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Private Islands: Seclusion and Relaxation

Cruise - Woman relaxing in a pink tube on a cruise vacation (Photo: Christian Wheatley)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 23, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: activity, Bahamas, beach, Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic Contributor, Costa Cruises, cruise, Disney Cruise Line, family travel, Holland America Line, island, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises, shopping, shore excursion, sports.

When I first started cruising, I picked itineraries based on the real islands I wanted to discover. Private islands held little appeal. They were, after all, just a manufactured version of the real thing, a cruise line marketing ploy to keep more of my money. Right? Then I ended up on a Disney Wonder Bahamas sailing—which included a stop at Disney's private oasis, Castaway Cay—and discovered a private island had a lot more to offer than I thought.

On this little patch of paradise, no one approached long-haired women and asked, "Lady, can I braid your hair?"; the beach buffet and comfy lounge chairs were easily accessible, readily available and free; and better still, our children could participate in the children's program, even on land. With all of these passenger perks, I started to understand why the cruise lines wanted to own an island (or two).

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In 1977, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the majority of Great Stirrup Cay from an oil company and turned the former military outpost into an oasis for its passengers. Since then, other cruise lines have followed suit by either leasing or buying entire islands (or pieces thereof). And just as the race has begun to see who can build the most amenity-laden ship, the cruise lines' ocean-edged retreats have received their fare share of enhancements, including aqua parks, horseback riding, and even Barbie Escalades.

As a result, these patches of sand, complete with barbecue buffets, have become favorites of ship passengers because they give guests a taste of true relaxation on (for the most part) untrammeled islands.

Here is a look at eight private islands, including what they offer, where they are, and what you can do when you get there—plus a few tips to make your stay on the islands a little more pleasant. But first, a primer on private islands:

  • Simply put, they're private. To eliminate the congestion you'd experience at a mainstream island, only one ship is typically allowed to dock at any private island at any given time.
  • Their style, their way. Unlike visiting a mainstream island like St. Maarten where half the island has deep Dutch roots and the other half has French, the private islands reflect the cruise lines' personalities in every aspect. Royal Caribbean's Labadee and Coco Cay, for example, offer shore excursions that scream, "Get out there!" just like the ambience onboard its ships. In contrast, NCL's Great Stirrup Cay offers more relaxed shore excursions, such as all-day rental equipment for banana boats and snorkeling gear, and lends itself to a simple do-what-you-want-when-you-want vibe—sounds just like its Freestyle motto, right?
  • Editor's note: Royal Caribbean is the only line to have two private islands. Coco Cay is in the Bahamas, and Labadee, a private beach peninsula, is located on the northern coast of Haiti.

  • A floating commute. Private islands are staffed partly by cruise ship crew (such as spa therapists, kids' counselors, and bartenders) and by islanders who commute by boat from their nearby homes and typically handle gift shop duties and shore excursion activities.
  • What's cookin'? Cruise lines traditionally feature a barbecue lunch ashore for their guests. They cook the food onboard (or bring it from the ship and cook it on the island) and offer it up picnic-style, accompanied by entertainment, such as live music. All the islands also feature thatched-roof bars that serve frozen drinks and cocktails (you'll probably need to shell out your room key for these). If picnic-style dining doesn't appeal to you, onboard lunch eateries are often open as well.
  • Wallets? Not necessary. Okay, we don't mean that everything is free on the island. But all offer the ability to charge float rentals and libations to your onboard account. You will need to take only your ID and cabin key with you—unless you want souvenirs (you do need cash to buy them).
  • Size matters. Whether you want to walk them or take a tram, the islands are on a much smaller scale than say, Belize or Cozumel. Plus, since the islands are not nearly as built up, it's easy to explore them.
  • Leisure is key. Some of the private islands' "shore excursions" are actually just equipment rentals—like snorkel gear and boats—eliminating the hassle of arranging a tour group and rushing to complete the excursion in a one- to two-hour time frame. Plus, since there's no quota required for the "excursion," you're less likely to be disappointed in a cancellation because the cruise line couldn't book enough people.
  • Read on for our island-by-island roundup, starting with hideaways in the Bahamas.

    Princess Cays

    Who Goes There? Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

    Where Is It? It may be isolated, but it's no island: Princess Cays is actually a 40-acre parcel on the southern tip of Bahamian island Eleuthera.

