Inside Necker Island, the tropical paradise Richard Branson is offering up to save Virgin Atlantic

With Virgin Atlantic battling for survival, billionaire Virgin Group boss Richard Branson is asking for a bailout from the British government – and he’s offering a tropical island as collateral.

Part of the aptly named British Virgin Islands, a little way to the east of Puerto Rico, Necker Island has belonged to Branson for more than 40 years, developed from nothing after purchasing it in the late 1970s.

At 30 hectares it’s not one of the larger islands in the archipelago, but it’s certainly one of the more luxurious. Complete with private pools, tennis courts, butlers and screensaver beaches, Necker is a popular retreat for the rich and famous, and hosts everything from tech summits to tennis tournaments.

Long unoccupied, the island first came to European attention via a social experiment, when the Daily Telegraph sent two of its journalists there in 1965 to see how long they could last as castaways.

“It was inhabited by snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas,” Don McCullin wrote later, “we were allowed the clothes we stood up in, a pocket knife, a machete, fishing line and hooks, a limited supply of matches, iodine, and a canvas sail.”

The pair caught and cooked triggerfish and feasted on prickly pears, but water and patience quickly ran low. They lasted a fortnight before calling it quits, two stone lighter, and suffering from dehydration.

Branson first visited the island by helicopter in 1978 (in his own words, “to impress a girl”), and put in a low-balling offer he thought would never be accepted. Nearly a year later he received a phone call telling him that for a paltry £120,000, it was his.

The payment was a drop in the ocean, as local law demanded that new buyers develop resorts on their purchases within four years. Branson had founded Virgin just six years before and did not yet possess the millions required, so it was just as well that business boomed.

In 1989, Necker hosted Branson’s marriage to wife Joan Templeman, and has since seen the wedding of their daughter. Branson now describes the island as home, though he entertains up to 40 paying guests at any given time in the Balinese-style villas, and has made a habit of hosting the great and the good.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Branson arrives hanging from a helicopter for his wedding to Joan Templeman in 1989 (PA)</figcaption>
Branson arrives hanging from a helicopter for his wedding to Joan Templeman in 1989 (PA)

Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Necker for a summit in 2006, while Barack Obama learned to kite-surf there shortly after stepping down from presidency in 2017. Four-time Olympic gold medal-winning sailor Ben Ainslie was an involuntary visitor in 2015, after getting into difficulty off the coast and being rescued by Branson’s watersports team.

Often portrayed as an oasis of tranquillity, the island’s ascension has not all been plain sailing. In 2011, a fire tore through one of the main buildings after it was hit by lightning during a storm. All 20 occupants escaped unharmed, including Hollywood A-lister Kate Winslet, and Branson’s then 87-year old mother.

Branson and his team took refuge in a wine cellar when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, but above ground the island was eviscerated. “I have never seen anything like this,” he wrote in a blogpost afterwards, “whole houses and trees have disappeared.”

The damage was quickly repaired, and today Necker Island stands ready to accept visitors. If, that is, it can survive the choppy waters enveloping Branson’s business empire.

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