by Ming Tappin

Finding Paradise on Island Time

Ask any experienced cruiser and they will tell you that one of their favorite ports of call is the cruise line’s private island or destination. Touted as the ultimate beach day, private islands offer pristine shores, watersports and excursions. Quality and service on the islands are not sacrificed, as all food and beverages with onboard staff members serving them, are off-loaded from the ship. Families love private islands too – kids can participate in onsite children’s programs or spend quality time with parents.

Here is a lowdown of these exclusive beach retreats operated by major cruise lines.

Great Stirrup CayCourtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas & Harvest Caye, Belize

Norwegian Cruise Line was the first to pioneer the private island experience in 1997 by introducing Great Stirrup Cay. The 250-acre island is part of the Berry Island chain, 50 miles northwest of Nassau. A barbecue lunch is served at the 8,500 sq. ft. beach buffet and refreshing cocktails are available from 5 bars.

New experiences coming in 2016 will include a great refresh and many fabulous additions. These include a 1,000-foot zipline, Abaco Taco bar, LandShark Bar & Grill, and an expansive ocean-side boardwalk. A half-acre entertainment complex will keep families busy with live music, games, and shaded picnic areas.

Also just announced for 2017 is an exclusive lagoon retreat with luxury beachfront villas and an exclusive restaurant. Access to the lagoon retreat will be complimentary for The Haven guests, as well as those booking treatments at the island spa.

A new island destination will also be unveiled in November 2016 - Harvest Caye - a 75-acre oasis off the coast of Southern Belize. A 130-foot tall Flighthouse will be the centerpiece, serving as a home base for a 3,000-foot zipline, suspension bridges and free fall jumps. Down at sea level, with a seven-acre beach area, a 15,000 sq. ft pool, five dining and bar venues, water sports and shopping village - guests will want for nothing. 11 luxury beach villas, each accommodating up to 10 guests with reservations, will allow for families and groups to have their own private retreat.

Harvest Caye will also embrace Belize’s rich eco-diversity. A full conservation and education program will be developed by award winning author and wildlife expert Tony Garel. The program will include manatee observation tours at the lagoon, visits to an aviary, insects and butterfly garden, and lectures will showcase the country’s native flora and fauna. Excursions to mainland Belize to explore Mayan ruins and other natural attractions will also be available. Castaway CayCourtesy of Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, Bahamas

All things Disney come alive on Castaway Cay, just north of Great Abaco in the Bahamas. Only 55 of the island’s 1,000 acres have been developed, where every detail catering to families has been thought of. No fussy tendering is required as the ship has its own dock. Awaiting trams whisk families to the action, and there is plenty of it.

An expansive family beach area allows for swimming and snorkeling in gentle waters. Youngsters enjoy Scuttle’s Cove with counsellor led activities and games. Water play areas with names like Spring-a-Leak and Pelican Plunge are buckets of fun for kids of all ages. And of course there are character appearances throughout the day and even a dance party with Lilo and Stitch. Lunch and snacks are served at Cookie’s BBQ and everyone enjoys complimentary sodas.

Adults looking for peace and quiet need not worry. Serenity Bay is a tram ride away from the hustle and bustle, with its exclusive beach, private cabanas, massage treatments, cocktail bar and Serenity Bay BBQ. But just in case the child in you peeks out from behind, they do serve ice cream bars in the iconic shape of Mickey.

CococayCourtesy of Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay, Bahamas & Labadee, Haiti

Royal Caribbean guests have a choice of two private islands. CocoCay, also known as Little Stirrup Cay (and adjacent to Norwegian’s Great Stirrup Cay), is less than a mile wide, but comes loaded with amenities.

Three separate beach areas allow guests to spread out, but most activities are fee-based. A choice of 20 activities and excursions take guests above and below the water, be it wave runners, parasailing, snorkeling or shallow water shore dive(for certified divers only).

