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.
When he flew over the uninhabited Necker Island during a helicopter tour, he was immediately captivated by the reef and beautiful beaches surrounding the rocky, 74-acre land mass. “There was this pristine, clear sea and I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” he recalls.
But when it came time to talk finances, the island’s seller, who needed capital to build property in Scotland, wanted $5 million and Branson was only offering $100,000. “So then the helicopter was taken away, the house was taken away, and we had to hitch back to the airport,” says Branson. “[But] about nine months later they rang up and said, well, if I made it $300,000, then I could have the island because nobody else had come to see it.”
Branson has always been slightly unconventional, not only in his approach to life but also in his work habits. He began his first business, an advisory center for young people in trouble, in a church crypt with a coffin for a chair. When he launched Virgin Records in 1973, he graduated to a houseboat. “I worked from the houseboat, lived on the houseboat for a number of years and had my children on the houseboat in Little Venice in the center of London. Poor Joan. If I had a business meeting she would have to retreat to the bedroom with the children, and that went on for years,” says Branson.
For Branson, the island is one of his many homes that double as his office space. He also owns Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa and is opening a new property, Kasbah Tamadat, in Morocco in late 2004.
He justifies the luxury of Necker by allowing other people to use it when he’s not there. Anyone with the wherewithal can rent the property, which costs between $23,750 to $38,000 per day depending on the number of guests.
“The nice thing is that we share it and have all kinds of wonderful people come and enjoy it when we’re not here. I get enormous pleasure from bringing friends out to Necker, but it’s all about getting the right balance,” he says. “If you’re on an island, you’re completely in touch with nature, and you can pull up the drawbridge and have your friends and family there, and you’ve got privacy if you’re a celebrity, and you can let your hair down and stay up until the wee hours of the morning and basically do as you wish.”
For Branson, owning a private island means he not only has a home and an office, but also an eternal playground. “I can’t think of anywhere more special in the world and I’ve traveled all over the world.”
Brian Hew -- Kamalame Cay, Andros, The Bahamas
For Brian Hew, work, life, pleasure and everything in between blend together and Kamalame Cay, the island he owns in the Bahamas with his wife, Jenny, is where it all happens. Unlike many private island owners, Hew lives a stone’s throw away from his island full-time and does everything from clearing brush from the beach to building guest villas.
When Hew meets another private island owner, he often asks, “How big is your sandbox?” “It’s kind of childish really, isn’t it?” he says, with a gleam in his eye and a boyish grin. “But as you grow older, it’s good to keep your youthful playfulness, too.” With three miles of white sandy beaches on Kamalame Cay, Hew’s sandbox is bigger than most men his age. So is his 7,000-square-foot home, which sits opposite the cay on land that is connected to Andros by a sand road.
The 49-year-old Hew, who also manages the Compass Point hotel resort in Nassau for an outfit called Island Outpost, lived and worked in Miami and Canada before he, Jenny, 49, and their son, David, 22, settled down on Kamalame Cay in 1994. Looking to connect with the outdoors, the Hews made a deal with the Bahamian government in the mid-1990s. The government wanted a number of islands developed as resorts to increase tourism. It would sell land cheaply, with the understanding that it must be developed before the buyer could take over the ownership of the island. So, the Hews had to put in infrastructure and buildings and get the island up to resort status before the transaction would be officially completed and they’d be the official island owners (which occurred in 2001).
“It gives a whole new dimension to remoteness and a challenge, you know.” says Brian. “Out here we’re responsible for our electrical needs, we’re responsible for our water, the roads—all of those things. I think it’s more a matter of exploring…it’s like, Don’t stop the carnival.”
Mechanics and logistics occupy much of Hew’s time. Living on an island means learning how to improvise; one of his biggest challenges was figuring a way to get materials to Kamalame Cay. The first thing Hew built when he arrived was a 12-by-36-foot barge named Sandbar Sally. All the building materials for the villas, which house a total of 18, were brought from Andros to the island on the barge.
Because Kamalame Cay is a resort, Hew spent a lot of time training his staff. “Anybody can build anything, but whether people come to your island is a matter of the people [you employ]. The people are what it’s all about,” says Hew.
Perhaps the biggest reward Hew has reaped from developing Kamalame Cay is the difference that it has made in his workers’ economic and social development. “When I first came here ten years ago, I met kids who were 13 years old who are now 24 years old and I’ve trained them to be fishing guides to landscaping supervisors to management-type people,” says Hew.
“The type of guests that come here and the exposure these people have had—these are people I wouldn’t meet otherwise and neither would the staff. It’s part of the experience.”
Hew is content to let royalty, celebrities and sports figures come to him. “I don’t travel a lot. I’m [totally] enveloped in my own little world. The world comes to me. They come to see what it’s like and they enjoy it.”
Jeff Gram -- Cayo Espanto, Belize
Jeff Gram says he was born with the dream of owning an island, but admits that shows like “Gilligan’s Island” fueled his fire. “For me, ‘Gilligan’s Island’—there’s no better. What more do you need than a buddy like Gilligan and Skipper and somebody like Mary Ann, Ginger and Mr. Howell to pay for it,” says the 41-year-old Gram, who owns the three-acre Cayo Espanto in Belize. “I’m more of a cross between Gilligan and the Professor, and when I need something done, I’m the Skipper.”
Gram, who started a mail order company called MM Marketing and sold real estate in the 1980s, opened the five-villa luxury resort off the coast of Belize in 1998 and says since that time, private island ownership has gone from a dream to a passion, while at the same time, it’s very much a business—a business designed to help others live out their own “Gilligan’s Island” fantasies.
“If you give me an island anywhere that I can get diesel fuel [to], you won’t know if you’re on my island or [at] a five-star hotel anywhere in the world, because if you can get fuel, you can have all the luxuries of life and all the communications you need,” he says.
At the moment, feeding his passion is nearly a full-time job. Gram is developing another island off the Belizean coast, a 1,200-acre piece of real estate about 35 miles from Cayo Espanto, and is negotiating the purchase of two islands in the British Virgin Islands and one in the Exuma island chain of the Bahamas.
But Gram admits that building an island—paying for it and writing the check—is the easy part. The hard part is offering the luxury and the service required to attract guests of a certain caliber. “The service is the key,” says Gram, whose villas on Cayo Espanto are all served by a private butler.
Gram’s enthusiasm for private island ownership is contagious. “I’ve had people come visit me that leave the island wanting a place of their own, and they didn’t come here with that in mind,” says Gram.
“There’s several little islands there [in the Exumas] that I’ve just fallen in love with and if I had $3.5 million in each pocket, I could have fun down there. What I’m hoping is that I’m going to get established with this new island [in the Bahamas], get the infrastructure in place, and then I’ll be able to have some of these other people that I know quite well have some of these islands right near mine. We could really have some fun with that,” says Gram.
Cayo Espanto has been a learning experience for Gram. He never thought it would take off as it has with more than 800 visitors a year. In November, the island was featured on “Oprah” and on ABC’s reality television hit “The Bachelor,” which has caused the phones to ring nonstop.
But for now Gram still has one dream unfulfilled:
having Gilligan himself visit Cayo Espanto. “I used to travel with
pro tennis players as a pseudo-manager, and I used to travel with a lot of
celebrities and enjoyed my time with them, but the only autograph
I’ve ever asked for is Bob Denver’s. So when I bought my island
and opened the resort, I
e-mailed his wife and I offered him a trip to the island. Of course it would be a dream come true for me, but he hasn’t come down yet,” says Gram.
Carrie Loranger Gaska writes about business and travel from her home in Madison, Wisconsin.