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Private islands: Cruise lines provide pleasing privacy

Posted September 3, 2008

When it comes to different ports of call around the world, perhaps none are more unique than the so-called "private islands" that many cruise lines have developed over the years. These pleasingly private oasis have become a very popular addition to itineraries, with passengers enjoying their "own" beach, activities from para-sailing to ocean-side cabana massages and dining.

Without a town or typical shore excursions, it's somewhat like bringing the cruise ship experience ashore – obviously appealing to lots of veteran and first-time cruisers.

With line-specific variations, the general concept and experience with private islands is similar. Calls are generally around eight hours in length, and ships typically anchor offshore and tender to the island. Once ashore, passengers enjoy beaches, activities, entertainment, bars and dining, with cruise line staff basically transporting the ship's services onto the island. Bar and shopping expenses can normally be charged to shipboard accounts. Island facilities are generally handicapped-accessible and typically include trams for transportation, paved pathways and wheelchairs with umbrellas and balloon tires for use on the sand.

The concept of private island experiences actually began with Norwegian Cruise Line back in the late 1970s. The line's purchase and development of the Bahamian island of Great Stirrup Cay created a stir in the cruise industry that still has ripple-effects.

Great Stirrup Cay

As with most private islands that would follow, Great Stirrup Cay offers white sand beaches, majestic palms and other tropical vegetation and calm, crystal-clear waters with an abundance of marine life inhabiting surrounding colorful coral reefs. In 1988, Norwegian Cruise Line made additional major improvements to the island, including a new "Dive-In" watersports center.

The facilities of Great Stirrup Cay include a main bar and smaller bar; an island barbecue of chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as pizza, salads, fruits, all cooked and served buffet-style; a Calypso band from the ship that plays island tunes and classic favorites; a massage hut just off the beach; a low-key "straw market"; full restroom facilities; and 1,000 beach chairs, 800 umbrellas and lots of hammocks for an afternoon snooze in the shade.

Private islands generally feature popular watersports options, and Great Stirrup Cay doesn't disappoint Norwegian Cruise Line's generally active passengers. The possibilities include an excellent snorkeling program, paddle boats, boogie boards with viewing windows, 10-person banana boats, floats, sailboats, kayaks and para-sailing. Of course, most of these activities involve rental or participation fees. Free activities include sand volleyball, ping-pong, walking paths and an array of "Olympic" competitions where passengers compete for prizes.

The continued success with Great Stirrup Cay led to the development of many more options. Major players like Princess, Holland America, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Regent Seven Seas all joined the private island party, much to the delight of many cruise ship passengers.

Princess Cays, Half Moon Cay

Since 1992, Princess passengers have enjoyed the private paradise called Princess Cays. Situated on the southern tip of the lightly populated Bahamian island of Eleuthera, the 40-acre complex includes a pristine 1½-mile beach, three bars, a tasty beach-side barbecue lunch at two pavilions and shopping at Tropical Treasures.

Watersports at Princess Cays is typical of private-island offerings, with sailboats, catamarans, paddleboats, kayaks, banana boats, snorkeling and scuba diving all in the watery mix. At the beach, reggae and calypso music set the mood for relaxation, with lots of beach chairs, umbrellas and palm-protected hammocks providing perfectly private spots. Children head to Pelican's Perch, a supervised play area complete with a replica galleon and a sand playground.

Holland America's very popular Half Moon Cay debuted in late-1997 to rave reviews that have continued for more than a decade. The 65-acre complex was built on the 2,400-acre uninhabited Bahamian island of Little San Salvador, which is located less than 100 miles southeast of Nassau.

This private island experience features facilities aligned in a linear format of three distinct areas: the Landing and Welcome Center, the Bahamian Village and the Tropics Restaurant. Passengers arrive at the Fort San Salvador Welcome Center by ship tenders, where there's an information booth, restrooms, bar, Bahamian straw market, air-conditioned shopping, ice cream shop, post office, first aid station and a tram stop. Well-marked walking paths also lead to the beach, watersports center and food service.

The Bahamian Village includes shops and lots of facilities, with a Bahamian-style chapel a popular spot for weddings and renewal of vows ceremonies. The Tropics Restaurant operates a huge buffet-style operation, with 15 open-air dining shelters.

