In holiday oneupmanship, the grandest gesture used to be hiring an
island. Now it’s buying one. Charles Starmer-Smith reports.
Forget the Learjet or the 60ft yacht, the villa in Tuscany or the
chalet in Verbier – the badge of true wealth is owning a island.
Or so we used to think. But now, as low-cost travel and island brokers
reach previously unchartered archipelagos, owning a tropical island
may no longer be just the preserve of the rich and famous.
A list of island owners certainly reads like a Millennium edition of
Who’s Who, including such people as Nicolas Cage, Bjorn Borg, Mel
Gibson and Bill Gates. A recent filmstar buyer was Johnny Depp, who
nine months ago stumped up £2 million for Little Halls Pond Cay in the
Bahamas, just down the stream from Cage’s luxury hideaway. And there
is nothing “little” about it – the 45-acre island came complete with a
string of cottages, six white-sand beaches, a private harbour and a
palm-fringed lagoon. But head to the Philippines and you can pick up
the 43-acre Temple Island for a tenth of the price.
Richard Branson, who has long owned Necker (frequented by Harrison
Ford and George Michael) in the British Virgin Islands, heads the
British contingent of exotic island owners, having recently bought a
60-acre island in Australia to be used by his Virgin staff. The £1.25
million Makepeace Island in Noosa River, Queensland, has a swimming
pool and a timber house, but expect much more as Branson sets about
turning it into an ecotourism haven.
Those looking for a more affordable retreat could opt for the 62-acre
island of Dumunpalit in the Palawan archipelago in the Philippines,
for sale for £325,000.
At the top end of the market, prices are rising. Despite a downturn on
Wall Street, the resurgence of the London stock market since 2003 and
growing wealth in Asia have resulted in a sharp rise in demand for the
traditionally popular Caribbean islands, such as the British and US
Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
That’s why the asking price for Norman Island, in the BVI (believed to
be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island), is
£7.5 million. Musha Cay in the Bahamas is on sale for a staggering
Cheyenne Morrison, an international private island specialist for
Coldwell Banker, a real-estate company based in Australia, says that
demand for islands close to the US has driven up prices over the past
“The cost of an island in Belize is now eight to 10 times what it was
five years ago,” he added.
Even closer to home, islands are being snapped up as soon as they come
on to the market. A few years ago there might at any one time have
been some 15 Scottish and Irish islands for sale, many peppered with
ancient forts and castles. But according to Farhad Vladi, owner of
Vladi Private Islands (one of the world’s biggest island brokers), you
would now struggle to find a reasonably priced one.
At the other end of the market, a different picture emerges. If you
look farther afield, there are dozens of previously inaccessible
islands for sale at bargain prices.
Sacrifice a few family holidays or the price of a week’s rental of the
14-bed Jamoon Villa in Barbados and you can now buy your own hideaway
in the Philippines – the 2 1/2-acre Lover’s Island in the Palawan costs
£12,500 and is just a 10-minute boat ride from an airport.
For little more than the price of a 10-night super-luxury safari in
South Africa for a family of five with Abercrombie & Kent, you can buy
the 52-acre Goodwins Island near Cape Sable in Nova Scotia (£28,000).
Hiring Branson’s Necker Island (sleeps up to 26) for five nights in
high season costs more than the purchase price of the 2 3/4-acre Isla
Mongon in Valdivia, Chile (£108,000). Ten nights on Necker could be
exchanged for the five-acre Long Coco Cay in Belize (£219,000).
An early pioneer of the idea of a private island as the ultimate
retreat was Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who bought
Skorpios in 1963 and whose granddaughter Athina this week faced a
fight to retain her £107 million island inheritance.
Another was Marlon Brando, who acquired Tetiaroa in French Polynesia
in 1965. “I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first stepped
ashore from the motor launch,” said Brando, who died last year. “The
sand was pristine, not even a footprint. I walked around that whole
island and couldn’t believe what I saw… it was one of the big
moments of my life.”
For celebrities wanting to shun the limelight, islands offer privacy.
