Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

At home with Richard Branson on Necker Island

“Richard’s there on the island now with his family. You’ll be joining them for lunch.” As if an overnight JetBlue flight to San Juan and an early-morning connection to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands had not left me with enough of a surreal feeling, the speedboat ride from the jetty on Tortola to Necker Island had me experiencing an unusual sense of imposter syndrome, combined with exhilaration.

It’s windy, and the twin-engined Yamaha 300 begins to carve its way through the choppy waves as we help ourselves to cold drinks from the specially prepared cool box. Spray from the waves and the drinks permeates the air as we’re ruffled by the heady gusts, with rocky, green and lightly developed islands slipping by.

It is (no pun intended) my first time in the British Virgin Islands, which appear to be living up to their name with beautifully clean, deep blue water and an semi-wild, out-of-the-way feel to them. This, of course, was what first attracted the now Sir Richard Branson to the area in 1978, when he scored a free holiday to the islands for himself and his wife, Joan, as they were ostensibly looking at real estate. After putting in an offensively low offer of £200,000 (Dh954,000) for Necker, which had an asking price of £3 million (Dh14.3m), they were quickly thrown out of their villa and spent the rest of their holiday on another island. When they were due to fly back to Puerto Rico, their flight had been cancelled. “No one was doing anything,” Branson wrote in one of several books he has found time to pen. “So I did – someone had to. Even though I hadn’t a clue what I was really doing, I chartered a plane for US$2,000 and divided that by the number of passengers. It came to $39 a head. I borrowed a blackboard and wrote on it: ‘Virgin Airways, $39 single flight to Puerto Rico.’ All the tickets were snapped up by grateful passengers ... The idea for Virgin Airways was born.” Then, about a year later, the seller of Necker, now desperate for funds, agreed to sell the island to Branson for £180,000 (Dh858,000) – an amount he can now recoup every couple of days, when the island is rented for $80,000 (Dh294,000) per night.

True to the word of our pilot, who looks like a young Richard Branson himself, and is dressed in a black sports top and shorts, we pull up at the jetty at Necker as a barbecue is taking place around the beach pool. Yet, the feeling of gatecrashing a party soon gives way to the agonising knowledge that in two days we’ll have to leave. Thankfully, given the effort it takes to get there, Necker lives up to expectations even in windy weather, with milky turquoise water, ruffled palm trees and a castaway atmosphere. Hastily getting changed in my room in the Great House before heading down to lunch by golf buggy, I can’t resist jumping in the sea, which has the kind of benign swell and restorative quality that is immediately beneficial. Suddenly the jet lag is gone.

“I have tried to create the kinds of places that I would never want to leave,” says Branson, who has personal villas on this island and on neighbouring Moskito, to which he retreats later in the day. Along with places such as Ulusaba in South Africa and Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco, Necker Island is part of Virgin Limited Edition, a collection of eight luxury hotels and retreats around the world. But, instead of just being concerned with flying wealthy guests in and out, Branson says: “I draw a circle around the resorts and see what can be improved.” And the British business magnate certainly lives by his word. The Caribbean is his home base and has been for several decades; it’s here, in a hammock, that he says he got the idea for Virgin Galactic; it’s here that his family and friends come for extended vacations. Such is his influence that hundreds of local people are employed, and wildlife such as sharks and turtles are protected. There are international start-up retreats and a starting loan and meet-up programme for local entrepreneurs, and he talks non-stop about countless other local and international causes. He still admires “gumption”, and remains disarmingly open to people, including strangers, regardless of their station: he has to be, he says, because that’s where opportunity lies. “Yesterday I showed a new group of people around, and one of them asked to give a £100,000 [Dh477,000] donation,” he says.

Lunch is served family-style at the table, with a live barbecue of meat and fish. Rather than offering fancy fine dining, the food is, like the rest of the resort, more evocative of a home than a hotel. The handful of other guests include two wealthy-but-normal North American couples, whom we have dinner and breakfast with. There’s a spa with a view onto the main beach, and I have a blissful half-hour back and shoulder massage (Dh400 for 30 minutes; Dh800 for an hour), which helps banish any remaining stresses and strains from the previous few days of travel. Staff are mainly fit, young and British, and some are former Virgin Atlantic cabin crew. Megan and Lisa deal with guest services, while Kat is in operations and Liv is in management; the guys tend to be driving speedboats, teaching water sports or behind the various bars. Overall, there are 120 members of staff on the island. In the Great House, the main building where I’m staying, there are more Caribbean staff, including a local woman called Ari, who shrieks with laughter when I ask her to tell me about high-maintenance guests.

