One of my first private island visits was off a Princess Cruises ship and I felt like a kid in a candy store with all sorts of fun things to do: snorkeling, jet skiing, sunning, ziplining, eating, drinking and just enjoying the sun and surf. It also felt safe since it was, after all, owned by the cruise line and manned by crew from the ship. I’ve since stopped at more of these tropical playgrounds off cruises by Disney, Holland America, Celebrity and Costa.
For those looking for a quick splash and dash to the Caribbean, these tropical playgrounds are the equivalent of a sheltered waterpark adventure. Don't expect any real cultural immersion, but do come — alone, with friends or family — if you're looking for no-frills fun and relaxation and even the occasional eco-tour at these tourist resorts.
Oh, and one little tip for first-timers before you board your banana boat or sidle into a tiki hut: "Cay" is pronounced "key."
Here are 9 Caribbean private islands and island resorts — including the relatively new Harvest Caye and Amber Cove — and the cruise lines that operate them.
- Harvest Caye (Belize)
- Amber Cove (Dominican Republic)
- Labadee (Haiti)
- Half Moon Cay (Bahamas)
- Castaway Cay (Bahamas)
- Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas)
- Princess Cays (Bahamas)
- CocoCay (Bahamas)
- Catalina Island (Dominican Republic)
Harvest Caye, Belize
Cruise line: Norwegian Cruise Line
Harvest Caye in southern Belize opened in November 2016 after three years of development by Norwegian and immediately became one of the best private islands in the cruise industry. Located on a 78-acre island about a mile off the mainland, Harvest Caye offers what the capital of Belize City does not: an inviting Caribbean beach resort with plenty of comfort and amenities.
Features include a pretty seven-acre beach lined with lounge chairs, a huge swimming pool with a swim-up bar, ziplining, water activities such as kayaking, paddle-boarding, snorkeling in the world's second largest barrier reef, shopping, bars, eateries — and a pier for receiving cruise mega-ships (no tendering here, yay!).
Excursions on the island include:
- A nature center with boa constrictors, scarlet macaws and toucans
Excursions on the mainline — a 15-minute boat ride away and with prices up to $109 — include:
- Mayan archaeological ruins
- Tropical spice farm
- Savannah ecotour by boat
- Rainforest river tubing and rafting
Cruise lines: Royal Caribbean, Azamara
Labadee is a private resort on the north coast of Haiti leased by Royal Caribbean International. The resort has seen recent enhancements and now features seven different “neighborhoods”: Buccaneer’s Bay, Dragon’s Plaza, Labadee Town Square, Adrenaline Beach, Columbus Cove, Nellie’s Beach and the Barefoot Beach Club. Ride a rollercoaster at Adrenaline Beach, play at the aqua park in Columbus Cove or lounge in one of 20 private cabanas at the Beach Club, an experience exclusive to guests residing in a Grand Suite or above on a Royal Caribbean ship.
Excursions at Labadee include:
- Dragon's Breath zipline
- Bay of Labadee kayaking tour
- Wave Jet tour
Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
Cruise lines: Carnival, Holland America, Cunard, Costa
Amber Cove opened in October 2015 on the outskirts of exotic Puerto Plata— established by Christopher Columbus as the first European settlement in the Americas — on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, and by all accounts she's a beauty. (I haven't visited yet.) Columbus probably wouldn't recognize the posh retreat with its sleek bars, pools, lounges, shops, zipline and private cabanas. (Doubt if swim-up bars were big in Chris's day.) The 30-acre, $85 million project hosts more than 250,000 passengers a year.
Be aware: There's no beach here — Amber Cove is not an island — but there is an enormous swimming pool and hundreds of lounges for visitors to kick back and sip tropical drinks.
Fun fact: Amber Coast was one of the settings for scenes in the original movie "Jurassic Park."
Excursions at Amber Cove include:
- Swimming with the dolphins and interactions with sea creatures at Ocean World
- Watersports & eco-tours
- Cable car ride up to Mount Isabel
- Culinary tours
- Outback Terracross Adventure
- Paradise Island by speed boat & snorkel
Half Moon Cay, the Bahamas
Cruise lines: Holland America Line & Carnival
Half Moon Cay offers a fun experience that is supervised by an efficient staff from your ship that provides passengers with whatever they need. Located near beautiful Eleuthera in the Bahamas, the 2,400-acre island is all about steady sunshine and warm tropical waters. Swim, snorkel and enjoy the beautiful beaches. Half Moon Lagoon water park offers large water creatures for climbing, water cannons and a pirate ship waterslide perfect for kids.
Carnival and its sister line Holland America operate Half Moon Cay. If you book it in advance, for a fee they'll put you in a private cabana, which includes an outdoor fresh water shower/misting station and indoor dining room and changing area. Once on site, guests are attended to by private butlers; they fill beverage glasses and prepare hot and chilled appetizers.
Excursions at Half Moon Cay include:
- Bike eco tour
- Stingray Bay adventure
- Horseback riding on the beach
Castaway Cay, the Bahamas
Cruise line: Disney
Castaway Cay in the northern Bahamas is pretty magical, with its white sand and swimming spots for all ages. The best part is that Disney Wonder, Disney Magic, Disney Dream or Disney Fantasy pulls right up to a dock rather than anchor in the sea so you don’t have to waste time in launches (tenders) getting to the beach. Diversions at this 1,000-acre getaway include the Castaway Family Beach, Serenity Bay for adults, a teens-only activity area called The Hide Out and supervised programs for children at Scuttle's Cove. There are also numerous water sports, biking, snorkeling parasailing, fishing and various water tour excursions.
Fun fact: This is where Tom Hanks encounters his mermaid (Daryl Hannah) in “Splash.”
Excursions at Castaway Cay include:
- Glass bottom boat scenic adventure
- Abaco backcountry fishing adventure
- The wildside teen adventure
- Watercraft ski adventure
Great Stirrup Cay, the Bahamas
Cruise line: Norwegian
Great Stirrup Cay sits about 120 nautical miles east of Fort Lauderdale in the Berry Island chain of the Bahamas. Operated by Norwegian Cruise Line, the cay features snorkeling, paddleboats, sailboats, kayaks and parasailing. They’ve expanded their beachfront area, added a new Tender Pavilion (which makes getting on and off the island easier) and new dining facilities. The island also has Cabanas on the Cay, private beachfront cabanas that offer exclusive amenities — and Norwegian reports that they are already completely pre-booked for the immediate future.
Norwegian also intends to include a new winding river and additional nature trails and beaches to this already impressive island. The Hippo Water Slide, the world’s largest inflatable waterslide — 40 feet high and 175 feet long — remains a visitor favorite. (This feature does incur a separate cost, but families report it’s not to be missed.)
Excursions at Great Stirrup Cay include:
- Stingray encounter
- Wave runner tour
- Kayak tour
- Snorkel adventure
Princess Cays, the Bahamas
Cruise line: Princess Cruises
Princess Cays takes up a nice slice of the southern portion of alluring Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, about 80 miles from Nassau. This is one of my favorite islands in the sun, with its pristine white-sand beaches and turquoise waters that make for great snorkeling and swimming. You can also rent aqua bikes, seaboards, paddleboats, clear-hull kayaks, sailboats or float rafts. Guests looking for pure relaxation can do some shopping, taste the island cuisine and exotic cocktails or just soak up the warm Caribbean sun. There are plenty of beach umbrellas, tiki huts and hammocks hung beneath dozens of shady trees.
Excursions at Princess Cays include:
- Tarpum Bay scenic drive
- Dune buggy tour
- Surf fishing
- Banana boat ride
CocoCay, the Bahamas
Cruise lines: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and MSC Cruises
CocoCay (formerly Little Stirrup Cay) features the 20,000-square-foot aqua playground Caylana’s Castle Cove, which is exclusively for passengers of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and MSC ships. It’s a perfect spot if you're a fan of tropical waters, with its white-sand beach, WaveRunners, kayaking and more. The waters around CocoCay are so rich in marine life that they earned the nickname of aquarium of the Bahamas. The beaches are lined by coral reefs teeming with vibrant tropical fish, manta rays and sunken wrecks — this is heaven for snorkelers. Perhaps the most popular activity on Coco Cay, however, is parasailing, where guests ascend to 400 feet and get a bird's-eye view of the island.
Excursions at CocoCay include:
- Guided nature walk
- Kayaking and snorkeling adventures
Catalina Island, Dominican Republic
Cruise line: Costa Cruises
Europe-based Costa Cruises ships makes stops at Catalina Island, a UNESCO protected island located just 1.5 miles from the southeast corner of the mainland of the Dominican Republic. The private beach is great for activities such as volleyball, snorkeling, “beach Olympics” and massages. There are lots of fun things to do here: Rent jet skis, go for banana boat rides or simply relax on the beach. Day tours that explore the island are popular. Unlike many of the other enclosed private island resorts, Catalina offers a treasure trove of culture as well as relaxation, with local musicians and exclusive shopping that add to its charm.
Excursions at Catalina Island include:
- Catamaran tours
- Eco tours of rainforest
Note: The line between "private island" and "island resort run by a cruise line" isn't always all that clear. While we included Amber Cove and Labadee, we decided to leave out Mahogany Bay on Honduras's island of Roatan and the Grand Turk Cruise Center in Turks and Caicos, which are more akin to cruise port shopping malls rather than real beach resorts. Both are operated by Carnival. And we also left out the little Motu Mahana private island operated by Paul Gauguin in the South Seas.
Book a cruise to one of these private islands
To book a cruise to one of these private islands, contact a Cruiseable travel advocate at the Plan My Cruise page or call 1-877-322-3773.