By Gary Walther
The great illusionist David Copperfield conjures up a private-island resort in the best part of the Bahamas, the Exuma Cays.
What is it with magicians and islands? Circe, the Greek goddess of magic, lived on the island of Aeaea, where she kept Odysseus and his crew happily eating and drinking for a year (but only after she promised, during sex no less, not to cast a spell on him). In The Tempest, Prospero worked his magic from an unnamed island, while Arthurian enchantress Morgan le Fay worked hers from the Island of Avalon. Harry Houdini filmed his second Hollywood feature, Terror Island, on Catalina Island in 1919. As of August 9, 2010, on Narnia.com, you could land your Dawn Treader ship on Magician’s Island. And then there’s Rob the Magician of Staten Island, who managed to come up high in every online search I did around the thread “islands and magicians”—the magic of SEO.
To this list we can add the world’s greatest current magician, David Copperfield, perhaps also the hardest working illusionist in history. He’s been honing his craft since he was ten, when he cast himself as “The Great Davino”, and today does more than 500 shows a year, most of them at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He’s won 21 Emmys, is the first living magician to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and holds 11 Guinness World Records, among them for most tickets sold worldwide—more than 40,000,000—by a solo entertainer. He had a “pay rank” of 50 in the 2009 Forbes Celebrity 100 List, which stated that “the famed illusionist had pulled off the greatest trick of all: banking $30 million in the middle of a recession.” (And this is a man whose mother once admonished, “You’ll never make any money as a magician.”)
Among the things Copperfield has done with his burgeoning fortune is to spend $50 million for a 100-acre, lamb-shank-shaped island in the Bahamas called Musha Cay. That was in 2006 and since then he’s conjured it into a resort that comes with a grand illusion: that it’s yours, all yours. And in a way, it is, because you don’t book one of the five villas. You book the entire island, whether there are two or 24 of you (the maximum number of guests that can be accommodated). The price: $37,000 a night (with a four-night minimum) for up to 12, with various increases per extra person up to 24, which costs $52,500. (I did the math and you might as well fill the place: It costs $2,185 per person for 24 people versus $2,583 for 18 and $3,083 for 12. Cheaper by the two dozen.) By the way, the tariff includes a night at Dave’s Drive In, a movie theatre on the beach, complete with popcorn and Junior Mints, which the staff seemingly pulls out of a hat—and then spends all night putting back in, according to Island Director Cathy Daly.
“Everything you can see,” says Copperfield, standing in one of the resort’s Boston Whalers and holding his arms akimbo (like a magician about to command the sea to rise up), “is ours.” By this he means the 11 islands of Copperfield Bay, the prozac-calm, turquoise-tinged-with-latte water off the southwest shore of Musha Cay. Some of the islands here were even named as though destined to be part of a magician’s realm. There’s Forbidden Island, which contains the derelict home of the former owner, Blockbuster CEO John Melk, Enchanted Island, Secret Cay, and most apropo, Imagine Island.
Copperfield was born David Seth Kotkin in 1956 and grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey. David Copperfield was born in 1974 when Kotkin was cast as the lead in “The Magic Man.” In person Copperfield comes across as matter-of-fact, even a tad shy—not at all the man you’d imagine to have once been engaged to Claudia Schiffer. (Though he does have matinee-idol good looks.) Those who know Copperfield, however, say that he is steely determination incarnate and has an insatiable appetite for details. His father, Hy Kotkin, characterized David as “a perfectionist” in a 1996 interview with Alex Witchell of the New York Times.
Thus, his is a magic kingdom in which nothing happens by accident and that includes how he came to own Musha Cay. Believing that some places possess a kind of magical power, Copperfield zeroed in on four of them: Easter Island, Stonehenge, the Pyramid of the Sun in the Yucatan, and the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. He drew a line connecting the first two and another connecting the last two and found that Musha Cay lay at the intersection. Presto!
The resort consists of five plantation-style villas and The Landings, a large-windowed building that overlooks the dock and serves as the restaurant and guest clubhouse. There’s a long communal table in the dining room, a breezy breakfast veranda, and a game room with a pair of arcade machines, created by Copperfield’s staff, a la the one in the movie Big. The room is also furnished with vintage magic posters and a gorgeous, regulation-size pool table that once belonged to Harry Houdini. Both are drawn from Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas, the largest collection of magic artifacts and memorabilia in the world.
Copperfield freely admits that many design elements at Musha Cay have been taken from resorts he’s visited around the world—he’s a big fan of Aman. He’s also enamored of Bali because of the island’s theatricality and ritual. Hence the villa living rooms have large scroll-arm Balinese-style couches; the living room in High View, the largest villa, has a man-high statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god who is revered as a “remover of obstacles”; and the communal table in the beach pavilion is over-watched by an imposing statue of Krishna. Copperfield bought most of the pieces himself and had the good sense not to overdo the illusion. The villa interiors are leavened with non-Balinese pieces and are more about comfort than making a design statement.
You can make whatever you want of your time on Musha. You let the general manager know in advance about dietary requirements and desired libations (unless you’re at the Krug and Lafite level, the latter are included), and establish a meal schedule when you arrive. The chef, Steven Kritzinger from South Africa, is terrific. Under his direction, the staff makes some mealtime magic of its own, staging beach barbecues and, if the tide is low at dusk, drinks and dinner on a long, scorpion-tail sandbar way out in Copperfield Bay.
Otherwise the place is all about flip-flop simplicity with a beck-and-call staff. You tool around the island in a golf cart. You get a good beach toy box—four jet skis, a banana boat, paddle surfers, a Hobie Cat, and kayaks—and a lighted grass tennis court. There are also two Boston Whalers, a 23-foot Jet Boat, a Nautilus Rib Catamaran, and a 37-foot-long Midnight Express at the ready for snorkeling, diving excursions, and drop-offs on one of the islands in Copperfield Bay for those longing for a blue lagoon experience.
The resort also offers two a la carte items that only someone with a Las Vegas production mentality would dream up. Fireworks, for example. They cost $25,000 and before you mutter “that’s ridiculous,” you should know that 60% of the groups that book the island order them. There’s also a three-hour treasure hunt ($20,000) with a pirate theme that sounds like a corporate team-building exercise, but must be great fun because 60% of the groups that book the island opt for it, too.
Cut from the same really-big-show cloth, but included in the price, are The Musha Olympic Games, with events from swimming races to egg and water-balloon throws; M.U.S.H.A. Force (Musha United Secret Hero Alliance), a laser-tag competition with musical accompaniment; and Journey to Thunderball Grotto, an hour-long boat trip to the spot where some scenes from the classic Bond film were shot.
The biggest obstacle the staff encounters in catering to their charges, according to Daly, is nudity. The island seems to cast a let’s-get-naked spell over guests, whether two or 22. European groups, in particular, says Daly, are partial to disrobing after dinner and plunging into the bay. But it’s the single couple that wants to walk around in the altogether that bedevils the staff most because it’s hard to keep track of them. Daly finally gave one man a walkie-talkie so he could leave instructions as to e-x-a-c-t-l-y where meals should be dropped off.
Copperfield, true to form, is not satisfied with Musha Cay and has plans to add some “enhanced reality”—the definition of magic he gave me when I asked. There are plans afoot to import a couple of giraffe, a flock of green wing parrots that will return to their cage at dusk at the sound of a bell, and a troupe of monkeys (specific duties not public as yet) who will inhabit “the secret village.” Already in place on the site is a corpulent statue of a monkey that rises from the ground on a pneumatic column to reveal the village entrance, a spiral staircase down to an underground passage.
It’s an entertaining illusion, to be sure, but it’s trumped by the reality of the island itself. On our last evening the staff organized cocktails on the sandbar out in the bay, which the receding tide had ridged like a catcher’s chest guard. Huge packing-crate clouds lined up on the horizon, and molten yellow rays of setting sunlight flared out of the slits between them. I walked down the sand and savored the scene—the sharply silhouetted umbrella and stick figures, the flickering fire, the velvet curtain of descending dusk, the feeling that I was standing on the back of a whale. Magic.