With the private island property market booming, we find out from buyers and industry experts what you need to know before purchasing your own private island.
“No man is an island,” wrote poet John Donne in 1624, but fast forward 400 years, add in a global pandemic, and it seems that plenty of men (and women) would like the chance to at least own one. In Q1 2021, superyacht sales totalled more than £1 billion and the private island market was equally hot, as ultra-high-net-worth individuals strived to secure their own isolated idyll.
Edward de Mallet Morgan, a partner of Knight Frank’s Super-Prime Global Residential division, believes there are a number of factors driving the surge in interest. “During the course of the pandemic some people have made a huge amount of money, and this is coupled with the fact that remote working has been properly tried and tested,” he says. “It has proven that people don’t need to be in the office or even the same country as the businesses they own or are shareholders in. The old normal doesn’t exist anymore, and it may never come back.”
A lot of interest has been centred around the Bahamas with the American market looking for easy-access bolt-holes. “The island market is extremely strong right now in the Bahamas,” says John Christie, CEO of HG Christie. “We had many, many calls during the height of the pandemic when everything was really locked down. Everyone was fantasising about [having] their own island.” However, Christie says these dreams have now turned into reality. “All the less expensive islands are getting sold and there is strong interest in big islands as well,” he says. “All kinds of things are going under or on contract now, from the $3 million [£2.1m] to the $65 million range. We are going to be running out of inventory of these kinds of islands in the Bahamas soon.”
The interest isn’t purely based in the Bahamas though, with New Zealand Sotheby’s International Realty also seeing strong demand. “I get interest from across the board from high-net-worth individuals and families to those ‘chasing the dream’,” says sales associate Chester Rendell. “I have recently signed up a private island in Fiji, with the purchaser being an American with Hawaiian interests wanting to buy something that would be like what Hawaii was 50 years ago. This sale was actually done unseen.”
Buying an island unseen is a rarity, but owners discovering their private island by superyacht is common. “The private-island mentality fits with the superyacht mentality,” says de Mallet Morgan. “If you look at historic owners of big private islands – people such as Richard Branson, Larry Ellison, Bernard Arnault and the Aga Khan – they are all also superyacht owners. I have an island called Little Pipe Cay on the market in the Exumas at the moment and the last four potential purchasers all visited on 80-metre-plus boats that they either own or were chartering.”
Christie believes that part of the allure is that islands act as status symbols. “It holds a lot of cache if you are talking about going to your island in the Bahamas,” says Christie. “You have your yacht, your private jet and the next thing you need is a private island. The purchaser of an island I just sold had a 33.5-metre yacht and a private jet.”
The appetite and the natural connection between land and sea may be there, but taking the plunge and purchasing tends to require a pull on the heart strings. Chris Bouton, the owner of Westport 112 Indigo, bought 11-hectare Johns Island in Maine in 2015 and remembers the moment he made the decision. “We didn’t really expect to be buying a private island, but when we got there it was just such a magical feeling,” he recalls. “We felt like we had walked into a different world and that was just so enticing that we couldn’t help but do it.”
How do you choose?
Any private island purchase is bound to be led by the heart, but experts warn that there are serious factors that need to be considered. “There are a lot of islands out there,” says de Mallet Morgan. “Different shapes and sizes, freehold and leasehold, clear titles and unclear titles, accessible and in the middle of nowhere. You need to think about what you are hoping to get from it.”
For de Mallet Morgan, infrastructure, accessibility and size are three of the most important considerations. “I think there is probably a sweet spot for private-use islands from a few acres up to 70 acres [30 hectares]. Anything over 100 acres starts to become a huge consideration. If you have got a 500-acre island you might be having a picnic with your family on one side and there could be drug trafficking happening on the other. Security is much more complex.”
Since the start of the pandemic there has been a greater interest in islands that already have infrastructure in place. “There’s been much more of a demand for finished islands that people can move right into, or at least have a roof over their head,” says Christie. “Before, people were more into the fantasy of building their dream island, but now they want to move in as opposed to having to wait years to build everything.” De Mallet Morgan agrees that most clients now are looking for instant gratification. “If you buy a bare island then you have got to be happy that it’s going to take you at least five years, if not more, to create your dream home,” he warns.
Ready-made islands may be in demand, but for many the allure of starting with a blank canvas is also appealing. Tim Hartnoll was sailing in the remote Anambas Archipelago in Indonesia when he discovered not one but a cluster of six islands. “Pulau Bawah had always been on the chart during our sailing trips and those familiar with the area had encouraged me to visit, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw,” he recalls. “Originally, I thought I would build a small outpost to enjoy when I came to visit. But the realities of having electricity, fresh water and some additional niceties took over, and it made more sense to develop Bawah as a resort.”
Opened in 2018, the Bawah Reserve offers 36 suites on its main island, with the neighbouring island of Elang available for private hire. However, its sustainably focused creation has come with its fair share of challenges. “When building it, we struggled with getting everything we needed to the island,” he says. “There was no hardware store to pop to for a few more nails. Fortunately, the craftspeople in Indonesia are incredibly resourceful and skilled and sometimes missing something has led to a more impressive result.”
Mark and Gwenn Snider came across similar obstacles when developing Lovango Cay, which opened this summer as the first luxury resort and beach club in the US Virgin Islands in 30 years. “The biggest challenge is definitely logistics with a capital L, and we encountered everything from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Gwenn says. “For example, we had to import sand from Barbuda to fill in where the beach club was going. The sand sat in St Thomas until about three days before we opened because there wasn’t a boat big enough to bring it to us.”
The difficulties of developing a private island can also extend far beyond just the practicalities of building, as Dan and Christin Olofsson found when they bought Thanda Island off Tanzania’s eastern coast. “The biggest challenge for us has been to reach an agreement with the Tanzanian government, after Thanda Island was declared a protected marine reserve in March 2007,” explains Dan. “No exclusive-use lease had ever been concluded on a protected marine reserve before and the negotiations lasted for years. Eventually, in 2014, we received ministerial permission to bring to life what started as a dream so many years earlier.”
How to operate off-grid
An additional hurdle that developments such as Lovango, Bawah and Thanda face is how to operate off-grid, but this was part of the appeal for Bouton. “I’m passionate about green and clean tech so it felt like an awesome opportunity to build a place that was using all those technologies to operate the island in a fundamentally new way,” he says. “One of the most important things that an island teaches you is that everything needs to be in balance; you’re constantly attempting to get all of your systems to work well together. For example, we put in a reverse osmosis system but that uses a ton of electricity, so then you need to generate more electricity to be capable of handling the water demands. But in a way it’s a wonderful lesson and something I have loved learning.”
There doesn’t seem to be any slowdown in interest on the horizon. “For the foreseeable future we anticipate the market will be pretty strong,” says Christie. “Islands have been a great investment over the years. Sometimes the market slows down a little bit, but I have never known them go down in value.”
Despite their investment potential, those who have been there and done it agree that it needs to be a labour of love rather than an economic decision. “You need to be prepared for setbacks, the kind you will have no frame of reference for,” says Hartnoll. “If you are developing an island from the start, then whatever timeline you have in mind, triple it, along with the budget.”
Bouton’s advice to anyone considering taking the plunge? “Do it: you only live once and if you have the opportunity and the place is magical then it’s worth all the logistics and all the rest of it. It really is a special thing to share with your family and friends.” Perhaps the real beauty of buying a private island is that it means you don’t need to be an island after all.
This feature is taken from the September 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now