In the age of telescopic lenses and camera phones, holiday homes in
Mustique, Tuscany or Provence are no longer the hideaways they once
were. For those wanting total escape from the glare of the paparazzi,
and perhaps to recover from their latest round of plastic surgery,
more extreme measures are needed.
But it is not just Hollywood glitterati and nouveau riche bankers and
traders who are buying island retreats. Since starting up in 1971,
Vladi has sold some 1,300 islands from his offices in Germany, New
Zealand and the United States.
Clients have ranged from members of Iran’s imperial family, who once
bought a dozen at one sitting, to run-of-the-mill lawyers and
businessmen. Vladi suggests that one of the great misconceptions is
that only the very wealthy can buy an island – the average price of
his transactions is $300,000.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire to own one. If you can afford a
car, you can afford an island,” he added.
There are up to 1,000 islands for sale at present, although if you
abide by Vladi’s definition of a “desirable” island – more than five
acres, near the mainland, an elevation of 15 feet, a natural harbour,
a choice of beaches and plenty of existing infrastructure such as
roads, houses and electricity – the number of available islands falls
to about 150.
He estimates the realistic starting cost of a decent hideaway to be
about £110,000 (£35,000 for the land and £75,000 to build a basic
house), plus another £8,000 a year for upkeep and travel costs. After
the initial outlay, a further £60,000 could be needed for a generator,
septic tank and desalination system. Solar- or wind-powered
electricity is often needed – a roof with solar cells costs from
£6,000 and a wind generator from £13,000. On top of that, wireless
communications, video conferencing facilities and other technological
advances make extended stays more palatable, but far more costly.
So where are the best buys? Many regions are wary of their jewels
being bought up by wealthy foreigners. Some Asian countries, including
Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, limit foreign
ownership to 50 per cent. But prospective buyers can use local
corporations or joint partnerships to get around this. The US Virgin
Islands put off buyers by imposing high taxes, while Tahiti demands
they make significant investments in the local economy.
Areas to avoid if you are looking for a bargain are the Caribbean
(particularly BVI, Bermuda and the Bahamas), the Mediterranean (French
and Italian coasts), Long Island and Maine in the US and Georgian Bay
South and Central America are seen as hot destinations, as their
relative political instability has brought prices down to a third of
those of comparable Caribbean islands. For example, Panama’s 25-acre
Pearl Islands is on sale for just £180,000, compared with more than £1
million for the 1 3/4-acre Sandy Cay in the Bahamas.
New Zealand, which has allowed foreigners to buy islands only since
1994, and Canada, which has about 300 privately owned islands, offer
some enticing places. Vladi himself has recently bought a 2,000-acre
island off New Zealand’s southern coast.
But for the real bargains look to the Philippines, where prices are a
third less than anywhere else in the world, on account of a volatile
The 1,800 islands of Palawan – the location for the 1997 James Bond
film Tomorrow Never Dies – are as idyllic as anywhere in the Indian or
Pacific oceans. What is more, they lie just an hour’s flight from the
skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Elysian Fields Realty Group already offers
174 of these islands, ranging in price from £12,500 to £1.25 million.
Vladi warns those harbouring dreams of their own Blue Lagoon that
island life can be difficult – the lack of accessibility to basic
provisions, the daily sameness and sense of total isolation. His
advice to prospective buyers is first to rent one and get a feel for
Other caveats centre around what is often the bureaucratic nightmare
of getting ownership and planning permission for an island – even in
the Caribbean it can take up to a year, plus a few bribes and
backhanders, to get the paperwork approved. Earlier this year Mel
Gibson incurred the wrath of residents when trying to buy the 5,400-
acre Mago Island in eastern Fiji. The villagers protested against what
they felt were a series of illegal purchases dating back to colonial
Despite the costs involved, a private island can also prove a
profitable investment. The late Raymond Burr (of Ironside fame) bought
Naituba Island in the west of Fiji in 1969 for £9,000. Just 14 years
later he sold it for a reported £1.7 million.
