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In Search of Private Fantasy Islands

Living such a life is costly and logistically difficult, but a lucrative business has grown from selling and leasing secluded getaways.

August 08, 2004|Ian James | Associated Press Writer

CARIBE CAY, Bahamas — Wallace Tutt made a name and a fortune designing and building lavish homes for the glitterati -- Gianni Versace's mansion in Miami Beach, houses for Cher in Florida and California.

But when he searched for his own ideal home, he chose a tiny private island where he takes refuge in solitude, lying in a hammock surrounded by turquoise waters far from the demands of society.

"I like escaping," said Tutt, casual in flip-flops as he showed a reporter around his luxury cottage. "We have a phone here, but I only use it for my convenience. I plug it in when I want."

Caribe Cay, valued at $3.5 million, is one of dozens of private islands that dot the Bahamas and other nations across the Caribbean.

Living such a life is pricey and logistically difficult, but in the past few decades, a lucrative business has grown from selling and leasing islands to people seeking their own private paradise.

"It's been going on for decades, but really in the past 10 years, there's been quite a bit of investing," said John Christie, a Bahamian real estate broker. "If you have a beautiful private island, people will pay good money for it."

It's not just the Caribbean; islands are for sale from Fiji in the South Pacific to Canada's Nova Scotia. That includes house-less islets costing less than $100,000 and sprawling islands with mansions or resorts priced in the tens of millions.

The Bahamas has a particularly large number -- real estate agents estimate 60 or so are scattered across the archipelago of 2,700 islands and cays off Florida.

Tutt spotted Caribe Cay on a yachting trip a decade ago and bought it in 1996, pouring $1.2 million into renovating its three cottages, adding a pool, installing a reverse-osmosis water system to purify the brackish water and importing furnishings from palm-shaped chandeliers to colonial-era antiques.

"I've always had a fantasy of buying a private island," said Tutt, who grew up in rural Nanafalia, Ala.

Stepping off the dock, visitors are greeted by a hand-painted "No Trespassing" sign. The flag devised by Tutt for his island -- a green palm tree on a white background -- flaps on a pole in the garden. Stairs carved into coral rock lead down to the ocean, where reefs offer good snorkeling.

Tutt said the isolation lets him "totally disconnect," sipping chardonnay by the pool and letting his two mutts run wild on the beach.

His 2-acre slice of real estate is just a stone's throw from inhabited Eleuthera Island, from which 900-foot-long underwater pipes carry telephone and electric wires across a thicket of mangroves.

It's a five-minute boat ride to Harbour Island, where the 47-year-old millionaire owns and manages the posh Rock House inn.

Tutt considers Caribe Cay home, staying for days or weeks at a time with partner Don Purdy. When he's not running the inn -- or playing the recluse -- Tutt heads to Miami Beach, where he lives in a penthouse while he oversees his construction and design business.

In the 1990s, he built homes for Cher in Miami and Malibu, and the mansion in Miami Beach's fashionable South Beach neighborhood where Versace lived until he was killed in 1997.

Tutt was close to the Italian fashion designer, and said the murder influenced his decision to spend more time on his island.

"It had a lot to do with me not enjoying Miami anymore," he said. "We were all frightened."

The Sept. 11 terror attacks brought new fears as Tutt worried about his South Beach apartment being in the path of arriving jets. He left days later for Caribe Cay and stayed for six weeks to decompress.

Tutt and other island owners say living the life of a privileged castaway poses big challenges, especially the constant need to ship in everything from milk to appliance parts.

Real estate agents say some islands reappear on the market after a few years when owners grow weary of inconveniences -- or are enticed to cash in on rising prices.

Some 120 prime islands worldwide are listed by Farhad Vladi, a broker with offices in Hamburg, Germany, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. He said his company sold about 50 islands in 2003, calling it an "extremely good year."

Among current offerings:

* Scrub Island, Anguilla, offers pink sand beaches, 860 acres of scrubland surrounded by indigo seas for $30 million.

* Over Yonder Cay, in the Bahamian Exuma Cays, has five beaches, a four-bedroom hilltop house and three-bedroom guesthouse on 74 acres for $8 million.

* St. Athanasios Island, Greece, $1 million gets 2.6 acres covered with pine and olive trees in the Gulf of Corinth.

* Firth Island, Canada, has a red cabin on 1.7 acres off southwestern Nova Scotia. There's no insulation, electricity or running water, but a motorboat and canoe are included in the asking price of $42,000.

To help cover costs while he is away, Tutt rents out his island for $15,000 a week, a price that includes butler, chef and housekeeper. He said guests on Caribe Cay, and an adjacent island he bought in 2002 and recently sold for $1.6 million, have included musician Iggy Pop, NBA player Jason Kidd and actor Robert de Niro.

"This is where they have their own control of their environment," Tutt said. "You're in your own kingdom."

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