Outside’s Go | Feb/March 2008
He searched from Switzerland to Hawaii, but Ralph Fäsi, CEO of high-tech giant VisionOne, never found the perfect escape—until he bought his own. Welcome to Motu Teta, one man’s private island in the rar reaches of Tahiti
By Kate Siber
On a nameless day in November, on a tiny palm-studded isle in the Tahitian atoll of Rangiroa, Ralph Fäsi is holding court on a cooler. His wife, Yvonne, three friends, and I sit in bathing suits in the shade of coconut palms. We spent the morning snorkeling and freediving and are now dining on mahi-mahi speared by Fäsi’s staff hours before, grilled over an open fire and drizzled with the juice of freshly picked limes. The setting: an almost suspiciously flawless tableau of white sand, glittering waters, and cobalt skies dotted with the feathery suggestion of clouds. Not one piece of trash, one silhouette of a boat on the horizon, nor one noise carries over the flat azure waters to break the spell of isolation.
“I am always living on the edge of things,” Fäsi says in his characteristic Swiss staccato, then sips a glass of Chilean chardonnay. Fäsi is the CEO of VisionOne, a California-based multinational software company, but this week he is king of a different empire: Motu Tetaraire (Motu Teta for short), his own private island.
“When I get here, I take my watch and all my rings off and forget about them,” he says. “I bring books and magazines, and I always carry them all back with me.” Indeed, his island, located a few miles from the one we appropriated for lunch, makes relaxation the priority. It’s as close to the edge of the world as I’ve ever been. To Los Angeles, it’s an hourlong boat ride, an hourlong puddle-jump, and an overnight flight of some 4,000 miles. From any place on Teta’s nine acres of postcard South Pacific, one can look through coconut palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and breadfruit, past the glowing turquoise shallows that cradle the island, out to an expansive sky rivaled only by its own reflection in the sea. Just beyond the outer reef, which rings the 240-island atoll, the ocean stretches to the horizon and plunges 3,000 feet to the Pacific floor.
In his quest to develop his own kingdom, figuratively speaking, Fäsi isn’t alone. He’s one of the burgeoning set of celebrities and the superwealthy who are snapping up private islands with increasing fervor. “Billionaires are multiplying. That’s a hard fact,” says Cheyenne Morrison, a leading island broker. “Islands are the most prestigious property, so they’ve become increasingly sought after.”
Islands have defined privacy ever since Marlon Brando secured a 99-year lease on a Tahitian atoll in 1965 after filming Mutiny on the Bounty. More recently, technological advances that make remote communication and development easier have spurred a boom in rentals and sales, especially in the last three years, according to Morrison and other brokers. Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson, and Richard Branson, who added another BVI beauty to his Caribbean empire in 2007, are among the most visible buyers.
For Fäsi, it wasn’t a matter of status so much as fulfilling his innate attraction to islands. He was originally drawn to Hawaii, which he visited some 16 times over the years. But then, in 2001, he found Tahiti, which has the beauty of the 50th state minus the hordes of tourists. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “And sooner or later, I had to do something about it.”
He first ran across Motu Teta on the Internet and had a local friend drive him there by boat. The moment he docked, he wanted the island. He visited three more times, then arranged a weeklong stay for $20,000, which he brokered as a nonrefundable down payment. He brought his family, including two teens and a preadolescent, who loved it as much as Fäsi did. And why not? It’s nearly impossible to be bored: A day might include an exploratory trip to uninhabited islands nearby; a snorkeling, kayaking, or spearfishing excursion; or an expedition to hunt lobster. But even after Fäsi decided to purchase the island, it took some bureaucratic finagling; for anyone other than French or Tahitians, land-ownership laws are convoluted. Eventually, in 2003, Fäsi acquired Motu Teta in partnership with a French relative.
Private islanders tend to share not only a love of privacy but also a venturesome independence. Ralph Fäsi is no exception. He exudes the easy but unassuming confidence of the highly successful and often fills Motu Teta’s main bungalow with his barreling laugh. In spite of his weakness for Syrah and steak, at 53 he maintains a sturdy build with regular jogging and skiing. And he does not indulge any of his passions halfway. An oenophile, he built a vineyard that now produces award-winning vintages on his 55-acre ranch on California’s San Joaquin River. An avid skier, he bought a 380-year-old ski home in Wangs, Switzerland. A glutton for speed, he earned a helicopter pilot license, and he keeps three Honda Gold Wings in his garage. For 15 years, he and nine friends have taken an annual no-expense-spared motorcycle trip around the West.
Fäsi brought this same resolve to tailoring Motu Teta to his needs, a process that presented numerous hurdles. Finding reliable staff members was a trial; the boat jetty occasionally has to be rebuilt after damaging swells; and on every visit, provisions and spirits—cognac, scotch, Campari, and Fäsi’s own wines—must be shipped to the island. Fäsi also decided to equip the isle with accommodations for more than just his family. To supplement the simple but elegant three-bedroom bungalow already standing on the island, he commissioned Balinese builders to construct a second bungalow and deliver it by barge. “I don’t have problems, only challenges,” he says with characteristic spirit. After five years of owning Motu Teta, he has assembled a dependable full-time staff and dialed in the operations so well that he’s decided to rent out the island.
Fäsi, like many private islanders, can’t exactly articulate the unique value of his personal paradise, as if it’s something abstract and elusive—an elixir of remoteness, adventure, and solitude. Perhaps it’s about the sublime experiences, like the day Fäsi came across a migrating gray whale resting in the safety of the lagoon and then rising from the surface next to his boat, eye to eye for a transfixing moment before sinking below. It could be waking out onto the coral-strewn beach in the darkest hour of the calmest possible night, when not even the waves make a sound on the shoreline. At those moments, the stars are profuse, seasoning the sky, and there’s only silence, big and thick and empty. Or perhaps it’s the fact that on windless, cloudless days, Fäsi can sit on his veranda, gazing over the lagoon to the northeast, and hardly distinguish the threadlike line between sea and sky.