Original Run Date - July 2007
Savoring Private Islands in the Sun
By Anne Kalosh
Which Caribbean destinations do cruisers rate as favorites? You may be surprised by the answer.
Many favorites bear such names as Castaway Cay, CocoCay or Half Moon Cay. These are just a few of the half-dozen or so private island hide-aways owned or operated by the major cruise lines.
The tropical Cayo Levantado is shown above, surrounded by a sea of blue and ringed by white sand beaches.*
Relaxing Beach Enclaves
“Half Moon Cay is the highest rated port we have in the Caribbean,” says Matthew Sams, vice president of Caribbean relations for Holland America Line.
“It’s like owning your own piece of paradise for the day," Sams stresses. "The island is serene, quiet and relaxed. This is what passengers picture the Caribbean to be.”
A couple are shown at left enjoying a close-up experience with a sting ray at Half Moon Cay.*
Actually, most of the cruise lines' private islands including Half Moon Cay are in the Bahamas-- in the south Atlantic Ocean. A few are within the Caribbean.
No matter their locale, though, these private islands deliver warm weather locales and fulfill tropical fantasies of turquoise surf lapping against sugary sand.
Guests see palm trees swaying in the breeze and enjoy blissful, utter relaxation – whether that’s an umbrella drink in a hammock, a beach massage, snorkeling or kayaking through the mangroves.
The Road to Private Isle Development
Norwegian Cruise Line lays claim to being the first to offer an “out island” destination, having planted its flag on Little Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas in 1977.
Princess Cruises was another ground-breaker when it began calling at private Palm Island in the Grenadines in 1981. Now the Love Boats drop anchor off Princess Cays on the tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.
Princess' ships bring thousands of guests weekly to the pristine Princess Cays in the Bahamas.*
The newest cruise line private island is Cayo Levantado in the Dominican Republic. Pioneered a year ago by MSC Cruises, which enjoys priority use, it’s also open to other lines. While MSC ships anchor offshore, NCL passengers visit by an excursion from the nearby port of Samana.
“It offers serenity and exclusivity with beautiful, crystal, Evian-type water. People come back to the ship and go, ‘Wow,’" stresses Richard Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA).
Royal Caribbean International’s Labadee is not an island but a secluded peninsula on Haiti’s mountainous north coast. Of all the exclusive cruise stops, Labadee sports the most exciting attraction: a 4,000-foot-long zip line, just opened.
Royal Caribbean also operates CocoCay in the Bahamas, a palm-fringed pearl that recently staged a Jon Secada concert for an inaugural call of the new Liberty of the Seas.
A scene from this special private island event for the Liberty of the Seas inaugural call is shown at right.*
This event was also a test; the line says it is thinking of staging future island concerts.
Disney Cruise Line built a pier for its ships at Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, making it the only private refuge where passengers can step ashore without having to board a tender from an anchorage – a big convenience for families toting kids and strollers.
Horseback riding in the surf (as shown at left*) became an overnight sensation when introduced by Holland America on its Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas.
And this year the cay added a Private Oasis, probably the ultimate island fantasy with an over-the-water cabana and over-the-top amenities, from a masseuse to a private chef.
Some Carnival Cruise Lines ships also call at Half Moon Cay. The good news is that you can sample these private island experiences on a plethora of southern Atlantic and Caribbean cruises sailing from Florida and Gulf of Mexico ports.
Following are the private island highlights:
MSC’s Cayo Levantado
Here’s how one cruiser describes this idyllic nature site:
“The beaches are so brilliantly white the sun’s reflection can hurt your eyes; the water is so crystal clear it perfectly reflects the blue sky; the palms are tall and provide great shade; what land isn’t covered with sand has lush green grass; the palm-thatched bar and food-serving areas are clean and well- maintained.”
A snapshot from Cayo Levantado (above right) shows its great natural beauty and jungle-like setting.*
Passengers can relax in beach chairs or hammocks, partake in an island buffet and bar and browse local handicrafts.
Excursions include horseback riding to a waterfall, whale-watching by boat and hiking to caves with ancient drawings.
Disney’s Castaway Cay
The Walt Disney Company’s “Imagineers” dreamed up a paradise on this thousand-acre island with activities for all ages, including a family beach, a children’s area with a water-based jungle gym and, for adults only, Serenity Bay with cabana massages.
Disney characters pose for photos with the backdrop of the ghostly Flying Dutchman, which appeared in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
At right, the spooky hulk of the Flying Dutchman delights kids and adults alike at Castaway Cay.*
Scuttle’s Cove is a hive of youth activities and offers a dig site with artificial whale bones, water balloon games and contests. Teens get their own snorkel, bike and kayak tour.
Nature paths can be explored on foot or bicycle. A 12-acre snorkel trail is dotted with sunken treasures, and a new excursion explores a stingray-filled lagoon.
Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay
Fun at CocoCay includes rubber floats, wind surfing, swimming, and just relaxing in the gentle surf.
A trio of white sand beaches, a water park, coconut palms and nature trails are features of this 140-acre island. There’s also a Bahamian straw market, and, for snorkelers, an underwater replica of Blackbeard’s pirate ship.
Passengers can “Get Out There” in a kayak or a glass-bottom boat, go diving or parasailing, or just kick back with drinks and a barbecue lunch.
Editor's Note: CocoCay is handicapped accessible for those who can use a push (nonmotorized) wheelchair, provided just off the dock at the island entry point.
At left, I'm shown this past May with my mother as we utilized CocoCay's wheelchair "dune buggy" with wide wheels. By using this chair we were able to traverse the island, heading on trails and even onto the sandy beaches. Guests may even take it into shallow water.
Having this equipment -- provided at no charge -- allowed my mother (who can walk but not very far) to see the island and for the two of us to enjoy our day ashore.
NCL’s Great Stirrup Cay
Little Stirrup Cay -- its swaying palm trees and beach facilities shown above -- is Norwegian Cruise Line's private island experience.*
The "granddaddy" of all the private islands, NCL’s set the standard with several beaches, a barbecue buffet, two bars and a calypso band.
A straw market, massage hut, volleyball, ping pong and watersports round out the offerings.
Holland America’s Half Moon Cay
Besides horseback swimming, excursions include a guided AquaTrax watercraft tour, a stingray adventure and a bicycle trek.
A nature trail snakes through the trees, and part of the cay is a designated bird preserve. Numerous watersports are available, along with volleyball, beachside massages and a barbecue lunch.
Families will enjoy a water park and kids may be dropped off for Club HAL activities.
All Half Moon Cay facilities are wheelchair accessible. Beach and jitney trams traverse the island.
Fifteen cabanas that individually accommodate up to four people cost $249 per day. They are nearly always wait-listed.
Totally new is the Private Oasis, a lavish 1,620-square-foot cabana with a water slide and a deck holding a large hot tub.
Of several Grand Cabana packages, the ultimate includes unlimited Dom Perignon champagne, Russian caviar, lobster, a butler, lifeguard, masseuse and a private chef for a cool $5,995.
The snorkeling and diving are renowned on the reef ringing Princess Cays, a 40-acre haven with a white sand beach stretching a mile and a half.
Passengers will find protected swimming areas, a lookout tower and a watersports kiosk.
Landlubbers can play volleyball or basketball; groove to live reggae and calypso music; snack on barbecued chicken, burgers and hot dogs; order a drink from one of three bars; and peruse a market of Bahamian handicrafts.
Royal Caribbean’s Labadee
On a 260-acre wooded peninsula near Cap Haitien, Labadee sports several beaches, coves and a nature trail. The sheltered beach near the ship’s anchorage offers a water park with floating slides and a log roll.
All kinds of watersports equipment can be rented – there’s even a long dock just to park the flotilla of jet skis.
Passengers will also find open-air dining areas, bars and a market.
At the dramatic Dragon's Tail Beach on the peninsula's ocean side, surf crashing against a rock formation makes a hissing sound - hence, the name: Dragon's Breath Rock. This beach is the site of the just debuted, spine-tingling, 4,000-foot over-the-water zip line.
The views from the top of the new zip line attraction -- as well as the line's lofty starting point -- will take your breath away.*
In Search of Xanadu
A stunning sunset over Cayo Levantado colors the skies surrounding this cruise line private island.*
As you review myriad options for a cruise from a southern U.S. port into the Caribbean or the south Atlantic, you'll discover that many voyages include a private island experience. Happily, cruise lines have added more of these pristine island visits to their schedules as their own "returning" passengers consistently rate the experiences as a highlight of the entire voyage.
So prepare to sit back, relax, grab a cool drink, hit a sandy beach and soak up some rays. After all, if you can't own your own private island, you can at least book passage to one. And you'll enjoy a treasure trove of cruise amenities along the way.
Carnival Cruise Lines: www.carnival.com
Disney Cruise Line: www.disneycruise.com
Holland America Line: www.hollandamerica.com
MSC Cruises: www.msccruises.com
Norwegian Cruise Line: www.ncl.com
Princess Cruises: www.princess.com
Royal Caribbean International: www.royalcaribbean.com
Anne Kalosh is a Miami-based journalist who has been covering the cruise industry for national and international publications for 25 years. She is the U.S. editor for Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Insider. Kalosh got hooked on cruising when, fresh out of college, she signed on with Royal Viking Line as a shipboard newspaper editor sailing the world.
*Photos of the various line private islands are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the cruise lines involved, or, in the case of CocoCay photos, Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.