Often in the headlines, thanks to its glittering array of A-list guests, Necker made news for all the wrong reasons in August 2011 when a lightning strike set fire to the Great House. Kate Winslet savedBranson’s 90-year-old mother as the island’s main building burnt to the ground. ‘The sky was ablaze with 300ft flames,’ says Branson, reliving the night. ‘It was half an hour of sheer terror.’But now, £9million later, the all-new Great House has risen from the ashes and is open for business. I am one of the first journalists to visit.After two flights and a speedboat ride, I arrive at the 74-acre island, where the Great House sits perched on the crest of the tallest hill. It is an almost exact replica of the original. The eight guest rooms and huge lounge are packed with antiques sourced from the flea markets of Indonesia and the house even has the same Balinese theme.There are new touches, too, including a rooftop hot tub, while getting to Turtle Beach no longer means tackling a steep stone staircase thanks to a speedy new zip-line.From the infinity pool, I watch sailing boats close to the shore. Opposite, the velvety hillsides of Prickly Pear Island loom tall over the mottled water and a flock of flamingos takes flight. It’s no wonder Branson spends so much of his time here.‘It was love at first sight,’ he says, over a Sunday roast of lamb and all the trimmings – a weekly Necker tradition – washed down with champagne so free-flowing it’s dubbed Necker Water. ‘It belonged to a British man named Lord Cobham who had never seen it. Just as well as he’d probably have refused to sell it if he had.’The Virgin boss bought Necker for £60,000 when he was 27, after spotting it from a helicopter during a trip to the Caribbean designed to woo his wife-to-be.‘I had no intention of buying an island but pretended I was interested so I could impress Joan,’ he says.Back then, Necker was a forsaken place with one palm tree. Branson bought it on the condition he would make it habitable within five years or ownership would return to the local government.The island took shape as his record label grew. ‘Karma Chameleon by Culture Club paid for some of Bali Lo,’ he says, referring to the villa favoured by Princess Diana.Necker has been a hideaway for the world’s most famous people: Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Rod Stewart, Kate Moss (who’s reportedly spending her 40th birthday there this week). All lured by the fine views and untold luxury.
Bedrooms are unlocked, laptops and guitars are left lying around and guests help themselves behind the bar. There’s no dress code for dinner: T-shirts and shorts will do just fine. This is a place where you can do laps of the Jacuzzi and where lunch is served by a smiling chef in a canoe in the beachside pool.
I take to the water with sailing instructor George, who recently taught Kate Winslet to kitesurf. She’s quite good, apparently. Back on Necker, I meet Vaman Ramlall, who looks after the island’s wildlife – giant iguanas and tortoises, squawking parrots and endangered lemurs.
All this doesn’t come cheap. Most of the year, Necker costs £39,000 per night split between 30 guests. For six weeks a year, however, it’s possible to book individual rooms at (slightly) cheaper rates.
With great reluctance, it’s soon time to leave. ‘It’s been great having you,’ Branson says as we board the speedboat and he waves us off with a smile (and a moonie).