Aerial of Great Stirrup Cay, with Norwegian Breakaway in the distance

(4:30 p.m. EDT) -- It's been forty years since Norwegian Cruise Lines acquired this popular private island in the Bahamas, and it's no surprise that they recently decided to give it a major makeover.

The last twelve months or so have been spent revamping Great Stirrup Cay's restaurants, bars, cabanas and beaches, with more than $1 million invested just in new landscaping. Other additions include an underwater sculpture garden for snorkelers as well as a top-notch medical centre.

More is coming. Both a zip line and upscale lagoon area (for passengers staying in the exclusive Haven cabins) are still under construction and could take at least another year before completion.

We visited the island recently on a cruise with Norwegian Breakaway. Read on for our hits, our misses and a few areas where we're reserving judgment either because we couldn't properly test them out due to weather conditions (or because they're not yet finished).


Beach on Great Stirrup Cay

Hits

Beaches

The sand is white and soft as talcum; the sea is a heavenly, crystal-clear turquoise. What's not to love? Recent upgrades saw all beaches re-landscaped, making them wider, longer and more sheltered, thanks to the introduction of new -- and plentiful -- palm trees that provide shade from the Bahamian sun. There are many more lounge chairs now too, so no problem finding somewhere to plant your towel.

There's a beach here for everyone. If you don't mind sharing, look no further than main beach Bertram's Cove, which is nearest to where the tender drops you off. It's also where most activities (entertainment, excursion departures, snorkel/floating mat rentals) take place and where there's the biggest buzz.

Walk a bit further (about seven minutes) and beaches become progressively smaller - first Cabana Beach; then Fiesta Beach. Fiesta was our favorite, hands-down. It's a small curve of sand in a secluded bay; so few other cruisers made the short trek down there that we had the place practically to ourselves. It really did feel like our own, private paradise.

Snorkelling

Snorkels cost $29 to rent for an adult, $15 per child, and they're worth it because as soon as you dive into the warm, turquoise water, you'll see lots of fish swimming amongst coral. Most of them are small and at first hard to spot, but once you know what you're looking for you'll see them everywhere: tiny black and white zebra fish, translucent blue fish; conches too. Was it the best snorkelling we've ever done? No, but it was still enjoyable.

Food

Stop press, Great Stirrup Cay now boasts a brand new eatery: Abaco Taco. Its name says it all -- it's a build-your-own taco bar. Beef, chicken or fish-filled shells can be embellished with salads and topped off by relishes such as sour cream, guacamole, salsas and the like. The challenge (near-impossible) is to eat your creation without making a mess. Happily there are plenty of napkins on hand to clean up faces and tables. We aren't particular taco fans, but these ones really hit the spot and it's no surprise that this restaurant is proving popular with cruisers.

Our advice is to enjoy tacos for an afternoon snack and then head to Jumbey Beach Grill (the main buffet) for a late lunch, because you won't want to miss out. The BBQ ribs, chicken and burgers were finger-linking, succulent and tasty -- some of the best we've ever had from an island buffet; ditto the tropical salads. Mains (we greedily had seconds) left us so full that we had to pass on dessert, but the cakes and sliced fruits looked equally appetizing.       

Thanks to its makeover, the buffet now has four lines instead of two, which means that wait times to load your plate are next to nil. Better still, there's no longer a struggle to find a table to eat at, thanks to new, expanded seating areas.

No desire to stray far from the water's edge? Fear not -- new satellite bars are scattered around the island so you can grab a burger or hot dog to take back to your beach chair.

Cabanas

We prefer keeping our toes close to the shoreline, but plenty will want to splurge on the twenty-two posh new cabanas. They're set back on a hill overlooking the two quieter beaches (Cabana and Fiesta) with a brand-new boardwalk winding past their porches. All of them were occupied the day we went, and their makeover includes new deck flooring, lounge chairs, drapes for privacy (and shade) and a large mirror to check your tan in. They accommodate between eight ($549) and ten ($599) guests and take 'private paradise' to a whole new level.

Drinks

Beverages come with a beat, thanks to the new stage at the Bacardi Bar where the ship's DJ pumps out tracks which got us swaying every time we passed…or was that the strawberry Daiquiri working its magic? There's also a new deck terrace complete with tables and parasols so that rum cocktails can be sipped without getting sunstroke. The Lighthouse Bar (nearest our favorite Fiesta Beach) has seen a similar makeover and Bertram's Bar at the main beach now has a machine which makes slush drinks -- heaven on a hot day.

Medical Center

Nobody wants to think about falling ill on vacation, but you can now relax in the knowledge that this remote island has a brand-new medical center… just in case. Nurse can deal with cuts and scrapes (courtesy of the coral) as well as more urgent cases. The center is as fully-equipped as the one on the ship, with an emergency room as well as an Intensive Care Unit. This eliminates the need for patients to return to the ship before being transferred to a mainland hospital (if necessary) as they can now be stabilized on the island before being taken directly there.


Misses

Coral

We packed water shoes in our luggage knowing -- thanks to research ahead of time -- that there was coral on the island. Most passengers, however, hadn't come similarly prepared. And despite NCL's recommendation in 'FREESTYLE DAILY' (the newsletter delivered to cabins nightly) that water shoes be worn on the island to avoid stepping on coral, many passengers were still swimming barefoot. This is fine if you don't put your feet down, but alas, it's not what most people seem to do. There was many a swimmer yelling "ouch" after being afflicted, particularly on the main beach. The new medical center will no doubt be in big demand. Top tip: pack waterproof shoes! Or miss out.


Up close shot of people snorkelling

Unknown

Underwater Sculpture Garden

The new underwater sculpture garden is accessible from the main beach, which is also where most snorkelers convene, though there are fish to spot whichever beach you are on. The lifeguards pointed towards the submerged garden (stone statues of mermaids, starfish, treasure chests and skulls inspired by the island's history of piracy) in the distance, but wind, choppy waves and rocks thwarted our efforts to get there safely, even in low tide. In fact, nobody we met made it out there. We were assured by lifeguards that in normal (and usual) conditions, the water is flat as a pancake and you can practically walk out to it. We were shown pictures of the sculpture garden and while it does look pretty, we're not convinced it will enhance the snorkelling experience. Indeed, the kids we met seemed happy enough with the main attraction: fish and coral.

Zip Line and Villas

The unfinished zip-line is clear for all to see in the middle of the island and we're sure it will be a hit once it's finally operational -- mid 2018 at a guess. More hidden (behind a fence at the furthest end of the island next to Fiesta Beach) is the new, upmarket lagoon area. This consists of twenty-two new villas which circle a natural lagoon, still in the early stages of construction. We were given a sneak peek and can confirm that the villas are more like mini-houses, complete with air-conditioning, a bath, shower and TV. Whilst the villas (and the planned Silver Palm restaurant) will be exclusively for passengers staying in Haven cabins, the area itself will be accessible to all, to enjoy the beach as well as the spa which is in the offing. It's unlikely the lagoon area will be finished before the end of 2018.

--By Jo Kessel, Cruise Critic contributor