When choosing a Caribbean cruise you may well come across some islands you never even knew finished. Princess Cays, Labadee and CocoCay are all examples, and they all have one thing in common; they are used exclusively by the cruise lines who own them. So, forget busy ports, hassling street vendors and uncertain territory, and arrive in style at your own private island instead!
The majority of these islands are far too small for locals to reside in, and therefore have been leased out to the cruise companies, providing an exclusive getaway for cruise passengers and a valuable income for the local governments. The cruise lines have transformed the once "dead land" into their own mini paradise islands.
Typically located in the Bahamas, these islands feature regularly on many Caribbean itineraries. Often reached by tender only, the islands lie uninhabited out in the middle of the ocean, waiting to indulge the lucky passengers who step ashore.
If you are lucky enough to visit a private island as a port of call, the real luxury is having the freedom to make the day as relaxing or as active as you want it to be. Whether floating out across the bluey-green coral reefs takes your fancy, or even parasailing, it's all on offer. Whatever you choose, a day in paradise can be surprisingly tiresome, so a big buffet style beach barbeque usually comes as standard.
Royal Caribbean comes out top in the owners' stake with access to two of its very own islands, Labadee and CocoCay. They are also pretty much the only cruise company to have ownership of an island outside of the Bahamas.
Of all the islands, Labadee is one of the most popular. Situated on the north coast of Hispaniola, Labadee is part of a larger, occupied island, occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Labadee boasts 260 acres of beautiful beaches, exotic foliage and coral reefs bordered by contrasting mountain slopes.
Land is reached by tender (an accessible small ship to transfer you to the shore when waters are shallow) which allows for an impressive and truly unique perspective of the cruise ship. Once ashore, Royal Caribbean has provided an abundance of activities and tours, including, kayaking, parasailing and jet ski hire – allowing guests to take a tour down the coast of the island – or, for the less adventurous, floating beach mats (great for both sunbathing, and floating out to sea on!), snorkeling around the tropical reefs and shopping for beautiful handmade local goods. Kids will be a million miles from boredom with an Aqua Park, featuring trampolines and inflatable slides.
CocoCay is Royals second offering, a small, secluded island situated around 50 miles from Nassau, encompassing 140 acres of Bahamian land. Again reached by tender, the island has recently undergone a huge renovation providing an improved guest experience. As CocoCay is an isolated island, the only people occupying it will be guests from the ship and staff; this creating both a relaxing and safe environment.
CocoCay features much of the same activities as its sister island, including the Aqua Park, jet skis and opportunities to parasail and kayak, but in addition, invites guests to snorkel out to sea to explore both a ship and plane wreck, which is not to be missed – if you are brave enough! To wash away the salt water a must is to sample either a "Coco Loco" or "Labaduzee" one of the islands signature cocktails.
The very first ownership of a private island took place in 1977 when the tiny island, today named Great Stirrup Cay, was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Situated some 120 miles off Fort Lauderdale, this island has an impressive history of visitors including pirates who used the island as a safe haven, and more gallantly, American troops who occupied the island during World War II to defend the eastern shores of the US Today , Norwegian Cruise Lines has transformed the once somber island into one big beach party!
Accessed by tender, this island will offer everything you would expect; a total of 5, varied, white sandy beaches, and crystal clear waters full of tropical fish, but what sets this island away from all the others is that the guests actually have come to party! Fun is the main agenda here, so if you fancy competitive in "Olympic" games or Limbo this is the island for you. The island also boasts volleyball courts and ping-pong tables, and for explorers, snorkelling and paddle boats with viewing areas in the base.
Whatever you choose to do here, it will be set to the sound of the live Calypso band which plays island favorites for listening or dancing to through the day.
Disney puts forward a strong competitor for top private island with Castaway Cay.
The only company to own an island which does not require a tender, here you can walk straight off the ship and into the fun! This combined with paved walkways and a tram service to different parts of the island also makes Castaway Cay the best choice for wheelchair users.
The 1,000 acre island is located 225 miles from Disney's year-round home port of Port Canaveral.
Parts of this island have been developed like no other island has, even featuring its own own post office! Yet Disney has appreciated the natural beauty of the land and has only developed 10% of the whole island.
Most cruise companies can offer a number of beaches on their island, but few can ensure one to really suit everyone's requirements. Castaway Cay has Serenity Bay, a 1 mile stretch of secluded beach reserved for adults only, where guests can indulge in massages in private cabanas overlooking the sea, Teen Beach, the name says it all! Or guests can head down to Castaways Family Beach where everyone is welcome to play in the lagoon, paddle out to sea or partake in organized beach games.
Disney can offer its guests so many options of how to spend their day on the island, including a 12 acre snorkelling site to explore, kayaking, paddle boats and parasailing. For the younger visitors there is a dig site for kids to find fossils and sharks teeth among other treasures, and also a water play area located in the lagoon, just off the family beach.
Holland America is another cruise line in the running for best private island. They own award winning Half Moon Cay, located less than 100 miles southeast of Nassau. Of the total 2,450 acres they own, 2,400 have been left untouched so guests can truly appreciate the beauty of the remote island.
The island features a 9 mile long beach, a wild bird reserve, a beach front bar, air conditioned beachfront cabanas along with shaded hammocks. And whilst the adults are relaxing, the kids can make use of Half Moon Lagoon, an aqua park which also features the Stingray Adventure Program which involves swimming with stingrays. Beach sports, parasailing, nature trails and windsurfing are all other options to fill your day on the island.
Much the same as the other islands? Not when you look at the amazing excursions offered. Horseback Ride 'n Swim excursion will allow guests to explore the island on trails that are accessible only by horseback. During the ride, experienced guides will share insight on Bahamian history, people and culture. The trail will lead guests to a deserted beach where you can enjoy refreshments and can take an unforgetable swim in the sea with the horses.
Although Half Moon Cay is reached by tender, which can sometimes prove difficult for less able guests, the island itself is wheelchair friendly and there is another good choice for those who require this access.
Not to be outdone by its competitors, Princess Cruises puts forward Princess Cays as its little piece of private paradise. Located on the southern tip of Eleuthera Island, 30 miles off Nassau, Princess Cays is 40 acres of fun and relaxation set in truly beautiful surroundings.
Unlike the majority of the other islands, Princess Cays is part of a larger island, and therefore does have neighbouring habitants. (Maybe better referred to as a private beach than private island then! Though a very nice one at that) A range of equipment is available to hire from snorkels, aqua chairs and sea boards to kayaks to aqua bikes for the more adventurous!
Princess Cays is a place where it looks to be more about soaking in the beauty of the island and making use of all the cushioned chairs, tiki huts and hammocks settled between the palm trees than filling your day with water sports.
So, which is the best private island?
Over all, Disney provides an excellent island that caters equally well for families, young children and teens, as well as less able guests and wheelchair users. For those wanting a more "toned down" island, Holland America is also a very strong competitor. Each of the islands has its own unique attractions, but it really comes down to personal choice. And of course, although a fantastic part of your cruise, it is only one day, so other factors may well come higher when choosing which cruise is right for you, ie the cruise line, ship, remaining itinerary and of course the price!
So when you book your next cruise, look out for one of these islands on the itinerary and you can judge for yourself who really owns the best private island!