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Private Kingdoms

An Island Paradise May Sound Romantic, But Be Real About Your Dreams Before You Buy

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"I don't know if I like this trip," sighs the swarthy, German-accented Vladi. "I'd much rather take a look at islands from a boat or low-flying helicopter so I'd know I could take an easy swim."
His Gucci bags in tow, Vladi, 49, reluctantly boards the rickety plane. As the world's foremost broker of private islands, trafficking in fantasies of returning to Eden, he's compelled to discover remote, attractive properties, all in the quest to pad his portfolio of $150,000-to-$10 million getaways.
"Loving islands and all they represent--escape, freedom, control over one's environment--I'm often forced to go exploring," laughs Vladi, who has amassed maps, serial photos and a database of more than 4,000 islands. His clients range from supermodels to Japanese millionaires and the late shah of Iran's family. Yet sounding boyishly innocent and thrilled at the prospect of visiting Crusoe's shrine, he blushes. "Ever since my father took me to Capri and we toured the grottoes, I've been an island fanatic."
Having sold 500 isles and being frequent-ly called on as an expert witness in island-related lawsuits, Vladi insists islands are a terrific investment because of their finite supply. He excitedly quotes numerous examples of investments tripling, even quadrupling, in value. Yet judging by his visit to Crusoe's Más a Tierra Island, a property not for sale, it's clear he's driven by more than just commissions (8.5 percent, normally paid by the seller).
"Regrettably, Más a Tierra isn't available, but then an island is not just another piece of real estate, a mere transaction," says Vladi, who earned a master's degree in macroeconomics from Hamburg University and later focused on tax and property laws. "Whether it's Crusoe's island, the $235,000 Hatchet Cay in Belize or the $9 million Kaimbu Atoll in Fiji, every island has a magnetic pull. Each one has unique soul, magic, mystery."
Rhapsodizing about "white sandy beaches, idyllic azure coves" and his own "perfect paradise" on Sleepy Cove Island in Nova Scotia, Vladi is more a romantic than a hard-sell land dealer. In business 23 years as Vladi Private Islands (based in Nova Scotia and Hamburg, Germany), this Canadian citizen of Iranian and German descent says, "I lose all stress on my island, and that's what I want for my clients. I want to find them those special retreats that work best for their personalities."
But brokering private islands is still a highly competitive business. Vladi has rivals in every Caribbean port of call because most conventional realtors have an island or two to sell. These salespeople will bombard potential buyers with catalogues and phone calls. Yet when it comes to producing solid information about the tropics' political stability and costs, only Nick Bailey and Jeremy Hurst, both with Sotheby's real-estate affiliates in the Caribbean, candidly discuss all the ramifications of island ownership. Sotheby's International Realty maintains such affiliates for prime properties in many parts of the world, so you may be able to use them to find islands outside of the Caribbean, through local broker affiliates.
Internationally, Vladi only has one "competitor," his friend Bob Douglas. The two men share listings and often work as partners for certain transactions. A fellow Nova Scotian, Douglas left conventional real-estate sales to broker islands 25 years ago and says, "there are only two of us in the business because most guys are afraid to take the risk. We just sell luxury. Let's face it, everyone needs a house, but no one really needs an island."
Despite his romantic bent, Vladi is also the realist. He realizes an island escape is no panacea for clients. While dreams of a tropical, Gauguinesque existence die hard in his Halifax office, he must usually set people straight: there are no voluptuous, barely clad island girls fanning settlers these days.
Island life is a major, often traumatic adjustment. As Vladi warns the uninitiated island-goer, living on an isle, no matter how short the visit, means a daily sameness. Travel, maintenance of facilities and accessibility to necessities become pricey and complicated. Plus there's the separation factor, that all-too-common sense of isolation, which prompts premature returns to the mainland.
How can fateful mistakes be avoided? Before writing a seven- or eight-figure check, can prospective buyers determine whether their personalities and lifestyles are suited for island ownership?
