The Latest in Cruise Line Private Islands

Disney Cruise Line’s private island experience, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, is home to Castaway Family Beach.
Disney Cruise Line’s private island experience, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, is home to Castaway Family Beach.

Cruise lines offering “Caribbean private island experiences” are highly popular with people eager to spend a day at the beach, or those who love water sports or couples seeking to get away and relax at a beach cabana. In addition, cruise companies themselves have added “destinations” in the Caribbean to serve multiple individual brands.

Following MSC Cruises' announcement of a new private island destination in Abu Dhabi, and Norwegian Cruise Line’s plans to upgrade Great Stirrup Cay, we’ve rounded up the latest in island news for families hitting the high seas this summer.


Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new southern Belize private island experience, will be included on western Caribbean itineraries.
Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new southern Belize private island experience, will be included on western Caribbean itineraries.

Most anticipated is the November opening of Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new southern Belize private island experience, to be featured on western Caribbean itineraries. Sister lines Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises will use the island for their guests on select itineraries. Harvest Caye will offer Belize’s only cruise ship pier, so, rather than spending time on tenders, guests will be able to walk off the ship right onto the island.

The marina will be the spot where guests will depart for sightseeing to Mayan ruins, river rafting and nature tours. Beach goers will relax on seven acres of white sand or swim in the warm Caribbean waters. Harvest Caye will also have a 15,000-square-foot pool with a swim-up bar and lounge tables and stools right in the water.

For guests desiring a private experience, 15 canopy pool cabanas, complete with upscale lounge furniture, privacy drapes and beverage service, are available for rent. A footbridge will span the pool’s center, with a waterfall feature below. Alternatively, 11 enclosed beach villas, which can accommodate up to 10 guests, will be available for rent. They are equipped with air conditioning, lounge and dining areas, a private restroom, showers and hammocks. Villa guests will also have exclusive dining and beverage options and concierge service, so they will never have to leave the beach when the munchies strike.

Harvest Caye’s 130-foot-tall Flighthouse will be a central area for aerial activities with a zip line, suspension bridges, free fall jumps and a tandem “superhero”-style zip line. In total, guests will soar over 3,000-plus feet of zip line, with views of the island, sea and mainland and stops at three different platforms. The Flighthouse will also include a ropes course. Cruisers can also kayak, paddle board or canoe in the lagoon.

For dining ashore, there’s the two-story indoor/outdoor Landshark Bar & Grill with a scenic upper deck and swim-up pool bar. It’s an expansion of Norwegian’s partnership with Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Guests can even visit the Laughing Bird Bar & Grill serving the beach, the Manatee Marina Bar & Grill in the marina and Horse-Eye Jack servicing the island’s cabanas. Food and drinks will be delivered to guests throughout the pool area.

A shopping village will sell products of name-brand retailers as well as local Belizean crafts and gifts. For those with an eco-bent, options include a manatee observation tour at the lagoon or a visit to a Butterfly Garden. Cruisers can also learn about Belize’s indigenous reptiles, such as boa constrictors, at the educational center and see endangered Scarlet Macaws and Toucans, Belize’s national bird, in the island’s aviary, which will operate a breed-and-release program to increase the number of these rare birds.

Author and wildlife expert Tony Garel, the destination’s chief naturalist who developed the island’s educational programs, will lead eco-tours. More than 10,000 new mangroves have been planted throughout the island to increase the natural estuary system that serves as a critical habitat for birds, young fish and other marine species.

Disney Cruise Line’s private island experience, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, also has a cruise ship pier (so no tenders required) and is home to Castaway Family Beach, plus many spots for water play, the Scuttle’s Cove’s supervised children and teen programs and a teen beach. Highly treasured by solo travelers and couples without children is Serenity Bay, the adult beach for those aged 18 and above.

One highlight of a Castaway Cay visit? Pelican Plunge (reopening June 16 after a refurbishment) is within swimming distance of the shore, and consists of a 2,400-square-foot floating platform with two water slides; one is a 140-foot long open slide into the ocean, the other an enclosed corkscrew. Snorkelers will find an underwater trail with Disney touches (a Mickey statue and other hidden treasures). At the separate Stingray Adventure, guests can interact with live rays.

