About that Necker Island piss-poor review…

23

In Tim’s recent Saturday Selection post where he announced that Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island is once again bookable with Virgin Atlantic points, he linked to a review of the island that concluded that it’s a “piss-up that offers no more than a budget holiday to Spain.” However, when my wife and I stayed on Necker Island on points in 2016, we loved it. I wrote “The island, the incredible staff, the animals, the fellow guests (now friends!), and even Sir Richard Branson himself combined to make Necker Island magical… a true fantasy island. It was a vacation of a lifetime.” How can we reconcile these two extremely different views?

Picture shows Richard Branson giving the middle finger with his arm around Greg

Big Picture

The reviewer, Tom, and I came away from Necker Island with polar opposite thoughts about the island. Maybe things had changed on the island between my visit and his (I have no idea when he went to the island but it was probably years after I did). Maybe our individual circumstances made the difference (he went with kids, I did not). Maybe it matters that he paid cash and I paid with points. Maybe we simply have very different ideas about what makes a great vacation. Most likely it was a combination of all four.

I was convinced from the get-go from Tom’s review that we are very, very different. Early in the review he states “The idea of communal dining was repulsive to me.” If you agree with Tom on that point, then stop reading and cancel your Necker Island booking right away. Want to be alone? There are much better options. Yes, you can be alone on Necker Island, but then you’d be giving up the best part of the trip.

The default dining option on Necker Island (during Celebration Weeks) is to eat with the group.

When planning travel, my wife and I seek out opportunities to interact with other travelers. We love old-style B&Bs where everyone breakfasts together. We prefer small-group tours to private tours. At Necker Island, we loved socializing with other guests at meals. This is where friendships were made. Now, eight years later, we still keep in touch with a number of the other guests through Facebook and even see some of them in real life now and then. We’ve visited a couple from Grand Cayman a couple of times, and a couple from London many times (including this past fall).

Tom obviously doesn’t share our enthusiasm for making new friends. He wrote “If eating meals around a large table at scheduled times with all your fellow guests sounds like something you’re happy to pay $5,000 / night for, well, I have a bridge to sell you.” Does the bridge come with new lifelong friends? Sign me up. (wait… how many points is this bridge?)

Then there’s the kid angle. Many of the gripes that Tom had about Necker Island involved how they handled families with kids. We went without our kid, but we did go during a family week. Others brought kids and they loved it. In fact we made friends with a couple who had a young boy there and they’ve been back to the island with him several times since.

I wonder if Tom visited the island during an adults-only week? There are only set times each year, known as “celebration weeks,” when people can book individual rooms rather than the whole island. And those celebration weeks are divided into adults-only weeks and family weeks. My wife and I purposely picked a family week because we wanted to avoid the extreme party atmosphere that we had read about. And that worked beautifully. Meanwhile, Tom described Necker as a party island: “Necker is a notorious party island – even the music is in party mode, with Eminem being played at 7 am and champagne served for breakfast”. That wasn’t our experience at all. So, again, I suspect that Tom booked an adult-only week and they accommodated him and his kids (poorly, apparently) rather than turning the family away.

With the big picture out of the way, I’ll now address each of Tom’s negative points about the island…

“Miniscule” Rooms

There are multiple houses on the island for guests. Like Tom, my wife and I stayed in the Great House. But unlike Tom (who sprung extra for the Master Suite), we stayed in a standard room.

Necker Island View from Patio
Necker Island: Our standard room’s terrace

Tom described the standard rooms as miniscule. And, while I liked the room, and the size didn’t bother me (it was plenty big enough for my wife and me), I was surprised that the room wasn’t more amazing. Tom is right on this account: when paying as much as you have to pay for Necker Island, it’s reasonable to expect more impressive rooms. That said, we adored our large terrace! And we loved being in the Great House where there was endless room to spread out.

