Private Island Resorts
"WE ARE EXTREMELY PRIVATE," warned carl henderson, the general manager of Frégate Island Private, a new resort in the Seychelles.In previous jobs, Hendersonhelped launch Bali's Amankila and managed the palace of the king of Jordan. "If a staff member tells you the name of anyone who's stayed here," he said sternly, "I'll be disappointed."
A day later, Henderson would have been chagrined to discover, a chatty masseuse dished about past guests during a facial and pedicure on the terrace of my clifftop villa overlooking the Indian Ocean. While smoothing on aromatherapeutic oils, she revealed that a guest had once flashed a helicopterful of arrivals. "Let's give 'em a show," the chic matron had shouted from the massage table as the chopper buzzed in.
Obviously the masseuse trusted me enough that when I casually asked whether she'd worked on any celebs, she giggled and answered with a sigh, "Bond... James Bond." She then gleefully told of Pierce Brosnan, who, after filming The World Is Not Enough, booked three of Frégate's $1,400-a-night villas for his extended family, and was able to hide from the paparazzi for weeks.
A coconut-palm-covered outcroppingoff the east coast of Africa devoted to one 16-villa resort, Frégate appeals to press-shy celebrities, corporate titans seeking solitude, and millionaires harboring Robinson Crusoe fantasies. The small number of rooms ensures that a visitor will share the 740-acre island with no more than 39 other sybarites.
PRIVATE ISLANDS ARE NOT A NEW CONCEPT. THEY'VE EXISTED IN THE MALDIVES SINCE THE SIXTIES, in the form of a few ramshackle cottages plunked down on a dollop of sand. In the United States, blue-blood lodges in the middle of lakes have been around as long as anyone can remember. But a luxury resort on an island with talcum beaches and clear blue water--think Grand Hotel on the Blue Lagoon--was the 1980 brainchild of American cable television entrepreneurturnedcastaway Richard Evanson. In fact, Evanson's home in Fiji was the setting for Brooke Shields's desert isle coming-of-age flick. After the film crew departed in 1980, Evanson opened his idyllic getaway to paying guests as Turtle Island, a private resort.
"It was that Fantasy Island dream," says Evanson, who presides over 14 thatched-roof bungalows. Twelve hundred dollars a night covers everything at Turtle Island: horseback riding, sunset sails, lobster-and-champagne lunches on deserted beaches. Similar developments soonpopped up across the Fijian archipelago, in the Caribbean, around Southeast Asia, off Africa, along the Great Barrier Reef--anywhere with year-round sun, fabulous beaches, and islands big enough to hold just one resort.
The king of this burgeoning business is Farhad Vladi, a Hamburg-based broker who has sold almost 700 islands in 28 years. Vladi got the Crusoe bug in college and became fixated on buying his own sandcastle. When he discovered he couldn't afford one, he instead helped find a buyer for a private island in the Seychelles. Using his $30,000 commission, Vladi started a business, dealing in everything from tiny pine-covered refuges in Canada (for as little as $40,000) to $2 million paradises in French Polynesia.
"The first so-called resort island I sold was extremely primitive," recalls Vladi, who also acts as a travel agent of sorts, booking rooms at private-island resorts worldwide. "Today you have places like Frégate where you don't walk on sand but on marble, and instead of coconut milk you drink fine French wine." These posh hideaways have proliferated in the past two or three years, Vladi says, because of technological advances likeE-mail and cell phones. "Busy people used to feel they couldn't afford to spend holidays away from civilization. Now a guest can be lying in a hammock under a coconut tree on a lonely island somewhere off Belize, and he's got faxes of the morning papers in Germany. It's a new world."
SOME 20 YEARS AGO, VLADI SOLD FR&EACUTE;GATE AND ITS 19TH-CENTURY coconut plantation to the current owner, a German businessman who is so private--and rich--that he refuses to reveal his name. The previous owner was forced to leave the island because of failing health.
After the sale was completed, he invited Vladi to accompany him back to the island to collect some personal belongings. When they left, the owner asked the helicopter pilot to circle around, then opened the window and threw one rose to the ground. "He had tears in his eyes," says Vladi. "That's how emotionally attached you can get."
The current owner is attached emotionally and financially. So much so that he decided to turn his longtime family getaway into Frégate Island Private, pouring well over $45 million into building the resort, which opened in late 1998. Despite the lofty room rate, Frégate still runs at a deficit and will do so for many years, claims founding general manager Rolf Berthold, who left in December to open his own resort in Tobago. "Frégate is the owner's passion, and he wanted to share it with the world," says Berthold. "It's not a moneymaking operation."
So what do you get for $1,400 a night,besides glorious beaches and miles of tropical scenery?Well, it's easier to say what you don't get: transportation from the international airport on Mahé (you have to arrange your own flight by helicopter or small plane). Nor do you get drinks (extra) or diving (also extra) or even trips to nearby islands on the $2 million fishing boat. A guest staying for the five-night minimum can count on spending upwards of $10,000, not including international flights.
