This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Don't get him wrong -- David Copperfield loves his private island. In 2006, the illusionist paid $50 million for 11 Bahamian islands, including Musha Cay, where he spends about 10 weeks a year at a compound he built there. There's an outdoor movie theater, a 10,000-square-foot main house and a nearly 2-kilometer sandbar that can be explored (or used for alfresco dining) during low tide.
Copperfield's staff has bred macaws that are trained to pick up flotsam and jetsam that washes ashore and deposit it in receptacles. Musha Cay, which is in the Bahamas' Exumas archipelago, has hosted the weddings of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Tyler Perry has been a guest, and Mel Gibson visited to study its infrastructure before buying an island in Fiji. Copperfield says that the island, which anyone can visit provided the $37,500-a-night rate isn't unmanageable, offers him "this incredible kind of cleansing sorbet of creativity. It is many, many people's dream to own a private island, as it was mine."
But there are also the sort of everyday problems -- like a broken pipe, says Copperfield -- that can become serious headaches, requiring a plane ride just to keep the water running. This, it seems, is the reality of private-island ownership: Paradise doesn't come cheap.
"Always be careful what you wish for," says Copperfield. "It's like when you see Fred Astaire dance, and you say you want to dance like Fred Astaire. It looks effortless on the outside, but there are bleeding toes and sprained ankles."
But the allure of private islands long has captivated the sort of Hollywood players and business titans for whom tourist- and paparazzi-free privacy, a postcard-perfect setting and, of course, bragging rights trump everything. Marlon Brando, for example, bought Tahiti's Tetiaroa Atoll in 1965. In recent years, a new class of notables interested in such properties has emerged: Shakira (Bonds Cay, Bahamas) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Blackadore Caye, Belize) are among those who have purchased or invested in islands. Improvements in technology and the proliferation of private jets and modern airports in hard-to-reach corners of the globe have made it easier to own an island -- provided you've got millions of dollars to spare. "They buy it because they can; it is ego gratification," says Westside Estate Agency chairman Stephen Shapiro. "It's a great talking point. You want to go on vacation where nobody is going to see you except the people you invite."
Some egos are bigger than others: In June, billionaire Larry Ellison bought the 141-square-mile Hawaiian island Lanai, the state's sixth-largest. With a sale price said to be in the range of $500 million, it is believed to be the priciest sale of an island ever. But with two Four Seasons resorts and about 3,200 residents, Lanai is a far cry from the often deserted postage stamp-sized isles buyers purchase elsewhere.
While Belize, Fiji, Greece and the northwestern and northeastern U.S. (the Du Pont family has owned an island off Maryland) are home to their share of islands, the Bahamas -- a collection of more than 3,000 islands -- is the epicenter of the private-island world. And it's the country's 360-cay Exumas archipelago, which has exploded in popularity as flights to Exuma International Airport have increased, that has become a veritable Hamptons of the Bahamas. (Owners often fly into the airport on Great Exuma Island and charter boats, helicopters or planes to take them to their properties.) Everyone from Johnny Depp to LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault is an owner there. "It's the one place we can take the kiddies to the beach without a bunch of lenses coming out," the actor told David Letterman in 2009.
Former investment banker Steve Harrington, co-owner of 145-acre Clove Cay in the Exumas, calls the area, just 300 miles or so from Florida, "the filet of the whole Caribbean. It is spectacular because the area is all beautiful turquoise water with a sandy, shallow bottom." Other notables who have bought islands in the Exumas include Perry, who spent $6.4 million for 20-acre White Bay Cay in 2009; Muslim spiritual leader Aga Khan IV, who bought 349-acre Bell Island in 2009 for $100 million; and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, who purchased 17-acre Goat Cay for an unknown sum around 2006 and are completing a large residence there, according to sources.
At any given time, there are at least a few hundred islands for sale around the world, and there are even a handful of firms that exclusively deal in such properties, but no real estate data firm tracks the sales. Harrington says that, ironically, at the height of the global recession in 2009, the market was most active: "The trend is going in a certain direction; the next time the world gets financially healthy, there is a boom coming." Real estate agent Mauricio Umansky of The Agency believes that because of limited supply -- only 10 percent of the Exumas islands can be developed, for example -- a foundering economy won't put the brakes on growing demand: "There is always going to be a market."
