9 Things I Learned After Cruising to Royal Caribbean’s New Private Island Getaway
I’ve never been a huge fan of cruise line private islands. Sure, they’ve got pretty beaches — or at least, some do. And usually there are a few other temptations, like a zip line or a kiddie splash zone. Many offer kayaking, parasailing, fishing and other adventures.
But if I wanted the beach resort experience for my vacation, I would have booked a beach resort (preferably one that caters to far fewer people than these islands typically see in a day). Joining thousands of fellow cruise ship passengers in the inevitable scrum that occurs at these islands for the best-located waterfront lounge chairs isn’t my idea of fun.
Still, I know many cruisers love private islands. And now, even I'm rethinking things. That’s because I have just experienced my first “perfect day” at one of them.
This weekend, I was on the first ship to arrive at Royal Caribbean’s newly revamped private island in the Bahamas. Officially reopened on Saturday, Perfect Day at CocoCay (formerly known simply as CocoCay) now features an unprecedented array of new attractions that have turned it into something much more than a beach getaway. Rebuilt at a cost of $250 million, it’s now a beach resort, a water park, an amusement zone and a luxury hideaway all wrapped into one 125-acre escape. Here's why even I was wowed by the cruise line's private island destination.
(Editor's note: TPG always tries to pay full price for any travel its staff takes and usually doesn't inform companies in advance of our plans to review. However, there are times where -- especially with cruise lines -- we need to work with travel providers to gain early access and they won't accept rates higher than their special prices for travel agents and media. At the time of publication, TPG was still negotiating to pay a fair market rate with the cruise line for our first look at Perfect Day at CocoCay. If that fails, TPG will pay a minimum of $100 per night, for three nights, to offset the cost of food, fuel and services. TPG will also pay any additional fees for access to attractions. We will update this post with the final cost paid to Royal Caribbean.)
You’ve Never Seen Anything Like This
A beachy getaway for cruisers since the 1980s, Perfect Day at CocoCay is now a theme park-like watery fun zone on a scale never before seen in the Bahamas or the Caribbean. And I'm not just talking among private islands owned by cruise lines. You won't have seen anything quite like this at any resort on land in the region, either.
In addition to revamped beach areas, the island now is home to a full-blown waterpark with 13 water slides; the region’s biggest wave pool; the region’s largest freshwater pool; and a family-friendly pool with a built-in obstacle course.
Other big attractions added during the overhaul include a 1,600-foot-long zip line course (not quite a record for the region, but up there) and Up, Up and Away, a tethered helium balloon ride that takes cruisers 450 feet into the air.
In short, just about everything that’s new on this island sets a record for the Bahamas and the Caribbean. If you’re looking for the ultimate fun spot in the region, this is it — you'll just have to take a cruise ship to get there.
It Delivers Serious Thrills
Built around two soaring water slide towers, the waterpark (called Thrill Waterpark) notably includes the tallest water slide in all of North America. Yeah, that's right. If you’re a water park nut, it is now here, on a tiny Bahamian island owned by a cruise line — not in the theme park mecca of Orlando — that you will find the continent’s most insane water attraction.
Dubbed Daredevil's Peak, the new record-setter is 135 feet high. That's a full 10 feet taller than the heart-pumping Ko-okiri Body Plunge at Universal Orlando Resort’s Volcano Bay water park, and 15 feet taller than the Summit Plummet at Walt Disney World’s Blizzard Beach.
I made the long slog up what Royal Caribbean is calling Daredevil’s Tower to take the plunge (you will get a lot of leg workouts at this park!) and realized about 10 seconds into the swirling descent that I really didn’t want to be there. Get! Me! Out! Of! Here! Once done, though, I was all braggadocio. And the good news is, the amount of water smashed up my nose was completely reasonable.
That said, I then took a hard pass on Dueling Demons, two twin drop slides of the sort that release you through a trap door down a nearly vertical tube toward a big splash finish. They’re only 75 feet high, but I was told they’re even more intense than Daredevil’s Peak. Yikes!
Thrill seekers also might want to sign up for the zip line, although you’re in for sticker shock on the price — more on that in a moment. And the balloon ride looks like it’s more of an adventure than its designers intended. It didn’t run for most of the day on Saturday due to strong winds at higher altitudes (it didn’t feel windy down at ground level). But in the one short moment where I saw it go up, it swayed quite a bit from side to side.
It’s Also Got Major 'Chills'
Maybe you’re not big into thrills. Hey, I don't blame you — I’m no adrenaline junkie, either. The good news is that Perfect Day has plenty to offer the vacationer whose idea of a beach day is to just nap on a chaise and maybe play around with a paddle board or a kayak. The makeover of the island brought a major revamp of its “chill” zones, as Royal Caribbean is calling its beach and pool areas.
