Cruise Lines Upgrade Private Island Retreats

Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Lines, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines are in various stages of improving their private island retreats -- from just starting to already finished. New additions range from private cabanas to exhilarating rides and water play areas, as well as expanded beach areas. Whether the island renovations are being made to accommodate big new ships or add unique ways to explore, the changes will give first timers and repeat cruisers a new and improved taste of island life -- and a reason to return on a future cruise.

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Here's what you can expect to find on upcoming private island calls.

Royal Caribbean's Labadee

Best New Addition: Until now, Disney's Castaway Cay was the only private island where ships could dock, with all other cruise line islands requiring tender service. Not anymore. Labadee's new pier was recently completed and is large enough to accommodate Royal Caribbean's new behemoth ship, Oasis of the Seas. It's a good thing, too, as it could have taken a while to tender the ship's 5,400 passengers from ship to shore.

Added Island Improvements: In addition to the new pier, Labadee has a new welcome plaza, which serves as the starting point for water taxis. It also offers new sea-based shore tours and five walking paths that lead to special areas throughout the peninsula. Some of these areas include the new Dragon's Plaza, home to the Dragon's Breath Flight Line (the world's longest zip line over water) and Labadee Town Square, which features the Haitian Cultural Museum, Cafe Labadee and Bar, an artisan market and the boarding area for the new Alpine Coaster (a mountainside thrill ride, somewhat like a rollercoaster).

Cabana Bonanza: Cabanas are being added to ship decks and private islands like HDTV is to family rooms. The new Barefoot Beach Club, available exclusively to Royal Caribbean's suite guests, offers 20 private cabanas for rent along the water's edge and within the hillside areas. Each cabana includes upgraded food and beverage offerings like lobster and steak. In addition, the spa facilities at Barefoot Beach have been revamped to include yoga classes.

Old Favorites: You can still bounce on water trampolines and inflatable iceberg-shaped slides at Columbus Cove Aqua Park ($15 for 50 minutes). Or, for a more sedentary pursuit, watch African-style dancing and drumming at the folkloric show. Two Haitian marketplaces sell local crafts, paintings, coffee, woodcarvings, baskets and more. Luc's Splash Bash is the island's dedicated area for kids, featuring ground geysers, water cannons and a treasure map trail.

Renovation Status: Labadee's renovations were completed in October 2009. The port escaped damage during Haiti's 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010, as it's located some 100 miles from Port-au-Prince and the quake's epicenter.

Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay

Best New Addition: It's hard to pin down just one amenity, but for families with young children, it's Castaway Cay's new land-based water parks. As any parent knows, watching little ones swim in a bay can be stressful, with hundreds of kids in the water at the same time, your own children swimming in opposite directions and inner tubes knocking everyone about.

Soon there will be two new options for water-play fun on the island. One will be located in the youth activity area, known as Scuttle's Cove, offering pop jets and geysers on a soft, wet deck area that's shaped like a captain's wheel. This area is for kids only; Disney's youth counselors supervise the water play.

The second, Spring-a-Leak, is a splash park families can enjoy together. Parents not wanting to get wet can also watch their kids from shaded seating areas surrounding the venue (perhaps with a frozen Margarita in-hand?). Spring-a-Leak is being built to look like a storm-ravaged beach house, complete with dripping pipes, leaky faucets and "leftover" pieces of a corrugated steel roof.

Added Island Improvements: One of the most eye-catching changes will be the addition of Pelican Plunge, a 2,400-square-foot floating platform (within swimming distance of shore), where you can slide your way into the lagoon from two massive slides, shoot water cannons and get soaked when a giant bucket tips over. Best part: Unlike at Royal Caribbean's Labadee, this water park is free.

In order to accommodate the larger Disney Dream -- and host the extra 1,000 to 1,500 passengers (kids included) -- Castaway Cay's horseshoe-shaped Family Beach will be extended by more than 700 feet. And Disney "Imagineers" are making good use of the expanded space, adding a second lunch-buffet restaurant, a new beach bar, an additional tram stop and a second rental shack -- making it convenient to get food, drinks or water equipment on either side of the beach.

Cabana Bonanza: The new swath of beach will also be home to 16 new cabanas that look like mini Bahamian houses. Each will have a large front patio deck (with great views across the bay, plus its own little beach), cushy lounge chairs, a refrigerator, lockable storage unit and an outdoor (fresh water) shower. Best part: Raise the flag on your personal flagpole to alert a bartender when it's time for a drink.

