Best cruise line private islands for families
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Private islands provide a relaxing counterpoint to cruise ship itineraries packed with onboard activities, port cities to explore and busy shore excursions. Several of the largest cruise lines own and call on private islands as part of their Caribbean itineraries, including ports in the Bahamas, Haiti and Belize.
On a private island, the extent of your schedule might simply be romping on the white sand beach and swaying in a hammock under a palm tree with a frosty beverage in your hand. Best of all — much of what is available on these private islands might already be included in your cruise fare, which can’t be said of other ports of call, especially since traveling with a family can get pricey.
Some private islands (such as Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay) have recently gotten face-lifts as cruise lines reimagine their islands as playgrounds for all ages, providing a full slate of amenities for adventurers and relaxers alike. Most offer watersports like snorkeling and stand-up paddleboarding, plus a variety of bars and buffets for snacks and drinks throughout the day. You can even rent a private cabana for a more exclusive experience.
Let’s explore seven private islands you can cruise to and help you determine which is the best fit for your next family cruise.
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Castaway Cay, Bahamas
Size: 1,000 acres
Tender or dock: Dock
Tram service: Yes
Shopping: Limited souvenir shops
Since families are Disney Cruise Line’s bread-and-butter customers, you can expect plenty of amenities on this island catering to young and old alike (not to mention frequent appearances by Mickey and the gang). This Cruise Critic Top-Rated Cruise Line Private Island Destination for 2019 has plenty of activities to keep your family occupied during your time in the Caribbean.
There are separate beach spaces for various ages: the Teen Hideout for those 14-17, an adults-only beach, the kid-friendly Castaway Family Beach and the Sports Beach. Kids love careening down the waterslides at Pelican Plunge, a floating playground in the middle of the ocean that features water cannons and splash buckets that dump water on swimmers. The splash pad Spring-a-Leak is a hit with younger guests and less confident swimmers who can play in the refreshing spray of the fountains. All of these water attractions are free to use.
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There is also Scuttle’s Cove, a kid’s club full of youth activities that are overseen by Disney counselors. With a 1,200-square-foot wet deck for water activities and a giant whale-bone excavation site at Monstro’s point, your little one will have plenty to do while you take in the Caribbean sun.
You’ll find two complimentary barbecue buffets on Castaway Cay: Cookies BBQ and Cookies Too BBQ. Like other private islands, guests can book excursions for fishing, snorkeling and parasailing, and there are 20 beach cabanas available by reservation (around $450/day and up). The large island also offers plenty of nature trails for hiking and biking.
Pro tip: Keep an eye out for Goofy in beach attire leading the island line dances.
Best for these families: Die-hard Disney fans will love that the mouse-style fun continues off the ship in Castaway Cay. This is a great destination for families with toddlers and elementary school-aged kids. While some things cost extra (bike rides, snorkels, etc.), you can easily make a whole day of the included food, drinks and fun.
Perfect Day at CocoCay, Bahamas
Owner: Royal Caribbean
Size: 140 acres
Tender or dock: Dock (walk right off the ship)
Tram service: Yes. Leaves every 15 minutes and makes five stops
Shopping: Limited souvenir shopping
Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay made a big splashy announcement when it started rolling out some of the new amenities offered as part of its $200 million “Perfect Day at CocoCay” campaign. The exclusive area called Coco Beach Club is now open, and it has some incredible perks.
Enjoy a private beach cabana with up to eight guests or relax on a floating cabana that has an overwater hammock and your very own slide that eases you into the crystal waters below. If pools are more your thing, chill in the sprawling infinity pool and take in the surrounding views. Access to the cabana area comes with an extra cost.
The island’s fee-based attractions now include the tallest waterslide in North America and the largest wave pool and freshwater pool in the Caribbean. Fees to access the waterpark range from $39 to $74 per half-day and $44 to $99 for a full day, depending on the season. Guests can also soar the skies in a helium balloon or zip line 1,600 feet overhead. The zip line add-on charge ranges from $79 to $139 and the Up, Up and Away balloon costs $39 to $99 per adult; $24 to $64 for children 4 to 12; ages 3 and under are free.
