Sitting just 65 miles off the coast of Miami in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay (pronounced Ocean “Key”) is the newest gem in the lineup of private islands run by major cruise lines.
Ocean Cay is the pride of MSC Cruises, which calls on the island for extended visits from ports in Florida, including Miami and Tampa.
So what’s so special about the island? Put simply, it’s a paradise for cruise passengers. Transformed from a former industrial sand excavation site, MSC put roughly $300 million into renovating the spot to become a must-see spot.
While there is still work to be done, passengers can enjoy white-sand beaches, plenty of space to lounge, and electric blue waters. In short, if you’re taking a cruise because you want sun, beach, and sand, then Ocean Cay is exactly what you’re looking for.
During our recent visit we spent hours exploring and enjoying the island to give you some ideas on what to expect, but also tips on visiting to make your stay even more enjoyable.
Your Visits Last Well Into the Evening
With the location of Ocean Cay just 65 miles from Miami, that gives it a unique advantage over most other cruise ports. The ship can make it back home to port in just a few hours. This allows MSC to offer extended stays at the island that last well into the night.
For instance, you might arrive and be able to go into port at 10 a.m. and not have to be back on the ship until 10:30 p.m. This gives you the chance to enjoy the entire island all day and even well into the evening.
That’s a rarity among most cruise ports, where you often have to be back on the ship by 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
As well, the cruise line puts on a spectacular lighthouse show (shown above) each night that you don’t want to miss.
Your Drink Package Works on the Island
Just like other cruise lines, MSC offers a full lineup of drink packages. With these deals you pay a set amount ahead of time and then get your fill of drinks without having to worry about the bill at the end of the trip.
Typically drink packages don’t work in port. However, since Ocean Cay is operated by MSC, they allow you to use your drink package on the island just like you would on the ship.
Ocean Cay has bars dotted all around the island, so you are never far from an opportunity to use the drink package. Take advantage of this perk to save some money on drinking in the port.
Wi-Fi Also Extends to the Island
Years ago, Internet on a cruise ship was a luxury. These days it’s seemingly a necessity. Luckily for cruise passengers, you don’t have to go without online access just because you are in port.
When you get an Internet package while sailing, that package extends to Ocean Cay, and you can use it just like on the ship. So whether you are checking e-mail or posting that pic to Instagram, you can do it from the beach on the island.
Bring Your Towel From the Ship
When you go to the beach, don’t forget to bring your towel. You’ll have a big orange beach towel in your cabin when you arrive on the ship (if not, head to the towel station by the pool). This is meant for you to bring to shore on Ocean Cay.
Remember to keep this towel with you and bring it back with you when you come back from the beach. There’s a $20 charge for towels that aren’t returned at the end of the cruise.
South Beach Can Get Crowded
The closest beach to the cruise ship is Lighthouse Bay. It sits right at the front of the ship, giving you views of the lighthouse and the ship.
But the most popular beach in our experience is South Beach. As you walk off the ship, it’s a straight shot through the “village” area and past the Seakers buffet.
During the mornings the area is relatively uncrowded but more people come as the day goes on. By the early afternoon, it can be a packed beach.
Even With Crowds, There’s Still Plenty of Space
We mentioned a crowded South Beach, but don’t let that scare you off. Truth is that Ocean Cay is huge, with multiple beaches. That means there is plenty of space, no matter which beach you want to go to. Even if you walk down a little you can find open space on South Beach.
What’s especially nice is that many beaches are so large that MSC has spaced out the beach loungers. So instead of having lounger after lounger next to each other, they are staggered in many spots (not all) to give everyone breathing space.
Take Advantage of the Lagoon
Wonder why South Beach is so popular with passengers? Not only is it a straight shot from the ship, but it also sits on a “lagoon” that features calm water, no matter what the open ocean is doing.
Ocean Cay is actually made of two islands, with a small outer island wrapping around South Beach to protect it. The result is that the large body of water between the two is always calm.
