View all newsletters
Have the short, sharp Spear's newsletter delivered to your inbox each week
  1. Luxury
  2. Travel
April 4, 2024updated 03 May 2024 10:05am

Inside Necker Island: Richard Branson’s private retreat

From the magazine: Richard Branson has opened up Necker Island to paying guests. Aisha Alli jets off to explore...

By Aisha Alli

‘Mind if I join you?’ A soft English accent breaks the stillness of an afternoon spent in a sunken hot tub overlooking the Caribbean. Next, a baseball cap is whipped off, a shirt flung to the floor and a pair of sunglasses cast aside to reveal a familiar face: Richard Branson. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: if you come to Necker Island, what do you expect? 

Once he has lowered himself into the tub – being careful to keep his cocktail above the bubbles – Branson chats easily and is soon extolling the virtues of AI. ‘I invested very early on and it ended up being the right decision,’ he says with a hint of bashfulness. As we help ourselves to plates of sushi served poolside, he continues to discuss ChatGPT.

‘It’s a remarkable invention. You should really consider investing in AI,’ he enthuses. For a moment, I wonder whether he is under the misapprehension that he’s conversing with a fellow member of the three-comma club; my net worth is a little south of his £2.4 billion

Select and enter your email address The short, sharp email newsletter from Spear’s
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

[From the magazine: Succession in the House of Arnault: inside the first family of luxury’s game of gilded thrones]

Beach for the stars

Princess Diana wearing a leopard print sundress and Prince Harry and a young friend holding spades on the beach
Necker was a popular getaway for Princess Diana, seen here in 1990 with Prince Harry and a friend / Image: Getty

From the Nineties, Branson’s private corner of the Caribbean gained a reputation as one of the most glamorous and exclusive destinations in the world. Diana was pictured here on holiday with the young princes; then came the celebrities: from Madonna to Mariah Carey, Boris Becker to Mick Jagger, David Hasselhoff to Robert De Niro, Demi Moore, Eddie Murphy and Harry Styles. Necker also played host to Kate Moss as she rang in her 40th birthday, Heidi Klum when she posed for a Sports Illustrated photoshoot, and Barack Obama after he completed his second term in office and came to decompress with a spot of kite-surfing. 

Other politicos have been here too – from Nelson Mandela to Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair – as well as royals such as Prince Harry (who attended the 27th birthday of Branson’s son Sam), Kate Middleton (during a break in her relationship with William) and Sarah Ferguson alongside her daughters Beatrice and Eugenie. 

Barack Obama kitesurfing wearing a life jacket and sunglasses
Just after his presidency ended in 2017, Barack Obama relaxed with a spot of kite-surfing at Necker / Image: Getty

Creating the ultimate getaway for the world’s rich, famous and fabulous might not have been the plan when Branson purchased Necker in 1982 for a meagre $180,000. ‘The island was a love story,’ he tells me over breakfast. He first clapped eyes on it during a helicopter flight with his then girlfriend Joan. ‘I fell in love with Joan in 1976 and pretended I was buying an island to impress her.’ True or not, it must have worked. The pair have been together ever since. ‘Forty-eight years later, she’s the mother and grandmother to all our children.’ 

Content from our partners
Stoneweg, Icona, and CBH Strengthen Partnership with Cromwell Acquisition, Adding €4 Billion AUM to Stoneweg
Why investors should consider investing in nature
HSBC Global Private Banking: Revisiting your wealth plan as uncertainty abounds

The next era for Necker

The Great House is the social hub of the island and the scene of communal dinners, as well as weddings

Now the primary home of Branson and his family, Necker had previously only been shared with invited guests, but last November he announced that it was opening to bookings from the public – or a rarefied section of it: the quoted rate was $140,000 per night. This would cover exclusive use of the island, accommodating up to 48 guests in 12 rooms and 12 Balinese-style villas. 

[See also: Sky-high wellness: private jets embrace the next frontier of luxury travel]

Necker will always have exclusivity in its DNA, but it has now become ever so slightly more accessible again. As part of a new offering from Branson’s Virgin Limited Edition travel company, visitors can secure just one of Necker’s villas for as little as $5,650 a night during certain periods of the year. Although most weeks will be reserved for guests shelling out for exclusive access, the new initiative means the previously completely private island will now occasionally function a bit more like a resort. 

What’s more, Branson says, everyone who comes here has licence to let their hair down. ‘Every table in Necker is made to be danced on and every pool is made to be jumped in. If you’re going to throw a party, make sure you’re the first person jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed so everyone else knows that they have the freedom to have a good time.’

