The exclusive private islands owned by cruise lines

White sand beach and palm trees at Silk cayes Marine Reserve on barrier reef, Placencia, Belize - Sergi Reboredo / Alamy Stock Photo
White sand beach and palm trees at Silk cayes Marine Reserve on barrier reef, Placencia, Belize - Sergi Reboredo / Alamy Stock Photo

You don’t need to be Robinson Crusoe or Richard Branson to live the private island dream. An increasing number of cruise lines own or lease sunny isles, and though you’ll share them with other passengers, these exclusive tropical playgrounds with sweeping beaches and secluded coves are more than enough to provide a taste of your own personal paradise.

Some were once pirate hideaways, while others have been transformed from industrial wastelands into eco-reserves. Snorkelling along trails dotted with underwater treasures, swimming with pigs, soaring skywards in a balloon, ordering from a secret menu – or simply sipping a cocktail under a palm tree, you’re guaranteed a unique experience aboard a cruise calling at one of these unusual line-owned islands.

Great Stirrup Cay

Tropical beach in Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas. Sea shore, white sand, palm trees on blue sky. - Shutterstock / Just dance
Tropical beach in Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas. Sea shore, white sand, palm trees on blue sky. - Shutterstock / Just dance

Norwegian Cruise Line pioneered the private island trend when it opened this 270-acre island in 1977. Once a hideout for buccaneers, Great Stirrup Cay is a port of call on all NCL cruises in the Bahamas, offering a host of activities for modern-day adventurers, alongside a raft of more tranquil pursuits.

There’s the opportunity to snorkel through an underwater garden filled with 23 sculptures – among them mermaids, seahorses, camels and even a piano – or take a short boat trip to nearby Treasure Island to swim with pigs in the shallows. Back on dry land, thrill-seekers can see the beach from a completely different perspective on a series of zip lines that start 120ft above the ground. If that all sounds a bit much, spend your time chilling out in a cabana before heading for lunch at the expansive 8,500 square foot beach buffet.

Norwegian Cruise Line (0333 2412319; ncl.com) has the seven-day Eastern Caribbean round-trip from Miami, on Norwegian Escape, from £1,862 (including flights). Departs April 30.

Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve

MSC Seashore's first call at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve - Conrad Schutt
MSC Seashore's first call at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve - Conrad Schutt

Situated 65 miles east of Miami, the transformation of an old sand-extraction site represents the largest private island project ever undertaken by a cruise line. MSC Cruises’ £134 million four-year scheme involved establishing more than 75,000 plants – almost all of  them native to the region – with marine biologists relocating 400 sections of coral to areas where they could thrive and grow. The waters around the island are now protected, and loggerhead turtles have returned to lay eggs their on the beach.

In keeping with the emphasis on the environment, the island has no swimming pools, waterslides or air-conditioned shopping malls. Instead, activities are low-key, including diving, kayaking, paddle-boarding or climbing to the top of the landmark lighthouse, and there’s a marine research centre that provides passengers with an insight into the MSC Foundation’s conservation work. At night, dancers in elaborate costumes stage a lively Bahamian Junkanoo parade and there’s a spectacular show on the lighthouse tower that’s illuminated by 20,000 lights – all energy-efficient LED.

Jeannine Williamson was a guest of MSC Cruises (0203 426 3010; msccruises.co.uk) which has a 14-night Western and Eastern Caribbean round-trip from Miami, aboard MSC Seascape, from £1,399 (cruise only), with two days at Ocean Cay. Departs September 3.

Perfect Day at CocoCay

aerial/drone view of Cococay, Bahamas - Shutterstock / Hendrickson Photography
aerial/drone view of Cococay, Bahamas - Shutterstock / Hendrickson Photography

Royal Caribbean International’s 120-acre enclave 55 miles north of Nassau is about as family-friendly as it gets. Branded “Perfect Day at CocoCay” in 2019, it’s a resort surrounded by water and packed with things to do for all ages, including swimming at Oasis Lagoon, the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool, which has a gently sloping area for little ones and a swim-up bar for mum and dad. Thrill Waterpark boasts the region’s biggest wave pool, and if that’s not hair-raising enough, adrenaline-seekers can tackle Daredevil’s Peak, the tallest slide in North America.

