‘Dyslexia Is My Superpower’: How Learning Differently Helped Richard Branson

Branson felt a failure at school, dropping out at 15. Now the Virgin founder is convinced that his dyslexia was the reason he took risks.

By Rachel Sylvester For The Times 19/07/2022

Sir Richard Branson has a knighthood, a Caribbean island, a rocket and several billion pounds to his name, but he still thinks of himself as a bit of a rebel. Once, when I went to interview him in his Swiss chalet, Britain’s best-known entrepreneur padded down the steps to meet me in his socks. This time, we speak by Zoom and the 71-year-old is wearing a faded orange T-shirt that looks identical to one my teenage son owns. He is in Morocco at his kasbah in the Atlas Mountains—tanned, of course, and with hair bleached by the sun. When he turns his camera off he sounds exactly—eerily—like Tony Blair. He is definitely more Cool Britannia than Little England.

Branson may have 400 companies in his Virgin group, running everything from gyms to planes and even a bank, but he has never been a suit-and-tie kind of businessman. In the ’70s, his record company signed the Sex Pistols and he is happier leaping from planes or hanging out with supermodels than staring at numbers in the boardroom. Having dropped out of school at 15, he lived for years on a houseboat because he couldn’t afford a house—he called it the Duende, which means “the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm.”

He has always been a brand as much as a businessman—a disrupter who loves to “tilt at big companies,” as he puts it. He still thinks of himself as an outsider rather than part of the corporate establishment and tells me that he has learned over the course of his long business career that “it is possible to be a David versus a Goliath and pay the bills at the end of the year.” Last week, he visited Ukraine and met Volodymyr Zelensky—the epitome of the plucky underdog—and saw some of the sites of Russian attacks since Vladimir Putin’s “appalling invasion” began.

Branson prides himself on taking up new challenges and is always pushing himself to the limit, whether flying around the world in a hot-air balloon or beating Elon Musk into space. “I hate saying no; I’m known as Dr Yes,” he explains, and he is convinced that his positivity is one of the secrets of his success. “I think being an optimist is a hell of a lot more fun than being a pessimist. As a leader, it’s so much better to look for the best in people, to praise people and generally be positive. That brings the best out of people.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 01.Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson is a British business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist. He founded the Virgin Group in the 1970s, which controls more than 400 companies in various fields. Branson expressed his desire to become an entrepreneur at a young age. January 01, in Melbourne, Australia.(Photo by Impressions / Getty Images)

Branson expressed his desire to become an entrepreneur at a young age. Getty

There have, he admits, been some close shaves. He has almost died 75 times as result of his daredevil escapades, and flirted with financial ruin on more than one occasion. “But life has been a hell of a lot more fun because I’ve said ‘yes’ rather than ‘no.’ When I was 16 I brought out a magazine called Student and on the back I printed, ‘The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.’ I’ve lived by that mantra ever since.”

Branson admits that things could have turned out very differently. On the day he left Stowe—the independent boarding school he attended until he was 15—the head teacher told him he would either end up a millionaire or in prison. That turned out to be an accurate prediction. By the age of 22, he had not only set up his magazine but had also opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, and founded the empire that would make his name.

A few years later the headmaster sent him a letter asking him to sponsor a new girls’ dormitory at the school. “I wrote back saying, ‘Yes, if you name it after my company,’” Branson tells me. The school decided that “Virgin” was not the most appropriate name to have emblazoned above the door of the female sleeping quarters. “I heard nothing more from him for another 10 years, and then he said how much he regretted not just saying yes. He was good enough to acknowledge that the boy had done OK. There’s much that needs to be done so that schooling can be adapted to the individual rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach that currently happens.”

Despite making billions from business for over more than 50 years, Branson points out that he would still be considered a failure by an education system that defines success purely in academic terms. He is severely dyslexic but was not diagnosed until his twenties, long after he had left school. Once, when he was about eight, he did an IQ test and recalls with amusement, “I don’t think I filled in anything.” His earliest memories of education are “looking at a blackboard and just seeing mumbo jumbo and relegating myself to the back of the class, so I could at least try to look over somebody else’s shoulder to see if I could get some marks, but having no understanding of what was going on and longing for breaktime so I could go out and play.” He remembers the frustration of struggling to read and write. This was the late ’50s, before dyslexia was widely recognized. “I would jumble things up. People just assumed that we [dyslexics] were stupid. I was definitely bottom of the class.”

British entrepreneur Richard Branson inaugurates his new airline Virgin Atlantic Airways, on the steps of the Boeing 747-200 'Maiden Voyager', 22nd June 1984. (Photo by Terry Disney/Express/Getty Images)

Branson inaugurates his new airline Virgin Atlantic Airways on the steps of the ‘Maiden Voyager’ in 1984. Terry Disney

There were some moments of real cruelty and humiliation. “I got beaten for not performing. In those days it was pyjama bottoms down and a stick. Those are unpleasant moments for any kid, but for me, it was strangely the best thing that happened to me. It meant that at 15 I decided that the world needed a magazine run by young people, aimed at young people, that could say we don’t want to waste our time just having a completely exam-orientated society—we should be taught things that are relevant and interesting.”

