Sail to a Private Paradise
Cruise lines reserve these pristine beach retreats
just for their passengers
By Jennifer DavorenCruises are ideal vacations for beach bums. Sailing along the stunning shorelines of the Bahamas, Barbados and points in between, cruise ship passengers spot miles of warm, white sand for lazy afternoons in the sun.
When booking a trip to the Caribbean or the Bahamas, travelers often look for itineraries that include a day on a private beach owned by a major cruise line, says Cheryl Cunningham, director of special projects and group sales for Vacations To Go, a national travel agency that specializes in selling deeply discounted cruises.
"If you're going on a Caribbean cruise, of course you want to have a beach experience. But when you're going to all these different ports of call, there are so many other things to do and see," Cunningham says. "When you have a private island in the mix, it gives you the ability to save a day for your beach experience."
Cruise lines like Holland America, Norwegian and Princess have recognized the need for safe, secluded beaches for their guests and have developed their own private properties, primarily in the Bahamas. It's like visiting a resort that is tailor-made for cruisers, where massages, fresh towels and food and drinks are provided surf-side.
"Initially, most customers are kind of leery: 'What am I going to do there? It's just some beach,'" Cunningham says. "But that's the really neat thing about it -- once you get there, there is nothing to do but experience the beach, have some barbecue, visit with your friends and lounge in the sun, or hang in a hammock in the shade. It's a very, very relaxing experience."
Alan McVey, director of cruises at Vacations To Go, recently visited CocoCay, a private island owned by Royal Caribbean International. Though McVey was joined at the port by hundreds of his fellow cruise-ship passengers, he recalls that he never felt crowded out.
"There's a big beach there and lots of chairs, so I think there would be a lot less competition for all the equipment there than you might find at a resort," McVey says.
Once settled on the beach near the soothing blue of the open ocean, McVey was able to relax and make the most of his private island experience. "It kind of felt like Gilligan's Island -- it was very secluded, very cool," he says.
Following are seven private destinations owned by major cruise lines. Here, you'll find the very best of the tropics, with sparkling beaches, calm lagoons and swaying palm trees. However, each also has its own special perks and unique twists. Some are made for excitement and water sports, and others are better suited for quiet waterfront reflection.
Browse the amenities below and choose the place that's right for you. After all, you'll want to make the most of your own private paradise.
To see itineraries and rates or to book a cruise to any of these locales, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.
Hidden in the delectable Berry Island chain just north of Nassau, CocoCay is the 140-acre Bahamian retreat of Royal Caribbean. The island, like most private properties owned by the major cruise lines, is a true resort facility, complete with food and drink service, seaside lounge chairs and umbrellas, playgrounds for kids, and plenty of shore excursions and water sports.
Most passengers know CocoCay for its creative scuba diving and snorkeling adventures. Underwater attractions include a replica of Queen Anne's Revenge, a favorite ship of the formidable pirate captain Blackbeard. Thousands of tropical fish make their home in the fiberglass model, drawing divers of all skill levels to the island's calm, clear lagoon.
McVey visited CocoCay with his three sons, ages 9, 13 and 15, during a short cruise of the Bahamas last year. The aqua park was a big hit with McVey's youngest, who spent the day at an oversized waterslide. Meanwhile, the teenagers sampled parasailing and snorkeling, as well as "virgin" versions of the island's signature cocktail, the Coco Loco.
Booking shore excursions before boarding their Royal Caribbean cruise helped the family optimize their time on CocoCay, as the group was able to set appointments for each activity. "You want to schedule those times and spread them out throughout the day. If you've rented the snorkeling gear, you can do that between activities," McVey says. "The island is really set up well for active people who want to do a lot of different things."
The McVeys finished their day on CocoCay with a WaveRunner tour of the shoreline. A local guide led the group to a small, secluded cove, where the group spotted starfish and other colorful creatures.
"The sand was just crystal-white, the water was this translucent blue, and our guide just pointed things out as we rode by," McVey recalls. "That's something you don't see -- at least in my experience -- in Cozumel and Grand Cayman, because they're so traveled. These islands are a bit more secluded."
Travelers who want to visit CocoCay with Royal Caribbean have several options. Three- and four-night Bahamas cruises are available from Port Canaveral, FL, aboard the Sovereign of the Seas, and from Miami aboard the Majesty of the Seas. The Enchantment of the Seas sails four- and five-night Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale, FL, while the Mariner of the Seas does weeklong trips from Port Canaveral.
A sister resort to CocoCay, Labadee is Royal Caribbean's private peninsula on the northern coast of Haiti, which occupies the western third of the island of Hispanola. This 260-acre playground is far removed from the political strife of the region, cordoned off from the rest of Hispaniola and protected as the exclusive playground of visiting cruise ships.
"There are strict borders on it, so the cruise line can reserve it for its own private experience. It's pretty far off the beaten path," Cunningham says.
Labadee boasts a rich native culture and storied history. Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola in December 1492 and claimed it for Spain, ushering in 500 years of European influence. In the years that followed, the area served as a trading post for visiting merchants and a favorite hiding spot for Caribbean pirates.
