Sure, island hopping in the Caribbean and Bahamas sounds exciting and glamorous, but that's not always the case. If you're calling on one of the islands bulging with rivers of humanity pouring off five or six or more mega ships a day, the notion of a peaceful tropical paradise goes right out the window. In places like St. Thomas, San Juan, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Nassau, where the throngs shuffle en masse past strip malls and que up for tour buses, you might as well be walking through Times Square at rush hour.
But don't despair, just look for itineraries that include a stop at the private island, or part of an island, that most major lines own or lease in the Bahamas or Caribbean.
You'll be the only ship there, with a few exceptions, so you and your shipmates will have the sand, surf and pina coladas all to yourself -- sans pushy shopkeepers and traffic jams.
NCL was the first to think up the idea when it bought Great Stirrup Cay in 1977. The rest is history.
"Half Moon Cay is what people imagine paradise and the Caribbean to be," says Matthew Sams, vice president of Caribbean Relations at Holland America, about the line's private island. "There's very little noise, it's clean and there are no traffic issues or concerns about safety or crime. It's simply a very relaxing experience," he adds.
While each line's private island or beach has its own special features, highlighted below, they share many similarities. The low-lying Bahamian islands are mostly limestone and coral, topped with palm trees and pines, as well as mangroves, sea grapes, and hibiscus. All this frames great stretches of beach carpeted with chaise lounges and umbrellas. You'll always find a lunch buffet and shops, and banana boats, kayaks, jet skis, paddleboats, sailboats, snorkeling equipment and other watersports gear are offered for rent. Most lines have organized tours too, from guided scuba diving and snorkeling excursions to glass-bottom boat rides and parasailing. And the ante is being upped all the time. In late 2004, Holland America introduced horseback riding and a swim-with-the-stingrays excursion, while Disney just launched guided jet ski tours around their island.
Being ultra-active certainly isn't a requirement. The couch potatoe set has plenty of options too, namely eating and drinking. Open-air lunch buffets serve up favorites from burgers to ribs, chicken and fish, plus trimmings like fries, corn on the cob, salads, fruit, cookies and cakes. Open-air bars are hopping and live or recorded Calypso and pop music set the backdrop to it all.
"Our private island has been a far greater success than we'd ever imagined," Sam says, adding that it's been their highest rate port in the Caribbean and Bahamas since it opened in 1997.
Other lines have experienced the same reaction.
"Guests tell us that Castaway Cay is typically their favorite port of call, regardless of itinerary," says Larry Stauffer, manager Shore Excursions and Castaway Cay for Disney Cruise Lines.
In fact, so popular, that Disney is offering a handful of itineraries with two calls to Castaway Cay -- on eight 7-night Magic sailings between May 27 and Dec 9, 2006, along with calls to Costa Maya and Cozumel -- and Holland America reports they are seriously thinking of doing the same.
Costa: Catalina Island (tel. 800/462-6782; www.costacruises.com)
This relaxing patch of paradise doesn't have as many bells and whistles as other private islands, but it's an exceedingly pleasant place to spend the day. Sunbath along the palm-fringed strip of beach, or try your hand at volleyball, snorkeling or other water sports offered.
- Location: Just off the southeastern coast of Dominican Republic.
- Secret Hideaway: Paddling out to sea on a floating beach mat for some sun and solitude. The best part? They're free -- most lines charge for a mat.
- Big Plus: Native flavors. Local vendors sell fresh coconuts for a few bucks, hacking off the end and plunking in a straw so you can savor the tasty milk.
- Big Disappointment: No hammocks or adults-only areas.
Disney: Castaway Cay (tel. 800/951-3532; www.disneycruise.com)
This well-organized island oasis, just 3.1 by 2.2 square miles, has everything any family could dream of, with a huge kids play area, a teen beach, and a great adults-only beach on the far side of the island. Extras include bicycle rentals for the whole family to use on 2.5 miles of trails, plus water sports, a 12-acre snorkeling course, and an open-air game pavilion with pool, ping-pong, foosball and more. Of course Mickey, Minnie and the gang will show up for beachside photo ops.
- Location: In the string of Abaco islands, 225 nautical miles from Port Canaveral, Florida.
- Secret Hideaway: Serenity Bay, the island's adults-only beach, includes a long stretch of sand with chairs and umbrellas, plus a bar and a cluster of open-air cabanas for heavenly massages within earshot of the sea.
- Big Plus: A dock. The Magic and Wonder can pull alongside a pier at the island for easy access between the ships and Castaway; just walk off the ship and head for the beach. All the other islands require ships to anchor off shore and tender passengers to the island -- a time-consuming process.
- Big Disappointment: There can be seaweed collecting at the shoreline (on my last two Disney cruises there was), but what's a little seaweed when everything else is so great!
Holland America: Half Moon Cay (tel. 800/426-0327; www.hollandamerica.com)
Holland America owns the whole 2,400-acre island, though has developed just about 50 acres of it. If you want to venture off the beaten track, you can explore Half Moon's wild bird reserve and nature trails, and look for waterfowl like sooty terns, noddy terns, roseate terns, shearwaters and Bahamian pintails. Otherwise, Half Moon's 2.5 miles stretch of powdery beach is among the best, and facilities include a children's playground, volleyball, shuffleboard, and basketball, plus a great grove of hammocks. You can even rent an air-conditioned, beachfront cabana for the day (options include butler service and an open bar) or book a beachside shiatsu in one of the new massage huts.
