By John O’Ceallaigh
I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that the speakers on our speedboat pumped out Kool & The Gang’s Celebration as we made our final approach to Richard Branson’s Necker Island. Available for rental, the billionaire’s British Virgin Islands home has a long-standing reputation as a party-positive, by-all-means-dance-on-the-table kind of destination (as we would ultimately discover to be warranted on our last night there). People tend to come here to have a riotously good time rather than for rest and relaxation.
I was so aware of that stereotype myself that I wasn’t quite prepared for the beauty of the place. The British Virgin Islands form the most spectacular destination I have ever been to in the Caribbean, and 74-acre Necker is a paradise. Branson famously bought the island for $218,000 back in 1978 and while the beaches and the topography are much the same, he’s otherwise spruced the place up considerably.
My visit came just after the island had again started welcoming guests with gusto following the destination wrought by a significant fire, Hurricane Irma and the challenges of Covid. With much of their power needs now met by three newly erected wind turbines and a spread of solar panels, clusters of accommodation dotted across the island provide airy, Balinese-style accommodation for about 40 guests, with the Great House serving as the island’s social hub. The cavernous space, with two runway-length dining tables and comfy, cosy couches and loungers that have no doubt hosted loads of drunken catch-ups, also features a roof terrace and a central bar where guests can help themselves to whatever they fancy should it be unattended. Alongside full board, all the booze you can drink is included in the rate here, be it the $105,000 a night it costs for exclusive use or the $5,150 couples will pay when booking out rooms during Necker’s sporadic open-access Celebration Weeks.
There were nights when we took full advantage of the open bar, but Necker is at its best during the day. The island serves as a wildlife sanctuary for endangered and vulnerable species and our group became completely enamoured with the tactile lemurs that would flit between us, while we looked out at dusk every evening for the flamboyance of flamingos that would invariably circumnavigate the island in a dreamy drift of pastel pink. I was staggered by the dazzling scarlet ibises, their luminous plumage shining in the sunlight like sequins. I spotted them only rarely despite their vibrancy, but I often encountered skittish iguanas and lumbering Aldabara giant tortoises, including one slow-moving fellow named Brutus which like Branson was in his early 70s. (I didn’t get to meet Branson by the way; though he’s often in residence and will engage amiably with guests if they so desire, during my stay he was heading to space aboard Virgin Galactica.)
Apart from admiring the animals, guests can spend their days sailing or surfing, playing tennis or lazing in the spa. When I arrived for my massage, I was surprised that the (really excellent and intuitive) head therapist Jess offered me a glass of champagne to get things started. Turns out lots of the guests take up that offer and even ask for straws so they sip their fizz through the face cradle when prostrate on the massage table. I stuck to water, but I admire that.
Otherwise I indulged in the food and drink on offer fairly readily. Meals at Necker can be served wherever, and we enjoyed, for example, a sushi lunch in one of the island’s pools aboard a kayak (a bit awkward but fun, people like it as a photo-taking opportunity), and a formal dinner on one of the Great House balconies; on one sultry evening we had supper on the beach, all seated barefoot at a long table simply illuminated with fairy lights.
Those occasions were enjoyable and memorable, though in comparison to other private islands and resorts I’ve visited the cuisine itself didn’t always impress me. A new French chef had taken responsibility for F&B shortly before my stay and his menus, while generally nice, didn’t reach the level I typically encounter at somewhere priced at such a high level. I felt similarly about some aspects of service too. Many of the island’s client-facing staff are young and relatively new to the luxury-travel industry, so while they’ve no shortage of enthusiasm they occasionally lack the level of experience and efficiency which their ultra-privileged clientele will ordinarily encounter.
It’s more than fair to have sky-high expectations when paying so much to stay somewhere like this, but even if those elements aren’t quite where they should be I expect the biggest impression left by Necker will be its overwhelming beauty. The island’s guestbook abounds with effusive thanks from friends and families who have visited previously, some of them repeatedly. Alongside praise from Barack Obama and Princess Diana, there were countless notes reflecting on significant birthday parties and anniversaries. As Kool & The Gang had inferred, Necker really does make a magical place for a very special celebration.
You can read more about Necker Island on the Virgin Limited Edition website, here.
For a very different private-island experience in the British Virgin Islands, entrepreneur Britnie Turner’s The Aerial hosts progressive and fascinating life-coaching and self-actualisation retreats.
LUTE is a luxury-travel consultant and content agency that works with hotel groups, tour operators, tourist boards, airlines and more. You can learn more about LUTE here. For frequent luxury-travel updates, follow LUTE and LUTE founder John O’Ceallaigh on Instagram.