Cruise line private islands, such as Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, have become vital ports on Caribbean itineraries, especially for cruises leaving from Miami. Since it opened in 2019 before the global COVID-19 pandemic, MSC Cruises has been taking full advantage of Ocean Cay, sometimes stopping there twice in one week and also staying longer into the night.
We were fortunate enough to sail on an MSC itinerary that made two stops at Ocean Cay during the same cruise. One of our calls took place during daytime hours, with the ship arriving at 8 a.m. and staying until 5 p.m. The other also arrived at the island at 8 a.m. but didn’t leave until 7:30 p.m., allowing us to see Ocean Cay by night.
Here’s the scoop on MSC Cruises’ private island, Ocean Cay, and why you’ll love visiting its beaches again and again.
First, a geography lesson. Most cruise line private islands are in The Bahamas, an archipelago that boasts that picture-perfect turquoise water and plenty of sandy beaches. The islands are all in the eastern time zone and while they have Caribbean-like weather, they are technically in the Atlantic Ocean.
Ocean Cay is located not too far from Bimini, about 20 miles south (cruise aficinados will recognize Bimini as the home of Virgin Voyages' private Bimini Beach Club). It's also only 65 miles east of Miami, which is why it's such a convenient stop for MSC cruise ships that go in and out of PortMiami, as well as Port Canaveral.
Ocean Cay began its life as an artificial island built so private companies could dredge its white aragonite sand in the 1960s. MSC acquired the 95-acre island in in 2015 through a 100-year lease agreement that allowed the cruise line to redevelop it as a private island with a marine conservation component.
Because Ocean Cay is still being redeveloped, it can appear a bit "scrubby" at first glance, as the palm trees and vegetation on the island are still relatively young. That's ok -- you can still find a few trees for shade near the beach if you decide not to rent an umbrella (and MSC has set aside areas to eat that are shaded as well).
When you first see Ocean Cay from your ship balcony or window, the size can look daunting. But the private island has a few things going for it that make it easy to get around.
First, Ocean Cay has a pier that’s big enough to accommodate even MSC’s biggest cruise ships. You can walk right off, rather than wait for a tender. That helps people with accessibility issues. Because Ocean Cay is a private island, you also do not have to bring a passport or photo ID; your room keycard is good enough.
MSC does ask guests to bring the beach towels from their cabin to Ocean Cay. If you're in the Yacht Club, no worries -- you'll find towels ready for you (that's just one of the many perks that Yacht Club passengers receive at the private island -- we'll tell you more down below).
The island also has a free tram system, so you can get from the pier to various beaches. For those who don't want to wait for the tram, Lighthouse Bay facing the pier where the ships dock is about a 5 minute walk.
We also noticed a bank of wheelchairs with wheels designed to handle sand. You'll want to request these with the cruise staff before you get off the ship.
Unlike some cruise line private islands, any drink or Wi-Fi package that you have onboard the ship will work on Ocean Cay. Just use your card or wristband for the drinks, which are available from several bars around the island.
To log into the Ocean Cay Wi-Fi, you'll have to log off of the ship's Wi-Fi site and into the Ocean Cay hotspot. We found that the Wi-Fi signal was strong around the island and we were able to easily stay connected.
There are eight beaches at Ocean Cay, including one that is solely set aside for crew members. During the COVID-19 pandemic, crew members haven't been allowed to get off the ship during regular port stops, so Ocean Cay gives them a chance to relax and have a good time on land. There are no pools on Ocean Cay.
During our cruise, not all of the beaches were open, due to low capacity numbers on the ship. Don’t worry -- even if MSC doesn't open all of the beaches, there will still be plenty of room on the island. Lifeguards are on duty at all beaches and you'll be able to tell the swimming conditions from the color of the flags (green is good; yellow is at your own risk and red is a big no).
Lighthouse Bay is the beach closest to the ship. It's often the busiest, usually because people seeking R & R like to pick the closest beach and plop down without a lot of walking. The beach has some colorful beanbag-style chairs you can nab if you get there early. From here, it’s an easy walk to the Lighthouse, which you can climb as an excursion. It's also where the beach parties are held in the evenings. A DJ often starts playing here in the afternoon so this is your best choice if you want more of a party atmosphere.