For years, Branson believed that his differently wired brain was a disadvantage but now he sees his dyslexia as a “superpower” that has given him an edge in business and in life. “If something really interests me, I can excel at it,” he says. “The fact that I was dyslexic meant that, from a very young age, I found fantastic people to surround myself with. It taught me to delegate. I think that, by and large, dyslexics are more creative and good at seeing the bigger picture. We do think slightly differently to other people.”

As an employer, Branson actively seeks out other dyslexics, and he is working with the charity Made By Dyslexia to encourage other businesses to understand the benefits of neurodiversity. Around 40 percent of top-earning CEOs are dyslexic, according to a 2019 survey, and LinkedIn recently added “dyslexic thinking” to its recognized list of skills. Within days, more than 10,000 people had included it in their profiles. “I have a grandchild who’s just been diagnosed as dyslexic and I was able to ring him up and celebrate and say, ‘It’s something that you and I have got that the rest of the family doesn’t have,’” Branson says. “What I tell parents is, work out what your child is really good at and let them follow that path, and the rest will catch up. Let them excel at the things they enjoy.”

During the pandemic he spent time on Necker Island, his Caribbean home, giving his grandchildren the kind of education he wishes he’d had. “We said, ‘There’s a scarlet ibis over there,’ and then we went on the internet and found out all about the scarlet ibis and how they’d been wiped out in the British Virgin Islands a hundred years ago, then recently reintroduced, and how if a scarlet ibis breeds with a white ibis you get a pink ibis. Then we moved on to flamingos and giant tortoises. We were just getting out and about looking at things that are relevant and exciting. And sadly the conventional school educational system doesn’t really do that.”

He insists that schools should recognize different qualities and talents in children. “We need an education system where every young person is set up to thrive in life, and not just thrive as a result of having good exam marks. The Virgin Group no longer asks people for exam results and I think other companies should do the same. One should talk to people about their personality, about what’s going on in the world, how good they are going to be at motivating and inspiring people.” His children Holly and Sam (with his second wife, Joan, to whom he’s been married since 1989) have set up a charity, Big Change, to campaign for education reform.

PA Photo 3/7/87 Virgin tycoon Richard Branson is re-united with his children Sam (two) and daughetr Holly (five) at Crosshouse Hospital, Kilmarnock after his trans-Atlantic balloon Virgin Atlantic Flyer floats on the sea of the West Coast of Scotland. Branson and his co-pilot Swedish aero-engineer Per Lindstrand had abandoned the giant carrier off Rathlin Island near North Antrim, Ulster during their trans-Atlantic balloon voyage (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Branson and his children Sam and Holly. PA Images

Branson does admit that there was one time when his dyslexia almost killed him. “I had to learn to skydive when I was trying to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon. I jumped, and in a very typical dyslexic way, I pulled the lever that got rid of the parachute, not the one that opened the parachute.” Luckily, there was somebody else coming down beside him. “He had watched where my hand was going, and he did a little bit of a Superman dive in, and managed to pull the spare chute, so saving me.”

Nor has he ever been very good at company accounts. “I was 50 years old when I was having a board meeting, and by then we had maybe the largest private group of companies in Europe, and I asked the question, when somebody gave some figures, ‘Is that good news or bad news?’ One of the directors took me out of the room and said, ‘Richard, I’ve known you for years now, I’ve never really dared ask you, but am I right in thinking you don’t know the difference between net and gross?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never been able to admit it, but yeah, that’s the case.’ He pulled out a sheet of paper, and he had some crayons and he coloured the piece of paper blue and he said, ‘That’s the sea.’ Then he put a fishing net and some fish in the net, and he said, ‘The fish that are in the net, that’s your profit at the end of the year, and the rest of the sea is gross turnover.’ I have name-dropped net and gross ever since. I realized that Virgin’s net worth is nowhere near as big as I thought it was.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 13: Richard Branson takes part in a pilates class at Bondi Beach on November 13, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

Branson takes part in a pilates class at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia in 2019. Don Arnold

Yet, Branson is convinced that his dyslexia has made him a better businessman because he has an original perspective, is more innovative and willing to take risks. “I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur; I’ve seen myself as a creator. I’m not really interested in making money per se; I’m interested in the things that I create surviving. It doesn’t really matter if you failed elementary maths, as I did at school all those years ago. Somebody else can add up the figures. I’ve just got to deliver a product that exceeds expectations. Take Virgin Atlantic—38 years ago we flew with one second-hand 747 across the Atlantic. Everybody thought we were mad. We were taking on British Airways with 300 planes. . .If I’d gone to the accountants and asked them to do some figures to see whether it was a good idea to go into the airline business, they would have told me, ‘You’ll never survive.’”

