Love is all around on Necker. What’s it really like on the world’s most exclusive private island?

Words: Nick Boulos

This is a love story… but not as you know it. An unlikely romance between one of the most famous people in the world and a place that is, some would say, equally as famous. 

It’s the tale of a young man who not only changed his world in the most dramatic, fundamental, and unexpected fashion but also the world as we know it. Burning with the fiercest of ambition and imagination, the 1970s proved to be a pivotal time for a then-unknown chap by the name of Richard Branson.

Not only did he lay the foundations of a business that would go on to become a global empire but he also first set sight on the two enduring loves of his life, two very different things that would change his life beyond recognition: his wife and his private island.

Let’s take a step back, to 1976 to be precise…

‘I was 28 years old and had fallen madly in love with a lovely lady called Joan. I chased her to New York and managed to get her to agree to come away with me for a weekend in the Caribbean,’ reminisces Richard over a glass of sparkling water in a champagne flute.

Keen to make an impact, he took bold action and persuaded a local real estate agent in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) that he wanted to buy an island. ‘They laid on tickets so we could afford to go and a helicopter. We saw Necker from above and that was it. I fell in love twice that weekend: with my lady and my island. That was 48 years ago.’

But as most of us know, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly and that was certainly the case here. After spotting the 74-acre uninhabited island from the chopper, Richard swiftly put in an offer.

It was on the market for $6million but Virgin, at the time, was in its infancy so his budget wasn’t quite what it is today and once the agent recovered, Richard’s ridiculously-low-ball offer was turned down in an instant.

And that was it. For six years at least when the real estate agent suddenly got back in touch and a sale was agreed for a reported $120,000 under the condition that Richard had to make it habitable within five years. Given that Necker is now worth somewhere in the region of $120-150 million, it must surely rank as the best deal of Richard’s career.

Work began in earnest with the plan being to turn into a holiday home for the Branson brood. The first big project was building the Great House which remains the island’s beating heart today. Devil’s Hill, the island’s highest peak was selected for its location, and it took six months just to flatten the top.

Despite extensive development in the decades that followed, the Great House – with its infinity pool, giant chess board, large wraparound terrace and interior of stone floors, handmade bamboo furniture, Buddhas from Bali and ostrich egg chandeliers – remains Richard’s number one spot.

‘Joan and I married there in 1989 and so did our daughter Holly,’ he explains.

As Necker took shape it soon became clear that it was simply too special not to share with others and the decision was made to make it available for holidays and special occasions, most notably weddings.

Necker Newlyweds have a choice of locations for ceremonies and meals – both intimate and larger (up to 200) – plus the options for a steel band, fireworks and a cake by the island’s resident pastry chef.

Whatever the occasion, most visitors book the entire place exclusively with up to 48 guests being accommodated in individually designed Balinese-style villas sprinkled across the island alongside the swanky rooms within The Great House.

And the list of past guests reads like a who’s who of the past 30 years, with everyone from Beyonce to Nelson Mandela having stayed. Princess Diana holidayed here with her two young sons and President Obama went straight from the White House to Necker when he left office. Framed handwritten thank you notes from both are proudly on display in the little kitchen area in the Great House. Perfect reading while you wait for the kettle to boil.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Necker earlier this year and left delighted by the delicate dance it has mastered of unfussed luxury, substance as well as style and a sense of child-like fun that we all somehow lose as adults.

These days Necker is the headline act of Virgin Limited Edition, a collection of Richard’s high-end retreats and hideaways. Other properties include a safari camp in the Masai Mara, a ski lodge in Verbier and a restored 17th century finca in Majorca.

But it’s Necker that steals the show and with a week’s stay costing upwards of $1 million, guests rightfully expect service of the highest standards, something that is indeed delivered but not in the way that has become the norm in the luxury hotel space. Less is more here. There are no anonymous staff members lurking in the shadows waiting to spring into action the moment your cushion needs plumping. Instead, guests are encouraged to treat the island as their home, to help themselves and ask should they need something. Team members fast become friends, often joining in the fun, and even dancing on the tables as is customary during White Night at the Great House. Even Kate Moss had a go.