Those worried that the best islands have already been snapped up can
opt for the man-made variety. The World, a £1 billion archipelago of
300 islands shaped in a world map, is already under way off the coast
of Dubai, but with prices already reaching seven figures, why not head
to the Philippines, where you can get the real thing?
How to Buy a Private Island
The process of buying a private island is similar to that of buying a
house. When considering a house, you check for the general condition,
the foundations, if it has rising dampness, and if there are termites
present. Buying an island is similar, but there are far more things to
consider, and in most cases, the buyer of an island has no experience
on which to base his or her judgment apart from an emotional
attachment. Considering the amount of money that you have to spend to
buy a private island, it’s critical that you are aware of the
1. Set your price. It’s stating the obvious to say that the bigger
your budget, the better an island you can afford, but some people have
very unrealistic expectations of what they can afford. It’s better to
spend as much possible to buy the island, even to the extent of
waiting till you have funds for development. Saving money in the short
term will generally get you a poorer quality island and once you have
bought the island and developed, there is no changing your mind. It’s
better to have a more attractive island than purchasing a poorer
quality island just to save money.
2. Choose your location. The location of an island is one of the
most crucial factors in most people’s decision to purchase. It’s very
important that you strongly consider this when purchasing. You’re not
just buying an island, you’re buying its surroundings. There should be
a village nearby where one can get supplies and an airport close at
hand, for instance. In other words, what makes an island feasible is
the infrastructure that is available to it. Some islands are close to
villages which is good because you can obtain staff and supplies, but
on the other hand, it then lacks privacy. Again, islands that are
remote offer complete privacy, yet at the expense of accessibility. An
island that is in the middle of the ocean usually has no view, and
islands that are located in bays have both shelter and nice views.
Also, remote islands that are less sheltered are more prone to bad
weather and rough seas.
Make sure there’s a reliable water supply. You’ll find water is
the most important element of living on an island, and the second
largest factor affecting the choice of an island. In general, the
smaller the island, the less water. This applies in reverse, except if
the island is rocky (even large rocky islands have problems producing
water). Every island has some variety of options to obtaining fresh
water. Look for a ground water table high enough to dig a well. If a
well already exists, have it inspected to ensure it’s dependable. This
can be done by pumping the well dry and seeing how many minutes it
takes to fill again. The amount of water that you’ll be able to get
from a well determined by using this method will give you a figure
called cubic square meters or cubic square feet of water. However,
poor water supply isn’t as big a factor in the tropics, because a good
rain water cistern can supply enough water over the dry season saved
up from the monsoon season and the occasional shower.
The tank can be topped up from the well, thus stopping the well
from running dry and damaging the water table of the island. Check the
annual rainfalls. The estimated amount of water needed annually for
part-time island living is 30,000 to 100,000 gallons, which for full-
time living will require about forty inches of annual rainfall.
Technology has also come to the rescue and state-of-the-day
desalination plants suitable for a normal house are now as cheap as
$20,000. It should be noted the fresh water creates what is called the
“Lens Effect”. This means that a low sandy island just a few feet
above sea level can have a water table which can be 3-4 times the
height of the island because the fresh water forces the salt water out
and creates a lens-shaped aquifer under the island. Another factor to
consider is that if your island is close enough to a water source on
the mainland or another larger island, you can run a PVC several
kilometers as long as the water between is not too deep.
