In the first chapter of his autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson describes sitting in his bedroom on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, staring at a blank piece of paper.
It’s 1998, and he’s still more than two decades away from completing his first successful test flight to space. But as he sat there, his mind wandering and full of ambition, “It was time for a new start, and to look to the stars,” he writes.
There are some places you only dream about traveling to one day. For Branson, that place was space. For others, this travel writer included, Necker Island, where Branson sat and penned those very words, is theirs.
In my mind, I’d always imagined Necker as a less austere version of Charles Foster Kane’s mythical Xanadu. A menagerie of exotic animals, celebrities, and statesmen coexisting in fantasyland that’s only accessible to a rare few. Even Stephen Colbert recently lamented about never having been invited this exclusive tropical paradise.
So, when the opportunity came across my desk to visit Necker Island for the reopening after years of construction following hurricane Irma in 2017, I wasted no time accepting the offer. “I’m not gonna waste my shot” was the mantra I repeated in my head. Like Branson, my mind wandering and full of ambition, I was ready for a new start, and maybe a chance to look to the stars.
Welcome to Necker Necker Land
After a taxing day of travel that required no less than three flights and a 40-minute boat ride, I spent the majority of my first night on island in earnest—in a hot tub aboard a pirate ship. Located on the roof of the Great House, it’s actually called the Crow’s Nest, but it looked a lot more like a pirate ship to me. I was told that this is the best place to catch the sunset, but this spot became my nightly refuge. A place I’d sneak away for some solitude, usually with a glass of champagne in hand. It wasn’t hard to imagine that at any moment the ship would take off to Never Never Land. Or had I already arrived?
Full of adrenaline and ready to explore the island, the next morning, it was off to meet some of the local inhabitants who call Necker Island home.
As much as it is Branson’s 74-acre private island home and resort, wildlife conservation and sustainability are at the core of the island’s ethos. And among some of the most beloved denizens are its lemurs. With seven different species on island including more than 50 ring tails, we soon learned that these fuzzy little furballs are not only endangered but were brought here by Branson to help preserve the population in an environment not unlike their native home in Madagascar.
This isn’t Your Average Caribbean Vacation
There’s nothing average about any of Richard Branson’s hotels or cruise ships, and Necker Island is no exception. At the heart of the island, my room was located in the Great House, which includes 11-guest rooms as well an infinity pool and, of course, the aforementioned pirate ship and hot tub. It’s considered the hub of the resort, but it’s also just the tip of this iceberg.
For those eager to get a lay of the land, electric golf carts are on ready to whip around, and if not, there’s always someone on the Necker team keen for a chat and to whisk you away.
Winding my way past the lemur sanctuary towards the Bali Hi complex—a three-tiered, three-bedroom Balinese-style villa on the ocean—that was all but destroyed during Irma and has now been rebuilt as one the most luxurious accommodations on island.
But before I could get there, my next stop was to admire the flock of flamingos (also known as a flamboyance of flamingos when they’re in group) and scarlet ibises on the lagoon. It’s quite a sight to see these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, pink and scarlet feathers piercing their way through the powder blue Caribbean sky.
Leaving flamingo bay and continuing around the bend past Bali Hi, my next visit was to Turtle Beach. Named after the giant tortoises who nest here, the in-ground trampoline, beautiful white sand and crystalline water make it the ideal spot for swimming and paddle boarding.
The island is framed by beaches, but this one is special. Unlike the other side of Necker which is windy and better suited for kitesurfing and sailing, the water at Turtle Beach is so calm and clear it almost breaks your heart. But the main attraction here are the tortoises who are free to roam around just waiting for someone to come and give them a light tickle on the underside of their long, scaly necks.
Toes in the sand, I ended that day dining on Caribbean style surf and turf. The tortoises had turned in for the night, but it was the perfect ending to memorable first day exploring Necker.
A Bit of Necker History, Past and Present
As the story goes, Branson ended up paying $180,000 for Necker Island in 1979 after falling in love with its unspoiled terrain. Apparently, he was also trying to impress a woman, whom he married on the island 11 years later.
For years, the island served as the Branson’s private family home before it evolved into one of the most exclusive private island resorts in the world. With the exception of a few weeks a year—called celebration weeks, when rooms can be booked on a nightly basis—the island is only available for private buyouts and starts at $105,000 per night for 40-60 guests.
Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma in 2017 that wiped out large swaths of Necker, the property underwent a major reconstruction that aimed to not only rebuild but bring it back better and more sustainable than ever. Today, Necker is home to a solar farm and three giant wind turbines, and everything from the Necker staff’s uniforms and sandals right down to the straws are done with sustainability in mind.
It’s a Make-Your-Own-Adventure Kind of Island
For an island that’s relatively isolated, I found there was no shortage of things to do on a given day. Perhaps what was most pleasantly surprising is how unpretentious the whole experience really is.
The BVI has laid claim to the term “barefoot luxury,” and that mentality really shines through on Necker. Depending on how active or inactive you want to be, it’s an a la carte, choose-your-own-adventure kind of deal and I tried to strike a balance during my stay.
I traded the Peloton for extra pool time one day and didn’t miss the chance to play in an amateur version of the Necker Cup tennis tournament, which was an absolute highlight, although I could use a bit of practice before my next match.
Of course, painkillers (a deliciously creamy rum-based cocktail that was made famous in the BVI) or Necker’s signature Champagne piña coladas were always on tap. But nothing could have prepared me for the sushi kayak that floated its way into my life during lunch in the pool one afternoon.
Hiking, sailing, even something called sub winging are all popular activities, as are excursions to nearby islands like the baths at Virgin Gorda which were all but empty over the time of my visit to Necker.
Celebrities, Socialites, and Stories
Its remote location within the BVI has made Necker a boon for celebrities, socialites, and even a few presidents over the years. Some memorabilia can be found lining the walls of the Great House kitchen. Letters of gratitude to both Branson and his wife Joan are from past guests including Barack Obama and Princess Diana, who was a repeat guest on Necker Island along with her two sons, William and Harry.
And then, of course, there are the stories that have made this island the stuff of legend. One tale that was floating around over my stay was about the time Kate Winslet rescued Branson’s mother Eve after a devastating fire tore through the Great House in 2011. The building was all but destroyed but Winslet also met and later married her partner on that same trip, so it’s safe to say not all was lost.
Today, Necker’s reputation for attracting a medley of celebrities and high-profile guests has also evolved to include companies looking to host team-building events in an environment that makes anything seem possible.
The Path to Paradise isn’t Always Easy
I wish I could agree with the old adage about how the journey is the destination, but the truth is traveling to the BVI is no walk in the park right now. As of this writing, the ever-changing Covid protocols and restrictions include a total of three negative Covid tests, purchasing additional medical insurance, and even signing an attestation acknowledging said negative test, along with QR codes for flying and a pile of other paperwork.
Travel is fickle these days, that’s our new reality. But, as a wise friend once said, “Sometimes the places worth going to are the ones that are the hardest to get to.” And after five days spent letting my mind wander and looking to the stars, this trip was my blank page and the start of a new adventure that I’ll cherish for years to come.