Six Cruise Lines That Have Their Own Private Islands

disney cruise castaway cay
Photo: Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

With chic staterooms, high-end amenities, and over-the-top service, the only thing many cruise ships are missing is a long sandy beach. To get their fix, many passengers buy day passes to island resorts, where they have to battle it out with registered hotel guests for beach cabanas, umbrellas, and towel space. To remedy that, many cruise lines have purchased or leased private islands. Norwegian started the trend in 1977, when it bought Great Stirrup Cay from Belcher Oil Company. (And it will become the first cruise line with an island in Belize when Harvest Caye debuts off the coast of Placencia this fall.) Other companies with their own isles include Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, and Holland America, which all have outposts in the Bahamas, and Paul Gauguin, which claims a motu in French Polynesia. MSC is set to join the club in December 2017, when it debuts its own Bahamian isle, Ocean Cay. Here's what to expect from a private-island port of call: Ships generally dock in the morning and take off late in the afternoon. For lunch, a beach barbecue is practically a given, and there are generally enough bars to keep thousands of passengers' cups full of rum punch and daiquiris. Water activities are also abundant, as most islands offer snorkeling, kayaking, jet skiing, parasailing, and paddle boarding. As for shopping, while most activities and food can usually be paid for with on-ship cards, straw markets run by local islanders are often cash only—check before you leave the ship. But for many passengers, a day on a private isle is all about the beach. Areas near the tender or pier will often be the most crowded, so ask about more secluded options before you leave the ship. And if the island doesn't have its own pier, you'll want to get a ticket on one of the first tenders. That way you can stake a claim on a primo spot on the sand.

01 of 07

MSC Cruises: Ocean Cay, Bahamas

MSC Ocean Cay
Courtesy of MSC

MSC Cruises is spending $200 million to turn this 95-acre former sand extraction station into a marine reserve and private port of call. Set to welcome ships starting December 2017, Ocean Cay will feature 11,400 feet of white sand, a zip line, inland lagoon, and a wedding pavilion, plus a spa and wellness center for MSC Yacht Club guests. And unlike on other islands, there will be nightlife: MSC is building a 2,000-seat amphitheater for live performances, as well as multiple bars and restaurants. (Ships will dock at a pier, making it easy for passengers to go back to their cabin and change for dinner.)

Insider Tip: The 4,140-passenger MSC Seaside, set to debut in December 2017, will be the first ship to visit the island.

02 of 07

Norwegian Cruise Line: Harvest Caye, Belize

harvest cay
Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Lines

Norwegian’s newest private island is set to open in November of 2016 off the southern coast of Belize. Four ships—Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Escape, and Norwegian Jade will call here on Western Caribbean cruises; sister brands Oceania and Regent Seven Seas also plan to visit on select itineraries. Among the over-the-top draws: a seven-acre beach with 10 private villas, a 15,000-square-foot pool with a swim-up bar, and the 130-foot-tall Flighthouse where guests will find ziplines, free-fall jumps, suspension bridges, and a ropes course.

Insider Tip: The island will serve as a launching pad for excursions to Belize’s mainland, but those who’d rather stay put can still check out some local wildlife at the aviary, which will house toucans, as well as a breed-and-release program for scarlet macaws.

03 of 07

Paul Gauguin Cruises: Motu Mahana, French Polynesia

PG Cruises Tahaa Island
Tim McKenna

The vibe on this tiny private islet, just off the coast of Taha’a, is pure Polynesian. Arriving passengers are greeted with Tahitian singers and dancers known as Les Gaugines, there are pareo-tying and basket-weaving classes, and you can even learn how to make poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk). Still, the real reason to visit these islands is that unfathomably clear turquoise water. Thankfully, there’s a palm-frond-covered floating bar so you can place your drink orders without leaving the sea.

Insider Tip: If you plan on having an overwater spa treatment on Motu Mahana, book yours as soon as you climb onboard the m/s Paul Gauguin—slots go fast.

04 of 07

Royal Caribbean: CocoCay, Bahamas

Aerial Coco Cay - Berry Islands - Bahamas
Michel Verdure

Once called Little Stirrup Cay, this 140-acre island has six bars and four strips of white sand with self-explanatory names like Watersports Beach and Snorkel Beach. (If you want to avoid the crowds, Barefoot Beach is the least hectic of the bunch.) It also lays claim to one of the largest floating aqua parks in the Bahamas, as well as a 40-foot waterslide on the sand.

Insider Tip: Shaded hammocks are in high demand on CocoCay, so claim yours as soon as you get off your tender.

05 of 07

Norwegian Cruise Line: Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

great stirrup cay
Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Lines

Thanks to a recent $25 million spruce-up, guests of this 250-acre outpost in the Berry Islands have access to expanded beach areas, private cabanas, and more bars and restaurants. Expect additional improvements by the spring of 2017 as part of the cruise line’s $400 million Norwegian Edge program, which also includes fleet-wide ship refurbishments and expanded onboard culinary programs.

Insider Tip: Follow the nature trail to the south side of the island to uncover a piece of history: a working lighthouse built in 1863.

06 of 07

Holland America: Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Holland America Half Moon Cay
Courtesy of Holland America

Only two percent of this 2,400-acre islet, located in the Out Islands between Cat Island and Eleuthra, has been developed, but there’s still plenty to explore beyond the two-and-a-half-mile crescent of white sand. Along with the usual activities (jet skis, kayaking), guests can sign up for a beachside massage, go snorkeling with stingrays, and book a horseback ride that includes a dip in the sea. Bonus for birdwatchers: Half Moon Cay is a Wild Bird Reserve, so keep your eyes peeled for bananaquits, shearwaters, and Bahamian pintails.

Insider tip: If you’re traveling with a group, you can throw a beach party for up to 24 at the Private Oasis, a 1,620-square-foot pavilion on a rocky promontory that comes with a hot tub, waterslide, sun deck, showers, butler, and a personal chef.

07 of 07

Disney Cruise Lien: Castaway Cay, Bahamas

disney cruise castaway cay
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

On this 1,000-acre island, there’s plenty to keep little ones occupied, including a floating water slide, water-balloon battles, and of course, character appearances galore. Even the snorkel trail includes a Mickey statue and a replica of the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Those in need of grown-up time, drop the younger kids off for supervised activities at Scuttle’s Cove (children 3 to 12) or Da Shade Game Pavilion (tweens 11 to 13) and make a break for Serenity Bay, the quiet adults-only beach located almost a mile away from the main strip.

Insider tip: If you have a child with a Frozen fixation, take her to Summertime Freeze, a non-alcoholic frozen-drink stand with options like “Let It Go,” and “Olaf’s Flurry Freeze.”

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