Hot tickets

Rarity, seclusion, high-end design and resort-style facilites combine to make homes in the British Virgin Islands hot property, says Catherine Moye.

May 12 2010
Catherine Moye

The name British Virgin Islands is awkward, conjuring as it does images of diminutive ingénues perched in the lap of a stuffy Viceroy. Yet despite the title, the BVI is one of the world’s most alluring and unspoilt archipelagos. Several tantalising opportunities to acquire a home here have arisen recently, the like of which has not occurred for 20 years and is unlikely to happen again in a hurry.

The reasons why this Elysian British dependency has remained below the radar of those looking for property in the Caribbean are manifold. First, there are no direct flights. Only accessible by small plane from other islands, including Antigua and Puerto Rico, the BVIs have avoided the overdevelopment – and now-cooling property prices – of the American Virgin Islands, which are part of the same archipelago. Difficult access is a historic accident preserved to stave off the kind of mass tourism that has mauled these sister islands to the point where it’s hard to still refer to them as Virgins.

Yet it is the Americans who are currently developing the most toothsome properties in the BVIs, placing them on the crest of a new wave in property terms.

“To find a place of such physical beauty has been a lifetime search for me,” says David V Johnson, chairman of Victor International, the American developer of Oil Nut Bay, an exclusive holiday complex on the eastern end of Virgin Gorda. The second largest of the islands, it can only be reached by boat or helicopter. Seclusion combined with high-end resort facilities, including spa and restaurants, makes Oil Nut Bay akin to having a private island but with all the amenities of a hotel.

Set on a sweeping peninsula of 300 acres, 88 villa plots of up to 10 acres are available, upon which luxury villas of 3,000sq ft-8,000sq ft will be built to buyers’ specifications. Beachside plots cost $5.95m, rising to $25m for a plot on top of the ridge. Build cost is about $600 per square foot.

Ten villas are to be built right on the beach, the first of which is already complete. It’s hard to imagine a chunk of waterfront real estate more coveted by the yachting fraternity. The close-knit BVIs rest on seas that shift from sapphire to indigo, and their unspoilt bays and shaded coves make it one of the world’s most popular locations for sailors of all levels in all types of vessel.

Scottish businessman Cameron McColl acquired the marina at Nanny Cay on Tortola, the BVIs’ principal island, in 2000. As well as upgrading the marina and adding a hotel, he’s building 32 two- and three-bedroom waterfront homes with moorings, whose baby-blue peaked roofs, Bermuda shutters and vaulted pickled pine ceilings are in a hurricane-proof, Caribbean style. Nanny Cay’s adjoining village is laid-back – think flip-flops and a plate of ribs at the local restaurant. Prices, which start at $695,000 for a two-bedroom, are a fraction of those on Barbados. Owners also have the option of renting their home through the Nanny Cay Hotel.

A second marina development by the Mainsail Development Group from Florida is set to consume the whole of the 230-acre Scrub Island at the eastern end of Tortola. Here the style is geared to the more service-oriented American buyer, who tends to be enticed by upscale spa treatments and cutting-edge gadgetry. As for the ambience, “This resort is like a stationary cruise ship,” says resort manager Bill Lee.

The 45-plus residences range from $1.5m for a two-bedroom apartment to $3.5m for a four-bedroom villa. What these properties lack in distinctive exterior they make up for in internal luxury and amenities. In a region not well stocked with upscale hotels, the owners’ option to put their property into a rental programme makes Scrub Island an attractive investment opportunity.

As for buying other than in developments, numerous family homes are available. Most sit perched on the green hillsides of Tortola and Virgin Gorda, facing clusters of “virgins” whose names – Great Dog, West Dog, Dead Chest to name a few – hardly do justice to their beauty.

Frenchman’s Paradise, at Frenchman’s Cay on the principal island of Tortola, is a brand-new four-bedroom, four-bathroom house (price $3m). Its style is contemporary Caribbean, combining local charm with modern finishes. There is an abundance of natural local stonework and custom cabinetry throughout. The generous bathrooms overlook some of the finest sailing waters anywhere.

