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Matthew Smith has been a business and financial journalist for more than a decade. He previously worked with the Financial Times Group, reporting from New York on company buyouts and refinancing in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. He started his career reporting on the funds management industry in Sydney.

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Island dreaming

Published 12 December 2012 15:22, Updated 09 January 2013 16:48

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Island dreaming

Leave your worries behind: Laucala Island in the Fijian group has its own landing strip, a farm where most of its produce is raised, private beaches and 25 luxurious villas.

Surveying an island from the window of a small aircraft as it’s about to land – either from a private jet or a chartered mudskipper propeller-driven plane – is an unforgettable experience.

Once you’ve overcome the urge to close one eye and line up the opposing ends of the land mass between your thumb and index finger, you can daydream about all the possibilities once you’ve landed that may otherwise be frowned upon back on the mainland.

The nature reserve becomes your own secret playground for foraging; the remote rocky peninsular, an isolated sunbathing platform; the fluorescent-aqua outline that buffers the black and green shape against the deep blue sea is a safe moat in which to drift weightlessly and carelessly with the tides and currents.

The allure of the island experience is unbeatable, especially for those who have the opportunity to rent an entire island with a group of friends or those select few who have taken the plunge and bought an island of their own.

Buying or renting an island might not be so far out of financial reach as people think, says Farhad Vladi, the founder of global island consultancy, Vladi Private Islands.

Vladi has been in the business of buying and selling islands for his clients for 35 years and he’s finding the current environment a bit of a buyer’s market for certain properties.

This year alone he has sold 14 islands to Canadian nature conservancies backed by the Canadian government – properties he describes as undervalued, that may have previously fetched $US1 million during boom times but are now selling for closer to $US400,000.

He rents islands, too. One client owns Forsyth Island just off the coast of New Zealand that accommodates six guests – all inclusive – for $US900 a day.

Necker Island, the exclusive retreat owned by Virgin founder Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands, can be rented for as little as $US10,000 a day. Not bad for the ultimate private island experience, Vladi reckons.

Most extremely wealthy people with a public profile are more likely to rent than own an island because making regular visits to the same island can pose a security risk.

For instance Bill Gates doesn’t own an island but he will rent a private island at a moment’s notice when he wants to get away with his family, Vladi says.

When newlyweds Prince William and Kate Middleton wanted the island experience for their royal honeymoon, they chose North Island in the Seychelles. Even the British paparazzi didn’t know they were there.

People who buy islands tend to have an individualistic streak. They love the outdoors and want to blend into nature, Vladi says.

For entrepreneurs who have amassed significant wealth, buying an island can be as much about ticking another milestone off the list as anything else.

For the general manager and owner of Petit St Vincent in the Grenadines near Barbados, Phil Stephenson, the decision to buy an island 2½ years ago wasn’t made to fulfil a burning desire to run a successful hospitality franchise.

“I’m not going to go and start another one if this one’s successful,” he says. “If it works, I have a unique hotel and island experience. If it doesn’t, what I have is my own island with 22 guest rooms.”

Stephenson bought Petit St Vincent, the southernmost island in the Grenadine group, from the previous owner’s widow in 2010. A Washington lawyer in the time of George Bush senior, he started a private equity firm before putting his money into an energy deal which turned into Rompetrol, a large petroleum company.

He subsequently sold out before investing in the island, which is also known as PSV.

Fundamental to the island experience, he maintains, is disconnecting yourself from the technological environment that defines the modern world.

“It used to be that people were all about cell phones and were so proud they could work anywhere,” he says.

“Now you know you’re successful if you can shut down your cell phone for a couple of weeks. These days that’s the difference between being a stockbroker and being an industrialist.”

Highlighting the difference between the experience you’re likely to have on his island and that at a glitzy resort, Stephenson is happy to acknowledge that hotels such as the Ritz Carlton are great places to stay all around the world because of their palatial features and elegance but that’s not why people choose to have the island experience.

“We encourage you to leave your cash and fancy jewellery in a safe because you won’t need it while you’re here,” he says.

“No one will be impressed by any of that and you won’t see a bill until you leave.”

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