A stay on Richard Branson's private Caribbean island, Necker Island, lets you vacation like a billionaire.
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Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

I can't say Sir Richard Branson was the most present host when I visited Necker Island this past summer. Though he'd planned to greet me and a few other lucky folks at his legendary British Virgin Islands residence, he abruptly changed plans and jetted off to the U.S. to make an earlier-than-scheduled historic flight into space. Essentially, the billionaire maverick gave us the keys to his private island pad (all 74 acres of it) and allowed us to make ourselves at home — the same place where Princess Diana and her young sons built sandcastles on the beach, where Barack Obama retreated post-presidency, and where Mariah Carey had her girlfriend getaway for all to see on MTV Cribs.

Necker Island, under Sir Branson's exclusive Virgin Limited Edition portfolio, is one of those mythic, no-introduction-needed destinations that most people only dream about. Many know it as perhaps the most famous private island, a place where the world's who's who vacations and the prices run steep (renting it outright now costs $105,000 per night for up to 40 guests). But in 2017, a Category 5 Hurricane Irma had all but devastated the iconic property, with most of the buildings flattened and vegetation destroyed in the aftermath. Now newly rebuilt with an added villa and a fresh eye for sustainability, the private island legend is back.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Getting to this exclusive paradise in the British Virgin Islands was rather arduous, thanks to the volatile reality of pandemic-era travel, which included a dizzying amount of forms, two COVID tests, and mandatory travel insurance. (As of January 2022, vaccinated travelers will not need a rapid antigen test upon arrival or to complete the BVI Gateway form.)

There are no direct flights from the continental U.S. to the British Virgin Islands, so my group flew through San Juan, Puerto Rico. Awaiting my six-person group at San Juan's airport was our private jet via Tradewind Aviation, a premium airline with charter and scheduled shuttle flights in the Caribbean and North America. After refueling in their small yet plush private lounge and having our required travel documents checked by airline staff, we were ready for our 40-minute flight to the BVI's international airport in Tortola.

It was a thrill to spot Necker Island — as well as Sir Branson's brand-new Moskito Island, which launched last year — overhead from our plane windows as we made our descent. Upon landing, we took our antigen test at the airport, collected our bags, and met with the Necker arrivals team who escorted us to a fancy speedboat — our final segment before officially setting foot on the fabled island.

On the scenic but bumpy 35-minute boat ride, I gripped my chilled Champagne glass as we barreled through the sea while swaying to Caribbean-flavored tunes, the anticipation growing by the minute. We finally arrived at the iconic red dock, and from that point on, the island staff — masked and effervescent — rolled out the red carpet for our group. Sir Branson or no Sir Branson, I knew my Necker Island experience would be one for the books.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

As we toured Necker via electric buggy, it was difficult to imagine the island — all spruced up with handsome thatched-roof villas, infinity pools, and lush greenery — was a disaster site just a few years ago. The main island hub and 11-room residence, Great House, has been restored to its former glory, perched majestically on a hilltop with arresting views of the sea beneath its high beam ceilings. The beloved flamingos and pink-feathered scarlet ibis, once scattered due to the hurricane, returned, huddling together in the hundreds around a large pond.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

There are brand-new additions, too, like the Bali Hi complex, a slick Balinese-style villa with three distinct suites bookended by two beaches. I stayed in Bali Hi's Bali Beach suite, a mini compound with a private plunge pool and indoor-outdoor showers (I got prime views of the resident flamingos as I lathered up each day). No matter your room or suite, though, face masks, sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes are supplied in each for greater peace of mind.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

What might surprise most is that Necker is rather low-key, more of a place for relaxation and peace than partying, though there's definitely a time and place for that here. And true to Branson's Virgin ethos, the staff and island ambience are more casual compared to the stuffiness you might expect from an ultra-luxe property — and I found that to be a plus. It's barefoot luxury at its best.

I spent most of my time outside the suite, as there's so much to do on the island. Water activities range from snorkeling and stand-up paddling to more rigorous pursuits like waterskiing, kitesurfing (one of Sir Branson's favorite hobbies), and scuba diving. One can also compete in tennis tournaments on the pro-level courts, or stretch to panoramic island views with expert-led yoga classes. Save for an exhilarating sail on a nonmotorized catamaran, I mainly stayed on land, unwinding with a massage treatment at the beachfront spa, strolling along the many beaches, and relaxing in any given pool or hot tub — notably, Eagle's Nest, a rooftop hot tub space crowning the Great House, perfect for sunsets views and stargazing.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

My group's sole off-island excursion was a speedy boat ride to the famous (and often notoriously crowded) Virgin Gorda Baths. Apprehensive about the crowd numbers that awaited on the shore, I walked past the vendors at the entrance and into the heart of the national park to see no one. The BVI's most-visited attraction was deserted, with only our group around to explore the beguiling balancing act of massive boulders strewn along a pristine coastline.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Newly appointed executive chef Guillaume Galvez runs Necker's culinary program, infusing French flavors with international and Caribbean cuisine. The most memorable meal at Necker is none other than the floating sushi bar, where an endless spread of rolls and sashimi are presented on an ice-filled kayak in the Beach Pool. Gimmicky, sure, but it was fun to nosh on fresh tuna rolls in waist-deep water with cocktails, music, and fun fellow guests.

I was also impressed with Necker's new sustainability-driven direction. Bamboo straws fully replaced plastic, and the combination of newly installed wind turbines and more the 1,200 solar panels has helped the island run up to 95% on renewable energy, with plans to achieve 100% over time. Even the blue floral staff shirts and reimagined red dock are made of recycled plastic from the ocean.

Necker Island in Bali
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition

Wildlife conservation has been a priority for Necker Island for decades, too, as it rehabilitates endangered species such as giant tortoises (who roam in their own stretch of coastline at Necker's Turtle Beach) and those gorgeous flamingos, reintroduced after previous hunting practices from other islands eliminated the population entirely. And though native to Madagascar, critically endangered lemurs find a safe haven here to breed and thrive, as they're looked after by an expert team of conservationists. Having the precocious ring-tailed mammals hop upon your neck and arms would make even the most downcast person crack a widened smile.

On our final night, we had dinner in the Great House before partaking in Necker's famous White Party, where guests twirl the night away to DJ tunes and free-flowing shots and tasty cocktails; dancing on tables is encouraged. I won't share all the details of our bacchanal, but the night did conclude with our group dunking into the Great House pool with our crisp, white garments, hooting and carrying on in high spirits after four privileged and incredible days. Other private island hosts might've scoffed at us for being "too extra." Sir Branson, likely delighted at how at-home we felt in his refreshed residence by the trip's end, would've joined us.