Branson was born in 1950 in Blackheath, southeast London, the son of Ted, a barrister, and Eve, a former actress, ballet dancer and air hostess. His mother, who died last year from Covid at the age of 96, was an enormous influence as well as his first investor. “She found a necklace and handed it in to the police, but nobody claimed it, so she sold it for £100 and gave me the money to help me get the magazine up and running.” From an early age she encouraged her son to be independent. “She shoved me out of the car aged five or six and told me to make my own way to Granny’s house, which was four or five miles away. She would have got arrested today, but I survived and I’m grateful to her for making us stand on our own two feet from a young age.”

Even as a schoolboy, Branson had an entrepreneurial zeal, although his first business ventures were a disaster. “I had heard that budgerigars bred enormously quickly, and so I bought a few pairs of budgerigars, and you could buy 1,000 tiny little Christmas trees for £3, and if you waited 5 years, when they were 6 feet tall, you could get a good return. The Christmas trees got eaten by bunnies, and somehow or another rats got in and ate the budgerigars—or my mother let them out, because she got fed up with feeding them when I was away, I’m not quite sure. They were both abject failures.” But, he insists, “We need to embrace failure. There are so many entrepreneurs who failed once or twice before they went on to become really successful, and you learn an enormous amount from failure.”

His record stores thrived and he used the money to found a music label. The Sex Pistols were one of the first bands he signed and he admits that the recent re-release of God SAVE the Queen for the Platinum Jubilee made him nostalgic for his rock’n’roll days. “I don’t look back a lot, but the Sex Pistols really propelled Virgin from being a hippy company into being a punk company that then attracted the Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel and Genesis. It was a brief whirlwind of a time with the Sex Pistols involving everything from court cases for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols to rides down the Thames where the police raided the boat, and lots of headlines attacking the Pistols, which of course played right into their hands, and their record sales soared. It taught me a lot about the promotion and marketing of a product.”

Richard Branson celebrates first Spaceflight

Branson celebrates Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight. Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

There is, he realized, no such thing as bad publicity. When Virgin was prosecuted for displaying the word “Bollocks” in a Nottingham record store window, Branson mounted an ingenious defence. “I rang up Nottingham University’s linguistics expert and told him the problem and he said, ‘What a load of bollocks. They obviously think that bollocks is a derivative of balls. It’s nothing to do with that. Bollocks was the nickname given to priests in the 18th century, so the album really should mean, “Never mind the priests, here’s the Sex Pistols.”’ I couldn’t believe my luck and said would he mind coming along to court to tell the story? And he said, ‘Look, I happen to be a priest myself. Would you like me to wear my dog collar?’ So we had this linguistics expert in his dog collar, and the judge reluctantly found us not guilty.” The Sex Pistols were “charming” to the priest. “John Lydon and the others were just nice lads having a really fun time.”

Branson admits there is a very thin line between success and failure and there have been some occasions when he came very close to being on the wrong side of that dividing line. Does he think he is just very lucky? “I think it’s partly personal resilience, it’s partly just surrounding oneself with fantastic people, and if you have a great group of people, you can enjoy the good times and you can help each other get through the bad times together. Obviously, Covid was a torrid time, we were in all the wrong businesses, but having a fantastic group of people just putting our heads down, determined to prove the critics wrong, all the Virgin companies came out ahead.”

The economic situation is looking even rockier now. In many ways, it is back to the ’70s, with widespread disruption caused by strikes, and flares back in fashion. “It’s obviously sad to see what’s happening in the world right now,” Branson says. “I fought hard against the Vietnam War and the Iraq war and the Libyan war. . .Seeing Russia in Ukraine makes me want to weep. And the effects of that have been devastating on the price of oil for everybody, and therefore the cost of living.” But he warns that there is another factor which is making things particularly tough in the UK. “Obviously, Brexit’s had a negative effect, and not being part of the common market is going to affect people in Britain much more than they realize. It’s already affecting people enormously in Britain. Our companies overseas are doing a lot better because they can trade more freely with Europe.”

Richard Branson floats in zero-gravity during Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight

Branson floats in zero-gravity during Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight Virgin Galactic

In over five decades as a businessman, Branson has been to Chequers and had dinner with at least eight prime ministers. He has always avoided being tied to a particular political party or tribe—he was Margaret Thatcher’s “litter tsar” in the ’80s and was put forward for his knighthood by Tony Blair in 2000 for “services to entrepreneurship.” But he clearly finds the lack of long-term thinking in Westminster frustrating. “It’s tough being a politician, I mean really tough—you’re in your job for two or three years, you’re minister for education for a couple of years, then you’re minister of something else, and so by the time you’ve learnt it, you seem to be moved on. I’ve been 55 years travelling the world in business, and I’ve learnt an incredible amount in that time, so I think businesspeople can sometimes see situations more clearly. . .Politicians need to be receptive and good listeners. That’s a very important skill for any leader to have.”

There are rivalries in business as well as in politics. Last year Branson was caught up in a “battle of the billionaires” race to space with Elon Musk, but he insists they are on good terms now. “He’s a friend. When I woke up to go to space that day, he was there with his baby in the kitchen, which was very sweet. Rivals should be friends in the evening but competing hard in the day.” Going to space was, he says, “the most extraordinary day of my life, the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment. Every second was [the fulfillment of] a dream which I’d had since being a teenager, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and standing there, looking up at the moon, and realizing they were standing on the moon, as a kid it was just extraordinary.”

Three of his five grandchildren were there to watch him blast off. “All the grandkids had incredible things to say. Etta [who is 7] thinks I was once a pirate dumped on Necker Island years ago by other nasty pirates, and she pulled me down to her and whispered in my ear just before I went, ‘Papa, do you know you’re going to be the first pirate ever to go into space?’ Lola, who’s three years old, said, ‘Papa, you come back for me.’ It was just too magical. I’m a Peter Pan fan and to be floating in space looking back at this incredible Earth that we live on was mind-blowing.” Branson will turn 72 this month but the boy who never grew up has no plans to retire. “I’ve been incredibly blessed—blessed with dyslexia, blessed with faults, blessed with positive things as well. Not everything has worked out how I planned it, but I can’t think of anything that I would want to change. I’m just learning all the time and life is so fascinating as a result.”

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Don’t Ride This Wave ….*unless your name is Robinson, Slater or Moore.

The 2024 Olympic surfing comp will be held at Tahiti’s treacherous Teahupo’o. Going for gold could be deadly.

By Jen Murphy 15/04/2024

It’s day two of the 2023 Tahiti Pro Surf Competition. I’m perched on the roof of a VIP boat around 100 metres from Teahupo’o, one of the world’s most dangerous waves. American Surf icon Kelly Slater has just been swallowed by a heaving wall of turquoise water. I’m so close to the action that when he’s finally spit out from the ride, my face gets misted in ocean spray. Below me, Australian Jack Robinson, who will go on to win the event, sits on the edge of the boat performing breathing exercises ahead of his heat. Around me, a flotilla of kayaks, jetskis, surfboards, and small vessels bobs in the channel, acting as a floating stadium for fans. 

For many of the competitors—and the 1,400-odd residents of the wave’s namesake village—this year’s contest is a dress rehearsal for an event with a far larger global profile in a few months’ time. While many of the world’s top athletes will travel to France in July for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the most talented surfers will head here, to the southwest corner of Tahiti island’s small peninsula, Tahiti Iti, to vie for gold at Teahupo’o in just the second surf competition in Olympic history. 

Aerial View by Manea Fabisch

In keeping with the limit of two surfers per gender, per nation, the Australian flag will be flown by Ethan Ewing (No. 2 in the World Surf League rankings at the time of writing) and the aforementioned Robinson (No. 5) in the men’s category, and Tyler Wright (No. 3) and Molly Picklum (No. 5) in the women’s. On this form, hopes of a homegrown medal haul are high.

Carissa Moore of the US who took gold at the 2021 Olympics at the Tahiti Pro in Teahupo’o. IMAGE: Beatriz Ryder

Olympic officials could have chosen a site off the coast of France, such as the surf towns of Biarritz or Hossegor, but historically, Mother Nature brings more sizable waves to Tahiti at this time of year. Plus, surfing has deep cultural ties to the region. The sport originated in Polynesia and dates as far back as the 12th century; it was practiced by Polynesian royalty. Teahupo’o is also a world-class wave that challenges the mental and physical prowess of even the most experienced competitors. The high risk of surfing this spot guarantees thrills that officials anticipate will boost viewership. 

Located in the gin-clear waters of the South Pacific with a background of mountains that appear to be draped in jade-green crushed velvet, Teahupo’o (pronounced TAY-a-hoo-poh-oh) is one of the sport’s most infamous swells. (Its name loosely—and cheerily—translates to “place of skulls”.) According to Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti, printed in 1893, the first person to surf it was actually a woman from the island of Raiatea, in the 19th century. Not until the 1980s did anyone dare attempt it again, with the first competition hosted in the late 1990s. Former pro turned filmmaker Chris Malloy has called it “the wave that has changed surfing forever”.

Australian surfer Jack Robinson with his trophy. IMAGE: World Surf League

In the right conditions, Teahupo’o can tower upwards of six metres. That may sound small compared to the monster-size Jaws in Maui or Nazaré in Portugal—which can climb as high as 25 metres—but it’s not the height that makes Chopes, as the wave is lovingly called, so special. It’s the weight. When surfers describe a wave as heavy, they’re referring to its combination of a thick lip (the powerful section that starts to curl over) and the amount of water surging behind it.

