Roughly 300 miles off the coast of South Florida is a string of mostly uninhabited small islands amid clear blue water and coral reefs on a limestone plateau. There's virtually no nightlife, no major airports, no celebrity chef restaurants. There are also no neighbors. That remoteness is attracting a rarefied group of wealthy entertainers and name-brand CEOs. In the world of high-end real estate, privacy is an increasingly prized amenity.
Islands in Exuma Cays, a 365-island archipelago in the Bahamas, have recently sold to producer/director Tyler Perry, spiritual leader Aga Khan and country singers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, joining earlier arrivals Johnny Depp, David Copperfield and LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Bernard Arnault. Ms. Hill and Mr. McGraw are in the final stages of construction on a roughly 15,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home on their 17-acre island, Goat Cay, which they purchased a few years ago, according to people familiar with the project. Mr. Perry bought a 25-acre island called White Bay Cay as well as a nearby seven-acre island in 2009, and is currently building a tropical/Balinese-style home with several guest bungalows.
Despite the weak economy, the number of millionaires in the U.S. and their combined net worth hit record highs in 2010, with investible assets up more than 8.4% from 2009, according to the World Wealth Report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini. Several record-breaking real-estate sales this year have buoyed optimism in the ultra-high end of the market, including the $85 million sale of a Los Angeles estate owned by Candy Spelling earlier this month. In March, a Russian buyer paid $100 million for a home in Silicon Valley, the highest price ever paid for a single-family home.
Island development projects can take years—at least one under way now involves 150 workers. Locals say one of the biggest private resort projects under construction in the Exumas is a compound whose principal investors are the co-founders of California-based retailer Fry's Electronics, brothers John, Randy and David Fry and Kathy Kolder. On a group of eight islands known as Bock Cay, the project calls for a staff village with about 35 homes for employees, a main clubhouse and six guest estates built in various styles, including an Italian villa. Fifteen hundred palm trees have been imported. One unusual private-island feature in the works: an 18-h*** Nick Faldo-designed golf course with at least one drive that goes over the ocean to reach a h*** on a nearby island that's also part of the property.
A spokesman for Fry's says an opening date hasn't yet been set, and that the island will likely be available as a very high-end rental in the model of Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. (Weekly rates at Mr. Branson's island start at $54,500 per night for up to 28 guests.)
The Exuma Cays (pronounced "Keys" by most locals and regulars) have many of the ingredients for a destination for the extremely wealthy: sandy beaches, turquoise water and limited development possibilities—90% of the islands are either uninhabitable or protected as part of a 176-square-mile marine park. The growing ease of staying connected with cable and the Internet, as well as improved desalination and diesel-generator technology, have also made the islands more attractive, says Tom Lawson, a resident who has developed, owned or managed several private-island properties there.
The relatively large number of islands makes the Exumas generally more affordable than other exclusive destinations like the Seychelles, says Farhad Vladi, the Germany-based founder of Vladi Private Islands, a private-island real-estate company. Although prices for islands in the Exumas have doubled in the last decade, the Seychelles cost even more because of their scarcity and extreme privacy, with most basic islands selling for around $30 million.
And the Exumas' relative lack of tourist infrastructure has kept them somewhat under the radar—people often arrive by yacht, sea plane or helicopter—although they are relatively close to the U.S. "I can be there for three or four days and you really don't see anybody," says Eddie Irvine, a former Formula One racecar driver from Northern Ireland who purchased an undeveloped island in the area about a year ago.
Steve and Patrick Harrington, former investment banker brothers originally from Chicago, have purchased islands in the Exumas for investment and development purposes. One they've recently put on the market for $22 million has a 4,000-square-foot house, two miles of coastline and 145 acres of land purchased in 2006. Steve Harrington says he's drawn to the English-speaking, stable Bahamian government and the pristine "Corona commercial look."
Building a luxury home on a remote island means importing everything from electricity to cellphone towers to water purifiers. Eduardo Martinez, a Miami-based architect who has designed homes and interiors for several island owners in the Exuma Cays, says that the first step is dredging a marina, then building temporary houses and dining facilities for staff, the majority of whom legally have to be local Bahamians. A typical project takes at least 2½ years. "The closest lumber yard is in Fort Lauderdale," says Mr. Martinez. "You can't run to the corner and get nails and concrete."
Building materials must be imported on large barges, which take about two days to make the trip from Florida, weather permitting. For islands without an existing power source, electricity comes from diesel generators, which also must be imported. According to Ed Bosarge, the principal beneficiary of the trust that owns a land-lease and building rights to Yonder Cay, just south of Mr. Depp's island, commonly used diesel generators can generate a power bill as high as $1 million a year.
The real-estate bust did affect these shores, with islands sitting longer and often selling for lower prices. An unnamed, 681-acre island with an airstrip, a seven-bedroom, six-bathroom timber-frame main house, a gym and staff buildings has been on the market for $55 million for 2½ years. Earlier this month, it was offered in a sealed-bid auction. The listing broker, George Damianos, says two reasonable offers have been received, but a sale hasn't been finalized.
