A guide to cruise line private islands: What they are and what you can expect

Mar 21, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

What is a private island? Perhaps you’re having visions of relaxing on a secluded beach, cocktail in hand, without another person in sight. That might be true in some cases. But, when you’re on a cruise, private islands are only private in the sense that they’re exclusive to passengers on ships that call there.

If you’re looking at a Caribbean or Bahamas itinerary and see a listing for an unfamiliar port — such as Great Stirrup Cay, Half Moon Cay or Perfect Day at CocoCay — it could be a cruise-line-owned or -operated private island.

For more cruise guides, news and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.

Most major cruise lines either have their own private islands or share one with other brands under the same corporate umbrella. (The only one that doesn’t is Celebrity Cruises.) Some of the islands are owned by the lines that visit them, while others are leased by the lines from the countries that own them.

The main function of these oases, most of which are located in the Bahamas, is to provide cruisers with a relaxing and exclusive experience that’s clean, contained and carefully quality-controlled.

If you’re looking for more information about the private island experience, as well as a list of these private islands, which lines operate them and what you can expect when you call there, you’ve come to the right place.

In This Post

Pros and cons of cruise line private islands

A villa on Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private Bahamian island. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

If you love a good beach day, you’ll likely be a fan of cruise line private islands. In most cases, the beach (or beaches) is the central attraction of the private island. Most activities center on sunning and swimming, water sports or other outdoor pursuits.

All cruise line private islands feature alfresco bars, souvenir shops and beach equipment rentals. Some islands also offer amusements like zip lines and water parks, kiddie play areas and rental cabanas of varying levels of luxury. Available shore excursions may include options like swimming with stingrays, jet ski rides and snorkeling.

Lunch is included on almost all private islands, usually in the form of a barbecue buffet. For purchases, most islands accept cruise cards as payment, which will add charges for things like alcohol to your onboard account (so you don’t need to bring cash).

Bathrooms and outdoor showers for washing off sand are conveniently located.

But don’t set your standards too high for your private island escape. The islands are small and can get crowded. That’s especially true if you’re on a megaship or if there are multiple ships calling on the same day. If you can’t hack it in the sun all day, there isn’t as much else to do compared to calling on a port that’s open to the public.

Although the somewhat sheltered vibe is nice when you just want a day at the beach, it also means your time ashore is likely to be devoid of cultural immersion. Excursions and souvenirs are limited. If you prefer to visit populated islands and engage with the people who live there, a private island may feel like a wasted port day on your itinerary.

Also, while more than half of the industry’s private islands have docks, the rest require ships to anchor nearby and shuttle passengers back and forth from ship to shore. Be prepared for queues if you want to get off the ship right away; the lengthy process can detract from the time you’re able to spend enjoying the port. Tender boats are not always accessible to travelers with mobility difficulties.

Private islands are a cruise fan favorite and are stops on the majority of Bahamas and Caribbean itineraries. Set your expectations correctly and you’re sure to have a relaxing day on the beach.

Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line)

Goofy with a young passenger on Disney Cruise Line’s private island, Castaway Cay. (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

This private island, owned by Disney Cruise Line, spans about 1,000 acres in the Bahamas. On a visit there, passengers can take a free tram from the dock to one of three stops that provide access to the kids area, family beach, waterslides and the adults-only area. Castaway Cay is also walkable.

Cruisers can choose to go back on board to have lunch, or they can snag a free barbecue meal at one of two buffets on shore.

Shore excursions are available, including paddleboating and personal watercraft tours. Rentals are also available for snorkeling gear, water floats and bicycles. If you’re an active traveler, try biking the loop to the island’s lookout point or signing up for the Castaway Cay 5K run; every participant earns a medal.

Related: Visiting a cruise line’s private island? Don’t make these 11 mistakes

Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian Cruise Line)

Cruisers on a kayak shore excursion at Great Stirrup Cay, one of Norwegian Cruise Line’s private islands. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Great Stirrup Cay, which is owned and operated by NCL, is a tender port that stretches across 250 acres in the Bahamas, about 140 miles east of Miami.

It offers plenty of beach areas with loungers, including a family beach area, as well as private beach villas for cruisers booked in Norwegian’s The Haven. There’s also a zip line.

The island’s free buffets offer a selection of food at lunchtime, including hot dogs and hamburgers, pizza, fruit and desserts, as well as drinks.

Half Moon Cay (Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line)

Lunch from The Lobster Shack on Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island, with Rotterdam visible in the background. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Half Moon Cay — located in the Bahamas, about 100 miles southeast of Nassau — is owned by Carnival Corporation and plays host to both Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America ships.

Although offerings are similar, there are some nuances depending on which line is in port on a given day. For example, when Holland America is anchored, drink packages are available on shore, private cabana and villa rentals are more expensive, and passengers can opt for a seafood lunch from The Lobster Shack. (The island is a tender port that can accommodate up to two ships at a time, but there will never be a day when one is a Holland America ship and one is Carnival.)

Water sports rentals and shore excursions such as horseback riding, snorkeling and biking/hiking tours are available for booking. For anyone wanting a lazy beach day, Half Moon Cay boasts 2.5 miles of white sand for lounging and sunbathing. There are also children’s areas for the kids to splash and play.

