More conventionally luxurious private islands are the stuff of fantasies, the settings of James Bond hide-outs and royal honeymoons, the ultimate reward for the unfathomably famous who yearn to be left alone. Marlon Brando, for instance, had Tetiaroa, his secluded atoll in Tahiti, which he bought after filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the region. Mr. Brando had the island all to himself, but those of us with the bank accounts of mere mortals can enjoy a slice of it, now that his family last year opened it as the Brando, a 35-villa hideaway where a one-bedroom hut starts at $2,500 per night.
“Private islands” come in two varieties: Those you can hire for your exclusive use and those on which a sole resort welcomes just a handful of guests (even wealthy castaways can learn to share). Both types are growing in popularity, according to the travel agents who book them. “Demand for private island vacations has increased by 26.5% in the last two years,” said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations in New York, which specializes in luxury getaways. “Demand for ‘fancy’ is very high,” said Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors, a California agency that caters to Silicon Valley’s power players.
It doesn’t get much fancier than a place like Calivigny, an 80-acre island off Grenada that can accommodate up to 50 people and is rented only to one group of guests at a time. Included in the $140,000-a-night rate are butlers, maids and private chefs available around the clock, and a full range of sea toys—from paddleboards to a 27-foot Boston Whaler.
Who rents a private island? The sort of people who “don’t want a timetable, don’t want to share a pool, hear other languages or listen to other people’s children,” said Ileana von Hirsch, co-founder of UtraVilla, a directory of grand palazzos around the globe. “If there’s bad behavior, no one will ever know. That’s the mystique of it.”
But not all private islands come with a small army of staff, Italianate villas and price tags only an oligarch can afford. In fact, there’s an island for every taste—from the barefoot luxury of Zanzibar’s Mnemba Island, where the nearest other couple might be a pair of antelope, to the jet-set glamour of Parrot Cay in the Turks Caicos, just a three-hour flight from New York City. And there’s one for nearly every pocket book, too: You can take over all 74 acres of Richard Branson’s Necker Island in the British Virgins for $78,000 a night or stay in an A-frame lake house on Laurel Island in East Hampton, Conn., for about $125 a night—and plenty of can-do spirit (remember to bring your own sheets, towels and drinking water).
They Wanted to Be Alone
Where the rich and famous found their happy places apart
1876 // French composer Ambrose Thomas builds a château on Île Illiec, off the coast of Brittany. In 1938, Charles Lindbergh buys the 4-acre island for $16,000.
1934 // Standard Oil heir Marion Barbara Carstairs (who called herself Joe) buys Whale Cay, an 850-acre patch in the Bahamas to use as a fief of eccentricity, where she races speedboats, cross-dresses and entertains girlfriends including Marlene Dietrich—all beyond prying eyes.
1961 // Marlon Brando discovers, and later buys, Tetiaroa—13 islets surrounding a lagoon—while scouting locations for “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
1968 // Jackie Kennedy marries Aristotle Onassis on Skorpios, the tycoon’s personal plot in the Ionian Sea. In 2013, 23-year-old Russian socialite Ekaterina Rybolovleva buys the Greek island for a reported $150 million.
1976 // Scottish aristocrat Colin Tennant celebrates his 50th birthday on the Caribbean island of Mustique (which he bought in the late 1950s for about $60,000) with Mick Jagger, Princess Margaret and other swells.
2014 // Tavern Island, in Long Island Sound, where then-owner and theater director Billy “It’s Only A Paper Moon” Rose hosted Marilyn Monroe at a splashy 1950s soiree, goes on the market for nearly $11 million.
While nothing beats the privacy—and bragging rights—of having an island of one’s own, there’s also something to be said for the option of rubbing elbows with birds of a feather on the many private islands that are home to just one small resort.
Margaret Gugelmann, a fashion and luxury consultant from Connecticut, goes to Kamalame Cay two or three times a year with her husband. They always stay in one of the island’s secluded villas but are often invited to events by the family that owns the island. “Sometimes it’s cocktails,” Ms. Gugelmann said, “or a luncheon party outside. You meet amazing, really interesting people from all over the world—like the owners of Soho House or a baroness from Croatia—and become friends.” Even at peak season, there are never more than 60 people on the cay—many of whom stay in one of the villas, which are so private you can practice your downward dog en plein-air without worrying about being seen.
