When he was but a nine-year-old boy, my son Alex reached into the Windex-blue waters on a sandy Bahamian beach and quickly withdrew his hand to proclaim, “Dad, I touched a stingray.” He furrowed his tender brow and added thoughtfully, “They’re nice.”
In doing so, he had ascribed a sweet, if somewhat inaccurate, characteristic to the stingray. Yes, the stingray was nice indeed, particularly with its barb blunted for safety. None of tragedy that befell animal lover Steve Irwin here. Off the coast of Australia, a ray’s barb had pierced his heart and stunned the world.
Alex, my daughter and I were in a friendlier place, a paradise really, free of danger and removed from the real world, an idyllic island created for us by a cruise line.
A Day At The Beach
Talk about a Caribbean cruise, and one of the first images that jumps to mind is a sun-drenched beach where children splash in the clear, blue water while adults watch and relax, alternating between sips from refreshing beverages and dips in the gentle surf. Quite understandably, people love the idea of a peaceful tropical paradise where the only pressing concern is how much sand is stuck to their feet when they slip back into their sandals.
The idyllic beach day may be a favorite image associated with Caribbean cruising, but the fact is that the typical week-long cruise actually includes very little time dedicated to sun and sand. At major Caribbean ports like Nassau, St. Thomas or Cozumel, ships disgorge passengers for shopping, strolling or shore excursions. While some of the excursions offer activities that allow you to get wet, fairly few would be classified as “a day at the beach.” Enter the private island.
Only a handful of cruise companies feature a long day docked at a private island, providing one of the favorite days of the trip for many passengers. In fact, private islands have proven to be so popular that some itineraries feature two stops at private islands. These islands are owned (or leased) and operated by the cruise lines for the exclusive use of their guests.
Because private islands typically cater to only one ship a day, they serve as a perfect paradise that’s free of the crowds and the hassles that occasionally diminish the quality of visits to other ports of call. A day on a private island is a relatively hassle-free day, as there are no shuttles to meet or schedules to keep – other than catching the last tender back to the ship. Meals on the island are included, and anything else can be billed to the shipboard account.
A big plus for parents: The cruise lines run complimentary kids’ programs for each age group, making it easy for adults to grab a little time for themselves. The kids and teens are just as enthusiastic because they can hook up with friends they’ve made on board, joining a beach volleyball game or a treasure hunt. They can eat all they want when they want without needing money or parental supervision.
Besides providing a picture-postcard setting complete with beach chairs, umbrellas and shaded hammocks, the private islands are set up for every sort of fun that can be organized on a public beach. The cruise lines provide beachside bar service specializing in tropical mixes, and they also offer a multitude of water sports, ranging from snorkeling to parasailing. Frequently, there are massage and spa services available, and a band will provide a pleasant soundtrack.
But perhaps more importantly, the private islands are notable for what they lack. On the private islands, cruise passengers will get none of the hard-sell from street peddlers who are often working other stops on a Caribbean cruise. And as the islands accommodate one ship at a time, with few exceptions, congestion and overcrowding are not problems.
Here’s a thumbnail description of the islands operated by the major cruise lines.
Disney Cruise Line operates Castaway Cay, situated in the Abaco Islands, and the only private island where the ship docks, allowing guests to walk ashore without time-consuming tendering.
With long white-sand beaches, including a secluded cove just for adults, Castaway Cay offers snorkeling, jet-ski tours, kayaking, miles of bike paths, walking trails or just a relaxing day at the beach under the beach umbrella. Biking and hiking are so popular that a second nature trail was recently added. At the adults-only Serenity Bay, open-air cabanas serve as treatment rooms for massages.
Numerous excursions can be booked, with activity levels ranging from more passive glass-bottom boat tours to blood-pumping parasailing. One of the most popular is feeding and interacting with stingrays – whose barbs, as previously noted, are blunted for safety.
Of course Mickey, Minnie and the gang make frequent appearances for photo-ops, and the entire island is, typical of Disney, landscaped and equipped just right. For instance, the 12-acre snorkeling course, with separate areas for beginning and experienced snorkeling, are sprinkled with amusing Disney characters that the fish use as habitat.
Great Stirrup Cay
The original private island operated by a cruise line, Great Stirrup Cay is just as much of an island paradise as when it was acquired by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1977. The Cay’s white sand beaches are fringed by coral reefs and offer an ideal spot for snorkeling among the large schools of tropical fish.
To control erosion and preserve the environment, a sea wall was erected along the waterfront. A straw market, water sports centers, bars, volleyball courts, and food pavilion round out the facilities. Activities include kayaking, parasailing, hiking, ping-pong and volleyball. The massage hut near the beach provides a legendary shiatsu treatment, and the hammocks strung between the palm trees beckon to those who want simply to slow down and relax.
Norwegian Sky sails three-day and four-day Bahamas cruises with full-day stops at Great Stirrup Cay.
Boasting 1.5 miles of beaches with some of the finest and whitest sand in the region, Princess Cays is the tropical paradise that Princess Cruises has been operating since 1992. This 40-acre stretch of beach provides shady hammocks and a full complement of watersports options, including sailboats, catamarans, kayaks and the always-popular banana boats.
Featured facilities include a dedicated play area, Pelican’s Perch, and a small shopping area that includes a hair braiding station. Three bars and live music complement the authentic Bahamian barbecue on the beach. There’s volleyball and basketball courts, in case anyone needs a diversion from the wide beach and the powdery soft sand. However, there is no adults-only beach.
Half Moon Cay
Little San Salvador, a Bahamian out-island, was renamed Half Moon Cay by Holland America Line to honor Henry Hudson’s ship, which is also depicted on the cruise line’s logo, as well as to reflect the beach’s crescent shape.
Even with development, the island is still so unspoiled that it has been named a Wild Bird Preserve by the Bahamian National Trust. Excursions include a guided kayak adventure on Bone Fish Lagoon, a protected habitat and home to numerous native species of flora.
Of special note, the Horseback Riding by Land & Sea excursion sets out on a ride along winding trails up to the highest point on the island for a panoramic view before your horse is “dressed” up for swimming in a special saddle pad and a rope halter (no saddle), after which you venture into the ocean for the sensation of riding a horse while it’s swimming.
Half Moon Cay also has a water park with waterslides for family fun, and air-conditioned private cabanas can be rented for your own beachfront retreat, with or without the services of a personal butler.
Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises guests have twice as many opportunities to relax in the sanctity of a private island, as these sister companies operate two.
First there is Coco Cay, a 140-acre island located in the Berry Island chain between Nassau and Freeport. Known originally as Little Stirrup Cay, the island is within view of Great Stirrup Cay (NCL’s private island) and the snorkeling is just as good, especially around a sunken airplane and a replica of Blackbeard’s flagship, “Queen Anne’s Revenge.”
Both kids and adults enjoy Caylana’s Aqua Park — the largest in the Caribbean — where you can jump on an in-water trampoline or climb a floating sand castle before digging into a beach barbecue or exploring extensive nature trails.
In addition to the usual array of swimming, water sports, a pirate-themed Aqua Park, and nature trails to explore, visitors to Labadee are treated to an authentic folkloric show.
A market, where you might find an interesting painting or a unique wood carving, features the work of local artists and crafters, but take note that vendors can be somewhat inclined toward the hard sell.
Naturally there are bars for refreshments, and a huge beach barbecue is served by the ship’s crew. Royal Caribbean is building a dock at Labadee to accommodate Oasis of the Seas and other ships in its fleet.