But buyers can be tough to come by; it's a specific subset of the ultra-wealthy that covets such a property. Trista Rullan of Hilton & Hyland has listings for islands in Fiji (Katafanga Island, $20 million) and Honduras (George's Caribbean Island, $26 million), and both have been on the market for more than a year."I get a lot of interest, but we want to know financials up front," says the agent. "One-tenth have the wherewithal. The rest of them are dreamers."
Islands experts say that beyond other obvious factors such as location and linear feet of beach, valuable qualities include deep-water access for larger vessels and elevation because flatter properties are susceptible to changes in sea level. "Faith Hill's is well insulated from rising tides; it has a lot of height to it," says Extra real estate correspondent Michael Corbett, who recently visited the Exumas on assignment.
Other properties on the market include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's 292-acre island off the coast of Washington state ($13.5 million) and tech billionaire Craig McCaw's 780-acre island near Victoria, B.C. ($75 million).
Of course, many of the conveniences that people take for granted on the mainland are expensive to bring to a tropical idyll. Challenges range from the logistics of building on a remote property to installing utilities. Copperfield says that in order to power generators, fuel must be brought in on a barge, though he is exploring solar energy as an option. He says construction on an island costs four times what it would in a more conventional environment. And owners sometimes can be restricted in development due to environmental concerns or other issues. According to sources, Leaf Cay, an Exumas island believed to have once been owned by Nicolas Cage, cannot be developed because it is home to a critically endangered subspecies of the Northern Bahamian rock iguana. The property is for sale at $7 million. (Cage's publicist did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.) Some island-owning notables, such as Depp, have kept development to a minimum. Others, such as Copperfield and Richard Branson, have transformed theirs into luxurious resorts for those who can afford rates that can top $50,000 a night and require a weeklong stay.
Copperfield says he bought his islands -- which he has dubbed "The Islands of Copperfield Bay" -- because he wanted "a new palette to create my magic." He's spent $35 million renovating Musha Cay, adding a building with a Gilligan's Island room that shows the sitcom on a continuous loop on a vintage TV and displays artifacts such as the character Lovey Howell's pearl earrings. Musha Cay sleeps up to 24 guests, who can participate in an interactive treasure hunt in which actors play pirates.
Still, some larger developments have rankled conservationists and locals. Khan has been criticized in the Bahamian press for a plan to dredge an area near his Bell Island to create a marina for super-yachts. And still others have built the sorts of amenities one might find back home -- and then some. In the Exumas, a golf course is being built on Bock Cay, which is principally owned by the co-founders of Fry's Electronics. And on Branson's 74-acre Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands -- where Jimmy Fallon married producer Nancy Juvonenin 2007 -- guests can charter a submarine.
Says Copperfield, "If you were a movie producer or a magician, what would you do?"
PARADISE FOR SALE: Your own coral reef! White-sand beaches! Two tony properties test the market
Katafanga island, Fiji: This 225-acre island "in the Beverly Hills of Fiji," says listing agent Trista Rullan of Hilton & Hyland, boasts a lagoon and a runway that can accommodate a private jet. The property has infrastructure in place because owner Christian Jagodzinski, a German entrepreneur, started building a resort there before deciding to sell it. "After I had my first child, I did not get there as much as I would have liked," he says in an e-mail interview. "It's time to let someone else who will use it more enjoy the island."
George's Caribbean Island, Honduras: Rullan also is selling this 29-acre property, which includes a four-bedroom villa, freshwater pool, outdoor hammock terrace and boat dock. "It also has history -- Captain Henry Morgan stopped here in 1664," says Rullan. The ruins of a pirate fort and gunpowder depot also are said to be on the island, which is believed to have been home to generations of pirates and buccaneers. Located off the coast of Roatan, the largest of the Honduras Bay Islands, its practical features include a 55,000-gallon cistern, 2,500-foot runway and generator room.