For the Rekindlers | Beyond Mnemba Island, Zanzibar
There are never more than 20 guests on this island off the northeastern tip of Zanzibar, where the spoiling service and the small environmental footprint might convince even the most jaded that “sustainable luxury” isn’t a contradiction in terms.
Perks: Sunset cruise in a dhow.
Price Tag: From $1,155 per person per night, all inclusive (andbeyond.com).
For the Hardscrabble Historian | Sanda Island, Scotland
This 400-acre outcrop is a long way from a tropical paradise, but Robert the Bruce used it as a hideout and, as wild and craggy sheep-studded landscapes go, it’s got cred.
Vibe: Hardcore Celtic pastoral.
Perks: whiskey, bagpipes and radiant heating.
Vibe: As chill as Mustique used to be.
Perks: Golf carts for those staying in villas.
Price Tag: Resort rooms from $250 a night; villas from $1,100 per night (kamalame.com).
For the Serious Scuba Diver | Vamizi Island, Mozambique
One of the world’s top diving spots, Vamizi is set on a pristine reef and has a resident coral expert.
Vibe: Remote and exclusive.
Perks: The water’s so clear that you might see a blacktip reef shark, even if you’re standing on land.
Price Tag: from about $3,000 a night in high season (www.vamizi.com).
For the People-Watcher | Parrot Cay by COMO, Turks and Caicos
Parrot Cay is a favorite among A-list celebs, who can hide out in their own corner of this teak-detailed compound or head to the bar if they want to be seen.
Vibe: Like walking into the pages of InStyle.
Perks: Yoga at the Shambala spa; complimentary flip flops.
Price Tag: From $550 a night (parrotcay.com).
For the Babymooners | Cheval Blanc Randheli, Maldives
Expectant parents can loll on their expansive, overwater deck and never see another soul (apart from staff, of course), or mix with other gilded birds at one of the five restaurants and three bars on Noonu Atoll, before the baby changes everything.
Vibe: Sequestered, sophisticated.
Perks: A couple of Jim Courier Tennis courts on a nearby island.
Price Tag: From $2,200 per night (randheli.chevalblanc.com/en).
For The Meditator | Ratua, Vanuatu
All of the profits from the resort on this 146-acre gem in the Vanuatu archipelago support the local community. Fifteen bungalows—refurbished 200-year-old Indonesian houses—are arranged in three villages. Horses wander freely, and kitchen staff will cook your catch for dinner.
Vibe: The real South Pacific.
Perks: Kayaking with turtles and riding a horse as it swims.
Price Tag: From about $356 per person a night (ratua.com).
Once owned by Rudolf Nureyev, this island off the Amalfi Coast has been updated yet maintains its old-world allure. It has three villas (one of them a Roman watchtower with its own saltwater pool), a chapel and a helipad.
Vibe: La dolce vita.
Perks: A skippered boat for trips to Capri and the whiff of a bygone era.
Price Tag: From about $134,000 a week (ovationvacations.com).
For the very Fancy Fisherman | North Island, Seychelles
Eleven thatched-roof villas spaced to preserve privacy and staffed to meet every whim. Go by private boat to snorkel or fish whenever you like, maybe dropping anchor right where Will and Kate did on their honeymoon.
Vibe: Sloth deluxe in Louboutin espadrilles.
Perks: A cellphone to communicate with your butler.
Price Tag: About $4,700 a night per person, all inclusive (north-island.com).
For the Millennial Explorer | Bird Island, Belize
To get to this private islet surrounded by a coral reef, meet the owner at the hardware store on the mainland and he’ll ferry you over in his boat. There’s no staff, but you’ll have an entire (tiny) island, a small turquoise house and a sleeping cabana all to yourself.
Vibe: Gilligan’s Island.
Price Tag: About $295 a night per couple (airbnb.com/rooms/4869137).
For Mr. Mrs. Plutocrat | Laucala Island, Fiji
Vibe: We’ve definitely arrived.
Price Tag: From $5,520 a night for two (laucala.com).
For the Gauguin in All of Us | The Brando, French Polynesia
Unspoiled nature is on display at Marlon Brando’s former hideaway, with 35 villas scattered along the beachfront. There are outriggers for the taking and a Tahitian pearl boutique, in case you can’t find an oyster in the wild.
Vibe: No mutiny; bounty in spades.
Perks: Outdoor bathtubs to watch whale migrations from July to October.
Price Tag: From $2,500 a night for two, all-inclusive (thebrando.com).
UltraVilla, a luxury-property rental company was incorrectly identified as UtraVilla. (Dec. 2, 2015)