In the Covid Era, the Mythical Appeal of a Private Island Is Only Intensifying

·13 min read

Escaping to your own private island is perhaps the ultimate default fantasy. The dream of a Neverland where quotidian rules dissolve in the tropical sun has long held universal appeal, even before the Covid-19 pandemic instilled a fear of human proximity. It’s an almost primal yearning, one that has infiltrated high culture and low, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to reality TV’s Temptation Island.

Until recently, the possession of one’s very own sea-fringed pseudo-kingdom remained, for most of us, a pipe dream. But now that isolation has taken on the urgency of a government mandate, and the bonds that tie us to physical workplaces are disintegrating, more and more people are considering whether owning an idyllic rock somewhere is less fantastical and more fundamental. The word “isolation,” after all, comes from the Latin insula, which means island.

Two years ago, when Edward de Mallet Morgan, a broker for Knight Frank’s super-prime international residential division, first sent out details for Little Pipe Cay, an $85 million private island in the Bahamas, the response was lukewarm. “They couldn’t justify the management costs for the amount of time they would use it,” he says of potential buyers pre-pandemic. “Now that we can all work from home, the genie is out of the bottle. All of a sudden, a private island seems justifiable.” Inquiries have increased at least five-fold since January.

The market is even hotter in the world’s farthest-flung archipelagoes, for those really looking to disappear into the blue yonder. Jacques Menahem, founder of French Polynesia Sotheby’s International Realty, normally gets two e-mails a week about private islands. Since March, that number has jumped to as many as 10 a day. “They are all looking for a remote area where they can control their environment and no one is going to tell them to put on a mask,” he says.

Even in colder climes, no-frills islands priced as low as $100,000 are selling particularly well, says Farhad Vladi, a specialist island broker based in Germany, citing Canada, Norway and Sweden (home to 267,570 islands) as hot spots.

“Nobody needs an island,” says one owner, who is selling his Bahamian retreat, Blue Island, for $75 million through Damianos Sotheby’s International Realty and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is fundamentally an idea: that of the Englishman in his castle.”

That concept is extremely deep-rooted in our history and culture. In England, island status was once specifically linked to exceptionalism and independence, recently exhumed in the form of Brexit but best expressed by Shakespeare in Richard II:

This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

The English have always had a high opinion of themselves, but that said, a moat defensive is exactly what the affluent private individual seeks today, though the thwarted invaders are most likely presumed to take the form of irritating neighbors, intrusive paparazzi or, yes, deadly viruses. A natural fortress was also what monks sought some 1,400 years ago, when they built austere cells on Celtic islands. Utopia, the perfect republic envisaged by Sir Thomas More in 1516, exists on an imaginary isle.

But such solitude is not always blissful. D. H. Lawrence’s 1927 short story “The Man Who Loved Islands” describes a private-island owner driven mad by isolation and eventually destroyed by the elements. Menahem advises his clients that islands involve “a lot of loneliness. It’s like living on a boat alone in the sea, only the boat does not move.”

This extreme seclusion is exactly what appeals to modern-day shut-ins. “I own an island in New Zealand, and my neighbor is a hermit,” says Vladi. “He has not allowed anyone except me on his island for 40 years, and we only talk once a year. He is very happy.”

Islands also fascinate the survivalist, the prepper, the homesteader, the libertarian, those who, for reasons of ideology or wealth, bristle against state regulation. In 2008, Patri Friedman, a software engineer at Google, set up the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create autonomous communities on artificial floating islands as an experiment in new forms of governance. None has so far worked out (in one notable case last year, a Bitcoin trader fled his floating home off the coast of Phuket after being charged by the Thai government with a national-security offense that carries a possible death sentence). But the appeal of islands as utopian refuges has intensified.