During our visit the wind was whipping at the edges of the island, which caused rough surf. But this lagoon formed between the two islands was as calm as a pond with gorgeous blue water.
Chairs Are Free, Umbrellas Are Not
One of the few disappointments on Ocean Cay is there is a lack of shade. Of course the beach is bright and sunny, with thousands of loungers laid out, free for anyone to use. Just pick one you like and claim it.
In between every pair of loungers is an umbrella stand, but they don’t have umbrellas. To get one you have to rent it ($12.99 during our cruise). Given the power of the sun in the Bahamas we don’t like that you can’t get some access to shade while on the beach without having to pay for it. Still, it’s a small price to pay to avoid looking like a lobster at the end of the day.
Use the Free Tram to Get Around the Island
Let’s make one thing clear — for a private island, Ocean Cay is large. We’ve been to other islands run by cruise lines and while the island itself may be large, the area reserved for passenger use is relatively small. That’s not the case on Ocean Cay.
We’d estimate it would take about 30 minutes to walk the entire island, and that’s at a good pace. At the end of the day we were exhausted from exploring every inch of the cay.
Instead, use the free tram that runs constantly to points around the island. These tractors pulling carts can save you a lot of time and energy when getting from point to point.
Each Bar Has a Water Station
Smart cruise passengers know to stay hydrated. Without realizing it, you can quickly get dehydrated when laying out in the hot sun or even swimming in the water.
While plastic bottles are discouraged on Ocean Cay for environmental reasons, each bar has a water station that you can use to fill up your reusable bottle or glass. They are located on the backside of each bar. Just walk up and fill up. There are also water fountains at each restroom if you need a drink.
Two Spots Offer Great Pictures
Want to get a snapshot to remember your trip to the island? We recommend two different spots to get a great shot.
First, if you want a picture of you and the ship, head over to Lighthouse Bay. This beachy spot puts you in a great spot with the front of the cruise ship surrounded by sand and blue water. There are also lots of brightly colored umbrellas and beach chairs that add to the atmosphere.
The second spot we recommend is the bridge that connects the two islands that make up Ocean Cay. This spot gives you a perfect backdrop of the lagoon with electric blue water while you can pose against the bridge railing.
Use the Beach Shack to Eat Without the Lines
Right now there are two different spots to get something to eat on the island. The first is Seakers, which is a huge buffet with tons of seating. It’s the main spot that the majority of people seem to eat.
The only issue is that around lunchtime the lines can get long. Instead, we recommend trying the Beach Shack.
There are multiple Beach Shacks dotted around the island, so no matter where you are, there’s one that’s close by. They serve burgers (including veggie burgers) and dogs, similar to the buffet. But with so many around the island, the lines are short, even at lunchtime when it can take some waiting to eat at the main buffet.
If you’re hungry and don’t like waiting, take advantage.
The Ship’s Casino Is Open in Port
Do you love to play in the casino while on a cruise? If so then you might know that casinos are normally open only when the cruise ship is out at sea. When you are in port, it’s closed.
That’s not the case on Ocean Cay. During our visit we noticed that the casino was open all day while docked in port. Of course, it was pretty quiet during the day, but picked up in the evening as more people made their way back onto the ship.
Ocean Cay Is Still a Work in Progress
While there is a lot to love about Ocean Cay, don’t expect it to be a perfect tropical paradise just yet. The beaches and water are unmatched, but many parts of the island is still a work in progress.
For instance, we had a construction yard in the middle of the island. Meanwhile, MSC is planting 75,000 trees and plants around the island and many of them are freshly done. This makes the island look somewhat barren and there are large stretches of sand that are dotted with new palm trees.
In the coming years it is obvious that the island will be a lush space with lots of greenery and shady palms. For right now, it still has some growing to do.
Want to know more about Ocean Cay? See our complete guide to the island here.