We've just spent a day at Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line's new purpose-built port, and we're impressed. Nearly four years in the making and still a month from completion, the island, located in southern Belize, is receiving its final polish as local workers finish paving walkways, installing fixtures and training for cruise passenger-facing jobs.
Although Harvest Caye was designed specifically to receive cruisers, it doesn't feel forced. When it officially opens its gates to its first ship -- Norwegian Dawn on November 17 -- passengers won't find high-end jewelry stores or pushy shore excursion vendors hawking tours. What you will find is a glittering oasis that's well thought out, easy to navigate and eco-friendly.
Don't call it a private island, though. What differentiates Harvest Caye is that, like Grand Turk, Amber Cove or Mahogany Bay, it's not necessarily an extension of your cruise. When you visit, you'll find the island staffed by Belizean locals, rather than the ship's crew, and you'll have to pay for lunch, just as if you ate ashore in any other port that's not a private island. Although nothing official is in place just yet, Norwegian also plans to allow other cruise lines to use the port once it's up and running.
Overall, it's clean and modern with interesting details and just the right amount of classy kitsch. Here are 10 things we think you'll love about Harvest Caye.
1. Support for Belize
When Norwegian committed to creating Harvest Caye, the line decided to stay as local as possible by sourcing many of its building materials from within Belize. Hundreds of Belizeans were employed during the construction of the island, and more than 400 others will work there when the port opens. Norwegian tells us that employees will also be paid to perform various community service projects throughout Belize on days when ships aren't in port. Don't expect Diamonds International, either. Visitors will find local artists and vendors manning the stores and kiosks of the island's small shopping area, and much of what makes the island aesthetically pleasing -- everything from the art and vegetation to the hardwood that covers the building exteriors -- came from within the country. This means visitors will feel more like they're visiting Belize and less like they're visiting an amusement park. "The way it connects with Belize is impressive," says Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line's president and CEO. "You discover the destination as you work your way around the destination."
2. Attention to Detail
The amount of expertise brought to the table by the team responsible for the island's creation is stunning. Among the individuals are two local restaurateurs, a former Disney Imagineer, an 18-year veteran destination strategist, an engineer who previously specialized in roads and bridges, and a developer who worked on two purpose-built islands for another cruise line. We're told the goal was to make Harvest Caye reminiscent of a British colony, and it sure does feel that way. In fact, next to the island's enormous pool stands an outpost of Jimmy Buffett-affiliated LandShark Bar & Grill, designed to look like a governor's mansion. Staging and shore excursion embarkation are handled at Malacate, part of mainland Belize, which means there's less congestion on Harvest Caye. Little touches also matter: shade canopies and mist-blowing fans have been added in all the right places, two tiny cannons flank the island's entrance gate in memory of the Battle of St. George's Caye, and during our visit, executives were chatting about the need for hooks on the backs of bathroom doors so people can hang purses and towels.
3. Private Retreats
It seems cruisers go crazy for tropical huts; they're in luck on Harvest Caye. Eleven beachfront villas (including one ADA) are available for daily rental. Each has air-conditioning and its own living area, private bathroom, outdoor shower and loungers. Prices start at $475 for up to six people. Fifteen poolside cabanas are also offered from $199 for the day.
4. Nature Center
As part of its commitment to conservation and eco-friendly tourism, Norwegian has included a nature center on Harvest Caye. You can walk through it for free and check out boa constrictors, toucans and scarlet macaws. There's even an enclosed butterfly garden that's also home to several dozen iguanas. To care for the animals, the cruise line has enlisted the help of a naturalist who boasts 25 years of experience with the Belize Zoo.
One of the most noticeable landmarks on the island is a giant lighthouse, housing Harvest Caye's for-fee zipline. Two separate runs are offered. The first is split into segments, and the second covers a 1,300-foot-long expanse between the lighthouse and the beach. Cruisers who want even more adventure can also take on the island's ropes course.
Harvest Caye's 7-acre beach features some 3,000 sun loungers, which are free for passenger use. Some offer shaded clamshell-style awnings for a fee; they're expected to be at a premium, so snag yours early in the day.
7. Splash Zone
If sandy beaches and a massive pool aren't enough for your kids, check out the small, shaded, brightly colored Splash Zone, featuring sprayers and a dump bucket.
8. Bars and Restaurants
On the island, visitors will find five bars and several restaurants, the most anticipated of which is LandShark Bar & Grill. The two-story eatery, overlooking the largest pool we've ever seen, will offer both indoor (air-conditioned) and open-air seating and a menu with some delicious burgers. Beer served includes LandShark and Belikin, a Belizean brew; just next to LandShark will be the Belikin Beer Garden, featuring self-serve beer machines that passengers can access with their cruise cards.
9. Water Fun
For those who wish to stay active in the water, Harvest Caye has a lagoon with kayaks, paddleboards and small motorized boats for rent. In case we haven't already mentioned it enough, there's a gigantic pool, too, with a swim-up bar, in-water seating and a food service window.
Unlike the port in Belize City, which requires passengers to ferry ashore in tender boats, Harvest Caye has its own one-berth dock, which means ships can pull right up to the island to offload cruisers. The pier is long, but it will be completely shaded by a canopy.
--By Ashley Kosciolek, Editor