"If you want to see them before it gets dark," the woman in front of me said, "they're on the left."
She was talking, naturally, about billionaire Richard Branson's personal colony of flamingos.
And there they were, standing pinkly in a shallow pond at the center of Necker Island, one of the islands Branson owns in the British Virgin Islands. The flamingos had been brought to the island by Branson in 2008, and to keep the flamboyance (the collective noun for flamingos) sufficiently pink, for several years Branson had brine shrimp flown in from the United Kingdom.
I could identify with the confusion the shrimp must have felt by the end of their journey. This was my first time on anyone's private island, and though I had been invited by Rosewood Hotel's (during my stay at Little Dix Bay), it was hard not to feel like I was in stomping through someone else's carefully manicured sandbox, surrounded by an aquamarine sea.
While the flamingos were nearly as still and standoffish as the plastic lawn versions with which I am more accustomed, the lemurs were far more social, climbing down from their tree branches and to the edge of their netted enclosure to inspect and accept new arrivals. Lemurs are a personal favorite of Branson's, and he has made it one of his many missions to preserve the species on the opposite side of the world from their native Madagascar.
After passing more lemurs, a few parrots, and then some more lemurs, I spotted Branson himself, sitting in the umpire's chair overlooking one of the courts of the Necker Cup, an annual pro-am tennis tournament held on the island. The tennis, as it should be at a pro-am, was distinctly of the hit-and-giggle variety, with pros occasionally hitting decently hard serves at one another, but otherwise more or less just keeping the ball in play.
The pulse of the tournament, then, was a few meters from the court at the bar in the center of the clubhouse, where players and onlookers alike kept themselves well lubricated, while cooled by a breeze that blew off the white sand beach on the opposite side. More so than the lemurs, my biggest double-take of the day was seeing Branson himself waiting in line behind someone to get the bartenders’ attention — if and when I get my own island, it will come with line-cutting privileges.
Upstaging the top-shelf liquor on offer was the water which the players guzzled. It was from Ice Swan, melted from the glaciers of Chilean Patagonia. Most spectacularly, the water was allegedly bottled with classical music playing, because Ice Swan operates under the theory that this gives the water special molecular properties, since "water has memory." It tasted like water, not music, with perhaps an aftertaste of guilt when I heard another guest saying that it cost $25 per small bottle.
Distracted by the other amusements of the isle, the Grand Slam champions in attendance often had to be called to court several times to appear for their matches. Then, sure enough, Kim Clijsters, or Bjorn Borg, would emerge, at a half-jog.
The courts themselves were only slightly more sober than the bar. The two pros playing in the final, Mike Bryan and Vasek Pospisil, had squared off this summer in the men's doubles final at Wimbledon. An ocean away from that more accessible of stuffiness and water with no musical pedigree, Bryan and Pospisil followed the particular rules of Necker Island, which required taking a shot after hitting a double fault, or after getting aced (last year's women's champion at Wimbledon, Marion Bartoli, giddily served as waitress, running onto the court with the shot glass).
After the final, there was an exhibition of four pros played at a much higher pace, and then Branson took the court with Borg. Because Richard had an injured right wrist, both played left-handed. The lemurs courtside were unlikely to have noticed the difference.
With the tennis done for the day, the party moves up the hill (and it is indeed too dark to see the flamingos this time) to the house for dinner, drinks, and light auctioneering, bidding on trips to all sorts of places that seem far less exotic than our current location. After that, it was time to descend back down toward the beach for what was billed as the "End of the World Party," featuring a concert by Aloe Blacc.
Shoes were quickly shucked to the side for barefeet to dance in the sand, and the glow necklaces hung from the shrubs were plucked off and worn as halos. If this was heaven, it was more exclusive than I had prepared for, and it was hard not to feel undeserving.
But midway through Blacc's most recognizable song (he sang the vocals for Avicii's "Wake Me Up," which reached No. 1 in 22 countries) the party suddenly appeared to live up to its apocalyptic billing. The rain, which had been a light mist, turned into a veritable deluge, and the lights and speakers lost their electricity. And by that point, so had I. Though Aloe gamely continued on with an acoustic set, I went to find my shoes so I could catch the last boat of the night off the island, through waters that were now too dark to want to photograph. As we cast off, I realized I'd forgotten to ever thank Branson for his hospitality. I could have, at the very least, thanked the lemurs.