The Brando, French Polynesia (Photo: Cathy Daly)
The Brando, French Polynesia (Photo: Cathy Daly)

Paradise by the week

WITH AMENITIES RANGING FROM secluded beaches and personal chefs to sailboats and submarines, renting an island can be a great option for travelers who want the comforts of a luxury resort, minus the crowds. 

Islands that typically accommodate a dozen to 30 or more people are popular for family reunions, weddings, and milestone birthdays. Smaller islands make for intimate honeymoon and anniversary destinations.

“Renting an island takes the idea of getting away from it all to a whole new level,” says Melanie Fish, a travel expert at the vacation site HomeAway.com. “When you know you’re surrounded by water, it makes disconnecting all that much easier.”

The disconnection comes at a cost. Fees range widely, from $1,000 per night for basic accommodations on a private island in Belize to a whopping $170,000 a night for a luxuriously equipped island in Fiji. The sticker price typically includes food, a chef, housekeeping, and all the island’s amenities. Many groups opt to split the fee among several couples or families. This can sometimes bring the cost more in line with that of a high-end resort. 

If you don’t like the price, moreover, you can try asking for a discount. “There’s significant room for negotiation,” says Eric Grayson, founder and CEO of Discover 7 Travel, a luxury travel concierge company in New York City. He says he has seen prices drop as much as 15 to 20 percent during negotiations.

Many travelers think “tropical” when contemplating an island rental, envisioning secluded coves in the Caribbean Sea or Indian Ocean, but you can find plenty of private islands in other locales. Fish says she has seen rentals just off the U.S. coastline and on domestic lakes and rivers. “You can even rent a private island in Connecticut,” she adds. 

BEFORE YOU COMMIT to a major rental, make sure you’ll like island life as much as you think you will. The idea of being separated from the rest of the world may sound appealing, but when some people realize just how separate they are, they go a little stir crazy, says Melissa Biggs Bradley, CEO and founder of Indagare Travel. She recommends doing a “dry run” at a private island resort, booking just a villa or room, instead of the whole island, for a weekend to see whether you enjoy being that removed from society.

If you do, it’s time to start shopping for an island. The best way to avoid disappointment is to work with someone who is familiar with the available properties, says Grayson. Engaging a booking agent lets someone else ensure that the rental contract, which is often extensive, details everything from how the island deals with power outages to how food is prepared. It may also open up new options, since some island owners opt to work only with certain companies and agents. 

The key to getting what you want is clearly communicating all your expectations.

“We’re all about getting to know clients’ needs,” says Lindsey Epperly, a luxury travel consultant and owner of Epperly Travel. Her process involves asking people about past experiences: Where’s the nicest place they’ve stayed and what did they like and dislike about it? This helps her find properties that will fit their needs. 

It also gives her information that the island’s staff can use to pamper guests with personal touches. Don’t be surprised if you find pictures of your dog in your room or if music by your favorite musician is playing in the main cabana when you arrive. The staff on a private island, Epperly says, “is always five or six steps ahead.”

EVEN WITH GREAT STAFF, though, a property may not suit your needs. “We scout out each island, and we are upfront about what we think the pros and cons are,” says Bradley. “Everyone is going to show you the photo of a palm tree and a white sand beach. But whether that beach is in the British Virgin Islands, the Maldives, or the Bahamas makes a big difference.” Transportation issues, local culture and customs, and seasonal weather changes can’t be communicated in a photograph, she adds.

Working with an island advisor isn’t the only way you can do your due diligence, says Jon Santangelo, founder of Chariot, a company that assists with arrangements for tropical destination weddings. Websites like TripAdvisor.com may contain feedback from travelers who rented all or part of an island. An online search can reveal whether an island has received any negative press. Santangelo’s favorite trick: entering the island’s name into Facebook’s search bar to see what other visitors have publicly posted. 

You can also ask to speak to former renters, he says. You might not be able to, but there’s no harm in trying.

