Disembarking on a private Caribbean island in the same week as its billionaire owner is jetting off into space feels faintly surreal. Is he avoiding me? Have I done something to upset him?
Necker without Richard Branson, who bought the island in 1978, is like Ant without Dec, Morecambe without Wise. It is more than his home, his secret hideaway — it is where he has stamped his entire personality. Brilliant and bonkers and often both at once.
This little slice of luxury in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has had a torrid time of late. In 2011, the main house was destroyed by fire and then in 2017, Necker was battered by Hurricane Irma, the most ferocious in memory. Then along came coronavirus.
Creature comforts: Richard Branson has his own home on Necker, which is located in the British Virgin Islands
With so many setbacks, so much damaged infrastructure to repair, Branson has had to invest tens of millions in his beloved Necker. It remains his headquarters on Planet Earth and he has his own home on the island.
But he is also keen to attract more paying guests — which is why I’ve been invited to sample its pleasures before its relaunch as a private island resort. Not a taxing assignment.
The 74-acre island can accommodate up to 40 guests in a handful of high-end properties, done in Balinese style, with plunge pools, 360-degree views, complimentary champagne et al.
Only those with cash to splash need apply. To book the island for the exclusive use of you and your family will set you back £75,000 a night. But in selected weeks of the year, targeted at families celebrating special occasions with their friends, the island functions as a hotel, with room rates starting at just over £3,500 a night.
Not peanuts, but a lot cheaper than flying into space. Oh, and the BVI will be on the Government’s amber list of countries from Monday.
A flight to Antigua, a transfer by private jet, then a short boat trip, and you can be on the beach with a rum punch in your hand before you can say Virgin Galactic.
Transformation: The Crocodile Pavilion was rebuilt following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma in 2017
Hurricane Irma was the most ferocious in memory and it battered the island, as can be seen above
It is certainly an extraordinarily beautiful place. Apart from three large wind turbines and hundreds of solar panels, as a nod to environmental sustainability, this is the Caribbean in perfect miniature.
Soft sand underfoot. Swaying palm trees above. The sun warm but not too warm. Lapping waves. Lush vegetation. Thrillingly blue seas. Box after box ticked all with effortless ease.
So far, so familiar. But it is the exuberant, eccentric extras, not to be found anywhere else in the Caribbean, that make Necker unique.
Having had my breakfast disrupted by a stray iguana, I am strolling down to the beach when a Cockney voice hails me from behind a palm tree. ‘ ’Allo! ’Allo!’
Necker is being relaunched as a private island resort for up to 40 guests. Pictured are the Balinese-style interiors
It turns out to be a white cockatoo answering to the name of Marley. Charming chap, if conversationally limited. I have just said goodbye to Marley when I nearly trip over a giant tortoise plodding across the lawn. Crikey! I thought these magnificent creatures were only found in the Galapagos Islands. Not so, apparently.
Umpire, as this one is called, has been imported from the Seychelles, a member of staff explains. He is more than 70 years old, weighs 700 lb and is part of a successful breeding programme.
And so it goes on. Umpire’s achievements as a super-stud are eclipsed by a randy ring-tailed lemur called Mr 007. An endangered species in their native Madagascar, from where they have been imported, the lemurs have bred like rabbits on Necker.
But, then, it’s a sexy place. There are at least seven different sub-species and, when they are not making a hullabaloo mating, they are stopping play on the tennis court by walking behind the server’s arm. Bonkers.
All systems go: Necker is an ‘extraordinarily beautiful place’, writes The Daily Mail’s Max Davidson. Pictured is an inviting pool
A sumptuous bath tub in one of the high-end properties
How do you cap that? Flamingos! A hundred years ago, they had disappeared from the Virgin Islands. Branson, undaunted, flew some in from Cuba.
There are now hundreds on Necker and to see them take flight at sunset, in perfect formation, like the Pink Arrows, with scarlet ibises for an escort, is too thrilling for words.
I had hoped for a sighting of the Greater Spotted Celebrity, another common species on Necker. Signed thank you letters from the likes of Princess Diana and Barack Obama adorn the walls. A book by the Duchess of York sits next to the Branson oeuvre in the gift shop.
In 2011, Kate Winslet made headlines around the world when she carried Branson’s elderly mother out of a burning house. But my luck is out. Could the craggy-looking man knocking up on the tennis court be Jack Nicholson? Nope. Too tall. German accent.
How about that well-spoken English lady in a silk dress asking for directions to the lavatory? Nope. Posh writer from London.
The resort staff, who outnumber guests by two to one, are a friendly, cosmopolitan lot. Geordies, Scots, Swedes, Canadians, Portuguese, Indians, as well as BVI locals. Their discretion, naturally, is assured. If you want to do anything more adventurous in the rooftop hot tub than gaze at the night sky, it will go no further.
The Necker food, superintended by the charming French chef, Guillaume, is predictably superb, with everything from fish curry to fresh Caribbean fruit and veg to chargrilled lobsters on the beach.
Zany touch follows zany touch. When I’m summoned to a ‘surprise’ lunch by the pool, after a morning sailing round the neighbouring islands by catamaran, I expect some mad publicity stunt, like cocktails served by Brad Pitt in a white tuxedo.
Instead, I get something even better: delectable sushi borne across the pool on a kayak decorated with palm leaves. As lunchers take to the water, chopsticks in one hand, glass of champagne in the other, Britain suddenly seems a long way away.
Giant tortoise, imported from the Seychelles, roam the island. The billionaire owner has also flown flamingos in from Cuba.
Next up is a gloriously chaotic tennis tournament, with more duffed volleys in an hour than you would expect in the whole of Wimbledon fortnight. The tennis coach, gallantly, says that I display promise.
My last night is party time in the great Necker tradition. Hair is let down with happy abandon.
Where else would this normally sedate grandfather from Oxford find himself up on the table at 3am, belting out Sweet Caroline to whoops of approval?
As beautiful women, clad head-to-toe in white, jump fully dressed into the pool, there is a shrill cackling sound in the darkness. Marley the cockatoo? Lemurs mating on the tennis court? Or Richard Branson up in space chortling at our antics?
Necker 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, including all meals, drinks, water sports and boat transfers (virginlimitededition.com).
Virgin Atlantic flies direct between London Heathrow and Antigua with return fares from £379 per person, including complimentary food, drink and inflight entertainment (virginatlantic.com, 0344 8747 747). Visitors from overseas must present evidence of their vaccination status and a recent negative PCR test before being admitted to the country.
Visit bvigateway.bviaa.com for online forms before travelling.