In a post-massage state of bliss at The Brando’s Varua Te Ora Spa on Tetiaroa Island, my mind takes a flight of fancy. Lazed upon a recliner with a Monet-worthy lily pond in view, serenaded by the soft whir of wind through the coconut palms, I notice how much the spa’s unique, stand-alone, spherical-shaped structures resemble birds’ nests. With twiggy exteriors, they boast an abstract composition of branches, driftwood, and thatch, blending into the untrammeled, tropically verdant, expanse. Cozy, yet graceful, simple, yet profound, they act as metaphorical portals to another dimension—to dreams, wonderment, clarity, and the kind of deep relaxation which clears the inner slate to recharge that goddess within.
Enchantingly storybook in appearance, Te Ora Varua’s (whose name literally translates “to heal the soul”) “nests” provide an evocative location to experience classic Taurumi, a massage technique inherited from the Polynesian ancestors. With the goal of restoring harmony, the ritual begins at the base of the skull (where Polynesians believe the soul resides), whisking out negative energy via the toes. The therapist, known as a Tahu’a, uses Manoi Oil (coconut oil infused with soothing tiare flower essence) to make long, firm strokes with hands, elbows—even feet. Highly restorative, akin to reiki or chakra balancing, taurumi isn’t reserved for spas or special occasions in Polynesia. Instead, it plays a role in ordinary life, with family members massaging children and babies daily, not to mention one another.
The Brando, once Marlon Brando’s far-flung home, became a concept thanks to Brando’s desire to share what stirred him deep inside. Of Tetiaroa, which he called “a tincture,” he said: “When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe.” I feel as Brando did on Tetiaroa—stunned to silence. My words disappear into the myriad blues of the lagoon here. They’re almost unnecessary. Instead, there’s the perfume of gardenias, the sound of birds singing, and the feel of sugary sand on my feet. The Brando, located twenty minutes by private plane from Fa’a’a Airport in Papeete, just asks that you “be.”
Highly restorative, akin to reiki or chakra balancing, taurumi isn’t reserved for spas or special occasions in Polynesia. Instead, it plays a role in ordinary life, with family members massaging children and babies daily, not to mention one another.
A pared-down, nearly rustic retreat, the sustainable island outpost, a paradigm for eco-conscious living and green-style vacationing, fulfills Brando’s aim to offer guests the gift of simplicity and authenticity, which he came so to crave later in his career. Tetiaroa, which he discovered and bought (after some scheming) in 1960, actually includes a total of 12 islands—each untrammeled and minimally developed. While Brando had sketched out initial plans with a local hotelier for his project, The Brando did not open until 2014, a decade after his death. As a LEED Platinum retreat it pumps cold water from the deep sea for innovative air conditioning. Coconut oil runs its generators, and solar electricity successfully illuminates the expanse—which comprises 35 thatched suites, each made from recycled products. Since no motorized vehicles are allowed, pedaling on chunky cruiser bikes becomes the order of the day.
My strongest memories of childhood involve me lying on the grass or on a beach all alone. Sometimes I’m atop a blanket; other times I feel the chill of dewy grass on my skin or the scratchiness of gravelly earth pushing through my clothing. In all these recollections, I’m gazing above at the silhouettes of tree limbs crisscrossing the air, watching birds flying in formation, musing over voluminous clouds shape changing, or dreaming about the stars—bright fires in the night. In every instance, I can nearly summon the smells (grass, clover, rain, dirt’s mustiness, mud’s metallic odor) and the sounds (conversations far away, the wind, the motor of a slow-moving car, chirping). But, what I recall most clearly is that sense of myself in harmony with the earth. Me, just a child, very aware of being both very unique, but very unimportant. Instinctively impacted, I related to each flower petal or blade of grass as a fellow member of a huge family. “We are all in this together,” I’d think.
That’s what I believe Brando discovered and embraced on his island. That feeling is what he wanted to share. He yearned to offer to others the beauty and mana he had found here. In Tahiti, mana might be translated to soulfulness. That’s the Brando in spades—a soulful repose.
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.