Cruise line private islands in the Bahamas and the Caribbean are among the most highly rated ports of call. Who can argue with sun, sand, watersports, food and drink all laid out for the exclusive use of passengers?
As many Caribbean islands become increasingly jammed with as many as 10 cruise ships at a shot, a day spent lolling about a private island spells relief from the crowds, strip malls and aggressive touts often encountered at ports in Jamaica, Cozumel, St. Thomas and other places. When a ship visits a private island, it's generally the only one there; only occasionally does a line have two of its ships visit simultaneously.
Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Celebrity, Princess, Costa, Disney, and Holland America all have private islands, or parts of islands, that they developed from scratch.
Sure, you won't get much of a culture fix on these purpose-built beach retreats, but unless you're seeing the Caribbean via a small ship or yacht, you're not going to get much of an authentic local flavor from any island port you visit.
Stoking the popularity of their islands, cruise lines are continually beefing up the amenities. Trends include more facilities for kids, massage services and optional tours, from guided snorkeling excursions to glass-bottom boat rids.
Holland America recently made several enhancements to its private island in the Bahamas, and I checked them out on a trip there last week.
The line owns the 2,400-acre, 9.5-mile-long island, originally known as Little San Salvador, purchasing it for $6.5 million in 1996 and renaming it Half Moon Cay, after the shape of the white beach and the name of explorer Henry Hudson's ship. Holland America includes calls to the island, some 11 nautical miles from Eleuthera and 280 miles from Ft. Lauderdale, on most of Caribbean and Panama Canal itineraries out of Ft. Lauderdale.
The line has developed only about 50 acres of Half Moon, with a band of powdery fine white sand stretching for some two and a half miles. Though the beach is still being restored after the recent hurricanes last September, you wouldn't know it (it used to be wider). On a recent visit, conditions were among the best you'll find in the Bahamas. I've become somewhat of a sand expert these days, as my two-year-old twin boys are prone to getting the stuff over just about every square inch of their little bodies.
Though Holland America is hardly the first line that comes to mind when you think family cruising, the one-time seniors magnet has been broadening its horizons, making an effort to cater to all ages, especially since the introduction of its new Vista class ships -- the Zuiderdam (2002), Oosterdam (2003) and Westerdam (2004).
Part of this push includes enhancing amenities for children aboard ship -- most recently, four new kids' areas were created on the Ryndam as part of the line's $225 million "Signature of Excellence" upgrades -- and ashore on Half Moon Cay.
In November, a new water park was added to the main beach, near the tender pier. Called Half Moon Lagoon, there are three water slides on the beach geared to young children (with three more for teens to be added in spring of 2005). Just off shore in the shallow, brilliant teal waters, float a family of giant plastic animals -- including a crocodile, shark and octopus -- which are tethered to the seafloor and perfect for little kids as well as adults to climb on. Not only is the water shallow and calm, the drop-off is gradual and the seafloor ultra soft and virtually shell-free -- inviting to delicate little feet. My boys loved playing here and since Holland America doesn't attract hordes of kids, we had the area virtually to ourselves. Currently, there is no charge to use the water park.
Other family-friendly features include giant sunshades called clamshells that fit over two chaise lounges. Just don't dawdle when reserving one ($9 a day), they're in limited supply. The open-air lunch buffet includes food kids like, from grilled chicken to burgers, hot dogs, pasta salad and brownies.
Adjacent is a play area, with two jungle gyms set into a secluded patch of sand.
Still, as kid friendly as the island is, there's plenty for adults to enjoy, namely a new slew of optional excursions. A horseback riding tour for $59 includes a trail ride along the island's highest ridge (a whopping 90 feet), with views of the sea and the ship anchored just off shore, followed by a 15- to 20-minute ride through the surf (age minimum is 10). The horseback riding area is away from the main beach and requires a short tram ride to reach.
Matthew Sams, vice president of Caribbean Relations for Holland America and the line's Half Moon guru, reports that 24 quarter horses between the ages of two and five were brought to the island from Jamaica after they had been screened for their affinity to water.
Last week I watched as a rider went into the turquoise sea all the way up to the horse's tethers. Both animal and man seemed to thoroughly enjoy the bath.
Another new excursion invites guests to swim and snorkel with stingrays in a secluded cove. Unlike the free-for-all vibe of Grand Cayman's popular Stingray City, where hundreds of cruise passengers swim, snorkel and splash a few miles offshore with what seems to be zillions of the creatures, Half Moon offers a more controlled encounter ($39 per person). There, some 26 Southern and Roughtale stingrays are corralled in a 150- by 75-square-foot pen for groups of only 38 guests at a time. The wearing of flotation devices is mandatory and you're encouraged to float above the creatures and not to stand. Guides assist guests in touching and feeding the animals. There is no age minimum if accompanied by an adult.
A new one-hour personal watercraft (aka jet ski) tour offers a faster paced island encounter. In a saltwater lagoon far removed from the main beach, guides lead guests along Half Moon's shoreline, past reef formations, inlets and sand spits ($59).
Other optional excursions and rentals include eco tours by glass-bottom boat around the coast, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling, wind surfing and sailing.
All excursions can be pre-booked online at www.hollandamerica.com.
For something more low-key -- and free -- explore Half Moon's wild bird reserve and nature trails. Plans for 2005 include building a boardwalk above the trails as well as an observation deck with telescopes.
Back near the main beach is also a volleyball and basketball set up. If a shiatsu by the sea is more your speed, there are massage huts on the beach (though not particularly isolated from the hubbub), and you can even rent an air-conditioned, beachfront cabana for the day, complete with butler and open bar if you're willing to shell out several hundred bucks.
When there are occasionally two ships calling on the same day -- Sams reports two ships visiting on the same day 13 times in 2004 -- more beach chairs can be brought out, additional trams are engaged, and lunch timings can be extended to accommodate the additional guests. Still, there will be more of a squeeze on watersports rentals, sunshades, floating mats, and shore excursions, which have limited capacity.
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