There are scores of islands for sale at bargain prices but is living in splendid isolation haven or hell?

Don't let the romance get in the way of the reality, says Graham Norwood

We've all dreamed of being on Desert Island Discs, wondering how we'd dare suggest our embarrassing musical favourites while simultaneously trying to appear sophisticated.

But what if we didn't have to select the discs and instead had a choice of islands – to buy?

The situation is not so far-fetched, because there are now scores of small, private islands for sale around the world, and at lower prices than you may imagine. In Canada, the 2.5 acres that make up Georgian Bay Island at French River, Ontario, include two cottages plus all-island electricity and water, and is yours for only £320,000. Or how about Tahifehifa, an acre of undeveloped, lush land that emerges from the Pacific Ocean somewhere near Tonga? It is on sale for a mere £263,500.

For those with island aspirations closer to home, there are plenty around the British coastline too.

Officially there are 97 Scottish islands, 19 off England and six off Wales, aside from the Channel Islands, Scillies and Isle of Man. In reality, there are actually many more – tiny islands in rivers or urban eccentricities like Osney Island in central Oxford – and it is these smaller and stranger ones which have such appeal to buyers, according to estate agents.

There have been headlines for Sully, a tiny, wine-producing island 500 yards from the Welsh coast and now on sale for £95,000, after an abortive bid to find a buyer willing to pay the original asking price of £1.5m, but it is just one of several which are on the market at the moment.

Ailsa Craig, 10 miles off the Ayrshire coast, is a 245-acre mountainous island that is two miles in circumference and rises to 1,100 feet. It comes with just about everything you should have on an old private island, complete with a lighthouse, a ruined castle, a few cottages that are rented out and bring in £26,000 a year, plus a granite quarry and bird sanctuary.

"We see demand for small islands from both the domestic and international market. The British have a fascination with being completely cut off and master of their own land, which may well stem from Britain being an island," explains Ran Morgan of the estate agent Knight Frank, which is selling Ailsa Craig for £2.5m (0131 222 9600, www.knight frank.com). "Planning [to build a home on an island] is normally difficult, although there are ways to get around this by using temporary accommodation. Recently, interest in the small islands we're marketing has been from marine biologists, bird watchers and wildlife groups," explains Morgan.

The absence of celebrities from that list – even minor ones like Ben Fogle, who recently expressed an interest in buying Taransay in the Outer Hebrides – is down to the fact that most islands around the British coast are not exactly blessed with home comforts or sunshine.

For example, Morgan is also selling Out Skerries, what he calls a "small estate" of two large islands and five small ones in the Shetlands. The seven are on sale for £400,000; the marketing material reveals that one island is completely uninhabited, they all are hard to get to, and the estate is described as "standing in rugged isolation against the full force of the North Sea" – you cannot accuse the agent of being economical with the truth there.

In reality, many of the islands now for sale in Britain are similarly challenging, even if they do not quite have the North Sea to contend with.

Savills, the estate agent selling the 19-acre, £100,000 Hook Island – located in a river near Goole in east Yorkshire – admits it is "full of vegetation" and is so difficult to photograph that its sales details include just a distant aerial view (01904 617800, www.savills.com).

For those wanting a softer option there is Towan island, a Cornish landmark which features an Edwardian family house perched on a granite rock boasting glorious views of the Atlantic. The breakfast terrace overlooking the beach might tempt you to pay its £1.25m asking price (www.vladi-private-islands.de) but be prepared for the footbridge – 100ft long and 70ft up in the air – that links the island to Newquay on the mainland.

Suddenly, owning an island seems like hard work, although agents insist it is not."Buying an island is anything but foolish. They are very much lifestyle purchases, which of course aren't for everyone – but if you are a celebrity wishing to escape media attention or a stressed businessman looking for a peaceful retreat..." says Schuyler Pratt of Jackson-Stops & Staff, another estate agency that has sold islands in the past.

Even if you can afford to purchase an island idyll, then persuade the planners to allow you to have a home, and convince your partner it's a great idea to live there, experts warn that your spending may only just be beginning.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says homes on private islands almost inevitably suffer from five costly problems.

Firstly, the brickwork on the elevation of the house that is most exposed to the elements will often lose the mortar between bricks; secondly, rain or seawater will corrode the "ties" linking inner and outer layers of cavity walls, causing them to crack; on top of that, woodworm is likely to infest older homes on islands; guttering and exposed pipes may also need frequent replacement, especially if they are exposed to salt; and finally, there is good old damp – a near-permanent reminder that you have a home very close to water.

If you are still not deterred, then island life UK-style is probably your dream – and you will be following in famous footsteps.

In 1993, David and Frederick Barclay, business moguls and owners of the Daily Telegraph, bought Brecqhou, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands, and now have a mock-Gothic castle on it complete with battlements, granite walls and a helicopter pad.

Likewise, the explorer and presenter Bear Grylls owns his own personal island, the 20-acre St Tudwal's off Caernarvonshire. He does not live there permanently, perhaps because it is a little short of life's luxuries – there are no beaches but plenty of jagged, 80ft cliffs.

St Tudwal's has had another problem associated with islands – rats. Grylls had to have an infestation cleared when he first visited, but experts warn they are commonly found on smaller islands that have had no or few human inhabitants in recent years.

That's funny. They never mention that on Desert Island Discs.

Rich and famous retreats

Johnny Depp: filming the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise led Depp to fall in love with the Caribbean. The result? He bought Little Hall's Pond Caye for $3.6m (£2.2m) and his intention is to run it as a resort solely using eco-friendly solar power

Leonardo DiCaprio: Blackadore Caye is 104 acres, off Belize and cost the star a meagre $1.75m Leo is now drawing up plans with the Four Seasons hotel firm for a holiday resort "espousing sustainability and environmental conservation"

Richard Branson: we all know he owns Necker Island but had you heard he also bought Mosquito, again in the British Virgin Islands, for £10m in 2007? He wants to turn it into an eco-tourism haven

Aristotle Onassis and descendents: the granddaddy of private islands, Scorpios in the Ionian region of Greece has been owned by shipping magnates for four decades, but is now the subject of rival bids by Bill Gates and Georgio Armani. Cost? €150m (£131.6m)

Eddie Murphy: just five minutes by boat from Nassau, the 15-acre Rooster Caye island was bought by Murphy in 2007 for a reported $15m. This location is considered by developers to be perfect for a new resort. Let's see: will it be an eco one?

Bear Grylls: the survival expert and television presenter owns the 20-acre St Tudwal island off the coast of Caernarvonshire in Wales but only lives on there part of the year

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