The Caribbean was once an exclusive hangout of the seriously rich and famous – a place royalty brushed shoulders with rock stars in secluded luxury. In the past decade, however, package tours have taken over so many of the most idyllic haunts.
With more flights arriving, the islands such as Barbados and Antigua have become centres for sprawling hotel complexes. Likewise, demand for second homes has led to unprecedented levels of building. In theory, this means everyone now has the chance to own in paradise, but the reality is that prices have soared along with construction.
On popular islands, you now get very little for your money. The houses themselves are getting smaller, and the sense of peace there is being eroded. Barbados, for example, is so sought-after that a one-bedroom apartment on its glitzy west coast can cost from around £350,000, and villas with asking prices in excess of £5m are not uncommon. And these prices will certainly not guarantee the kind of exclusivity you might imagine.
According to David Vaughn of Savills estate agency, islands such as Barbados and Antigua command high prices because of the frequency of direct flights and their economic stability. But if you're planning to spend a fortune on a holiday home, why buy in a location where you have to fight for space?
If you're prepared to travel that bit further, you'll find plenty of islands offering quieter beaches and a more laid-back atmosphere for similar prices. Most of them just a short hop from the main tourist haunts, yet here that original spirit of the Caribbean – exclusivity, tranquillity, glamour – is thriving.
Georgina Richards of Knight Frank says buyers wanting a detached villa with sea views in less-accessible locations should expect to pay upwards of around £1m. This includes islands such as Anguilla, which lures buyers with its perfect beaches; the peaceful and lush hillsides of Nevis; and some of the more remote shores of the Bahamas.
On islands that offer owners a higher level of services with their seclusion, such as Mustique or St Barths, Richards says buyers shouldn't expect to spend less than £2m for an inland property, and upwards of £6m for something near the sea.
St Barths, with its beautiful white-sand beaches and French influence, is a popular getaway for wealthy folk wanting to escape the crowds. There are few hotels or resort facilities compared to other islands. "St Barths is very cosmopolitan," says Richards, "it has a lot of cachet."
The swankiest area on the island is Petit Cul-de-Sac where properties can change hands for up to £20m. Milne claims the pretty port of Gastavia and nearby Lurin are also nice and cheaper, though this still means a minimum of £250,000 for a one-bedroom apartment and not less than £1.5m for a small house.
The glamour of St Barths doesn't suit everyone. "It's a nice island but people are so well dressed and good-looking you can feel as though you're always on a catwalk," says Darren Milne of specialist agency Caribbean Dreams. But, says Milne, "If you have money, St Barths is where you're going to want to be."
Those with such budgets shouldn't discount the paradise of Mustique, either. With four-bedroom villas starting at around £2m, prices can be comparable for high-end property.
Mustique is reached by connecting flights via Barbados and has counted the late Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger and David Bowie among its residents. The island passed from private hands to the control of the Mustique Company several years ago and has opened up a little to buyers.
"Mustique is unique and exclusive," says Richards, "and that adds a heavy percentage to prices but it's very difficult to find seclusion if you haven't got big bucks."
For those who can afford more exclusivity than even Mustique can offer, Richards has no shortage of properties providing lots of space and privacy, including a large Bermuda estate for £12.5m and an entire private island in the Bahamas for £17.5m.
If, however, you like the idea of Barbados-style facilities on your doorstep but hanker after the privacy of the desert island experience, St Martin might be for you. The island only adds up to some 37 square miles, but it's split into separate French and Dutch sections, and offers a mix of stunning beaches, a mountainous interior, bustling marinas and fizzing night life.
Darren Milne believes the Dutch side is overdeveloped, with a large number of big resorts, fast-food restaurants and shopping malls. In contrast, the old French territory of the north (which remains a French Overseas Collective) has retained its charm and character.
"The French areas have restrictions on construction," says Milne, "they are trying to keep it untouched, whereas the Dutch side has lots of new-build." Attractive, three-bedroom villas in the French area generally start at around £1m and from over £2m for a sea view, while in the Dutch areas you can pick up studios in condominium developments from around £115,000.
With no direct flights from the UK, you have to connect via one of several airports in mainland Europe. However, for those who want to own in upmarket seclusion with the option of commercial and leisure facilities on the doorstep, maybe St Martin offers the best Caribbean compromise.
*Island hopping is quite easy, by ferry or small, local air services such as Liat. But it may be necessary to stay overnight on the main islands.
*Several islands, such as St Barths, St Lucia and the Bahamas offer tax incentives for overseas investors. These vary between islands but often include no capital gains tax, purchase tax or sales taxes.
*Property insurance can be costly because of hurricanes. September to November is peak storm season.
*Almost all islands have their own currency but most property is priced in US dollars, which is currently weak against the pound, so it's a good time to buy.
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