We’ve always been a bit sceptical about the concept of cruise lines having their own private islands. It’s always seemed a bit, well, snobbish. “Yes, we’ll come and visit your island, but we don’t want our passengers mingling with you locals, y’know.” That kind of thing.
It’s one of the reasons we’ve never been attracted to the Caribbean’s tempting array of all-inclusive resorts. Why go somewhere like Jamaica or Antigua and spend all your time closeted away in a beachfront resort that could be absolutely anywhere?
If we’re going to these places, we want to actually see them, not the “10 different restaurants and bars” of one resort, no matter how nice it might be. At least, that’s always been our perception of them, for the most part.
We tended to feel somewhat similar about the whole ‘private island’ thing, too. Until Disney Cruise Line came along in the late 1990s with their little Bahamian idyll. Here was what felt like a genuine microcosm of the Bahamas experience, complete with local vendors, snorkelling and that blissfully chilled beach vibe.
This week’s news that Disney is now looking to build a second Bahamian hideaway – in the south of gorgeous Eleuthera – that fully complies with local sustainable tourism guidelines and appropriately benefits the community of the island has now got us completely re-thinking the whole private beach ethos.
And we can certainly understand why a cruise would be attractive in providing a day with dedicated, exclusive beach facilities that avoid having to use crowded local taxis or buses to get there, and the regular annoyance of vendors that insist on bothering you in mid-tan. One day of totally unencumbered seaside satisfaction is completely understandable, in context.
With that U-turn in mind, we thought we’d list our Top 10 ‘private retreats’ from the various choices now on offer from all the major cruise lines, counting down to No.1:
10. Mahahual, Costa Maya
This purpose-built ‘village’ on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is not owned by any particular line but was constructed purely with cruise visitors in mind, providing a ready-made safe haven of shops, bars, swimming pool and interactive dolphin experience, all just a short walk from the pier. There are other attractions (and the town of Puerto Bravo) nearby, but most visitors stick with the easy-going Mexican vibe that’s right on tap.
9. Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
The Carnival Corporation developed this purpose-designed cruise centre on the north coast of the Dominican Republic in 2015 and it has since been opened to all the Carnival companies, including Holland America, Princess and P&O. It includes a huge pool area, along with attendant restaurants and bars, as well as a dynamic zip-line attraction and a dolphin-swim experience, plus shops and other examples of local culture. Nearby Puerto Plata offers more island experiences.
8. Falmouth, Jamaica
In a bid to make Jamaica’s two regular ports – Ocho Rios and Montego Bay – less congested, the island authorities combined with several cruise lines to create this modern example of a classic Caribbean port in 2011. Built adjacent to the 19th-century town itself, Falmouth cruise centre is a mix of faux-Georgian architecture mixed with proper Jamaican charm and hospitality in its closeted mix of shops, bars and cafes. It’s a short walk to the old town but, again, most people avoid the hassle of the many street vendors by not going beyond Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant with its swim-up pool-bar.
7. Princess Cays, Bahamas
This was one of the first private cruise enclaves to be created back in 1992, and it has long been a popular feature of all Princess Caribbean cruises. It was the first such development to recognise the potential of delightful Eleuthera as a Bahamian paradise, and it remains a template for the typical island beach retreat, with 40 acres of superb sands, water-sports, dining and shopping. Its location at the southern tip of the island effectively puts the rest of elongated Eleuthera out of reach, but it still provides a healthy dose of what makes the island special.
6. Grand Turk Cruise Center, Grand Turk
Carnival’s investment in its own port infrastructure was boosted in 2006 by the opening of this smart self-serving development, which put the Turks and Caicos on the cruise map for the first time. The 13-acre complex is a beach haven of impressive proportions, featuring a portion of gorgeous Governor’s Beach and a massive freeform swimming pool surrounded by the obligatory Margaritaville bar-restaurant, complete with swim-up bar.
5. Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
This is the grand-daddy of them all, the 1977 ‘lightbulb moment’ for the fledgeling Norwegian Cruise Line that established both the desire and the execution for an exclusive beach hideaway that went hand-in-hand with a Bahamas voyage. NCL bought the whole of 268-acre Great Stirrup Cay, in the Berry islands that lie between Freeport and Nassau, the two main ports of call. It was extensively refurbished in 2017 to add an ultra-modern feel to its original beach charms.
4. Cococay, Bahamas
Not to be outdone by one of their 1970s rivals, Royal Caribbean weighed in with a neighbouring island in 1990, turning Little Stirrup Cay into Cococay and making it a popular choice with passengers. In addition to its beach, water-sports and excellent children’s facilities, Cococay is currently having its own water park, freshwater pool, zip line and cabanas built, adding a more upscale edge to the island when the new features open this May.
3. Harvest Caye, Belize
Norwegian Cruise Line raised its private island game in 2016 with this neat partnership with the government of Belize, creating a blissful island outpost for all passengers with NCL, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas on Central American cruises. Its ultra-modern façade highlights a glorious stretch of beach, beachfront villas (for an additional fee, naturally) and huge, free-form pool. Other features include a nature centre, ropes course and thrilling zip-line over the bay. Best of all, ships can actually dock right on the island, meaning you can return there for lunch rather than risk sand in your sandwich!
2. Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Beaches don’t come much more eye-catching, and Bahamian, than the former Little San Salvador Island in the Lucayan archipelago just south of Eleuthera. Holland America bought it in 1997, and the crescent-shaped, two-mile beach is pure manna for the soul. Only about 50 of the 2,400 acres have been developed, meaning it retains much of its natural island ambience that makes for a truly delightful visit, but it is also packed with great activities, including horse-riding, biking and kayaking.
1. Castaway Cay, Bahamas
Disney Cruise Line knew what it was doing when it acquired Gorda Cay on a 99-year lease in 1997 and turned it into their slice of Bahamian bliss. The most important thing was that a full pier was built to allow all Disney’s vessels to dock within a short stroll of the three beaches and other facilities. It provides the ultimate in ease of access as well as a perfectly-maintained slice of island life, with less than half of the Cay developed to ensure a natural feel in addition to the many man-made wonders.
No wonder these private islands are often the most popular port of call on any cruise!
Have you visited a private cruise island? What was your experience and would you do it again? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.