- Location: On Little San Salvador Island near Eleuthera, 280 nautical miles from Ft. Lauderdale.
- Secret Hideaway: The wild bird sanctuary; most passengers don't venture past the beach. Coming soon: an observation deck with in-built telescopes and a foot-path-style boardwalk will be built in the reserve.
- Big Plus: An aqua park. Just opened along Half Moon's main beach, for young children it features five water slides, a replica of a pirate ship, water fountains and canons on the beach, and just off shore in the shallow teal water, a cluster of floating marine creatures to climb on. Coming soon: 3 water slides geared to teens. At press time, the park was free of charge.
- Big Disappointment: Occasionally, two Holland America ships visit the island on the same day, doubling the numbers looking for that perfect spot on the beach or lining up for a burger.
Norwegian Cruise Line: Great Stirrup Cay (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com)
A trendsetter in the private island concept, after NCL first offered Great Stirrup Cay to its passengers in the late 70s, just about every other major line eventually followed suit. NCL owns about half of the 1.5- by 2.5-square-mile paradise, which offers a palm tree lined beach and a great party vibe. If you'd rather work out than chug rum swizzles, you can enjoy the three deep sand volleyball courts, ping-pong tables and extensive variety of water sports.
- Location: Great Stirrup Cay is the northern most island in the Berry Islands chain of the Bahamas, some 120 nautical miles from Ft. Lauderdale.
- Secret Hideaway: The massage hut near the beach; once you lay down for a shiatsu, you'll be transported to lala land!.
- Big Plus: The hammocks. They're strung up among the palms on the main beach; head there an hour or two before the ship departs and you'll have the grove practically to yourself!.
- Big Disappointment: No adults-only beach area or dedicated kids play areas.
Princess: Princess Cays (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com)
Since 1992, Princess Cays has been pleasing passengers with its mile and a half stretch of beach. On a total of 40 acres, the beach paradise offers lots of shade, hammocks, and watersports options, from sailboats, to catamarans, paddle wheelers, kayaks, and banana boats. Facilities include a dedicated kids' play area, Pelican's Perch, plus live music with a dance area, and a shopping complex that includes a hair braiding station. There's even volleyball and basketball.
- Location: A private beach area on the southern tip of Eleuthera, about 200 nautical miles from Ft. Lauderdale.
- Secret Hideaway: The cluster of tree-shaded hammocks at the far end of the beach.
- Big Plus: The beach. This extra special strip of sand is among the best: it's wide, white and powdery soft.
- Big Disappointment: No adults-only beach or area.
Royal Caribbean & Celebrity: CocoCay & Labadee (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com)
This 140-acre landfall, lying between Freeport and Nassau, harbors all the important elements of a great beach day, from hammocks and watersports, to fun stuff like limbo contests, water-balloon tosses, and volleyball tournaments.
- Location: CocoCay is an island in the Bahamas' Berry Island Chain (formerly known as Little Stirrup Cay).
- Secret Hideaway: Wanderer's Beach. It's a longer walk from the tender pier, so it tends to be less crowded and quieter. Plus, its calm surf and ultra soft sand make it perfect for families with young children.
- Big Plus: An aqua park. Great stuff includes a floating trampoline, water slides, and a sunken airplane and schooner for snorkelers ($15 per person for 50 minutes).
- Big Disappointment: No adults-only beach area.
The new pirate-themed water playground for kids, complete with a climb-on ship and water canons, geysers and spilling water buckets. A section geared to younger kids 3 to 5 has a central pipe that sends water into three separate play areas with dams and water wheels ($5 per person for two hours of play). For families and guests of all ages, nearby is the Arawak Aqua Park ($15 per person for 50 minutes). It has floating trampolines, balance logs, rock-climbing walls, and snorkeling trails as well as optional activities (for an additional fee) like kayaking, jet skis, banana boat rides and parasailing.
- Location: Labadee is a peninsula along Haiti's north coast.
- Secret Hideaway: The beaches fartherest form the dock; they're a total of five beaches, and farther you walk from the tender pier the progressively less crowded they are.
- Big Plus: The new pirate-themed water playground, complete with a climb-on ship and water canons, geysers and spilling water buckets. An section geared to kids 3 to 5 has a central pipe that sends water into three separate play areas with dams and water wheels ($5 per person for two hours of play). For families and guests of all ages, there's also the adjacent Columbus Cove aqua park (also $5 per person). It has floating trampolines, balance logs, rock-climbing walls, and snorkeling trails as well as optional activities (for an additional fee) like kayaking, jet skis, banana boat rides and parasailing.
- Big Disappointment: At the Haitian Market and Artisan's Market at the center of the peninsula, vendors do the hard sell on passengers whether you're interested in buying or just want to browse.
Carnival: Coming Soon(tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com)
The only major line without a private island might not be for long.
"We will definitely have a private island, probably in the Bahamas, within five years, and hopefully sooner," said Terry Thornton recently, vice president of market planning for Carnival Cruise Lines.
Carnival is seriously considering developing another part of sister line Holland America's Half Moon Cay, he adds, which is large enough to sustain two separate operations. It's a move that would make good financial sense, Thornton says, since there's an infrastructure already in place there.
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