Hiring your own private island

New and restored private island resorts from Indonesia to the Inner Hebrides are seeking to recalibrate the castaway experience to balance luxury with sustainability. Maria Shollenbarger reports

Dolphin Island, Fiji
Dolphin Island, Fiji

The Riau Archipelago is a cluster of islands scattered south of Singapore, some 40 miles to the east of Sumatra. Several are of significant size – from 50sq miles up to larger than 900sq miles – encircled by far smaller islets, like little viridescent satellites, many measuring no more than a kilometre across at their widest points. The waters here aren’t quite as crystalline as around those further to the east in Indonesia, to which this archipelago belongs – Komodo and Rinca, or Banda Neira, or the dazzling emerald constellation that is Raja Ampat. There are fewer beautiful coral reefs, too, and perhaps less of the burnish of exotica that attends a visit to the farther-flung islands of a country that’s made up of roughly 17,000 of them. But still, they are tropical islands, some of them entirely deserted, many of them very beautiful, with thickets of jungle ringed in marbled sand and buffeted by trade breezes, proffering the twin promises of solitude and unfettered horizons.

The main bure pavilion on Dolphin Island
The main bure pavilion on Dolphin Island | Image: The Huka Retreats

“It’s funny, when people visit Nikoi the first time, they often ask if they can walk around the island. I say, ‘Of course you can. It’s an island’.” I’m speaking to Andrew Dixon, a fiftysomething Australian former banker who was transferred to Singapore from Sydney in the late 1990s, and who still spends much of his time there, though he left the world of finance years ago. Delighted with the city’s proximity to equatorial nature, he would take his young children exploring in the reef islands off the east coast of Bintan, one of the Riau Archipelago’s largest bodies, reached via a 50-minute ferry ride from Changi Terminal. One of those little islets, Pulau Nikoi, particularly captured his imagination; he and four friends decided to buy it. Nikoi is about 15 hectares, with a hill at its centre, bordered on roughly half its circumference by a beach of buttercream-coloured sand and on the other half by a stony bluff, patrolled lazily at low tide by harmless monitor lizards. The intention was initially, and for several years after its acquisition, to make a private playground of Nikoi – a weekend-castaway foil to the long hours and hustle of the city. Somewhere along the way, though, the idea to erect a resort was floated. Nikoi Island, with 15 villas of varying sizes, constructed entirely from sustainably sourced driftwood, opened in 2007. It’s in no way conventionally five-star; it is, rather, a masterclass in elemental luxury created by people who understand its essential components: space, privacy and aesthetically pleasing raw materials. For the past four to five years, Dixon estimates it has been operating at over 90 per cent occupancy year-round.

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The reason we’re talking is because Dixon is deep into the construction of a second escape, on an even smaller island 12 nautical miles (just under 14 miles) to the south of Nikoi. Cempedak, which will open in the autumn, will, like Nikoi, have villas nestled into dense equatorial forest, facing clear seas, though these villas will be constructed entirely of sustainably harvested bamboo – massive trunks of it, 20cm in diameter and 12m long (“It took a month just to get one bargeload in from Java.” he says. “There’s quite a lot of it growing on Sumatra, but no sustainable supply chain; we had to create our own.”) As at Nikoi, there will be no televisions or telephones (though the villas – as with Nikoi’s – will be vast two-storey structures, with ingenious airflow-encouraging design standing in for air conditioning); and as at Nikoi, Cempedak’s interior will accommodate a grass tennis court (they are the only ones on any islands in Southeast Asia, as far as Dixon knows). Unlike at Nikoi, however – which, when it is not bought out in exclusivity, is hugely popular with well-to-do expat families – Cempedak will not accept under-16s.

A beach villa lounge on Petit St Vincent
A beach villa lounge on Petit St Vincent

That exclusivity is the other reason I’m talking to Dixon today. Though Nikoi, with its villas of various sizes and sand-floored dining hall, is technically a resort (albeit a very small, intimate one), it gets taken over in entirety with surprising regularity. This obviously isn’t surprising to Dixon, who first sized Nikoi up for that very purpose, and he expects Cempedak will enjoy a similar level of buyouts: “It’s the guaranteed exclusivity, for sure; people are willing to pay for that. But also the guaranteed remove. We’re not far from Singapore at all; but something about the arrival process” – Nikoi and Cempedak are reached only by speedboat from Bintan, on which Dixon owns a private lounge and jetty – “and the idea of pitching up on sand, on a piece of land you can get the measure of just by looking at, and have to yourself for the weekend, is an experience on a very appealing human scale.”