Not a part of the thrill-seeking crowd? Relax on one of the island’s three beaches: South Beach, Coco Beach Club’s beach and Chill Island, or seek out one of the pool areas.
CocoCay’s dining options include Skipper’s Grill and Chill Grill for a complimentary beachside buffet, plus snack shacks and several bars, including a swim-up bar.
Best for these families: Given the latest renovations, this island is ideal for families with school-aged kids to tweens and teens who would appreciate the action-packed waterpark and other attractions.
Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
Owner: Norwegian Cruise Line
Size: 268 acres
Tender or dock: Tender (you’ll need to take a boat to get to the island)
Tram service: Limited — the tram visits the lagoon for guests with villa or spa reservations
Shopping: Souvenir shops, as well as a straw market featuring local artisans
One of the biggest appeals of Great Stirrup Cay is the wildlife: This is an island where you can book an excursion to see stingrays in Stingray City ($79 adults and $59 for children), snorkel through a sunken sculpture garden ($30 adults; $15 children) and even visit Treasure Island to swim with domesticated pigs ($109 adults; $89 children).
You can pull up a chair on one of three beaches: Fiesta Beach, Cabana Beach or Bertram’s Cove and enjoy a complimentary meal at one of three island restaurants. For a more private experience, book a cabana for your group, starting from $299/day.
Best for these families: Great Stirrup Cay is a great island for families with little ones that will happily chill on the beach or in a cabana, or those with older kids who enjoy learning about and interacting with wildlife.
Half Moon Cay
Owner: Carnival, Holland America
Size: 2,400 acres
Tender or dock: Tender
Tram service: Yes, continuous
Shopping: Souvenir shops and straw markets
Half Moon Cay is the largest of all the cruise ship private islands, but it keeps facilities and amenities to a minimum, with most of the island remaining undeveloped. That means passengers can enjoy relaxing on the expansive white sand beach or hiking through three miles of nature trails.
Kids can check out the island’s Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park or playground. The scaled-down waterpark offers a gentle slide and water cannons, while the playground features several pirate ship-shaped play structures with slides and hideouts for little ones. Both are free to use.
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Passengers can book excursions to snorkel in Stingray Cove ($39 per person; must be at least 6 years old) and go horseback riding ($99 per person; must be at least 10 years old). Air-conditioned cabanas can be rented starting from $359/day, and there are also “deluxe two-story beach villas” available starting at $599 per day.
There’s one complimentary buffet restaurant serving lunch as well as a paid restaurant, Lobster Shack, for seafood. On occasion, more than one ship may be calling upon the island, which can lead to larger than normal crowds.
Best for these families: Families with babies and small children will enjoy the relaxed pace and stripped-down amenities of Half Moon Cay.
Harvest Caye, Belize
Owner: Norwegian Cruise Line
Size: 75 acres
Tender or dock: Dock
Tram service: None, but golf cart shuttles transport passengers with mobility issues from dock to shore and there’s a ferry from the island to the mainland
Shopping: A shopping village with both name-brand items and local crafts
With a focus on supporting the local economy, Harvest Caye provides plenty of opportunities to mingle with the locals. Aside from a handful of national brands like Harley Davidson and Del Sol, everything on the island is local — from Belizean shops, restaurants and businesses in the shopping area to native performances and art pieces by local artists. Hardwood exteriors and decorative flora were all sourced domestically, and all venues on the island are staffed by Belizean natives.
Voted the Best New Cruise Port in 2017 by Porthole Magazine, this 75-acre island in southern Belize features numerous activities and excursions to keep a family busy. Snorkel the world’s second-largest barrier reef, swim in the 15,000-square-foot pool with swim-up bar and cascading waterfall, or get active at the saltwater lagoon doing water sports such as stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. There’s even an organic chocolate farm on the island where you can see locals craft chocolate from the pod to a bar.
Join a nature center tour, take in the mainland views from the observation deck in the Flighthouse, lay back and feel the sand in your toes in Harvest Caye’s exclusive 7-acre beach, or relax in luxurious cabanas with air conditioning and private bathrooms.
