If you’re taking a cruise to the Caribbean, there’s a good chance it will make a stop at a cruise line private island or destination. Just about every cruise line has its own spot dedicated solely to their passengers.
These ports are typically located in The Bahamas, with some others spread around the Caribbean. And while they used to simply be a spot with a nice beach and water, they’ve now turned into so much more.
Companies have poured hundreds of millions of dollars to transform once sleepy islands into complete destinations. This can include things like cabanas, ziplines, and even enormous pools and waterparks in some cases.
Who comes out on top? Below, we rank what we believe are the top private destinations. But first, let’s dive into a little more about what these spots are and why they are so popular.
What to Expect From Private Islands
What exactly is the big deal with a private destination for the cruise line? As the name suggests, it’s a spot — sometimes an island and sometimes a carveout of a larger island — that’s operated purely for cruise line guests.
Everyone and everything on the island revolves around cruise passengers. You won’t find other random vacationers here. In most ways you can consider the islands simply an extension of the cruise ship.
That catering to cruise passengers means your every need is considered. Food is provided. Bars are plentiful. If needed, there are shuttles that will run at no cost. It makes the entire day easy.
Consider trying to get to the beach in a regular port like Cozumel. There, you’ll need to figure out which beach to go to, make your way through throngs of shops, find a taxi, and then in some cases pay an entrance fee to a beach club or restaurant for a chair and umbrella.
For private islands, you simply walk to the beach where there are chairs already setup and find a spot all your own.
There are some drawbacks. One thing you won’t really get with a private destination is a sense of local culture or going off the beaten path. For many cruise passengers, however, they simply want a beautiful place where they can easily relax, have a drink, and get some sun. Private destinations are exactly that.
So which are the best? Here’s our favorites.
Best Overall: Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean)
When it comes to private islands, at least right now there is CocoCay and then everything else. Several years ago Royal Caribbean spent hundreds of millions to completely revamp the island. It used to be a sleepy spot where you docked offshore and then took a tender in. Now you dock right at the island, and it’s unrecognizable to what it looked like before.
Today, CocoCay features multiple beaches with loungers and umbrellas, including Harbor Beach, a cove inlet that has calm water no matter the weather. A massive tower of waterslides anchors Thrill Waterpark, which offers not only slides, but a wave pool, and obstacle pool. There are splash pads for kids, the massive Oasis Lagoon, and ziplines for those looking for adventure.
Want something more exclusive? Check out the Coco Beach Club, a premium area with its own infinity pool and where lunch includes choices of steak, lobster, and more. Royal Caribbean also continues to expand the features on CocoCay with the addition of Hideaway Beach. This new spot is adults-only, giving those that want to relax without kids around an area to enjoy with everything you need for the entire day including its own restaurants, bars, and pools.
Whether you want to just relax at the beach, or you have kids that want to be active all day, or you want something high-end like lobster and an over-the-water cabana, CocoCay can offer it all.
One drawback is that pricing for many extras like the beach club, waterpark, and Hideaway Beach can be expensive. We’ve seen the waterpark priced at $150+ per person and more. There’s still plenty to do without a charge, but the best activities mean opening your wallet.
Best Relaxed Destination: Ocean Cay (MSC)
MSC isn’t as well-known in North America as bigger rivals like Royal Caribbean or Carnival. That doesn’t keep it from making a splash with some of the least-expensive cruises you find and one of the best private islands around.
Ocean Cay cost a reported $300 million to develop, and it’s likely much of that cost is due to the private island’s size. Put simply, the spot is massive and by far the largest private island we’ve visited. Best of all, it’s all for MSC passengers.
What we find best, however, is the ability to relax on Ocean Cay. While CocoCay is impressive, there’s also a lot going on. Ocean Cay is much more subdued. No waterslides, no party pool area or blaring music. It’s just lots of beach and lots of the most electric-blue water you’ve ever seen.
Given the size, while there are busy areas, you can always find spots to spread out. So if you’re looking for a place where you can just relax on the beach in paradise, this is it.
