8 Private Cruise Ports
From the Shipmate Archives. Originally Published June 12, 2016.
Private cruise ports tend to get the highest reviews of the thousands of existing cruise port destinations. The cruise lines know exactly what you want when you get to shore. By taking over the entire port, they’re able to control every aspect of your time spent there. It seems that they’re doing a wonderful job of it. We know that you love these destinations, so we’ve put together a comprehensive look at the 8 Private Cruise ports throughout the Caribbean.
These are our featured private cruise ports. Click any for quick access!
CASTAWAY CAY - Bahamas
Castaway Cay is a private island in the Bahamas leased by The Walt Disney Company in 1997. The 99-year lease term gives Disney exclusive access to the island. Your cruise card can be used throughout the port area for access and for purchasing items. The “castaway” theme is pervasive on the island, with buildings developed with a “shipwreck” feel. Like any Disney park, there’s a lot of effort to maintain the consistency of every aspect of the island. One of the most popular excursions in Castaway Cay is a snorkeling trip to see the sunken submarine vessels used in the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride at Walt Disney World. You can also find multiple beaches, and activities like biking, water-sports, volleyball, parasailing, and more.
The amazing history of Castaway Cay reads like a Disney Fairytale. The island was initially used by pirates in the 1700’s, but that’s not even the most exciting chapter…In the 1960’s a businessman, Alvin Tucker, spotted the island (originally called Gorda Cay) and took an interest. At the time, the island was only accessible via boat. Tucker changed that when he added a 2,400-foot runway. Unfortunately, Tucker later came to learn that drug smugglers were using the landing strip to get their product into the US. He tried to get the police involved, but the cops were actually involved in the drug-smuggling operation, so they were obviously of no help. Not knowing what else to do, Tucker sold the island to a private company, which was later shown to be affiliated with the drug operation. Drug trafficking started to thrive on the island. All of the original inhabitants were kicked out and as many as six planes were seen coming through the island in a day. After multiple years, the operation was finally raided and authorities found $100M in cocaine on the island. Disney leased the island in the 90’s and put $25M into renovations over 18 months. It re-opened in 1998 as “Castaway Cay” with a much different feel than during its previous occupation!
- 1783: Gorda Cay, as it was then named, is settled by pirates. They use the islands hidden alcoves to hide and to then attack passing merchant ships.
- 1930s: the island is used for bootlegging.
- 1960s: drug trafficking is rampant on the island.
- 1983: the movie Splash is filed on the island.
- 1996: Disney purchases a 100-year lease and renames the island, Castaway Cay
- 1998: Disney opens the island up for exclusive use by Disney Cruise Line
“Head ashore early and explore the island while the rest of your shipmates are enjoying breakfast onboard – rent a bicycle for an hour or two to explore the Caribbean on two wheels” - From Cruiseline user: bucation – full cruise review
In 2010, Castaway Cay received upgrades and improvements including a bigger family beach, more water sports, another restaurant and 20 private cabanas.
Regarding the drug-smuggling airstrip… you can actually still use it to walk to “Serenity Bay” (the adult beach).
COCO CAY - Bahamas
Coco Cay is one of the Bahamas “Berry Islands,” which consists of roughly 30 islands and often referred to as “The Fish Bowl of the Bahamas.” These 30 landmasses have a population of only 700 residents, most of whom are on the island of Great Harbour Cay. Royal Caribbean is proud of the “eco-friendliness” of its operations on Coco Cay. It was awarded the Gold-Level-Eco-Certification by Sustainable Travel International for “green” activities and tours.
Originally, the port was used exclusively by Admiral Cruises, which held the lease. When Royal Caribbean acquired that company in 1988, it assumed the lease. After substantial improvements, Royal Caribbean re-opened the port in 1990.
"Yoga on the beach was offered through the fitness center….a wonderful start to a relaxing day on the beach. BRING CASH for the straw market on the island. There are a few shops run by RC that will take your cruise card, but the local shops require cash." - From Cruiseline user: divadoc
Royal Caribbean invested over $20 million into renovations and additions. From new snorkeling and scuba-diving facilities and expanded docks to additional restaurants, bars, and shops, the renovations touched all areas of the island.
Prior to having the name “Coco Cay,” the island was called “Little Stirrup Cay” and leased by Admiral Cruises. Royal Caribbean renamed it in 1988 after acquiring the leaseholder.
GREAT STIRRUP CAY - Bahamas
Great Stirrup Cay is owned by Norwegian Cruise line and is located adjacent to Coco Cay (owned by Royal Caribbean). The island is a protected marine life sanctuary and hosts an abundance of birds, lizards, and crabs. Expect to have a very relaxing day here, with steel drum music playing all day and white sand beaches as far as the eye can see.
Like some of the surrounding islands, Great Stirrup Cay served as a great hideout for pirates looking to attack merchant ships coming in and out of these channels. You can still see remnants of pirate structures on the island today. Great Stirrup Cay had a colorful history after the days of pirates. It was used by Europe to assist in the cotton trade, by the U.S. for observational equipment during World War II, and by a major oil company for exploration and also a corporate retreat in 1977.