Harvest Caye (Norwegian Cruise Line)

A passenger tries the zip line on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Harvest Caye, Norwegian’s second private island, opened in 2016, providing a plethora of outdoor activities for visitors.

Found just a few miles offshore from Placencia, Belize, the 75-acre property offers both a beach with loungers and private villas, and a lagoon pool with a swim-up bar, lounge chairs and private cabanas. The island also features shops selling local wares, a zip line, a lighthouse that you can climb, a kids splash park and a wildlife sanctuary that includes birds, butterflies and snakes. Shore excursions include options like parasailing and kayaking.

Unlike most other private islands, Harvest Caye doesn’t offer any free food options on shore. Passengers will find an outpost of Jimmy Buffett-affiliated LandShark Bar & Grill, but all the food and drinks come with a fee, and you can’t pay with your cruise card. Anyone not wishing to spend the extra cash can head back to the ship for a meal.

Ocean Cay Marine Reserve (MSC Cruises)

MSC Seashore docked at private island Ocean Cay in the Bahamas. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

MSC Cruises gave Ocean Cay Marine Reserve a total makeover after it purchased the island from the Bahamian government. What, for years, had been a manmade industrial wasteland about 20 miles south of Bimini is now an island teeming with new plant life and clean beaches. That includes two beach areas for families, complete with shallow water and a floating submarine attraction.

Even with all the construction, the space still feels natural and untouched — a far cry from some of the more gimmicky private islands operated by other cruise lines.

Ocean Cay is outfitted with a dock, which eliminates the need for tendering. Shore excursions are available, and free eats are served at the island’s food court buffet. If you’d like to branch out a bit, try something from one of the multiple food trucks or the Lighthouse Bar (for an extra fee).

On sailings where the ship stays late into the night, you won’t want to miss the lighthouse light show and beach party. Trust me when I say it’s the highlight of a call there.

Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean)

Freedom of the Seas
Freedom of the Seas docked at Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island, which has the tallest waterslide in North America. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Royal Caribbean‘s Perfect Day at CocoCay (formerly just CocoCay) in the Bahamas recently underwent a massive expansion that added several free eateries, bars for added-fee drinks, exclusive villa and beach club areas, and stands selling souvenirs and treats like funnel cakes.

In addition to the beaches that are open to all passengers, the cruise line private island boasts a massive water park that’s ideal for families, complete with a wave pool and several waterslides — including the tallest one in North America.

A tram will take you wherever you’d like to go on the massive 125-acre island, which now features a dock so tendering is no longer required. Despite the enviable vistas afforded by the multiple beaches and pools, some of the best views can be had from a ride on a tethered helium balloon that will take you 450 feet up in the air.

Related: How to visit Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay on zero dollars

Princess Cays (Princess Cruises)

Sand bikes parked on the beach at Princess Cays, Princess Cruises’ private island. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

The tender island of Princess Cays, found on Eleuthera in the Bahamas (about 70 miles from Nassau), covers 40 acres and is operated by Princess Cruises.

In addition to a half-mile of sandy beaches with loungers and umbrellas, cruisers can enjoy private clamshells and bungalows for rent, as well as a free beach barbecue. Walkways make it easy for visitors to meander from one area to another, and excursions abound, including stingray encounters, banana boat rides and fishing, among other pursuits.

The destination also houses a selection of shops, water sports rentals and bars for enjoying a cold adult beverage or two. If you’d like to drink those beverages in peace, you can drop your children in at the small, supervised kids club area, which offers a playground and a wading pool.

Other tailored shoreside cruise experiences

The Beach Club at Bimini, a private experience for passengers on Virgin Voyages cruises. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

Private islands aren’t the only ways cruise lines offer curated experiences to their passengers on shore. Several brands have developed private areas within larger destinations.

For example, Virgin Voyages developed the Beach Club at Bimini in the Bahamas in partnership with Resorts World. When a Virgin ship is docked, its passengers have exclusive use of the Beach Club. Passengers who visit with other cruise lines can purchase day passes as long as a Virgin ship isn’t in port.

Royal Caribbean exclusively uses Labadee, a beach area in Haiti, as a private location reserved for its passengers only. Because Labadee occupies only part of an inhabited island, access to the island is not exclusive to Royal Caribbean passengers, but access to the Labadee area is.

Although MSC Cruises initially spruced up Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas area, it is also used by other cruise lines. The same goes for Taino Bay in the Dominican Republic, which is the latest private area developed for cruise passengers.

Purpose-built ports are another way lines provide cruisers with a homogenized experience that extends from ship to shore.

Ports developed by cruise lines specifically for their own use include Icy Strait Point, which was built in partnership between Norwegian Cruise Line and the Hoonah Totem Corporation in Alaska; Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, Mahogany Bay in Roatan and Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos, all developed by Carnival; and Falmouth, Jamaica, which was originally built to accommodate Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels but which is now used by several lines.

Like private islands or private areas on islands, these stops offer clean bathrooms, shore excursions, shopping, dining and other activities for a fee. What sets them apart is that they’re much smaller. They’re developed with a plethora of things to do and purchase right in the immediate terminal area, encouraging passengers to stick close to the ship as opposed to venturing out to a nearby beach or resort.

Featured photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card

Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy Bonus Points after spending $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 8/31/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy™ program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at a participating hotel. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.99% - 26.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$125
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.