Like most of the surf breaks found throughout French Polynesia, Teahupo’o is a reef break, meaning the water spills over the surface of knife- sharp coral. Chopes is unique because around 50 metres beyond the reef, the ocean drops more than 15 metres. As swells come toward the shore, the transition from deep water causes them to jack up over the coral before quickly crashing down with tremendous force. 

“The reef evolved perfectly in order to absorb the wave’s energy in the shortest distance possible to create this natural wonder,” surf superstar Laird Hamilton tells Robb Report. “It’s a wave that stands straight up and creates a huge barrel. It’s one of the greatest waves on Earth.” In 2000, Hamilton rewrote surfing history when he rode what has been dubbed the Millennium Wave here. Up until then, Teahupo’o was considered too perilous to attempt when it reached a certain size. Hamilton, a pioneer of tow surfing, had a jetski pull him into what is still considered one of the heaviest waves ever ridden. Surfer magazine published a memorable cover of him getting barrelled with just the words “Oh my god…” because the feat was so dangerous. 

In places, the reef lurks just 50 centimetres beneath the water’s surface, and the lip can act like a liquid guillotine if it clamps down before a surfer exits the hollow tube of the wave, known as the barrel. Had Hamilton wiped out, he wouldn’t have had an escape route. 

A flotilla of fans watch Brazilian Pato Teixeira in action

I’m an avid amateur surfer and live on Maui part-time to take advantage of Hawaii’s waves, but even on a gentle day, I wouldn’t attempt Teahupo’o. Teahupo’o village has a water-safety patrol that watches over athletes during contests. Still, a handful of surfers have lost their lives here, and many go home with serious battle wounds. In August last year, during a practice session for the Tahiti Pro, Ethan Ewing fractured two vertebrae in his back after crashing out in solid, but average, six-foot waves—an accident that arguably cost him top spot in the world rankings. 

In classic gung-ho-surfer fashion, though, the Queenslander was back in the water at Teahupo’o three months later, one eye still resolutely fixed on Olympic glory. “Definitely more anxious than excited heading back to Tahiti after hitting the reef really hard last time,” he posted on his Instagram account. “Teahupo’o is still seriously intimidating, but I feel like I’ve made some steps in the right direction.”

Unless you surf, Tahiti Iti probably isn’t on your radar. Starting from the largest town of Taravao, the south-coast road ends at the village of Teahupo’o, hence its nickname, the End of the Road. The community, just 500 metres from the wave, is the antithesis of the glitz and glamour of Paris or even nearby Bora Bora. This is a slice of tropical paradise that has somehow evaded development. To reach the contest each day, I park at the end of the road, then walk over a one-lane bridge and follow a sandy path that passes local homes. 

“All of your senses are heightened here,” former world surf champion C. J. Hobgood tells me when I run into him at the event. “It’s not just the wave—it’s the island. Everything looks five- dimensional. Mountains seem stacked on mountains and glow a vivid green. You turn to the right and these bluer-than-blue waves are breaking. Then a rainbow might appear in the sky. The raw beauty is overwhelming to take in when you first arrive.” 

Surfers talk of feeling the mana, a Polynesian word for spiritual energy, here. Jack Robinson even referenced it after his victory in the Tahiti Pro. It may sound woo-woo, but I undoubtedly feel something when I arrive after a 90-minute drive south-west from the hotel-lined harbour of Tahiti Nui, the island’s larger, more developed area. Tahiti Iti’s empty beaches and waterfall-riddled lush interiors remind me of a quieter, more vibrant version of Hana, a little corner of Maui with just one hotel, a handful of restaurants and kilometres of untamed nature. In an era of over-tourism, this kind of purity comes with a trade-off: You won’t find five-star hotels or celebrity-chef restaurants on Tahiti Iti. In fact, it doesn’t have any hotels at all—and won’t be opening any ahead of the Games. 

Locals have been adamant that Olympic infrastructure remains minimal. The proposed construction of a three-storey judging tower directly on the reef at Teahupo’o has been a major concern among residents and environmental groups. The one Olympic improvement locals welcome is a new bridge that will connect to the beach in front of Chopes. 

I check into Villa Mitirapa, newly built in the rural community of Afaahiti, a 25-minute drive from Teahupo’o. Giant carved wooden doors lead to an open-air living room, a plunge pool and views of the lagoon, and every evening a chef drops by with a delicious preparation of the catch of the day. In the village of Teahupo’o, you’ll find family-owned guesthouses such as Vanira Lodge, a collection of three bungalows tucked up in Te Pari (“the cliffs” in Tahitian), as well as A Hi’o To Mou’a, a B&B run by the proprietor of hiking outfit Heeuri Explorer.

