Escapes don’t get any greater than your very own private island, says Oliver Thring
WHEN THE NEW Duke and Duchess of Cambridge fled Anglesey for their honeymoon, they had hoped to keep their destination secret. But an indiscreet factotum of the Seychelles department of tourism blabbed that the couple had rented a private island in the republic’s North Island resort costing a reported £45,000 a night. The episode once again brought private islands to the fore. Why do these places retain such tantalising appeal, and is it ever possible to make money from them?
For a prince who has always fought to maintain his privacy, the symbolism was clear. A private island constitutes a physical demand for seclusion. Moated and cragged, shielded from lenses, obscured by palm or fir, it actively and visibly precludes entry. It’s a place where its owner — whether temporary or permanent — can enjoy a lordly isolation, a state of near incalculable value to the very famous. Mel Gibson chose his 22km2 Fijian island, which he bought in 2004 for $15 million, in part for the 650ft cliffs that surround it. Johnny Depp quaintly refers to his Bahamas cay as ‘Fuck Off Island’.
Historically, a handful of island owners were so entranced by their possessions they soon considered themselves Lilliputian heads of state. ‘King’ Martin Coles Harman of Lundy in the Bristol Channel minted his own coinage during the Twenties. In 1886, Queen Victoria granted the Indian Ocean’s Cocos islands to the family of John Clunies-Ross in perpetuity. The Scotsman’s great lineage had reached ‘Ross V’ before the Australian government enforced the purchase of the atoll in 1978. Major Paddy Roy Bates has attracted headlines since the late 1960s for Sealand, his unrecognised state off the Suffolk coast, a former sea fort of which he styles himself prince. Modern island buyers, however, tend to lack such vainglory.
‘My clients are looking for solitude,’ says Farhad Vladi, president of Vladi Private Islands, who arranged the hire of North Island for the royal honeymoon. ‘They want to get away from everything and feel the satisfaction of owning and controlling all that they see. A private island lets you enjoy nature away from the disturbances of civilisation.’ Vladi has sold almost 2,000 islands since the early Seventies. He received his first commission, also in the Seychelles, before affordable air travel had become common and at a time when logistics such as installing a generator, water purification and luxury home-building in the Indian Ocean were less common than today.
The modern trend for island-buying arguably began in 1968, when Aristotle Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy on his vast Ionian Sea retreat of Skorpios (population: two). This remains one of the world’s premier private islands, ambitiously valued by some sources at €200 million and with an annual upkeep of around €1.5 million. Fresh from filming Mutiny on the Bounty, and captivated by the beauty of French Polynesia, Marlon Brando bought the twelve-island Tetiaroa atoll in 1967. His son is now the only permanent resident, although an eco-hotel, The Brando, is being constructed there. In 1978, the 28-year-old Richard Branson bought Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Today it thrives as a $54,000-a-night luxury resort; Google co-founder Larry Page held his wedding there in 2007.
The world offers almost any kind of island imaginable, from jagged rocks in half-frozen corners of wind-battered seas to tropical archipelagos of floating fiefdoms with palaces and airstrips. Today, many of the most desirable islands are in French Polynesia, the Caribbean and parts of western Europe. Islands off the coast of Brittany as well as Scotland and Ireland also remain perennially popular. For some buyers, though, areas less traditional to tourists have a harsh and hoary allure.
Canada comprises tens of thousands of unspoilt islands, although not all are for sale or suitable for private ownership. Relatively modestly priced islands can also be found in the chilly waters of western Norway and in Michigan and Maine. Some 17,000 islands comprise Indonesia and at least 7,000 the Philippines, but Asia can present problems for potential buyers. Securing a freehold can be close to impossible: all Chinese islands, for example, are owned by the government and can only be leased for 50 years. The five most important criteria for the potential island-buyer, according to Vladi, are proximity to mainland or other populated islands, clear property ownership, the availability of drinking water, suitability for development and a politically stable host country.
These factors coalesce only rarely. ‘About 5 per cent of the world’s islands are what I call “quality”,’ says Vladi. ‘The rest are “adventure” islands, much less desirable and often unsuitable for development. People tend to feel strong emotional ties to their islands, so properties often stay within families.’ Undeveloped islands thus make up the bulk of the market. As many as 70 per cent of islands are sold undeveloped, at a cost typically ranging between $500,000 and $2 million. The price of building works and infrastructure, however, regularly exceeds the initial outlay.
A private island can be yours for as little as $30,000 in sparsely populated parts of eastern Canada or in mosquito-infested lagoons of South America, but constructing suitable accommodation in such places would be very difficult. An ‘entry-level’ island realistic for development in, for example, Nova Scotia, can cost as little as $100,000. Suitable Caribbean sites start at around $1 million. But no island will be perfect. By its nature, an island is a vulnerable, idiosyncratic piece of geography, and unreliable climates, sand flies or midges, a risk of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and erosion are all serious concerns.
Most buyers, then, do not look primarily for an investment. The magnetic appeal of island ownership often intrudes on cold financial considerations, and islands invariably become chattels that buyers’ children look forward to inheriting. The market for private islands, like that of most luxury property, has undergone a correction in recent years, and sellers who started by listing in tens of millions of dollars have begun to accept prices considerably lower.
In auction last September, the Fluke family received a high bid of $3.3 million for their 216-acre Vendovi Island in Washington state, a figure somewhat below the original asking price of $14.5 million. Dubai’s man-made Palm Jumeirah islands have become a stagnant symbol for the state’s economic mismanagement. ‘Don’t buy an island if you want to invest,’ says Vladi. ‘Today, some Caribbean islands are being offered for over $100 million. I don’t think this is a good investment. Who will be there to pay $200 million? But it’s like anything else: if you buy something at the right moment for a good price, you’ll make money.’
Owning a private island has such romance, such exclusivity and sandy glamour, that there will probably always be people keen to recast themselves as modern-day Crusoes, little potentates of little rocks. The poetry of isolation, of precious stones set in silver seas, of lapped white shores and scrubbed, secluded crags, hidden paths and solitary forests, mansions basking in sunset, even bugs and septic tanks, represent a prestige and wonder that outweigh base economics. It’s often said no man is an island, but it seems many of them wish they were.