No longer happy to imitate their ‘betters’, the new wealthy are striking out for the exclusive villas of Jumby Bay, Antigua, says William Cash
IT’S A PROBLEM many of us would like to have. Once you have your £8 million Chelsea townhouse in the Little Boltons, and your Georgian mansion with 1,000 acres in the country, and, OK, maybe a sporting estate in Scotland as well, where do you buy your next property? A farmhouse outside St Tropez, a chalet in Gstaad, or a beach house in Harbour Island, Mustique — or Jumby Bay?
Jumby where? In the last ten years, the words ‘Jumby Bay’ (a private island just off the north-eastern tip of Antigua) has been increasingly on the club radar of the seriously rich — mainly in the UK and America — as one of the most exclusive private property addresses in the Caribbean.
The island has recently seen some spectacular rises in real estate prices. A six bedroom beach ‘estate’ property (ie standing in its own land) will probably sell for $15-20 million. A three-bedroom villa was recently sold for $6.5 million. Although mortgages are not technically prohibited, there are almost none. Buyers usually just write a cheque for the whole amount. As one British homeowner told me after I went back to his three-bedroom villa for drinks after dinner, ‘This place is basically a wooden beach shack. You could build it in a few months. But it’s worth as much as a 19th century house in Mayfair is.’
There are just short of fifty private homeowners on the 300 acre island and the combined real estate value of their properties currently amounts to approximately half a billion dollars. That includes the value of their equal shares in the 40-room five-star hotel, which has just had a $28 million refurbishment, the 130 acres of common land protected from development, the private ferry dock and boats, the ‘Island Services’ and utilities, the 200 year old Estate House, the resort Spa, the three communal tennis courts and two swimming pools.
Half a billion is a lot of money between under 50 people. Especially when you consider that the entire island was sold by the IRS to an American developer called Homer Williams for just US$150,000 on the steps of Portland, Oregon courthouse back in 1980; and that the island was sold for just £250 — ‘with livestock’ — back in 1915.
There are a number of reasons why there is no shortage of high-net-worth individuals currently enquiring about joining the Jumby Bay club. First, the ranks of the seriously rich just keep swelling. As the recent Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report found, the global population of HNWs grew 17.1 per cent to 10.0 million in 2009.
Secondly, the wealth boom of the last decade has seen the rise of a new breed of mobile ultra-wealthy who don’t feel the need to simply socially imitate or copy the lifestyle or spending habits of the previous generation of rich who would typically buy a super-yacht, a flat in Monaco, a house in St Tropez, or a chalet in Klosters. In the 19th century the new American tycoons who built themselves mansions on the Hudson valley — like the Vanderbilts — were obsessed with aping the lifestyle of the English aristocracy and their mansions were designed to look like English stately homes.
‘I’ve been told by my accountant to resign from all my London clubs and sell my British properties,’ I was told by one UK Rich Lister homeowner who spends about six months a year on Jumby Bay now, partly to escape British taxes even though he already spends less than 90 days a year outside of the country.
Back in April, shortly before the volcanic ash cloud grounded the entire European air fleet, I was invited out by Andrew Robson, head of property sales, to see the houses for myself and also to understand how this extraordinary real estate boom has occurred, and why prices and demand show no sign of cooling down as the island reaches the maximum number of private properties — 56 — that it is permitted to build within its constitutional ‘Masterplan’.
There are currently an unusual amount of properties for sale on Jumby Bay. This is due not to owners being victims of the credit crunch, or having to sell up to finance their mega costly divorce or because they were clients of Bernie Madoff, but rather because the recent refurbishment of the hotel over two years gave the Jumby Bay Island Company, which runs the island, a perfect time window to build several new ultra high end spec new beach properties.
A few other older properties, are also on the market , including the trophy prize of Flint House, which has its own natural peninsular overlooking both the Caribbean and the Atlantic. In total, there are six ‘estate homes’ for sale — which are set in their own land, several of which have their own beach — and three villas (one of which I stayed in) which are part of villa complexes. Prices range from around $7 million to $34 million.
I FLEW OUT to Antigua with my girlfriend, who had never been to Jumby Bay before. A regular in St Barth’s, she had also spent holidays in various previous lives in Antigua, including spending a New Year at a half empty Carlisle Bay hotel (where a wigless John Travolta had subjected guests to a running commentary through a screening of Saturday Night Fever) shortly after it opened.
Like many, her previous experience of Antigua — which admittedly included a brief stay at the Sandals resort aged twenty, where she was robbed — was mixed. Antigua may have excellent airline connections between both the US and the UK but the downside is there is no fast-track lane when you arrive and we had to queue for almost an hour before we were even allowed through passport control. She looked relieved when a limousine picked us up from Antigua airport and within fifteen minutes we were sitting on a private ferry that was speeding over the water — ‘our three mile moat’ one British homeowner put it to me at drinks on the first night — towards the Jumby Bay jetty.
