A private paradise becomes affordable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 1995, 12:00am

DAYS begin idyllically on Necker Island. Breakfast of fruit and berries on the sun terrace overlooking the crystal blue Caribbean seems to set the humming-birds humming.

Lunch in this private British Virgin Islands paradise is taken under the shade of the pagoda and prepared by one of the world's great chefs.

Gary Jones, formerly of London's renowned Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons, serves ice-cold gespacho, fresh artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, chilled shrimp and aromatic chicken breast.

When the sun sinks, creating warm silhouettes around The Great House, champagne in the Jacuzzi is a prelude to exotic cocktails accompanying fresh oysters, caviar and tuna teriyaki.

Finally, a calypso band plays beneath the sultry moon as guests are served an elegant dinner of freshly-caught spiny lobster, red snapper and swordfish, followed by jet-fresh Black Angus beef and Barbary duck with the finest wines.

This is the 'Taste of Necker' - a unique cuisine combining the tropical produce of the Caribbean with the very best the rest of the world has to offer.

And like everything else on 30-hectare Necker Island, it is the creation of Virgin Atlantic tycoon Richard Branson.

Private islands are usually just that - private havens for the super-rich. But Richard Branson has never been a conventional tycoon. As he said: 'I wanted to build a home that could be used for my family and friends for holidays. However, when the project was finally completed it seemed such a waste to use the house for only a few weeks a year. So, we decided to rent it out.' Now, Necker Island is the ultimate incentive getaway for business meetings and small conferences. The price (which includes all meals and drinks, helicopter transfers from the airport, watersports and use of boats and yachts) ranges from US$6,600 to US$11,000 (HK$51,000 to HK$85,000) a day, depending on the number of guests. Some wealthy visitors simply rent the entire island for themselves.

More recently, 'Caribbean Wedding' packages have also been introduced along with 'Celebration Weeks On Necker Island' for the inclusive weekly price of US$8,000 per couple.

Necker has certainly gone up-market since the early 1960s when the first visitors, war photographer Don McCullin and newspaper reporter Andrew Alexander, were marooned there without food or water as a survival test.

'They lasted only 14 days, during which time they chopped down the island's few palm trees, leaving only three coconut stumps as evidence of their adventure,' Mr Branson said.

The Virgin chairman's interest in uninhabited Necker was aroused when he heard some of the smaller islands in the British Virgin Isles (BVI) were for sale.

He constructed The Great House in Balinese style on the apex of Devil's Hill, in the centre of the island. Coconut palms were planted to replace the ones cut down by Don McCullin. Part of the island was designated as a bird sanctuary for the resident humming-birds, pelicans, flamingos and doves.

Today, said Mr Branson, 'there is no end of things to do on Necker. You can go swimming, snorkelling, water-skiing, sailing or windsurfing from the shore. You can explore neighbouring islands by boat or try some sport fishing - the largest marlin in the world was caught only a few hundreds yards offshore'.

'A gentler alternative is to slip into sub-aqua gear and slide beneath the surface to the coral reefs clinging to sunken sailing ships,' he said.

On land, there is tennis, snooker, nature trails and rock pools. Trips can be arranged to other islands for shopping, eating and sightseeing.

'The atmosphere is one of a private house, with an open bar and timings to suit everybody,' Mr Branson said. 'Life on the island proceeds at the pace you set.'