Illusionist David Copperfield’s latest trick is conjuring up the world’s most luxurious, mysterious (and expensive) island retreat. By Mike Guy, Photographs By Brian Doben
David Copperfield flies! He disappears the Statue of Liberty! He walks through the Great Wall of China! He reads minds, slices people in half, spins them around and then—with a devilish grin and perfect hair—puts them together again! More than any other man, David Copperfield advanced magic from the sepia days of Houdini to the modern American spectacle of illusion, mixed in with a little Las Vegas bombast. • That’s why when he greets a tired group of travelers on a moonless, starry night at the dock of his private 700-acre Bahamian island, Musha Cay, it’s a little surprising to discover that Copperfield— a 54-year-old native of working-class Metuchen, New Jersey—is unassuming, quiet and even a little shy. • “I’m David,” he says, setting down his flashlight to help the guests out of the boat (a jetboat with a black stripe across the side that—like most other details on Musha Cay— Copperfield designed himself). Handsome and fit, with a raven-black coif impervious to the blustery tradewinds, Copperfield leads the guests to Landings, where a spread of sushi, grouper and salad is laid out on the dark mahogany bar. He takes a bite as he sits down and says, “All my life I never liked food. I couldn’t see the point of it, beyond the obvious.”
He does now. Copperfield bought Musha Cay, 200 miles from Miami, about four years ago, renamed the waters around the island Copperfield Bay and set about overseeing its transformation into a singular top-shelf retreat. Now completed, it is in many ways like other exclusive resorts: The food is impeccably prepared, fresh and inventive, with ingredients tailored to a guest’s needs. There are Waverunners, handwoven hammocks and enough palm-roofed palapas to house hundreds of guests, though only 24 are allowed at a time, each paying roughly $265,000 a week. Unlike other luxury resorts, however, Musha Cay is rich in details that can only be described as Copperfieldian: spooky statues in the undergrowth, a hidden drive-in movie theater, a room that plays Gilligan’s Island in a 120-hour loop on a black-and-white TV, and a secret monkey village.
Copperfield shows us to the pool , just steps from the beach, and leans over to run his fingers through it. “Yep,” he says, emphasizing his mastery of the details. “Exactly ninety-one degrees. Of course, we can change it in fifteen minutes if you want.”
Google founder Sergey Brin was married here. So were Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, on a two-mile-long scimitar-shaped sandbar just across Copperfield Bay. Bill and Melinda Gates stayed for a week with a group of friends, and when the Microsoft founder discovered that the island is wired up with iPods, he playfully replaced them with Zunes.
What attracts people like Brin, Gates and the Cruz-Bardems to Musha Cay? For one thing, it’s the single most expensive and exclusive island redoubt in the world. But as much as Disney World was at one time a reflection of Walt Disney’s vision, Musha is an expression of Copperfield’s tastes. Not the cheesy tastes you might expect from a Vegas showman, but those of an epicure. The resort is peppered with unexpected wood and stone statuary of Hindu gods and Buddhas that Copperfield collected in his travels through locales like Bali, China, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Every walking path has a hidden stone Ganesh statue or a wood carving of Krishna. A simple stroll through a grove of palms turns into a walking anthropological slideshow of Hindu iconography.
“I go to Bali and pick up tons of stuff,” he says. “When I travel, containers come back to the States filled up with this stuff. I have a whole museum of it in Las Vegas and five floors in New York City. More than I know what to do with.”
So he fills the five guesthouses with museum pieces. The largest is Highview, a 10,000-square-foot colonial mansion on a hill in the middle of the island, with commanding views of Copperfield Bay. Along the shore are Pier House, Palm Terrace and Blue Point. The most secluded is the Beach House, a simple abode with an outdoor bathroom and a cozy pavilion for watching the pelicans feed at sunset. Each place is decked out with handcarved Balinese wooden settees, ancient African masks, repurposed sofas from Nepal, ornate wall panels, lamps and bureaus—each piece oiled and stained to a precise shade and placed (most likely) by Copperfield himself. With all his work here, it’s hard to believe he still pulls off 600 performances a year at the MGM Grand Casino in Vegas.
At night, a giant movie screen emerges from a stand of palm trees. Burgers and dogs materialize on a table, alongside boxes of Junior Mints and Raisinettes. A sign appears informing you this is “Dave’s Drive-In.” “It’s just like my childhood,” Copperfield says. “It’s one of my best memories. My father would pack us into his sixty-one Chevy Impala convertible. Sometimes, he’d hide me under his blanket to save a dollar-fifty.”
A vintage popcorn machine starts popping from behind another palm tree. As tonight’s film, The Social Network, starts up, Musha staff bring around blankets as Copperfield and his guests curl up on the chaise lounges.
One afternoon, Copperfield is sitting on a stool at the beach lounge. He has a walkie-talkie in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He is wearing a loose- fitting black collared shirt, black cargo shorts and green Crocs. He keys the walkie-talkie and leads us past the spot in the palm grove where a replica of his Hollywood star sits in the sand, across a path to the start of the thick jungle. Suddenly, he disappears down a hidden path, and after a couple of minutes arrives at a giant stone statue of a monkey.
“Here, we beat on some drums.” He mimics beating a drum on his chest, and the statue slowly rises up over the jungle canopy, revealing a spiral staircase that leads to a long tunnel. The experience has the distant feel of a Disney production, but with much better production values: distressed iron doors, vintage exposed lightbulbs, a ceiling lined with tar-soaked railroad ties. After a few minutes’ walk through the tunnel, we emerge into a distinctly different jungle. Even the vegetation has changed. Copperfield flew in thousands of plant species that are safe for squirrel monkeys to eat.
“The monkeys are still being trained in Florida,” Copperfield says, and shuts the door to the tunnel. A moment later, he reopens it, and the tunnel is gone, replaced by a closet filled with overalls for imaginary monkey handlers. “You won’t see any fences here. The monkeys can touch you, but you can’t touch them,” he says. And then, in spite of himself, he adds, “Kind of like strippers.”
That night, Copperfield fires up the karaoke machine in Landings, a colonial-style house that serves as the social heart of the resort, handing instruments out to his guests. He’s relaxed, having enjoyed a nice meal of roasted squab and quinoa, and as the first strains of Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” play over the speakers, he says to me, “Hey, a sing-along. Let’s trade verses.”
Hemispheres editor in chief MIKE GUY once made an entire large Di Fara’s pizza disappear.