The private island retreat has been a part of cruising since 1977, when Norwegian Cruise Line leased Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas from an oil company. The line would go on to purchase the island outright in 1986, and since then the cruise industry hasn’t looked back.
These days, lines including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America, Disney and MSC all have access to their own little slice of paradise, where guests can enjoy a holiday experience that’s truly unique. And with more renovations planned, and new islands being bought each year, the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
Critics of the cruise industry often point to overtourism as one of the downsides of its success, and the locals in ports such as Venice would agree. How to tackle the problem? Create your own destination. After all, if hundreds of guests are soaking up the sun at Norwegian’s Harvest Caye, they can’t be swamping tiny islands like Anguilla and St Barts. Here’s our pick of the best cruise line private islands to take you away from the crowds.
Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line
You can ride on horseback across the beach – and that’s all it takes to sell us on this luxurious private island for guests of Holland America Line. Situated in the Bahamas (a common theme among cruise-line private islands) and covering a positively spacious 2,400-acres, Half Moon Cay is the holiday destination you always dreamed of. Whether you’re sampling the finest seafood at the Lobster Shack, dining in the shaded pavilions of The Tropics restaurant or enjoying a couple of cold ones in the Captain Morgan On The Rocks bar, there’s no shortage of ways to relax and enjoy this pristine location.
You can even get married here (or renew your vows) at the chapel. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that. Want to take your day of luxury up another level? Book yourself one of the deluxe beach villas that line the shore, and relax in pampered comfort with a hot tub, private sun deck and (for an extra cost) personal butler service. You’ll never come closer to living like an A-list celebrity.
Motu Mahana, Paul Gauguin Cruises
Paul Gauguin Cruises may be small, but this US-based South Pacific specialist is a mighty contender if you’re looking for a truly knockout private island. In fact, Motu Mahana (just off the coast of Taha’a, one of more than 100 islands that make up French Polynesia) is as close to paradise as you are likely to find on your travels. Technically an islet rather than an island, Motu Mahana is perfection in miniature.
Here you can bask on the white sand beach or hop in a kayak and get more closely acquainted with the turquoise waters (should you get too closely acquainted, there’s a floating bar waiting to rescue you with your favourite cocktail, served in a coconut). It’s authentic, too. Upon disembarking from your tender, you’ll be greeted with traditional songs played by the locals, who will lead you in dancing and singing (should the mood take you).
They are also on hand throughout the day to demonstrate other Polynesian skills including basket-weaving, sarong-tying and preparing the traditional Tahitian dish of poisson cru (or in other words, sushi). Rather more to our taste, there’s always a delicious beach barbecue of grilled chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs. Bon appétit!
Cococay, Royal Caribbean
Trust Royal Caribbean to reinvent the entire concept of private islands. Traditionally these are simple affairs, with plenty of space to relax, good food and drink, great snorkelling and perhaps a little beach badminton to liven things up. But CocoCay, which finally opens to the cruise-going public this month, after much anticipation, isn’t just an island – it’s an experience.
Perfect Day at CocoCay is the result of Royal Caribbean’s $200 million renovation of its own piece of Bahamian real estate, reimagining it as a sun-kissed theme park. A riotous festival of colour and fun, it’s packed with attractions including no fewer than 10 waterslides, a wave pool, helium balloon ride, a zipline and the Oasis Lagoon, which claims to be the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean (it’s actually in the Atlantic but we’ll let that pass).
And there’s more than just thrill rides to look forward to. Two huge beaches – South Beach and Chill Island – are open for you to explore, and there are multiple dining options including Captain Jack’s, where the chicken wings are said to be sensational. Even better, there’s the Coco Beach Club, which you can hire to enjoy in peace, quiet and (relative) solitude. It sounds like the perfect mix of thrill and chill – and we can’t wait to visit.
Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line started the private island trend in 1977, and with the opening of Harvest Caye almost 40 years later, you could say they’ve perfected it. Here, in the balmy Caribbean waters off the coast of Belize, you’ll find every amenity you can possibly think of – from a pier that allows your ship to dock alongside the island, to a swimming pool that covers a third of an acre, and a 1,300ft zipline that hangs a scream-inducing 100ft off the ground.
In other words, this is the perfect place to relax on the beach while the kids go off and explore. But NCL has an extra trick up its sleeve, in the form of Harvest Caye’s own nature centre. Here you can discover the colourful local flora and fauna, including macaws and toucans, plus all manner of small furry creatures. And then there’s the Blue Morpho Butterfly Sanctuary where you can spot hundreds of exotic species flying around in a glass house. What’s more, everything is built and operated with the help of local people from Belize, helping to create an authentic vibe for this totally fabulous island in the sun.
Sir Bani Yas Island, MSC Cruises
Admittedly, MSC doesn’t own Sir Bani Yas Island. It doesn’t even lease it. But the Swiss-Italian giant still qualifies for our guide, thanks to a magnificent stretch of land that it has transformed into a ‘beach oasis’, exclusively for its own guests.
The 1.5 mile enclave in the United Arab Emirates comes with hundreds of palm trees and more than 2,000 sunbeds (well spaced out, naturally), plus a shoreside version of MSC’s Aurea Spa where you can choose from a selection of relaxing massages in its beachside cabana huts (sea view included).
But it’s the more active options that really stand out. With easy access to the island’s famous Arabian Wildlife Park – home to more than 13,000 animals, including cheetahs and giraffes, as well as millions of trees and plants – there are some seriously exciting excursion options. Guests can try horse-riding or go on a safari-style drive to watch the animals gather at a watering hole. And for anyone who hasn’t got their land legs yet, there are opportunities to go kayaking or even take a sailing tour round the island in a traditional Arabian dhow.
Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line
It should be no surprise that the ultimate family entertainment company brings you the best private island for family fun cruises. Back in the 1990s, Disney took a long lease on Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, turning it into the first private island where cruise ships could actually dock, rather than tendering their guests to port.
Onshore the recipe is familiar but none the worse for that, with plenty of your favourite Disney characters ready and waiting to take pictures with the kids. But we think most younger cruisers will speed right past Mickey and friends on their way to the Pelican Plunge, where they can take a thrill-ride on two twisting waterslides before trying to avoid a shriek-inducing ‘bucket dump’ into the lagoon below.
Meanwhile, you can channel Jacques Cousteau in the aptly named Snorkelling Lagoon. True family fun means something just for grown-ups, too, and here again Disney doesn’t disappoint. Adults-only Serenity Bay offers massages, cocktails and a beach barbecue – so there could be a few hours’ precious me-time for Mum and Dad.