My room is also blissfully restful, without the harsh trappings of a hotel. There are plenty of supplies in the bathroom, from insect repellent and sunscreen to body moisturiser and lip balm, and no staff come knocking on the door to clean. Laundry is left in a basket, and the door to the terrace, which offers sweeping views down a peninsula to the sea across thick forest, can be left open at night, the sound of the sea crashing below. From my room, it’s a short walk along a stepped pathway down to a hidden beach, with a hammock strung up between two trees and, behind the treeline, a refrigerator stocked with drinks.

On top of the Great House is a hot tub, which, with its British Virgin Islands flag and view across the surrounding islands, feels like you’re on board a ship. I watch as a huge rainbow appears in front of me, before the sky clears and the sun sets as flocks of pink flamingoes fly past. In the open living area of the Great House is an upstairs library and a more communal space downstairs, with swinging seats, a giant chess board and pool table all laid out as if reminding you to play. Under that is an indoor-outdoor gym.

I sleep well that night, as if in the guest room of a wealthy friend. The Great House has eight bedrooms and one master suite, housing a maximum of 18 guests (a bunk room can accommodate up to six additional children), with a further eight, mostly Balinese-style rooms dotted across the island’s 30 acres, bringing Necker’s maximum guest count to 34 adults. After a morning yoga session on the deck of the house, a buffet breakfast is served, with a surprisingly basic selection of fresh fruit, pastries, cereal and cheese; the à la carte menu is better with a delicious crushed avocado on toasted rye bread, with lime and chilli.

Next it’s time to meet some of the island’s resident wildlife, including several endangered Madagascan lemurs that Branson relocated from a British zoo. The fluffy black-and-white animals are tame and leap onto us as we feed them inside their enclosure, their bodies delightfully lightweight and agile, and staring eyes hypnotic. Declining in the wild due to habitat loss and being hunted as bushmeat, lemurs are the most threatened mammal group on the planet, says Branson, with more than 90 per cent of lemur species facing extinction, but are apparently breeding well here. The island is also a haven for flamingoes, tortoises, ibis and Anegada iguanas, which are already extinct in the wild.

After a snorkelling session along the island’s house reef, in which I come up very close with a large reef shark, a lunch of tasty salads and pizzas is served. Then there’s a speedboat trip with staff member Nick around the neighbouring islands of Virgin Gorda, Prickly Pear and Eustatia, the latter owned by Larry Page. “Oh, there’s Larry,” says Nick, as we drive past a dark-clad kitesurfer aboard a distinctive orange foilboard. “He’s out here a lot.” It’s a weekday and I wonder how the co-founder of Google can afford to be away from his screen so long. As we pass Page’s island, Nick points out the private helicopter, amphibious vehicle and Stealth speedboat owned by the billionaire. Unfortunately, it’s too windy to snorkel at any of the prime local sites, so we stop at a relaxed waterfront restaurant on Virgin Gorda for a milkshake. A couple of hours later, Page is still kitesurfing, and we head back to Necker for a dinner of crab salad with avocado and grapefruit; organic chicken breast with roasted shallots and a zucchini and basil purée; and a dessert of mango cheesecake. Since there’s a full moon, there’s another dip in the rooftop hot tub before bed.

The next morning we have to leave at about 9am for a flight back to Puerto Rico. In the kitchen area, I see a small framed note to Branson from Princess Diana at Kensington Palace, dated April 15, 1990, in which she expresses her thanks for being able to “disappear” on the island for a week.

Somewhat like that, and somewhat like Branson himself being sent back to the mainland by his realtor hosts several decades ago, my 48 hours are soon up. On the speedboat back to Tortola, Page’s helicopter is overhead. “I think it’s him and his wife going surfing,” our captain says.

I’m dreaming of returning there for a week – on Necker this would cost $15,750; (Dh58,000) per person, all inclusive, based on two sharing. Either that, or be one of Richard’s large and lucky group of friends.

rbehan@thenational.ae

Updated: May 23, 2017 04:00 AM

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