On arrival, we were checked in at the bar where the new manager of the hotel, Andrew Hedley, who was formerly manager of Carlisle Bay, immediately recognised my girlfriend from her stay at his former hotel. He had recently been headhunted away from Carlisle Bay to run Jumby Bay’s hotel, and it was reassuring to know that one of the Caribbean’s most highly respected managers — and a Brit as well (although he was brought up in Kenya) — was now in charge at Jumby Bay.
Ten minutes later we were driven to our four-bedroomed Harbour Beach Villa (called Mahogany) by golf buggy. The first thing I noticed was that the front door was not locked, and after our luggage was dropped off, we were not given a key. When I called Andrew Robson, who lived next-door, he said; ‘Oh we don’t have keys on the island — nobody uses them. I mean I can get you one if you want but there’s really no need.’
This was confirmed the following day when Andrew took me on his first tour. We visited a sprawling and beautiful house close to Homer Point called Hawkshill Cove owned by a Jumby Bay board member. The sprawling six-bedroom house rents for $20,000 a night over the Christmas season. When I asked the owner if security was ever a problem on the island he told me about one high-profile European family that arrived with a small retinue of personal bodyguards.
‘They were quite alarmed at first when I said that not only do we not have any keys but we don’t have any doors. It’s real open plan living. But after a few days they sent the bodyguards home early as they felt so secure and relaxed.’
The low-profile of Jumby Bay — versus, say, St Barth’s or Mustique — is not so much to do with the fact that an uber-wealthy crowd, from Rich Listers to celebrities like Hilary Swank or Leonardo di Caprio and royalty, don’t go to Jumby, which they do, but rather that the current homeowners simply prefer to remain ultra low-profile themselves. They are mostly self-made entrepreneurs and business figures who have never appeared in Richard Kay or Vanity Fair, and probably never want to.
One irony about Jumby Bay is that one of its earliest homeowners, and one of the small group of residents in the 1980s who helped win the battle against the developers who wanted to expand and commercialise the island, at the cost of homeowner privacy, was Robin Leach, host of the Eighties TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Yet the island has never marketed itself as a celebrity refuge (like Round Hill in Jamaica), a celebrity holiday destination or even a celebrity rehab location like St Lucia. If the island were ever to agree to have a documentary made about it (as unlikely as that is), the title would be Lifestyles of the Seriously Rich and Private.
WHAT THE HOMEOWNERS do have in common is wealth. Unlike Mustique. St Barth’s, Round Hill and Sandy Lane, neither Jumby Bay’s hotel guests nor its island homeowners hardly ever seem to appear in the jet set social diary pages around New Year and Christmas, or any other time for that matter. ‘We aren’t glitzy and we’re surrounded by a three mile ocean moat,’ says Peter Swann, one of the island’s oldest residents. ‘Most of the people who buy here are self-made business figures who just came here on holiday, fell in love with the place and didn’t even realise that you could buy property here.’
While high profile people do come regularly; you just don’t hear about it. On my visit — my third — back in April, I went for a walk along the main beach at 6.30am on my first morning before breakfast, only to have a shock encounter my old pal Piers Morgan with his three teenage kids walking towards me. He was on Jumby Bay on holiday for a week; although like myself and my girlfriend, Piers ended up staying several days longer than planned due to the volcanic ash cloud which grounded all flights into Europe the day before we were about to leave.
Of the six estate houses currently for sale, the largest lot is for Flint House. Described as ‘the largest and arguably most private of all the island estates’ one could see it being bought by a billionaire or oligarch who wants to have his own private Jumby Bay compound. Whether he wishes to keep the professional looking croquet court, or the oversized chess pieces is irrelevant. Because it is on such an enormous plot, a prospective new owner could simply knock down the existing house and build a very substantial house on the property. The estate is listed at $34.5 million.
‘Whoever buys it will probably want to be king of the island,’ a homeowner told me. ‘But it doesn’t really work like that at Jumby. Every owner — whatever the size of their property — has an equal share in the Jumby Bay Island Company. It’s not really a place for big egos although they do exist.’
The attention to detail is superb, from the wood flooring to the travertine tiling to the outdoor bathrooms (a feature of many Jumby Bay properties). Top of the range and state of the art Sub-Zero fridges and Viking kitchens are standard. Another, just below is Eagles Landing, which is a three-acre beachfront estate with an Infinity Pool, tennis court, its own private cove and is described as ‘designed for the most intimate private holidays and for entertaining on a grand scale’.
A word of warning before you book your flight to take a tour with Andrew Robson. If you have to consider getting a mortgage, or any financing, don’t even bother filling in the application form as the chances are you won’t be accepted. ‘You need three personal references, including a bank reference and a short biography will be circulated to all the other shareholders and homeowners. If you are serious, then one of the homeowners will probably host a drinks party for you to introduce you — so we can see if you will fit in,’ says Robson.
