(CNN)Setting foot onto Sea Ranch, it’s hard to believe that this beautiful beachside development is only an hour by boat from Hong Kong’s Island’s zinging financial district.
Nestled on the southern coast of Lantau — the largest outlying island in Hong Kong — these spacious homes were designed to form an idyllic millionaire’s village.
But that dream failed.
In previous decades, when occupancy was at a nadir, Sea Ranch was described by some as having a post apocalyptic atmosphere.
Still today, there are no shops, restaurants, or medical facilities. The last ferry shuttling residents out of the complex departs at 10:15 pm on a weeknight. There isn’t even a road link.
“It’s difficult to know how many people lived there but Hutchison would have sold them all,” Harris tells CNN.
The Sea Ranch’s success didn’t last long.
While it was popular on weekends, it didn’t attract enough interest overall which heavily affected operating costs, according to an annual report published in 1980 by Hutchison Whampoa seen by CNN.
“Today’s billionaires would have all bought into it as a cool place to live. But then they got bored with it,” Harris says.
Some people started selling off the apartments, he adds.
By 1983, the development was crippled by a$901,185 debt, according to local media reports. Hutchison sold the holding company that managed the facilities to the residents, but internal disagreements ensued and a rival holding company was formed by a breakaway group.
Conflict between the two entities culminated in a legal battle in the late 90s, resulting in the disruption of club house and ferry services and plunging the complex into chaos, until one group eventually gained majority management rights.
Opened in 1982, it has private membership clubs, a golf course, its own beach, and a 25-minute ferry link to Central that runs every 30 minutes.
In 2011, it had a population of 12,258 people, according to Hong Kong’s most recent census.
While DB boasts road links to central Hong Kong, only vehicles with special permits — such as delivery trucks — are permitted within the development. Private cars are banned.
Golf carts have consequently become the ultimate status symbol, with just 490 allowed on site. In 2011 an E-Z-GO model cart sold for a jaw-dropping $276,839 — more than some Ferrari models.
“To buy a golf cart here, you need to own a property in DB and register (the vehicle) under that address,” Meeta Nayar, a property consultant at DB real estate agency Headland Homes, tells CNN. “When you sell your property you can sell the golf cart either with it or separately.
“Someone who doesn’t own a DB property can rent one, as many tenants who reside here do.”
Meanwhile, Park Island, a residential estate built on the island of Ma Wan, has also been a success.
It has the distinction of a road link to both Lantau and the neighboring island Tsing Yi. As of 2015 it had a population of 15,126, according to the District Council.
In February 2017 the average cost of a property per square foot in DB and Park Island was $1,076 and $1,378 respectively.
Why did DB work?
So why did DB work while Sea Ranch and Lamma 1 failed?
“Schools were constructed there, along with other public facilities to suit the needs of residents. That began to build up the DB community,” Abraham tells CNN.
DB was also better connected.
“The transportation to and from DB, as well as Park Island, is very comprehensive … there are frequent bus transfers to the nearest MTR (Mass Transit Rail) stations,” Abraham adds.
“Places like DB and Park Island … also have road access to downtown. That’s where they stand out,” Lee tells CNN.
Sea Ranch is a “very difficult place to get in and out of,” he says. Today a 20-minute private ferry shuttles Sea Ranch residents to and from Cheung Chau, a neighboring outlying island.
From there, residents take a 40-minute ferry to Central on Hong Kong Island.
“During Hong Kong summers we tend to get tropical rainstorms. If the only link you had to the city was via water then you basically can’t leave.”
“I also have a lot of clients who are particularly concerned about things like going to the doctor,” he adds. “Many of them ask, ‘Where’s the nearest clinic to this property? How long does it take to get to the closest hospital?'”
The rebirth of a paradise?
Over the past decade, Hong Kong’s property market has surged. Between 2008 and 2013, property prices have rocketed by 134%, according to the Global Property Guide.
As a consequence, Sea Ranch has in recent years seen something of a resurgence with 145 residents now on site — over 70% occupancy, according to Drew de Caro, a Hong Kong-based pilot who has lived at the development full-time since 2009.
“I think the Sea Ranch is being rediscovered, or even just discovered. People are coming because they see the value in the property from an economic stand point, but more importantly, they come for the natural beauty,” de Caro tells CNN.
De Caro owns three units at Sea Ranch. In 2009, he bought his first 1,200 square feet (111 square meters) property for $154,512; a second of the same size in 2011 for $193,136; and a third, of 660 square feet (61 square meters), for $72,362 in 2013.
“The prices are less than you would find in (Hong Kong Island neighborhoods) Central, Wan Chai or Kennedy Town. You’re just getting a lot more space for your dollar,” he tells CNN. “(Prices) are increasing. According to valuations, my properties have increased from $154,547 to $528,034,” he says.
As well as having become a good investment, Sea Ranch has attracted an eclectic community.
“We have professional people, sales people, pilots, bankers,” de Caro says.
“It might be rude to say this, but what has happened over time is that quite a lot of eccentrics have gone there,” Harris tells CNN.