Adults-only Serenity Bay will receive a handful of new cabanas, as well as new open-air massage cabanas. And, in Disney fashion, everything from the cabanas to the new splash parks will be tastefully decorated in muted pastels and nicely themed with tattered sail cloths, nautical rope and buoys to continue to give the island that "castaway" feel.

According to Disney officials, cabana rental rates have not yet been set; however, a variety of packages will be offered and will include everything from suntan lotion to a personal host.

Old Favorites: Families have enjoyed paddling out for a closer look at The Flying Dutchman, which appeared in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Kids can still dig for (faux) whalebones and build race rafts at Scuttle's Cove. Fun and cheeky shops like "She Sells Sea Shells" sell Disney paraphernalia, which you can charge to your onboard account. The adults-only Serenity Bay area will remain blissfully quiet and serene.

Renovation Status: Work on all of the above is already underway and scheduled to be complete by summer 2010, in time for special five-night cruises aboard Disney Wonder, which will include two stops at Castaway Cay. In addition, Castaway Cay's existing dock is being lengthened to accommodate the new 2,500-passenger Disney Dream, which is scheduled to begin sailing in early 2011.

According to Disney, construction is being done on the days Disney ships are not in port, and news amenities will open as they are completed so that guests can begin enjoying them right away.

Holland America's Half Moon Cay

Best New Addition: Compared to the other two islands, Holland America's changes to Half Moon Cay are on a much smaller scale, albeit to what was already a mighty fine island. Pathways to explore the island are probably the best addition, since only two percent of Half Moon Cay (a 2,400-acre Bahamian island) has been developed -- much of the remainder is a migratory bird reserve. Now you can walk or jog past the lagoon, horse corral and stingray park on a new 5K (3.1-mile) loop that begins and ends at the marina. Cyclists can pedal along newly resurfaced roads while learning about the history of the island and checking out native birds as part of the Guided Tour by Bicycle, a recently added shore excursion.

Added Island Improvements: A new pirate-themed play area for kids has two large, wooden pirate ships for climbing. There are also new wheelchair ramps at the water sports center and a wheelchair path to the beach.

Cabana Bonanza: While many cruise lines have added cabanas for couples and families, Holland America already had them available on Half Moon Cay and, instead, added "Private Oasis" this year to accommodate small groups. Private Oasis is home to 15 new, air-conditioned cabanas, a hot tub, water slide, private meals and bar service, plus massage and priority tender services. Packages start at $1,195 and include cabana use for up to 12 guests, nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, fresh fruit and snacks, a barbecue lunch buffet, a butler, and a personal chef and lifeguard.

Old Favorites: The Half Moon Lagoon aqua park offers large water toys in the shape of whales, octopi, sharks and dolphins, as well as a pirate ship water slide that sprays water from its cannons. Sipping frozen drinks at the "I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever" bar remains an island highlight. Birdwatchers will appreciate that the island is a nesting area for waterfowl, including 10,000 sooty terns, noddy terns, shearwaters, Bahamian pintails and more. For fun with animals you can touch, take a horseback ride that ends with a dip in the surf.

Renovation Status: All of the above improvements are already complete for Half Moon Cay.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Great Stirrup Cay

Best New Addition: NCL is keeping mum on the details of its 22-month, $20 million renovation of Great Stirrup Cay. But, we already know what the best new addition will be -- a kid's play area. Currently, NCL's private beach area has no dedicated facilities for kids, and a new play place will be greatly appreciated by tykes and parents alike.

Added Island Improvements: Other new additions include more bars and eating areas, a bandstand, a straw market, beach-volleyball courts, an aqua park and WaveRunners. Kayak tours on manmade rivers, an eco-cruise and an interactive stingray experience will round out excursion offerings. Plus, a new entrance channel will be created for ship tenders, as well as a new welcome pavilion, and the beachfront will be expanded.

Cabana Bonanza: Ten private beachfront cabanas will be added, but NCL has not released details on amenities or pricing.

Old Favorites: The north-shore beach area continues to feature live music, lounge chairs and water sports rentals, while beaches on the east and west sides of the island remain quieter and more secluded. Favorite activities include volleyball, table tennis, kayaking, boogie-boarding, parasailing and snorkeling. Passengers can escape to the massage hut for on-island spa services or head to the straw market for souvenir shopping sprees. A barbecue lunch is served at an island buffet.

Renovation Status: The renovation will take place in two phases, the first of which is already underway. The entire project is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2011.

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