The jetty on Nikoi, Indonesia
The jetty on Nikoi, Indonesia

Islands are, by their very geographical nature, the manifestation of exclusivity, places where you can see – and can often circumnavigate on foot – everything that’s yours to play with. A small, deserted island (deserted but for you, your kin or your friends, and a staff to serve you, that is) goes a considerable way towards first-world fulfilment of an age-old adventurers’ fantasy: that of being master of one’s own domain – playing the role of the intrepid explorer for a week, or a weekend, in an era of precious few remaining terrestrial frontiers. Dixon is, of course, hardly the first to have capitalised on their appeal: a decade before he discovered Nikoi, Richard Branson had already purchased and cultivated his BVIs retreat, Necker Island. A few hundred miles to the south, in the Grenadines, the American Hazen Richardson II had by the mid-1960s discovered and was developing what was to become one of the world’s best-known and most exclusive islands: Petit St Vincent, now co-owned by one-time private equity manager Philip Stephenson. Dixon is also not the only one operating in western Indonesia: Pulau Joyo, a tiny outcropping with just six very chic thatched villas and a full staff of chefs, butlers and massage therapists, opened in 2011; it lies a few miles distant from Cempedak, and is another favourite for exclusive takeovers. Further east in Indonesia, independent developers and hotel companies are circling the small islands around Flores (not too far from where Amanwana, Aman resorts’ tented camp on Moyo Island, opened just over 20 years ago). French Polynesia and Fiji sequester several of their own prime examples; among them are Dolphin Island, the stunning private island that belongs to Alex van Heeren, owner of the ultra-luxurious Huka Retreats, which accommodates a maximum of eight guests; and Motu Tane, the tiny reef island off Bora Bora belonging to François Nars, who commissioned Christian Liaigre to design the interiors of the bungalows and main teak villa (when Nars is not in residence, it rents for from $36,000 a day).

A bamboo villa under under construction on Cempedak Island, Indonesia
A bamboo villa under under construction on Cempedak Island, Indonesia | Image: Joseph McGlennon

In the Mediterranean, such islands are often enhanced by a sense of historical context, or leverage a new perspective on a perhaps too-familiar place. Exclusive villas specialist Cédric Reversade, who with partner Paul Maxime Koskas not long ago added an idyllic Cycladic islet to their portfolio, notes the ease with which their A-list celebrity and ultra-high-net-worth clients who take it for a week or two can tap into all the effortless glamour of the classic Greek Aegean holiday without compromising on privacy. “Pegasus is a tiny island; just the house and centennial olives, pistachio trees, pines and figs, thyme and lavender everywhere. And the house itself is quite understated – one storey, five bedrooms, with its own vegetable and herb garden. But it harks back to that Niarchos-Onassis age of the Greek islands, of cruising all summer and popping into simple settings like this.” Pegasus offers access to, say, a cracking seafood lunch at nearby Evia, but also the possibility for zero press intrusion and minimal security issues. (One high-profile client has booked it for a yoga retreat for this summer, complete with fly-in Ayurvedic doctor and chef.)  

Motu Tane, in French Polynesia
Motu Tane, in French Polynesia | Image: Vladi Private Islands

Li Galli, a cluster of three rocky outcroppings about a mile and a half off the Amalfi Coast, has been a private redoubt for centuries, but it was as home to Rudolph Nureyev in the late 1980s that it achieved worldwide renown. A wealthy local bought Li Galli upon Nureyev’s death in 1993; three years ago, he quietly began letting the main island, Gallo Lungo, whose watchtower dates back to the 1700s and whose two villas were designed in the 1920s – with the input, it is said, of Le Corbusier – during the summer season. (Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet reportedly staged part of her 50th birthday celebrations here last summer). Beyond the undeniable beauty of the restoration, and the obvious exclusivity, the currency is in its singular location: its lucky few guests gaze onto the Fontanelle hills and the cupola in Positano from Li Galli’s multiple terraces or balconies – while everyone else, including some very privileged people, must content themselves with admiring the postcard-famous view of Li Galli from Positano (which is as close as most will ever get to them).

