahitian barbecue feast every Saturday night.

There are no real roads on Tetiaroa, but a circle island tour -- about two miles in all -- is easily managed on foot via its powdery white sand beach.

Along the beachfront lies the cement skeleton of a family compound, with its breathtaking views across the barrier reef onto cloud-capped Moorea and Tahiti. Although it is yet another victim of the 1983 devastation, Mr. Brando reportedly hopes to complete the residence soon. Visitors with a little more time can take to the island's interior for a look at one of the several "marae" -- ancient religious enclosures made of immense stone slabs that survive amid the fallen coconut fronds.

In earlier times, Tetiaroa's proximity to Tahiti made it a favorite getaway for the ruling Pomare clan. Fleets of canoes regularly plied the waters between the two landfalls bringing fresh fish and other provisions to the vacationing royals. In 1904, the atoll was ceded to British-born Dr. Walter Williams as a means of settling the family's runaway dental bills. The dentist/diplomat ran a copra plantation from one of the largest "motu," Rimatuu, complete with workers' quarters, a church, school and French bakery. Decades later, his daughter sold the property to Marlon Brando.

While Mr. Brando makes no secret of his ownership of Tetiaroa and, indeed, uses his name in brochures, on T-shirts and other promotional materials, visitors who arrive expecting to rub elbows with the reclusive star are likely to disappointed. "His visits are sporadic and unannounced," notes his Tahiti-based spokeswoman, Cynthia Garbutt.

Twenty-five miles and 50 years away from bustling downtown Papeete, Tahiti's capital, Tetiaroa has few distractions to

interfere with its chief attractions, namely sunning, swimming, snorkeling, canoeing and windsurfing in its reef-bound waters. In addition to water-sport activities, the hotel regularly organizes half-day outings across its spectacular lagoon to the sea bird sanctuary of Tahuna Iti

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