“The risk of something like the current pandemic happening again is potentially quite high,” says Blue Island’s owner. “And when it hits, you need a staff house, a guesthouse and a main house all ready. You need to not have to go somewhere else to buy food or diesel.” The other motivator, he believes, is civil unrest. “I understand and support the Black Lives Matter campaign, but it makes a lot of people nervous when they see riots. More people are buying gold. My neighbor keeps six months of canned food and water in his basement.

Island buyers tend to be “individualistic, with above-average intelligence and very nature-minded,” says Vladi. “These people want to have control. They like the feeling of being self-sufficient and having no neighbors.”

A typical example is a recent buyer in French Polynesia: “I just sold an island for half a million to an American from Lake Tahoe,” says Menahem. “It’s virgin land, very remote, no airstrip, a real expedition to go there. All he has are coconut trees and plenty of mosquitoes.”

Islands appeal to those who have been successful in business, says Steve Donovan, the broker for Blue Island. “By definition, a person who has the ability to buy a private island has overcome many challenges and seized opportunities in life,” he says. “They like to conquer.”

They also like to know the risks. The number-one question from potential buyers, according to Donovan, who says he has recently seen a doubling of interest in the 700-acre property, is whether their investment could be wiped out by a hurricane. That particular threat is somewhat dependent on location. The Abaco Islands, on the Atlantic rim of the Bahamas, suffered extensive hurricane damage last year. Little Pipe Cay and Blue Island are nestled in the Exumas, a comparatively sheltered chain, which is also home to Johnny Depp’s Little Hall’s Pond Cay.

“Luckily, the Exumas don’t usually get the full brunt, as they’re on the inner ring and the water is very shallow, so storm surge is not a great risk,” says Morgan. “But you do have to think about nature. How will the salt and sea affect the landscape and infrastructure, the wiring, the roof tiles?”

Every buyer should assume that all costs, from construction to repairs and supplies, will be 25 to 30 percent higher than on the mainland, says Vladi. In addition to the standard amenities of a vacation home, you might need to take into account desalination, sewage and electricity. Will you require a landing pad? A seaplane? How many boats? Insurance considerations include flooding, hurricane damage and expropriation, in case the local government happens to requisition your land for public use.

“You have to think, not dream,” says Menahem. “You need to have a large maintenance budget and a handyman on-site, or it will cost you a lot of money to fly someone in every time something breaks down. You need to buy two of everything so you have backups, and you have to have space to store it all.”

According to the owner of Blue Island, who has bought and sold five Bahamian isles (his family also has a stake in a Scottish one), an indispensable investment is an experienced island manager to oversee the building and maintenance of “houses and power plants and harbors and landscaping.” His largest single expense on Blue Island was installing a 5,700-foot asphalt runway—the only jet airstrip on a private island in the Caribbean. “We had 40 men working on the runway, and had to build accommodation for all of them.”

Annual running costs at Little Pipe Cay, the former home of Michael Dingman, a billionaire industrialist, are $1.5 million for five houses and a large staff village. “It’s not cheap, but it’s probably cheaper than owning a superyacht,” says Morgan. “You can come in with a toothbrush and tap straight into a functioning machine.” Watching the behind-the-scenes operation is “like being on deck in a battleship,” he adds.

In order to recoup a little of their expenditures, many owners sacrifice some of their cherished privacy and rent out their islands. In the Exumas, Over Yonder Cay can be leased for 12 people at $44,000 a night from its owner, the beret-wearing Texas financier Ed Bosarge. Sir Richard Branson charges $102,500 a night for Necker Island (sleeps 40), which he bought in 1979 for $120,000. Should Little Pipe Cay’s future ruler wish to make some cash on the side, he or she could charge $50,000 to $80,000 a night, Morgan estimates.

As for return on investment, it’s probably wise to measure yields in terms of lifestyle rewards. A private island is definitely not a liquid asset. “My view on the Bahamas is you can usually sell an island one year in 10,” says Mr. Blue Island.

