There were 50 of us locked in the cellar. The water was pouring in; trees were crashing into the side of the building and for 14 hours it looked like there was a roaring train passing. “Sitting sipping coffee in the mid-morning sun, Sir Richard Branson remembers from the time in September 2017 when Hurricane Irma hit her home in the British Virgin Islands.
His description of sheer devastation seems almost impossible to comprehend given our current environment: Necker Island has unfolded before us in all its glory. Everything is still until a cuckoo from the mangroves descends and lands at the edge of the infinity pool a few meters away. Beyond, in the distance, the hills dotted with cacti give way to creamy yellow beaches bathed in azure waters.
Branson breaks the silence. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw the extent of the damage,” he told me. “Entire buildings were gone and there was no longer a tree standing, but the next day we got to work, helping nearby communities and rebuilding our island. Today, after years of work that cost tens of millions, the world’s most famous private island is back and ready to unleash its own sense of pleasure.
Located in the far east of the British Virgin Islands, about 100 miles east of Puerto Rico and accessible by a 90-minute flight from Antigua, Necker is a 74-acre suspended reality. It has been home to the Bransons and his family since the Virgin boss bought it at the age of 28 for £ 180,000 in an attempt to impress his now wife Joan. Today it is worth £ 90million. “It’s the most exquisite place in the world and just too beautiful not to be shared with others,” he adds, revealing why he decided to open it up to paying customers.
It has since become a home away from home for many of the world’s most powerful. Princess Diana spent her vacation there with the young princes, Kate Moss celebrated her 40th birthdaye with a weeklong party and even Nelson Mandela spent time on the island. It was also there that, just days after leaving office, President Obama decided to unwind with his family, rekindling his love of water sports after eight years of abstaining from such activities by secret service orders.
And these are just the VIPs that we know of. As you would expect, the staff – a mix of locals and British imports – are low key when it comes to discussing past guests and antics that may – or may not – have taken place. That said, I do manage to extract the story of a wealthy businessman who booked Lauryn Hill to play while he and his family had lunch.
There is no sign of Lauryn when I arrive on Necker, just days before Richard ventures into virgin territory (pardon the pun) by becoming the first “civilian astronaut” to travel to space. . “The idea for Virgin Galactic was born here in Necker,” he tells me. “I dreamed it while swinging in a hammock.”
Of course, for mere mortals, Necker is just as inaccessible as space. Apart from a few weeks a year when it is possible to book a single room, Necker must be booked in its entirety. With a price of up to £ 76,000 per night (for a maximum of 40 people), this is not your average package holiday destination.
The focal point is the Big House atop a hill, with its 11 spacious bedrooms, rooftop hot tub, and striking common area with indoor garden, roaming red-shelled turtles, bamboo furniture, and daybeds. swivel. It made headlines in 2011 when a fire raged through the house, with Kate Winslet allegedly saving Branson’s mother, Eve, from the flames.
The star of the show is the newly reconstructed Bali Hi Resort, a three-level pagoda-style cushion perched on a rocky outcrop at the end of Turtle Beach with its own plunge pool. I’m staying in the Temple Master Suite right in the middle of the island, where Branson and his wife, Joan, lived before they built their new beach house. The panoramic views seem endless while the outdoor bathroom and freestanding marble bathtub add glamor.
Natural materials – stone, wood and bamboo – are used throughout, while Branson’s love for Indonesia has brought a touch of Asia to the Caribbean. Soothing Buddhas are scattered around the island, and the rooms are filled with Balinese art and ornate carvings.
Necker is, as you might expect, extravagant and glamorous but with a sense of fun and brash that comes straight from the big boss. Where would you find a hot tub in the shade of palm trees big enough for a football team? Or in what is surely Necker’s answer to Deliveroo, lunch arriving in the form of a kayak filled with sushi draped in palm fronds and pushed into the water by a chef.
An unexpected effect is how quickly the place begins to feel like home, even though it is home to giant turtles and miniature horses. There is no need to lock the bedroom doors, there is no dress code even for dinner (shorts and flip flops will do just fine) and all meals are served at dining tables hand carved measuring 40 feet long allowing everyone to come together.
Guests are given their own electric strollers (Branson’s has an SRB license plate) and are free to explore and do whatever they want. I spend the days feeding ring-tailed lemurs (Branson introduced the species after visiting Madagascar in 2012 and many roam free), providing spa treatments on the beach, sailing and hiking in nature and to participate in a surprisingly competitive tennis tournament. on a field where Rafael Nadal and Boris Becker played.
Necker’s latest reincarnation after Irma is all about sustainability. Over 1,000 solar panels have been installed and the island’s rugged, wave-battered northeast coast is dominated by three wind turbines, making the entire island completely self-sufficient.
Our last evening takes place at the Grande Maison. The theme is the White Nights and some adhere to the dress code more strictly than others. Under the amber glow of ostrich egg chandeliers, a dinner of sirloin steak with grilled plantain and Pedro Ximenez juice prepared by chef Guillaume Galvez is served.
The plates are cleared as DJ James – known simply as Sweeney – takes to the decks and soon we are all dancing on the table – just as Kate Moss is known to do from time to time. Necker-branded champagne (yes, really!) Keeps flowing until around 3 a.m., when these cool off again by jumping into the pool. Bartender Thomas serves up his ‘SOS shots’ of electrolyte goodness to avoid a hangover, then we head to the hot tub to gaze at the stars, wondering if the man who made it all possible was up there anywhere. leaves looking at us from his spaceship.
Life felt, at that moment, simply out of this world.
Necker Island (virginlimitededition.com) is available for exclusive use for £ 76,000 per night for up to 40 guests. During certain weeks of the year single rooms can be booked from £ 3,700 per night. Prices include all meals, drinks, activities and boat transfers from Tortola, the nearest airport.
Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flies direct from London Heathrow to Antigua from £ 379 return.