In 1978, a young man wanted to impress a girl he was madly in love with, so he flew her to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to inspect an island for sale. But the young man – he was 28 then – was short on money and couldn’t come up with the US$6 million asking price for the island with lush green hills, white-sand beach, flamingoes and turquoise water. In fact, his best offer was an embarrassingly low US$100,000. A year later, no one else had made a bid on Necker Island, and the young man bought it for US$180,000. That was the start of British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s luxury property portfolio, the Virgin Limited Edition.
There are now nine boutique properties in Branson’s exclusive resort group, as well as a 32-metre catamaran that sails in the Caribbean. The properties include a tented safari camp in Kenya that takes glamping to unimaginable levels, a chalet in the Swiss Alps, and an Arabian retreat in Morocco. The latest addition to this enviable collection, which opened in July, is a Spanish estate. The Son Bunyola Estate is on the northwest coast of Mallorca on 280 hectares with sea and mountain views, in a Mediterranean landscape of vines, citrus, almonds and olive trees.
There are two villas – a third is expected to be available early next year – that have been built in traditional Mallorcan style with exposed beam ceilings and terracotta tiled floors. Each villa has its own heated swimming pool and there is a tennis court. A pebble beach is a short stroll away from where you can set off on coastal walks along one of the world’s best seascapes.
“Virgin Limited Edition is not your average cookie-cutter hotel group,” says the brand’s London-based public relations manager Charlotte Dollin. “Each property within the collection is truly unique with its own personality and soul. All the properties operate with the aim of creating amazing experiences.”
The tented safari camp in Kenya, Mahali Mzuri (meaning ‘beautiful place’ in Swahili), offers an experience like nowhere else. The camp is in the Maasai Mara ecosystem and is in the path of the great migration. This migration, comprising millions of wildebeest and zebra moving from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the green pastures of the Maasai Mara, is a spectacular annual event that has been the focus of documentary makers from around the world, including naturalist David Attenborough.
There are 12 ensuite tents at Mahali Mzuri, set on a ridge with views. Each has real beds, a lounge area with designer furniture, timber floors, outside decks, and luxurious bathtubs with running water. Game-viewing drives, community tours to visit Maasai tribes, hot-air ballooning, and sundowner drinks (a gin and tonic, perhaps), are among the experiences on offer. If you don’t feel like venturing out, there are on-site spa treatments with eco-friendly Africology beauty products.
You can trade your safari suit for an experience of a totally different kind in Verbier, Switzerland, where Branson’s nine-bedroom chalet sits snugly in the snow. Put on your ski suit for a day on the world-renowned slopes and follow up back at The Lodge with canapés, dinner, a hot tub, spa treatment and evening drinks in front of the fire. The aforementioned Arabian escape is the Kasbah Tamadot in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Other properties include the Mont Rochelle hotel and vineyard in South Africa, the Ulusaba safari lodge in South Africa, and The Roof Gardens in London.
Branson, who is a regular visitor to the properties, says they are like his private homes and each is very different in what it offers. Needless to say, though, the amazing locations and sense of incredible style are a common thread. Among them all, Necker Island remains closest to Branson’s heart. “I love all the properties, but I think my favourite has to be Necker Island,” he says. “I have travelled all over the world and I really do think it’s the most beautiful spot on earth.”
The island is usually booked exclusively for one group of up to 34 adults at a time. There is the Great House with nine bedrooms and six Bali Houses dotted around the island. The Balinese-style Great House has views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. There are floodlit grass tennis courts, infinity pools and a hot tub on the beach. If you want action, there’s diving, snorkelling, sailing, water skiing, and windsurfing. There are also hammocks between the palm trees. A team of 100 staff, food and drinks (including alcohol) are included in the nightly cost of US$78,000 (about A$104,369).
Not far from Necker Island, Branson recently opened an eco resort at Moskito Island. There are three villas there, taking up to 22 guests, with similar luxurious trappings and surrounds of Necker Island, plus a sensational wraparound infinity pool, and a swim-up bar. Projects to help local people, sustainability and conservation are an essential part of Branson’s property group.
Water and energy conservation programs are in place across the properties, along with efforts to reduce waste, to recycle as much as possible, and to obtain food from ethical and sustainable sources. Meanwhile, Virgin Limited Edition is a partner of Virgin Australia’s Velocity Rewards program, so passengers can earn miles towards a free stay at some of the properties in the portfolio, including Necker Island.
And if you’re curious to know what happened to the girl Branson took to Necker Island in 1978, he ended up marrying her there 11 years later.