Caribbean cruises offer access to some of the best spots for sunning and swimming—on an array of legendary and lesser-known islands—but passengers can also enjoy relaxation and adventure on a half-dozen private islands owned by the major cruise lines. In fact, the only way to visit these small, beach-fringed oases in the Bahamas and Belize is to book a cruise that calls on one of them.
All are ideal for a laidback day at the beach, while a few offer waterslides, zip lines, and other thrills that kids, teens, and young-at-heart adults love. Here’s how to enjoy six cruise line private islands—operated by Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Disney, Holland America, Carnival, and MSC—on your next Caribbean cruise.
Perfect Day at CocoCay, Bahamas
Royal Caribbean’s action-packed private island in the Bahamas opened in 2019—and it’s immediately obvious that there’s way more than a beach day on tap for disembarking passengers. Designed with vibrant colors and a theme-park ambience, Perfect Day at CocoCay is a place to enjoy adrenaline-rush thrills or chill out in a luxury overwater cabana. Taking center stage is the tallest waterslide in North America, and nearby is the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean with a hugely popular swim-up bar.
The island features five distinct areas (a sixth, adults-only Hideaway Beach, is slated to open in late 2022). Kids and teens will want to make a beeline for Thrill Waterpark (there’s an admission charge and kids under 14 must be accompanied by a ticketed passenger older than 14), which features twisting waterslides looping from the top of 135-foot Daredevil’s Peak. Also part of the waterpark is Splash Summit, featuring six multi-person waterslides with names like The Twister, Slingshot, and Splash Speedway, plus an Adventure Pool with an obstacle course and the Caribbean’s largest wave pool, which washes up on an umbrella-and-chaise-lined beach.
Splashaway Bay, a splash zone with sprinklers and bucket drops, and Captain Jill’s Galleon, a shipwreck with slides, are great options for younger kids—and both are free. Pool-lovers can head for Oasis Lagoon, a family-friendly free-form pool with a swim-up bar, while those who prefer a saltwater dip can reserve a daybed or cabana on the beach at Chill Island, where snorkel gear and guided Jet Ski tours are available. Watersports are also available on South Beach and the ultimate indulgence—overwater cabanas—can be rented at the upscale Coco Beach Club.
At an extra cost, there’s a 1,600-foot zipline and an Up, Up, and Away Helium Balloon Ride that rises 450 feet and offers a stunning view of the island, ship and vivid blue sea. Perfect Day at CocoCay offers three complimentary places to eat—Snack Shack, Chill Grill and Skipper’s Grill—and four bars (where onboard drinks packages are valid). Those who prefer to just plop down on a complimentary beach chaise on Chill Island or South Beach can do so without paying an extra penny.
Castaway Cay, Bahamas
Disney Cruise Line’s private island delivers that clean, safe, and familiar “happiest place on Earth” vibe with a tropical-beach-day twist. Castaway Cay isn’t a theme park—there’s just one 2,400-sq. ft. floating water play area, Pelican Plunge, featuring two waterslides—but familiar Disney characters do make appearances. The main focus here is on beach time, especially at Castaway Family Beach, which features beach sports and games for kids in the Da Shade Game Pavilion, as well as snorkeling along the Explorer Trail in the aqua-hued Snorkeling Lagoon.
Teens (aged 14-17) can escape to the Teen Hideout Lounge, while couples or singles age 18 and older can opt for adults-only Serenity Bay, where the Castaway Air Bar serves up frozen cocktails and guests can reserve a cabana massage (both at extra cost). Kayaks, paddle boats, stand-up paddle boards, and aqua trikes are available for rental and there are several open-air barbecue dining spots serving complimentary meals. And, of course, there’s shopping for Disney souvenirs with the Castaway Cay logo.
Ocean Cay Marine Reserve, Bahamas
MSC’s new Ocean Cay Marine Reserve is all about the beach—it features two miles of white sand spread over eight beaches (each with its own bar), a fun assortment of complimentary dining options (including food trucks, though the ones serving fresh seafood snacks require an added charge), an on-island spa, a wedding pavilion, and a handful of cute souvenir shops. Just don’t expect a pool.