According to Morgan, those who are in the market for top, turnkey plots tend to view them as components in a portfolio that might include rare wine, diamonds and art. “Most of these luxury assets have been performing very well and giving great returns,” he says. Biased though he may be, he ranks Little Pipe Cay as a “best-in-class asset,” equivalent to “the dozen houses in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat that could ask over $100 million, a penthouse in Monaco, maybe a house in Venice with listed frescoes on the ceiling.”

For those on a tighter budget—or for whom contemplating such details as composting toilets is a less than joyful prospect—a private island might seem like an encumbrance. This is the view of David Forbes, chairman of Savills Private Office, the department of the global real-estate brokerage that deals with ultra-high-net-worth clients. “In 40 years of selling at the very top end of the market, I have shown many private islands but never sold one,” he says. “They are a total money pit. Rent one for a month? Fine. Own it? No, thank you.”

During a trip to Mustique in February, Forbes was contacted by a client who asked to view a nearby island. “I showed him round it, and we were eaten alive by mosquitoes,” Forbes recounts. “He decided he didn’t really want to have to put in roads and negotiate with the St. Vincent government about electricity and water and sewage treatment. What seemed like cheap real estate began to seem like an expensive long-term proposition.”

Some people do not need to cross oceans to find their moated sanctuaries. In July, Emily Baker and her husband bought a five-acre island at the mouth of the Anclote River in Florida for $500,000, after seeing it listed on the online broker Private Islands Inc. The couple, who run a digital marketing company in the nearby town of Treasure Island, had long had “a passion to one day own an island of our own,” says Baker. “We’ve always been kind of reclusive, and we wanted to be remote, not have other people walking around. We wanted something raw that we could make our own.”

After searching and saving for a decade, they found Sunset Key. “The moment we pulled our boat ashore on the beach, we felt like Tom Sawyer,” she says. “The island was quiet and still, just basic forest. Like there could be anything there, and nothing there. It was untouched.”

The couple expect to spend about $1 million over two years installing a dock and utilities and building a home for themselves; eventually, they hope to add guesthouses for family. “We’re looking into mother-in-law suites,” Baker says. She anticipates high insurance and maintenance costs, “because you can’t just run to Home Depot.” Eventually, they would like to operate a small business from the island, such as a farmers’ market or even a “drive-up” bar for boats.

If a little isolation goes a long way, real estate may be had at commuting distance from major cities. George and Amal Clooney’s flood-prone private island in the river Thames lies on the outskirts of Reading, a commuter town 40 miles west of London. In the Hudson River, a 100-minute train ride north from Grand Central, an islet complete with house and footbridge is for sale for $1.995 million. The sellers have lived there for 50 years, cultivating thickly planted grounds, where eagles perch in the trees and which shield the four-bedroom house from the mainland and nearby train tracks, while huge windows overlook the river. According to Melissa Carlton, of brokerage Houlihan Lawrence, a new owner’s duties would include keeping “the geese and beavers from coming ashore.”

A little more work is required at Inchconnachan, a 103-acre oak-covered island in Loch Lomond, 30 miles north of Glasgow, in Scotland. Owned by the Earls of Arran since the 14th century and uninhabited for 20 years, it was put up for sale in July for about $649,000, with a view to enticing competitive bids. “A lot of people had been boxed in under lockdown and were desperate for space and countryside,” says Cameron Ewer, head of residential Scottish sales for Savills. “But the response surprised us all. We were inundated with calls from some very far-flung places.”

The listing describes the 1920s bungalow as “derelict” but says planning consent has been granted for a replacement lodge, boathouse and pier. The next owner will also need to install new drainage, water and power systems and, Ewer presumes, is likely to use it as a holiday home. “Anybody sensible will rent it out,” he says. “Not many people would live full-time in the middle of Loch Lomond. It’s a bit painful to have to get in a boat every time you run out of milk.”

Yet for many, this requirement for self-sufficiency is exactly what appeals. The isolation and autonomy are the point, not the sacrifice. Whether palm-fringed atoll or chilly northern rock, the lure of the private island is the same: You are king.

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