In truth, applications are very rarely blackballed. The vetting procedure is very similar to the process that everybody is subjected to if they want to buy into a Good Building co-op in New York; it is simply to ensure that the sort of people who do buy on the island are the sort of people who will fit in with the other homeowners who are an interesting and colourful mixture of self-made entrepreneurs and business figures and writers rather than aristos or rock stars.
Because the number of homeowners is so small, guests get to meet with them the whole time during the course of the day at the hotel — whether it is sitting waiting to play tennis, queuing for the buffet at the White Nights (everybody wears white) buffet dinner on the beach where fresh lobster is served, or eating poolside at the new Pool Grill which is a poolside lunching area where the hotel also currently hosts its Monday night cocktail party.
When I asked one board member if he socialised much with other ex-pat property owners on Antigua, he replied, ‘We don’t have much to do with them to be honest. We get our groceries delivered by the supermarket and I can call up the wine shop and whatever I order will be with me by lunchtime. We do go out to dinner occasionally on the mainland but we prefer to be here where our friends are.’
The exception is an unlikely located restaurant on the mainland called Cecilia’s which we were taken to on our first Monday night by Andrew Robson and his wife. The place is run by a former blonde Swedish super-model called Cecilia who used to model for Helmet Newton, naked.
Half the island seem to be in love with her, including our taxi driver. She used to be the girlfriend of Robin Leach and lived on the island where she still has honorary homeowner status. Her restaurant is the Ivy of Antigua — and almost an extension of the Jumby Bay canteen — although it is only open for dinner on Monday nights as the restaurant also doubles up as her private house.
She is an exception to the rule of Jumby homeowners generally not fraternising with the ex-pat locals, and basically keeping to themselves. Cecilia’s has to be the most glamorous airport restaurant in the world — and certainly the only restaurant in the world I have ever visited that boasts its own shower and beach.
This community spirit was well illustrated after the volcanic ash cloud grounded many of the guests on the island, including myself and Piers Morgan. What do you do in paradise when you can’t even leave the place? The first thing you do, of course, is throw an impromptu pool-side party for those marooned here which is exactly what happened when it emerged that my girlfriend — who was due to fly back to London but was grounded because of the ash cloud — wasn’t going to make it home to celebrate her birthday.
Within a matter of hours a guestlist had been assembled by Andrew Robson and Andrew Hedley, invitations photocopied and delivered to various villas and homes and within a few hours half the island residents (including Cecilia and Piers Morgan) were assembled around the bar drinking rum punch and champagne. A huge chocolate birthday cake, cooked that afternoon, emerged out of nowhere with her name written in icing on the cake. I very much doubt any hotel manager in St Barth’s could not have pulled off such a party at ten hours notice, complete with cake and celebrity guests coming in by boat.
Another example of the Jumby spirit was that when the tennis pro was diagnosed with cancer, the homeowners paid for him to have the best treatment. He made a full recovery and thrashed me both times I played him.
ANDREW HEDLEY IS more than just the hotel manager: he is Jumby Bay’s Mr Fix-It and has all the right connections in Antigua. When the ash cloud flying ban was finally lifted, he was somehow able to get nearly fifty Jumby guests or homeowners onto the first BA flight from Antigua to London, including sending staff to pull people off the tennis court at 7.30am.
Before Andrew Robson was appointed in charge of sales on the island, his predecessor was Don Tate who still has a house on the island and has been selling property to guests or random visitors since 1985.
When I went to visit him at his villa looking out over Buckley Bay — he recently sold another house he owned — Tate told me that the last time there was such an unusual opportunity to buy properties on Jumby Bay was back in 1999 following a lengthy and ugly legal fight over control of the island between the powerful Mariani brothers property developers (who also owned Banfi wines) who had acquired the island, and the small number of homeowners who had acquired property and wanted to maintain the island’s exclusivity and privacy rather than overdevelop it.
The homeowners eventually won, and bought out the developers. Don began selling their newly-acquired properties: ‘We started off by picking prices out of the air,’ says Tate today. ‘I call it “accidental selling”. I would just meet people on the beach or in the bar — and they would express an interest and some would end up buying a lot or a house. What they were doing was buying the Jumby Bay lifestyle rather than just a property.’
Tate adds: ‘Jumby is truly unique – there is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. We own our own infrastructure and we control our environment. Our privacy and security is unparalleled.’
That was the start of the Jumby Bay property boom, although today the prices are carefully set by Andrew Robson to meet high-net-worth market demand. ‘Nobody has ever sold on Jumby Bay at a loss and they probably never will. And we don’t negotiate on prices.’
Jumby Bay is surely what the point of having large amounts of money to spend and what a great holiday home is all about: the ability to re-invent yourself and be anybody you want to be. Like Bob Davis, all of the owners are dreamers.
Photographs from top: The terrace of Flint House; the beach at Jumby Bay; the living area of Flint House