Families can enjoy the expansive Caylana Aqua Park, with in-water trampolines and 14-foot floating castles with inflatable waterslides – also at a charge. An exception is Adventure Ocean – Royal Caribbean’s shipboard children’s program which is complimentary.

Guests sailing to the Caribbean also have the privilege to enjoy Labadee. A private island that’s not an island, as Labadee is an uninhabited peninsula on the northern coast of Haiti. Divided into 5 neighborhoods, your day here offers a choice of relaxation or action, or a mix of both.

Nature trails with scenic viewpoints, sandy beaches, family friendly coves, artisan village and watering holes provide low key recreation. But Adrenaline Beach is where the action is. On Dragon’s Tail Coaster, get up to 30 miles an hour swerving and dipping through tropical jungles. Then kick it up a notch on the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line – currently the world’s longest zip-line over water. Half Moon CayCourtesy of Holland America

Holland America’s Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Half Moon Cay is located 10 miles southeast of Nassau, with 50 acres of recreation and relaxation for Holland America guests. Named after explorer Henry Hudson’s ship, Half Moon Cay offers two miles of crescent-shaped beach with icing-sugar sand and crystal clear, calm waters.

In line with premium cruising, the activity level is more subdued and the pace is laid back. For those seeking privacy, Holland America takes private cabanas to a new level with the 1,620 sq. ft. Private Oasis featuring butler service, personal chef, hot tub, wet bar, massage area and more for up to 25, perfect for multi-generational groups.

In addition to the standard excursions and rentals, one unique activity is the popular horseback riding by land and sea, where guests have an opportunity to take their steeds into the ocean for a brief swim on horseback. The full Club HAL children’s program is brought ashore to entertain youngsters, while a straw market, three waterfront bars and sports center provide distractions for adults. There is even a Bahamian chapel for weddings and vow renewals, with a capacity for 18 guests.

Princess CaysCourtesy of Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises’ Princess Cays, Bahamas

Located on the southern tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, Princess Cays isn’t its own island, but appears to be, due to the narrow strip of beach on which it lies. The half-mile beach is divided into 5 coves, offering separate swimming, watersports and snorkeling areas, a perfect set up for adults and families partaking in different activities. A Crow’s Nest Lookout provides panoramic views while an offshore pavilion is a good place to view colorful fish without getting wet.

Private cabanas line the shore, sailboats, aqua bikes, kayaks and snorkeling equipment are available for rent. Or simply kick back on a lounge chair and enjoy cocktails and the BBQ lunch. Kids have their own sandy playground at Pelican’s Perch, with counsellors and supervised activities.

Because of its location, guests at Princess Cays have the opportunity to take a scenic excursion and visit the local communities of Rock Sound and Tarpum Bay, sampling Bahamian culture, cuisine and entertainment. Other unique tours include a dune buggy adventure and surf fishing off a rocky shore.

 PG_Motu MahanaCourtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises

Other Notable Private Islands

Luxury cruise line Paul Gauguin has its own piece of paradise within paradise. Just off the coast of Taha’a in French Polynesia, you can’t get more remote than Motu Mahana, complete with swaying palm trees, a secluded beach, impossibly clear waters, and all-inclusive cocktails from the floating bar.

Geneva-based MSC Cruises will soon also be getting a piece (actually 2) of the private island pie. The company has announced plans to develop an island in the Bahamas 20 miles south of Bimini, to be named Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve. At 95 acres, it will be the largest private island in the Caribbean, with 6 beach areas, a 2,000-seat amphitheater, restaurants and bars, balanced with conservation efforts to highlight indigenous plants and marine life. Across the ocean – in the Persian Gulf to be exact – Sir Bani Yas is the name of the exclusive retreat off the southwest coast of Abu Dhabi that will be made available to MSC guests starting in December 2016. In addition to beaches, a spa, lounges and family areas, the 1.5 mile oasis will also be home to a wildlife reserve and an archeological site. Local cuisine, shopping and excursions will offer guests a taste of the Middle East.

Originally published in Dream Voyages Fall 2016 issue.

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