Excellent Enhancements

HAL adds new activities at their private island

By: Ana Figueroa

HALF MOON CAY, Bahamas Just when I thought it was safe to stay out of the water, Holland America goes and beefs up its activities at Half Moon Cay, its private island in the Bahamas.

Now, instead of spending a lazy day sipping tropical drinks and getting a tan (my usual Half Moon Cay itinerary), I was bustling about, on my visit in December, trying out the new activities implemented as part of the line’s Signature of Excellence program. Those activities include Horseback Riding by Land and Sea, a Personal Watercraft Adventure and a Sting Ray Adventure, along with a fun new Aqua Park for kids. (Of course, traditional Half Moon Cay activities, such as glass bottom boat rides, parasailing, kayaking and scuba tours are still available too.)

Eager to try the new offerings, I chose the intriguing Horseback Riding by Land and Sea. Who knew horses love to swim? Actually, they don’t. These horses were specially selected and trained by Holland America, and you might say they’re the Esther Williamses of the equine world.

The adventure begins with a tram ride to the stables on a remote part of the Cay. Even in early December, the Bahamian sun was pretty strong, which made my long pants and tennis shoes (with a bathing suit underneath) a tad uncomfortable. But, the experience was definitely worth it.

After a safety orientation, riders were matched up with a horse. Obviously, my boasts of being a “somewhat experienced rider” weren’t taken too seriously. My horse was one of the tamest and slowest in the group, but that was just as well. We set off on a nature trail ride to a high point atop the island. The view below, of powdery-sugar sand, and light turquoise-green water, was breathtaking. We even spotted neighboring islands in the distance. A breeze cooled us down during the ride, as our guide told tales about the Arawak Indians, the islands’ first settlers.

Arriving back at the stables, I eagerly accepted a cool drink, and then switched into swimwear. The horses did the same. They were outfitted with a “swim blanket,” and a special rope harness. Our guide then rode into the water, and the horses followed, one by one.

It was a tiny bit unnerving at first, as the horses splashed about, and I worried about keeping my balance. (Good thing they handed out special “flotation belts,” in case anyone fell off.) After a few seconds, my horse began to glide gracefully through the water, and I floated along happily. As my legs dangled into the sea, I wondered if I could spend the entire afternoon on my “sea horse.” But, alas, the ride was booked solid the entire day, so I set off for the Stingray Adventure.

The adventure takes place in a lovely 700-acre lagoon, called Stingray Cove, whose facilities include a changing room, observation deck and a gift shop that sells underwater cameras. A naturalist gave us a talk about the southern stingray, and then handed out snorkel equipment, a safety vest and water socks. We waded into the lagoon, for an up-close encounter with rays of all sizes. I was relieved to see that a net surrounds the cove, keeping predators away from these gentle creatures (and their human visitors.) Though timid at first, the rays soon brushed up against us with velvety wings. I couldn’t overcome my squeamishness about feeding them, but many of my fellow guests were delighted to have the creatures sucking squishy fish bits out of their hands.

Though I didn’t try it out myself, the Personal Watercraft Adventure promises to be a big hit with the junior cruiser set. Parents will appreciate the fact that this isn’t mere watercraft rental, where teens unfamiliar with the vehicles might act irresponsibly. It’s a guided tour through a saltwater lagoon, far away from crowded areas of the Cay. Riders receive an extensive safety briefing, and try out the low-emission vehicles for a while before setting out single file, with guides at the front and back of the group. They ride along the shore, past reefs and small inlets, and then get to test their skills on a course marked by buoys. A couple of teenage boys proclaimed the ride the “best part of the cruise.”

If you have clients who are cruising with younger children, the new Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park is great fun. It’s a kid’s fantasy water world, complete with a playhouse and slide on the shore, a sprinkling fountain, and giant, floating sea creatures anchored in the water. I saw kids of all ages having a ball, scrambling up the colorful whales, dolphins and fish, and then jumping into the water.

The best part about the Aqua Park is that parents can keep an eye on the kids while enjoying a drink on the deck of the adjacent Half Moon Saloon, which overlooks the activities.

Now, that’s my idea of a good time.

877-724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com