Not just for party animals

But Necker isn’t just for party animals. Branson’s passion for sustainability and the environment is in evidence in several ways, particularly through the conservation initiatives that help the 140 species that inhabit the island to thrive – from iguanas to lemurs, flamingos and more than 50 other types of bird. 

One project of note involved the introduction of Aldabra giant tortoises to the ecosystem in 2000. Native to the Seychelles, Aldabra tortoises were once an endangered species, but when some were relocated to Necker, they began breeding. Guests also have the opportunity to feed Madagascan lemurs, another species that was facing extinction. 

The focus at Necker is mainly on the outdoors, from Madagascan lemurs to the outdoor gym

Necker can run entirely on renewable energy. Solar panels dot the roofs of the guest villas and 60ft wind turbines tower over the more secluded parts of the island. ‘What we try to do at Necker is set an example,’ Branson says. ‘Even with the island next door [Virgin Gorda], we’re talking about getting clean energy for its population. Sustainability isn’t their number one priority, but it’s up to some of us who are involved in that world to help.’ 

[See also: The private island bringing sustainability to the BVI]

The focus on renewable energy, for both Necker and neighbouring islands, became sharper after Hurricane Irma hit the British Virgin Islands in 2017. With extensive damage and power sources in short supply, Branson committed to ensuring that future hurricanes would prove less devastating. 

Upon hearing an airline-owning billionaire wax lyrical about sustainability from his luxury (formerly) private island, there are those who might raise an eyebrow. But this is something Branson accepts. 

‘One thing I’ve learnt in life is that if you’re trying to do something positive, you’re much more likely to get knocked than if you’re just trying to make money,’ he laments when we speak inside his estate on Necker – an area of the island cordoned off from paying guests. ‘If someone is trying to do something good, you should give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t try to jump down their throats.’ 

A sense of community

Necker Island Bali
The villas take their cues from traditional Balinese dwellings

Although Necker is in the Caribbean, the accommodation and design take their cues from traditional Balinese dwellings, with pastel-hued walls and burnished wood furniture draped in white cotton linen, and floral printed cushions. From Bali Lo, a villa nestled within the island’s wilderness, to Temple, a home sitting atop a cliff with 365 degree views of the ocean, the interiors are both comfortable and elegant. 

Each year since 2007, Temple has played host to ‘The Elders’, a group of global leaders working towards ‘peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet’. Started by Nelson Mandela and including members such as Desmond Tutu and Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson, the organisation began as a way to unite the world’s most influential figures to collaborate on solving global problems such as the climate crisis. 

[See also: The Spear’s Interview with Mary Robinson]

Just a 20-minute boat ride away, Branson has another island, Moskito, which at 125 acres is slightly larger than the 74-acre Necker. Moskito, however, is not a private island, since sections of it have been sold to investors such as tech entrepreneur and Mainline Information Systems founder Rick Kearney. Branson’s two adult children, Holly and Sam, both also own homes on the island. However, as I discover on my visit, it remains a quiet haven, with an atmosphere that is more relaxed and less hedonistic than Necker. Paying guests can stay here too by booking one or multiple rooms of the 11-bedroom, 19,000sq ft Branson Beach Estate. 

Moskito island is Necker’s larger but rather quieter neighbour

On both islands, there is a focus on creating a sense of community. At Necker, dinners are served communally, with guests dining together in the island’s main house. For introverts, the phrase ‘communal dinner’ might incite horror, but as Spear’s finds, it’s a moment when the secrets of Necker are revealed. 

Over platters of braised lamb chops and freshly caught lobster, I hear of the occasions when Branson taught Desmond Tutu how to swim, Kevin Costner debuted a preview of his new movie on the beach, Barack and Michelle Obama played a competitive game of tennis against Branson and Joan (an occasion which I’m told saw Secret Service agents camped out on stands beside the court), and Ed Sheeran serenaded Branson’s daughter Holly on her birthday. 

There are also physical reminders from previous guests in the form of mementoes. On the day of my departure, a wall of framed letters in the main house catches my eye. From a final draft of Elton John’s lyrics to Candle in the Wind to a note from the Obamas praising the service on the island, there are snippets of Necker’s exclusive history. 

At the centre – and clearly taking pride of place – is a note in the elegant script of the late Princess Diana, written upon her own departure from Necker: ‘For me in particular it has been a week I have longed for – for some peace and quiet within this mad life we lead.’ 

Necker Island can be rented exclusively (for up to 48 guests) from $140,000 per night. Individual stays during select weeks start from $5,650 per night. Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to Antigua three times a week. Economy fares start from £496 per person.

virginlimitededition.com

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address The short, sharp email newsletter from Spear’s
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network