A sudden shriek shattered the otherwise still and serene Caribbean afternoon. It stopped us in our tracks, mid-rally in fact, and we looked over towards the source of the high-pitched disturbance: a nearby tree whose leaves and branches were shaking violently. Suddenly two squabbling lemurs somersaulted to the ground and ran past us across the tennis court.
Our game soon resumed but the sight of two ring-tailed lemurs occupying the umpire’s chair was more than a little distracting. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised given that things are never quite as they seem on the world’s most famous private island.
Welcome to Necker Island. Or rather, welcome back to Necker Island.
Sir Richard Branson’s legendary patch of paradise has reopened after being devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017. With winds of up to 280mph, it was one of the most powerful storms in history and loomed directly over Necker for 14 long and heart-thumping hours. Its astronaut-to-be owner and around 50 of his family, friends and team members sought safety in the wine cellar.
“You could hear your ears popping from the noise of the storm. We had to drill holes in the wall to ease the pressure,” Branson tells me when we meet after my arrival. “For some of us it was exciting but there were people who, understandably, were quite scared and tearful. We passed the time drinking a little wine and telling stories.”
When the cellar door finally creaked open, a scene of complete and utter devastation awaited. “There wasn’t a tree left standing,” explains Branson. “Mother Nature at its most fierce can be quite cruel. But we got to work straightaway, helping the other islands and thinking how we could rebuild Necker even better than it was before.”
Four years and several tens of millions later, the Necker that has re-emerged remains true to the unique take on barefoot luxury that made it popular with the likes of Princess Diana, Kate Moss, Justin Bieber and the Obamas although the zip-line down to the beach has sadly not made a comeback. “Almost anything goes here on Necker,” says a member of staff coyly when I casually enquire about the debauchery that has surely taken place here. What happens on Necker most definitely stays on Necker…
Located in the British Virgin Islands, 100 miles east of Puerto Rico, its 74 acres boasts sandy shores home to sluggish giant tortoises, cacti-studded hillsides, lavish pagoda-style villas, murky lagoon ponds populated with fabulous flamingos and a seemingly infinite number of infinity pools.
Most of the fun takes place up at the hilltop Great House. Beyond its 11 bedrooms is a communal space decked in wood, stone and bamboo and sprinkled with calming Buddhas, swinging daybeds and green plants that sway in the sea breeze that sweeps in from all sides. Dominating the space are extravagant chandeliers of ostrich eggs designed in a spiralling formation that hang majestically over the 40-ft long dining table.
My favourite spot, however, was up on the roof. The wooden crow’s nest hot tub is just right for two and the perfect spot to watch the starry night sky with a glass of Necker branded champagne, known around these parts as ‘Necker water’. Rumour has it the lack of any lights is a deliberate ploy by Richard to encourage more ‘intimate’ moments.
The other accommodation options are scattered across the island. The star of the show is the all-new Bali-Hi complex, a heavenly spot with Atlantic views, wooden carvings, outdoor bathrooms, sweeping terraces and a private pool dominated by an ornate and very Instagrammable pagoda.
I was staying elsewhere. The Temple is a cluster of single-storey units at the very heart of the island and where Branson has welcomed the likes of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan for talks on issues as varied as criminal justice reform and climate change. “It’s a very special setting,” he tells me as we sit together, looking out at the rippling turquoise water and soaking up the incredible history of the place.
There is indeed a special energy on Necker. How Branson came to acquire it is well-documented (he purchased it aged 28 to impress his then-girlfriend and now-wife Joan) but the transformation in the decades since is far more interesting. Not just all the fun and fancy touches but the stuff that truly matters. Recent years have seen the arrival of 1,200 solar panels and three wind turbines that enable Necker to operate self-sufficiently. Efforts are also underway to support local communities and improve the health of the surrounding coral reefs.
A place draped in mystery and intrigue, Necker remains a hideaway for the well-known and well-heeled. You know, the kind who book Christina Aguilera to sing a few songs after dinner (true story).
Aside from a few select weeks a year when you can book an individual room, Necker – which can accommodate up to 40 guests – is booked in its entirety for more than £75,000 a night. You do the maths… For that price tag, guests get exclusive use of the entire island. Sailing, snorkelling and kite-surfing, tennis tournaments on courts that have hosted Becker and Nadal (and a fair few lemurs), spa treatments, late-night parties and conga lines to the pool, twilight beach barbecues and sushi-filled kayak lunches.
Fun and frivolity is of the utmost importance on Necker. But it’s not just people who have a good time here. The wildlife also enjoy the height of luxury. In decades gone by, there was nothing here except the odd wild goat. Today, there are exotic species from near and far including scarlet ibis, Anegada rock iguanas and six types of squabbling but otherwise quite charming lemurs, which roam around freely and appear to have developed a rather keen interest in tennis.
Endangered and facing a bleak future in their native Madagascar, the lemurs were introduced to the island after Richard and his son Sam visited the country in 2012 and were told by the world’s leading lemur expert that Necker would be the perfect place to give them the freedom they need to breed. The youngsters are kept in huge enclosures and excitedly perched on my head and shoulders and tenderly gripped my fingers with their warm and spongy hands.
Stealing the show, however, are the flamingos which put on a dazzling daily aerial show, flying in formation around the island as dusk sinks into evening. It’s a spectacle I savoured from the edge of my infinity pool with a glass of Necker water in hand. What else would you expect?
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Necker Island 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. Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Heathrow to Antigua from £379 return.