By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
There are at least 7 Private Islands or areas that the ocean cruise companies use in the Caribbean. These islands provide a unique place to enjoy sundrenched beaches. The idea of these private island is to give guests a perfect day at the beach without any hassles. To best decide if visiting one of these islands would be a good fit for your cruise vacation, let’s explore this topic by a general overview, a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of visiting these islands and finally a brief description of each island and which cruise lines use them. So, here goes!
Each ocean cruise line has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, and it is no different in their private islands—it all comes down to the perception of value by each client. We do not classify private islands and ocean cruise lines—we talk about their advantages and disadvantages, but most of all, what will be the experience for our clients.
Advantages of a Private Island
By having exclusive rights to a beach area, cruise guests can be assured they will not have to compete for beach space with other island guests who are not on the cruise. Cruise guests often do not have to have money, as the can use their ship charge card to buy any optional items. Most of the lines include lunch, typically a BBQ, at no extra charge. Water sport activities and equipment are often available, but there may be an extra charge to use equipment or boats or jet skis. Many also have shore excursion packages ranging from parasailing, deep sea fishing, swimming with sting rays or other activities.
Disadvantages of a Private Island
Probably the biggest disadvantage is that the private islands just do not let you participate in the true culture of the Caribbean. Another disadvantage is that it may be just too much of a cookie cutter experience—created, not real. Sometimes there may be more than one ship docked at the private island and it can get a little crowded. Snorkel gear and other water sports equipment may require a fee, which is another disadvantage.
Castaway Cay—Disney’s private island
We just returned from a Disney cruise that visited this private island in the Bahamas. We had been here in 1999 on my first ocean cruise. Disney has really found a special way extend its brand by creating a Disney island. It was created to look like a ship wreck area built from whatever is left over from the wreckage. To be honest, I really liked the place, especially since you are docked and can walk on & off the ship. The island has three beach areas—adults only zone, teens area and the large family area beaches.
Mount Rustmore Castaway Cay–2016 (right) & 1999 (left)
What we really liked on the second visit to this 1000 acre island was the convenience, the great (really tasty) free BBQ and being able to use our key cards to purchase drinks. It was really good for our family and granddaughter who love being at the beach, but the single biggest factor making this a great choice was the convenience of being able to walk off instead of waiting for a small boat to transfer you to the beach area like other private islands.
Some Water sports Equipment for Rent
The Disney Wonder Docked at Castaway Cay
Coco Cay—Royal Caribbean International’s private island
Coco Cay is also in the Bahamas and is a very small island of about 140 acres. It requires a tender (small boat) to take you to the island—it does not have a pier that can accommodate large cruise ships. According Royal Caribbean’s website, here are some of the activities available on this private island: snorkeling, kayaking, boating, jet-ski rentals, and an aqua park.
Great Stirrup Cay—Norwegian Cruise Line
Great Stirrup Cay is also in the Bahamas, is about 250 acres, and requires a tender to get on the island. It currently has a 1000 foot zip line course and has a snorkeling underwater sculpture garden. It is undergoing some upgrades for upper level guests. According to NCL’s website, new in 2017, Great Stirrup Cay will offer the ultimate island luxury experience with a brand new exclusive lagoon retreat featuring a secluded, pristine beach; exclusive dining options; and luxury beach villas. These include: a secluded beach, modern reception area overlooking the beach for reserving activities or relaxing in the outdoor terrace, Tranquil lagoon with a convenient swim-up bar, Beachfront luxury villas for rent ranging from studios, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom villas, Family beach area for all ages to enjoy, The Silver Palm Restaurant with a two-story deck, offering scenic view, Private party room available for reservation, Complimentary access for guests of The Haven and Suites and guests who book a Mandara Spa massage on the island. There is limited capacity for purchase by other guests.
Princess Cay—Princess Cruise Line
Located on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, the section used as a private beach has to be reached by tender. This island is different in size and population as about 11,000 live on the island, while most other private islands have around 100 or so who live on the islands. The private portion is only about 40 acres and the water is relatively shallow for about 100 feet from shore, which allows easy viewing of sea life. There are typical beach activities available here and lots of water sport equipment for rent. There also some limited shore excursions to visit the rest of the island area.
Half Moon Cay—Holland America
Originally owned by Norwegian Cruise Line, this small private island area of 2,450 acres is now used by Holland America. To reach the island, passengers must use tenders. The beach area is shaped like a crescent, it is about 2 miles long, and the rest of the island is an international bird sanctuary. If a hike to an area away from a beach is an option you desire, this is the best fit of all the private beach areas. Among activities on this island are sailing, swimming or snorkeling, riding horseback along the sea’s edge, a stingray’s encounter experience, and a pirate ship at the water park.
Labadee—Royal Caribbean International
Located on the north shore of Haiti, Labadee is used by Royal Caribbean International. This is part of the huge island of Haiti, is actually an isolated peninsula, and contained in about 260 acres. There is a fence that separates the area from the rest of Haiti and access is strictly controlled. It is probably best known for its 2,600-foot-long Dragon’s Breath Flight Zip Line. It is the only private area that attempts to provide some local culture—the “Folkloric Show,” a large, colorfully costumed troupe performs Haiti’s distinctly African brand of dancing, drumming, and song and there is other live music that has its roots in old African music with the Caribbean twist. There are plenty of water sport activities and water sports equipment for rent. Some local artists also sell their works here. We would be less than candid by not letting you know that in early 2016, protesters blocked access to Labadee and three visits to this private area by RCL ships were cancelled, but there have not been any reported incidents since late January 2016.
Harvest Caye– Norwegian Cruise Line
This is the newest private island, opened just a few weeks ago, and is located in Belize. Among the facilities are a 15,000 square foot pool featuring a swim-up bar and 15 plush pool cabanas, a 130 foot tall Flight house complex featuring a 3,000 foot zip line, suspension bridges, free fall jumps and a ropes course, a 7 acre beach with 11 private villas that accommodate up to 6 guests each and are equipped with air conditioning, dedicated lounge and dining areas, private restroom, indoor/outdoor showers, and hammocks and 5 à la carte dining bar venues featuring a variety of cuisines including the LandShark Bar & Grill by Margaretville. One big drawback to this island, is that guests should realize that “is not a private island but a destination excursion, at which guests should be forewarned to expect to pay for drinks and food”, according to Senior Vice President Camille Olivere as reported in the December 6, 2016 Travel Market Report.
The Bottom Line
There is a lot to do on all these private Caribbean areas. Since a visit to a private area is only one aspect of a cruise vacation, we do not think it is a make or break aspect of the overall cruise, but only one factor to consider when deciding what to do during your precious vacation time. Again, this is where we excel—the ability to match you with the right cruise vacation.
We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) so we can help you cruise the oceans or visit Europe on a river cruise and help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!