2024 French Olympian Vahine Fierro, who first surfed Teahupo’o as a teenager

Pro surfers are typically hosted by the same local families year after year. (During the Olympics, athletes will be housed on a ship anchored in a sandy area offshore to avoid damaging the seabed.) Hobgood tells me he made visits to his “adopted Tahitian family” for nearly two decades. For the past five years, he has come to Teahupo’o to help coach reigning Olympic champ, Hawaiian Carissa Moore and now stays with her adopted family. “They take us on hikes you’d otherwise never know how to access and have rich stories about the place,” he says. “And everything they prepare for us at meals, from the passion-fruit jam to the chilli sauce, is homemade.” 

The next big thing being “adopted” by a Tahitian family is hiring Raimana van Bastolaer as your guide. For a first-time visitor, Tahiti Iti can be far harder to access than other islands, which is perhaps why so few people explore the peninsula. You need a local to reveal where to go, and van Bastolaer makes you feel like an insider. 

Surfer and guide Raimana van Bastolaer

Born and raised in the capital of Papeete, he was one of the first locals to surf Chopes, and over the years, his intricate knowledge of the wave has earned him the nickname the Godfather of Teahupo’o. He was out in the channel with Hamilton the day the American had his historic ride, and John John Florence and Kelly Slater are among the surfers who stay with him when they’re in town. Van Bastolaer even did a stint as a part-time coach at Surf Ranch, Slater’s central California wave park. Thanks to his non-stop pursuit of a good time, everyone wants to be around him. Now 48, the stockily built, dauntingly athletic van Bastolaer has become the go-to guide for visitors ranging from Julia Roberts, Margot Robbie and Jason Momoa to Mark Zuckerberg and Prince Harry. “I get to yell at princes and CEOs,” he jokes. “I’m out in the water with them telling them when to pop up and paddle. And they love it.” 

Tahiti’s unofficial ambassador lives and breathes surfing. Through his company, Raimana World, he takes just one or two guests at a time on private curated surf tours throughout French Polynesia’s two central archipelagoes: the Society Islands (which are home to Tahiti) and the Tuamotus; he plans to add Fiji soon. Some of his clients base themselves on their own yachts or charter one through Pelorus. The yacht specialist’s Tahiti portfolio includes the 77-metre La Datcha, which has two helipads, a submersible and a spa. 

Motu Nao Nao, a private new island resort in French Polynesia.

Other clients he directs to exclusive properties, such as Motu Nao Nao, a new 25-hectare private-island resort in the cerulean lagoon of Raiatea with just three enormous villas crafted from coral, wood, and shells. A roving bar bike delivers custom cocktails to guests as they explore the island, and the French chef, inspired by Asian and North African cuisine, prides himself on never repeating a dish, no matter how long guests stay. 

Van Bastolaer gets only one or two clients a year experienced enough to be coached into a barrel at Teahupo’o. “Most just want to get close to the wave to feel its energy and hear it roar,” he says. “That’s enough to give you an adrenaline rush.” Locals are incredibly protective of their surf spots, and van Bastolaer stays away from popular breaks. “Out of respect, I don’t take clients out if there are more than a few people in the water. Luckily, I have access to toys that get us away from the crowds.” He island-hops by helicopter, yacht or jet boat, then transports guests to surf breaks via high-speed RIB (rigid inflatable boat) or jetski. Most days average two to three hours of surfing, and he sprinkles in other activities such as snorkeling, whale watching (July to November) and barbecues at his house. 

Papara, the beautiful black-sand beach where van Bastolaer honed his skills, 45 minutes from Teahupo’o, will be turned into a fan viewing zone with jumbo screens during the Olympics. Papara is one of the most forgiving surf breaks in Tahiti, and I head here to longboard. La Plage de Maui, a simple restaurant with sandy floors, plastic chairs and lagoon vistas, becomes my daily après-surf spot. Located in West Taiarapu, 40 minutes east of Papara, with nothing but coastal road and local homes in between, this humble spot sits next to Maui Beach, one of the only white-sand beaches on the whole island. This stretch may be Tahiti Iti’s best-kept secret. 

After a barefoot walk along the shore, I don’t bother to put my shoes back on before heading into the restaurant, where servers proudly sport Tahiti Pro T-shirts and posters of pros hang on the walls. At a waterfront table, I spot rainbow-hued parrotfish and Moorish idol in the glassy lagoon. I’m pretty sure I could live on a diet of local Hinano beer and poisson cru, Tahiti’s national dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk. My final day, I ask my waitress if she’s concerned the Olympics might overexpose this laid-back, oft-forgotten enclave. She just laughs in reply. 

On the drive back to my villa, I remember what van Bastolaer told me when we were introduced a year ago: Tahiti Iti’s specialness is lost on those seeking overwater bungalows or nightlife. It’s a place you can’t know in a day. The island reveals itself to you slowly. And even when van Bastolaer is your host, he won’t give away all its secrets. 

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The Boldest, Most Exciting New Timepieces From Watches & Wonders 2024

Here are the highlights from the world’s biggest watch releases of the year.