4. Climate. Islands can be divided into three climactic types:
Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. In general, tropical islands
are located between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – this
encompasses what is termed the tropics. Mediterranean islands can be
deemed to be those that may fall in areas where there are high
temperatures but low rainfall, this is typified by islands in the
Mediterranean, the Canary islands, Bermuda, Bahamas etc. Temperate
islands are basically those that are in an area where it is generally
cold such as northern Europe, Canada and northern USA. You should
consider carefully what type of climate you prefer. Each has its pros
and cons and while many people love the tropics, some find the heat
and humidity oppressive. One person may find temperate islands to be
his or her idea of hell, but some people love the change of seasons
and the variety that produces. Obviously, Mediterranean climate
produces the best balance of heat without the high rainfall and
humidity of the tropics. Always be aware that the first day you visit
an island may not be the typical weather that the island experiences
on a day-to-day basis. The weather could be particularly uncommon in
regards to the fact that it may be exceptionally beautiful, or
exceptionally bad. You should ask local people, especially fishermen
are very knowledgeable about the weather, the typical seasons and
weather patterns for the island and surrounding area. Islands in the
ocean are prone to flooding, storms, drought, seasonal tidal
variations and strong currents. Islands located in lakes are the least
prone to problems because they have no tides or large storms, but can
be prone to seasonal variations in water level if the lakes are
dammed. Islands that are located in rivers are obviously prone to
flooding and droughts. Talk to the local authorities and ask them for
the highest and lowest recorded levels for the river. Good anecdotal
evidence can be gathered by talking to local people as well. Islands
are located in bays and estuaries with shallow bottoms are prone to
tidal variations, and access to these islands may be very difficult at
low tide. Offshore islands also experience the usual tidal patterns,
and are the most prone to dangerous weather.
Accessibility is a prime factor in your choice of an island and
directly depends on how much discomfort and traveling time you are
willing to put up with. It also depends on how much experience you
have with boats, and how comfortable you are with the ocean because
the only way to get to an island is by boat. Travel time by boat is
also affected by many factors such as what type of boat, its engine,
and of course the seasonal weather conditions. You must take into
account that no matter how sheltered an island may be, you must still
put up with rough seas. If you are the kind of person who wants less
traveling, you will find that the closer an island is to an
established town, the more expensive it generally is.
6. Development: Determine how you will develop the island. The
style of development you plan for the island is very important when
choosing what type of island to buy.
Small Islands. For instance, if you only want a small
holiday house, then an island between 1-5 hectares (2.5 – 12 acres)
should be sufficient.
Medium Islands: If you want a larger house and maybe some
additional cottages for friends to visit, an island 5-10 hectares (12
– 24 acres) is best.
Large Islands:If you are planning a small scale resort,
then an island of at least 10-15 hectares (24 – 37 acres) should be
the minimum. If you are planning a large scale resort, then an island
of 15-20 hectares (37 – to 48 acres) should be considered the minimum,
and you will need a minimum of at least 6-10 hectares (14-24 acres) of
flat land for building. The type of construction and how remote the
island is will also affect the price that it costs to develop. In
general you can expect to pay 30% more for development on an island
than for a similar development on the mainland. The cost of building
is higher because all materials and workers must be transported to the
Select an island with good anchorage, because without this, it
may be almost impossible to land on the island. Or, even worse, you
may be stuck on the island and not be able to get off. A good
anchorage should be sheltered from the prevailing winds, have a sandy
bottom for good holding, and have a deep water access to the beach,
without rocks or coral. If you aren’t experienced with boats, ask the
captain that takes you to the island if he considers the island to
have a good anchorage. Nearly all islands have some form of anchorage,
but the quality varies dramatically. A good island should have a good
gently sloping sandy beach with good access through the coral, and
shelter from the prevailing winds. However, a mooring buoy and a
tender can solve this problem. The ideal island should have both
shelter and good spot to land a boat. So it’s important to see the
island at high and low tides.
Islands vary from the perfectly flat Caribbean style island to
the rocky cliffs and mountainous types. If you have a preference, it’s
important that you tell brokers you contact of the type of island you
want. Most islands aren’t flat, and on what are called continental
islands (the drowned tops of hills) there is only a small area of flat
land. In general, the area of flat land on a continental island is
approximately 10-12% of the island and this must be taken into
consideration when planning your development.
Find out where the beaches are. In most islands the beach
comprises only a portion of the island. It very rare to get islands
with 360 degree sand. This means that where the beach is located is
important. Firstly, the beach is generally on the opposite side of the
prevailing winds, offering a sheltered anchorage. Most people prefer
that island also have a western facing beach so that they can watch
the sunset. But if this isn’t available, there may be hill or headland
which offers a nice place to watch the sunset. While a western facing
beach is ideal, sunsets only last for 30 minutes a day, and this
should not be a deterrent when considering an island. The quality of
the sand is another major consideration that most people dream of.
