Features

Of the Wind and the Wild

by Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Photo Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition
Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

On Sir Richard Branson’s private island, luxury is customized, sustainable and barefoot.

This July, Sir Richard Branson took off from Spaceport America, flying nearly 50,000 feet above the southern desert of New Mexico. Four years ago this month, however, looked quite a bit different: He was hunkered deep down in a three-room cellar on his private island, riding out Hurricane Irma. The category-5 would decimate not only Necker Island — the 74-acre home he and his wife, Joan, have shared with guests and a host of wildlife for the last four decades — but also much of the British Virgin Islands’ 16 inhabited islands.

In the years since, the British entrepreneur has both helped the BVI at large with nonprofit work and advocacy while improving the long-term sustainability of Necker Island, where he spends the majority of his time, often accompanied by his children and grandchildren. The islandwide restoration was officially completed last year.

Bringing Necker Island back to life was a worthy endeavor: Over the past several decades, well-known visitors have included Princess Diana, who used to visit with Princes William and Harry, and Mariah Carey (you may recall her cameo in Branson’s 2004 episode of MTV Cribs) as well as more recent tennis tournaments with Barack Obama and sail racing with Bill Gates. Paying guests have also been able to experience the Caribbean paradise, the first of now eight Virgin Limited Edition luxury properties from Morocco to Switzerland. You typically need to book the island for exclusive use for up to 40 guests, with “Celebration Weeks” allowing for individual seven-day stays throughout the year. So when a small group of British and American media was invited to tour the renewed and improved oasis for the first time, I knew I couldn’t miss an opportunity to experience a place I thought I’d only ever read about.

Elders Temple, a communal lounge with an infinity pool, sits in the center of Necker Island by two of nine stand-alone Balinese-style accommodations. | Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Getting to the island from the West Coast requires a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, a connection to San Juan, Puerto Rico, then a Tradewind charter flight to Tortola, followed by a final speedboat jaunt. I’m staying in the 11-bedroom Great House with 360-degree views of the island, whose reliable winds make the BVI a water sports mecca for sailors and kiteboarders (like Branson himself ). The breeze also makes the island’s first impression on me, whistling on the rim of a Champagne glass handed to me upon arrival at the top of the Great House’s tile stairs. It is a welcome sip after my journey, as is the panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea in the far ground and rustling palm trees in the fore, the majority of which were replanted after Irma.

As I soon wander the open-air gathering room — with its plush, unpretentious furnishings arranged around chess and backgammon boards, stacks of books illuminated by tiered ostrichegg chandeliers, island soundtrack playing in the background — I don’t feel as if I’ve landed on one of the most exclusive resorts in the world. I feel welcomed to the home that this private island ultimately is.

Photo Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition
Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Freedom to roam and rest

My July visit coincides with the beginning of a hurricane season that lasts through November. But the weather stays 88 degrees and sunny each of my four days on Necker. In the evenings, I watch a “flamboyance” of flamingos soar and dip in unison. They were reintroduced to the island in 2006 as part of Branson’s privately funded wildlife conservation efforts, along with 650-pound giant tortoises like 70-year-old Brutus and 72-year-old Umpire, who I happen upon when walking the stone footpaths of the aptly named Turtle Beach.

Meanwhile, six species of lemurs (who tend to huddle together in a group called a “conspiracy”) call Necker home. Gallery forests similar to their native Madagascar provide shelter, but without the habitat destruction or bushmeat hunting that has rendered them endangered. As alert and curious as their elders, baby ring-tailed lemurs nurse, play and munch leaves in an enclosure for safety, while full-grown lemurs have run of the island. Wildlife Conservation Manager Vaman Ramlall, who lives on Virgin Gorda (a 10-minute journey by speedboat), provides a wealth of knowledge about fourlegged, winged and tailed inhabitants.

“On island” — as I come to set my mental location status — 74 acres feels larger than expected. Electric buggies are assigned for easy transport along wide white lanes. They deposit me down to the other corners of the island, like the Beach House and two grass tennis courts used for the Necker Cup in April and November each year. The buggies also circle around several private accommodations, like the restored three-tier house of Bali Hi on the western tip of the island, equipped with a plunge pool and adorned in the Balinese furnishings anchored throughout Necker’s decor.

A giant tortoises on the calm sands of Turtle Beach. | Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Common areas offer pyramids of rolled turquoise towels, trays of reef-safe sunscreen, friendly bartenders ready to mix a fruit smoothie or a Champagne piña colada, and tastefully tucked-away places purely for repose: a rattan swing on Turtle Beach; a cliffside teak table; hammocks shaded in palms; and the swinging daybed in the Great House, Branson’s preferred perch when working.

The overarching idea behind this “barefoot luxury” experience and its approachable hospitality is that the stay is yours for the making, and utterly stress-free. When I realize I’m without a hairbrush (of all things to forget on a windy isle!), one is procured by speedboat from Virgin Gorda and appears poolside the next day. Guests don’t have to think about much more than the sport they want to try, the time of day they would like their seaside spa treatment, or the neighboring island they wish to visit.

For sport, I get wet with a Hobie Cat sail around neighboring Eustatia, Google founder Larry Page’s private island, and settle into a routine of yoga at one of several Great House lookouts. For a massage, I step into the solitude of a treatment bungalow, where a strip of sand and expanse of sea provide the fourth wall beyond open doors. And for a BVI excursion, I choose The Baths National Park on Virgin Gorda. Though it’s usually overrun with tourists exploring its stacked granite boulders, this visit the formations are as private and pristine as the aquamarine water running through them.

A large population of ring-tailed lemurs that roam free on Necker Island. | Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Renewal on the island

Touring Necker today it’s hard to believe Irma’s ferocious strength displaced the beach onto the tennis court and sent a one-ton bathtub flying into a balcony Jacuzzi. As Branson writes in Finding My Virginity, “Nature surrounds you in all its glory — and, every now and then, in all its brutality.”