If you opt to find island listings without the help of an agency on sites like HomeAway.com and Airbnb.com, do so carefully. “If someone’s listing a private island for rent on Craigslist, I would proceed with caution,” says Fish.

It’s particularly important to clearly communicate your needs if you work directly with a private owner, she adds. Many offer a chef, staff, and other amenities, including transportation to and from the island and a fully stocked refrigerator, but sometimes only if you ask. You don’t want to wake up the first morning and realize you have to fly back to the mainland for coffee, Fish says.

ONCE YOU'VE PICKED your perfect island, suggests Santangelo, reserve it at least a year before you plan to go, to ensure availability. Then start planning the logistics, or let someone else do so. Because the location may be remote and importing wine and foods may involve complications, you might need to allow considerable time for customs’ approvals and transporting specialty items by boat, says Bradley.

“You do have to plan differently,” she adds. “You can’t be spontaneous.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to arranging for your arrival. Some islands have private airstrips but most require you to land at a nearby airport and take a boat, seaplane, or helicopter. Experts recommend ensuring you understand the transportation process and how long it will take to get from the airport to the island. Hopping in a puddle jumper and then a ferry after a two-hour flight is one thing. Doing so after a 12-hour, multistop journey is another.

When you arrive, you can typically expect to find an around-the-clock crew of housekeepers, butlers, and kitchen staff, with employees living in separate quarters or on nearby islands. Understanding whether you want to feel completely secluded or want to always know someone’s nearby is part of the booking consultant’s job.

“There are ways [staff] can appear and disappear,” says Epperly.


A Sampling of Island Rentals

Laucala Island, Fiji. Prices start at $170,000 per night with a five-night minimum. This 3,500-acre private island features 25 villas, complete with pools and indoor and outdoor showers. The property also features a hilltop spa offering Fijian treatments, five dining locations, an equestrian center, a boat fleet, and an 18-hole golf course. You can fly your private jet directly to the island’s airport or land at Fiji’s Nadi International Airport and be transferred to the island via the resort’s airplane.

Little Palm Island, Florida. Prices start at $175,000 for a three-night stay. The island has 30 one-bedroom suites. The fee includes transfers from and to the mainland; breakfast, lunch, and dinner for up to 60 people; non-alcoholic beverages; and amenities that include paddleboards, kayaks, motorboats, and fishing and snorkel gear. To reach the island, you fly to Key West International Airport and then transfer via seaplane or by car and then boat.

Turtle Island, Fiji. Prices start at $325,000 per week. The island has 14 “bures,” or Fijian villas. Each comes with an assigned “Bure Mama,” also known as your personal concierge. The island is designed to be self-sustaining and harvests all its power from its solar farm. As the name suggests, Turtle Island has its own sea turtle preserve. The closest airport that accepts private jets is Nadi International. The rental fee includes transfers to the island. 

The Brando, French Polynesia. Prices start at $130,000 per night. Located on the Tetiaroa atoll 30 miles north of Tahiti, the island features 35 villas, a spa, and watersports that include snorkeling, paddleboarding, Polynesian canoeing, and scuba diving. Guests enjoy cuisine from Guy Martin of the Michelin two-star restaurant Le Grand VĂ©four in Paris, as well as guided island explorations led by local naturalists. Guests land on the main island of Tahiti at Faa’a International Airport, where they are transferred by the island’s private airplane and/or helicopter to the Brando.

Deep Water Cay, Bahamas. Prices start at $75,000 per night at this island, which can accommodate 50 guests in cottages and oceanfront homes. The cost covers lodging, meals, and daily boat-guided activities such as scuba diving, flats fishing, reef fishing, and snorkeling. You can fly privately directly to the island’s airport, or you can land at Grand Bahama International Airport and then take a boat to Deep Water Cay.

Musha Cay, Bahamas. Prices start at $57,000 per night for up to 24 guests at this island, which magician David Copperfield owns. Rental includes access to a gym, tennis and volleyball courts, and a pool. To reach the island, you fly into Exuma International Airport; from there you’re transported to Musha Cay by private air or boat charter. 

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