Midday on Necker Island and things are getting a little strange. The Caribbean afternoon, still and calm, is stirred by the shrill howls of the nearby ring-tailed lemurs as lunch is served.
The sushi arrives by boat: a sashimi-filled canoe pushed through the moat-style swimming pool by a grinning chef. We survey the lavish spread from the edge of the pool, our feet dangling in the water as a giant Galápagos tortoise saunters by, followed closely behind by Sumo, the resident pooch, who’s currently rocking a mohawk hairstyle. Just another day on the world’s most famous private island.
But what else would you expect from an island owned by the world’s most eccentric entrepreneur? Sir Richard Branson bought the then uninhabited, and uninhabitable, speck in 1979 and set about transforming it as the money rolled in from his Virgin record label, which launched in 1970. He has since opened up his luxurious hideaway in the eastern British Virgin Islands to those who can afford the eye-watering price tag. “It’s too beautiful not to share with others,” he says. He’s got a point.
Never far from the headlines — usually on account of its stream of A-list guests (everyone from Princess Diana to Mariah Carey have left their footprints on its shores) — Necker Island most memorably made the news in 2011 when a lightning strike sparked a catastrophic fire.
Speaking of that fateful night, Branson describes the scene as “sheer terror”. Everyone escaped unscathed — Kate Winslet famously saved Branson’s 90-year-old mother from the blaze. But the inferno burnt the island’s main structure, the Great House, to the ground.
Now, three years and several million pounds later, the building has risen from the ashes — bigger and better than before, according to Branson. The reincarnation is almost an exact replica of the original, with the same Balinese-style decor, the same 40-foot dining table and the same spiralling chandeliers made from ostrich eggs hanging from the rafters. There are eight guest rooms, an infinity pool and a rooftop hot tub that’s perfect for late-night stargazing. Better still, its lofty hilltop location overlooks the turquoise-tinged reef and the green and hilly neighbouring islands.
Such luxury doesn’t come cheap. Aside from six selected weeks each year when it’s possible to book individual rooms, Necker must be rented exclusively for the princely sum of £39,000 a night (split between a maximum of 30 guests).
But is it money well spent?
Necker is not really the place to wile away the days working on your tan. I spend a morning hiking around the 74-acre isle, strolling along its empty beaches and following cacti-dotted trails past murky lagoons filled with flamingos — another exotic species introduced by wildlife-lover Branson. Action-packed days follow, with kitesurfing, sailing and games of tennis (on a court previously used by Becker and Nadal), but there’s still plenty of time to unwind in the cliff-top spa and ride the new zip-line down to Turtle Beach.
The real beauty of Necker doesn’t lie solely in its heavenly location, five-star touches or even the copious amounts of Champagne (dubbed Necker Water), but in just how unassuming it is. First and foremost, it’s a family home — and that’s exactly how it feels: cosy, relaxed and lived in. Bedroom doors remain unlocked, everyone wanders around barefoot almost all the time and there are no fawning butlers on standby to rearrange the sunloungers.
And, so, for the briefest and most precious of days, it’s very much your own private patch of paradise. If you can afford it.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)