Virgin territory: Why Necker Island offers an escape unlike any other

Richard Branson's Virgin Limited Edition property is a hideaway for the rich and famous for good reason

Darlin’, you’re gonna have to turn around,” smiled the housekeeping lady as her golf buggy drew level with mine. “There’s a giant tortoise going for a walk on the road up ahead,” she added nonchalantly, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Yet the strangest thing of all was how, in fact, it didn’t feel even the slightest bit odd. Anywhere else it would’ve done. But not here. Not on Necker Island.

Moments that straddle the fine line between absurd and surreal happen so frequently here that the extraordinary soon becomes completely, well, ordinary. Whether it’s a game of tennis being interrupted by squabbling lemurs running across the court, braving an ice bath with the world’s most famous entrepreneur, or eating sushi out of a kayak, Necker is delightfully different.

A place often in the news and one that has become a refuge to the most recognised, celebrated and prolific, the Caribbean home of Sir Richard Branson is as legendary as the man himself. But can such a place ever live up to the hype? There was only one way to find out…

Billionaires’ playground

We arrived under the cover of darkness, following a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Antigua and a bumpy one-hour hop in a teeny-tiny plane to the British Virgin Islands. Touching down in Tortola, where private jets easily outnumber commercial aircraft (hardly surprising given the number of billionaires who have settled here; Google co-founder Larry Page owns the island next to Necker), it was mere minutes before we were on the water for the final leg of the journey.

The 30-minute ride on board SamSam – a fancy speedboat named after Richard’s son (the other is named after his daughter, Holly) – passed in an excitable haze fuelled by chinking glasses of Necker-branded champagne. Before long, the island appeared on the horizon, the lights of the hilltop Great House twinkling under a night sky strewn with a dusting of stars. Originally intended to be a private residence for the Bransons, Necker has become a home-away-from-home for those with pockets deep enough to book a holiday here.

“It’s simply too beautiful not to share,” says the man himself. It’s the crown jewel of his Virgin Limited Edition collection, a portfolio of high-end properties that also includes two African safari camps, a ski lodge in Verbier and a 17th-century Majorcan finca. And with a week’s stay costing nearly $1 million (based on exclusive hire for up to 48 guests with flights), it’s arguably the most exclusive and  coveted private-island escape in the world.

Storied past

Its journey to achieving such status is a fascinating one. The story started in 1976 when a young, budding entrepreneur was attempting to woo a new love interest. Wanting to impress her with a weekend in the Caribbean, Richard told a local real estate agent that he was interested in buying an island and a trip was hastily arranged. It proved to be a stroke of genius: not only did Richard find his dream  island but also his dream wife. He and Joan married on Necker some years later. As the Virgin empire grew, so too did Necker.

Each major success in the business paved the way for another piece of the island to be developed. The signing of Eighties pop band Culture Club to Virgin Records, for example, effectively paid for Bali Hi, the cliffside villa complex located at the end of Turtle Beach. That said, not all the chapters in the Necker story are happy ones. A lightning strike in 2011 caused the Great House to burn to the ground; it rose from the ashes two years later only to be wiped out again in 2017 when Hurricane Irma hit.

“It was very scary,” Richard tells me. “We all hid in the wine cellar as the wind howled outside. When we came out 14 hours later, there wasn’t a single palm tree still standing.” Now in its third reincarnation, the Great House remains the beating heart of the island. Perched on the island’s highest peak, it has 18 bedrooms and a breezy communal space with stone floors, a swinging day bed (dubbed ‘Richard’s office’, as that’s where he likes to do his emails), bamboo furniture and an indoor garden, all under dramatic ostrich-egg chandeliers.

Buddhas, Balinese art and giant gongs – a nod to the family’s love of the Indonesian island – heighten the sense of serenity. Up on the roof, meanwhile, is the crow’s nest hot tub. Just big enough for two, it’s the perfect place for a spot of stargazing after an evening spent dancing on the tables during ‘white night‘ – a Necker tradition.

Laidback living

Like everywhere else here, there’s a delightfully discreet and laidback approach to service at the Great House and a welcome lack of formality. While reading on the terrace, I wandered over to the kitchenette for a cuppa, where I got a stark reminder of just where I was. There on the wall beside the pot of sugar and coffee pods was a framed handwritten note from Princess Diana, thanking Richard for a wonderful holiday. Next to it, one from the Obamas expressing much the same sentiment.

The rest of the accommodation – Balinese-style villas – is sprinkled across the island. I was staying in Bali Lo, a two[1]storey pad that’s part-pagoda/part-treehouse, with the bedroom upstairs, an open-sided living area beneath and the bathroom a skip away in its own separate dwelling. Completing the hideaway was a private infinity pool almost entirely enclosed by tall palms and floppy ferns. Rumour has it this was the room offered to Beyoncé during her visit. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Bey got involved in the island’s activities.

Days on Necker are both busy and leisurely. The fun-loving chaps from the watersports team rallied everyone together for kitesurfing lessons and a jovial and only ever-so-slightly competitive sailing race around the island. There’s more fun and games on terra firma, with pickleball matches followed by ‘tipsy tennis’ on a court that has welcomed Nadal, Becker, Djokovic and a whole host of mischievous ring-tailed lemurs. Now that’s not something you see at Wimbledon.

Wildlife sanctuary

Wildlife-loving Richard has turned Necker into a sanctuary for all manner of exotic and endangered creatures. With more than 140 species found on the 30-hectare island – everything from giant tortoises to tiny geckos – it ranks as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Beyond the giant tortoises and seven types of lemur – introduced by Richard after a sobering trip to Madagascar where he learnt of their plight – the stars of the show are undoubtedly the flamingos.

These birds, flamboyant and fabulous, were once native to the BVI but were hunted so extensively that they had all but disappeared. Keen to right this wrong, Richard imported four from Cuba in 2006. Today there are hundreds, with many others having flown the Necker nest and settled elsewhere in the archipelago. There are also plenty of places to snatch a few quiet moments.

I headed to the beachside Crocodile Pavilion – named after the 40-foot table carved into the shape of a croc from a single piece of wood – and spent a blissful afternoon alternating between the hot tub (very hot and big enough to do lengths of), the refreshing moat-style pool (complete with waterfalls and little bridges) and the nearby shady hammock (where it’s said the idea of Virgin Galactic was conceived).

And therein lies the magic of Necker. Its secret is not down to merely being beautiful, luxurious and exclusive but its intoxicating mix of the silly and serious, the playful and poignant, the mischievous and meaningful. And what could be more satisfying than that?

Harnessing wind and sun

Don’t be fooled – Necker is a place of substance as well as style. Three towering turbines on the arid northern shore contribute to the island’s impressive green credentials, which also extend to the 1,230 solar panels enabling it to operate entirely on renewable energy.

Guests are welcome to do their bit too. The newest experience on offer is an interactive mangrove tour led by passionate local environmentalist Alex Dick-Read. Kayaking along the coast and deep into the secret bays of Beef Island, Alex reveals the important role these plants play in the ecosystem in a way that’s both fascinating and fun. There’s also the chance to play an active role in conserving the mangrove forests by planting runner bean-esque seedlings known as propagules. But the best bit? Getting an up-close look at the memorable and rather gruesome looking upside-down jellyfish.

Book it: Necker Island can be booked exclusively from £110,000 a night for up to 48 guests, including all meals and drinks, return boat transfers and watersports equipment. Individual rooms can be booked during select weeks from £4,445 per night. Virgin Atlantic flies from Heathrow to Antigua from £446 return.


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