(9:45 a.m. EST) -- Half Moon Cay, the much-beloved Bahamian private island that's used as a beach day for Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Line, just passed its 20-year milestone.
Many people know that this formerly uninhabited island -- then known as Little San Salvador -- was leased by Holland America in December 1996 under a 99-year agreement, for the sum of $6 million. Since then, the line has invested more than $35 million into Half Moon Cay, providing it with infrastructure for the thousands of cruise passengers (and 45 resident staff) who visit year-round.
This year (just over 21 years after signing its lease agreement), the lines will mark the island's two-decade anniversary with special concert performances, beach parties with DJs and scavenger hunts. A new children's water park with slides and water sprays is being built (the old one was torn down) and it will open in late February 2018.
Horses Retire Here
Horseback riding is the most popular excursion for passengers, and 54 horses live on the island. However, only about 30 of them are actually in use at any one time. Every two years or so, new horses are brought over from a stable in Ocala, Florida. While they are still young, they are trained by the Half Moon Cay stable staff. Their most important lesson? Learning how to walk in the ocean. (Despite all those photos you see of horses staying calm in ocean water, it's an acquired skill, which makes sense once you remember that few horses are born near the waves.)
After the horses are trained to work with passengers, they live peacefully on the island, going through 40 to 50 bales of hay, daily. As they grow older, they are continually evaluated for strength and health (a vet comes over twice a year and they are shod every six to eight weeks). Once they can no longer carry people safely, they are put out to pasture -- literally, on over 5 acres of land -- for the rest of their lives.
The Stingrays Have Names
The stingray enclosure houses the island's second most popular excursion; when a Carnival ship is in port, five tours a day with up to 38 passengers apiece take place. The eight stingrays are all female (male stingrays tend to be more aggressive and less interested in interacting with people, we were told) and all of them have names. While the stingrays are usually kept from swimming outside the enclosure, they are set free during storm evacuations so they can find their way to safety. Once the staff comes back, they go out and find them. After the last evacuations for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, many of the stingrays were found hanging out near the enclosure, waiting for their feeders to come back.
Half Moon Cay has three types of special private cabanas and villas, tailor-made for groups celebrating special occasions (or if you just want to treat yo'self). The 15 four-person cabanas were built on the island first; $299.95 gets you access to air conditioning, mist stations, a fridge stocked with soft drinks, snorkel gear and floating mats (for an extra $270, you can add butler service, with a catered Pinnacle lunch and unlimited drinks). At the other end of the spectrum, your group of 12 can rent the Private Oasis, where $1,399.95 gets you a sprawling 1,600-square-foot structure with a hot tub, restrooms, loungers, hammock, indoor and outdoor showers and private beach access (not to mention a staff that includes a butler, cabana boy and personal chef). Definitely living large, and away from the crowds.
But we're most entranced with the five two-story Beach Villas, each decorated in bright colors. Located smack-dab in the middle of everything, these Villas have their own hot tubs on the bottom level, and a private dining areas, soft drinks and snacks on the top. Bring some Bluetooth speakers and your most fun friends and you can hold a beach party here that will make everyone else jealous. The Villas hold eight, for a cost of $549.95; get everyone to chip in another $50 per person and you can upgrade to butler service and unlimited drinks. Prices can vary, depending on your cruise.
Both Carnival and Holland America use Half Moon Cay, but you won't see the two lines arriving at the same time. That's because the demographics of the lines are very different, and the atmosphere on the island can change radically, depending on what ship is docked. Carnival cruisers pack the bars and rent the water toys, while Holland America repeat passengers head for the most secluded beach lounger they can find. (Those private cabanas and villas we mentioned above? You're much more likely to score one with Holland America, as they sell out in advance on most Carnival cruises).
While Half Moon Cay uses tenders, they are larger than what you see in many tender ports, with two of them holding up to 400 passengers (the other two can take another 500 passengers). Carnival Magic, which has a total capacity of 3,675 passengers, is the largest ship that docks at Half Moon Cay. Two smaller Holland America ships can dock at the island at the same time, but only one Carnival ship can call. And finally, the season for Holland America lasts only from October to May (at which point, the line moves its ships from the Caribbean to Alaska and Europe), while Carnival cruise ships call year-round.
The Airport Lagoon
Almost all of the major supplies come into Half Moon Cay from Eleuthera, the closest major island to the north, and that's also where most of the resort employees live. But that doesn't mean the island doesn't have an airport -- just check out the lagoon where most passengers rent Jet Skis, take out kayaks and go on glass-bottomed boat tours. Seaplanes and medevacs land here when needed, although the latter rarely happens (about five times per season, we're told).
How Does Your Garden Grow?
When you first hit the beach, all you see are gorgeous palm trees. But take a tour on the island, either by an excursion or just walking on your own, and you just might run into the educational farm and garden overseen by Richard Butler. It's a vegetarians' paradise, with three types of tomatoes, kale, collard greens, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, corn, Brussels sprouts and beets, plus more exotic fruits like the Bahamian sugar apple, avocado and mango. On our tour, Richard schooled us in the island's four species of palm trees, and showed us some herbal remedies; tea made from the twisted, pretty "love vines" is a popular local aphrodisiac for men.
Want more info on Half Moon Cay? Check out 6 Ways to Enjoy Half Moon Cay.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor