Lying on a plush daybed, Sir Richard Branson looks out at the glittering turquoise sea from a terrace of the Great House on Necker Island, his 30-hectare private paradise in the British Virgin Islands. Two scarlet ibises streak across the sky and a turtle as large as a cantaloupe crawls near his feet.
"Who needs the Galapagos when I have this?" he says to me. Necker is home to the Branson family but is also a haven for flamingos, rock iguanas, Aldabra giant tortoises and endangered Madagascan lemurs, all of which Branson has imported to the private island.
When you look around the Great House – with its soaring glass skylights, lush Balinese furnishings and sea-facing decks – it's hard to believe that this stunning structure was destroyed by a fire in August, 2011. But the Great House has risen from the ashes and doubled in size to 22,000 square feet, restored to the tune of $18-million Branson wanted it to be identical to the former incarnation, but has added a "crow's nest" roof terrace with a four-person Jacuzzi and private dining alcove. And, in keeping with his love for adrenalin, a stone staircase now leads to a 213-metre-long zip line on which guests can fly high above the coral reefs and pristine white sand of Turtle Beach. (Branson, who is clearly still a kid at heart, is also thinking about creating a gigantic water slide.)
It can all be yours – the entire island – for $62,000 a night.
Although individuals have been known to take over Necker, it's no surprise that the island is usually hired by groups of up to 30. Space is ample: The nine Great House bedrooms include a bunkroom for eight children and a palatial master suite with three terraces (including one with an outdoor bath and tub with jets). Six additional one-bedroom Bali Houses can handle guests who want a little extra privacy. (Individual rooms can be booked during Celebration Weeks; see sidebar.)
Sir Richard, his wife, his two grown children and their respective spouses live in nearby Temple House. Although he has other homes on different continents and travels six months of the year on business, Sir Richard considers Necker Island his home. It's where he comes to relax. "It's where I sit in my hammock and hopefully conceive big, good ideas," he says. "There are so many interesting people who come to Necker, whether it's Larry Page from Google or Jack Dorsey from Twitter or Bill Gates. Necker is a big magnet, which attracts interesting people. And those interesting people help make the world go around."
When the Bransons are on the island, they dine and hang out with guests at the Great House, the heart of the resort. Sir Richard can often be found sprawled out on a terrace daybed, which is where I first meet him. He is barefoot and clad in shorts and a T-shirt, typical uniform for Necker.
The Great House includes a fully stocked bar, multiple seating areas, a dining table for 40, snooker table, piano and an open indoor jungle garden with resident turtles, perhaps the most famous being "E.T.," a 35-year-old tortoise who was singed in the fire but survived (and has since given birth to two babies). At night, three large chandeliers made of South African ostrich eggs illuminate the space. The largest fixture holds 82 eggs (I counted them).
Necker offers so many activities, I don't know where to begin during my stay: Do I kitesurf, wind sail, water ski, kayak, take a powerboat ride, snorkel or play tennis? I start the morning with a private paddleboard lesson, and then skim across the turquoise sea in a sleek Hobie cat, captained by an adventure guide. Lunch is a canoe-sized spread of sushi served poolside by the palm-fringed beach. Later, I swim, snorkel, jump like a kid on the beachfront trampoline, whiz down the zip line, join the naturalist to feed the lemurs and finally have a soothing treatment at the beach-facing spa. (While all meals, beverages and activities are included, spa services are additional, and I'm happy to learn that 15 per cent of the fees are donated to Sir Richard's non-profit charity, Virgin Unite.)
That night, dinner is a sumptuous feast that includes a tasty beetroot-and-goat-cheese salad with olive paste and walnut crumb, herb-crusted lamb with fondant potato and onion purée, and a lemon tart with pomegranate sorbet for dessert.
I return to the Great House and soak in the crow's nest Jacuzzi, looking up at a glittering universe of stars. Then, I return to my room, climb up onto the four-poster bed and sink into the double pillow-top mattress, the most comfortable bed in which I have ever slept, bar none. I think about all the activities I plan to try tomorrow, starting with a run, then going on the Necker Nymph, a two-person underwater "aircraft" that will take me down to 30 meters.
I think about what Sir Richard said when I was sitting next to him at dinner: "I wake up every morning here at 5:30. I'd never do that in Europe. I play tennis in the morning and play tennis in the evening. I don't watch television, because you don't need to here. I go kitesurfing when the wind's right, I go sailing, surfing, swimming – life is the richer and funner for living here."
And even though I'm just visiting, I feel exactly the same way.
IF YOU GO
Transfers from the island of Tortola or Virgin Gorda are included. Tortola, home to the closest international airport, is a 35-minute flight from San Juan and an 80-minute flight from Antigua.
The cost for renting the entire property for one week starts at $62,000 (U.S.) a night for 30 adults ($2,066 a person). During designated "Celebration Weeks," when it is possible to book an individual room and share the island, prices for a couple range from $27,475 to $45,000 for seven nights. All meals, beverages (including alcohol) and activities (except spa treatments) are included.
For more information, visit neckerisland.virgin.com. The writer travelled and stayed as a guest of Necker Island. It did not review or approve this article.
Still not impressed? What about these private islands for rent
The Islands of Copperfield Bay: Yes, the name refers to that Copperfield. Illusionist David Copperfield owns 11 islands in the Bahamas. Stay at his Musha Cay resort – which features 12 bedrooms in five luxe buildings – and all 280 hectares are yours. Copperfield was intimately involved in the planning process. During his years of travels, he made sure to record his favourite aspects of accommodations around the world. When it came time to build his own refuge, he wanted only the very best. All-inclusive rate is $39,000 (U.S.) for up to 12 guests (four-night minimum); mushacay.com.
Amanpulo: The tiny Philippine island of Pamalican – five kilometres long and 500 metres across at its widest point – is home to the Amanpulo resort. Its 40 casitas (twin-roofed bungalows) are modelled after native dwellings: Choose from beachfront, hillside or treetop settings. Damaged in the recent typhoon, it is set to reopen on Dec. 15. From $88,315 (U.S.); amanresorts.com/amanpulo.
Four Seasons Bora Bora: What's better than a bungalow over the stunning turquoise waters of the South Pacific? Having a bunch of them as part of your temporary kingdom. Yes, you can buy out the entire resort – seven beachfront villas, 100 bungalows and 250 staff members. Now that would earn you some serious brownie points with friends and family. Rates starting at $45,000; fourseasons.com/borabora.