8 Top Cruise Line Private Islands and What They Offer

Cruise line private islands rate as some of the top destinations for travelers sailing the Eastern and Western Caribbean and Panama Canal itineraries. Guests love the opportunity to come ashore and relax on the beach or explore the natural beauty of the island — or even partake in theme park thrills such as adrenaline-pumping waterslides, zip lines and helium balloons that soar high in the sky. You can also shop for locally made goods or island-inspired souvenirs, sip a fruity frozen concoction, or splurge on an over-the-top experience in a private beach cabana with butler service and other special amenities.

These on-island experiences include excursions that feature water sports and eco-tours. You’ll also find several dining and bar venues, live entertainment, and even special nighttime events. Clear azure seas, pristine white beaches and brightly colored cottages complete the setting for a magical day in paradise.

What should you know before you arrive?

Some of these private destinations are shared by cruise lines owned by the same parent company, so you may have another ship docked or tendered in port at the same time. And while some aspects may be complimentary — like certain dining venues — many activities and excursions come at an additional cost. You’ll even need to rent water toys, like noodles and floats, and pay for beach loungers while you’re on some islands.

It’s also advisable to plan for your private island day far in advance — including booking your excursions and activities — especially if you’re interested in reserving a private cabana, as they tend to sell out quickly. You’ll want to carry cash and credit cards just in case you can’t charge expenses to your stateroom while on the island, such as for cocktails or other drinks and souvenirs. Keep in mind that some cruise lines allow you to use your beverage package while on shore, but others don’t.

So, if you’re about to set sail in the Caribbean or Central America, here are the eight top cruise line private islands you can visit, from the Bahamas to Haiti and Belize.

[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Harvest Caye, Belize: Norwegian Cruise Line

Situated off the south coast of Belize in Central America, this 75-acre resort-style island opened in 2016. Harvest Caye is owned in partnership by Norwegian Cruise Line and the Belizean government, and it’s the only destination in Belize that can accommodate cruise ship berths. The restaurants and bars on the island are staffed entirely by local residents, as are the shops, which are all Belizean-owned. Harvest Caye also boasts access to the world’s second largest reef complex, the Belize Barrier Reef, which stretches across nearly 190 miles of the 560-mile Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.

The island hosts a wildlife sanctuary that’s under the care of a renowned Belizean naturalist and wildlife expert. Cruise passengers can visit exhibits operated by the Harvest Caye Conservation Foundation that include aviaries with rescued birds of paradise, a butterfly garden and a reptile terrarium. The island also works to protect Belize’s manatee populations alongside the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, and it’s one of a few nesting sites for hawksbill turtles, an endangered species.

While on island time, passengers can grab a spot along the 7-acre white sandy beach or lounge poolside and take a dip for a refreshing cocktail at the swim-up bar. You can also splurge for the day and reserve one of 15 private poolside cabanas that offer lounge chairs and concierge service. For even more perks, the 11 private, air-conditioned villas have lounge and dining areas, beach hammocks, butler service, complimentary Wi-Fi and other amenities.

Guests of the island can also check out the saltwater lagoon for water sports; if you’re seeking aerial adventures, Flighthouse features a zip line, suspension bridges and a ropes course. There’s even a side-by-side zip line, Double Beach Run, where you can race down 1,300 feet while facedown Superman-style. Other Harvest Caye excursions include jungle river rafting, eco-tours, rainforest river tubing, barrier reef snorkeling, catch and release fishing, parasailing, boating and more.

After a morning of sunning and swimming on the beach or engaging in an excursion, stroll through the shops to look for Belizean-made crafts before grabbing a local beer or lunch at one of several restaurants and bars.

As part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises also call on Harvest Caye.

[Want to cruise to Western Caribbean on Norwegian Cruise Lines? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, Bahamas: MSC Cruises

Located on a former sand extraction site 20 miles south of Bimini, Ocean Cay encompasses 64 square miles of safeguarded marine reserve. MSC Cruises commissioned a Rapid Ecological Assessment when creating the island as part of the line’s commitment to the restoration and conservation of marine resources. That REA provided a comprehensive overview enabling the cruise company to understand the conservation needs of the endangered corals, marine habitats and local marine life.

As part of the Lucayan Archipelago, which has several larger islands and hundreds of cays, Ocean Cay features 2 miles of beachfront over eight pristine white sand beaches. This unique island is also home to about 88 species of fish as well as sea turtles, rays, conch and lobster — and since restoration began Ocean Cay has seen an increase in marine life. The island welcomed its first cruise passengers in December 2019.