    Getting There: Several of Princess' Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries include the island as a port of call. In addition, Regent Seven Seas Cruises occasionally offers a stop here. Ships anchor offshore and tender passengers in to the marina.

    Playing There: Listen to live reggae and calypso music amidst mangrove trees. Play volleyball or basketball, or head to the sports pier to rent sailboats, jet-skis, aqua bikes, and kayaks, as well as snorkeling gear and floats. Snorkelers favor the coral reef surrounding the island. Youngsters can romp around at Pelican Perch, a supervised playground area for kids with a replica of a pirate's galleon.

    Insider Tips: For the best pick of lounge chairs (especially in the shade) head to shore early. Drink up early too: Bars close at 1:30 p.m. even though the last tender doesn't depart until around 3:30 p.m.

    Eating: The two open-air barbecue buffets include burgers, dogs, salads, and chicken. Three bars serve up tropical drinks.

    Shopping: Princess owns and operates Tropical Treasures boutique; plus you'll find several local vendors offering Bahamian crafts and hair braiding.

    Castaway Cay

    Who Goes There? Disney Cruise Line

    Where Is It? This 1,000-acre island is part of the Abacos chain in the Bahamas. It lies about 60 miles north of Nassau.

    Getting There: Disney Magic and Wonder make regular stops at Castaway Cay on both Bahamas and Caribbean voyages. Disney Wonder will offer five-night cruises with two stops at Castaway Cay in summer 2010, right after a host of new island amenities are completed. New Disney Dream will also call on the island when it begins sailing in early 2011.

    The best part is that this is the one private island (until Royal Caribbean completes its dock at Labadee) where no tendering is required. The ship docks right at the island, making it easy to walk on and off the ship whenever you'd like, or sneak kids back onboard for a quick afternoon nap.

    Playing There: The expansive horseshoe-shaped Castaway Family Beach will become 70 percent longer by summer 2010 as more of the "horseshoe" is developed. The appropriately named Family Beach will soon be home to new cabanas, oodles of shade umbrellas, two rental shops (rafts, snorkeling gear, water cycles, and the like) plus a 2,400-square-foot floating jungle gym complete with water cannons and two fast slides that dump riders into the bay. Bike along paved (and sandy) trails to a tranquil overlook from the northwest side of the island, or paddle out to the 175-foot ragged looking ghost ship—The Flying Dutchman—which made its debut in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Families will be able to splash about in fresh water at Spring-A-Leak, a water park presented in the guise of a storm-wrecked beach house full of leaky pipes and faucets. Kids can dig for (faux) whalebones, play in a mini-splash park, and build and race rafts at Scuttle's Cove. Teens will soon have their own Hide-Out complete with music and multicolored deck chairs that overlook nearby soccer and volleyball play areas. The best part? All water activities are gratis. When you want some grown-up time, the adults-only Serenity Bay, about a mile from the main beach and accessible by tram, is blissfully quiet and the place to enjoy a massage in an open-air cabana overlooking the sea.

    Insider Tips: For smaller crowds and easy access to lunch, head around to the far side of the horseshoe-shaped beach. If you want to use snorkel gear at Serenity Bay, you'll need to rent it near the main beach or bring your own from home. Tram service and bike rentals make getting around the island easy. Disney characters can be found throughout the day for photo ops.

    Eating: The cruise line offers two open-air lunch buffets. Castaway Air BBQ (at the adults-only Serenity Bay area) offers grilled steaks, salmon/grouper, chicken, salads, a variety of tropical fruits, and island libations. Family fare includes burgers, hot dogs, and CD-sized cookies and is available at Cookie's BBQ, a large pavilion near the main beach. A second Cookie's, as well as another beach bar, will open by summer 2010.

    Shopping: Buy Castaway Cay themed paraphernalia at the She Sells Sea Shells store (or the soon-to-open Buy the Sea Shore store) or send a postcard from the island's post office. Bahamian arts and crafts are sold in a small market area along the path to the bike rental area.

    Great Stirrup Cay

    Who Goes There? Norwegian Cruise Line

    Where Is It? It's one of the northernmost islands in the Bahamas Berry Island chain, about 50 miles from Nassau. NCL owns 225 acres of the 250-acre island; the remaining 25 acres is uninhabited and owned by the Bahamian government.