A thatched cottage on Motu Tane
A thatched cottage on Motu Tane | Image: Vladi Private Islands

The geographic and cultural disparities of these islands notwithstanding, the common ground quite a few share is a luxury of experience, rather than opulence for its own sake. Those being developed from pristine wilderness, in particular, confront a bigger issue pervading the business of travel: namely, the point at which the conventional trappings of luxury and the exigencies of sustainability come into conflict; and emphasising one requires, perforce, the diminution of the other. In Dixon’s case, a recent surfing trip to the Maldives – to many, the apotheosis of the island holiday – and exposure to its increasingly gilded resort environs left him more resolute than ever in his decision to hew Cempedak’s look and feel entirely to an idea of “indulgence” that is vernacular and contextual. In his purist’s view, the island fantasy is premised on the rawness of the castaway paradigm; ergo, the luxury stays raw. That this is by its nature more easily made sustainable is a nice fillip, but his is predominantly an aesthetic and experiential choice – one, he believes, that truly worldly travellers increasingly support.

The walk down from the highest point on Eilean Shona, Inner Hebrides
The walk down from the highest point on Eilean Shona, Inner Hebrides | Image: Jack Brockway

Kevin Record is of the same mind. His Ibo Island Lodge, spread over three colonial mansions in Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, remains that country’s benchmark for a luxury heritage experience; an exercise in landmark architectural preservation, community engagement and sustainable tourism. Record, like Dixon, is currently putting the final touches on a second project in the Quirimbas: 21-hectare Mogundula, which opens at the end of this year. Unlike Ibo island, with its colonial stone town and native makuti town, Mogundula is uninhabited. The five new-build villas – constructed with coral stone, mangrove trunks and palm wood, with indoor-outdoor baths, plunge pools and direct sea access just off their decks – will vary in size and spread along the west coast of the island, not far from a 70m mangrove lake. A spa therapist and Ibo-trained chef will comprise part of the team, but so will expert local guides to lead tag-and-release expeditions beyond the large reef off Mogundula’s east beach and excursions to the two local communities that are within a 10-minute boat ride. “Of course, we’re working with solar [power] and new-tech desalination for water, and sustainable materials. But we’re not going overboard on size and spec.” The luxury idea on Mogundula, he says – what he wants to capture and hold the imagination of his guests – is the manifest privacy and remoteness of the place.

Gallo Lungo, off the Amalfi coast
Gallo Lungo, off the Amalfi coast | Image: Alamy

A northern hemisphere correlate to such efforts lies, somewhat improbably, in the Inner Hebrides, just off the west coast of Scotland. Eilean Shona, which measures a modest 2.5 x 1.5 miles, was nothing more than a drive-by spotting when Vanessa Branson and her then husband, Robert Devereux, first saw it in 1995, en route to a regular holiday on Mull; they purchased it immediately. Two decades and a significant investment on, Branson is more committed than ever to preserving what she found here: the entire island has just emerged from an extensive restoration and rehabilitation project (Shona is, in fact, a not-for-profit nature reserve), which saw its various lodges and cottages refurbished, hardwoods replanted and rare and vulnerable sea-eagle nesting habitats identified and protected.

The main terrace on the Greek Island of Pegasus
The main terrace on the Greek Island of Pegasus | Image: Manuel Zublena

The island’s long-decrepit schoolhouse, set on Shona’s North Channel coast, has been completely redesigned as a cosseting two-bedroom cottage, in which creature comforts (roll-top baths, Moroccan Beni Ourain rugs sourced by Branson herself) coexist with concessions to the environment (gas lanterns, wood-burning stoves). The main house has 11 bedrooms, multiple lounges, and a dining room whimsically affrescoed by the Glaswegian artist Fred Pollock. The old village hall now serves as a games room, with table tennis table and internet.

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Walking paths criss-cross the island, and its circumference takes a good five hours to hike. Shoe Bay is a blue lagoon at high tide, and a wide sand-pool beach at low tide. There are cooks and staff to hand to accommodate most needs (though not compulsory, should guests prefer to look after themselves; a shopping list provided in advance will see larders stocked with local oysters and fish and organic produce). The whole Branson clan still gathers here once a year, though Branson herself reckons nothing could be so romantic as for a single couple to take the whole island, cosying up in the schoolhouse. (She has form with highly romantic holiday settings, having created Riad El Fenn, still considered one of Marrakech’s most stylish and atmospheric hotels.)

In the meantime, Eilean Shona has just piloted a reactivated annual art retreat concept, hosting a group of some 20 artists, writers, philosophers, and others – “all talking, as it turns out, about the concept of ‘island-ness’,” Branson writes to me happily in an email, two weeks after our meeting in Marrakech. “Islands must be in the air.”

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