Jack and Darien Conlee's happily-ever-after story goes like this: After sailing around the Bay Islands of Honduras in 1979, they fancifully thought they might one day like to buy a little island of their own in the area. They returned two years later, and after a while, they found the perfect island — Half Moon Cay — and they were in escrow by the end of the day.
It took two and a half years to build a house, but the couple moved in (along with their best friends) full-time by 1985, and they have lived in the home ever since. Jack Conlee was a plastic surgeon in Corpus Christie, Tex., and Darien has a nursing degree, so they figured they could care for any medical problems; and the island is just three miles away (a five minute ride by speedboat) from the island of Guanaja, where there is an airport. During the market boom, however, the Conlees built a second house in New Orleans, and now it seems as if they've got one house too many, so they're selling either the island or the property in New Orleans.
Few people follow through on the private island fantasy as the Conlees did, but owning a private island — being master of one's own domain — holds a universal, almost mythic appeal.
"It's a fascinating part of the market," says Mark Lester, a Vancouver-based real estate broker who has sold a large number of private islands. "There is a very particular type of purchaser, though — it's usually someone who already has a busy urban life and is looking for some privacy and seclusion; and they probably already have a couple homes and they're just looking for something different."
Plenty of interested buyers
Whatever the demographic may be, there seem to be plenty of interested buyers. John Christie, vice president of Bahamas-based real estate agency H.G. Christie, says the level of interest in private islands seems to be at a peak. So far this year, the company has seen double the level of interest (from callers, lookers and buyers) in private islands over what he saw last year, and last year, he says, was a "good year."
The price of owning an island doesn't seem to be deterring buyers, either. Private island ownership is expensive. In addition to the asking price, buyers have to pay a premium for transportation to remote corners of the world, and private island owners often have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building out an infrastructure (transporting an electric generator, water tank, and so on). Depending on where the island is, its physical size and how much work needs to be done, the outlay can be anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to well over several million dollars.
The raw land itself isn't necessarily a bargain, either. For example, H.G. Christie represents Scrub Island, an undeveloped island in the British West Indies, which is on the market for $50 million.
When we looked for the best private islands on the market, we tried to find islands that were close to civilization, at a range of price points and in a variety of geographical locations. Some islands didn't make it because they hadn't been developed yet or required extensive renovations. Bottle Cay, for example, an idyllic little island in South Eleuthera, Bahamas, is just 200 miles away from Florida, and the price is $800,000, but the existing cottage on the island would require major work before it is in move-in condition.
Other islands — such as Norway Island near Vancouver, Canada — where most of the heavy lifting has been done, almost appeared to be a bargain when you consider the fact that the owners have already taken care of the upfront expenses of building a home, infrastructure, and so on. The price of Norway Island is 3.95 million CAD (about $3 million USD), and it includes three homes; a log guest home, a 4,500-square-foot main residence, and a caretaker's cottage; It also has a 60,000-gallon pool, tennis court, fruit orchard, and a 200-foot protected dock.