While on Ocean Cay, guests can explore the entire island with no more than a 20-minute walk or by taking a ride on an electric cart. After a morning of soaking up the sun on the beach or traversing the island, you can dine at the complimentary Seakers Food Court, which features American and family-style classics, or look for the food trucks at various spots around Ocean Cay. For some refreshments, enjoy drinks and snacks along with live music at The Lighthouse Bar, cocktails at the marina at Springer’s Bar, or cold brews and beverages from bars located on the beaches. You can also treat yourself to soft serve ice cream with a variety of toppings at The Smiling Fish.

Other activity options include shopping for island-inspired or Bahamian-made souvenirs, taking advantage of spa treatments at The Spa at Ocean Cay, or booking an excursion. Outings on Ocean Cay feature kayak tours, snorkeling safaris and Champagne sunset cruises. For views from high above, climb the lighthouse and be rewarded with panoramic vistas of the island and glistening turquoise waters.

Guests of the MSC Yacht Club have an exclusive experience while on Ocean Cay. The day begins with your butler escorting you to a vehicle that goes directly to Ocean House Beach on the northwest side of the island. Here travelers get to enjoy a private beach with lounge chairs or reserve a cabana with sunbeds, butler service and Champagne. You can opt to order lunch in your cabana, but if you’d like to chat with other Yacht Club guests, head over to the Ocean House bar and restaurant for lunch with a different view.

MSC’s ships spend the evening at Ocean Cay so passengers have a chance to admire the island sunset and experience a traditional Bahamian parade with colorful costumes, music and dancing inspired by the Bahamian Junkanoo festival. You can also spend the evening stargazing with a guide, using state-of-the-art computerized telescopes that track planets, galaxies and star clusters in the clear nighttime sky.

[Looking to plan a cruise to the Caribbean on MSC Cruises? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Princess Cays, Bahamas: Princess Cruises

Princess Cays has been welcoming cruise passengers since 1992. Composed of around 40 acres on the southern end of Eleuthera, this private island resort has more than 1.5 miles of white sandy beach and is a featured port of call on the line’s Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.

The island underwent enhancements in 2018 that included the addition of MedallionNet Wi-Fi ashore and refurbishments to the retail, shopping and bar venues; some updates were also made to the landscaping and infrastructure. New shore excursions include a Lagoon Clear-Bottom Kayaking Adventure, an Island Bicycle Adventure, and a Stingray Beach Encounter where guests can feed, touch and hold stingrays while learning about the animals from their trainers. Princess Cays has also added a new Davy Jones water sports and rental facility for snorkeling and water gear.

This island resort offers guests a choice of two types of cabanas called bungalows to rent for the day. Both options are located just a short walk to the beach and include waiter service, lounge chairs, water floats and other amenities. You can even arrange for a spa treatment or order a gourmet picnic lunch in the adults-only Sanctuary Bungalows, which are larger and require that guests are a minimum of 18 years old. Both types of bungalows will accommodate up to four patrons.

After you’ve settled in a lounge chair on the beach or into a private cabana, you can explore the natural beauty of the island with excursions such as snorkeling, sailing on a Hobie Wave, a coastal cruise, a banana boat ride and ocean kayaking. When the time comes for dining and imbibing, grab a complimentary buffet lunch at the Grill Crazy BBQ on the northern part of the island or at Sea Breeze Grill, located south close to the tender area. Both spots feature casual fare like burgers, hot dogs, ribs, potato salad and beans. There are also several bars around the island where you can grab a cocktail or a refreshing beverage.

Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises are both owned by Carnival Corporation, so if you’re cruising in the Caribbean with Carnival, you may also have a chance to visit Princess Cays.

[Want to cruise to the Caribbean on Princess Cruises? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Perfect Day at CocoCay, Bahamas: Royal Caribbean International

Opened in the 1980s as a beach getaway exclusively for Royal Caribbean guests, Perfect Day at CocoCay has recently undergone two extensive renovation phases designed to “thrill and chill” its guests. One of these new offerings is at South Beach, where you’ll find active pursuits such as soccer, basketball, paddleboarding, sea kayaking and even zorbing in plastic bubbles. If you prefer a relaxing day ashore, South Beach also has daybeds, tents and bungalows, as well as a floating bar where you can grab a drink to cool off from the Bahamian sun.

The line’s new Coco Beach Club offers an upscale Caribbean experience with over-the-water cabanas along private boardwalks, an infinity pool with in-water loungers, a private restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine and a full bar just for guests of the club. Each floating cabana comes with a hammock, shower, dedicated attendant and private slide into the ocean.