Supermodel Claudia Schiffer recently asked Vladi these questions, and he gave her the same advice given to other "island virgins." Postpone buying. First test island life by renting.
Other real-estate brokers are far less scrupulous than Vladi, intent only on quick sales. To brokers, a potential island buyer is a marked man, a cross between a sucker and Fort Knox. Numerous Caribbean salespeople never mention renting as an option or even talk about the pitfalls of island life, its particular rhythms and demands. They instead inundate the customer with spiels about pristine islands with lovely coves--that just happen to lie in the middle of popular drug-smuggling routes.
Vladi, though, emphasizes renting as a first step in the buying process. Hoping this will "strip away false illusions about islands," especially as "paradise," he encourages clients to sample island living in several diverse locales--arranged, of course, through his own rental service, which has more than 40 destinations, from Scotland to the Fijis and the Bahamas, for $75 to $7,500 a day. Sounding particularly enchanting is Kudahithi in the Maldives, which, at $255 a day, offers bungalows on glistening white beaches. Sororoka Island, one-and-a-half hours from Rio de Janeiro, was developed by an Italian architect; it showcases thick tropical vegetation and dramatic views of the sea, at $1,500 a day. Cistern Cay in the Bahamas is a picture postcard of beaches and greenish-blue lagoons, at $15,000 per week.
"Renting will show if a client is emotionally ready for island ownership," says Vladi, who, unlike agents with only local properties, constantly updates a catalogue that lists islands from 10 diverse regions. "Renting helps buyers see what's real and important about island life. It gets them away from the escapist fairy tale."
One fantasy that most potential American buyers are hooked on is easily summarized: living in the Caribbean amid sun-drenched palms and lagoons. The beachcomber life.
But the Caribbean isn't magical to Vladi. While offering numerous beach properties for rent in the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands and off Panama, he has serious reservations about buying in the tropics, mainly because he views much of the Caribbean as "shark-infested banana republics" where political payoffs are mandatory for development and land prices are way out of line.
As he bitterly describes, on many Caribbean islands he's either struggling with local brokers who typically jack up prices or wrestling with governments empowered to approve all land sales and housing plans. This often means that well-connected operatives can delay or even sabotage his transactions. It took nearly two years to finalize a Grenadine island sale for a member of the Ferragamo family because of interference and stalling by government authorities. Even when threatened with the loss of his commission, Vladi often stops dealing with bureaucrats.
"Governments demand all kinds of documents. Then you wait and wait...nothing happens," he bristles. "Once you start handing bribes out, you'll pay for a telephone permit, permission to build a wharf, an airstrip--everything."
A master sleuth often forced to conceal his real-estate interests when exploring an island, Vladi can still find an occasional Caribbean bargain. Little Norman's Cay in the Bahamas, an 85-acre prize selling for $1 million, has several white sandy beaches. The lushly landscaped Calivigni Island near Grenada goes for $1.5 million, while the 259-acre Ginger Island in the British Virgin Islands, with a large lagoon and mountains affording 360-degree views of the sea, is priced at $5 million.
Offering the same tropical climate, yet at one-third the price of Caribbean properties, Panamanian islands are an increasingly popular destination (if buyers can live with political instability). Taborcillo, John Wayne's former 80-acre playland, is now for sale, as well as several islands ideal for tobacco growing, including the $300,000 Isla de Coco, and Platanal at a mere $185,000.
The storybook allure of all these tropical sites is undeniable. They offer exceptional swimming, picturesque terrain, a rich nightlife and are easily accessible to the United States. "The Caribbean is more than just samba, sand and sun; there are also some good buys," says Jeremy Hurst of the Grand Cayman-based R.C. Bodden Realty Company. "No islands in the world can match the untouched beauty of the Caribbean's white powder beaches and turquoise waters. And best of all, on many of these picturesque islands, there's tax-free living." Vladi reminds clients that the tropics, for all their charm, are a haven for drug dealing, are wracked with political turmoil and are a potential economic nightmare.
