Bali by way of Noosa
Richard Branson’s new resort brings a touch of exotica to the Sunshine Coast
HANNAH Makepeace would have been rolling in her grave. But the hordes of hippie squatters who moved in after her demise would no doubt have derived amusement from the idea of a charismatic billionaire businessman evoking his hallucinogenic history at the opening of a new resort on Makepeace’s old patch.
But then, Richard Branson has never been a stranger to controversy, and in 40 years at the helm of Virgin he has certainly taken on tougher adversaries than the memory of a long-dead spiritualist spinster. Nevertheless, as I quaff the coiffed one’s bubbly at Makepeace Island, a short, muddy wade from Tewantin on the middle reaches of the Noosa River, I can’t help but conjure the past as Branson explains his Balinese folly.
‘‘I’ve always loved Bali, since the days when as a young man I would try to get stoned on magic mushrooms. I also have a passion for islands, so whenever I’ve had an opportunity to purchase an island, I’ve tended to create a little taste of Bali on it,’’ he says.
As you do. The young Branson would probably have loved the derelict Makepeace Island of 30 years ago — with sarong-clad hippies and yachties smoking j oints under the eucalypts — almost as much as the mogul appears to love the $7 million retreat he opened this month. For the Virgin boss and his partner in the development, former Virgin Australia CEO Brett Godfrey, it’s been a long, hard road since they purchased the island from artist Brian Spencer and his wife Beverley back in 2003, with various aspects of the original plan (including the obligatory helipad) knocked back by the then members of Noosa Council.
Indeed, it seemed the whole development might be shelved, until Branson shouldered up to green-tinged councillor Russell Green in the urinal of a Noosa restaurant and a compromise deal was hatched. But the pain didn’t end there, with Godfrey and his project managers locked in battle with local contractors over alleged non-payment through most of 2009.
When finally the problems were resolved, container after container of the finest Balinese craftsmanship was barged up the narrow Noosa River and the painstaking reconstruction of a dozen classic buildings began.
Pig Island, as it was originally gazetted, was first taken up by one Charles Nicholas and his wife; in 1911 they built a rambling highset Queenslander overlooking the mangroves of the island’s 9ha.
In 1924, as they aged, they hired Tewantin spinster Hannah Makepeace as their housekeeper, and on their deaths, having no children, they left the island to her.
Hannah renamed it Terranova and filled the house with the bizarre accoutrements of her spiritualist lifestyle.
By the time she died in 1973, locals were calling it the Old Museum. In the vacant years that followed, hippie squatters came to love the relative isolation and the heady whiff of the occult that seemed to pervade the place, even as they ripped up floorboards to fuel their winter fires.
In 1986, Brian Spencer snapped it up for a relative song, not even realising it was an island at first.
He and Bev changed the name to Makepeace in honour of the old girl, lovingly restored the old house, added a new wing, and Brian turned the boathouse into his studio.
As a long-time local who has enjoyed the hospitality of the Spencers on the wide veranda on more than one languid summer afternoon, I was initially appalled when I heard Branson intended to move the heritage-listed house out of sight and cut down 17 mature eucalypts to make way for his Balinese cluster.
Over the past year or so, how- ever, word filtered back from tradies and keen-eyed fishermen that the construction on the island looked amazing. Offered a preview and a lunch with Branson, I decide I’d better leave my prejudices at the wharf and approach the Balinese Makepeace with an open and inquiring mind.
The tradies and the fishos had it right. Makepeace is amazing.
For a start, you just don’t expect to round a bend in the Noosa River and see thatched roofs, coloured flags and Hindu statuary. It seems incongruous, but also quite enchanting. This is not the first time Branson has carried his cultural baggage of choice with him, preferring a Bali motif to a Caribbean one at his Necker Island retreat in the British Virgin Islands. So presumably he’s worked out what works, what blends and what doesn’t. What’s perhaps more important for a man who has built a lifestyle and career out of the bold, in-your-face statement, Branson’s Makepeace is beautifully understated.
As we tour through the common space of the Long House wantilan — which houses a wellstocked bar, games room, home theatre and breezy lounging areas — I am reminded not of the dropdead chic joints that have popped up all over Bali’s Jimbaran, the Bukit Peninsula, Seminyak and, more recently, Canggu, but of places such as the original Lotus Restaurant in Ubud back in the 1980s, or Kevin Weldon’s timeworn and much-loved bungalow on the Sayan Ridge.
It just feels, well, comfortable. I also rather like the use of the term wantilan. I know there’s a restaurant of that name in Melbourne, and it’s probably a term that’s now applied to many open-sided buildings, but in my mind a wantilan will always be the cockfighting shed, a slab of chipped concrete with a thatched roof. Branson’s wantilan is a little grander than that, but not too grand.
Makepeace’s accommodation units (curiously dubbed bures, as if we are in Fiji) are spread around the main building, j oined by wooden walkways.
Riverfront Bali House is Branson’s personal villa, with four bedrooms, each with private bathroom and deck. My more modest digs, with filtered river views, is up the back past the tennis court, but it’s very well appointed, with two bedrooms sharing a spacious bathroom with rock spa bath, and a lovely sitting room with a Javanese day bed.
Thoughtfully, our host has supplied a manual of acrobatic sexual positions beside each bed. He’s such a wag.
There is a total of 11 bedrooms in various configurations and the retreat can take up to 22 guests, making it ideal for executive retreats, house parties and smaller weddings (say, the third or fourth, where you don’t want to go over the top). With a price tag of almost $17,000 a night for a full house in high season, it’s probably not going to be popular with fishing groups or schoolies.
Makepeace’s manager and executive chef, Nick Jones, is an affable Aussie who was running an island resort next to Necker when Branson offered him a ticket home and a good job.
It was a great call. Jones is not only an efficient manager but an excellent chef, and his wife is a doctor, which is handy if you get silly and dive in at the shallow end of the enormous pool.
Although it would have been much more impressive to arrive by chopper (and I’m sure the Branson team will be keeping up the pressure on that one), the owner clambers off an open boat just like a mere mortal, quickly freshens up, then spends a long and relaxed lunch gently selling his little dream to the assembled media. And it’s a pretty easy sell.
‘ ‘ When I come here, I don’t want to leave,’’ he says. ‘‘It has a very special ambience. I find it a very romantic place. In fact I’m all for renaming it Make Love Island.’’
That’s when I know the sex manuals in the bedrooms are his idea. Phil Jarratt was a guest of Makepeace Island.
The impressive Makepeace Island resort on Noosa River, owned by Richard Branson
‘When I come here, I don’t want to leave,’ Branson says