If you have cruised the Caribbean, chances are, you are familiar with the concept of going to the cruise lines’ private island. Here, you can enjoy the beautiful beaches and amenities without having the crowds from every ship in port. Half Moon Cay (pronounced key) is an exceptional one of these offerings, purchased by Holland America Cruise Lines for $6 million in 1996 for their fleet. Currently, less than 5 percent of the original land purchased has been utilized.
While other cruisers may be dealing with 10,000 or more people in ports, you will be soaking up the sun and indulging in Caribbean festivities all day long in the fantastic Bahamas. Half Moon Cay (or Little San Salvador Island), Bahamas, offers hundreds of lounge chairs, umbrellas and clamshells, picnic shelters, and several restaurants and bars. Plus, the landscape and scenery are lovely! Here are six reasons to fall in love with Half Moon Cay: the deciding factors for me.
1. Ease Of Getting There
As mentioned above, Half Moon Cay will have only the guests from your particular cruise ship on the island. The island is uninhabited, and employees are contracted through the cruise line. Holland America and Carnival cruises use Half Moon Cay as their private island port-of-call.
Before going ashore, you will need to have your Sign and Sail card, a beach towel from your stateroom, sunscreen, insect repellent (if you plan on a hike), and cash for incidentals and souvenirs. If you are traveling with children, sand toys could be great fun here.
Arrival at Half Moon Cay will be by tenders, small boats that unload the cruisers from their ships and take them to and from the mainland. Tenders run every 15 to 20 minutes and take about 10 minutes to complete the run. Once on the island, you will be steps from the beach and its amenities, which you can walk to or take the island tram to.
2. Gorgeous Beaches And Water Park
Half Moon Cay has a gorgeous two-mile-long beach for soaking up the rays, swimming, and lounging. It is covered in sugar soft white sand. Pick any lounge chair you want; they are free to use -- or consider renting one of the dozen or so cabanas for the ultimate beach address. I like to rent a clamshell, typically under $50, where a friend or my husband and I can enjoy a reprieve from the sun and take a nap without everyone seeing. You can adjust your clamshell, complete with two loungers, for maximum coverage or less.
The cabanas are beautiful structures with refrigerators, tables, and chairs inside, and air conditioning. They typically hold four guests. There are also packages which include providing food and drinks for your party.
Those seeking a unique beach adventure might want to consider booking the horseback riding, which takes place on the beach and on trails. You will even get the opportunity to swim with your horse, which I did in Mexico on my very first cruise. Pants and closed-toe shoes are required for horseback riding, but you can bring clothes to change into and store them in a locker.
I prefer to float around in the water at Half Moon Cay. The water is relatively shallow and so warm. You can rent floats that make the experience even more fun.
Those seeking adventure for children may want to explore the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park, filled with fun water-based activities and a pirate ship that shoots water and has several fountains. Use of the park facilities is free of charge. I didn’t know until my most recent visit to Half Moon Cay that you can enjoy basketball, shuffleboard, and horseshoes on the island, too.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that you are in the Bahamas, and the sun is quite intense. Whatever you’re doing, apply and reapply sunscreen, and stay hydrated.
3. An Authentic Tropical Lunch
When it’s time for lunch, head to Tropics Restaurant, an open-air dining pavilion for your off-the-ship lunch option. Enjoy a hearty beach barbecue buffet in a covered setting with chicken breast, fish, hot dogs, fish tacos, hamburgers, and all the fixings. Side items typically include baked beans, potato salad, and a few tropical dishes. Try the pineapple salsa for your fish or chicken -- it’s delicious! The whole meal is pretty good and far better than I would have figured due to the sheer number of people they are cooking for. A dessert bar and fresh fruit are also included, as are tea, lemonade, coffee, and water.
The Tropics Restaurant set-up may have changed, but the drinks were in more than one location on my visit, so if the line is long, look for another drink station. It is good to get there as close to opening time as possible as the lines get long quickly. You are not limited to just one time through the buffet.
Have your cameras ready for the roosters and chickens that may make an appearance during your lunch. If you’d rather have a sit-down restaurant experience, the Half Moon Cay Lobster Shack has fantastic seafood and waterfront dining for a nominal fee. You can try Caribbean conch and seafood chowder for around $5 or a lobster roll for under $15, plus, the nautical theme of the eatery is gorgeous.
4. A Change Of Scenery
It’s nice to get off the boat and enjoy the scenery of Half Moon Cay, a hot meal, and shopping without any pressure or haggling. Buy your souvenirs here and save time while in the other ports. A typical Bahamian straw market offers local handicrafts, but they accept cash only. You can also get your hair braided there.
Depending on the weather, I might make a stop (or 10) to cool off in one of the air-conditioned shops. Half Moon Cay shopping includes a jewelry store with a pick-your-pearl option, fun if you’ve never done it. You pick your oyster; they open it and reveal the pearl inside. You can either take the pearl with you as is or have it mounted in a jewelry setting.
Take a break from shopping and beach fun to quench your thirst in one of the bars at Half Moon Cay. My favorite is Captain Morgan’s On the Rocks Bar, which is in a cutesy pirate-themed setting with live music. The views are great, and the drinks even better. For those wanting a place that’s not so lively, consider the I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever bar.
5. Cultural Experiences
The location of Half Moon Cay makes it a hotspot for birding, and it is a designated Wild Bird Preserve and International Sanctuary. I like to bring my binoculars and hike the island a bit, looking in particular for roseate terns and Bahamian pintails. Half Moon Cay’s signage is easy to follow, and the hiking areas are pretty low-key and won’t overwhelm those who aren’t in great shape.
If you are like me and grew up watching the dreamy vacations on The Price Is Right, a tropical island like the Bahamas is the perfect place to enjoy a couple’s massage in an air-conditioned cabana right on the beach. You can do that at Half Moon Cay with the experienced spa technicians from the ship. I recommend that you consider this splurge for the memory of a lifetime.
Most cruise ship spas use Elemis products, which are the best. Not sure which treatment to pick? Aromatherapy is the most relaxing, deep-tissue is for muscle tension, and hot stone offers the ultimate in massage bliss.
6. Excellent Snorkeling
Snorkeling is great in the Bahamas. You can rent snorkel gear on the island or bring your own. You do not have to wear a floatation device while snorkeling, but you can rent them if you want. I feel I can move around better without one, but your decision should depend on your swimming abilities.
Half Moon Cay’s shallow water is terrific for newbie snorkelers, and you should see plenty of interesting sea life. Those wanting a more advanced snorkel will need to go about 100 feet into the water to the reef. Remember, there are no lifeguards in this area, so swim at your own risk and exercise caution. You can also challenge yourself on the Sea-Doo adventure course or take a guided kayak tour through Bone Fish Lagoon.
Pro Tip: Whatever you intend to do, take a picture of the detailed map as you enter Half Moon Cay. This way, you can pull up the image to find your way to the places you want to see without wasting precious time. Want more Bahamian inspiration? Consider