When I visited my first private island -- Royal Caribbean's Coco Cay -- I stepped off the ship and asked my sister, "Where are the swarms of people? Where are the roads?" She laughed -- at the time she was much more of a seasoned cruiser -- and immediately ordered a Pina Colada and claimed an open lounge chair. I was shocked that I could actually fall asleep in a hammock tied to two palm trees without being heckled by people selling straw hats or ... well, other things.
That's what's so nice about private islands. There's really not all that much to do aside from beach bumming, swimming, eating (the food is brought from the ship) and perhaps having a massage from an open-air cabana. Right?
Not necessarily. Cruise lines are ramping up activities ashore with a solid variety of shore excursions -- from simple snorkeling and guided nature hikes to deep sea fishing and trips to rarely visited world-class diving sites. Even kids will bask in their glory with small water parks, huge inflatable water slides and mini-car race tracks.
Haven't been to a private island yet?
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.
Private islands for cruise passengers began to emerge in the late 1970's as major cruise lines began snapping up land throughout the Caribbean to call their own; NCL pioneered this with their purchase of Great Stirrup Cay. These islands are often uninhabited, and so, cruise lines have had to create their tours from scratch. (Quite literally, as with the case of Holland America's Horseback Riding by Land & Sea excursion, the line actually has imported the horses.)
Compared to mainstream Caribbean islands, like busy St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman, you can actually sample a slice of slow-paced island life. Don't expect to see high-rise buildings or chain restaurants, and shopping and souvenirs are kept to a minimum. Instead, you can stroll barefoot on pristine sand beaches; enjoy an ocean-side massage; rent a cabana while the kids play at a small water park; and compete in beach volleyball against other passengers.
Some of the private islands' "shore excursions" are actually just equipment rentals -- like snorkel gear and boats -- eliminating the hustle and bustle of arranging a tour group and rushing to complete it in a one- to two-hour time frame. But tours are changing.
Read on for what you can do during your visit. 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
Extreme Getaway Package
If 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. Float in a inner tube, identify all the different species of fish as you snorkel, take a relaxing bike ride on the island's trails and spend one amazing hour with the stingrays. You'll also have the chance to feed the stingrays before your swim.
Editor's Note: The stingrays' barbs are cut very short to prevent any injury.
Who Should Go: Families with kids of all ages -- and attention spans -- as well as budget-conscious cruisers because you get four of the cruise line's excursions in one low-cost package.
Approximate Duration: For approximately seven hours, as the ship is docked on the island.
Takeaway Tip: You can create your own itinerary because all-day tubing, snorkeling and biking equipment are included in the excursion's price; however, the one-hour stingray encounter will be at a designated time -- plan your day around it accordingly.
Walking & Kayak Nature Adventure
If you want to fully experience the beauty of the island, do it by land and sea with this walking/kayaking combo. The walking portion of this excursion lasts about 45 minutes as professional guides immerse you in the culture of the Bahamas. When the history lesson is over, hop in a kayak and paddle around the island for about two hours as you navigate the ocean's waves. One final treat: Rest your muscles – and your mind -- on a quiet and isolated white-sand beach.
Who Should Go: Those looking for an offbeat tour of the island -- there's nothing like enjoying nature without the crowds.
Approximate Duration: 2.5 to 3 hours
Takeaway Tip: This is a very active excursion, so wear comfortable shoes that will give you support for the walking portion, yet are waterproof for kayaking; sandals that have double straps with good traction work best.
Holland America's Half Moon Cay
Deep Sea Fishing
All the equipment you'll need is provided as you board the fishing boat. The crew is adept in teaching and advising how to cast your line and reel in the potential "big one." Curious as to which species you will have the potential of catching? Mahi mahi, wahoo, snapper and grouper....
Who Should Go: Are you a beginner who wants a little direction? Have you been practicing your hook-line-and-sinker skills? Then this excursion's for you.
Approximate Duration: Two hours
Takeaway Tip: Throw this fish back! This excursion is catch-and-release only.
Horseback Riding by Land & Sea
A tram-ride takes you from the Fort San Salvador Welcome Center to the excursion's starting point. The guides will give a brief orientation, and then you'll claim your horse and start riding! You'll head to the island's highest point before stopping for an amazing photo op -- 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 onto 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.
Who Should Go: Those who want to stray from the typical horseback riding adventure.
Approximate Duration: One hour, 15 minutes
Takeaway 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
Unlike a lot of snorkeling excursions where you're with a specific group for a designated hour or two, NCL allows its guests to rent their snorkeling equipment for a full seven hours! 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, then come back to snorkeling.
