What's so nice about cruise line private islands? For many, it's the beach bumming, swimming, eating (the food is brought from the ship) and perhaps having a massage from an open-air cabana.
However, cruise lines have ramped up activities ashore with a solid variety of private island shore excursions and attractions -- from simple snorkeling and guided nature tours to superlatives like speeding down the tallest water slide in North America and swinging along the longest zipline above water. Even kids will bask in their glory with small water parks, pirate playgrounds and other mini-attractions.
Still not sure what makes a private island different? The concept, which basically takes the onboard experience and brings it onto a small Bahamian island (in most cases) owned by the cruise line, is like being onboard -- and onshore -- at the same time.
Some of the private islands' "shore excursions" are actually just equipment rentals, such as snorkel gear and boats, eliminating the hassle of arranging a tour group and rushing to complete it in a one- to two-hour time frame. While some private island excursions do offer guided tours (like kayaking), others package for-fee experiences like kayak rentals without a guide. Read on for the top things you can do during your visit to one of these cruise line private islands.
(If you have questions about the shore excursions listed -- or additional offerings -- be sure to ask away on the Cruise Critics Message Boards' Private Islands Forum.
Disney's Castaway Cay (The Bahamas)Extreme Getaway PackageIf you can't decide which shore excursion to book on Castaway Cay, this package is the island's all-star sampler and lasts for the duration of your entire visit. You get four of the cruise line's excursions in one package, making the combo perfect for families with kids of all ages -- and attention spans -- as well as budget-conscious cruisers. Spread out over a six-hour port call, the excursion equates to less than $15 per person, per hour.Float in an inner tube, identify all the different species of fish as you snorkel, take a relaxing bike ride on the island's trails and spend some amazing time feeding and swimming with the stingrays. (Editor's note: The stingrays' barbs are cut very short to prevent any injury.)
Holland America's Half Moon Cay (The Bahamas)Horseback Riding by Land & SeaA tram ride takes you from the Fort San Salvador Welcome Center on Half Moon Cay to the 75-minute excursion's starting point. The guides will give a brief orientation and then cruisers over the age of 10 can claim a horse and start riding.You'll head to the island's highest point before stopping for an amazing photo op and then ride back down to the bay. The excursion's second stopping point is at the corral, where you'll enjoy a drink, as your horse is "dressed" for swimming. They'll don a specially designed pad, as well as a rope halter that you'll hold on to while riding. Make a splash as you and your horse enter the water. Once the "sea riding" portion is over, the tram will take you back to the welcome center.Tip: Wear closed-toe shoes for this one; sandals are not allowed. Also, during the "swimming" part of the ride, the horse will not be wearing a saddle.
NCL's Great Stirrup Cay (The Bahamas)Snorkel the Underwater Sculpture GardenUnlike a lot of snorkeling excursions where you're with a specific group for a designated hour or two, Norwegian Cruise Line allows cruisers on its Great Stirrup Cay to rent their snorkeling equipment for a full seven hours for just $30 per adult (half for kids).Self-guided and available to all, an underwater sculpture garden in Bertram's Cove features statues of mermaids and fountains as well as real-live schools of fish and marine life and is accessible from shore.Also, instructors are on hand for a free lesson and to answer your questions. Then you can snorkel at your leisure during your stay on the island. Stop for lunch, before resuming your snorkeling.
Princess Cruises' Princess Cays (The Bahamas)Glass-Bottom Boat CruisePrincess Cays, a 30-acre property near the island of Eleuthera, is home to a pristine coral reef, and a see-through boat is a lovely way to experience the marine life.Spend an hour or so coasting past the shoreline to mangroves and lagoons rife with colorful fish and natural beauty. This tour is recommended by Discovery at Sea, the cruise line's partnership with the Science Channel.
Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay (The Bahamas)Thrill Waterpark and ZiplineRoyal Caribbean overhauled CocoCay to have so many incredible attractions, it's nearly impossible to enjoy them all in the renamed "perfect day." To make the most of your time -- and money -- buy a pass that includes both the water park and zipline.In addition to a significant savings over buying each individually, you'll have all-day access to the 13 water slides, wave pool and aquatic obstacle course of the Thrill Waterpark (including the tallest water slide in North America called Daredevil's Peak), as well as the zipline that extends 1,600 feet from end to end.
Royal Caribbean's Labadee (Haiti)Dragon's Breath Flight LineRoyal Caribbean excels at ziplines and its course on Labadee upholds that claim. With its starting point at 500 feet above ground and a total length of 2,600 feet, it's the longest zipline in the world positioned above water.First, expect a quick briefing about the ride and a safety video at Dragon's Breath Rock. Then, hop in a safari vehicle to the top, where you'll climb the stairs to the takeoff point. You'll be fastened in a chair-like swing before you're officially released for a 40- to 50-mph ride. Before you know it, you're back at your starting point at Dragon's Breath Rock.
NCL's Harvest Caye (Belize)Placencia Lagoon Wildlife & MangroveOne of the main attractions of Norwegian's private island in Southern Belize is its breathtaking natural flora and fauna. Experience a guided tour through the lagoons and mangroves of Harvest Caye on a 90-minute educational excursion fit for families.Sightsee and spot wildlife from a canopied motorboat. When the tour is over, be sure to go for a walk; the port is home to plentiful nature exhibits featuring toucans and other exotic birds -- and most of them are free.