Wish you were here

Wish you were here, by Turi Condon - 27th December 2006
(Credit: The Australian)

Actor-director Mel Gibson has one, and so does pop star Shakira. But you need more than a few million to buy a private island and escape to your own piece of paradise, writes Turi Condon

TWELVE years ago Arn Barnes bought an island off the central Queensland coast to get away from it all. But it wasn't quite as idyllic as it sounded.

The previous owner turned out to be bankrupt and the title was in dispute, so Barnes spent the next five years in legal wranglings through the Queensland Supreme Court before taking possession of his slice of white sand and azure sea. The moral: one way or another, you pay for paradise.

The price of private islands is as varied as their buyers, who range from movie stars to con men and those, like Barnes, who just want isolation. You can pay as little as $US50,000 ($64,000) for a 1ha atoll in The Philippines, which island broker Cheyenne Morrison says he sold while standing outside the church on his wedding day in 2004, to Mel Gibson's $US15 million outlay for Mago Island in Fiji and up to $US75 million for what is the most expensive island on the market, Fiji's Vatu Vara. And that's before the sorts of problems that beset Barnes.

Forbes magazine's website carries a list of the most expensive islands for sale in 2006.

Topping the list was Isla de sa Ferradura off the northern coast of Ibiza, Spain, at $US39.7million. Its 5.6ha in the bay of San Miguel has a luxurious white hacienda with a home theatre and revolving terrace overlooking a swimming pool with its own waterfall and bar. There's also a cave complex housing a whirlpool, solarium and steam bath.

Second place was a tie between the undeveloped Cerralvo Island off the coast of Baja, Mexico, and a deserted resort, Pakatoa Island in New Zealand. Both have a price tag of $US35 million.

In October, pop star Shakira and Pink Floyd's Roger Waters headed a group of investors who paid $US16 million for the 283ha Bonds Cay in the Bahamas.

Finding an island to buy isn't hard. Property website realestate.com.au has two Australian islands listed. The one off Queensland has drawn nearly 5000 hits and the other, off Tasmania, nearly 2000.

There are even specialist island brokers. The US-based Coldwell Banker and German-Canadian Vladi Private Islands have the lion's share. Vladi claims to have sold 2000 islands in its 30-year history and has pages of islands for sale on its website. Coldwell Banker, which has top-end property franchisees in Australia, also has islands for sale on its portal.

But while listings of multimillion-dollar islands abound, closing a deal is a bit harder.

Port Douglas-based Morrison, from Coldwell Banker, says he has 180 islands worth $US700 million listed but so far his most expensive sale has been $3 million. He has Vatu Vara on his books but he acknowledges December's coup may pose a stumbling block.

The 43-year-old Morrison says if he were to sell Vatu Vara, he could retire. "All I've got to do is sell one island a year and I'm doing fine." But there can be a downside to being an island broker: "I was in the Bali bombing, the last one," he says.

Telling real buyers from voyeurs and crooks is also a problem. "No matter how rich they are, there are still tyre kickers," he says. "I have a whole file on con men. I've had Russian mafia and Italian mafia; $35 million prices attract con men." For any island above $US1million, Coldwell Banker requires potential buyers to prove their financial bona fides.

Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp reportedly own islands but most celebrities aren't interested in Australia, which has a coastline dotted with comparative bargains. "For US celebrities, it's an 18-hour flight to get here," Morrison says. "They look in the Caribbean and the Bahamas." He cites rumours that Russell Crowe has run an eye over Pakatoa Island in New Zealand, however.

Closer to home, some of Australia's smart money recognised the potential for island residential and resort redevelopment a few years ago. The Oatley family, which sold its Rosemount Estate to Southcorp six years ago for $1.5 billion, bought Whitsundays' Hamilton Island for almost $200 million in 2004. Sydney developer Terry Agnew owns Great Keppel, Brisbane developer Kevin Seymour teamed up with Daydream Island owner Vaughan Bullivant, and former ironman turned property developer Grant Kenny has taken a stake in the Lady Elliot resort.

