Private ports are essentially an extension of a cruise ship; as soon as you disembark ashore, the land you're stepping foot on has been developed and reconfigured by the cruise line itself. Therefore, private islands offer a tremendous amount of stress-free fun in an environment that's safe, trustworthy, increasingly accessible and above all -- relaxing.
Private ports and islands serve as a respite from shipboard life -- but offer a secure and well-manicured launchpad for you to venture forth on excursions into the local communities (or simply snooze in the same beach lounger for four hours). It's a chance to explore something of the local culture in a space that blends the ship's comforts and amenities with adventurous opportunities. The choice of how much -- or how little -- you care to do here is yours, and having it all linked back to your cruise ship means spending a day in the sun couldn't be any easier.
So be sure to step off the gangway, get out there and enjoy all that these ports have to offer. The following are eight reasons we think you might love a visit to a cruise line private port.
1. Activities at Hand
First, you certainly have access to all the activities that you'd expect on a beach, from swimming to building sandcastles to long sandy stretches for walks. But above and beyond that, private ports are filled with various amenities, such as beachfront lounge chairs (often with servers ready to take your order), umbrellas, restaurants and bars, and array of rentable gear.
Snorkeling equipment, bikes, floats and rafts, kayaks, stand-up paddle-boards, water trikes and other toys generally abound and are available to rent. Private ports are also your gateway to a variety of pre-booked excursions that will range in difficulty from mild to wild, from glass-bottom boat tours to adrenaline-pumping canyoneering.
2. Cabanas Galore
On the higher end of the scale, many private ports offer a range of luxury cabanas -- often in exclusive areas -- for rent. These secluded enclaves are generally cozy structures, but occasionally larger ones, including two-story buildings, are available (as on Half Moon Cay). Cabana features vary, but often include exclusive food and beverages, air conditioning or fans, slides right into the water and more.
Some private ports, like Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve or Virgin's Beach Club at Bimini, offer VIP areas just for suite guests. These include cabanas that are exclusively reserved for use by VIPs (but still come at a fee).
3. Run Like Resorts
Cruise line private ports and islands are maintained to a high standard; walkways are free of trash and other debris, the landscaping is well kept and the restrooms are well tended. Some lines take this cleanup even further, tackling the surrounding environment, as well. MSC Cruises' Ocean Cay, for example, is now plastic-free (all single-use straws, shopping bags, spoons, stirrers and other single-use plastic items have been replaced by environmentally friendly alternatives).
Conveniences, like free-of-charge lockers to store items while riding water slides, might be on offer in places like Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay. While some islands and ports do their best to maintain a tranquil and natural atmosphere, they are still run very much like resorts (well-staffed and very orderly), which helps provide a seamless experience to cruisers.
4. Pure Convenience
On private islands, you can often use your cabin key card to charge purchases of souvenirs, alcoholic drinks, rental gear and excursions right to your account -- no cash, credit card or wallet even needed. (The one exception is if the port has a straw market of local handicrafts, which generally only accept cash.)
There's always some sort of food and drink readily available, and on many of the private islands, these buffets are included. The use of loungers is complimentary across most private ports, but check if there is a fee for umbrellas as that varies. In any case, whatever you might want is never far at hand in often-small private ports.
5. Festive Atmosphere
More and more, these private ports are positioned to reflect and showcase their local cultures. As you walk from the pier or step off the tender, you'll often be welcomed by native music, dancers and other performers, sometimes giving the arrival a celebratory air.
On Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, guests are welcomed into the port by the jubilant sounds of local musicians while others perform native dances in the square. Much like Mardi Gras, the festival called "carnival" is a huge presence in many countries, like the DR and the Bahamas. MSC's Ocean Cay provides a traditional, high-energy Bahamian Junkanoo parade with horn players and costumed dancers creating a unique, nighttime party for locals and cruisers.
Families are not forgotten at these private ports; some ports even make them their focal point. Most private ports have some sort of kids club, kid-specific activities and/or play (or spray) grounds. But, Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay takes it up a notch -- or three. After a $250 million transformation, the island now offers families 13 water slides (including the tallest one in North America), the Caribbean's largest wave pool, a kid-friendly obstacle course and more.
Disney's Castaway Cay offers beaches for both families and teens, supervised games for kids, a 2,400-square-foot floating play area with slides, another 2,400-square-foot spray park, a giant whale bone excavation site and other family-focused diversions.
7. Improved Accessibility
More and more private ports have their own pier, such as Amber Cove, Grand Turk, Ocean Cay and Perfect Day at CocoCay. Carnival Corp.'s Half Moon Cay (bought in 1996) is in the process of having a pier built. In these situations, you don't need to bother with loading a tender to ferry you to the port; you simply walk (or roll) off the ship. On Princess Cays, the line's private port in the Bahamas, you have to tender, but ramps are available for easier access. Tendering (by small boat) is also required at Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian's private island.
Often, personnel are available with wheelchairs for those with mobility issues, including beach wheelchairs for the sand. If the pier is long enough, there might be pedal-powered tuk-tuks or other modes of transportation available (generally requiring a discretionary tip to the local drivers). Once you're in the actual port, it's generally very easy to get around, and shuttles are often available.
8. Great Shopping
Cruise line private ports generally offer a wide array of shopping experiences, including familiar brands at souvenir shops and other trusted retailers like Margaritaville, Starbucks and Effy jewelers. While the prices in the branded stores aren't necessarily discounted, you can trust the prices that they offer (you won't get gouged or fooled by knock-off brands; retailers are vetted by the cruise lines and the products are then vetted by the stores).
Additionally, private ports and islands frequently offer small handicraft markets where locals sell their wares (remember that these are generally cash-only). This is a great opportunity to find a souvenir that's more authentic to that destination -- and put more of your money back into the local economy, too.