Jim Boling gave up "public" vacations two years ago, after a holiday fiasco pushed him over the edge. He and his family were lounging on the beach at a resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas, when, after returning from the bar to freshen his drink, two women accused him of stealing their beach chairs--seats his family had reserved at 8:30 that morning. Tired of waiting in lines for towels, lines for food, lines for a beverage, lines to ride the elevator, the Ohio jewelry store owner whisked his family off to Garden Cay, a deserted private island in the Bahamas. Just Mom, Dad and two teenage daughters sharing seven acres with some geckos.
"It got to the point where when a boat passed by, I wondered what they were doing in my ocean," says Boling, whose family returned to Garden Cay for a second consecutive spring break.
It's a little-known fact that travelers--whether seeking utter solitude, bored by typical island vacations or somehow able to spend a lot of money to fulfill a vacation fantasy--can find private island sanctuaries, for rent or purchase, in almost every body of water imaginable: Canadian lakes, three oceans, European inlets, Mississippi bayous and more. Better still, thanks to a small group of island brokers, shopping for a private island can be as easy as ordering a fleece jacket from Lands' End. Pick the style, season and price range from one of several glossy brochures or online listings, and off you go.
"It used to be the only way to find a private island was to be shipwrecked," remarks Farhad Vladi of Vladi Private Islands, an island broker. "Now, you just have to call or fax us."
Vladi, the world's preeminent island real estate agent, stashes about 12,000 archives on islands in his office in Germany, has 100 to 200 properties actively on the market and showcases mini-postcard pictures of available plots on his Web site. He has sold 700 islands in 22 years, keeping two for himself, and provides new owners with island management services from his Nova Scotia branch.
"Everyone [connected with island rentals and sales] knows our company. It's not a statement I say because I am arrogant, but because the market is so small," Vladi says. "It's like the painting market. Everyone knows who is dealing in van Goghs."
Stateside, John Greer of Unusual Villas & Island Rentals in Richmond offers a grab bag of exotic islands and luxury villas and, like an ad hoc travel agent, also books flights and plans off-island excursions for clients. In host countries, real estate agents and law firms--who often have insiders' knowledge of islands about to hit the market--can suggest some hidden jewels that may have slipped past the radar screens of larger international firms. And for serious shoppers, the venerable Sotheby's International Realty sells islands from the Deep South to the Far North of British Columbia.
Most of these agents also supply transportation from the mainland to the island, especially in more remote regions. Agents will meet travelers at the airport closest to their final destination and, like a resort's goodwill ambassador, provide door-to-door service via air shuttle (island hoppers to seaplanes) or water taxi (Boston whalers to yachts) or both.
Renting an Island
Vladi Private Islands proclaims, "If you can afford a car, you can afford an island!" The island real estate agent handily fails to mention the type of car involved. It can be a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. But, happily, it can also be a VW bus with 250,000 miles on the clock.
For shoestring travelers, Vladi offers the "Robinson Crusoe" adventure. The $385 survival kit includes a three-day stay on a "Robinson" island in Panama, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, the Bahamas or on the (alleged) original Crusoe island west of Chile. The package also includes a two-person tent, fishing rod, hammock, Swiss Army knife, compass, Robinson Crusoe novel and mineral water with a message in the bottle--all packed in an Italian designer bag.
Vladi also provides a $9.90-a- night deal. Choose an island, and Vladi will deposit you there for as long as you wish--or can last. Food and shelter not included.
Moving up from the survivalist vacation to what's known in the island-brokerage trade as a self-catering rental is like upgrading from the cargo hold to business class. "Anyone who makes $30,000 a year can afford to rent a private island, like Garden Cay or Dead Man's Island," says Greer, founder and president of Unusual Villas. "A lot of people don't realize it's not just for the rich and famous."
For starters, mid-range islands provide a roof and four walls, as well as running water, electricity and other mainland staples. Plus a lot of perks. Vancouver's Norway Island, a stomping ground for seals and whales, includes a grass tennis court, fireplace, sauna, boats and fishing equipment. Price tag: $300 per day for two, with half board. Down in the tropics, Garden Cay has a main house with a rooftop whirlpool, gourmet kitchen, two guest homes--or "snore boxes"--a dinghy and 17-foot sailboat. A grocer on the nearby island of Man-O-War delivers and stocks the fridge for new arrivals (just fax a shopping list two weeks prior; pay later). Or--back to Crusoeland here--one can forage for food, picking grapefruit and coconuts along the pebbly trails or fish for grouper in the front yard. Cost: $3,195 per week for up to six people.
At most self-service islands, however, extracurricular activities cost, well, extra. Greer will organize reef-diving trips ($500 to $650 for two dives), bonefishing and deep-sea fishing expeditions ($190 per day for two people and $450 to $600 a day, respectively) and even an airlift to nightclubs ($500 to $700 per hour). Or, visitors can dinghy over to neighboring islands and hire local guides. But for many private-island renters, the entertainment comes cheap: reading, sleeping, daydreaming, stargazing.