MSC spent several years converting this former 95-acre industrial island (it was a sand extraction site) located about 20 miles from Bimini into a place dedicated to both fun-in-the-sun and marine conservation and education. The cruise line planted more than 75,000 trees and shrubs and relocated 400 coral colonies so they can grow and repopulate and attract thriving sea life (including sea turtles) and marine bird species. Floats, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and snorkel gear are available for rent and guests can book snorkel, kayak, and dive excursions or climb to the top of the island’s lighthouse for 360-degree views.
There are also cabanas for rent for up to six guests and those in the ship’s exclusive MSC Yacht Club staterooms and suites have their own private beach at Ocean House with cabanas and upscale dining. Many MSC ships don’t depart until after sunset when Ocean Cay glows with a festive Junkanoo Parade and a dazzling LED lighthouse show that guests can enjoy from beach chairs (some beanbag style), a beach bar, or the ship’s balconies.
Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Bahamian Island is 270-acre Great Stirrup Cay and NCL has owned it since 1977. It’s a beach destination for sun lovers on Norwegian, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises who can lounge on its 1,500 feet of white-sand beaches, rent private cabanas, or try a variety of watersports (snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking) or book shore excursions, including Wave Runner tours, parasailing adventures, stingray encounters and swimming with the famous pigs of Treasure Island (all at an extra cost).
There are three restaurants (but only Abaco Taco is complimentary) and four bars (among them a Bacardi Bar and a Patron Bar) as well as two triangle-run ziplines, including the Long Run, which begins with a daring 1,400-foot swoop over the water. Silver Cove, an exclusive retreat area, was added to Great Stirrup Cay in 2019 and features an oceanfront lagoon area with private beach access, beachfront villas, a Mandara Spa, a Moët & Chandon Bar, and the Silver Cove Restaurant and Bar. It’s accessible to any guest who rents a villa or reserves a spa treatment at the on-island Mandara Spa.
Harvest Caye, Belize
Norwegian developed Harvest Caye, its second private island, in 2016. Located off the coast of Placencia in southern Belize, the 75-acre resort-style island serves as a launch pad for both water and land excursions (snorkeling above the Belize Barrier Reef, wildlife-viewing, and visits to Mayan sites) and sister cruise lines Oceania and Regent also call here on select itineraries. All staff on the island are Belizean and the shops selling souvenirs and crafts are all locally owned.
For beach-lovers, there’s seven acres of soft sand with complimentary loungers and umbrellas, along with a saltwater lagoon for watersports (equipment and activities are bookable at an added cost but are complimentary on Regent cruises). Unlike other cruise line private islands, however, there’s no complimentary dining on Harvest Caye. Everyone, even guests on all-inclusive Regent cruises, must pay for food and drinks at the eight on-island dining outlets, including at the swim-up bar located within the 15,000-sq. ft. free-form pool. For an additional charge, guests can also rent one of 15 private poolside cabanas or one of 11 butler-serviced private beachfront villas.
The island is a nesting site for endangered Hawksbill turtles and there’s a small Wildlife Sanctuary housing local reptiles and birds and a butterfly garden where magnificent Blue Morpho butterflies flitter above visitor’s heads. But a highlight for many guests is flying high above the entire island Superman-style from the 136-foot-tall, lighthouse-style “Flighthouse,” which features 3,000 feet of zipline, a ropes course, and suspension bridges.
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Crescent-shaped Half Moon Cay is the largest cruise line private island at 2,400 acres, much of it designated as a nature preserve. It is shared by Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line and offers opportunities to actively appreciate the beauty of land and sea on horseback rides, nature walks, kayak paddles, and stingray encounters (at an added cost).
Known for its two-mile long talc-white beach and tranquil blue lagoon, this Bahamian island doesn’t have adult waterslides or a pool (there is a gentle aquapark for younger kids), but it does offer clamshell daybeds, brightly colored cabanas, and private two-story villas for rent for the ultimate in relaxation. There are “first-come, first-sway” hammocks, too, and a lively bar shaped like a pirate ship.
All guests can enjoy a complimentary buffet lunch at Tropics restaurant (just get there early to avoid missing out on the burgers and fish tacos, especially when two ships are in port). There’s also a Lobster Shack and several beach bar options that cost extra (a drinks package for the island is available), including the cleverly named I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever Bar.