Our Own Private Bahamas

I have to admit I have always been a bit skeptical about the whole cruise line private island concept. I read on Cruise Critic that these islands are the favorite stop/port for many cruisers, but I still wasn’t convinced. What do you do? Is it big enough? What’s the point? 

After experiencing Half Moon Cay, Carnival Corporation’s private island in the Bahamas, I think I can speak to some of these impressions and questions.

After a little discussion of whether we would try to make it onto the island for the 9:30 a.m. yoga on the beach, we decided to have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room and avoid the initial frenzied tender-loading at 8:00. For those not familiar with the term, a tender is the smaller boat that takes passengers from an anchored ship to the shore. (Uncle Bill notes that they were called liberty launches in his Navy days.) On the cruise ship, priority in tendering is granted to those who have reserved cabanas or excursions (see below) and those with high “status.” Unlike the chaos in the stairwells on the docked port days, for initial tendering guests must meet in the main showroom and get a ticket. By the time we finished breakfast and went back to our cabin, the cruise director came on the loudspeaker to say that anyone who wanted to go ashore could proceed directly to the gangway (without a ticket). So we got ourselves and our stuff together and did so.

The ride over was uneventful, thankfully. Once ashore, we learned that if one wanted a “clamshell” sunshade, one had to reserve it in advance on the ship. This had not been at all clear from the Half Moon Cay (HMC from here on out) information we got on the ship. So, we proceeded down the beach. 

A little description may be useful here. There’s an entrance area to the developed part of the island, with an information booth, some souvenir booths, and a bar. (Being a private island, everything that was not “included” could be purchased with your ship key card.) The beach area began just after the entry area. The area closest to the entrance had many loungers and most of the clamshells. Along the main section of the beach were small private cabanas. For the sum of $300, up to four people could rent one for the day. Beach floats and sodas were also included. It did not seem like an awesome deal to us. There were also two-story “party cabanas” available. I don’t think any of those were rented by people on our cruise. I suspect they’d be most useful for a large group traveling together.

We walked all the way down past the cabanas. There were still loungers piled up in places and there were some hammocks, but Maureen voted against a hammock. We found a spot under a tree and situated two loungers in the shade. No one was around, except walking by along the water, so it seemed like our own private beach.

We swam and I walked down to the point where the sign indicated that it was both dangerous and prohibited to proceed. I turned around, walking back along the beach and past the stables, dodging some horse leavings.

After some reading, we decided to check out the Island BBQ. I was not surprised that most of the dining staff on the island were staff from the ship, but I was surprised to learn later that they also bring food from the ship. Despite HMC hosting ships most days, they do not seem to maintain an independent supply line. 

The BBQ was actually quite good. In addition to some salads, they served chicken, beef, fruit, and simple desserts. Complimentary drinks were the typical unsweet tea and water, along with fruit punch. Some island inhabitants were puzzled by the foreign fruit. They are bananaquits, so perhaps they prefer bananas.

We took a walk after lunch, but found the paths not super-easy to follow or walk upon. We gave up when we got hot and decided to take another dip in the beautiful blue water.

We considered having some rum punch, but by the time we reached the bar areas, they were starting to mop up, even though it was still close to an hour before the last tender back to the ship. Along the way, we came upon a woman who was sitting in very shallow water and clearly bleeding. She had refused help getting up and was apparently waiting for medical help. (She was in no danger from the water itself.) It was a little disappointing to see how slow the response was to her needs. The lifeguards, who did seem interested in helping her, did not seem to have a clear method of communication (e.g. radios or walkie-talkies) and relied upon vague signals and walking from one chair to the next. Ultimately, the ship’s medical officer arrived to help her get bandaged and back to the ship. 

Feeling the subtle push from staff (mostly island staff rather than ship staff) to vacate the island, we got in line for the next tender back. The sun was intense as we waited for, and then on, the tender. Although the little ride back was smooth, the connection with the ship was not. We waited for quite some time to get onto the ship as the small boat rocked with the afternoon swell. 

Maureen will report on our last 20 hours or so on the ship, so I want to return to the thoughts and questions at the beginning of the post.

What do I think now about the private island experience? Well, there was plenty to do for the fairly short day that we had available on the island. We opted not to take an excursion, though there were a few available (biking, kayaking, horseback riding) at prices that were not outrageous. We also opted not to rent any watersports gear, as those prices were outrageous ($36 per HOUR for a stand-up paddle board). Even so, with walking, swimming, reading, and eating, our day was never boring. And I didn’t even make it to the bar!

Is it big enough? For our “little” 1200-person ship, yes. Even twice that many would probably be fine. If there were multiple ships, or even one 5000-person ship, it could be crazy. We didn’t even see the far side of the island where most of the excursions were. I might try the kayaking if there were a next time for me on a private island.

Finally, what’s the point and why do people like it so much? Well first, it is absolutely beautiful. The water is bright blue, the sand is soft, and the beach is clean. Second, it is safe and peaceful. The only people on the island are fellow passengers and ship and island staff. No one asks you to buy jewelry or hire their taxi for a tour. It really does feel like a retreat to paradise. 

The private island experience is definitely a Disney-fied island experience, though Disney’s version was not the first–that distinction goes to Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay. The real world is far, far away. The poverty that is evident on most of the islands is nowhere to be seen. The desperation of people trying to make a living from their #1 industry–tourism–is also absent. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I go again? Yes to that too. I hope, though, that I am always able to see the private islands for what they are and to spend as many of my tourism dollars as possible in ways that support real communities on “real” islands.

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