Evident everywhere is the emphasis on the cheeky and playful – a nod to the big boss and his love of having a good time. Games of ‘tipsy tennis’ are fuelled by the island’s own brand of champagne – or ‘Necker Water’ as it’s known on account that it flows so freely.  One of the other big highlights is the sushi kayak in which a canoe draped in banana leaves is filled with a Japanese feast fit for a billionaire and served in the moat-style swimming pool.

Richard joined us for some spring rolls and regaled us with tales of his balloon flights, space adventures and flying over Windsor Castle with Princess Di in the cockpit of a Virgin Atlantic flight (‘She came on the tannoy and said: ‘And on your right is Granny’s house,’ which caused a chuckle’).

For all the fun and games on Necker, and there are many – the latest being pickleball which Richard took great delight in challenging me to a game – there’s also a serious side. The island is home to 140 animal species, many endangered and introduced by Richard to support their conservation. Stars of the show are the cheeky ringtail lemurs – one of seven lemur species brought over from Madagascar. ‘I’ll always remember the time I was playing tennis with Rafael Nadal and the lemurs were cheering us on from the sidelines,’ says Richard.

Elsewhere are 300 fabulous flamingos, once native to the BVI but hunted so heavily they all but vanished, and giant tortoises from the Seychelles that have been known to weigh-in at more than 48 stone. You’ll find them taking it slow – really slow! – down at Turtle Beach.

‘Picking a favourite animal is a bit like picking a favourite child but both the flamingos and lemurs will always have a special place in my heart and being in the presence of a giant tortoise is a profound experience,’ adds Richard.

While good times abound here, not all the Necker story is a happy one. A 4am lightning strike in August 2011 devastated the Great House, with flames 100ft high. A two-year rebuild followed only for disaster to strike again in 2017 when Hurricane Irma swept in with winds of more than 180mph.

It’s not often you’re with someone who experienced a category five storm and I was keen to hear more. ‘We barricaded ourselves into the underground wine cellar,’ Richard tells me over a drink. ‘In previous hurricanes, I've rather foolishly sat in the hot tub and watched the spectacle of Mother Nature at her angriest. But Irma was different, and Holly made me promise not to do that.’

‘So, I joined everyone else in the cellar. It sounded like a roaring train going past for 14 hours, you could hear trees crashing into the side of the building. For some of us it was rather exciting, but it was also understandably very scary and emotional for others. We passed the time drinking wine and sharing stories.’

‘Thankfully nobody was harmed but the whole island was flattened and under four feet of water. There were no trees left standing and we sadly lost some wildlife.’

‘I was obviously tearful when I saw the horrendous damage, but only momentarily so. We immediately got to work, not only on rebuilding Necker but also supporting the other islands in the BVI and beyond. I went to nearby Virgin Gorda and it was like a warzone, the prison had been destroyed and all communications were down. Thankfully my neighbour Larry [Page, co-founder of Google] had the means to create a wi-fi connection.’

‘Many of the Necker team obviously found themselves without work. As we set about rebuilding, waiters became builders and housekeepers became gardeners. They really enjoyed doing something different so at least a little good came of it.’

Come hell or high water – both of which have already been ticked off – there’s literally nothing that would tempt Richard from his little piece of paradise. ‘I've been lucky enough to travel all over the world but there is nowhere like the BVI and Necker is particularly magical. Even after all these years I can’t get over the night sky here,’ he tells me.

With his words ringing in my ears, I spend my final evening on Necker as close to it as I can get: with a dip in the crow’s nest hot tub located up on the roof of the Great House. Just big enough for two and with barely a flicker of light up there it makes for a most memorable end to a most memorable few days; under an inky sky heavy with the weight of a million stars and the world’s most wonderful private island spread out in the distance below.