Their influence still can be felt at Labadee today. Royal Caribbean offers daily folkloric shows that highlight the local culture through song and dance. A marketplace sells handmade art and locally made goods. For those who prefer the buccaneer spirit, a popular hike takes passengers to hidden spots like Nellie's Place, rumored to be the ruins of a centuries-old bordello.
The resort also pays tribute to the region's stunning scenery. Labadee offers five public beaches surrounded by verdant jungle, volcanic mountains and turquoise waves. Guests find beach chairs and shaded hammocks at every turn, but many prefer to settle on the warm, white sand for a day of sunbathing.
For the best overall view of Labadee, Royal Caribbean suggests a parasailing trip over the expansive shoreline. If a fear of heights keeps you grounded, try touring the peninsula by kayak, WaveRunner or, for a more adrenaline-charged ride, the Thriller Powerboat. After your tour, you'll have a better idea of the best spots to return to for swimming and snorkeling -- you might even see a hidden cove perfect for a romantic stroll along the water's edge.
Labadee is a featured port of call on several Caribbean cruises. These include weeklong sailings aboard the Mariner of the Seas from Port Canaveral and aboard the Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas from Miami. Nine-day cruises are available on the Grandeur of the Seas from Baltimore and the Explorer of the Seas from Bayonne, NJ.
Half Moon Cay
This private destination, reserved solely for the guests of Holland America and Carnival cruise lines, was meant for naturalists. Carved from the Bahamian island of Little San Salvador, a 2,400-acre bird sanctuary, the 65-acre Half Moon Cay is perfect for afternoon walks through a forest canopy. The property's reputation as a wildlife watcher's paradise has helped make it Holland America's highest-rated port of call on Caribbean itineraries.
Passengers arrive by tender, stepping from their shuttle boat into the Fort San Salvador Welcome Center, which houses a cocktail bar, first aid station, ice cream shop and straw market. The day's activities can be planned at the information booth. A 25-passenger, wheelchair-accessible tram provides continuous service between the welcome center and a buffet-style restaurant.
Recent refurbishments added many activities and amenities to the island. Beachside stables and winding riding trails are in place for the horseback tours that have become popular shore excursions. Guests can sightsee by personal watercraft, too, speeding past neighboring Iguana Island and Stingray Cove, all at a safe distance from Half Moon Cay's main swimming area. History and technology buffs can join bicycle tours to scenic Bone Fish Lagoon, where they'll learn about the local culture and see how water is desalinated and electricity is generated for the destination.
Half Moon Cay soothes both body and soul. Two air-conditioned cabanas are available for a variety of massage services, and Holland America's Fun in the Sun exercise program offers water aerobics and group jogging along the shore. Guests also can gather at the cay's rustic hillside chapel for nondenominational worship services, wedding ceremonies and romantic vow renewals.
Starting in mid-October 2007, Half Moon Cay is featured on seven- and 10-day Caribbean sailings from Fort Lauderdale aboard four Holland America ships: the Maasdam, Volendam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam. Carnival's Imagination calls at Half Moon Cay on five-day trips from Miami to the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, and the Carnival Triumph stops there on its way to the Eastern Caribbean on weeklong sailings, also from Miami.
Great Stirrup Cay
This white-sand slice of paradise is the property that started it all. Great Stirrup Cay became the first private island to be purchased by a cruise company when Norwegian Cruise Line snapped it up in 1977. Just 125 miles east of Fort Lauderdale and 50 miles from Nassau, Great Stirrup Cay became an easily accessible port for passing NCL ships. It also became the envy of the industry, triggering a buying trend for nearly every major cruise line.
Passengers might begin their visit to the island with a stop at the straw market, where 25 vendors sell Caribbean crafts, souvenir T-shirts, hair-braiding services and other goods. This area of the island also features beach bars, "party decks," water sports arenas and the Dive-In Center, home to NCL's popular snorkeling school. A neighboring barbecue buffet doles out beach picnic fare, including burgers, grilled chicken, salads and fresh fruit.
Shore excursions highlight the natural beauty of the island's lagoon. Kayaks, snorkels and "vu-boards" -- specially designed boogie boards with a viewing window at the center -- allow for sightings of coral reef residents like Bert and Ernie, the island's favorite stingrays.
The fun continues on Great Stirrup's three beaches, where activities range from sand volleyball to pingpong. NCL encourages group athletics with its "Olympic" competitions, where guests vie for prizes. Crew members offer Caribbean dance lessons and limbo contests, too, though many passengers prefer to sit and enjoy the calypso band, fruity drink in hand.
Exploration of the island's interior is encouraged. A winding path directs visitors to the local lighthouse and a private mansion, perfect for hill-top views. Afterward, seek the therapists of the renowned Mandara Spa for a post-hike massage, provided in private treatment huts just off the beach. Then, grab one of the island's 1,000 lounge chairs and settle near the surf.