For peace and quiet, make tracks to South Beach; it’s the furthest walk from the ship so usually emptier than the other stretches of sand. To feel like a pro, ask for a chicken Parmesan sandwich at the Snack Shack – it’s not on the menu, but staff will make it for those in the know. Royal Caribbean (0344 493 4005; royalcaribbean.com) has a six-night Bahamas and Perfect Day round-trip from Cape Liberty, on Anthem of the Seas, from £453 (cruise only). Departs October 30.


Labadee

Red bungalows on Labadee island in Haiti - Ken Wiedemann / Getty Images
Red bungalows on Labadee island in Haiti - Ken Wiedemann / Getty Images

Royal Caribbean’s 260-acre island retreat off the northern coast of Haiti is said to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 – and with beautiful beaches and lush green scenery set against a mountain backdrop, it’s one of the prettiest islands on our list. There are five distinct beach areas, including Adrenaline Beach, which – when you’ve finished jumping on floating trampolines or sploshing down the Dragon’s Splash saltwater slide – makes the perfect spot to sit back and sip a Labadoozie frozen cocktail.

Hand-made crafts created by locals in the artisan’s village make unique and authentic souvenirs, while the Alpine-style Dragon’s Tail Coaster and Dragon’s Fire Flight Line make particularly pulse-thumping ways to drink in island views.  Tucked away from all the action is secluded Columbus Cove, and there are private bungalows on Nellie’s Beach with waiter service to keep the refreshments flowing.

Royal Caribbean (0344 493 4005; royalcaribbean.com) has the six-night Eastern Caribbean round-trip from Port Canaveral, on Adventure of the Seas, from £519 (cruise only). Departs December 16.

Castaway Cay

Young girl and Minnie Mouse hold hands on the beach at Castaway Cay, Bahamas - Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
Young girl and Minnie Mouse hold hands on the beach at Castaway Cay, Bahamas - Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Wish you were here? No need to send a message in a bottle – Disney Cruise Line’s Bahamian island has its own post office, from which you can mail cards with a special Castaway Cay postmark. As you’d expect, the island is filled with activities for families and children of all ages, and ships dock right on shore, so there’s no need to take a tender – great if you’re travelling with very young children. Disney characters also join in the fun (you can expect to meet Mickey and the gang dressed in laid-back island clothes), and there’s even a dedicated snorkel area dotted with sunken treasures, including a submarine from the classic Disney theme park attraction 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (plus a submerged statue of a certain mouse).

And it’s not all structured fun. Covering 1,000 acres, much of it undeveloped, this island is great for outdoor pursuits too, and includes a five kilometre walking and running trail, plus bike hire. For more leisurely transport, there’s a tram that runs around part of the island, as well as an adults-only area at the aptly named Serenity Bay, set on a peaceful stretch of pristine beach.

Disney Cruises (0800 171 2317; disneycruise.disney.go.com) has a five-night Western Caribbean round-trip from Miami, on Disney Magic, from £2,628, cruise only  Departs July 2.

Half Moon Cay

Cabana on Half Moon Cay, Little San Salvador Island, Bahamas, West Indies, Central America - Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo
Cabana on Half Moon Cay, Little San Salvador Island, Bahamas, West Indies, Central America - Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

All Holland America Line sailings in the Bahamas visit this 2,400-acre island which – once rumoured to have been roamed by pirates – recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as a cruise destination. Ships from parent company Carnival take it in turns to call at Half Moon Cay, giving passengers a chance to bask on the horseshoe-shaped beach by a 700-acre lagoon – or search for buried treasure, if that’s more your speed.

It's a haven for wildlife enthusiasts too, as only a 65-acre section on the western tip of the island has been developed. The rest belongs to Mother Nature, providing untouched areas where birds – including Bahamian mockingbirds, great blue heron and snowy egrets – thrive undisturbed. There are plenty of excursions on offer, and active visitors can hike to a panoramic lookout point near the ruins of a limestone dwelling from the 1700s, splash through the surf on horseback or take a guided ramble to learn about the island’s history and nature. Alternatively, take time out and spoil yourself with butler service in a private cabana or beach villa.