The expansive South Beach faces the island's lagoon, and it has the calmest water on Ocean Cay. This is where family activities are held during the day, and it's also a prime place to grab a free lounge chair. Umbrella rentals are available, as are floating mats. This beach is closest to the main Seakers Food Court, if proximity to food is your biggest concern (hey, kids get hungry!)
The North Beach also faces the lagoon and has calmer water than the beaches that face the ocean. On a windy day, you'll want these lagoon beaches as we found the waves at Ocean House Beach for Yacht Club guests much rougher.
The lagoon beaches are also easier on your feet, with fewer rocks than you find on the ocean beaches. If you go to the ocean beaches, bring water shoes with you to avoid stubbed toes.
As you start planning your day at Ocean Cay, keep in mind that there is more to do than go to the beach. You can take a wave runner excursion, sign up for a guided kayak paddle or take an organized snorkel or paddleboard trip. You can also rent all of this equipment -- except the wave runners -- on your own too. The paddleboards and kayaks are located within the lagoon for a more protected experience, while the wave runner excursions go around the island through choppier waters.
If you’re fit, you might want to check out the Lighthouse Climb. It's only 30 minutes and requires walking up 165 steps. Really, we'd recommend this only if you’re really bored. If it’s views that you want, you can see the entire island from your cruise ship.
Because our ship was at low capacity, many of the organized excursions such as Champagne or rum catamaran tours or the shipwreck snorkeling tour weren't in operation. While the island does have the capability to offer SCUBA diving, this also wasn't available on our trip.
While most people were fine simply lounging on the beach, we did hear some complaints that there wasn’t much to do. Our advice: Embrace the relaxation and prepare for a lazy beach day by bringing a book or your own music to listen to.
You won’t go hungry on Ocean Cay as there is free food available, as well as specialty seafood items and ice cream treats. But keep an eye on the hours -- on days when the ship leaves at 5 p.m, we noticed the food stopped serving at 2 p.m. at the main food court and Ocean House restaurant, and 3 p.m. at the food trucks. On our later stop, the only food after 2 p.m. was at the food trucks. That meant that if you were hungry in the late afternoon around 5 p.m., you had to go back to the ship to eat before back coming onshore for events that started at 6 p.m.
The Seakers Food Court is the main dining area on the island, and it serves up a daily buffet. Menu items on our visit included a variety of salads and lots of fruit choices. Entrees ranged from grouper esabeche and jerk chicken to burgers, hot dogs and pork ribs. Sides included fries, fried plantains, baked beans and calypso rice. Finish off with rum cake, banana bread, chocolate brownies or cookies.
Attractive food trucks are scattered around the island. The free ones have a limited grill menu of burgers, hot dogs, fries, pasta salad and brownies. If you don't mind a tiny splurge, try one of the seafood a la carte food trucks. We had some deliciously seasoned fried calamari and we saw people happily ordering lobster grilled cheese and lobster bacon rolls. Prices ranged from $7.95 to $12.95.
If your free brownie isn’t enough -- and that's ok, although we'll tell you it's a solid yummy brownie -- the Smiling Fish ice cream kiosk has build-your-own waffle cones, with a nice array of toppings. We had key lime soft serve with mango sauce and M&Ms (you're on vacation, go ahead and indulge).
During our time on the island, five bars were open (including the one at Ocean House for Yacht Club guests) and five were closed. The latest the bars were open was 6 p.m. -- again a bit of a bummer if you wanted a drink during the sunset beach party.
Cabanas have increasingly become a popular way to enjoy a private island beach day, and Ocean Cay has them at different beaches. All cabanas take a maximum of six guests and you can come and go throughout the day. You'll be welcomed with fresh water and towels, fruit skewers show up in the afternoon. The difference between a regular ocean cabana and a deluxe ocean cabana (besides $100) is that you receive food and drink service.
The cabana rentals also include use of four sets of snorkel equipment and four floating beach mats. Prices are set by the cabana and not by the person. They range from $249 for a regular beach cabana to $349 for a deluxe beach cabana (the Yacht Club cabanas have different fees).
