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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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Getting away from it all, for people who have everything

Published 23 May 2013 00:46, Updated 28 May 2013 12:08

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Getting away from it all, for people who have everything

The island of Petit St Vincent offers the wealthy privacy at a price.

Ataste of island life can be the ultimate antidote to the pressures the rich put themselves under every day, says Phil Stephenson, who owns Petit St Vincent in the Grenadines, near Barbados.

Stephenson traded his life as an oil entrepreneur to buy his own island three years ago. Possibly better than anyone, he knows that an island experience provides the ultimate release for the wealthy.

He says most of his ultra-wealthy clientele prefer privacy and family time to indulging in luxury or a “scene”.

“We had the richest man in the world here at Christmas – [Mexican businessman] Carlos Slim Helu – and apart from the big yacht moored off the corner of the island we didn’t even know he was here,” Stephenson says.

“Most of the billionaires who visit don’t want glitz and glamour.

“Unless they made their money in entertainment, they don’t like ‘showy’. Business people in industries like mining, computers, technology – they are all very private and low-key.”

Stephenson bought Petit St Vincent, the southernmost island in the Grenadines, from the previous owner’s widow in 2010 for an undisclosed price.

He had sailed past a year earlier and was struck by how uninhabited the place seemed, despite the presence of a boutique resort.

Since taking ownership, he has updated beds, showers and dining areas but chose not to install televisions and phones in the 22 stone cottages. The opportunity to avoid phones and work emails is a large part of the island’s appeal, Stephenson says.

The experience doesn’t come cheap. Prices start at $US1100 a night for a stay in a one-bedroom cottage in the off season.

Guests also have the option of hiring the entire island for $US60,000 a night, providing they are willing to book for five nights and therefore spend at least $US300,000.

A Washington-based lawyer in the time of George Bush senior’s presidency, Stephenson started a private equity firm before putting his money into an energy deal that turned into Rompetrol, a large petroleum company. He subsequently sold out before investing in the island.

While Stephenson says that owning an island like PSV has its benefits, most of those benefits are lifestyle-related, not financial.

“Networking is great. People want to do business with the guy who owns the island because it’s a nice place to have board meetings, but it’s like owning a yacht; it’s not an investment you expect to make money on.”

Despite this, several other wealthy people have found islands too difficult to resist.

Rich 200 member Peter Bond bought Dunk Island for $7.5 million in 2011; he’s in the process of slowly developing a resort to replace the one ravaged by Cyclone Yasi.

The appeal of owning a tropical paradise, Bond says, is knowing it’s a place he can return to at any time, and where he makes the rules. Like Stephenson, Bond says he’s not counting on a return on capital.

Another Rich Lister, Computershare’s Chris Morris, bought Orpheus Island in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef in 2011.

In November 2012, Clive Palmer bought the Sea Temple resort in Port Douglas for $7 million, after picking up the former Club Med resort on Bora Bora in French Polynesia earlier in the year for about $10 million.

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