Come Sail Away: Private Islands create enclaves of fun

Your clients could buy the newest Pirates of the Caribbean DVD when it's released on Dec. 5, or they could just head for Disney Cruise Line's (www.disneytravelagents.com) privately-owned island, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas. Fresh from the swashbuckling movie, the 175-foot, barnacle-encrusted "Flying Dutchman" ship is anchored just offshore. Disney's guests now line up in droves to have their photo snapped with the ship in the background, as they purportedly converse with Captain Jack Sparrow.  Families can choose from water sports and other activities at Princess Cays, the private isle of Princess Cruises

Not to be outdone, Holland America Line (www.hollandamerica.com) just added a new scuba boat called "The Captain Jack Sparrow" to the 65-acre Half Moon Cay private isle it owns in the Bahamas. HollandAmerica has also added a new deep sea boat called "The Captain Morgan," as well as a third parasail boat, six more horses to the island stable, a new bandstand, and more walkway wheelchair access points. The line has rebuilt all beach showers, and added more cabana clamshell coverings, foot-wash stations, an island bicycle tour, and a second shore excursion sales booth.

HollandAmerica and Disney both opened their Bahamas private islands to guests in the late 1990s, but the concept of a cruise line operating a private island actually turns 30 in 2007. Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) was the first in 1977 with Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. NCL has just added more shady areas and expanded the number of hammocks, noting it plans other island facility upgrades soon.

Royal Caribbean International (www.cruisingpower.com) has been operating CocoCay in the Bahamas since the late 1980s. It's recently added a new giant inflatable water slide and "Power Wheels Track" in conjunction with Fisher Price (www.fisher-price.com); in the latter, young guests barrel around a track in their own miniature vehicle. Royal Caribbean also owns Labadee, a private beach retreat on Hispaniola's north shore.

In an exclusive to Travel Agent magazine, Dean Brown, executive vice president shore operations, Princess Cruises (www.princess.com), revealed that his line will open its first bungalows this week at Princess Cays, the line's Eleuthera, Bahamas retreat. Daily rental rates for the initial six bungalows were still being determined at presstime, but Brown expects pricing in $200 ballpark. The bungalows have deck chairs and an air-conditioned area. Cruise staff provide food and beverages. And families can stow gear and personal effects inside the bungalow while enjoying the island.

Castaway Cay, Disney's private island

Princess has also recently added hundreds of additional clam-shell cabanas—basically double lounge chairs with a top to pull down for shade. The line opened its first island experience on the Grenadines in 1981, shifted to another Grenadines island in 1986, and then began operating from Princess Cays on Eleuthera in 1992.

In another exclusive, Disney told us it has extended its bicycle path on Castaway Cay almost a mile through the mangrove swamp, and is now building a new watchtower accessible from the path. By early 2007, families will be able to stop along the bike path and visit the tower for a bird's-eye view over the water and to the ship. Disney also recently added a new stingray adventure and upgraded equipment at Cookie's to diversify the food offerings for guests. The line has replaced electric grills with open pit barbecues, and added rotisserie chicken and other healthy food options.

Growing Popularity

A sampling of other major lines with private island-type experiences—some operated as leased rather than owned facilities—include Seabourn Cruise Line (www.seabourn.com) with its private beach retreat at Pricky Pear Cove just off Virgin Gorda, BVI; Costa Cruises (www.costacruises.com) with Catalina Island, part of the Dominican Republic; and MSC Cruises (www.msccruises.com) with Cayo Levantado, also in the Dominican Republic. Relaxation is an enticing option at Half Moon Cay

Opened just a year ago, Cayo Levantado is owned by the Dominican government and managed by a local Dominican company. But Rick Sasso, president and CEO, MSC Cruises USA, stresses that his line had detailed input into all facets of the island's development—everything from where to place the bars to the number of beach chairs. Cayo Levantado offers the latest, most comprehensive features, is a site dedicated for MSC guests when its ships call there, and has received "rave reviews," according to Sasso.

Why are so many lines investing in providing a top-of-line private island experience? HollandAmerica says Half Moon Cay rates highest with its guests for any of port of call visit in the Caribbean. "Definitely, it's a port of call versus just a beach experience," stresses Rick Meadows, HollandAmerica's senior vice president of marketing and sales.

"I just talked to a friend who just returned from Half Moon Cay a few weeks ago, and she said it was awesome—very relaxing," says Barbara Fischer of Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Elite Travel in Columbus, OH. In terms of the private island experiences, Fischer says her clients always seem satisfied: "I've never heard anything negative."

Disney confirms that Castaway Cay also earns the highest marks of any of its Caribbean ports of call. "People just can't get enough of it," stresses Ozer Balli, vice president of hotel operations, Disney Cruise Line. "It's very common for guests to ask why we can't go back to the island or why we can't stay there longer." Disney is giving some guests the chance to do just that with a new Disney Magic itinerary to the western Caribbean this year; the ship spends two full days at the island, one at the start of the cruise, another at the end.

One interesting fact is that private islands appeal to both first-time and repeat island visitors. "Absolutely, Castaway Cay is a big part of the cruise experience, just as much talked about as our great entertainment and food and beverage [services]," says Balli.