But the kind of people who vacation here aren't complaining. These are island aficionados like Gerd Waldkircher, a handsome young Swiss banker who, according to his wife, devours travel magazines, newsletters, and guidebooks every night before going to bed. "We've been to all the top resorts, the Amans and so on,"says Gerd."And Frégate really is the best. Everything's new, the villas are pristine, and the beaches are so beautiful."
When you land on the grass airstrip at the edge of a long stretch of beach, a cluster of staff members greets you with a chilled washcloth, a glass of fruit punch, and a golf cart that will be yours for the week. You're then shuttled along palm-shaded paths to one of 16 villas, each secluded in a thicket of bamboo, banyans, andwild fig trees. Many guests never leave their expansive one-bedroom retreat, with its private Jacuzzi and outdoor daybed. Villa 16--where 007 rested his head--is a favorite; its Jacuzzi is cradled by a cliff. From villas 13 to 16, you can see dolphins dancing in the surf. Villa 3 has particularly exquisite views from its outdoor shower.
Because of their polyglot culture--French, African, British--the Seychelles don't have a real native architecture, so the Dallas-based design firm of Wilson & Associates (of Mansion at MGM Grand fame) went for a Bali-meets-Texas style statement. Every space is decorated with items like ancient Javanese sculptures, hand-painted South African pottery, Thai silk pillows, and carved furniture from Africa and Asia. A team of four artisans flew in from Bali to construct the roofs on the villas, the main pavilion, and the bar (the semi-porous Balinese alang-alang thatching is not for the squeamish, however, since
the occasional giant millipede falls through). The glass-walled villas have French doors that can be opened to the constant breezes, allowing neon-green geckos to skitter past the mosquito nettingdraped bed. Botticino marble floors are edged in African Chamfuta teak that's polished so frequently and diligently that anyone barefoot must beware of slipping. And the bathrooms--oh, the bathrooms!--are made up of outdoor and indoor showers, mammoth vanities, and neck-deep soaking tubs with bar upon bar of heavenly coconut soap. The living area has wide Balinese daybeds that can sleep two children (kids under 12 stay at no extra cost, one of the few freebies on Frégate).
During the day, the resort lives up to its name, since it's deliciously easy to disappear. Make your way down the 60-plus steps to Anse Bambous, a deserted white-sand beach. Hike up 410-foot granite Mont Signal to the highest point on the island--again, you'll find no one. It appears that most visitors prefer to do nothing: James Millet, the resort's resident ornithologist, says that guests rarely sign up for his forest bird-watching tours, missing the opportunity to spot huge beetles and the rare magpie robin. Likewise, Anse Parc, home of giant tortoises, gets few visitors, although kids sometimes stop by for a little "tortoise surfing."
Where you might happen upon other people is by the infinity pool or on Anse Victorin, a perfect specimen of a beach that requires a journey down 80 rocky steps, or Anse Macquereau, where a daily barbecue lunch is served. And most guests go diving and snorkeling off Îlot Frégate, where a coral reef teems with stingrays, moray eels, and sharks.
One curious part of the experience at Frégate--and at many private islands--is the food. Perhaps the insanely rich tire of the monotony of five-star cuisine, since the menu at Frégate is homespun, at best. But then,guests aren't turning up their noses at freshly caught langoustines, grilled and served with a simple butter-and-lime sauce. Three nights a week, dinner goes buffet-style at the old plantation house down by the marina. Coke-bottle torches light the path to a grassy spot where carved Balinese tables and elegant chairs are set up. It's all very casual, like Banana Republic's version of Out of Africa.
At Turtle Island on Fiji and many other private-island resorts, guests are encouraged to dine together and share their experiences. Frégate, mercifully, recognizes that not everyone wants to chat about that early-morning dive over coffee. There are no communal tables, no manager's cocktail party, no guest book. While families with children often befriend one another, most guests are only vaguely aware of anyone else's presence.
"there are certain kinds of people who are looking for privacy, either because they're famous or because their lives are so rushed that they want to pull up the drawbridge," says Virgin Atlantic Airlines' Richard Branson. His own Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands, belongs to a different class of resort--the entire property is rented only to single groups. Today it's one of the world's premier private-island destinations, but Necker was just a deserted isle when Branson fell in love with it. In the late 1970's, whilehe was courting his wife, he brought her to the BVI. "I didn't have muchmoney, and I thought that if I pretended I was going to buy an island, I'd get the royal treatment," says the crafty mega-mogul. "Although I wasn't serious about doing it, the red carpet was laid on." When Branson was shown Necker, "a little jewel" miles from civilization, he swore that one day he'd come back to buy it.
"Private islands are psychic refuges from everyday life," says Andrew Harper, the pseudonymous editor of Hideaway Report, a luxury travel newsletter. Harper believes that because it's becoming increasingly difficult to find places that provide escapism with style and comfort, private-island resorts have grown in popularity. And no place does it better than Frégate. "It's such a private spot that guests can walk around their villas with no clothes on and never worry," says Henderson, the resort's general manager. "Well, I can't say that I've actually seen any guests do it, but I certainly do it myself--and I haven't been caught yet."