Who Should Go: Flexible cruisers will love that they can snorkel at their leisure ... as well as take a break, experience a different part of the island, and then come back to the water on their own accord.
Approximate Duration: Seven hours
Takeaway Tip: Take advantage of the free snorkel tours around the cove that the instructors give hourly.
Princess' Princess Cays
New Waves/Princess Cays Certified Scuba
Before diving into the water, you'll meet your crew and the rest of your scuba group. The crew will provide everyone with scuba equipment, as the head guide gives a brief overview of the boat and dive site, which, dependent on the weather, will be located along the southern Eleuthera wall. And for your viewing pleasure, you'll likely see ancient hard corals, sponges, and fringed with soft coral beds, as well as parrotfish, grouper, queen angelfish, eels, snappers, loggerhead turtles and eagle rays. Guides will be on hand for questions and supervision.
Who Should Go: Active cruisers who want to use their scuba certification in a rarely visited, world-class diving site.
Approximate Duration: Two and a half hours
Takeaway Tip: Remember to bring your underwater camera. Don't have one? A quality underwater case for your non-water resistant camera works just as well.
Royal Caribbean's Coco Cay
SeaTrek Aqua Park -- Caylana's Castle Cove
This water park takes its name to heart -- because it actually calls the water its home! Walk from the beach into the shallow sea and hop on any one of the floating playground's inflatable seasaw, trampoline, sand castle and more. The best part about this water park is that you can swim (or bounce) from one activity to the next. It's great exercise and divides your attention span so you'll enjoy it longer. The duration for this excursion is only an hour, but with a super-low price tag, you can afford to play 'round the clock if you wish.
Who Should Go: Kids -- or anyone who feels like being a kid for a day.
Approximate Duration:: One hour
Takeaway Tip: Because the water park is actually in the ocean, don't swim through the "playground" without a life jacket. And to be on the safe side: No diving!
Cocoa Reef Glass Bottom Boat
Let's face it ... you may be in the Caribbean, but that doesn't mean you want to be wet 24/7. Explore the ocean's natural habitat from a glass bottom boat without even a splash. First, you'll board and meet the rest of your group. During the ride, the guides will teach you some Bahamian history as well as tell pirate tales. There are six glass windows for everyone to view fish, stingrays, jellyfish, barracuda and reefs (and maybe a shark or two!). There's also a top deck where you can catch some rays and grab a cool drink.
Who Should Go: Anyone looking to catch an underwater glimpse of amazing tropical species of fish, but doesn't want the hassle of snorkeling gear. Editor's Note: Must be three years old to board.
Approximate Duration: One hour, 45 minutes
Takeaway Tip: This tour is also great for non-swimmers -- but just because you're not swimming, that doesn't mean you should leave the sun block back on the beach.
Royal Caribbean's Labadee
SeaTrek Waverunner Experience
First, you'll watch a safety video accompanied by a how-to orientation on operating the waverunner. Once it's over, a professional "driver" will take you and your group out for a quick spin to test the waters. Then, you'll be ready for your tour along Labadee's coast. Your group will follow your guide in a line, which is called a "chase." The guests in the front will be driving faster than the guests in the back. The "chase" is necessary; with so many coral reefs in Haiti, you could accidentally run one over and damage the waverunner or hurt yourself.
Who Should Go: Anyone looking for speed in the slower-paced Caribbean.
Approximate Duration: 50 minutes
Takeaway Tip: You must be 16 years old to drive, but those under 21 years old still need to show ID. Also, we hear that this sells out quicker than most of Labadee's excursions, so book as early as you can!
Dragon's Breath Flight Line
Many zip lines rip-roar through the rainforests in the Western Caribbean and Central America, but this one in particular gives guests a different bird's eye view -- Labadee's beaches and the ocean. With its starting point at 500 feet above ground and a total length of 2,600 feet, it's the longest zip line in the world positioned above water.
First, there's 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 take-off point. You'll be fastened in a chair-like swing before you're officially released for a 40 - 50 m.p.h ride. Before you know it, you're back at your starting point at Dragon's Breath Rock.
Who Should Go: Those seeking the sense of adventure and bigger thrills than a small roller coaster.
Approximate Duration: One hour, 15 minutes
Takeaway Tip: Tuck in any piece of hair, jacket or hat drawstring, or articles of clothing so that nothing gets caught by the pulley. And if you are planning on taking along a camera or sunglasses, make sure they are fastened safely -- at 500 feet in the air, they may not be recoverable.