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?
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.