Disembarking on a private Caribbean island the same week as the billionaire owner flying into space feels somewhat surreal. Is he avoiding me? Did I do something to upset him?
Necker without Richard Branson, who bought the island in 1978, is like Ant without Dec, Morecambe without Wise. It’s more than his home, his secret hideout – it’s where he stamped his entire personality. Brilliant and crazy and often both at the same time.
This little slice of luxury in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has been through a scorching time lately. In 2011, the main building was destroyed by fire, and in 2017 Necker was battered by Hurricane Irma, the most brutal in memory. Then came the coronavirus.
Comfort of creatures: Richard Branson has his own home on Necker, located in the British Virgin Islands
With so many setbacks, so much damaged infrastructure to repair, Branson has had to invest tens of millions in his beloved Necker. It remains his headquarters on Planet Earth and he has his own home on the island.
But he’s also eager to attract more paying guests – which is why I’ve been invited to sample its delights before it relaunched as a private island resort. Not a burdensome assignment.
The 74-acre island can accommodate up to 40 guests in a handful of high-end properties, done in Balinese style, with plunge pools, 360-degree views, complimentary champagne et al.
Only those who have cash to splash need to apply. If you book the island for your and your family’s exclusive use, you’ll be refunded £75,000 per night. But geared towards families celebrating special occasions with their friends during certain weeks of the year, the island acts like a hotel, with room rates starting at just over £3,500 a night.
Not peanuts, but a lot cheaper than flying in space. Oh, and the BVI will be on the government’s orange list of countries as of Monday.
A flight to Antigua, a transfer by private jet, then a short boat ride, and you can be on the beach with a rum punch in hand before you can say Virgin Galactic.
Transformation: The Crocodile Pavilion was rebuilt after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017
Hurricane Irma was the most ferocious in memory and has ravaged the island, as seen above
It is certainly an extremely beautiful place. Apart from three large wind turbines and hundreds of solar panels, as a nod to environmental sustainability, this is the Caribbean in perfect miniature.
Soft sand underfoot. Swaying palm trees above. The sun warm but not too hot. Rippling waves. Lush vegetation. Exciting blue seas. Box after box, everything ticked off effortlessly.
So far, so familiar. But it’s the lavish, eccentric extras, which you won’t find anywhere else in the Caribbean, that make Necker unique.
After my breakfast was interrupted by a stray iguana, I’m walking to the beach when a Cockney voice calls to me from behind a palm tree. ‘ ‘Allah! ‘Hello!’
Necker is relaunching as a private island resort for up to 40 guests. Pictured are the interiors in Balinese style
It turns out to be a white cockatoo that lives up to the name Marley. Charming fellow, if conversation is limited. I was just saying goodbye to Marley when I nearly tripped over a giant tortoise plodding across the lawn. Oh dear! I thought these beautiful creatures were only found in the Galapagos Islands. Not so, apparently.
Umpire, as it is called, was imported from the Seychelles, a staff member explains. He is over 70 years old, weighs 700 pounds and is part of a successful breeding program.
And so it goes on. The referee’s achievements as a super stallion are overshadowed by a lecherous ring-tailed lemur named Mr 007. An endangered species in their native Madagascar, from which they were imported, have bred the lemurs as rabbits on Necker.
But then it’s a sexy place. There are at least seven different subspecies and if they don’t make a fuss, they stop playing on the tennis court by walking behind the server’s arm. bonkers.
All systems go: Necker is an “extremely beautiful place,” writes Max Davidson of The Daily Mail. Pictured is an inviting swimming pool
A luxurious bath in one of the high-end homes
How do you cover that? Flamingos! They had disappeared from the Virgin Islands a hundred years ago. Branson, undaunted, flew a few out of Cuba.
There are now hundreds on Necker and to see them flying at sunset, in perfect formation, like the Pink Arrows, escorted by scarlet ibises, is too exciting for words.
I had hoped for a sighting of the Greater Spotted Celebrity, another common species on Necker. Signed letters of thanks from Princess Diana and Barack Obama, among others, adorn the walls. A book by the Duchess of York sits next to Branson’s body of work in the gift shop.
In 2011, Kate Winslet made headlines around the world when she carried Branson’s elderly mother from a burning house. But my luck has run out. Could the rough man who knocked on the tennis court be Jack Nicholson? No. Too long. German accent.
How about that well spoken English lady in a silk dress asking the way to the toilet? No. Chic writer from London.
The resort staff, which is two to one more than the number of guests, are a friendly, cosmopolitan group. Geordies, Scots, Swedes, Canadians, Portuguese, Indians, as well as BVI residents. Their discretion is of course assured. If you want something more adventurous in the rooftop hot tub than gazing at the night sky, look no further.
The Necker food, overseen by charming French chef Guillaume, is predictably fantastic, with everything from fish curry to fresh Caribbean fruits and vegetables to grilled lobsters on the beach.
Zany touch follows zany touch. When I’m called up for a “surprise lunch” by the pool, after a morning of sailing around the neighboring islands on a catamaran, I expect some crazy publicity stunt, like cocktails served by Brad Pitt in a white tux.
Instead, I get something even better: mouthwatering sushi carried across the pool on a kayak decorated with palm leaves. As lunchers take to the water, chopsticks in one hand, a glass of champagne in the other, Britain suddenly seems far away.
Giant tortoises, imported from the Seychelles, roam the island. The billionaire owner has also flown in flamingos from Cuba.
Next up is a delightfully chaotic tennis tournament, with more extinguished volleys in an hour than you’d expect in the entire Wimbledon fortnight. The tennis coach gallantly says I’m making a promise.
My last night is a party in the great Necker tradition. Her has been abandoned with happy abandon.
Where else would this normally sedate grandfather from Oxford sit on the table at three in the morning and shout Sweet Caroline to cheers of agreement?
As beautiful women, dressed head to toe in white, jump fully clothed into the pool, there is a shrill cackling sound in the darkness. Marley the Cockatoo? Mating lemurs on the tennis court? Or Richard Branson in space chuckling at our antics?
Necker is available for exclusive use at £76,000 per night for up to 40 guests. During select weeks of the year, individual rooms can be booked from £3,700 per night, including all meals, drinks, water sports and boat transfers (virginlimitededition.com).
Virgin Atlantic flies direct between London Heathrow and Antigua with return fares from £379 per person including free food, drinks and onboard entertainment (virginatlantic.com0344 8747 747). Visitors from abroad must provide proof of their vaccination status and a recent negative PCR test before being allowed into the country.
Visit bvigateway.bviaa.com for online forms before you travel.