Hubert Baudoin spends long stretches at a time living the “island life” in the Bahamas. Baudoin doesn’t just own another beautiful piece of beachfront property. He owns the whole island.
“Since I was 13 years old, the thought of owning an island never left my brain. I was quite obsessed,” he says. Twelve years ago, Baudoin indulged his inner Robinson Crusoe and bought a private isle in the Exuma chain of the Bahamas. “And then the adventure started.”
It takes a bold spirit and a penchant for the unpredictable to be an island owner. In his search, Baudoin cast a wide net; inspecting islands throughout the entire Bahamas island chain. Many were beautiful but impractical. Currents, topography, infrastructure and rights of ownership are not small details when considering what many regard as the ultimate real estate trophy.
The Exumas are an archipelago of 365 islands located southeast of Nassau. Baudoin calls it “an amazing place. The pearl of the Bahamas.” It takes less than two hours in his private Cessna to reach the island from home base in Islamorada, Florida, where he owns the Moorings Village resort.
For now, two octagonal wooden cabanas comprise the sum total of development on the island, just about ideal for him, his wife and young daughter. They have plans for a more permanent dwelling but are in no hurry to build. The life of modern-day castaways suits them for now.
Very Far from the Madding Crowd
Private island owners are an elite group. Baudoin’s Bahamian neighbors include the likes of Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage and David Copperfield. According to George Damianos of Damianos Sotheby's International Realty in the Bahamas, “It’s close but far enough away to escape the anxiety, stress and media intrusion of their busy lives.” Prices range from $1 million to $100 million.
Every island owner has a vision. Jon and Sharon Jamieson use their island as a refuge. They fell in love with Towhead Island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington twenty years ago, bought it and never looked back. It’s been permitted for a two-bedroom home, but the couple prefers to maintain the land as a wildlife haven for the harbor seals and eagles and as a sanctuary for themselves. “It’s a place we can get away from city life and enjoy the natural beauty,” Jon Jamieson says.
Many, of course, do buy and build. However, they go to great lengths to find architects who are guided by the principals of sustainability.
Off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts is Esther’s Island, a mile-and-a-half long and 1,000 yards wide. Until last year, this “magical site” supported a group of dilapidated cottages from the 1930s, says New York-based architect Douglas Wright with Hart Howerton. The cottages were demolished and his firm was hired to design and build a new home on a less fragile spot. Not an easy task. Though only a 15-minute boat ride from Nantucket, Esther’s Island was literally off the grid: no utilities at all. A wind turbine and solar panels had to be built to generate power. Today, the old cottages are gone but some of the old wood has been reclaimed for the new compound that replaced them.
Offshore construction issues can be daunting. “Architects have to think of a panoply of alternatives in order to accomplish their goals,” Wright says. “If a boat doesn’t work to ship supplies, for instance, can you use a helicopter? It’s a huge puzzle on many different levels.”
Making the Most of Paradise
To maximize an island investment, Wright says the first rule is to not destroy what you have. “Don’t change what makes the place unique. You need a healthy respect for the land, and you want to make sure to touch lightly.”
Another way to enhance value is by designing a home that fits within the context of its surroundings. On Esther’s Island, for instance, the new dwelling of four connected cottages is a modern take on a traditional Nantucket shingle-style classic.
North America is the largest private island market in the world, according to Private Islands Magazine, and opportunities exist to stake a claim in the sand in oceans, rivers, lakes and waterways across the globe. The most coveted among them are islands in tropical climates near areas with a healthy tourism industry.
In many countries, “owners” are technically lessees, gaining the right to use the island for a specified number of years. But even those like Jamieson who actually do own their island are sometimes hesitant to use the word. “Ownership doesn’t really fit. I’m the caretaker. It’s like a divine territory, and I’m the lucky guy that’s going to take care of the land until I die.”