MSC Cruises attracts an international passenger base, and often guests wonder if they can sunbathe topless at Ocean Cay. While the cruise line doesn’t police its guests, if you want privacy, you are better off selecting a cabana that is labeled ocean view rather than beach, as the cabanas themselves are open to the air on one side and do not have a lot of privacy.
Do you need to have a cabana at Ocean Cay to have a great day? We'd say no, unless you really want to spoil yourself. The cabanas do provide a bit of shade which, if you're at South Beach where umbrellas are not provided, is a nice amenity.
Yes, there’s a spa on Ocean Cay, located on the very far side of the island. You can get massages in small cabanas (unlike the rental cabanas, these are enclosed on all sides and are private), with prices that are about $10 higher than you’d find for a similar massage on the ship.
Is it worth it to splurge on an Ocean Cay massage? To be honest, we say this is one instance where the fantasy of a beach massage is better than the reality. It can be windy on Ocean Cay, and if you’re in the spa cabana, you'll still hear the wind whipping through the walls as opposed to the lovely calming music. Plus while there are outdoor showers, the risk of having sand stick to your oiled body is fairly high.
MSC Cruises designed Ocean Cay so the ships could stay late into the night. The Lighthouse has LED capabilities and on the evenings when the ship stays past sunset, there's a lovely light show that goes for about an hour.
Now do you need to actually get off the ship to enjoy the light show? If you're in the Yacht Club, no. You can actually watch the whole thing from the lounges at the front of the ship. You might have a hard time seeing it elsewhere from the ship, however.
MSC embraces Bahamian culture by having a Junkanoo parade leading up to the sunset beach party. There's also a stage and a DJ plays as the sun sets. We also saw some places where beach bonfires could be held, although that didn’t happen on our cruise. If your ship has low capacity, expect the Ocean Cay nightlife scene to be a bit underwhelming. When things get back to a fuller capacity, though, I could see this being a party that's worth getting off the ship for.
Some excursions are offered at night, numbers permitting. There’s a family oriented stargazing session, as well as a glow-in-the-dark paddleboard outing.
If you've already been receiving VIP treatment throughout your MSC cruise in the MSC Yacht Club, don't worry -- your perks extend on Ocean Cay too. You have an entire separate mini-island at your disposable; you even have to cross a small bridge to get there. Given that you'll be arriving via a tram set up by your butler, your beach day begins in style.
The beach at Ocean House faces the ocean, and can be wavy. There's a towel stand at the beach and all of the loungers here have umbrellas and drink service, as well as fruit skewers delivered in the afternoon.
If you really want VIP service, cabanas are available, both at the beach and more private ocean view. They look the same as the other cabanas on the island, but do come with a few more amenities. Besides your cooler of water, you also get a complimentary bottle of prosecco in the cabana. You also get treats delivered during the day, including chocolate strawberries. You can also have a full lunch from Ocean House delivered direct to your cabana.
Speaking of Ocean House, the included lunch here is upscale and delicious. Choose from starters of crab ceviche or charred octopus, followed by blackened mahi mahi, carne asada or a buttery lobster roll (you can also get a burger). I'm still craving the mango cheesecake.
The only weird thing about Ocean House -- while the rest of Ocean Cay has lovely restrooms, complete with showers and lockers in some cases, the entire Yacht Club area only has one nice unisex bathroom. MSC has brought in an upscale portable potty trailer but still… it's a trailer and not a standalone bathroom facilities. It's an odd touch, in an otherwise upscale experience.
Ocean Cay does have a handful of standalone souvenir shops, with the usual array of T-shirts, shell artwork, beach wear and knick nacks. There is a store dedicated to Bahamian products and crafts. Really, you'll find nothing here that you wouldn’t find in Nassau.
If you forgot to book an excursion before you get off the ship, there is an information and excursion/rental desk on Ocean Cay right where you enter.
You can get married or renew your vows on Ocean Cay! There's a wedding pavilion on the far side of the island where you can have a private event without a lot of people around, unless you invite them.
And finally, remember that Ocean Cay is a marine reserve and MSC Cruises asks that you wear reef-safe sun lotion. You can buy some on the ship or on the island, if you didn't bring it with you.