Cruise lines are enhancing their private island amenities and their passengers are winning

Erica Lamberg
Special to USA TODAY

Private islands continue to be very popular attractions on Caribbean itineraries for most major cruise lines. While in port, guests disembark to a beach paradise where they can enjoy the sun and sand for no additional cost, or they can splurge on curated excursions or luxe experiences. 

“Either way, the cruise line has almost full control – save for the weather – of this branded experience, meaning that they have the most to gain or lose from a cruiser’s experience. If the trend of recent investment is any indication, they are not looking to miss out on these islands of opportunity,” says Brittany Chrusciel, Cruise Critic’s destinations editor.

She says that private islands are about creating a one-of-a-kind experience for cruisers that in some cases is an extension of the ship – something more in demand now than ever before.

Located on Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at Coco Cay, Devil's Tower is home to eight waterslides, including the 135-foot Devil's Tower, the tallest  in North America.

Superlatives like "the tallest waterslide in North America" on Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay are brag-worthy and play well into social media. Other experiences, like Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, are a reflection of growing environmental conservation and sustainability concerns.

And exclusive enclaves, like the Silver Cove experience on Norwegian Cruise line’s Great Stirrup Cay, give passengers the chance to upgrade their private island experience – similar to luxe suite complexes onboard,” Chrusciel adds.

Three cruise line leaders have created recent stand-out experiences on their private islands, and luckily, none of the sites was significantly damaged by Hurricane Dorian in September.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian's Great Stirrup Cay, located in the Bahamas’ Berry Islands chain, is the OG private island. Purchased in 1977, it was the first private island in the cruise industry and completed in 2014. The 270-acre oasis offers white-sand beaches and blue waters in an authentic Bahamian atmosphere, as well as an abundance of activities and dining options.

In 2017, Great Stirrup Cay received several enhancements as part of the cruise line's Norwegian Edge refurbishment program, including new dining venues, upgraded oceanfront bars and enhanced beach cabanas. And 2019 saw the launch of Silver Cove, offering guests an exclusive private retreat.

Guests staying in its villas can explore a new oceanfront lagoon area including private beach access, a Mandara Spa as well as a new Moet Bar and the Silver Cove Restaurant and Bar.

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The living rooms in Silver Cove's two-bedroom family villas offer a panoramic view of the beach.

The Villas at Silver Cove provide guests with the same experience available across the 17-ship fleet – but on land. Its 38 air-conditioned villas are offered in studio, one-bedroom or two-bedroom configurations. Inside each, you'll find a full, private bathroom, daybed, club chairs  and TV with on-demand entertainment. A beach umbrella and lounge chairs are also provided.

Six one-bedroom villas include an expanded living area with a wet bar and a private king-bedded master bedroom. A pair of two-bedroom family suite villas also feature a private dining area, entertainment area and a larger master bedroom with a separate soaking tub and shower.

In total, the island boasts 1,500 feet of accessible beachfront; over 50 cabana and villa options,  close to a dozen dining and beverage options and a variety of shore activities, including a new, 3,000-foot zipline.

Royal Caribbean

In May 2019, Royal Caribbean International opened Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas, the first in a planned series of private island destinations. Following a $200 million transformation, this island located west of Norwegian's Great Stirrup Cay, offers travelers chills and thills, including Thrill Waterpark with 13 slides, including Daredevil’s Peak – the tallest waterslide in North America; Up, Up and Away, a helium balloon that floats up to 450 feet in the air; and Oasis Lagoon, the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool. For those who prefer real beaches to pools, there's Chill Island.

On Jan. 31, the brand will open the exclusive Coco Beach Club at Perfect Day at CocoCay. The private, premium area includes floating cabanas, each with its own waterslide, overwater hammock, shower and cabana concierge. The area will also have beach cabanas, plus a clubhouse and deck with an exclusive dining venue serving freshly made Mediterranean fare, along with additional beachside cabanas and daybeds.

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Coco Beach Club's floating cabanas can accommodate up to eight guests and feature hammocks, waterslides and freshwater showers.

Coco Beach day passes are available, offering access to the exclusive private beach, the clubhouse, the infinity pool, beach chairs and towels, and complimentary dining at the Coco Beach Club restaurant. Also opening in late January is South Beach, an all-new beach area on Coco Cay with sports courts (volleyball, basketball, etc.), water adventure (snorkeling, paddle boards, kayaks), cabanas and a Snack Shack.

MSC Cruises

On MSC's Ocean Cay, guests can enjoy 2 miles of pristine, white-sand beach spread across eight separate beaches throughout the island.

MSC Cruises' new private Bahamian destination, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, part of the Bimini island chain, just debuted in December, making 2020 the first full year the island's been open to guests. Once an industrial sand extraction site, Ocean Cay is now a flourishing marine reserve and private island destination. 

Ocean Cay's 30 shore excursions are designed to discover the marine life up close such as snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and other water sports. Guests can also enjoy eight distinct beaches, including Family Lagoon Beach, featuring a shallow-water area for small children, or get a beachside massage from the spa staff. When hunger hits, there are a variety of food and drink options, including a buffet, food truck options and multiple bars throughout the island.

MSC ships dock at Ocean Cay throughout the day and evening.

With the ship docking right on the island, until late in the evening, guests can easily move on and off the ship to enjoy day and night activities, including stargazing, an evening light show at the lighthouse and a traditional Junkanoo parade at night. Guests will also have an opportunity to learn about and connect with nature, including activities to learn about ocean preservation and MSC Cruises’ coral restoration efforts surrounding the island.