By Allen Farmelo, Carol Besler, Paige Reddinger, Oren Hartov, Victoria Gomelsky, Cait Bazemore, Nick Scott, Justin Fenner 10/04/2024

Watches & Wonders, the world’s largest watch show, is in full swing in Geneva. The highly anticipated cascade of new releases is marked by confident individual brand identities — perhaps a sign that watchmakers are done scrambling through the violent collision of restricted supply and soaring demand for high end watches. All seem to be back on solid footing.

Steady confidence is a good thing. Consider Jaeger-LeCoultre offering up traditionally styled grand complications or Vacheron Constantin revamping the classic Patrimony with smaller cases and vintage-inspired radially brushed dials. Consider TAG Heuer celebrating the 55th anniversary of the square Monaco with a skeletonized flyback confidently priced at US$183,000, or Moser similarly showing off a fascinating skeletonized tourbillon in its distinctive 40 mm Streamliner at US$86,900. IWC has leaned hard into their traditionally styled Portugieser line, including an astounding Eternal Calendar complication. We find the storied French houses of Cartier, Chanel and Hermes blurring the lines between jewelry and watchmaking with the technical prowess and artistic whimsy that originally earned these brands their exalted place in the hearts and minds of sophisticated aesthetes. Confidence abounds in 2024.

We could go on and on with examples, but the watches below will demonstrate that for 2024 the big watch brands dared to be themselves, which appears to have given them the confidence to take some seriously compelling horological risks. We have separate coverage of off-show releases and, of course, Patek and Rolex, so keep and eye out for those.

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A Gucci Garden Blooms in Sydney

On a rainy Sydney night, the drinks talent from Maybe Sammy mixed with guest bartenders from Giardino 25 in Florence, for a night of liquid magic.

By Belinda Aucott-christie 13/04/2024

Since hanging out its shingle in 2022, Giardino 25, the all-day café and bar located in Gucci’s palatial, multidisciplinary space in Florence, has been a boon to stylish tipplers. Taking inspiration from one of its previous tenants (a longstanding florist), the garden-themed joint (Giardino is the Italian word for garden) serves delicious aperitivi and dangerously addictive cocktails.

 

Umbrian native Martina Bonci is in hair-to-brogue Gucci for her artful bartending session at El Primo Sanchez. 
Aurora cocktai at Giardino 25, Florence.

Giardino 25 took bloom this past Tuesday at a pop-up at El Primo Sanchez in Paddington. The Maybe Cocktail Festival in Sydney is a series of 20 events scattered throughout the city curated by the award-winning Sammy’s Cocktails team. The festival aims to spur knowledge-sharing and foster excellence in Australia’s drinks scene.

“Last year we held 16 events and they were all packed,” says Stefano Catino, director of hospitality at Public, the management company behind Maybe Sammy venues and bottled drinks, “so this year we’ve curated extra events and flown out even more international bars and bartenders.”

“Nineteen of the 21 events are free to attend, which is very important to us,” he continues. “The cost of living is high, and it’s very expensive for Australians to travel overseas, so this festival allows people to drink cocktails from an amazing bar in Rome or try a Tommy’s Margarita from the gentleman who created it without the cost of a plane ticket.”

Dressed head to toe in Gucci,  and using the bar as her personal catwalk, Giardino 25’s special guest, Martina Bonci, looked every bit the star behind the bar. “We have brought our mix of classic Italian influences and innovation,” she told Robb Report, “so guests in Australia get a little slice of what we do in Florence.”

Among her tantalising pours were powerful dirty martinis decorated with shimmering gold leaf and Aurora, a transparent twist on the Negroni.

Reflecting on her whirlwind trip down under, Bonci said their visit to Bondi Beach and the cocktails at Maybe Sammy were the highlights.

“The bartenders at Maybe Sammy are world-class,” she explained. “There is a good reason they win awards and have a respected reputation overseas. And El Primo Sanchez has such a fun atmosphere—we had a great night.”

Martina Bonci, Bar Manager at Gucci Giardino 25, has been honoured twice as ‘Best Bartender in Italy’ by both the Bargiornale and Blue Blazer Awards. To her right her colleague Matteo Piga.

Bonci, who came to prominence in a long string at Milanese hipster joint Gesto and is known for her use of agave, favors drinks dripping with seasonal fruits and citrus flavors. Having tried her creations, we do, too.

She made a serious impression on Sydneysiders, who would do well to make a pilgrimage to see her in action on home turf. As if any of us need another reason to visit Italy.

The Maybe Cocktail Festival, continues this weekend in Sydney, with the public welcome to attend a Bartenders Brunch at Sydney’s Alpha on Sunday from 11.00 am – 3.00 pm, hosted by George Calombaris. 

View the program: Maybe Cocktail Festival @maybe_cocktail_fetsival

All images courtesy of Gucci.

