Boston research metallurgist Kim Bigelow is no Aristotle Onassis, but he has one thing in common with the late Greek tycoon: he owns a private island. Two of them, actually: 16-acre Green Cay and 1-acre Sandy Spit, both surrounded by azure water and coral reefs, about 10 miles east of St. Thomas in the British Virgin Islands. Bigelow, 60, inherited the properties and has decided to sell them for $1.7 million. The only time he and his wife reconsidered, he says, was in the days after Sept. 11, when owning a private escape from the madness seemed more precious than ever. "We're committed to selling," says Bigelow. "But there are definitely those thoughts."
Fortunately for sellers, a lot of people with money are warming to island retreats. Bigelow's marketer, Rick Moeser, senior vice president of Sotheby's International in Palm Beach, Fla., says inquiries about the private islands he brokers have doubled since Sept. 11, to about eight a month. He unabashedly trumpets the islands' "privacy, seclusion--and safety." Bahamas Realty, one of that country's largest island brokers, reports a 25% jump this autumn in calls about its properties. "I get the sense," says George Damianos of Damianos Realty, another major Bahamas island agent, "that prospective buyers have decided there's no chance of being blown up on their own island in the Exumas," one of the Bahamas' prettiest island groups.
Wealthy celebs like aviator Charles Lindbergh--who bought Illiec, off France's Brittany coast, in 1938 after his infant son was murdered--have long acquired private islands for safety and privacy. In the 1990s, as the millionaire club became far less exclusive, island purchases grew into a worldwide market, from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the Indian Ocean. Off the coast of Georgia, Moeser can sell you 2,600-acre Hampton Island, with a Greek Revival plantation house, for $16 million. And in the frigid waters off Nova Scotia, Vladi Private Islands, based in Hamburg, Germany, offers properties like fir-forested, 2-acre Nubble for as little as $19,000.
Few locations are as hot today as the Bahamas. Its 2,500 islands have seen rising demand since new rules in 1994 made it easier for foreigners to buy. And Sept. 11 made it more appealing to own "an almost tetherless isolation," as California electronics mogul Charlie Trimble calls his $3 million Channel Cay.
Bahama island values have shot up almost tenfold since 1995. Damianos' listings range from $495,000 to $12.5 million. On 150-acre Musha Cay its owner, Miami real estate developer John Melk, has installed lush landscaping, opulent guest houses and full-time staffing. He recently began renting the place to the likes of Oprah Winfrey for $340,000 a week. For now, the only problem Bahamian real estate agents have is a shortage of available islands to sell: fewer than 50 are listed today.