For lunch ashore at Castaway Cay, Cookie’s and Cookies Too serves up barbecue fare while Serenity Bay has its own adults-only buffet. One of the most popular activities for adults ashore, though, is a massage at the open-air cabanas at Serenity Bay; but, be sure to make a reservation early at the ship’s Vista Spa.

In summer 2017, for the first time, the Disney Fantasy will sail from Port Canaveral on longer itineraries — new 10- and 11-night cruises to the southern Caribbean. On June 17, 2017, a new 11-night itinerary will visit Aruba, Barbados, Martinique, St. Kitts, Tortola and Castaway Cay. Then on June 28, 2017, a new 10-night itinerary will call on Aruba, Curacao, St. Kitts, Tortola and Castaway Cay. To give guests even more time at the island, select Disney Dream sailings from Port Canaveral in 2017 will include two stops at Castaway Cay; those five-night sailings depart June 2, 11, 16, 25, 30 and July 9, 2017, and also include a call in Nassau, the Bahamas. Four-night sailings, departing June 7, 21 and July 5, 2017, will also visit Castaway Cay twice.

Horseback riding at Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private isle experience in the Bahamas
Horseback riding at Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private isle experience in the Bahamas

Recent updates have put a fresh look on many aspects of Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private isle experience in the Bahamas; the island is also used by Carnival Cruise Line and other lines. Half Moon Cay received new paint, furniture and fixtures and its shore tender passenger capacity was increased from 720 to 1,100. Among the major updates, a shoreside, pre-screening area was built to offer shade for up to 400 guests; it has ceiling fans, misting stations, a “Last Call” bar, and open-air courtyard seating, bar stools, tables and ADA-compliant rest rooms.

Three new beachfront Satellite bars have also opened at Half Moon Cay and the “I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever Bar” was repainted and refreshed with new bar stools and tables, a new theme, a re-built stage and a re-thatched roof. There are also new glass-bottom kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for rent and private lessons. Half Moon Cay has introduced free tram service for all passengers, along with a 10-passenger electrical tram for cabana guests. Visitors will also find more sea life at Stingray Adventure Park.

The Grand Oasis Cabanas now have new seat cushions, a water slide and shower stalls have been installed, and staircases rebuilt. Beach cabanas boast new air conditioners, misting stations and refrigerators. New furniture was added to the Welcome Center; the decking at the Half Moon Lagoon water park was replaced, as was that at the Water Sports rental center #1. For the horseback riding tour, shaded areas were added, along with new fencing, water troughs, a larger hay pasture and a new tack room for saddles and supplies. Also new is a garden for the “back of the house” tour.

Royal Caribbean takes guests to the private beach at Labadee in Haiti.
Royal Caribbean takes guests to the private beach at Labadee in Haiti.

Royal Caribbean International has two private island experiences — Labadee in Haiti and CocoCay in the Bahamas. Highlights of Labadee include the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line, the world’s longest over-water zip line; the 300-foot-long Dragon’s Splash Waterslide that has 10 twists and turns before ending in Columbus Cove’s splash zone; and, Dragon’s Tail Coaster, a thrill ride affording some of the best views of Labadee’s private beach. At Arawak Aqua Park, guests can bounce and slide on trampolines, water slides, a rolling log and other floating toys.

Other activities include kayaking, riding a Wave Jet personal watercraft, and shopping for local artwork, woodwork and crafts. While ashore, guests can choose from several open-air dining venues. Bar service is available throughout Labadee. Guests might try Royal Caribbean’s signature “Labaduzee” frozen drink while relaxing in a shady hammock. Guests seeking privacy can reserve luxury sea-view cabanas overlooking Nellie’s Beach; each cabana rental includes two floating beach mats, lunch buffet, a cooler with six bottles of water, use of beach towels and the service of a cabana attendant.