This video shows our room…

And this video shows the Great House’s beautiful primary living space…

Broken Stuff

Image shows a wooden door with an ornate doorknob
Once, during our Necker Island stay, this doorknob broke and we couldn’t get out of our room until a staff member came to rescue us.

Tom complained that their room had a broken air conditioner one day and on another day their water wasn’t working.

Okay, Tom is spot-on here. Things should be in better working order. We had a problem of our own: one day, our doorknob stopped working. We couldn’t exit the room! This got taken care of quickly enough, but it was the kind of thing that you’d expect more at a Motel 6 than a billionaire’s private island.

Food

Necker Island Food

My wife and I liked the food. It’s true that not everything was great. The quality of meals ranged from decent to excellent. And we always had plenty to eat.

Tom didn’t like the food. He also didn’t like that some lunches were “cheap” food. He wrote “one day, it was pizza for lunch, and another was burgers and chips.” I don’t specifically remember pizza day or burger day, but those are comfort foods that I’m always happy to go for now and then.

Tom wasn’t very specific about what he disliked at other lunches and dinners, but he said that breakfast was OK: “Breakfast was probably the only passably decent part of the experience because it was simple enough that you can’t really screw up putting a small buffet with fruit, pastries and chia seed pudding out.” I should note that you are not limited to the buffet at breakfast. I had made-to-order meals every morning, such as the Eggs Benedict shown above. In fact, until I read Tom’s review, I forgot that there was a buffet at all.

Service: Good or Bad?

Tom offered up many stories about bad service during his stay. Here are some quotes from his review:

  • “Everyone is well-meaning but so badly trained”
  • “Do not expect any proactivity at all.”
  • “No help with anything, no consideration, no preferences are remembered”
  • “There was also a problem with just finding any staff. “
  • “It just blew my mind how lazy people were or how they lacked any initiative.”

My stay couldn’t have been more different. Staff members regularly went out of their way to make sure we had everything we needed. We never once felt like service should have been better. And they took care of us. At one point I was pedal boarding in the ocean in an area that seemed completely private. I soon found out that I didn’t know how to steer the thing and so I was flailing about and was getting nervous about what might happen next. Unbeknownst to me, a staff member was keeping her eye on me from the Great House (which sits high up on a hill and so has views of many part of the island). When she saw me flailing about, she contacted the water sports staff who quickly diverted a boat to my side of the island to help. They would have rescued me outright but I was happy instead for them to teach me how to steer the pedal board and I told them to go on their way. That was almost a very bad decision on my part, but it turned out okay in the end. You can see details in this video…

Summary review of Necker Island

Tom’s review concludes as follows: “Necker Island is not a bad place, it’s just poorly implemented. It offers so much freedom but removes that feeling with the constant worry of when and how much you’re going to be able to eat. In short, it’s a piss-up that offers no more than a budget holiday to Spain. Except for the lemurs – I love those guys.”

Tom and I agree about the lemurs, but not much else. For my review, see this post: Is Necker Island really worth 1.2 million miles? The short version is:

  • We loved getting to know other guests. We shared a magical week which helped bond us together.
  • We enjoyed talking to Richard Branson. He attended a number of meals and activities.
  • We loved the many activities available to us: sushi-making, hiking, pedal boarding, paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, zip-lining, and more
  • We loved staying in the Great House, especially since we had an oceanside room (there are standard rooms on the island side too and those are less private).
  • And we loved the animals: lemurs, turtles, a giant tortoise, exotic birds, and more.