The big story is the development of the record-size freshwater pool, Oasis Lagoon. Situated toward the middle of the island complex, it is so stunningly large — 33,175 square feet (for perspective, you could easily drop a 737 in there with room to spare) — that Royal Caribbean is marketing different sides of it to various demographics. One end caters to families with a kid-friendly, beach-style entry area. Another side is adult-focused with a thatched-roof swim-up bar that became quite the scene as the day went on. Its official capacity is 1,750 people, though don’t expect to ever see that many swimmers at a time. The whole lagoon is ringed with hundreds upon hundreds of lounge chairs with umbrellas and palm trees for shade, none of which existed on the island before.
Another way to put this thing into numbers? The pool holds about 800,000 gallons of water, which took eight days to fill at the rapid clip of 4,160 gallons per hour.
The pool is just the start of the chill zones. There are now three big beach areas at Perfect Day including an all-new Harbor Beach area built just to the left of the main entryway and two broad beaches at the back of the island called Chill Island and South Beach. Chill Island is home to a marina where you can rent wave runners and sign up for boat tours. South Beach has beachside volleyball, basketball, paddle boarding, glass-bottom kayaking and zorbing on the water.
You Can’t Do It All in a Day
I tried. I failed. But that’s OK, right? After all, I needed an excuse to come back.
There’s Room for Everyone
Remember that "scrum for lounge chairs" I talked about earlier? Relax. You won’t have to worry about it at Perfect Day. What is striking to me about the island (as someone who has been to nearly every other cruise line private island on Earth) is just how open and uncrowded it feels. I arrived with nearly 4,000 passengers on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, and the island just seemed to absorb us all with few signs in some areas that we were even there. Poof! Where did we all go?
The biggest crowds that I saw were around Oasis Lagoon, but even there it wasn’t a problem to find a lounge chair through the day. And some of the beach areas seemed downright empty. Strolling along South Beach several times in the morning and afternoon, I found the vast majority of lounge chairs unoccupied. Really, it almost was like my own private hideaway.
Part of the reason for this is that Royal Caribbean has built out the island’s infrastructure to an enormous level under the assumption it sometimes will see two ships at once (something that is new). Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley, who was at the island on Saturday, told The Points Guy the line revamped the island with the idea that it could handle around 8,500 or 9,000 people a day and still feel relatively uncrowded. Granted, I wasn't there with a second ship, but there was an awful lot of space to spare.
It Can Quickly Become an Expensive Afternoon
All of the above sounds awesome, right? Here’s the bad news: Access to some of the most exciting new features on the island aren’t included in your cruise fare, and you’ll end up paying a small fortune to enjoy them all — especially if you have a kid or two or three in tow.
Admission to the water park runs a somewhat reasonable $44 to $99 per person for a full day, depending on the season (there's also a less pricey half-day option). But the zip line costs a mind-boggling $79 to $139 for a single ride, and the cost of the balloon ride is as sky high as its promised view at $39 to $99 per ride for ages 13 and up ($24 to $64 for children ages 4 to 12).
I didn’t get to ride the balloon because of the wind-related closure, so I can’t tell you if I think it’s worth the cost, but I did do the zip line. It was as fun as zip lines usually are, with its 1,600-foot length split into three segments that speed you over the waterpark and Harbor Beach. It offered great views of the island. But really, $79 for three 20-second bursts of zip-line flying hits the red zone on my frugality meter. After all, you can zip line for nearly three hours through cloud forests in Costa Rica for just $50.
Clearly, though, I was in the minority, as the zip line was completely sold out for the day.
One way to save a bit if you want to do multiple activities is to buy a package that combines admission to the water park with a zip line ride. But it’s still a budget-busting $99 to $179, depending on the season.
The good news on ancillary costs is that the beverage packages that passengers buy on board Royal Caribbean ships carry over to Perfect Day. So do internet packages. As part of the island’s overhaul, much of it was wired for Wi-Fi, which is a big deal for private islands (and, much to my surprise, it worked fairly well; I sent about 400 megabytes of photos and video to The Points Guy alone, all of which got through with just a few hiccups).
But the bottom line is a family of four easily could spend $500 or more just on amusements alone.
But You Can Still Have a Blast Without Paying Extra
Not all is lost for the budget-conscious traveler. You still can have a blast on the island for no extra cost. For starters, head to the kiddie-focused Captain Jill’s Galleon, a faux pirate ship where your little ones, at least, can literally have a blast with 16 water cannons shooting at the vessel. Featuring a trio of slides and a climbing net, it’s open to all on a complimentary basis.