- 600 A.D. – Great Stirrup Cay is inhabited by the Indian tribes, Lucian and Arawaks.
- 1700’s – Pirates use the island to attack merchant ships sailing nearby
- 1863 – the Imperial Lighthouse is erected. It stands 80 feet tall and can be seen for 20 miles.
- 1977 – Belcher Oil Company has a corporate retreat on the island.
- 2014 – the island is hit by a hurricane. The damage has since been fixed.
Get a cabana, it was totally worth it for a group. Also don’t go to the first beach its so crowded. Walk down a little further and the beach is completely empty. Also bring your own snorkel gear because you can snorkel off the beach.
From Cruiseline user: abbyldillon – full cruise review here
In 2011, Norwegian Cruise Line spent over $25M on improvements to Great Stirrup Cay. Included in this renovation was:
- a new marina, along with deeper channels for tenders
- new beach areas were added along
- additional shopping venues built
- significant landscaping improvements
- additional beachfront cabanas
- enhancements to the sporting area
During World War II, the island was used by the U.S. to track enemy submarines. Two cables were laid on the ocean floor and the monitoring systems were placed here on Great Stirrup Cay. You can see remnants of these structures on the island today.
HALF MOON CAY - Bahamas
Half Moon Cay was previously known as “Little San Salvador Island.” It’s among the 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, and is situated roughly 10 miles southeast of Nassau.
The island is one of the largest of the private cruise line port islands at 2,400 acres. However, less than 50 of those acres are actually developed. Among the remaining area, a 700-acre lagoon exists and a large portion is a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. Upon acquiring the rights to the island, Holland America named it “Half Moon Cay” due to the crescent-shaped beach that spans roughly 2 miles on the northwest face of the port. In Dec 2015, Half Moon Cay was voted “Best Cruise Private Island” for the 3rd year in a row.
In the mid-’90s, Holland America purchased the island for $6M. At the time, the island had absolutely no infrastructure. The cruise line had the challenge of building it out to suite thousands of visitors, while also maintaining it’s habitat and wildlife. The island required all mechanical systems, electrical generators, sewer treatment plants, incineration facilities, and a reverse osmosis water treatment center. Before it was able to add all of this, Holland America had to raise the developed areas by 14 feet! Additionally, a marina was developed to assist in the tendering required to get passengers to shore.
- 1996: Holland America acquires the island for $6M
- 1997: Half Moon Cay is officially opened for operation
- 2015: Half Moon Cay voted “Best Cruise Private Island” for 3rd straight year
if you have the extra money, rent a villa. You get fruit, snacks and drinks. It is 2 levels with a hot tub and private bathroom, AC, ceiling fan, kitchen, scuba gear, beach chairs, etc. Well worth the money.
From Cruiseline user: Deniseg – full cruise review here
The island wasn’t named “Half Moon Cay” solely for it’s crescent-shaped beach. You’ll also notice the half-moon in Holland America’s logo!
HARVEST CAY - Belize
Norwegian is betting the farm on this one. The project to acquire and to build out the island (just off the coast of Belize) is part of a $400M investment! The 75-acre resort-style development will consist of a massive pool, swim-up bar, salt-water lagoon for water sports, huge beach, and access to the second-largest barrier reef. For those into nature, Harvest Caye offers a wide variety of eco-cultural activities. There’s an opportunity to observe manatees in the lagoon, get a close look at toucans and macaws in the aviary, and check out some slithery reptiles such as boa constrictors in the educational center.
Harvest Caye was originally scheduled to be open in February 2016. The Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) sued NCL in 2014 to try and halt development. The continued battle has since delayed the port’s debut. The BTIA claims that the cruise line is rushing development without consulting with local environmental experts. While the cruise line performed an Environmental Impact Assessment, the tourism board claims it was flawed. While some judgments have favored the BTIA, it appears NCL has succeeded in moving forward with development. The first ship arrival was November 2016.
- 2013: Belize government sells Harvest Caye to Norwegian Cruise Line for $50M.
- 2014: Belize Tourism Industry Association sues NCL to halt development
- 2016: First cruise ship arrival slated for November 2016
“There is so much to do on the island from the spectacular seven acre beach and watersports to interactive wildlife programs. Beyond Harvest Caye, we will strongly encourage our guests to explore Belize through the spectacular eco-adventure and cultural tours this incredible destination has to offer visitors.”
– Andy Stuart (NCL President)
While trying to move forward with the development, NCL and the Belize Tourism Industry Association had a dramatic courtroom battle for the rights to continue building. BTIA received favorable judgments but ultimately couldn’t challenge NCL. The financial risk would be too large in the case that it later lost to NCL.