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Patek Philippe Brings Back Collector Favourites at Watches & Wonders 2024

Both the Nautilus Chronograph and Aquanaut Travel Time receive a welcome return.

By Josh Bozin 10/04/2024

If you’re a watch fan, there’s every reason to believe that a Patek Philippe Nautilus, Patek Philippe Aquanaut—or both—would be high on your wish list. Both collections are of historical significance, helping pave the way for the influence of the steel sports watch category—and subsequent chokehold on the market today.

So, when Patek Philippe unveiled its newest releases at Watches & Wonders in Geneva, it was a pleasant surprise to see the return of two of the best past iterations of the Nautilus and Aquanaut collections.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph

First, we get a new Nautilus Chronograph, with the return of the revered 5980, now replete with a new case in white gold and a denim-like strap (a contentious issue among watch pundits). Discontinuing all Nautilus 5980 models earlier this year, including the collector-favourite 5980/1AR in Rose Gold, left a sombre feeling among Nautilus fanatics. These celebrated chronographs, renowned for their distinctive porthole-inspired design and air of sporty elegance, are some of the most sought-after watches in the Patek Philippe catalogue. Thus, the revival of the 5980, now in white gold, is a cause for collectors’ celebration.

The new offering retains its chronograph function with mono-counter tracking 60-minute and 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock on the dial, but now comes on a new denim-inspired, hand-stitched fabric strap with a Nautilus fold-over clasp in white gold—some will love it, some won’t.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

The Calibre CH 28‑520 C/522 powers this new Nautilus with its flyback chronograph, all of which is visible through the transparent sapphire crystal caseback. The dial is also incredibly eye-catching, with a beautiful opaline blue-gray hue accentuated by white gold-applied hour markers with a white luminescent coating. It is priced at approximately $112,000.

Also returning to the fold is the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time, now with its own bluish hue dial—similar to its Nautilus counterpart. After discontinuing the Aquanaut Travel Time 5164A this year, as well—a watch often regarded as the greatest Aquanaut to date—Patek Philippe surprised all with the new 5164G in white gold. Its greatest attribution is the clever Travel Time GMT function, which clearly rivals the Rolex GMT-Master II as perhaps the travel-friendly watch of choice (if acquiring one was that simple, of course).

For those who prefer the Aquanaut’s sportiness and easy-wearing rubber strap, this newest iteration, with its Opaline Blue-gray dial and matching rubber strap with a deployant clasp, is undoubtedly an icon in the making. The new 5164G has a 40mm case and features the Calibre 26‑330 S C FUS movement, which can also be viewed via the transparent sapphire crystal caseback.

Expect to pick up the new Aquanaut Travel Time for around $95,250.  

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time

 

Follow @robbreportau for all your Watches & Wonders coverage, and more!

 

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Rolex Kicks Off Watches & Wonders 2024 with a New GMT-Master II

The new stainless steel GMT-Master II has already been dubbed the “Bruce Wayne”.

By Josh Bozin 09/04/2024

It may not be the GMT that watch pundits were speculating on—or that collectors were hoping for—but the new Rolex GMT-Master II with a new grey and black ceramic bezel adds dazzle to the revered Rolex collection, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary.

The idea of a new Rolex GMT launching at the world’s biggest watch fair is cause for a little madness. While the watch community eagerly awaited what was thought to be the discontinuation of the highly sought-after GMT “Pepsi” and the return of the GMT “Coke,” the luxury Swiss watchmaker had other plans.

Instead, we’re presented with a piece that, on paper, hasn’t changed much from previous GMT releases. That’s not to say that this isn’t an impressive release that will speak to consumers—the new GMT-Master II ref.126710GRNR, dubbed the “Bruce Wayne,” is definitely a sight for sore eyes.

Rolex
Rolex

This new GMT retains the same dimensions and movement as the other watches in the GMT collection, along with its 40mm size case and the option to fit either an Oyster or Jubilee bracelet. The obvious changes, albeit subtle, come in the way of its mostly monochrome return; a fact that will appease traditionalists. If you’re opposed to the attention-drawing “Pepsi”, “Sprite”, or “Batman” iterations, this model is a stealthier pick—much like pseudonymous Bruce Wayne.

The other noticeable change is the “GMT-Master II” now applied in green text and a 24-hour hand in green; perhaps a nod to the 2007 Basel World GMT release.

Like many Rolex timepieces, this will generate great hype and attention, so don’t expect allocations to come easily.

Rolex
Rolex

Model: GMT-Master II
Reference Number: 126710GRNR

Diameter: 40mm
Case Material: Stainless steel
Dial Colour: Black
Lume: Chromalight on hands and hour markers
Water Resistance: 100m
Bracelet: Oyster or Jubilee

Movement: Caliber 3285
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, GMT
Power Reserve: 70 hours
Winding: Automatic

Price: $17,150 (Oyster); $17,500 (Jubilee)
Availability: Now. Non-limited edition

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