"We enjoy the solitude, to be able to read the book we never got a chance to read, catch up on the conversation we started two weeks ago, just relax and enjoy each other's company," says Joanne Camm, who, with husband Peter, has rented Garden Cay four times. "You are your own entertainment."
Yet for those craving more activity, more pampering or maybe even more privacy, Vladi, Greer and others can deliver. In the 19-room Waterford Castle on the River Suir of Ireland (almost $200 per person per day), one can go days without seeing a soul, or even one's spouse. Hint: Check the 18-hole golf course, riding stables or bowling alley. Or ask the cook.
The choice of accouterments on Necker Island reads like a sporting goods store stock list: catamaran, windsurfer, gymnasium, tennis courts, snooker table, fishing gear and inflatable banana boat. The island, owned by Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson and the site recently of a Sports Illustrated bathing suit shoot, sleeps 24 and can cost $18,000 to $22,500 a day, depending on the season and number of guests. During Celebration Week, however, rates dip to $12,000 per couple for the week, when the island does its best imitation of a populist nation.
Buying an Island
On every rental property, Vladi places brochures about island ownership alongside pamphlets on local sites and the list of emergency numbers, just in case the renter is ready to take the plunge and buy the island. For many, renting is just the first step in the purchase process, like taking a car out for a test drive. And, as Vladi well knows, all it takes is one smooth ride to hook the driver.
"What is an island? It is not everything that comes out of the sea," says Vladi. "It must be habitable, have drinking water, not be too far from the mainland, have a building permit available and a freehold title, be politically stable and not be on the North or South Pole."
For those of modest means who are nonetheless smitten with the idea of owning an island, head north. According to Vladi, prices in the Caribbean often are sky-high, due to the demand for turquoise water and white-sand beaches. The 1.7-acre Sandy Cay in the Bahamas, for example, goes for $900,000, while Little St. James in the U.S. Virgin Islands costs $12 million. The plethora of islands in Canada, however, almost guarantees a good deal, such as the 2.5-acre Apple Island in Nova Scotia for less than $30,000. With the rugged terrain and short summer season, a hearty and adventurous spirit is required.
One can also bargain hunt in such unlikely locales as Nicaragua, where Chaperno Island sells for $37,500, or follow the example of Whale Cay co-owner Milton W. Olen Jr., who aimlessly cruised offshore waters in search of an uninhabited island. Or, wish for a rich relative, as was the case with Rob Braxton, who inherited Garden Cay from his uncle.
"You don't always have to go for the marvelous palace," advises Vladi. "It is no more fun than a little cabin on a small island. Now, that's paradise."
However, with most of these properties hidden charges loom in building and upkeep costs. Unless sleeping on sand suffices, constructing even a one-room shanty with running water and electricity can cost up to $100,000. Maintenance can be just as pricey, especially in hurricane zones.
"The best thing about owning is control, but you pay for it in headaches and worry," says Bill Chester, a Shady Grove, Md., anesthesiologist who co-owns Darby Island in the Bahamas and rents the 800-acre, five-island cluster to defray expenses. "It's difficult troubleshooting thousands of miles away."
Moving up the price scale into the $100,000-plus range allows for developed properties and highly vaunted sites. A 100-acre tropical island on the Ring Atoll of Tikehau in French Polynesia costs about $300,000, while the hilly Ilhote Grande, south of Rio de Janeiro, includes a four-room house and helicopter landing pad for $250,000.
For those vying to join the upper echelon of private-island society, which has included such notables as Charles A. Lindbergh, John Wayne, Aristotle Onassis and Malcolm Forbes, expect to pay anywhere from $1 million up to, say, the salary of an A-list Hollywood actor. In fact, for $10 million, you can buy out Forbes. The publisher's Fiji island comes with a main house, guest chalets, treehouse, airstrip and 200-person village, plus whitewashed church and school. For more seclusion, there's a $7.5 million property on the Italian Riveria that has a chapel and watch tower dating to the Middle Ages. Closer to home is New York's Dark Island, site of a granite castle with secret passages.
But the ultimate in private islands is founding a sovereign nation--a feat no mere property buyer has yet managed. According to Harold Gray, an international lawyer with a yen for island lore, a Nevada real estate magnate came close with his Pacific island, even minting his own gold and silver coins. Yet, his Republic of Minerva was invaded by the King of Tonga, who rowed over in his wooden boat with a four-piece musical band, stuck a flag in the soil, played the national anthem and called it a day.
Garden Cay, Rob Braxton, 812-386-6155 or 500-367-2729; www. gardencay.com
Sotheby's International Realty, South and Midwest region, Zack Wright, 949-644-9200; Caribbean, 561-659-3555.
Unusual Villa & Island Rentals, John Greer, 409 F North Hamilton St., Richmond, Va. 23221, 804-288-2823 or 1-800-846-7280; www. unusualvillarentals.com
Vladi Private Islands, Ballindamm 7, 200095 Hamburg, Germany, 011-49-40-33-8989; or 1869 Upper Water St., Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3J 1S9, Canada, 902-423-3202; www.vladi-private-islands.de
CAPTION: For sale: New York's Dark Island, in the St. Lawrence Seaway, features a granite castle dating from 1900. Price: $3.5 million.