Royal Caribbean recently introduced new shore excursions at Labadee. During the three-hour “QLE7 Amiga Island Experience,” priced at $69 per person, guests take a scenic boat ride to Amiga Island, which has a pristine white-sand beach with coral formations and reefs just a few yards away. Upon arrival, guests receive an Amiga rum punch or fruit punch and can sit in the sun or shade, hang out by the bar or cool off in the Caribbean island.

Alternatively, “QLE8 New World Sailing Experience,” is a relatively new three-hour adventure on a 62-foot-long sailing yacht. The vessel will take the course that Columbus sailed more than 500 years ago. Guests can sip a cold drink as the captain spins tales of the voyage of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Views will include bustling port cities and historic French ports. The yacht will then anchor along Haiti’s coastline, so, clients can dive into warm Caribbean waters and swim, or just relax on deck.

Lying between Freeport and Nassau, the 140-acre CocoCay has three white-sand beaches, shaded hammocks, coconut palm groves, a straw market and Caylana’s Aqua Park, a floating playground for kids of all ages complete with a sand castle, in-water trampolines and a log roll. Other options include parasailing, snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving and paddle boating.

Costa Cruises also has an Eastern Caribbean private island experience at Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic. Beach and relaxation activities, catamaran snorkeling, off-road adventures, a boat tour on the Chavon River and more activities await guests.

On Eleuthera in the Bahamas, the 40-acre Princess Cays has more than a half-mile of white-sand shoreline at the island’s southern tip. It’s reserved for Princess Cruises’ guests, who can take in views from the observation tower, chow down on a free beach barbecue, sip a cool drink or browse shops and a local craft market. Recreational activities — including volleyball, beach relaxation, fishing, snorkeling, water sports, kayaking and banana boat rides — are available. Beach clamshells and beach bungalows can be pre-reserved. Perhaps what’s most interesting at Princess Cays is that it’s not an island unto itself, but, rather an area at the southern tip of Eleuthera. So, guests can leave the Princess destination and head out into southern and central Eleuthera.

New last year was Carnival Corporation’s Amber Cove destination, along the north coast of the Dominican Republic. It opened in late 2015, and many Carnival brands call here, including Fathom, operating “social impact” cruises to the Dominican Republic. Among this area’s claims to fame: it was a featured site of the original “Jurassic Park” movie; nearby historic Puerto Plata; and the region is renowned for its high-quality amber. For those who wish to just spend the day at Amber Cove, it has bars, restaurants, a sprawling pool area with water slides, a zip line, private cabanas overlooking the water and a massive transportation hub.

As a part of the $400 million Norwegian Edge program, Norwegian Cruise Line is upgrading Great Stirrup Cay, its private island in the Bahamas, through 2016 and 2017. What’s new? The island will feature a new Beach Boardwalk, spanning the main beach’s length with new shaded areas and benches. A new entertainment and activity area with stage will host live music, games and entertainers; it will also offer a basketball court, volleyball courts, ping pong tables and more. A new air-conditioned reception area will welcome guests, more than 40 new restroom facilities are being added across the island, and snorkelers will discover an underwater sculpture garden and snorkeling trail.

More than 1,000 feet of zip line will start at 100 feet high, including parallel lines for high flying races. Norwegian is also constructing an exclusive access Lagoon area with 22 air conditioned private villas, available to The Haven and Suite guests and offering limited capacity for rentals. Guests will also discover a new swim-up bar at the lagoon center; a secluded family beach area; Landshark Landing with indoor-outdoor seating; a private room for celebrations of 60-70 guests; and a spa pavilion.

Also, MSC Cruises has signed a 100-year lease agreement with the Bahamian government to convert a former sand extraction island into the 95-acre Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve. About 20 miles from Bimini and 65 miles east of Miami, it will open in December 2017 with restaurants, bars, 11,400 feet of beach across six locales, a 2,000-seat amphitheater and purpose-built pier. The ship, including its casino, will “stay open” while docked at the private isle.

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