One of the least expensive on the market now is Nicolas Cage's former island, Leaf Cay, which remains completely undeveloped and is available for $8.5 million. At the top end of the market is Cave Cay, a 250-acre island priced at $110 million that has its own harbor and runway. Listing broker John Christie, of H.G. Christie, says there are several buildings on the property, some of which are not yet completed. He says it has been on the market for about a year and the sellers are open to offers for less than the listing price.
"It's definitely a buyer's market right now," says Kevin Cross, a Nassau-based real-estate broker. But he and others say buyers are emerging. "We're getting real buyers looking in the $30 million to $50 million price range," says Mr. Christie.
Movie stars, royalty and old-money families have yachted around the Exumas and vacationed on the main island, Great Exuma, since at least the 1950s. On the market right now is Children's Bay Cay, the $37.5 million former vacation playground of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, who vacationed on the island in their movie-making heydays in the 1950s and '60s. It's been owned by heirs to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune. They couldn't be reached for comment.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, the area's reputation was marred when drug smugglers used the islands as a key trafficking point to smuggle cocaine to the U.S. from South America. Norman's Cay was once the headquarters for Medellin cartel leader Carlos Lehder, before he was arrested in 1987. The Bahamian government eventually stabilized, and tourism in the country began to thrive in the late 1990s with the construction of massive resorts on Nassau and Paradise Island. (Another massive resort, Baha Mar, a $3.4 billion hotel and casino, is currently under construction in Nassau.)
Île Gagnon, Quebec
The pop star's island is located in the Mille Îles River. There's a grand French-château-style mansion on the property.
Blackadore Caye, Belize
The actor's island is 104 acres. There were plans at one point to build an eco-resort there.
Mago Island, Fiji
The 5,400-acre island is owned by the actor, who purchased it from a Japanese corporation for a reported $15 million.
Perhaps the best-known private-island compound is magician David Copperfield's 700-acre resort Musha Cay, which is spread across 11 islands. He purchased several of the islands a little over five years ago for more than $50 million and spent almost another $30 million gut-renovating and expanding his ultra-high-end resort there. There are five guest houses with private beaches, an outdoor movie theater and an on-site staff of 30 that includes a masseuse and sommelier. Visitors can rent the entire property, which has 40 private beaches and sleeps up to 24, for rates starting at $37,500 a night, including meals and beverages. (Penélope Cruz was married there, as was Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)
Mr. Copperfield describes it as a place where he can "create magic in three dimensions" and where a stay can include an optional, interactive treasure hunt where he says guests are immersed in a "living movie." (Dozens of actors and illusionists are imported to play pirates.) Recent additions to the resort include trained macaws that pick up Musha Cay's refuse and a "secret village," opening soon, where visitors can interact with tame monkeys.
The Exumas' newest neighbors could be moving in soon. Ms. Hill and Mr. McGraw's home on Goat Cay, a previously undeveloped island, is nearly completed and includes a single-story tropical-plantation-style main house with a lookout tower, and three smaller homes for a manager and staff, according to people familiar with the project. A representative for the couple declined to comment.
Tyler Perry's island retreat, White Bay Cay, was also previously undeveloped and consists of a 25-acre island and a seven-acre island relatively close by; both are near Mr. Depp's island. (The 25-acre island was listed at one point for $7 million.) The spread, which is still being completed, includes a 14,000-square-foot main house and five to six smaller guest bungalows. There's also a spa, a tennis court and a marina. Mr. Perry's representative said he had no comment.
The Aga Khan, the Muslim spiritual leader and philanthropist, purchased 349-acre Bell Island in 2009 for $100 million, according to public records. Gail Lockhart Charles, the Bahamas-based representative for the Aga Khan, said that the existing homes on the island—flat, concrete structures built to maximize water views and minimize potential hurricane damage—are being renovated to create a "private family retreat." Also in the works is a native-plant nursery and landscaping with indigenous plants and flowers. Ms. Lockhart says the project is scheduled to be finished in about six months.
In recent years, owners have been toning down the glitzy look. The latest trend is to build slightly less opulent homes that use solar power and are self-sustainable, Mr. Martinez says, though that can add to the overall cost. (Johnny Depp's island, Little Hall's Pond Cay, has at least some solar power. A representative for Mr. Depp said he had no comment.)
Former race-car driver Mr. Irvine says on his island, electricity will be provided by solar panels and solar-powered batteries; transportation will be by kayak or bicycle. Mr. Irvine says he's working on a water-making facility and plans to try to source most of what he eats while there from the island itself. "If you want to be living the Palm Beach lifestyle, live in Palm Beach," he says.
Mr. Bosarge of Yonder Cay claims the island will be the first of its size in the Caribbean to be entirely powered by renewable energy. The 70-acre island now has 10 wind-turbine generators, solar power with backup batteries and a reverse-osmosis water-purification system that will make 21,000 gallons of water a day.
To complete Yonder Cay by its November deadline, the project's Houston-based chief operating officer, David Houston, says there's currently staff of 150 on the island, 110 of whom are living there in temporary housing. The rest are ferried back and forth to a populated island, with existing housing, in the morning and evening.