    Getting There: Many of NCL's Caribbean itineraries include a port call to the island. Ships anchor offshore and tender passengers into the marina.

    Playing There: Play volleyball or table tennis, or circle the island in a kayak or sailboat. Relax at the massage hut just off the beach (book before you get to the island). The primary beach area is on the north shore, where you'll find live calypso music, lounge chairs, and watersports rentals including "Stingray Vu-boards" (a boogie board with a view port so riders can see underwater).

    Insider Tips: There are neither bike rentals nor a dedicated kids area. If you want a deserted beach (sans lounge chairs and island festivities), the beach on the west side is accessible over a rocky beach path; the beaches on the east side, near a solar-powered lighthouse (no entry), are accessible via a walking path.

    Eating: There are two bars, plus an island lunch buffet that serves pizza, salads, fresh fruit, and the usual barbecue fare.

    Shopping: The Straw Market (operated by locals from Great Harbor Cay) is the place to find T-shirts, hats, shells, and other regional souvenirs.

    Half Moon Cay

    Who Goes There? Holland America Line, Carnival

    Where Is It? Guests use a 65-acre tract of the Bahamas' Little San Salvador Island, a 2,400-acre swath of sand about 100 miles southeast of Nassau.

    Getting There: Most of Holland America's Caribbean and Panama Canal runs stop at Half Moon Cay. In addition, six Carnival ships will make regular stops, including Carnival Pride's seven-night year-round Eastern Caribbean sailings from Baltimore (beginning May 2010), Carnival Liberty's year-round and Carnival Glory's seasonal Eastern Caribbean itineraries from Miami, and Carnival Miracle's seasonal eight-night exotic Eastern Caribbean cruises from New York. To get to the island on a shorter five-night sailing, try Carnival Fascination or Carnival Destiny, sailing from Jacksonville and Miami respectively. Tenders take passengers from the ships to the island.

    Playing There: Onshore, activities include riding horses, hiking nature trails, running on the new scenic 5K course, biking on a guided tour, swimming with stingrays, or simply cooling off in private, air-conditioned cabanas on the beach. There are three watersports centers—two on the beach and one on the lagoon—for renting beach gear and equipment such as snorkel masks. Guests can play volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard, and horseshoes; kids have their own playground (with pirate ships for climbing) and an aqua park. A handicap-accessible 25-passenger tram runs continuously. Accessibility was further enhanced in 2009 with new wheelchair ramps at the watersports center and a wheelchair path to the beach.

    Insider Tips: Be on the lookout for birds. The Bahamian National Trust designated a large part of the island as a wild bird reserve. It is a nesting area for waterfowl, including 10,000 sooty terns, noddy terns, 200 pairs of roseate terns, shearwaters, and Bahamian pintails.

    Eating: There are four full-service bars and one restaurant—The Tropics Restaurant—which serves a buffet-style BBQ lunch on a grand scale; there are six lanes for quick service and 15 open-air dining shelters.

    Shopping: There's a Bahamian straw market at the welcome center at the marina. The Bahamian Village features other shops for locally made souvenirs.

    Coco Cay

    Who Goes There? Royal Caribbean

    Where Is It? Coco Cay is roughly 55 miles north of Nassau in the Bahamian Berry Island chain. (It's formerly known as Little Stirrup Cay, neighbor of NCL's Great Stirrup Cay.)

    Getting There: Many of Royal Caribbean's Bahamas and Caribbean sailings stop at the island. Tender boats transport guests from ships to the island.

    Playing There: Take a kayak tour through the Bahama Banks, play volleyball at the Poweraide Volleyball Court, or jump on the floating trampoline at the Aqua Park. Snorkelers can see a sunken airplane and schooner underwater. Little island-goers can drive mini Mustangs, Jeep Hurricanes, and even a pink Barbie Escalade at the new Fisher-Price Power Wheels track.

    Insider Tips: To avoid sunbathing with the masses, head to Wanderer's Beach, the farthest beach from the tender dock, yet still comfortably furnished with lounge chairs.

    Eating: Beach barbecue fare is served in an outdoor pavilion with picnic table seating.

    Shopping: Have your hair braided or shop for souvenirs in the small straw market area.

