Shopping: I Want To Own... An Island; It's all yours for pounds 1.5m, mate

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It started with what in retrospect was a modest daydream. A weekend bolthole by the sea; a simple weatherboard-clad Twenties cottage perhaps, with minimal Elle Deco-styled interior (and thus no worries of the locals breaking in for a few pebbles and driftwood lifted off the beach).

If you live and work in a city and feel a creeping claustrophobia eating away at your insides, then you may also have experienced a similar desire to escape the rubbish of modern life and justified the expense with the sound fiscal reasoning that to upgrade your inner-city condo would exceed the price of a fisherman's cottage on the coast.

Unfortunately, property pipe dreams have a habit of escalating beyond all reasonable proportion. Hence the romantic cottage begets bigger ambitions. Eurostarryeyed notions of the speed of travel, and the liberating technological miracles of e-mail and the Internet, seem to combine to put those ramshackle French chateaux dangled like carrots by property sections within the reach of the average working man (so long as he has a spare pounds 250,000 on top of the asking price for the restoration work).

Then a mate's tale about a friend who invented the credit card hologram and retired to make sweet music on a Mediterranean island instilled in me a new, golden-beached fantasy. After a few months I found my dream home on Tago Mago, a small island within windsurfing distance of Ibiza. The previously uninhabited villa was nothing over the top: four-bedrooms, and the usual decor of whitewashed walls and terracotta tiled floors.

True it had small tower, with panoramic views, a verandah and a swimming pool but it had no garden of which to speak (although even I could hack back a few rosemary bushes, if only to startle the island's unique lizards (podarcis pityusensis tagomagensis), and catch a flash of shimmering turquoise as they scuttled for fresh pastures.

The agent, Knight Frank's (0171-629 8171) asking price, $4,850,000 (around pounds 3m), was a little out of my target price range, yet it seemed worth every peseta. Why? Because the freehold, built for minor nobility but never inhabited, is not for the building but more or less the whole islet: an arid, spaghetti western scrubland stretched like a drum skin over gaunt, pocked granite cliffs rising out of azure waters. The Spanish government have retained a small chunk, on which stands an unmanned lighthouse.

OK, I admit my sights were set 20 to 113 metres too high, and 145 acres too wide and island buying is predominantly, although not exclusively, the preserve of millionaires. There are between three and five thousand inhabitable islands in private hands around the globe, around 500 of which are on the market each year. Recent price tags have ranged from US$22,000 (Dun Moraig in Scotland) to US$500m for Governors Island (173 acres featuring an 18th Century fort, various military installations and a Burger King within baseball striking distance of Manhattan).

Some people are even serial buyers. Professional lateral thinker Edward de Bono has three spread across three continents and Swiss chicken drumstick magnate Dieter Kathmann had laid his hands on a dozen nest eggs before he died in 1987.

A handful of companies specialise in selling islands, including Sotheby's International, Jean-Marc Levet & Partners, and browsing the Net can also reap dividends (start searching with "private islands"). The Mecca, though, for keys, isles and archipelagos of all shapes, sizes and prices is Vladi Private Islands (49 40 338989), a Hamburg/Nova Scotia-based company owned by isle-selling entrepreneur Farhad Vladi.

Vladi has sold over 500 in his 25 years in the business, and has also expanded his business to include island renting, something recommended before purchase. However with rentals running to as much as $8,000 for a week on Fisherman Island in Maine and US5,200 a day for the 72-acre Little St James in the Virgin Islands, not including flights, it's clear most people couldn't even afford to visit these places for a once in a lifetime trip, let alone to come as prospective purchasers.

Fortunately, an alternative may soon be to hand. A year ago, the ubiquitous Wallpaper* magazine showcased an idea by design company Softroom, for a floating pod which you hitched to the back of a motorboat, drove out into the ocean and then inflated. Hey, presto, instant island, replete with decking, bar, bedchamber and fibreglass seats. No man is an island but, who knows, one day all men will be able to buy a portable one from IKEA.

In the meantime, Knight Frank have recently added the 28 acre Dinish Island to their books, in County Kerry. If it's the island I remember from when I drove through moonlike Burren up to Galway, then it's a verdant isle, with a house you glimpse between woodland as the road weaves along the Kenmare estuary; a far cry from the deserted crofters islands exposed to brutal winds further up the west coast. If there are any rich Americans for whom the asking price of IRpounds 1.5m is a mere oil drop in the ocean, I'd be more than happy to housesit in the adjoining five-bedroom cottage for the 11 months of the year you're not around.

Steer Clear Of...

n Bikini Atoll: Even hotter property than Three Mile Island.

n Tracey Island: Fantastic playboy pad ruined by plastic palms, noisy air traffic and the risk of decapitation when the swimming pool slides back for Thunderbird 1.

n Gruinard: Britain tested shells spiked with anthrax spores on this Scottish Island during the Second World War. It's off limits for 100 years.

n Anywhere near Necker Island. Do you really want to be within easy ballooning distance of Richard Branson?

Five Famous


n Marlon Brando bought a very wild one back in 1967: the South Pacific atoll, Tetiaoroa.

n John Wayne liked true grit in his picnic hamper, so bought the Panamanian hide-out, Taborcillo.

n Rudolph Nureyev invested in Galli Island, near Capri; it sold for $5m.

n Tony Curtis didn't always like it hot; bought Rocky Island, off Nova Scotia.

n Aristotle Onassis bought his own burial mound - the island of Skorpios in the lonian Sea.