Devastating as the then-strongest storm to hit the BVI turned out to be, Branson immediately took action. The rehabilitation of schools became a focus of Unite BVI, a nonprofit formed in 2016 and supported by Virgin Unite, the entrepreneurial foundation of the Virgin Group and Branson family. “Because it’s a small country, you can get a lot done,” says Foundation Manager Kim Takeuchi, a Canadian based in the BVI for the last 18 years. “There is a lot of opportunity to make big impact.”

Sharing resources is at the heart of Unite BVI’s mission and, while it comes with a price, that same ethos is evident in the fact that Necker is open to the public. After all, Branson doesn’t need to share the locale where he spends most of his time, but he does, whether he is on the island or up in space.

Today, the truncated mangroves lining the lagoon below the Great House are the remaining evidence of Irma, as are plugged holes in the framing of the cellar rooms that Necker’s engineers drilled to release pressure. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of the mangrove ecosystems in BVI were decimated,” says Dr. Sauda Smith, executive director of Unite BVI. Takeuchi adds that mangroves are a critical species for providing fish habitats and for protecting land from storm surges.

“The way of life here, as everywhere, should work with, rather than against, nature,” writes Branson in his book. As Necker’s reconstruction got underway, it enhanced a renewables model already in motion, with that wind becoming the secret to the island’s sustainable success today. Three 10-ton turbines that harness 300kW of power were installed in 2018, helping the island to run on 90 to 95 percent renewable energy on many days. This efficiency also prevents the release of 2.5 tons of carbon per day. The more than 1,200 solar panels that were already on the island made it through Irma largely unscathed.

Sustainability is in the details as well: The resort offers BVI-sourced food and drink, cloth cocktail napkins and bamboo straws, and the staff’s uniforms are made from plastics recovered from the ocean. Even the iconic red dock that visitors now memorably arrive and depart from is composed of recycled plastic planks.

Photo Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition
The windier side of the island is ideal for kiteboarding or a Hobie Cat sail. | Photo courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

A grand finale

Throughout our stay we dine at long and elegantly set tables — with a few exceptions, like the swim-up sushi lunch that arrived via kayak in the Beach House infinity pool. Our last dinner is held inside the Great House at perhaps the longest wooden table of all, reinforced for tabletop dancing. Nearby is a disco ball with just a few mirror fragments missing, having survived not only Irma’s wind and rain but also a late-night fire sparked by lightning in 2011, when Kate Winslet made headlines for rescuing family matriarch Eve Branson. A lightning rod is now in place on the roof of the Great House, as is a restored “Crow’s Nest” barrel Jacuzzi where, during a late-night soak my first night, I spotted a shooting star.

New head chef Guillaume Galvez blends Caribbean flavors with his French techniques. For light poolside fare, he prepares BVI fisherman curry. For surf-and-turf style, I had my first Anegada lobster cooked sous vide along with beef tenderloin, then grilled right on Turtle Beach. The next evening it was BVI mahi-mahi with coconut, lime and lemongrass. My favorite bite by far, however, arrives on my plate on this last Necker night and is described on the evening’s printed menu as a “perfectly crumbed egg” (from a free-range Necker chicken) with yuca puree, crispy skin, and rum jelly.

I wonder if that’s how I’ll reflect on this trip — a fabulous and fleeting spark, a delicious bite, a peek at a way of life out of reach for most of the planet Branson will soon suborbit above. But for now, I’m still on island, and not unlike my new tortoise friends, absorbing the luxury of rest. Long as Necker’s famous and often confidential guest-list may be, the wildlife, I’ve decided, are the real stars. They are as welcoming as anyone else I’ve met on the trip, from a tortoise extending his leathery neck for a tickle to a lemur’s padded feet softly landing on my back for the plant-based snack in my hand. Memories like those, I already know, will last and last.


Getting There…

International travel takes more planning these days, but the payoff is worth it.

BY LAND

Check the latest protocols at bvitourism.com/reopening, and before travel to the BVI, apply via bvigate way.bviaa.com for travel authorization. In early July, when I traveled fully vaccinated, a negative PCR test was required within five days of arrival (vaccinated travelers must now take a rapid test on the day of arrival). If connecting through San Juan Airport, visit travelsafe.pr.gov to complete a travel declaration form ahead of travel and receive a QR code for entry to Puerto Rico, also based on a negative PCR test for fully vaccinated travelers.

BY AIR

While interisland commercial flights are available, Tradewind Aviation makes the experience streamlined and uncrowded with a private lounge at San Juan Airport. Stay abreast of travel advisories throughout the islands at flytradewind.com, where Tradewind’s charter specialists ensure passengers have the correct documentation for a smooth travel experience.

BY SEA

Speedboat transport from (and back to) Tortola or Virgin Gorda, where your passport will be processed for the BVI, is included with your stay on Necker Island. Learn more at virginlimitededition.com.

BY PRIVATE ISLAND

Exclusive use of the island runs $105,000 per night for up to 40 guests, including six children in the Bunk Room of the Great House, with larger groups up to about 60 accommodated on Necker or neighboring Moskito Island. “Celebration Weeks” also run throughout the year, where individual rooms can be booked for a 7-night all-inclusive stay, starting at just over $5,000 per night. Organizations can also gather on island for team-building summits and events. These are often hosted by Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s entrepreneurial foundation, with gatherings providing an opportunity for entrepreneurs and other partner organizations to connect with locals through mentorship and speaking engagements. Speakers have included former first lady of South Africa Graça Machel and author Emmanuel Jal. (virgin.unite.com; unitebvi.com)

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