Full-service bars are located throughout the island, including the "I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever" bar at the main beach, the "Half Moon Saloon" at the popular Lagoon Aqua Park and a quiet bar situated on the interior lagoon at Stingray Cove.

There are three watersports centers on the island, with two at the beach and one at the lagoon. There's lots of beach and watersports gear rentals, as well as a children's playground, volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard and horseshoes. The large beach also features 15 200-square-foot private-beach cabanas that accommodate four comfortably, as well as two air-conditioned cabanas for massages.

As part of Holland America's $225 million "Signature of Excellent" initiative, the line added many activities and features to the Half Moon Cay experience, including horseback riding, stingray adventures, bike tours and the Half Moon Lagoon aqua park experience.

Most recently, Holland America came up with a new private island concept. Its over-the-water 1,620-square-foot "Private Oasis" was built to accommodate groups of up to 25 people seeking a one-of-a-kind experience on Half Moon Cay. Features include a full wet bar and refrigerator, an iPod music system, a massage table, an indoor teak dining table with seating for six, men's and women's changing rooms, indoor and outdoor showers, outdoor teak lounges and bar stools accommodating 12, a large covered deck with an eight-person hot tub and a water slide.

Castaway Cay

As can be expected, Disney Cruise Line did things a little differently when it came to opening its private island concept back in 1998. Disney Imagineers developed the island, Castaway Cay, much like the line's two ships – Disney Wonder and Disney Magic – with activities and areas for every age group.

Activities for the entire family include a huge family beach area with lots of lounge chairs and hammocks, a lagoon with a water-based jungle gym, watersports including a snorkeling trail that features a submarine from Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," walking and kayaking tours and a new "Stingray Adventure" program for ages 5 and up.

Children ages 3-17 have options designed specifically for them, including various water-based games for different age groups, the "Search for Atlantis" quest for special crystals and a "Wild Side" excursion of snorkeling, biking, and kayaking especially for teens.

One of the most popular Castaway Cay attractions is actually adults-only. Located almost a mile from the main family beach, Serenity Beach is an exclusive stretch of sand just for adults. Highlights include lots of beach space, massage cabanas and even a separate bar and lunch buffet just for kids at heart.

CocoCay, Labadee, Motu Mahana

Royal Caribbean is the only line with two private islands for their passengers. The first is CocoCay, which is a 140-acre island in the Berry Islands of The Bahamas – between Nassau and Freeport. Once known as Little Styrup Cay, the island is now an exclusive oasis for lucky cruise ship passengers.

CocoCay features three sandy beaches, lots of palm-shaded hammocks, a nature trail, a straw market, several bars and buffet dining. In keeping with Royal Caribbean's reputation as a cruise line for active people, there are lots of recreational opportunities. These include personal watercraft, para-sailing, banana boats, paddleboats, kayaking, a glass-bottom boat and scuba diving and snorkeling programs. The island's Caylana's Aqua Park is particularly popular with kids, including a unique floating sand castle.

Royal Caribbean's Labadee isn't technically a private island, since it's located on a wooded peninsula about six miles from Cap Haitien on the mountainous and secluded northern coast of Haiti. Labadee includes five beaches, hammocks, nature trails, open-air dining and bars, Haitian folkloric shows, a historic site called Nellie's Place, a native marketplace and some secluded coves for those who really want to get away from it all. Various watersports and the Arawak Aqua Park are augmented by the Dragon's Flight Zip Line, which runs 4,000 feet over the water of Dragon's Tail Beach.

The upscale line of Regent Sevens Seas Cruises took private islands to another level when it opened the "islet" Motu Mahana in French Polynesia. Enclosed in a common lagoon with Raiatea and accessible only by boat, the island of Taha'a is the only one in the Society Islands that can be completely circled by ship inside the protected lagoon. Among a band of islets on the reef that surrounds Taha'a is Regent's Motu Mahana.

The Regent private island experience extends the luxurious amenities found onboard. The possibilities along the powdery white volcanic sand beach include a beach-side barbecue lunch, a floating bar, watersports like snorkeling and kayaking, massages and performances by the Gaugines, a troupe that combines Polynesian storytelling and dancing. Motu Mahana is a purely Polynesian take on the private island experience that had become so popular in the Caribbean.

Given all of these varied options, it's easy to see why cruises that feature a private island experience are so popular. Privacy can certainly be pleasing.

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