At the time we went, a week on the island cost either $30,000 or 1.2 million Virgin Atlantic points. Today, a celebration week costs about $36,000 or 2 million Virgin points. Sadly, the point price has grown much faster than the cash rate. Award stays still offer good per-point value compared to the cash rate (1.8 cents per point), but of course 2 million points is hard for just about anyone to accumulate and there are so many other great things that could be done with that many points. Consider, for example, that Virgin points can transfer to Hilton points at a 1 to 1.5 ratio and that the top luxury Hilton properties in the world are sometimes available for no more than 150,000 points per night. Combine that with Hilton’s 5th Night Free awards and you can see that you can stay 10 nights in the best Hilton resort in the world for 8 x 150,000 = 1.2 million Hilton points or 800,000 Virgin points. So, it’s hard to make a case for Necker Island unless you’re extremely cash or points wealthy. On the other hand, for us at least, it was a once in a lifetime experience that was well worth the cost.

Those lemurs were just sooo cute
Did I mention how cool the animals were?
a man in scuba gear underwater
I had a great time scuba diving
a man wearing a helmet and harness
Zip-lining was a blast
Necker Island Sunset Kayak
Kayaking to a mini-island for sunset drinks
Sir Richard Branson Chokes Greg
Richard Branson pretended to choke me as an answer, in jest, to the question of how he felt about people using points to book stays on Necker Island
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DC not in DC

Thanks to you and your staff for having and sharing a variety of opinions and experiences, as well as allowing comments. I had a mediocre time at the Maui Waldorf-Astoria over Christmas but islanders and mainlanders who have stayed there told me that I must have gone to a different hotel, that the M W-A is impeccable. Necker doesn’t interest me, but I love the fact that you had a great time but that you don’t censor those that didn’t.

dee

You said you return to the Island to meet up with people you met during your stay? DId you return and use more points or stay somewhere else ?

Bob Kanyok

No matter how good or bad a place is, you’ll find someone to think the opposite. And they’ll make a spectacle of themselves telling everyone else. Not that the crowd is always right, but different strokes for different folks. The Maldives hold little appeal for me given the price of “free”, but enough people put them on their bucket list that there must be some appeal. I’m just more of a find my own way type person. Necker Island actual does appeal, but I don’t have 2 million points to burn before a I a bunch of other things, so I’ll just read about it.

JoePro

Indeed there are just a ton of variables. People balk when I say I rank PH Maldives over St Regis and W.A, but it’s just my experience and what I like. Also, not everyone ends up with the same staff, same weather, same villa… those can all have an impact.
I also didn’t gush over Miraval AZ on a recent visit, while most people have only great things to say. Maybe my take on it was influenced by our previous AI stay at the Saffire Freycinet (which was impeccable).

Definately curious about Calala, then… where I’m headed late this year. There are indeed reviews that put it in the best possible light, but then there are reviews that mention the wretched ride there, the lack of air conditioning, the nooseums. We’ll see, I guess.

Funny we did do a communal dinner at Miraval, and while I was anxious going in, it turned out to be lovely. That said, even when I’ve enjoyed meeting new people on vacation, we never seem to keep in touch after—at least no more than just being friends on facebook.

JoePro

Also want to add… I doubt I’ll ever have the 2M points needed, and at the cash point, other resorts just look too much more appealing…. Laucala Island, Time+Tide Miavana, North Island. But we’ll see.

Byron

Just wish I had 2 mm points. I would go.

DaveS

You could take a fantastic Antarctic cruise for two for the $30,000 those points are worth and make just as many friends. With the points I’d take about 15 trips to destinations around the world.I’d personally have no interest in Neckar Island at a fraction of the cost.

TravelGeek

Those are very different trips, though. Personally, if I had to choose one, I would probably spend the $$$ on the Antarctic cruise (small ship). Not sure how I would value the potential opportunity to interact with RB… (I have seen him up close before, but I didn’t get to talk to him or get choked). For a Caribbean vacation I would probably choose a different (cheaper) option.