Sand quality depends on two things, the degree of fineness and
whiteness. The fineness of the sand is more important than color. Fine
brown sand may be preferable to coarse white sand – it’s not as nice
to look at, but is nicer underfoot, and it’s one of the joys of living
on an island to walk barefoot along the beach at sunset and sunrise
looking for shells. Another important factor you must consider is
whether the beach is shallow or steeply dropping off and if it is
rocky or sandy. Obviously the ideal beach is fine sand which drops off
into deeper water ideal for swimming and snorkeling. If you have a
preference that’s important you should inform your broker so they can
take that into consideration.
Analyze the existing infrastructure. An island with buildings on
it will usually need an on-site caretaker, who will water the plants
and keep the houses clean. Building infrastructure on an island can
also be more costly than on the mainland as all supplies and workmen
must be transported by boat. Many islands are virgin islands – they
are completely natural, untouched and without infrastructure
whatsoever. In that case, there’s nothing to consider apart from the
potential of the island. But if the island has existing infrastructure
such as a resort or residence, then a detailed survey of the quality
of those infrastructures should be undertaken before purchase. If you
are buying an island with existing infrastructure, make sure that the
buildings have all necessary government permits, and possibly take
along an architect or building surveyor to give an independent
assessment of the value and quality of the buildings, and any damage
or repairs that may be necessary.
A good caretaker is the single most important thing you can do
to protect such a large investment. Since an island is isolated, it is
hard to protect while you are not there, and whether it is a short
visit away, or you only visit the island seasonally, a caretaker
provides much need protection. Most high-end island owners employ full-
time caretakers (there’s even a newsletter called Caretaker Gazette),
while others pay local fishermen to keep an eye on things. Islands in
the highly trafficked Caribbean are more susceptible to crime than
those in entirely out-of-the-way locations, especially if they have a
trespasser-friendly airstrip. Apart from securing the property against
unwanted visitors and squatters, the caretaker can look after
buildings and equipment, making sure they’re all in good order and
condition. This is especially important in the tropics where the
monsoon can cause severe damage to buildings in a very short period if
maintenance is not kept up regularly. While you are there, the
caretaker can also act as gardener, handyman and obtain deliveries for
you from town. Generally it’s wise to employ a couple.
A prime consideration when purchasing an island is
communications. An island is separated from the mainland, and thus
communication is highly important; both for safety, and emergency
situations, as well as just ordinary day-to-day living. It’s extremely
rare for an individual island to have regular utilities such as town
water, electricity, telephone lines or even television reception. In
the majority of instances, you’ll have to be self-sufficient as far as
water and electricity go, so that should be factored into your
development costs. However, the island may have television reception,
or access to a cellular telephone signal. Having access to a cellular
network means that communication is cheap and readily available. In
some instances, the cellular network can be used to access the
Internet. It’s a good idea when examining potential islands to take a
cellphone, small radio, and hand-held TV set to see what signal is
available. But even poor signal from a cellular network can be boosted
by the use of an extension antenna. Telephone, Television, internet
and radio are all relatively cheaply available nowadays using
satellite technology. So don’t worry if services are not available
from the mainland.
13. Land Tenure:
Determine your rights of ownership. In many countries ownership
of an island only extends as far as the high tide mark, with the
beaches below that belonging to the government. In general, this means
that you own the island, but cannot develop below the high tide mark
and the beaches may therefore not be yours. When buying islands in
foreign countries, you should engage an attorney to do a full check of
the island’s documentation. At the time of inspection, find out who is
living in the island, and if they have a legal right to be there.
Squatters can be a problem, and great care should be exercised that
they are not present before the deal is concluded.