Two Norwegian ships departing from New York City -- the Spirit and the Dawn -- stop at Great Stirrup Cay on six-night cruises to the Bahamas and Florida and seven-night cruises to the Bahamas and Bermuda. Note that the six-night cruises are scheduled to arrive at Great Stirrup at 7:30 p.m. and leave the next day around 1 p.m., making the ship's daylight time here short.
In late October, the Norwegian Sun and Dawn will begin sailing weeklong Caribbean cruises from Miami that stop at Great Stirrup. In December, the Norwegian Gem will start sailing seven-day trips from New York that include calls in Florida and Great Stirrup.
Plundering pirates, once the scourge of the Caribbean, now serve as ambassadors to this sun-soaked paradise. In fact, the fearsome crew of the Flying Dutchman -- the ghost ship made popular by the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise -- would be happy to care for your children while you're anchored at Castaway Cay, the private Bahamian island of Disney Cruise Line.
This property, 175 miles east of Miami, is the only private island that allows direct docking of cruise ships. Rather than board a tender bound for shore, passengers can disembark and head right for the beach. This convenience allows for extended time on the island's four white-sand beaches and, as each one of the sandy stretches is suited for a particular passenger group, you'll need it.
Kids let loose at Scuttle's Cove, where costumed characters like Mickey, Minnie and the charming pirate captain Jack Sparrow will entertain the little ones with games, sports and silly skits. Teens, always too cool for the House of Mouse, get a beach of their own for basketball, billiards and some much-needed alone time. Parents can seek a seaside massage or a quiet spot to sip a drink at the aptly named Serenity Bay, an area reserved for adults 18 and over. The group can end their day together on Castaway Family Beach, where they can splash in the surf, team up for beach volleyball or grab lunch at Cookie's BBQ -- if parents can round up the kids, that is.
"I spoke with some parents who actually had to fight with their children to get them to spend some time with the family," laughs Trice Lemmons, a resident of Livingston, TX, who visited the island last year during a Disney cruise.
Disney offers dozens of shore excursions and, as you'd expect, most are geared toward kid-friendly activities. Children 5 and up can try snorkeling for the first time in a protected lagoon. While the little ones bob along with Nemo and friends, kids ages 13 to 17 can walk on the Wild Side, an adventure trip with activities ranging from kayaking to mountain biking.
When the usual beachside activities have lost their luster, opt for one of the island's ecotours. Disney has withheld 90 percent of this 1,000-acre island from development, creating opportunities for quiet and enchanting hikes you won't find at your usual Caribbean port.
Disney Cruise Line incorporates Castaway Cay into three- and four-night itineraries aboard the Disney Wonder and seven-night cruises aboard the Disney Magic. All trips depart from Port Canaveral.
The Bahamian island of Eleuthera, or "freedom" in Greek, is home to the private resort of Princess Cruises. On nearly 40 acres of property, passengers will find that perfect swath of sand for a day of relaxation. The cruise line even offers beach cabanas and six-person rental bungalows for relaxing naps near the water.
Princess Cays is surrounded by a rich coral reef, and the cruise line provides plenty of diving and snorkeling equipment to encourage exploration. Water sports are the highlight of this destination, and Princess is ready with aqua bikes, banana boats, catamarans, kayaks and sailboats that guests can rent. Or, join in a game of volleyball or basketball.
There's plenty to occupy the kids here, too. At Pelican's Perch, tots will have a safe, supervised playground, complete with a replica of an imposing Spanish galleon that's perfect for playing pirate.
Finish your day at Princess Cays with a burger or tropical drink at one of the beachside refreshments pavilions. Local reggae and calypso bands play while you eat, so have a seat on the neighboring "party deck" and enjoy the music. Don't leave the island without a stop at the Tropical Treasure boutique, where passengers can pick up souvenirs and a few duty-free items.
Princess Cays is a featured port of call on itineraries of seven to 14 days in the Caribbean and Bahamas. The ships -- the Caribbean Princess, Emerald Princess and Grand Princess -- depart from Fort Lauderdale.
Forget the WaveRunners. Here at Catalina Island, the private property of Costa Cruises in the Dominican Republic, you're in for some peace and quiet.
"The main focus of Catalina Island is relaxation. And that's really what the whole Caribbean is about -- you're there to bask in the sun and relax," says Dana Dominici, a public relations manager for Costa.
To that end, only quiet excursions are offered here -- catamaran rentals, snorkeling and jungle ecotours are the most popular activities. The cruise line also provides small wooden boats -- the local version of the kayak -- that passengers use to skim through the mangroves and spot tropical birds and fish.
Additional excursions include trips to the neighboring resort of Casa de Campo. Costa runs shuttles between the two destinations throughout the day, offering passengers a broader view of this beautiful region.
Otherwise, guests are encouraged to find a lounge chair or a floating beach mat and enjoy the ocean. Pristine stretches of sand and clear, welcoming waters ring the property. This is a serene setting, meant for a soothing day in the sun.
"While you can choose to hit the beach at other ports of call, this is your own private beach. You really have complete privacy, and that's what our guests are looking for," Dominici says.
Massages are in high demand here. Also popular are the beach barbecues and the palapa bars that offer refreshments throughout the day.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2007 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.