Also “free” to passengers (I put free in quotes since anyone visiting Perfect Day will, by definition, already have paid to get there) is the new kiddie water play area called Splashaway Bay. It’s got five munchkin-size water slides, a kiddie pool, fountains, drench buckets and other watery features.
There are also new sports courts at the beach areas available at no extra charge; fitness classes (I missed the morning beach stretch because I was zooming down Daredevil’s Peak, but I probably would have done it otherwise); and activities such as family sand volcano-making, a “Let’s Get Coco Beach Party” and a Spike Ball Competition with the staff — none of which I had time to do (see No. 4 above).
The other notable thing on pricing is that there’s no charge at the island for lounge chairs or umbrellas. This isn’t always the case at private islands, or even standard beach resorts. Along Miami Beach, where I spent the night before boarding Navigator of the Seas, vendors were charging couples $44 for two lounge chairs and an umbrella.
The island also has five complimentary dining venues, but they’re nothing too fancy (think: hot dogs, burgers).
You Can Also Drop a Fortune
Cheapskates can skip over this next section, but … if you really want to empty out your wallet at Perfect Day, there’s yet another add-on opportunity in addition to paying up to try all the new attractions: You can spring for a private cabana.
Royal Caribbean has sprinkled 22 new cabanas around the waterpark, available for rent to groups of up to six people for $499 to $869 per day, depending on the season.
Yes, at peak times, you’ll pay nearly $1,000 for one of these cabanas, which are little more than square fabric tents with a few pieces of outdoor furniture. Still, before you rail at the great injustice of it all, know that the pricing for these cabanas includes waterpark admission for its occupants.
There are 32 more cabanas available around the beach and pool areas that rent for $299 to $569 per day for groups of up to eight, depending on the season (during my visit, they were offered at $399).
Here's where things get really crazy. Royal Caribbean is building even more elaborate cabanas that will cost from $949 to as much as $1,599 per day. They will be overwater cabanas — a first for the Bahamas — and located within an exclusive, extra-charge private corner of the island that's still under development called Coco Beach Club.
Scheduled to open in December, this marked-off luxury area will have its own infinity pool, private beach area and upscale restaurant.
Each of the new cabanas will have space for up to eight people and come with a private attendant, an overwater hammock, slide to the water and shower.
You’ll Want to Come Back
Did I mention that I didn’t have time to do it all? Heading back to the ship at the last possible moment on Saturday, I was struck with the melancholy that arises at the end of any great beach vacation. How can it be over? Where did the hours go? How did I miss so much?
The only solution: I’m going to go back, and soon. And I’m pretty sure you’ll want to go back once you see it, too.
Should that be the case, you’ll have plenty of options. Nearly half of Royal Caribbean’s fleet (12 out of 26 ships) is scheduled to stop at Perfect Day between now and the end of 2019.
We sailed on a three-night voyage to Perfect Day out of Miami that also included a stop at Nassau in the Bahamas. Rates for such trips start at $309 per person, not including taxes and fees of $98.24. That works out to about $136 per night, per person, for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals.
Keep in mind the rate above is just for one person and based on "double occupancy" of your cabin, so the per room rate really is twice that amount. And it doesn't include any extra charges you ring up on board. While meals are included at several on-board eateries (and at the five new venues at Perfect Day), you'll pay extra for the fancier "specialty" restaurants on the ship, such as Royal Caribbean's signature Chops Grille steakhouse (priced at a flat fee of $42.99 per person). Just like at most land resorts, you'll also pay extra for drinks. Most beers at the bars on Navigator of the Seas and on Perfect Day run $7 to $8, while wine starts at $8 per glass ($29 for the least expensive bottle). Other ways to spend extra include getting a treatment in the ship’s spa.
Also note the above fare is for the least-expensive windowless "interior" cabin. There are all sorts of cabin categories on Royal Caribbean ships, at a wide range of price points. To upgrade to a room with a window that actually lets you see the ocean (isn't that whole point when it comes to a cruise?), the starting rate for these three-night trips to Perfect Cay jumps to $364 per person plus the taxes and fees. And just as with flights, pricing for cruises fluctuate week-by-week depending on demand, and the rates above are for sailings during the least expensive time of the year (specifically, this coming September). You'll pay more for more popular times of year, such as July, when rates for these sailings currently start at $488 per person.
One other thing for which you'll need to budget is the automatic service gratuity that Royal Caribbean adds to bills, which runs $14.50 per person, per day, for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.
Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.
All photos courtesy of the author.