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The luxurious playgrounds of billionaires

Forbes Traveler tracks down the top billionaires’ favorite playgrounds — islands, yachts, stretches of tundra.
Image: Antigua
When Oprah Winfrey wants crystal-clear Caribbean waters and perfect palm trees, she returns to her playground on Antigua, where Eric Clapton and Giorgio Armani are among her famous neighbors. Robert Harding Picture Library L / Alamy
/ Source: Forbes

It's been a rough year for the world's wealthy. If it wasn't the collapsing real estate market, it was plummeting oil and gas. If it wasn't protectionist trade policies, it was a volatile foreign exchange market. And then there's a certain high-profile Ponzi schemer who allegedly bilked his fair share of billionaires, including Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg.

What's a billionaire to do?

Some decided it was time to sell.

In June, 2008, Oprah Winfrey put her Fisher Island condo up for sale. Asking price for this mini-playground in Miami's most exclusive offshore neighborhood? $2.09 million. She probably doesn't need the money, though, despite seeing her reported fortune fall from $2.5 billion in 2008.

The queen of television still has her 60-acre Maui getaway and her 42-acre "Promised Land" estate in Montecito, Calif. But when Oprah wants turquoise water and lazily swaying palm trees, she returns to her playground on Antigua, where she counts Eric Clapton and Giorgio Armani among her famous neighbors.

Other billionaires decided it was time to buy. Roman Abramovich, the controversial Russian billionaire playboy and oilman, spent a cool £18 million — at the time worth approximately $35 million — for a 200-acre ranch on Wildcat Ridge near Aspen. Abramovich already owns a number of playgrounds around the world, not the least being his five yachts dubbed the "Abramovich Navy." The largest of these ships is the 377-foot Pelorus megayacht, said to have cost $300 million.

Abramovich isn't the only noted yachtsman among the world's billionaires. In 2003, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen reportedly paid $200 million for his own private playground, the 416-foot megayacht Octopus. This floating five-star hotel features a pool, a basketball court, a movie theater, two helicopters, a 10-person submarine, a jet-ski dock and a 60-person crew.

Recent ports of call are said to include St. Bart's, Bora Bora, Tahiti and Cozumel. But he could be anywhere — the Octopus was built as an expedition ship, with architecture that allows for excursions anywhere, even to inhospitable destinations.

Allen's former colleague, Bill Gates, is himself no stranger to harsh environments. Since officially retiring from Microsoft in July, the philanthropic billionaire has dedicated his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose development initiatives are based mainly in Africa.

But when he needs a break, Gates has been known to spend time at Greenland's only ski center, the Apussuit Adventure Camp. At this remote resort 15 miles outside Maniitsoq, West Greenland, there are no ski lifts and, more importantly, not many people.

"Given the small populations in Greenland's towns, one can bring their own staff and gallivant around town going completely unnoticed," says Mads Nordlund of Greenland Tourism.

Getting away from the press and paparazzi is the appeal of most billionaire playgrounds. Still, it's virtually impossible to get away completely—at least when you date movie stars.

When François-Henri Pinault — son of French fashion and art mogul, François Pinault — wanted to woo his on-again/off-again fiancée, movie star Salma Hayek, he set sail for Ibiza. In October, 2008, paparazzi spotted the couple frolicking with friends, family and their 1-year-old daughter, Valentina, off the shores of this elite playground in the Mediterranean.

Pinault must've done something right — he and Hayek were married on the following Valentine's Day.

Whether it's seeking out crystal-clear Caribbean waters, retreating to a mountain hideaway or sailing the seven seas in style, the world's billionaires are, in some ways, just like us. They want to relax in privacy and luxury. The only difference is, they don't get worried when the bill arrives.