There were 50 of us locked in the cellar. Water was pouring in; trees were smashing into the side of the building and for 14 hours it sounded like there was a roaring train going past.” Sat sipping a coffee in the mid-morning sunshine, Sir Richard Branson is recalling the moment in September 2017 when Hurricane Irma struck his home in the British Virgin Islands.
His description of sheer devastation seems almost impossible to fathom given our current surroundings: Necker Island unravelled before us in all its glory. All is still until a mangrove cuckoo swoops down and lands on the edge of the infinity pool just a few feet away. Beyond that, in the distance, the cacti-studded hills give way to custard-yellow beaches lapped by azure waters.
Branson breaks the silence. “I was tearful when I saw the extent of the damage,” he tells me. “Whole buildings had gone and there wasn’t a tree left standing, but the next day we got to work, helping the communities nearby and rebuilding our island.” Now, after years of work costing tens of millions, the world’s most famous private island is back and ready to unleash its own unique sense of fun.
Located in the far eastern reaches of the British Virgin Islands about 100 miles east of Puerto Rico and reached by a 90-minute flight from Antigua, Necker is 74 acres of suspended reality. It has been home to the Branson and his family since the Virgin boss bought it aged 28 for £180,000 in a bid to impress his now-wife Joan. Today it’s worth £90 million. “It’s the most exquisite place in the world and simply too beautiful not to share with others,” he adds, revealing why he decided to open it up to paying guests.
It’s since become a home away from home for many of the world’s most powerful. Princess Diana holidayed here with the young princes, Kate Moss celebrated her 40th with a week-long party and even Nelson Mandela spent time on the island. It’s also where, just days after leaving office, President Obama decided to decompress with his family, reigniting his love of watersports after eight years of abstaining from such pursuits by order of the Secret Service.
And those are just the VIPs we know about. As you’d expect, staff – a mix of locals and British imports - are tight-lipped when it comes to discussing past guests and the antics that may – or may not – have gone on. That said, I do manage to extract one tale of a wealthy businessman who booked Lauryn Hill to perform while he and his family ate lunch.
There’s no sign of Lauryn when I arrive on Necker, just days before Richard ventures into virgin territory (forgive the pun) by becoming the first ‘civilian astronaut’ to travel to space. “The idea for Virgin Galactic was born here on Necker,” he tells me. “I dreamt it up whilst swinging in a hammock.”
Of course, for mere mortals Necker is just as out-of-reach as outer space. Aside from a few weeks a year when it’s possible to reserve an individual room, Necker must be booked in its entirety. With a price tag of up to £76,000 a night (for up to 40 guests), it’s not your average package holiday destination.
The focal point is the hilltop Great House, with its 11 spacious bedrooms, rooftop hot tub and striking communal space complete with indoor garden, free-roaming red-shell tortoises, bamboo furniture and swinging day beds. It made headlines in 2011 when a fire ripped through the house, with Kate Winslet allegedly saving Branson’s mother, Eve, from the flames.
The star of the show is the newly rebuilt Bali Hi complex, a three-tiered pagoda-style pad perched on a rocky outcrop at the end of Turtle Beach with its own plunge pool. I’m staying at the Temple Master suite in the very middle of the island, where Branson and his wife, Joan, used to live before building their new home down on the beach. The panoramic views seem endless while the outdoor bathroom and freestanding marble bath add glamour.
Natural materials - stone, wood and bamboo - are used throughout, while the Branson’s love of Indonesia has brought a touch of Asia to the Caribbean. Calming Buddhas are dotted around the island and rooms are filled with Balinese art and ornate carvings.
Necker is, as you would expect, extravagant and glamorous but with a sense of fun and cheekiness that comes directly from the big boss. Where else would you find a palm-shaded hot tub big enough for a football team? Or in what is surely Necker’s answer to Deliveroo, lunch arriving in the form of a sushi-filled kayak draped in palm leaves and pushed through the water by a chef.
One unexpected effect is how quickly the place starts to feel like home, albeit it one with giant tortoises and miniature horses. There’s no need to lock bedroom doors, there’s no dress code even for dinner (shorts and flip-flops will do just fine) and all meals are served on hand-carved dining tables measuring 40-ft long allowing everyone to come together.
Guests are given their own electric buggies (Branson’s one has a SRB number plate) and are free to explore and do as they please. I spend the days feeding the ring-tail lemurs (Branson introduced the species after visiting Madagascar in 2012 and many roam freely), indulging in spa treatments on the beach, going out for sails and nature hikes and take part in a surprisingly competitive tennis tournament on a court where the likes of Rafael Nadal and Boris Becker have played.
The latest reincarnation of Necker following Irma comes with sustainability at its heart. More than 1,000 solar panels have been installed and the island’s wild and wave-battered north-eastern coast is dominated by three wind turbines, making the entire island completely self-sufficient.
Our final evening is spent up at the Great House. The theme is White Nights and some adhere to the dress code more strictly than others. Under the amber glow of the ostrich egg chandeliers, a dinner of beef sirloin with chargrilled plantain and Pedro Ximenez jus prepared by chef Guillaume Galvez is served.
The dinner plates are cleared as DJ James – known simply as Sweeney - takes to the decks and soon we’re all dancing on the table – just as Kate Moss has been known to do from time to time. The Necker-branded champagne (yes, really!) keeps flowing until sometime around 3am when those still going cool off by leaping into the pool. Barman Thomas serves up his ‘SOS shots’ of electrolyte goodness to ward off hangovers and then we head to the hot tub to look at the stars wondering if the man who made all this possible was up there somewhere looking down on us from his spaceship.
Life felt, in that very 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 selected weeks of the year, individual 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.
Visit bvigateway.bviaa.com for information on entry requirements.