When clients book a Caribbean vacation, they often do so for beach time. "It's part of what you like to do, yet sometimes the ports are not all that close to the nicest beaches, or when the guests get there the facilities are not designed to cater to [out-of-town] visitors," notes Brown. "With the private island experience, you can hit the beach pretty easily, and have the food, convenience, safety, activities and a great beach." If agents ask a guest if the private island experience played a role in their decision to book, they'll likely hear "no," but Brown says that once guests visit the island, the experience takes on heightened importance.

Jeffrey Anderson, vice president of marketing, America's VacationCenter (www.americasvacationcenter.com), an American Express agency in Escondido, CA, took a Freedom of the Seas cruise to CocoCay earlier this year. He and his family of nine signed up for jet ski rentals, and "it was the favorite activity we have ever done on any vacation. We were all powering around on Wave Runners, flying past the ship, it was just like the Royal Caribbean television commercial." He can't wait to go back.

Few residents live on the lines' islands so guest services are mostly provided by the visiting ship's own crew, supplemented by some local residents; HollandAmerica ferries some residents over from CatIsland to help out, for example. Generally, though, the same waiters who serve dinner in the ship's dining room will dish up the beach barbecue. Ship bar staff often are spotted asking guests on the beach if they'd like a pina colada; at Labadee, that might be a signature "Labaduzee" frozen drink.

Some critics say the private isles have become choreographed extensions of the cruise ship experience itself, lacking the culture, richness or local color found in other Caribbean ports of call. Cruise lines strongly disagree, noting that guests appreciate the seamless experience–wanting the same service and activity choices they've had on their ship. Local culture is introduced through music or vendors; at Labadee, the sound of a Caribbean steel drum band offers a fun backdrop, while Haitian craftsmen sell their wares.

Balli says guests also like discovering a pristine Caribbean isle the way they have always envisioned it—remote, exclusive and naturally beautiful. Agents often advise clients to walk just steps away from the prime beach and barbecue areas where hoards of other guests gather. Most islands have pristine natural areas or walking trails, and many lines have adult-only beach areas.

Many of the islands are extensive size-wise and boast much undeveloped land. For example, Half Moon Cay comprises 65 acres of a pristine 2,400 acre island and has been designated by the Bahamian National Trust as an international wild birds preserve. Depending on the island, guests might go bird watching, take nature hikes, go bicycling on remote trails through mangrove swamps, snorkel along reef areas, or interact with stingrays.

Meadows says HollandAmerica's new horseback program by land and sea is a big hit: "It's just not intuitive for people to think that horses can swim, but these horses are trained in Jamaica to be comfortable in water. They are brought to Half Moon Cay, live on the island, and for people who like to do a trail ride, it's great. They do the ride...[and later] the group goes into the water. The horses love it, it's fun for guests, and it's great to watch the people's faces."

Myriad Activities

Many isles feature kayaking, aqua-bikes, ping pong, volleyball, and water toys galore. Families might snorkel along a "manmade" reef created by Disney complete with underwater Mickey and Minnie, an old tugboat and other diversions. On CocoCay, Royal Caribbean guests might soar 400 feet above the water on a parasailing adventure.

Relaxation is another prime activity ashore. NCL's Great Stirrup Cay has a massage hut with two tables, and most islands also offer select spa or massage services ashore in private cabanas.

One challenge has been tendering guests from ship to shore. Even when skies are sunny, if waters are too choppy, sometimes tenders can't operate. Disney alleviated that by building its own dock, which Balli says benefits both schedule integrity and guest convenience. Guests return to the ship and walk onboard at any time, without waiting in a tender line. To smooth out its tendering operation, HollandAmerica just added two new 275-passenger shore tenders and a new shore-side tender facility. The larger tenders accommodate more guests than a lifeboat tender and in greater comfort.

What's the future of cruise line private island destinations? Industry vet Larry Pimentel, president and CEO, SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadreamyachtclub.com), says the islands will continue to be important to the industry because "exclusivity always sells." Lines have control of the set-up and delivery of the private isle experience, he says, "and this enables lines to avoid traffic in high-density areas like the Caribbean, by providing a destination other lines cannot go to."

Generally, lines only allow their own ships to call at the private isles, but some make exceptions for sister lines. Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com) vessels and Carnival Cruise Lines' (www.bookccl.com) Elation also call at Half Moon Cay. Celebrity Cruises also calls in 2007 at Royal Caribbean's Labadee.

Balli believes agents should definitely use the private island concept as a cruise selling point, and Brown thinks the concept is "undersold" by both lines and agents.

"This is an opportunity for agents who can sense that something about the private island experience may appeal to a particular client," says Brown. "It's one extra selling point." Meadows says agents who have been to a private island and can relate their experiences have a distinct advantage.

Anderson says positive guest experiences spread by word of mouth help draw in guests. Right now, however, he doesn't think the private island experience on its own has yet evolved to become the sole reason to buy a Caribbean cruise [for most clients]. That said, Anderson can see a future time when the private islands of individual cruise lines will compete against each other, particularly as more activities and features are added.

"Ultimately, we may start choosing a cruise line for the private island experience, much in the way we now choose a cruise line for a certain ship," says Anderson. "I see [at some point] the private island moving to the forefront."

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