Tortola is by far the most populous and rich in amenities, and is favoured by the many expats in the BVI, mostly UK and US legal eagles handling the tax affairs of the 550 offshore companies registered here. Privacy-seeking movers and shakers and second-homers tend to prefer Virgin Gorda. Close to its main town, Spanish Town, is an upscale property that would satisfy the most exacting of Manhattan designers. Called Raku, this custom-built, six-bedroom, five-bathroom home on a two-acre plot has vaulted ceilings, marble countertops and mahogany hardwood floors, plus doors whose vermilions, bronzes and oranges add warm, spicy tones.

The accommodation consists of 19 rooms, including a separate guest house. Outside, the chlorine-free open-air pool and vast covered terrace face a white sandy beach (not private) where huge heaped boulders resemble relics of some Jurassic battle of the dinosaurs. Raku’s coarse patchwork stone exterior is somehow reminiscent of the skin of the iguanas that regularly cross your path. The property costs $11m.

A Dream Come True, a sea-facing, 6,500sq ft, five-bedroom villa that sleeps 12-14 ($3.5m), is nearby. Even if it sounds like the B-side of a Barry Manilow record, the gorgeous location means the name has the ring of truth. In need of some modernisation, its character might be defined as more pre-refurbishment Fortnum & Mason old school than revamped Selfridges glitz. Arguably, in such a superb climate, the only real essentials are the laid-back luxury of a huge terrace where you can string a hammock and a few strategically placed bits of driftwood. On the other hand, high-end requirements such as power showers and high-tech sound systems are hardly rare in the BVI.

The definitive exponent of the alpha-male-meets-Robinson-Crusoe lifestyle lives on Necker Island in the form of Sir Richard Branson, who runs his business empire from a Balinese-style home there. For all its elegant beauty, it is reminiscent of what fun little boys can have in the woods with a few sticks and stalks of straw. “Personally, I’d be happy in a tree house with some vital comforts, but we have a lot of people here who are used to extremely luxurious homes so we try to get the balance right,” says Branson, who also runs Necker as a resort (costs $53,000 per night, sleeping up to 28 all-inclusive).

Necker’s beautiful blend of opulent modernity with barefoot native is being recreated with an even bigger dollop of Zen on nearby 120-acre Mosquito Island. Here Branson is building homes for himself and a few other eco-friendly families. Each house will be wind-, wave- and solar-powered and built in the same Balinese style as Necker. “It would be too extravagant to have it exclusively to myself,” says Branson. He says he has others interested in living there, “but it’s very early days.”

A keen watersportsman and tennis player, Branson not only winds down, he stays fit in the BVI. “I’m coming into my 60th year,” he says. “If I’m going to keep going to 100, this is a place where I can keep myself together as well as continue to do the things I love.”

Branson and Johnson are lucky even to own substantial land here. Large plots are rarely sold. The beauty of the BVI is due to the fact that when slavery ended, many former slaves won legal title to small plots of the plantations they had once worked. Their descendants, called “belongers”, still own most of land. The rest belongs to the Crown, and BV Islanders and Her Majesty don’t sell land in the quantities required for major residential or tourist resorts. Hence there is no land speculation and precious little evidence of the “us and them” culture that characterises other islands. Everyone drives SUVs. The BVIs have one of the Caribbean’s highest per capita incomes, mostly thanks to the development of its offshore financial service industry.

“English law combined with the US dollar [the BVI currency] has proved very attractive to the business community,” says Chris Smith, sales manager at Coldwell Banker BVI, agent for Savills in the BVI.

The buying process can be a drawn-out bureaucratic pow-wow but prices have increased at a steady seven to eight per cent a year, without any dramatic rises or falls. Crucially, they have not dipped during a recession that has seen luxury resort schemes throughout the Caribbean obliterated as surely as if a ferocious hurricane had swept through.

And don’t let the word “British” put you off, either. The British Virgin Islands are stunning; once visited, sea views without them will forever resemble a canvas from which a masterpiece has been erased.