"If you buy a car you pay every year for insurance, tax, fuel, maintenance, repair," says Farhad Vladi as he sits next to the fake palm tree in his office on Hamburg's waterfront. "You can have a beautiful island for the same acquisition price and the same maintenance fees."
The grey-haired 53-year-old has been trading in fantasy for a quarter of a century. Many, if not most, of the 600-odd islands he has sold have been snapped up for millions by the rich and famous, but he insists that island-lovers of modest means can also make their insular dreams come true.
"The cheapest island I have ever sold, in a lake in Canada, went for pounds 2,000 or pounds 3,000," he says, adding, jokingly: "if you've got an island, you don't need a car."
His $50 catalogue differs from the average estate agent's brochure only in that a) you have to pay for it, and b) the real estate pictured is more expensive and glamorous than the average suburban property. It does contain a few islands and lakeside lots in the car-price bracket - such as the 2.5-acre Apple Island in Mahone Bay in Canada at pounds 19,000 - but they are all in Canada and you would need to bring your tent to sleep in while you have a house built.
"The most expensive island I have ever sold," says Vladi, glancing up at the photos of sun-kissed isles that bedeck his office walls, "went for around pounds 12m, quite an expensive island, one of the Virgin Islands."
Vladi, a Canadian passport-holding German of Persian extraction, claims to be the only estate agent in the world who deals exclusively in islands (although a few peninsulas and the odd coastal castle have sneaked into his catalogue). "Islands are different to other properties," he muses. "You control what you see. Then, of course, you have clean water, pure air. Also, you're on a positive energy field because the waves lapping on the edge of the island release a lot of energy."
The lure of the islands snared Vladi in his student days, when, in 1967, he acted as go-between for the sale of an island in the Seychelles, one which he had hoped to buy for himself, but which turned out to be too expensive. He pocketed a handsome commission from the reported $500,000 selling price and decided that this was where his future lay. In 1971, armed with a PhD in economics, he set up shop in Hamburg, later opening a second office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The 600 sales he claims to have clocked up, along with a rental sideline, have brought his annual income somewhat above the German average. (In fact, presuming he takes around one per cent of each sale, Vladi is a rich man.)
Moneyed folk such as Marlon Brando, Aristotle Onassis, and Britain's reclusive Barclay twins, would appear to share Vladi's island mysticism. Brando bought Tetiaro island near Tahiti after he spotted it while filming Mutiny on the Bounty. Onassis wooed and wed Jacqueline Kennedy on Skorpios, his Aegean getaway, and the Barclays purchased Brecqhou, a tiny Channel Island where they built themselves a castle.
But Vladi is tight-lipped about which celebrities he trades with. Persons of consequence are not often named in his catalogue, John Wayne and Richard Branson being two exceptions. Wayne, who can be mentioned because he is safely dead, owned subtropical Taborcillo off the Pacific coast of Panama. This bijou island, "which has its own airstrip (partly overgrown) and is surrounded by a 1.8-mile-long beach with sand dunes", is now listed in Vladi's catalogue at pounds 195,000.
Branson, for whom the obvious choice was a little pied-a-terre in the British Virgin Islands, is included because his Necker Island is one of the properties which can be hired through Vladi's rental service. "A popular relaxation retreat and exotic getaway for VIPs and members of royal families," says the blurb, "and an ideal location for a special event: birthday, family or company celebration, or wedding. Rate: pounds 780 a day for two people all inclusive."
Herr Vladi's desire to cater for all income brackets does, of course, extend to his rental activities. At the other end of the price scale are his "Robinson Crusoe islands". Here the less wealthy or simply more adventurous island-lover hands over pounds 6 a day, is given a Swiss Army knife and a hammock, and goes off to live like on an uninhabited desert island. These islands include the Chilean one where Alexander Selkirk spent the solitary sojourn that inspired Daniel Defoe to write his novel, but the term also covers any desert island on which modern would-be castaways can take advantage of Vladi's services. For a further pounds 230, Vladi will provide a Gucci-designed white bag containing a survival kit, tent, collapsible fishing rod, a bottle for messages, and a copy of Robinson Crusoe.
The onset of winter has "traditionally been very busy because people are coming back from their summer holidays and they're thinking about their winter holidays. So, in winter, many people want to go and inspect islands," says Vladi, adding that he spends half the year flying around the world showing his properties or seeking out new ones.
Business is looking good, imminent global recession notwithstanding. "Economic crisis affects us in a very positive way because it gives the feeling of instability and makes people want to buy something more stable. Take Richard Branson - if there's a recession, he might lose some profits, but he doesn't need to sell his island."
An addendum to Vladi's catalogue appears to bear out the island-seller's words. Over a dozen in the brochure are now listed as sold, including Fisherman's Island in the US state of Maine (listed at pounds 1.65 million) and John Wayne's former retreat of Taborcillo.
But there are still over 100 on sale, ranging from undistinguished lumps of rock to tropical nirvanas. Scottish and Irish islands are plentiful and lie in a part of the world where, the brochure informs us, "the infrastructure is very good and mass tourism non-existent" . (The sale of one Scottish island, Eigg, was one of the most troublesome Vladi ever handled, he says. The owner, the German artist Marlin Maruma, got so much grief from the 63 residents who lived on part of the island that he phoned him up "and asked me to get rid of the thing". Which Vladi did, selling it last year for a couple of million pounds to a trust set up by the islanders themselves.)
Vladi, who personally owns islands in Canada and New Zealand, is not concerned about global warming. "There are so many theories, but the average water level rise predicted is around two metres. If this is true, then I have to worry more here in Hamburg than on most islands. You also have these scientific reports that say the water level might sink, which means your island might even get better. So I think it is premature to worry about my business."
What about plans that have been drawn up for pods that can be towed out to any ocean or lake location and inflated to give a floating island complete with beds, living rooms, bars and sun terraces? "If you want to marry a real wife and I give you a puppet, that wouldn't affect the marriage business, would it?"
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