LABADEE - Hati
The name “Haiti” means “Land of Mountains” in the native Indian (Taino) language. Labadee is situated on the northern side of Haiti. Royal Caribbean has leased the port section of Labadee since 1986 and currently holds this lease through 2050. The port area is completely blocked off to the surrounding area. Locals aren’t able to access this section of the island and cruisers can’t leave this area. Roughly 500 Haitians are employed within Labadee. Labadee features a meandering coastline, which creates multiple lagoon-like bays, surrounded by a coral reef. As such, snorkeling is a very popular activity while at port. Other popular activities include lounging on the beautiful beaches or exploring the markets and restaurants. For the more adventurous, the zip-line and coaster are available.
According to Royal Caribbean, Christopher Columbus took control of Haiti in 1492 on behalf of Spain. At the time, it was inhabited by the Indian tribes, Taino and Arawak.
The French later inhabited Haiti and relied heavily on slave labor to grow crops. The country experienced some economic, social and political turmoil with the French Revolution.
Haiti still experiences hardships in these areas.
- 1986: Royal Caribbean leases Labadee from the Haitian government
- 1991: it’s revealed that cruise tourists weren’t being told that they were docking in Haiti when Labadee was included in their itinerary
- 2004: Due to political unrest, Royal Caribbean temporarily stops docking at Labadee
- 2009: Royal Caribbean pumps $55 million into improving the facility – this includes a dock upgrade to allow for its largest ships
- 2010: After the Haitian Earthquake, Royal Caribbean helps with $1M and use of its supplies and equipment
- 2016: In January, Haitians use boats to block access to Royal Caribbean as protest to the Haitian government and elections. The port stop is only canceled for a day
Relaxing beach side day. If you want to swim or get in water; the side near the port is best for that. Ocean side has too many rocks to be able to walk into ocean. Bring your water shoes.
From Cruiseline user: carolchristman
In 2009, Royal Caribbean made $55 million in improvements to the facilities, including upgrading port facilities to allow docking of their largest cruise ships. Other additions include:
- a new welcome plaza
- five walking paths to explore areas throughout the peninsula
- the new “Dragon’s Plaza” featuring the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line (the world’s longest zip line over water)
- Labadee Town Square and Haitian Cultural Museum
- Cafe Labadee and Bar
- an artisan market
- new Alpine Coaster (like a roller coaster but on a mountain-side)
Royal Caribbean pays the Haitian government $12 for every passenger that gets off of the ship in Labadee.
OCEAN CAY - Bahamas
Ocean Cay is the latest private island port to the game. Situated just 65 miles east of Miami, it’s also the closest to the US. In 2015, MSC Cruiseline made an agreement with the Bahamian government to develop the 95-acre property. The project is slated to take roughly two years and cost a whopping $200M. MSC’s vision was to convert this into a thriving marine reserve which also supports thousands of daily cruise passengers. Some of the features include a 2,000 seat amphitheater, restaurants and bars, six beaches, an inland lagoon, a cross-island zip-line, and a pavilion for weddings and other celebrations.
- 2015: MSC signs 100-year lease to secure Ocean Cay
- 2017: Planned first cruise ship stop
“Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve and its exclusive offerings will be a magnificent extension of our shipboard experiences. We ensure every decision we make keeps each of our ships true to the promise of our brand, offering the authenticity and quality our guests expect.”
– Pierfrancesco Vago (MSC Executive Chairman)
Previously, the site held a sand extraction station. Sand is mined for many reasons, such as to make concrete, to de-ice roads, and to replace eroded coastlines and beaches.
PRINCESS CAYS - Bahamas
Unlike some of the other private ports, Princess Cays occupies a portion of the inhabited island of Eleuthera. The population of the entire island is roughly 11,000 residents, but typically cruise passengers traveling to Princess Cays don’t explore the area outside of the cruise line’s secluded section. The entire island of Eleuthera is the longest of the Bahamian islands, measuring over 80 miles from the northernmost tip to the most southern point.
Like many of the Bahamian islands, Eleuthera was originally inhabited by Indian tribes and later claimed by Europeans. From 1950 to 1980, the island was prosperous and attracted the attention of notable figures like Robert Dinero, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. When the Bahamas became independent of Britain in 1973, the local Bahamian government started to enforce restrictive policies on major businesses on the island (resorts and agriculture, mostly). Specifically, these businesses were required to sell government-favored Bahamian interests. As a result, many of these businesses collapsed and the economy suffered as a result.
- 1550: it’s around this time that the original inhabitants, the Taino & Arawak Indian tribes died out.
- 1648: European settlers arrive
- 1973: Bahamas becomes independent from Brittain
- 1992: Princess cruise lines opens Princess Cays to its cruise passengers.
Everything is right there. The water beautiful and lots of activities from water sports to volleyball to sunbathing. Even a special place for the little ones with a playground and activities! BBQ lunch was just so-so but then you can always go back to the ship to eat if you want.
From Cruiseline user: JohnG41 – full cruise review here
There are two cement graves on the beach roughly 1.5 miles north of the cruise port marina. Both women were buried in the mid-1940s and somehow these graves and headstones ended up on the beach.
So tell us, which private cruise port would you most like to visit and why? And if you’ve been to any of these, please leave a comment below letting our readers know what you thought. Feel free to include your likes, dislikes, tips and any other info that might be helpful
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