Another highlight is Thrill Waterpark, which boasts the tallest waterslide in North America at 135 feet tall: Daredevil’s Peak. In total there are two towers with 13 thrilling waterslides, including twin drop slides, multiracer slides and a zero-gravity slide that accommodates four people. If that’s not enough, the family-friendly Adventure Pool features an interactive obstacle course — and the Wave Pool is the largest of its kind in the Caribbean.

Check out other CocoCay activities such as Splashaway Bay, another exciting water park; a 1,600-foot-long zip line that flies you across the island; and Oasis Lagoon, the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, complete with a swim-up bar and in-water loungers. There are plenty of options for dining, too. You can grab lunch on the beach at Chill Grill, dine harborside at Captain Jacks, sample casual fare at Skipper’s Grill or grab a bite at one of the Snack Shacks on the island.

Before heading back to the ship, be sure to catch a ride high in the sky on Up, Up and Away. This attraction — the highest vantage point in the Bahamas — takes guests 450 feet up in the air in a helium balloon, which offers panoramic views of CocoCay and the surrounding blue-green waters.

[Looking to plan a cruise to the Caribbean on Royal Caribbean International? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Castaway Cay, Bahamas: Disney Cruise Line

Guests of the 1,000-acre Castaway Cay can easily access the island throughout the day as the ship docks directly at the port. You can swim through the 22-acre snorkeling lagoon and its trails to spot sea life alongside sunken treasures — such as a submarine inspired by “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or a Mickey Mouse statue — or rent water cycles, paddleboards, kayaks and sailboats. For an educational experience, Castaway Ray’s Stingray Adventure offers up-close encounters with stingrays for guests 5 years of age and older.

For more wet and wild island fun, check out Pelican Plunge for a floating platform with water cannons, slides and more, or freshwater jets will cool you down at the water play area Spring-A-Leak. You can also stay fit — and burn off some of those calories from the ship’s buffet — by signing up to walk or run in the Castaway Cay 5K, a fun event offered each cruise. The race is also a great way to explore the island. When you’re ready to kick back and take it easy, settle in at Castaway Family Beach to make use of its chairs, hammocks and umbrellas, or you can reserve one of the private cabanas along the far side of the beach. Of course, you can also expect to run into Mickey, Minnie and a host of other Disney characters during your visit.

For those aged 18 and older, Serenity Bay is an area reserved for adults only. Here you’ll be able to lounge on the beach underneath swaying palm trees or relax in a premium private cabana. You can also book a therapeutic massage or take a yoga class. When it’s time for lunch, the Castaway Air Bar serves up a lunch buffet with Bahamian specialty drinks, cocktails and beer.

Other dining venues around the island include all-you-care-to-eat lunch buffets at Cookie’s BBQ and Cookie’s Too. For an afternoon treat, check out Summertime Freeze: Inspired by Olaf and the animated Disney movie “Frozen,” this beverage spot serves up frosty nonalcoholic specialties with names like “Olaf’s Flurry Freeze” and “Sven’s Carrot Delight.”

[Want to cruise to the Caribbean on Disney Cruise Line? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas: Holland America Line

This historic crescent-shaped island, located between Eleuthera and Cat Island in the Bahamas, is officially known as Little San Salvador. Only 65 acres on the western side of the island (about 3%) have been developed for cruise passengers. The rest of Half Moon Cay is mostly wilderness, with 7 miles of shoreline, mangroves, a natural inland saltwater lagoon, an old-growth forest and thick vegetation. Many species of birds flourish on the island, and you’ll find breeding grounds for sharks, turtles and bonefish in the lagoon at the center of Half Moon Cay, which you can bike to or explore by boat or kayak.

After arriving via tender, guests of Half Moon Cay will find a 2-mile-long powdery white sand beach and a rugged coastline beyond. You can relax on the sand once ashore or go snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, sailing on a Hobie catamaran or sunfish sailboat, kayaking, or paddleboarding. If you want to splurge for the day, reserve a private cabana that features air conditioning, a table and chairs, snacks and beverages, misting fans, floating mats and more. You can even upgrade to a two-story cabana that includes butler service and a hot tub and accommodates up to 12 guests.

Other highlights include shopping at the island market for Bahamian-made souvenirs and ocean-themed jewelry as well as locally sourced clamshells with natural pearls. Kids will enjoy the island-themed aqua park complete with a pirate ship that sprays water from its cannons. There are also excursions like the Stingray Adventure at Stingray Cove, where you can interact with these fascinating marine animals, or a horseback ride to Half Moon Cay’s highest point, which ends with a jaunt in the shallow turquoise waters along the beach. Another activity option is an eco-tour by bike that includes a hike to explore parts of the 2,400-acre island.

After all of the activities, you’ll be ready to dine on casual bites at the open-air Food Pavilion or enjoy a beach barbecue at the Tropics Restaurant. For a real treat, feast on Caribbean-style grilled spiny lobster at the Lobster Shack. And before heading back out to sea, say farewell to the island with a Bahama Mama at the bar called I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever.

If you’re planning a destination wedding, you can even get married — or renew your vows — at the island’s chapel.

Holland America Line is owned by Carnival Corporation, so Carnival Cruise Line ships also call on Half Moon Cay.

[Looking to plan a cruise to the Caribbean on Holland America Line? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas: Norwegian Cruise Line

This more than 250-acre private island escape is nestled in the northern end of the Berry Islands chain in the Bahamas. Norwegian Cruise Line acquired Great Stirrup Cay in the 1970s as one of the first such ventures in the cruise industry. The resort-style island, which is a featured stop on itineraries offered by Norwegian, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, recently underwent a major refurbishment project that included the addition of villas and a private lagoon.

Great Stirrup Cay boasts three white sand beaches, including Bertram Beach, which is the first stretch of sand you’ll see when you arrive. Here you’ll find complimentary loungers and hammocks, but this main beach does get busy — especially if more than one cruise ship is visiting the island — so it’s best to arrive early. The quieter Fiesta Beach is furthest from the pier, and Cabana Beach in the middle features private cabanas, but you can also opt to hang out on the beach in the free chairs.

For the ultimate in relaxation and privacy, reserve one of the new villas at Silver Cove. Each luxurious villa includes amenities like on-demand movies, access to a complimentary buffet, a private restroom, air conditioning and a retractable glass wall that offers incredible views of the exclusive beaches. This area is where you’ll also find the Mandara Spa.

When you’re ready for adventure, you can head over to Treasure Island by boat to swim with the pigs or go zip lining, snorkeling, parasailing or touring on a WaveRunner. If you prefer to stay on land, take the trail to visit the old lighthouse on Great Stirrup Cay or play a round of volleyball with fellow cruisers. Kids will enjoy cooling off in the aqua park.

Dining venues here include Abaco Taco, where you can create your own taco; Tropic Like It’s Hot, a food truck concept; and Jumbey Beach Grill, where you’ll find burgers and cold brews. The island also has several bars, including the Patron Bar, which serves up classic margaritas made with Patrón tequila.

[Want to cruise to the Caribbean on Norwegian Cruise Line? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Labadee, Haiti: Royal Caribbean International

Located on Haiti’s northern coast, this 260-acre idyllic escape opened to Royal Caribbean cruise passengers in 1986. This island destination offers guests coral reefs, jungle-covered hilltops, lagoon-like bays and five pristine beaches to explore. While visiting Labadee, you can experience adventure activities, learn about Haiti’s history on a guided walking tour or view the abundant marine life by snorkeling.

To relax while ashore, take a day to chill out on one of the picturesque stretches of sand, like Columbus Cove, which is filled with water toys and an aqua park, or the more secluded Adrenaline Beach. If you want to splurge on a romantic hideaway for the day, you can rent a cabana that hangs over the water on the hillside at Nellie’s Beach, complete with lounge chairs, floating mats and a cabin attendant.

You can also take excursions to other beaches. A catamaran ride will transport you to Malfini, a remote beach where you can spend your time kayaking or swimming, then head to the Canoe Bar for the signature Malfini Punch, a rum drink served up in a coconut. Another option is the Sandbar Island Getaway for a cruise through Haiti’s reefs to a sandbank surrounded by ocean.

Lovers of adventure will want to head to the mountaintop for a ride on the alpine Dragon’s Tail Coaster. The thrilling descent begins with panoramic views of Labadee from 680 feet above the coastline atop Santa Maria’s lookout mountain. On the way down you’ll reach speeds of 30 miles per hour and zip through 360-degree twists and turns. Be sure to also check out the zip line and Superman-style flight line that both let you soar a half mile over the water.

When you get hungry, you have a choice of three cafes serving a complimentary lunch buffet, and don’t miss stopping at Adrenaline Beach’s Floating Bar to try its signature Labadoozie, a frozen concoction made with two types of rum, tropical juices and cream of coconut. Before climbing back on the ship, you’ll want a souvenir to remember your day in Labadee, so head over to Artisan’s Village for handmade crafts by local artists.

During your visit, you may also see a ship from Celebrity Cruises, as that line is part of Royal Caribbean Group.

[Looking to plan a cruise to the southern Caribbean on Royal Caribbean International? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

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