The updated CocoCay from Royal Caribbean is one of the top cruise line-owned private islands. // © 2018 Royal Caribbean International
Feature image (above): Many cruisers say that private island ports are usually the highlight of a cruise itinerary. // © 2018 Getty Images
Years ago, I was on a ship sailing in the Caribbean, and we were calling at the cruise line’s private island. At the end of the day, I folded up my towel and caught one of the last tenders back to the ship. I was surprised that it was so empty, since there were still at least 100 people, mostly family groups, on the beach. Half an hour later, I heard two officers talking and realized that the people simply refused to leave.
At one point, the cruise director told them, “You don’t want us to leave you.”
“Yes, we do!” they answered.
It took the better part of an hour to get them back onboard.
Six months later, I was back, expecting a similar scenario. I dozed off on my lounge chair about an hour before the last tender and woke to find I was alone. I checked my watch — I still had plenty of time for the last ride back, but where was everybody?
Apparently, a genius at the cruise line had scheduled a huge chocolate buffet onboard an hour before the ship left.
“It was the only thing that could get them to come back voluntarily,” the cruise director told me later. “The island gets the highest ratings on the cruise.”
On cruise lines’ island resorts, passengers live the Caribbean dream. They enjoy perfect white-sand beaches, clear water, colorful fish, coral reefs and lush fauna — and an invitation to have fun all day.
The Caribbean already has enormous family vacation appeal, and these islands pile on even more amenities and activities, including parasailing, horseback riding on the beach, volleyball contests, ecology hikes, biking and over-the-top playgrounds and waterparks. The lines incorporate local music, dance and crafts, and onboard kids’ programs are often brought to shore to entertain younger cruisers with activities and sports. There are also excursions designed for the whole family. More recently, cruise lines are renting shaded beach shelters and even air-conditioned villas.
The companies below have spent millions building their private islands and turning them into family vacation paradises. Here’s a selection of choices for families.
Disney Cruise Line
Disney filmed part of the classic movie “Splash” at 1,000-acre Castaway Cay before turning it into Disney Cruise Line’s private island experience. The company built a dock, enabling guests to go back and forth from the ship to the island freely, and includes complimentary transportation from one area of the island to another. There is also a schedule of character appearances at various locations and even a post office.
A free lunch buffet is served in covered pavilions near the main family beach, which has chairs, umbrellas, hammocks and cabanas, along with tube and float rentals. There is a 2,400-square-foot water play area called Spring-a-Leak, or families can swim out to Pelican Plunge, a floating platform with waterslides, water cannons and more. On dry land, there’s the In Da Shade Game Pavilion for basketball, billiards, table tennis and foosball.
Guests can explore the lush island interior by bicycle or on foot. There are programs for kids ages 3 to 17 supervised by counselors, and at Monstro Point, youngsters can even excavate artificial whale bones. Hide Out is a retreat for 14- to 17-year-olds, and there’s a designated teen kayaking excursion called The Wild Side.
The water is the center of it all. In addition to snorkeling, there are water cycles, paddleboats, sea kayaks, sailboats and stand-up paddleboards in a 12-acre lagoon.
Half Moon Cay
Holland America Line/Carnival Cruise Line
Half Moon Cay, a 2,400-acre international bird sanctuary in the Bahamas used by Holland America Line (HAL) and Carnival Cruise Line, features all manner of watersports, as well as horseback riding on the beach, biking and more.
Kid-friendly activities include a stingray adventure and a snorkel boat. Families can also rent floating foam mats; Sunfish and Hobie Cat boats; one- and two-person kayaks; single and double water bikes; and single and double paddleboats.
This year, HAL is debuting a 3,860-square-foot pirate-themed children’s waterpark that will replace the current, smaller one. There’s also a Club HAL area and a beach party with a DJ. The island barbecue provides a full lunch, and there’s a straw market for shoppers. A locker rental frees guests to swim and play, and they can also rent helmet cameras to record it all.
Families can choose to rent clamshell sunshades with two lounge chairs, Manta sun shelters or even two-story air-conditioned beach villas accommodating up to eight people. Each villa has a dining area, a refrigerator with snacks and cold drinks, a deck, a hot tub and a misting shower, as well as the use of floats and snorkel equipment and priority transfer on the first tender.
Great Stirrup Cay
Norwegian Cruise Line/Regent Seven Seas Cruises/Oceania Cruises
Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Bahamian Great Stirrup Cay is 268 acres and features a kids’ aqua park and plenty of dining and bar areas. Families can snorkel in Bertram’s Cove through an underwater sculpture garden, Jet Ski through the Berry Islands, parasail above the beaches or touch and feed the stingrays at Stingray City.
Last year, NCL spent more than $1 million on new landscaping, including adding 1,000 shade trees. It is also offering several new amenities and adventure activities. There are now enhanced and expanded dining options, as well, including Abaco Taco, a complimentary taco bar, and the various dining areas have been upgraded with new decking and family-style seating in the shade. The main buffet area, Jumby Beach Grill, has doubled the amount of food lines.
The number of lounge chairs on the island has more than doubled to 3,000, and the island’s 22 cabanas — each accommodating up to six people — have been completely refurbished. Later this year, NCL will open an exclusive lagoon enclave, with a private beach, a Mandara Spa and 38 air-conditioned private villas available for reservations. The area will also have a two-story restaurant overlooking the water.
Princess Cruises’ 40-acre Princess Cays is on the southern tip of Eleuthera, and it features more than 1 ½ miles of beaches, as well as the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, food and drink outlets, watersports and shopping. A new feature sure to be appreciated by families is on-island Wi-Fi access through provider MedallionNet.
The line offers daybeds for rent, or families can book air-conditioned bungalows, which accommodate four or more people, have private showers and are within walking distance of the beach. There are special tender tickets available with bungalows, too.
Princess has a wide variety of activities and amenities on the island, including a playground, beach yoga and volleyball.
Excursions include dune-buggy riding on the beach, a clear-bottom kayak adventure in the lagoon and a new Stingray Encounter. Passengers can also sign up for guided hikes through the plant preserve. The kids’ club conducts special programs on the island, as well.
Royal Caribbean International/Celebrity Cruises
Royal Caribbean International is taking the private island concept and running with it, entirely transforming the land/sea component of cruise vacations. The company recently announced a plan for a series of private destinations around the world, using a “Perfect Day” theme. The first of the destinations being reinvented is CocoCay, a 140-acre Bahamian private island. New features will include a 135-foot slide; a helium balloon that will take guests 450 feet in the air; and the only overwater bungalows in the Bahamas. The first phase of the Perfect Day at CocoCay will be completed in September, with nearly all the features finished by spring.
But the most revolutionary aspect of Royal Caribbean’s plan is to begin allowing guests to book overnights in CocoCay — blurring the line between private island daytrips and full-fledged resorts. Michael Bayley, president of Royal Caribbean, says the line will start by extending its calls into the evening and is working on the logistics of clients mixing a cruise with an island stay.
“We have so many ships in the Caribbean; we may work out a system where guests can go from one to another,” he said. “We don’t have it figured out yet, but by 2020, we will.”
Meanwhile, CocoCay has recently added new snorkeling and scuba-diving facilities along with more restaurants, bars and shops. There’s also Caylana’s Aqua Park, a floating playground with water trampolines, and 35 bungalows with beach access that each accommodate up to six guests.