Offered by the billionaire businessman as collateral for the bail-out of his airline business, Necker Island has a reputation for powerful partying. Francisca Kellett has stayed there ...
The best meal I had on Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson's ultra-exclusive private playground in the British Virgin Islands, was a sushi "boat".
I was lounging beside the idyllic beachside pool, palm trees waving overhead, when a staff member appeared in the water, pushing a canoe filled with ice and covered with huge platters of fresh sashimi and maki rolls. I gasped and clapped.
"I've heard," the guest on the next lounger whispered to me, "that sometimes one of the girls strips down to a bikini, and they lay out the sushi on her."
That's the thing about Necker. It's always had a sense of friskiness mixed with high power. On the one hand, we've seen pictures of Branson kitesurfing with Barack Obama, and on the other, there's Kate Moss and Harry Styles partying hard.
This is a place where high rollers talk business and where sushi might well be served on the naked torso of a lithe staff member.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days on Necker on a press trip in 2014, and I saw neither high rollers nor human serving platters. Branson had left a few days earlier, and instead I shared the island with just five other guests, all here for a "Celebration week" — where you rent a room for £4080 (NZ$8400) a night.
If that sounds pricey, consider the usual cost. Necker is generally let exclusively, costing £83,550 per night for up to 40 guests.
It's a hefty price tag, but one that doesn't seem to put people off. When Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston wanted to honeymoon here, they were reportedly turned away as the island was so booked up.
So what's the appeal? There's reputation, of course. Former guests include everyone from Diana, Princess of Wales — famously pictured there in 1990 with little princes William and Harry — to Mick Jagger, David Hasselhoff, Robert de Niro and Kelly Brook. There are all sorts of stories: we've heard about Branson sheltering in his wine cellar during Hurricane Irma, and Kate Winslet rescuing his mother Eve from a fire in 2011. There has been gossip, some intrigue, and, yes, a great deal of partying.
Of course, the talking point now is that Branson has offered to put his beloved island up as collateral in return for a taxpayer-backed bail-out of his airline group. Saying his net worth is not just "cash in the bank" to help him weather the current storm, his request for help has been given short shrift by those who question the billionaire's tax status.
He insists that he lives in the British Virgin Islands because of his love for the region, not for any tax purposes. I'll leave you to make up your own mind about that. The island, incidentally, which cost US$180,000 to buy in the 70s, is now worth an estimated US$150 million.
So what does US$150m of Caribbean real estate look like? It is, as the images would suggest, a tropical paradise. The empty beaches have soft, white sand washed by startlingly clear turquoise water.
The interior is lush and green, with winding lanes where little golf buggies ferry guests between beautiful Balinese-style villas. Bedrooms have big, soft beds, gorgeous sea views, shared infinity pools and breezy indoor-outdoor bathrooms where you hope it's only the birds in the treetops above that can see you.
There are 30 hectares to explore, which feels huge when you're sharing it with just a handful of others — in my case, a furiously silent British couple who did something in banking, two girlfriends who'd won the holiday at an auction, and my friend Hannah who'd come along for the ride.
Necker was our personal playground, with an army of staff to help us have fun. There were tennis courts, zip wires, all sorts of games and watersports on tap, as well as pink flamingos — descended from an original flock imported by Branson in the 80s — standing about in a little lake in the interior.
As many as 175 staff members look after up to 40 guests, a guest/staff ratio I've not experienced anywhere else. Everything is included: meals, drinks, activities. And no timetable. Fancy a kitesurfing lesson? Just stroll along down to the main beach and — hey presto — a buff, sun-kissed instructor will appear, like a magician, to give you a lesson. Want to go water skiing? Paddleboarding? A sail around the island? Or a frosty pina colada? Just say the word and it will happen.
That is the true luxury of Necker. As a travel writer, I've been fortunate enough to stay in five-star beach resorts where the rooms are fancier and the food better, where you might have a butler at your beck and call. Necker Island doesn't have butlers but never have I experienced a place where everything is so easy. The staff — lots of posh, young good-looking Brits in shorts and polo shirts, as well as locals — were relaxed and chatty, not obsequious, and always around to do whatever was needed. The decadence lies in the anything-goes attitude.
The only things that seemed to run to any sort of schedule were mealtimes, which were communal and jolly and, aside from the sushi boat, not terribly imaginative. And there was a degree of slightly cringeworthy organised fun, including a "casino night" when we all had to dress up in white and have awkward goes on the roulette wheel in The Great House.
The Great House is the nexus of Necker, with 11 bedrooms and huge, open-plan living areas where the parties are held. A fellow guest told me that they'd had a fancy dress party a few nights before, when Branson had still been in residence, and he'd enthusiastically taken a few up to the roof to look at the stars. He's also been known to bare his bottom to all around during particularly high-spirited evenings.
So has Necker changed with the times? Certainly, the infrastructure has had to; much of it was flattened during the devastating hurricane of 2017. Reconstruction has just been completed, including three new wind turbines and stylish new accommodation. Necker is now also heavily involved in BVI Unite, a non-profit to support community causes. Branson's private residence is still very much in the thick of it; guests are more than likely to spend time with him. The question is, after all this blows over, will they still be as keen to show off about it?
How much is it really worth?
Sir Richard Branson bought Necker Island in 1978 for US$180,000 — equivalent to US$639,954 (NZ$1.072m) in today's money. Eager to purchase his own "virgin island", he had scouted the 70-acre Caribbean outcrop, part of the British Virgin Islands, when he tried to buy it for just US$100,000. As it was then on the market for US$6m, his offer was rejected.
Branson ultimately agreed a deal on condition that he built a resort on the island within four years. Since taking ownership, he has poured more than US$10m into the island's Balinese-style complex, which can be rented out for NZ$170,000 a night.
In 2006, Branson estimated the island was worth US$60m. Now, that figure could be US$150m (NZ$251m) or more, according to John Christie, of HG Christie, affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate.
"It's probably the most famous island in the world, and because it's Richard Branson's island, it's a trophy for any number of billionaires. For the sort of people who buy private islands, if the stock market goes up or down, they will have enough to get by."
The value of any island depends on factors such as its location and size, infrastructure and accessibility, whether it has natural water and can create its own energy.
"Sale price is dictated by who is in the market to buy," said Edward de Mallet Morgan, of property consultancy Knight Frank. "It's rare to find islands that are well located and well looked after, and for sale."
Despite the market turmoil caused by the pandemic, Christie reports that in the past six weeks, the number of inquiries for private islands has quadrupled.
"After 9/11, the same thing happened. People were scared and sought a safe haven."
And if Branson decides to mortgage the island, he would likely have to go to a private bank for a loan using Necker Island as collateral, said broker Paul Mahoney of Nova Financial.
"He would have to go to a lender that thinks outside the box. Typically, when unique assets are involved such as this, they will lend not on the value of asset but the value of person.
- Isabelle Fraser