Holland America (00 1 877 932 4259; hollandamerica.com) has a six-night Tropical Caribbean round-trip from Fort Lauderdale, on Nieuw Amsterdam, from £1,019 (cruise only). Departs March 19.

Harvest Caye

Young girl looks at butterfly - STEPHEN BEAUDET
Young girl looks at butterfly - STEPHEN BEAUDET

This 75-acre island in southern Belize is a natural retreat jointly owned by Norwegian Cruise Line and the Belizean government. Opened in 2016, it is the only destination in the country with a pier big enough to accommodate cruise ships, and all restaurants, bars and shops are Belizean-operated, providing guests with a genuine Central American experience.

The island features striking sculptures and wood carvings by local artists, and visitors have the chance to snorkel at the Unesco-listed Belize Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest. Home to flourishing coral, underwater flora and 500 species of fish, you’ll likely see turtles and rays along the way – but if that’s not enough, pay a visit to Belizean naturalist and wildlife expert Tony Garel’s nature centre, which includes a butterfly garden, reptile terrarium and aviaries filled with rescued birds. All exhibits are operated by the Harvest Caye Conservation Foundation to promote wildlife preservation and education.

Norwegian Cruise Line (0333 2412319; ncl.com) has a six-night Eastern Caribbean round-trip from Miami, on Norwegian Escape, from £851 (cruise only). Departs April 30.

Motu Mahara

Locals sing on the beach at Motu Mahara, Mundy Cruising's private island
Locals sing on the beach at Motu Mahara, Mundy Cruising's private island

This exotic islet is the epitome of picture-postcard paradise, with white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and clear waters. Reached on the MS Paul Gauguin, Paul Gauguin’s private South Sea isle lies off uninhabited Taha’a in French Polynesia, which provides an emerald backdrop to Motu Mahara. The ship is based in the region, so you’ll spend a day – sometimes two – at the island, depending on the itinerary.

Activities are laid-back, with the opportunity to swim and snorkel in waters populated by a kaleidoscope of tropical fish and living coral, or paddle out further on kayaks brought ashore from the Gauguin’s water sports platform. Back on the beach, you’ll learn how to crack open a coconut or tie a pareo, the traditional wraparound garment worn in the South Pacific, or join in a game of volleyball on the sand. When it’s time to relax, cooling cocktails are served from a floating bar near the shore.

Mundy Cruising (020 7399 7670; mundycruising.co.uk) has a 10-night Tahiti & The Society Islands round-trip from Papeete, on MS Paul Gauguin, from £4,995, including flights. Departs December 10.

Princess Cays

Colorful bungalows on the Eleuthera island beach, Bahamas - Alamy Stock Photo
Colorful bungalows on the Eleuthera island beach, Bahamas - Alamy Stock Photo

Princess Cruises’ private island has been welcoming passengers since 1992 – and sustainability is high on the agenda. Funds generated from recycling cans on Princess Cays go to support an orphanage in the Bahamas, while seaweed washed up on the beach is used for compost and fertiliser for the coconut trees. The island is also self-sufficient when it comes to water, and seawater is desalinated to save drawing on local fresh water resources.

Activities are intended to be kind to the environment, so instead of a man-made waterpark, you’ll find watersports such as snorkelling, kayaking, catch-and-release fishing, sea-cycling on fat-tyred aqua bikes, paddle-boarding, and glass bottomed boat trips. Shore excursions include the chance to feed curious stingrays and learn about Bahamian marine life, and there’s a craft market selling colourful locally produced goods. Adults can book air-conditioned bungalows with a gourmet picnic lunch, and all visitors enjoy a complimentary beach barbecue.

Princess Cruises (0344 338 8663; princess.com) has a 13-night Caribbean East/West Adventurer round-trip from Fort Lauderdale, on Caribbean Princess, from £1,509 (cruise only). Departs April 15.