* A very critical consideration when purchasing island is the
standard and quality of the dock. Getting to and from the island
depends entirely upon the dock, and great care should be exercised in
examining the dock’s age, construction method, and condition. A poorly
built, old, or damaged dock may require complete rebuilding, or
expensive repairs. Building and repairing docks can be one of the
costliest undertakings when purchasing or developing an island. Take
along an expert to give an evaluation. In most countries there are
very little regulations covering the construction of a dock, but ask
what local permits are necessary for the construction of a dock.
* Be sure to find out how high the water level can get at most.
This information is vital for the location of your house. If you build
it too close to the beach, then it may flood often.
* Buying an island is an emotional decision, and so it’s easy for
people to fall in love with islands without considering the practical
The Republic of… what?
There’s something special about a private island. An isolated piece of
paradise, its beaches and forests yours alone to enjoy. A virtual
private kingdom under the sun. While this is enough for most of us,
for some, only a real kingdom (or republic, or principality, or …)
will suffice. For these folks, a private island is but a means to an
end – the establishment of a new, independent country. But is such a
thing really possible?
The short answer is a pretty conclusive ‘ no’. Since the early 20th
century, every square foot of dry land on Earth has been claimed by at
least one country or another, which pretty much rules out discovering
an unmapped tropical paradise, planting your flag, and setting
yourself up as the local sovereign. Similarly, existing countries are
more than a little reluctant to part with pieces of their national
territory, no matter the financial incentives offered. However, 30
years ago one man hatched an enterprising (if a little bizarre) scheme
at getting around these little details.
In the early 1970s a Las Vegas real estate millionaire by the name of
Michael Oliver decided to set up his own South Pacific island nation.
Given the tragic shortage of unclaimed private islands, Mr. Oliver
planned to do the next best thing: build one. This wasn’t as crazy as
it may at first sound. Under international law, a country may only
claim sovereignty over islands which lie outside its territorial
waters if the islands are at least a foot above the high tide point
(no part-time islands need apply). Mr. Oliver located a submerged
coral atoll called the Minerva Reefs, lying 260 miles (420 km)
southwest of the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga. At low tide, the
Minerva Reefs were exposed to the open air, but at high tide, they
were submerged. The reefs lay outside the territorial waters of all
nearby states, and as they were submerged at high tide, no country
could claim them as an extension of their national territory.
The plan was this: build up the Minerva Reefs until they remained
above the waterline at high tide, thereby officially becoming a new
island, outside the jurisdiction of any existing country. Initially,
two 7.5 acre (3 ha) islands were to be created, and once the new
country was declared, investment dollars would flood in, funding the
expansion of the islands to 2,500 acres (1011 ha), or more than twice
the size Monaco. Simple enough on paper.
In 1971 an Australian dredging ship was hired, and work was begun.
Soon enough, parts of the reefs were permanently above the high tide
mark, and on January 19, 1972 the new “Republic of Minerva” was
proclaimed. It wasn’t much to look at. No homes, businesses or
anything else you’d normally associate with a country – just a few
acres of dry, barren land peeking out from the Pacific. It did have a
flag, though, and it began issuing its own coinage.
Unfortunately for Mr. Oliver, neither investment dollars nor
international recognition was forthcoming. In fact, the only country
to react to the proclamation of the new “Republic” was the
neighbouring Kingdom of Tonga – and it wasn’t thrilled. Tonga’s
monarch, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, decided to throw his weight behind
eradicating the upstart new island. (At over 400 pounds (200 kg), His
Majesty held the Guinness Book of World Records title for heaviest
monarch, so this threat was not to be taken lightly.)
A Tongan force comprising 90 members of a prisoner work detail, as
well as a 4-piece band, made the voyage to the new island. Upon
landing, the party hauled down the Minervan flag, played a rousing
version of the Tongan national anthem, and claimed the land for Tonga.
The short-lived “Republic of Minerva” was dead.
The moral of the story? If you’re fortunate enough to own a private
island, by all means enjoy your “private kingdom” – just don’t be
foolish enough to call it that. Especially if you’re anywhere near