All ashore for a day on a private island Trend: More and more, cruise lines are providing shore breaks.

March 08, 1998|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Many vacationers dream of having a tropical island to themselves, where they can swim in clear, warm waters, romp on a pristine beach, laze under a palm tree and have waiters at their side to bring food and drink whenever the mood strikes them.

Why just dream? There are such islands -- eight of them in this part of the world -- and they're no farther away than the gangway of the nearest cruise ship. They're the private islands owned or leased by cruise lines, which take their passengers there for beach outings.

Want to go snorkeling or diving? Most lines will suit you up for a look at the undersea world offshore. Just want to soak up some sun? Pick out a chaise lounge on the beach. Have a yen for native crafts? You'll find a shop on every private isle.

You can even play like Gilligan on one cruise island. The "Gilligan's Island" TV series was filmed at Salt Cay, now used by Premier. Of course, the props and the actors are long gone, but you can dream, can't you?

Beach outings have become so popular with cruise passengers that two more lines are inaugurating private islands this winter. Holland America started calling at its new Half Moon Cay in December, and Disney will christen its Castaway Cay in April when its first ship, the 85,000-ton Disney Magic, goes into service.

Six other cruise lines already have private islands. Norwegian Cruise Line created the concept in 1977 when it bought Great Stirrup Cay in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas, built beach pavilions and other facilities and started ferrying passengers there on a tender it called Bahamarama Mama. Then Royal Caribbean bought adjacent Little Stirrup Cay, readied it for cruise passengers and renamed it CocoCay, and soon other lines followed suit.

Same island, different names

Today, Princess Cruises visits Princess Cays in the Bahamas and Premier takes its passengers to Salt Cay, a stone's throw from Nassau. Royal Caribbean added a second private island, Labadee, a 250-acre spread on a peninsula near Cap Haitien in Haiti. And Costa and Celebrity call separately at the same island off the coast of the Dominican Republic near Casa de Campo, but call it by different names -- Serena Cay if you're a Costa passenger, Catalina if you're aboard a Celebrity ship.

(How can an island have two names? Easy. The owner or lessee simply goes full speed ahead with whatever name he thinks most attractive, and damn the marine charts. Thus, Disney gave Gorda Cay the more exotic sobriquet of Castaway Cay and Holland America decided that Half Moon Cay sounded more romantic than Little San Salvador.)

Whatever their name, all the islands have the same goal: to let their visitors get a little sand between their toes and have a good time doing it.

Here's what one island, Holland America's new Half Moon Cay, offers: island welcome with live music, sunbathing and swimming, nature trail, lagoon bonefishing, sand volleyball, fitness consultation on beach, hair-braiding center, wedding chapel, playground, beach golf chipping and tug-of-war competition. A water sports center offers a variety of rental equipment and activities, including boat snorkeling, kayaking, parasailing, banana boat rides, catamarans, sailboating, snorkeling equipment, floating air mattress and windsurfing. Shoppers can browse in a straw market and island shop for crafts.

Other cruise islands offer similar experiences, plus some others. Royal Caribbean's CocoCay, for instance, has a sunken airplane and a sunken replica of Bluebeard's flagship that can be explored by divers, and Holland America's Labadee has a historic site and underwater treasure hunts. Premier's Salt Cay offers a chance for guests to swim with dolphins and/or sting rays, at extra cost.

Norwegian Cruise Line frequently stages "Olympic" competitions on its island. Disney will have two massage huts on the beach for adults and a "whale excavation" activity for children at the site of the simulated remains of a 35-foot beached whale. Princess Cays has a lookout tower and water sports dock.

Bucking the trend, though, is the biggest cruise line of them all. Carnival wants no part of the private-island concept, preferring to keep its passengers on board.

"We've always said the best part of cruising is cruising, and we always build in a day at sea on all our cruises," said Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher. "We never say never, but [as of now] we have no plans to do an island."

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