But sealing the deal is just the beginning. Island development and living costs are at least 30 per cent higher than on the mainland because of the expense of transporting materials, goods and labour. You also have to generate electricity, treat your own sewage and, for some, desalinate drinking water.

Former journalist turned property developer Chris Mattingley is selling Bamborough Island off the central Queensland coast. Despite its beauty, and the cachet of owning an island, it is costly and Mattingley has other developments where he wants to use the capital. The island is leasehold grazing land and Mattingley says annual lease payments are $12,000. "Then you have to insure it, supply your own power and there isn't a hardware store on the corner when you need a box of nails," he says.

Would he do it again? "Maybe, at another stage of my life. It certainly hasn't been a negative experience, it's just having the time to enjoy it."

If you can't afford to buy, you can always rent. Double Island off Cairns was bought by OzEmail internet tycoon Sean Howard for $4.5 million in 2000 and can be hired lock stock and barrel. Ten guests staying three nights costs $35,700. There's a group discount: 40 guests for seven nights costs $157,500.

For Barnes, who has a $4.5 million price tag on Long Island, which is about halfway between Rockhampton and Mackay, it's past the high tide mark. The island was a family holiday spot for years but Barnes doesn't use it much these days. "I'm 73 now and I've had too many birthdays along the way," he says.

There's a Singapore-based Australian expat negotiating to buy his 4800ha island. Barnes says the prospective buyer, like everyone else, is looking for a place to get away from it all.

Vatu Vara
Price: $US75 million.
Location: In Fiji's Lau group, close to Tonga.
Attractions: Limestone cliffs covered in dense jungle, white sand beaches and a flat summit, sheltered lagoons. Marketing blurb says a cross between Bora Bora and the Lost World of Arthur Conan Doyle. Mel Gibson owns the neighbouring Mago island.
History: Reputedly there's buried treasure. The island was once owned by Joe Thompson, an American seaman with a seemingly endless supply of gold coins. Thompson was insane at his death and the secret of his treasure, if it ever existed, died with him.
Inclusions: Undeveloped.
Title: Freehold.
Negatives: Mel Gibson and the coup in Fiji.
Bamborough Island
In the Duke Group, named after British royalty. Bamborough Castle, Northumberland, was founded by Ida, king of the Angles, in the 6th century.
Price: About $2 million.
Location: In the Coral Sea off the central Queensland coast.
Attractions: Whales and turtles, rocky headlands, nine sandy beaches and secluded coves. History: Was once part of a single pastoral holding with nearby Marble Island. Marble has been used as a hunting resort, mostly by Americans pursuing the island's deer.
Inclusions: Airstrip, dam and 11 rainwater tanks. The four-bedroom home is furnished and has a mainland phone line. There's also a caretaker's or guest's residence.
Title: Residential leasehold expiring in 2021.
Negatives: Americans with guns nearby.

Vansittart Island
Price: $2.9 million
Location: In the Furneaux Group, eastern Bass Strait, Tasmania.
Attractions: A rugged coastline interspersed with long sandy beaches. Fairy penguins, sea eagles and mutton-birds can be seen.
History: First settled by sealers in the 1800s. In 1912 the windjammer Farsund was wrecked 200m off the southeast coast.
Inclusions: The 607ha island was mostly used for grazing and includes an old house.
Title: Freehold, leasehold and crown land.
Negatives: Snakes, mostly harmless.

Keswick Island
Price: $44 million, negotiable.
Location: Whitsunday Islands.
Attractions: 513ha, mostly national park, and white sandy coves. Approval for a five-star hotel, marinas and 800 homes.
History: Has had a few owners.
Inclusions: 131ha of partly developed land along 4.5km of ocean front. An airstrip.
Title: Leasehold with 90 years to run.
Negatives: Could eventually house 3000 people at any one time.

Turi Condon is The Australian's property editor.



Cheyenne Morrison

Eco Tourism