One other plus? MSC offers overnight stays on many cruises, giving you the chance to enjoy the island much later in the day — and even into the night.
Best for Carnival Fans: Half Moon Cay (Carnival)
Taking a Carnival Cruise? The big news is that the cruise line is building a massive new private destination — Celebration Key — on Grand Bahama Island. For now, however, Half Moon Cay takes the crown as the top destination for the cruise line’s fans.
If you like beaches, how about an uninterrupted white-sand beach that’s more than a mile long? Oh yeah, it also curves around some of the most beautiful water on the planet. That’s Half Moon Cay, from Carnival.
Want to relax? There’s plenty of space to find a lounger to just take in the sun and surf. If you want something more active, you can go bike riding, horseback riding, or snorkeling. You can even kayak through a protected lagoon.
One thing you must do is get a photo in front of the “I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever” sign that’s practically as famous as the destination itself.
Best for Smaller Kids: Castaway Cay (Disney)
If you have teens or older kids, then we think CocoCay is the best private destination given the number of things to do that fit in the more active category. For smaller kids, you can’t beat Disney’s Castaway Cay.
Like anything to do with Disney, it was all designed with families in mind. That starts with the smart design of the space, which is built behind a rock wall in the water to create a massive lagoon. So even if the ocean is choppy, the water here will always be calm.
That’s complemented by wide swathes of beaches and a shore that gently slopes into the water. There are cabanas to rent, and lots for kids to do from a game pavilion to splash pad, biking/nature trails, rentals, small waterslides, and snorkeling. Of course, there are also your favorite Disney characters making the rounds as well.
Want to take a break? Adults also have Serenity Bay, which is only for those over 18 and even physically removed from the rest of the family areas to provide more relaxation.
Best for Adults: The Beach Club (Virgin Voyages)
It only makes sense that if you want the best cruise line private destination for adults, then you should stick with the only cruise line made for adults.
The Beach Club located on Bimini is Virgin’s take on a private destination. It’s a small carve out of the larger island, and frankly, it’s not a large spot compared to other cruise line destinations. But it is unique in that there will never be any kids here.
The style is bohemian, and a large pool runs the width of the club, and beyond that are rows of loungers along a white sand beach. During the morning, the atmosphere is calm and relaxing. There’s light music playing, the spot is relatively uncrowded and there’s plenty of space.
During the afternoon, things get more lively as The Beach Club fills in and the staff put on the inflatable pool party, complete with inflatable rafts, a DJ, and dancers.
Above all, it’s a spot where you can enjoy yourself without kids and in a spot that caters to adults only.
Honorable Mention: Great Stirrup Cay (NCL)
Honestly, we think Great Stirrup Cay can make a claim to a number of different categories above. It’s a great overall private island, but it’s also relaxed, and great for adults. It just so happens that other destinations barely top it in specific categories.
Great Stirrup Cay is next to CocoCay… literally. You can see one island from the other. After taking a tender to shore, you’re greeted with a long stretch of white sand beach, lots of seating, food options galore, and plenty of space to find somewhere quieter if you want.
Want something exclusive? There are cabins for rent at the end of the island known as Silver Cove. These high-end spots encircle a private lagoon only for guests that spend the money for the beachfront cabin for the day.
As for adventure, a zipline runs across the island and paddling and snorkeling excursions can take you out in the water.
There are a couple of drawbacks. First, there is no pool, which many people prefer to swimming in the ocean. As well, since it is a tender port the weather needs to cooperate for you to visit. We’ve personally been on a cruise supposed to stop here and couldn’t because it was too breezy (despite being an otherwise beautiful day).
More on Private Destinations:
- CocoCay: 21+ Tips & Things to Know for Royal Caribbean’s Private Island (Prices, What to Do, And More)
- Ocean Cay (MSC’s Private Island): Complete Guide, Tips, & Things to Know
- 17 Tips, Answers, and Things to Know About Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian’s Private Island)