Lying side by side on cushioned chaises, alone on a wide swath of white beach, my husband and I gaze out at pelicans swooping low over a turquoise sea.
Other than the call of the birds and the clacking of palm fronds, we hear no other sounds except the soft splash of waves hitting the sand.
When we hanker for a shower, a change of clothes, and perhaps a little something from room service, we gather up our belongings and head back to our quarters.
No, not a hotel room -- our cruise ship cabin.
Our little sliver of tranquility is the adults' only beach on Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private 1,000-acre island in the Bahamas' Abaco chain. Every sailing of the Disney Wonder and Magic spends a day on the island, which also has separate beaches for teens and families -- with crew dressed as Disney characters to greet the youngsters.
Passengers young and old rate their Castaway day among their favorite experiences of the cruise.
They are in good company.
Disney is one of six lines that have bought or leased private islands (or parts of islands) in the Caribbean or Bahamas, making out-islands the "in" thing in cruising.
Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Costa Cruise Lines each has a chunk of tropical turf that passengers can call their own on a day planned exclusively for them. Royal Caribbean International has two islands -- one in Haiti and another in the Bahamas. On an even more exotic front, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises has a private motu (Tahitian for island) in French Polynesia.
With the ambience of a private beach club, the islands (often called cays) provide a refreshing alternative to the often frenetic pace aboard ship and the huge crowds at popular ports of call -- where a slew of vessels may be disgorging passengers at the same time, and shore-excursion participants may have to conform to rigid tour schedules.
On the cruise lines' islands, passengers can come and go between ship and shore as they please. Disney is the only line that ties up to a dock at its island -- a big advantage for physically challenged guests, those maneuvering baby strollers and passengers who want to meander easily on and off the ship with no waiting time. The other ships anchor offshore and operate tenders back and forth all day -- usually no more than a 10-minute ride.
Ships usually arrive in the morning and depart in late afternoon, with a big barbecue lunch buffet served at one or more pavilions equipped with picnic tables and bar facilities (although passengers may opt to eat on board instead). An island band usually is on tap most of the day.
The islands have permanent bathroom facilities and plenty of lounge chairs. Beach umbrellas and chaise cushions that double as floats are provided free by some ships; others charge a small fee, typically $6 for the day.
Passengers may choose to laze en mass amid their fellow shipmates or meander off to more isolated spots, usually the further from the drop-off point, the quieter.
Princess Cays, a 40-acre peninsula on the southern tip of Eleuthera in the outer Bahamas, has 1 1/2 miles of coastline where passengers aboard Princess Cruises' Grand Princess and Sea Princess spend either their first or last day during one-week eastern or western Caribbean sailings out of Fort Lauderdale.
"A private island provides a great opportunity to wind down and mellow out at the beginning or end of a cruise after all the hustling to get to the ship or all the running around at ports and on board during the cruise," says the cruise line's Denise Stanley.
Not that there's nothing to do on these islands.
Energetic types who choose to remain vertical (silly fools) can participate in a slew of organized activities, from water sports to volleyball games and guided trail walks or diving excursions (usually at a surcharge). Or, they can rent snorkeling gear, mini-sailboats, kayaks and other water toys and play on their own.
Ships usually provide supervised shore activities and/or play areas for children (as might be expected, child-geared Disney has some of the best programs). Some lines charge for child care on shore or aboard ship on island days, typically about $4 per hour per child, which may be money well spent for parents who want a little beach time to themselves.
It's a good idea to check on specific hours of youth activities and supervision on your sailing, as the selection may vary on different dates. Some ships provide extensive children's programs only during traditional school holiday periods.
Some islands offer especially seductive treats:
Disney's Castaway Cay and Holland America's Half Moon Cay (a 2,400-acre island southeast of Nassau) provide massages in private beach cabanas (Holland America charges $79 for 50 minutes, Disney, $60 for 25 minutes.)
Costa Cruises organizes a surf and turf Olympics at its Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic.
Norwegian Cruise Line runs guided snorkeling tours ($25 for adults, $15 for children, including all gear) around the teeming reefs of Great Stirrup Cay, four square miles of sand and coral cliff in the Bahamas' Berry island chain. To amuse snorkelers and attract marine life, Royal Caribbean International has built a replica of a Spanish galleon and sunk a small airplane in the waters off its Bahamian island, 140-acre Coco Cay.
The line's other island, Labadee, a 260-acre peninsula on the north coast of Haiti, has a huge arts and crafts market with colorful, and surprisingly high quality, sculptures and folk paintings. (We even found a humorous caricature of our ship, the mammoth Voyager of the Seas.)
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises doesn't have a private island in the Caribbean, but passengers on Panama Canal cruises aboard the line's Navigator get exclusive use of the canal's Gatun Yacht Club for a day. Guests can join free tours to watch ships passing through nearby Gatun Lock, go on a guided nature walk into the surrounding jungle, bargain at an Indian marketplace set up on the club grounds, or splash around in a protected swimming area with views of passing freighters and cruise liners. (How many people can say they swam in the Panama Canal?)
Although some services and activities on the private islands may be subcontracted to local residents (handicraft markets, selected water sports and island bands typically are staffed by residents of the host country), everything is monitored by ship personnel, providing quality control and accountability on the part of the cruise line. Much of the ship's serving staff is assigned to island duty as well, creating a comfortable continuum between passengers and crew.
That's a big improvement over the days not so long ago when many cruise lines, having no private turf of their own, sought to give passengers a bit of beach time by renting a few hours of access to the sands of resorts along their route, usually as a shore excursion option. Passengers were dumped off to swim and sweat and burn -- with few amenities available. In many cases they were unwelcome inside the host hotel, except perhaps to use the restrooms. Management viewed them as interlopers to be tolerated, not guests to be catered to.
"The whole idea of the private island is to make passengers feel special, like we've created a little oases just for them that no one else can horn in on," says Michelle Smith of Royal Caribbean International. "This is their beach, their snorkeling reef, their Calypso band, and the staff is there to serve their needs, just like on the ship."
A note of caution when choosing a ship with a private island day. Not all the islands are designed with accessibility in mind. While the physically challenged (and families with small children) will love the paved walkways and helpful island-wide tram service on Disney's Castaway Cay, Princess Cays, Royal Caribbean's Labadee and Holland America's Half Moon Cay, they will find Norwegian Cruise Line's Great Stirrup Cay virtually unnavigable -- with deep soft sand and rocky terrain a barrier almost from the start.
Physically fit folks, on the other hand, may find Great Stirrup Cay their favorite island because of its abundant reef life and massive rocky coral promontory -- great for hiking, with painted footprints marking a trail to the point.
What if you're really not a beach person, but still want your fair share of tranquility? Not to worry. Sometimes the quietest place of all on island days is back on the ship.
While most of the other passengers are making like Robinson Crusoe, you'll have most of the deck space and other popular spots practically to yourself.
Some lines use their private islands on all sailings, others only on selected ships or itineraries, which can change with the season and weather. It's best to check ahead to see if your cruise is slated for an island day. Contact a travel agent or the cruise line.
Costa cruise lines; (800) 462-6782; www.costacruises.com
Disney cruise line; (800) 511-1333; www.disneycruise.com
Holland America line; (800) 426-0327; www.hollandamerica.com
Norwegian cruise line; (800) 327-7030; www.ncl.com
Princess cruises; (800) 774-6237; www.princess.com
Radisson seven seas cruises; (800) 333-3333; www.rssc.com
Royal Caribbean international; (800) 327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com