The nice thing, though, is that we all can choose how we want to spend our dollars and miles. And those who are thrilled to visit Necker Island aren’t “wrong”.

docntx

Greg,
I love and admire your open minded approach to all of this, to the extent of placing opposing views, and not discounting them.
Travel is extremely personal, and we, in contrast, are somewhat reserved, though always making an effort to be gracious, but we value privacy and relaxation above all. For us, less is more.
Branson comes across as an amazing, once in a lifetime person, and just interacting with him as you did would have made the trip a bargain for me. The Caribbean islands that were devastated by the hurricanes simply do not have the resources to recover. Add to that the pandemic shutdowns, which seem to also have created a pernicious workforce apathy, that seems to persist.
Thank you again. The way the whole team shares opinions and information is a gift for which I am grateful every day.

Troy

This is The Joy of Free in action!
Do something you would never (in good conscience) pay for, and allow yourself to enjoy it because you used your hobby to do it. (Well, your career).
Cruises (thanks Nick) are like this for me – I avoided them for my whole life, until I did Virgin on points, and it made me realize it’s the best way to visit a lot of little places I’d never otherwise get to.
Everyone has to decide for themselves what to use their free on, though!

Kimb

Troy , I have avoided cruises as well because we don’t like tons of people around and most ports are not the best representation of the island. Tshirt shop after Tshirt shop IS NOT our thing. However I would love to see many places on one trip. Which cruise did you like in particular? Thank you

L M

Vinh @ Miles per Day (https://milesperday.com/2023/08/review-return-to-necker-island/) had a review about a recent trip to Necker Island just last August.

He echoed some of the sentiments of the reviewer Tom, regarding the at-times lackadaisical if not absent service, both pre-trip and on the island, so it doesn’t seem like it’s just a matter of perspective.

Lee

Some have said that Virgin Atlantic is a lot of flash and not so much on quality. It appeals to hipster YouTube personalities. Might the island be the same? Regarding the quality and service issues on the island, more reviews are probably necessary to determine whether Greg’s experience is the norm or Tom’s experience is the norm. As for communal dining, that’s pure preference — I’m with Greg.

Last edited 4 months ago by Lee
L M

Greg also went to Necker Island in 2016.
Both Tom’s and Vinh’s last reviews were from 2023.
The pandemic probably played a role too, insofar as available trained staffing and quality of service might be concerned.

Last edited 4 months ago by L M
Lee

During COVID, many of London’s hospitality workers went home (to other countries). Upon reopening after COVID, many didn’t return. Part of that was the hospitality industry simply lost some of their A players. Even the service at The Ritz fell short. Furthermore, just getting a warm body was difficult. Service has finally returned to near pre-COVID levels but one can sense it’s still not fully there. If it happened to The Ritz, it might have happened to the island. More reports over time will tell. Greg, you’ll just have to go back each year for the next five years and report your findings.

Last edited 4 months ago by Lee
DFS

P2 and I went in July 2023 and it was a fabulous time. It was our third time and we would absolutely go again. Used points every time. Brought 4 friends in 2023, but my last trip in 2019 we went alone and made lifelong friends while we were there. I still keep in touch with some of the staff too. Unlike Greg we don’t usually seek out communal experiences or actively try to make friends with other people while traveling, but we’re also not opposed to a place where doing that is the norm. In fact, it’s very refreshing for that to be the norm and for people to actually want to keep in touch with you after a trip.

Sandi

Necker Island is a bucket list item for me, but I would be going for the views and the experience. Meeting other travelers from around the world along with possibly meeting Richard Branson would be a bonus. I can get a fancy room and gourmet meals in a lot of places, but Necker Island intrigues me and that is why I would love to visit.

Eyesonthepoints

Second this. Spot on. @ sandi

Love the comparison review @ Greg. Thank you.

Mser

Greg, I suspect if Branson isn’t around, service reverts to typical Caribbean island service levels.

Reminds me of being on safari in remote Botswana and two old english women noisily complained that they couldn’t get a Waldorf salad and were canceling their safari (which they did – management had to arrange a bush plane to fly them out next morning).

As for community eating, that shouldn’t be mandatory when paying thousands a night – should always be a private table available

SamBam

Sir Richard loves FM.