AT the tender age of 28, Richard Branson had made enough money to buy his own private island – for just £150,000.
The year was 1978 and the Virgin boss set about transforming Necker into a tropical paradise that attracts royalty and A-list stars for an eye-watering £70,000 a night.
The private retreat – in the British Virgin Islands – has played host to Princess Diana, Harry Styles, Mariah Carey, George Michael and Demi Moore, with every whim of its wealthy guests catered for.
Staff have revealed holidaymakers have been offered sushi served on staffs’ stomachs and fish-friendly ‘golf balls’ can even be fired at workers in special suits.
The island has also been ravaged by natural disasters including a devastating fire and a fierce hurricane over the last decade – leaving stars fleeing for their lives.
Here we look inside the secrets of Sir Richard’s exclusive tropical retreat.
£3,400-a night ‘Love Temple’
The 74-acre paradise island of Necker, nestling in the Caribbean Sea, was uninhabited when the British businessman – now worth an estimated £3.5billion – snapped it up.
He spent three years and £8million building a 10-bedroom villa at the top of the hill above the beach.
More recent additions include a private villa called the Love Temple, which can be rented for £3,400 a night, and six Balinese villas, which cost £3,700 per night.
While the luxury villas have room for just 34 guests, there are 100 live in staff who are devoted to making each visitor’s stay as memorable as possible – and they can be very accommodating.
In a BBC documentary in 2015, an accountant called Milli recalled how she let guests eat sushi off her body for a birthday party.
“The sushi got really, really quite warm and stuck to me, so that was interesting,” she says.
“But it was fun. I love that I get to be an accountant and do this stuff and then go and lie on a table and have people suck soy sauce out of my belly button. It’s brilliant. Who else gets to do that?”
The unconventional dish was entirely in keeping with the ethos of head chef Clement Baris, who reportedly insists that the staff serving are as “sexy” as the food, with male staff encouraged to be shirtless.
“About ten minutes before the guests come we will fill the kayak with palms and flowers and chopsticks and then we add the sushi to it.
“Then I’ll jump in the water, float about and people will jump in the pool and have fun, have drinks and eat the sushi. I might have a cocktail or two, sneaky ones, as well.”
Branson insists he is happy to let staff drink with guests and even strike up holiday romances with them.
My role today is to look after the kayak in the pool — being sexy in the pool
Necker Island Waiter
“Necker is a place where people can draw up the drawbridge, let their hair down and relax,” the tycoon has said.
“We once had a new management team that came and they brought in two rules.
“The first was that staff cannot drink with the guests and staff may not have relationships with the guests. That management couple lasted one weekend. That is not the way this island would work or run very well.”
One staff member told the BBC Branson is a “matchmaker” who makes it a mission to look after the girls who are “gorgeous and single”.
When Branson moved his main residence to the island, where he pays no tax, he batted off a barrage of criticism by insisting he made the decision for his health.
“I have been very fortunate to accumulate so much wealth in my career, more than I need in my lifetime and would not live somewhere I don’t want to for tax reasons,” he wrote on his Virgin blog.
“I still work day and night, now focusing on not-for-profit ventures, but on Necker I can also look after my health.
“There is no better place to stay active and I can kitesurf, surf, play tennis, swim, do pilates and just play.”
There’s also a gym and regular rooftop yoga classes, looking out over the huge expanses of ocean.
Then there are the more tailor-made sports – such as “sumo golf”.
The game sees a member of staff bouncing up and down on an offshore trampoline in a protective suit while guests fire ‘golf balls’ at them.
While the balls are made from soluble fish food – meaning they won’t end up sitting on the sea bed – the human target costume is incredibly hot in the Caribbean sun.
Princess Diana was a huge fan of the Island, taking Princes Harry and William there in 1990, and Kate Middleton also sought solace on the island during a short-lived break from Prince William before they wed.
Prince Harry has been a frequent visitor and the Duchess of York has also been a guest, along with daughters Beatrice and Eugenie.
Rolling Stones legend Ronnie Wood chose Necker for his 2012 honeymoon with third wife Sally and Mel Gibson was so taken with the resort that it inspired him to buy his own island in Fiji.
But it was Kate Winslet who made the headlines when a devastating fire swept through the main building in 2011, after being struck by lightning in tropical storm Irene.
She was hailed a hero for rescuing Branson’s elderly mother Eve from the blaze.
The Titanic star was staying at the resort with now husband Ned RocknRoll – Branson’s nephew – and her children Mia, then 11, and Joe, eight.
It was very scary. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning to yelling that there was a fire
“It was genuinely very scary. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning to yelling that there was a fire,” she later recalled.
“I jumped up and ran immediately towards the fire but then realised we might die so turned around, told my children to go in and shut the door and then thought, ‘Now what do I do?'”
“I ran into the bedroom and put on a bra. In disastrous moments like that, you do the strangest things.
“I started to put on a bra and thought ‘No, that’s going to take me too long,’ so off came the bra, on came the T-shirt, I grabbed the children and I picked up Granny.”
Virgin boss hid in wine cellar as hurricane struck
The building was repaired and reopened in 2013, but disaster struck again four years later when the island was hit by Hurricane Irma, flattening most of the buildings.
Branson and his staff hid in the wine cellar as the storm ripped through the Virgin Islands, killing five people and leaving 100,000 people homeless.
“We felt the full force of the strongest hurricane ever in the Atlantic Ocean,” he said at the time.
“But we are very fortunate to have a strong cellar built into Necker’s Great House and were very lucky all of our teams who stayed on the island during the storm are safe and well.”
While some of the island’s animals are believed to have perished in the storm, the 250 flamingos and 60 lemurs – a favourite with visitors – miraculously survived.
Over the following two years, the resort was rebuilt once again, with a new improved look – adding an extra bedroom with a private sun deck to the main house, extended swimming pools and plunge pools outside the Bali villas.
Now, it appears another unexpected disaster in the form of coronavirus could test Branson’s long relationship with his beloved tropical getaway.