    Though the Bahamas lays claim to most private islands, there are a few in the Caribbean and even the South Pacific. Here's what to expect beyond the Bahamas:

    Labadee

    Who Goes There? Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises

    Where Is It? This "island" is actually a remote 260-acre woodsy peninsula along Haiti's lush mountainous and secluded north coast.

    Getting There: Ten Royal Caribbean ships, plus a few Celebrity Cruise ships, will pay a visit to Labadee on Caribbean, Panama Canal, and transatlantic sailings in 2009 and 2010. Tenders take passengers from the ship to the island.

    Playing There: Labadee has some of the largest water-based jungle gyms of the islands; however, their water play activities aren't free. You can bounce on water trampolines, rock on a "water totter," and climb inflatable icebergs at the Arawak Aqua Park ($15 per hour for each adult or child), or take several slides down the 40-foot SeaTrek Water Slide ($20 per adult or child). Land-based activities include whizzing along the world's longest zipline over water (it's over 2,600 feet long) and watching African-style dancing, drumming, and singing at the folkloric show. Luc's Splash Bash is the island's dedicated area for kids and offers ground geysers, water cannons, and a treasure map trail.

    Insider Tips: A pier is currently under construction at Labadee so passengers will no longer have to tender to shore. The new pier is scheduled to open in early December 2009, when Oasis of the Seas begins its maiden Caribbean voyages. While Royal Caribbean has not released official details at this time, development is underway on a new welcome plaza and Labadee Town Square, an area that will be home to cultural enrichment activities, shopping, and entertainment. The one attraction we do know will be there is the new Dragon's Tail Alpine Coaster, a thrill ride that is similar to a rollercoaster ride through mountain scenery ($35).

    Eating: With nine bar and beverage facilities and three food outlets, you won't have to hunt for provisions. Performers stroll about playing Jamaican mento music, an acoustic, folksy sound said to be the grandfather of reggae. Chug the signature drink, the Labaduzee, and enjoy.

    Shopping: Two Haitian marketplaces offer native crafts, paintings, coffee, woodcarvings, dolls, baskets, clothing, and jewelry. (Be prepared to be pressured to buy, and don't be afraid to negotiate.)

    Catalina Island

    Who Goes There? Costa Cruises

    Where Is It? The 9.6 square-kilometer Catalina Island is located five-miles south of La Romana of the Dominican Republic.

    Getting There: Costa Fortuna and Costa Atlantica will return to making calls on Catalina Island in the 2010-2011 Caribbean winter season. Tender boats take passengers from the ship to the shore.

    Playing There: Rent scooters, snorkeling equipment, and jet skis, along with other water-based toys from local vendors. Be sure to book popular shore tours in advance like the folkloric show at Alto de Chavon—part show, part walking tour led by a guide. Note that no ship-sponsored children's programming is available on the island.

    Insider Tips: Due to the international passenger mix, topless sunbathing enthusiasts can find like-minded individuals down the beach away from the tender dock.

    Eating: The usual beach barbecue fare of burgers, hot dogs, salads, and fruits is served in a covered picnic area.

    Shopping: Local Dominican Republic residents have small shops on Catalina Island and sell local crafts and artwork.

    Motu Mahana

    Who Goes There? Regent Seven Seas Cruises

    Where Is It? Private islet Motu Mahana is on the reef that surrounds Tahaa. Enclosed in a common lagoon with French Polynesia's Raiatea, Tahaa is the only island in the Society Islands that can be completely circled by ship inside the lagoon.

    Getting There: Regent's Paul Gauguin includes a regular stop. Take a five-minute tender ride from the ship to Motu Mahana (available throughout the day).

    Playing There: Lounge in the shade under large palm trees while strolling Gauguines in pareos perform Polynesian songs. Picnic on a deserted motu or ride a 4x4 in the mountains and through the vanilla plantations. For your complete relaxation, the masseuses from the ship's Carita Spa give massages at the massage huts on the island.

    Insider Tips: The ships' retractable watersports platform offers water-skiing, kayaking, and windsurfing (gratis).

    Eating: Try "poisson cru"—a native Tahitian raw fish dish at the extensive barbecue buffet. A floating bar (waist-high water) serves guests (complimentary) fresh coconut milk or cocktails mixed in the coconuts themselves.

    Shopping: Shop for local handicrafts, T-shirts, and Polynesian pareos, which are similar to a sarong.

    Have you ever visited a cruise's private island? What did you like or dislike about it? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below.

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