Hungry cruisers should look for the LandShark Bar & Grill, a dining venue affiliated with Jimmy Buffett.
Cruisers with mobility needs won’t feel out of place thanks to the island’s wheelchair-accessible amenities: shuttles from the dock to the island, special wheelchairs with large tires to use at the beach and lifts for getting into and out of the pool.
Best for these families: Families will find plenty of opportunities to socialize with locals and engage in many island activities from active excursions like paddleboarding to more laid-back cultural activities.
Owner: Royal Caribbean
Size: 260 acres
Tender or dock: Dock
Tram service: Yes
Shopping: An Artisan’s Village features local handicrafts and Haitian goods
Labadee’s claim to fame is its zip line, named Dragon’s Breath — which allegedly holds the world record for being the longest overwater zip line at 2,600 feet long, soaring 500 feet above the beach below ($99 per person; must be at least 48 inches tall and at least 75 pounds — maximum weight is 275 pounds). For even more thrills, check out the alpine coaster Dragon’s Tail (starting from $35.75 per person; minimum age to ride is 5 years old).
Guests can also go snorkeling ($64 and up for adults; $44 and up for children), kayaking ($39.75; must be at least 8 years old) and enjoy other watersports. The island’s Arawak Aqua Park is a floating set of attractions allowing you to climb, jump, trampoline and slide for a fee of $19.75 per person (must be 48 inches tall and at least 7 years old).
There are four beach areas: Adrenaline Beach, Columbus Cove, Nellie’s Beach and Barefoot Beach Club, with rental cabanas/bungalows available (starting at $263/day) or beach chairs and hammocks for free, plus the requisite barbecue lunch buffet.
Best for these families: Families with older, adventure-seeking kids might enjoy the thrilling attractions on Labadee. For the rest, you can’t go wrong with a quiet day at the beach.
Princess Cays, Bahamas
Owner: Princess Cruises
Size: 40 acres
Tender or dock: Tender
Tram service: A motorized cart transports cruisers to cabanas (available upon request)
Shopping: Tropical Treasures boutique for gifts and souvenirs, and local vendors for Bahamian handicrafts and services
Sitting on the southern end of the island of Eleuthera, Princess Cays provides a “private beach party” vibe with a wide range of activities and excursions for the family — all while staying connected. Thanks to Princess Cruises’ MedallionNet Wi-Fi, cruisers can enjoy “the only industry private island to offer connectivity ashore.”
This Cruise Critic Top-Rated Cruise Line Private Island Destination for 2017 and 2018 recently received enhancements to its landscape and infrastructure, refurbished retail and bar areas, and new shore excursions. Good bets are the guided paddle in a clear-bottom kayak in the island’s lagoon, an island biking adventure and an encounter with stingrays where cruisers can feed, touch and hold these sea creatures.
Princess Cays has a designated area for the little ones. Children can enjoy supervised play in Pelican’s Perch, an island adventure-themed play area with a sand playground and replica galleon.
While the children enjoy themselves, adults can relish some quiet time at the Sanctuary, an adults-only area of secluded bungalows ($299.95/day). Opt for a VIP gourmet lunch and enjoy local dishes with a signature/island cocktail as beach, reggae and calypso music sets the mood. Or head to barbecue pavilions for complimentary hot dogs, hamburgers and more. Pair your hearty lunch with drinks from any of the four bars spread throughout the beach. (You can charge these to your shipboard account.)
Of course, there are the typical water sports activities, but if you tire of that or just want to experience something new, try the Junkanoo — traditional Bahamian entertainment with music, costumes and dance — or join excursions to explore Eleuthera’s villages and churches.
Best for these families: Families who want to enjoy private island amenities and activities without disconnecting from the rest of the world.
Whether you’re looking for a laid-back day on the beach or a thrill-packed island adventure, there’s a private island getaway just for you on your next Caribbean cruise. Researching excursions and amenities ahead of time will help you plan your time on the island and make some lasting family memories.
Planning a cruise? These guides will help:
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With additional reporting by Mimi Wright
Featured photo by cworthy/Getty Images
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