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Millionaire Hideaways

Three private-island owners talk about their unique seaside sanctuaries
Carrie Loranger Gaska
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

Legend has it that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis wanted to buy the Ionian island of Ithaki, Odysseus’s homeland, but it wasn’t for sale. Instead, he settled for the nearby uninhabited island of Skorpios. When Onassis acquired the land mass in 1963, little did he know that he would start a trend among the jet set. While he wasn’t the first person to own an island, Onassis instilled into the public consciousness the idea of a private island as the ultimate retreat. Skorpios became his sanctuary and he and his children, Alexander and Christina, are buried there.Today, many others have followed Onassis’s example, including media mogul Ted Turner, actors Nicolas Cage and Brooke Shields. They’ve bought property in as diverse locales as the Caribbean and the Seychelles. We talked to three island owners to find out about the appeal of acquiring these private hideaways.

Sir Richard Branson -- Necker Island, British Virgin Islands

It’s one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and Sir Richard Branson is eating sushi out of a canoe while lounging in the expansive 160-foot swimming pool he’s recently added to Necker Island, his retreat in the British Virgin Islands. After lunch, he takes a Kawasaki Mule from the beachside pool to his Balinese-style house at the top of a rocky hill and resumes his work, settling into a hammock on a veranda overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Here he works in his bathing suit until tennis time at 5 p.m. (“I don’t do well with gyms, so I play tennis to keep fit.”) Sweaty and fulfilled after his match with the island’s tennis pro, he hits the shower and emerges at 8 p.m. in a cool, white linen outfit, ready for a seven-course dinner in the main dining room with two dozen of his friends and co-workers.

Necker Island is the 53-year-old Branson’s own serfdom, where anything he desires becomes reality. For the captain of the Virgin Group with a “seize the day” attitude, who has attempted five Atlantic Ocean crossings in a balloon and has built more than 150 companies, life on Necker is no different from life anywhere else in his world: it’s fun, casual, yet sophisticated and very human.

It is from his hammock that Branson works most days in his swim trunks, shuffling stacks of papers and making calls on two telephones to his Virgin associates in London and around the world.

“I can justify coming here a lot by working when I’m here,” says Branson, whose vast empire encompasses such companies as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Megastores and Virgin Books. “It’s a different kind of work. I think it’s very important that if you’re running companies, you’re out and about and meeting people, so for nine months of the year I’m traveling around the world and meeting our staff and being in touch with what’s going on. The other three months, I’m on Necker and I have time to think and plan. But I think I get more proactive things done on Necker than when I’m off the island because things just come my way and I have to deal with them. When I’m here, I can decide what I want to do and also have  time to think strategically.”

Because Virgin is now in 50 countries with some 80 different companies each headed by a different chief executive, it doesn’t really matter where Branson works, as long as he’s got a home base and good communications—on Necker that translates to a hammock and two phones.

Branson purchased Necker Island on somewhat of a whim about 25 years ago when he was admittedly young, daring and not particularly wealthy.

“I was in New York on a Friday and I was courting Joan, who is now my lovely wife, and somebody said, ‘Did you name Virgin after the Virgin Islands?’ I had never heard of the Virgin Islands, so we pulled out a map and found out where they were and then I said to Joan, ‘Would you like to go down to the Virgin Islands for the weekend? Let’s go and have a look,’” recalls Branson.

At the time nowhere near the corporate baron he is today, Branson posed as a wealthy businessman interested in buying an island. “I didn’t have any money to buy an island, but I rang up this company and I said my name is Richard Branson and I’m flying to the Virgin Islands to look for an island. When we arrived, a red carpet was laid out and we were rushed through the airport and ushered to this private villa,” says Branson.

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