In the Caribbean, such routine expenses as having a caretaker, desalinating water and repairing a boat average more than $100,000annually, as compared with $10,000 in Canada. Since buying Necker Island (British Virgin Islands) in 1973, Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, has sunk $20 million into developing the property. "After adding up all the costs, you will find that taking care of a Caribbean island is like running your own country," he laments.
Even if money is no object, the Caribbean has one other essential drawback. Typically, most island buyers can take extended vacations only during the summer. And that is not the time to be in the sunbaked tropics.
Where, then, does the smart money go?
To northern climes, where verdant islands are serene and still financially inviting.
Vladi particularly prefers properties off France's Brittany coast, off Scotland and in Nova Scotia. Though prices are rising there as they are elsewhere around the world, due to heightened demand and dwindling supply (looking to develop new resort destinations, cruise lines and hotel operators are fueling the spurt in the tropics), good buys are still plentiful. Especially in Canada. "Canada is the only place to be," argues broker Bob Douglas. "I don't agree with Vladi about Scotland. It's a foreign place with very dry people. Yet Nova Scotia, with great fishing, deep waters, political stability and friendly natives, is the best buy in the world today."
In Vladi's current catalogue of favored properties, he lists 32 islands in Nova Scotia, including such densely wooded spots as Cow and Calf, Strawberry, Coddles and Spectacle Islands. These relatively untouched isles are easily accessible to Europe or the United States, are blessed with moderate temperatures and, ranging in price from $35,000 to $1.25 million, are far more affordable than tropical sites or similarly sized islands in the United States.
Recalling the recent $150,000 sale of a 100-acre beach-lined retreat in Nova Scotia, Vladi insists the same property could easily have gone for $2 million in Maine. His own island, sitting in the middle of a lake filled with trout and salmon, was purchased for $80,000 in 1989. It offers amenities and tranquility that Vladi says make it a steal. Then there's Mouton, an 800-acre island with a freshwater lake that he sold to a German doctor in 1973 for $500,000; valued today at $3 million, it could sell for $20 million in the tropics.
"Canadian islands offer everything the buyer wants: solitude, beauty and far better access to infrastructure than in the tropics," Vladi concedes. "But buying here does demand a radical reeducation. Before consummating a sale, I typically spend six to nine months traveling around the world with clients. Most people ultimately see the drawbacks of their particular island fantasies. Yet it's still a long process before they start adjusting to reality--that owning an island is much more than sitting naked on a beach all the time." The broker of islands repairs to his own, Sleepy Cove, to "rediscover" himself after traveling about 250 days each year.
Once drawn to the Caribbean but now sharing Vladi's excitement about Canada, island owner David Hays, artistic director of the National Theatre of the Deaf, says, "I love the tropics for vacations, the sailing and swimming. Yet our 55-acre Canadian island sits in a dramatic part of the world where the swift changes in the weather are thrilling. It is surrounded by crystal-clear blue water and cliffs. Our property would cost millions in the Caribbean."
Vladi's Japanese clients still cling to typical notions of tropical havens, demanding to be in Polynesia, Hawaii or off New Zealand. The French prefer to luxuriate in sun-kissed Indian Ocean locales. And as for his newest clientele, American and European corporations, they are adding to the current buying frenzy in the Caribbean by acquiring islands for conference centers and executive think tanks.
Vladi, however, favors climates where "the magic of changing seasons is keenly felt" and so continues to play the detective, snooping around Brittany and Scottish seaside towns for enticing properties. His voice filled with excitement, he recounts talking with French fishermen to find Costa Eres, a granitic, pink-cliffed island off Brittany, complete with a 12-room medieval castle. "What an incredible spot. It was simply a terrific bargain."
That jewel sold for only $1.5 million. True to his dream-merchant calling, Vladi has numerous other gems.
"Rion Island off Brittany, 50 acres with two working farms, at $750,000, is charming, a fantastic buy," he says, falling into one of his habitual island reveries. "The Brittany coast has very few islands for sale, yet this is a superb property, accessible to Paris, with a distinctive lighthouse.
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