Jonathan Thompson boards Navigator of the Seas in Miami for the first sailing to Royal Caribbean’s much lauded private island in the Bahamas – Perfect Day at CocoCay
Desert islands have come a long way in the 300 years since Robinson Crusoe was published. Until a generation or two ago, Daniel Defoe’s seminal novel was the benchmark for any and all remote islets and atolls: empty beaches, swaying palm trees and nothing to do except lie on the sand, float in the waves and soak up the sun.
That benchmark has been rising steadily for the past 50 years, with demands for luxury, comfort and excitement upping the ante, even in utopia’s most distant corners. Now Royal Caribbean has taken that criteria and blown it out of the water. Its latest addition to the world of paradise enclaves can be considered a bona fide game-changer.
Even the prefix of the company’s new private island in the Bahamas sets the bar high: ‘Perfect Day’. And it speaks volumes that all of those I spoke to aboard the first official sailing agreed that it more than lives up to the hype.
At a mind-boggling cost of $250 million, Perfect Day at CocoCay (pronounced ‘key’ much to the chagrin of cadence lovers), should be something special, and it is: a water park, beach resort and adventure sports centre rolled into one colourful, tropical whole.
It’s a record-breaker, too. Here, 250km off the Florida coast, you’ll find the tallest water slide in North America, the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool and the region’s largest wave pool.
Make no mistake, this is something very, very special. The ground-breaking attraction took four years to design and build, with materials painstakingly shipped over from the US, and more than 350 permanent employees living and working on the 125-acre atoll. And, according to Royal Caribbean, this is just the first of many.
“CocoCay was the ideal setting for the first Perfect Day island,” says Claudia Diaz-Gonzalez, director of private destination development, who joined us on the inaugural cruise. “It’s just a flawless backdrop with these beautiful Bahamian waters and incredible white sand beaches. It was the perfect opportunity to add an incredible new experience for our guests.”
Royal Caribbean has taken that immaculate Caribbean canvas and created a picture-perfect retreat on it, with the island split into a number of zones, loosely falling under two umbrellas: ‘chill’ and ‘thrill’.
It’s the latter which will attract the most attention, with 13 enormous water slides including the monstrous Daredevil’s Peak at a soaring 41m. That was my first port of call after disembarking the Voyager-class Navigator of the Seas, on our short cruise out of Miami.
Disappointingly, there’s no lift to the summit of Daredevil’s Peak, and it takes some time to traipse all the way to the top, but the ride back down this soaring, soaking helter-skelter – through rainbow tubes, unexpected drops and spaghetti-like spirals – is most definitely worth it. My eight-year-old self is 30 years distant now, but I could feel him alongside me as I raced down the tube, whooping with delight before
I whooshed out at the bottom into the Bahamian sunshine.
Arguably even more dramatic is the Duelling Demons water slide. Although a relatively Lilliputian 23m, this involves being released through a terrifying trapdoor, before being sucked back down to beach level on a steep wave of adrenaline (after the initial terror, eight-year-old me also heartily approved).
Once you’ve had your fill of the water slides, other adrenaline-fuelled activities on the island range from a 500m long zip line to Up, Up And Away, a large sightseeing balloon, which can fly 30 guests up to heights of over 100m. Meanwhile, over on South Beach, you can go jet skiing, paddle boarding and even Zorbing on the ocean.
The “chill” options are no less plentiful, with four restaurants to choose from (covering pretty much every angle from child-friendly fare to more upscale offerings) and the freshwater Oasis Lagoon at the heart of proceedings. Here, you can explore three distinct coves, or simply make a beeline for the thatch roofed swim-up bar, to enjoy one of the signature cocktails (NB. If this is your plan, ensure it is included in your package or buy an add-on before leaving the ship, then all you need to do is wave a wristband and drink to your heart’s content). Cabanas here are available for rent, but the loungers and umbrellas are all complimentary, and there were plenty to go around during my visit, even after Navigator of the Seas had disgorged all 4,000 of its passengers onto the island.
Indeed, the beauty of this place is that, even with a full cruise ship’s worth of swim-suited patrons wondering around, it doesn’t feel too busy at all. South Beach in particular was nearly empty for most of our day trip, and one suspects you could easily fit another ship’s worth of guests here simultaneously.
“We built the island to be able to comfortably accommodate up to 10,000 guests at any one time,” confirms Diaz-Gonzalez. “The specially-constructed jetty can take two cruise ships at once, and on many days it will.”
That’s another major bonus of Perfect Day at CocoCay: unlike most cruise landings, the ship remains easily accessible at the purpose-built jetty throughout. No need for customs checks or passport control, or queues of any kind. If you forget anything or want to pop back to the ship for any reason, you can do so with zero hassle and be back in your cabin within a few minutes.
Royal Caribbean is planning to offer Perfect Day at CocoCay as an option on 11 ships in its fleet, including all sailings out of Miami and the US northeast. By the end of 2019 they expect more than a million guests to have visited, with that figure doubling in 2020. Later this year, they plan to add Coco Beach Club – an upscale dining club boasting the first overwater cabanas in the Bahamas and an infinity pool spanning almost 800m.
This, of course, is just the first Perfect Day island – and Royal Caribbean is tight-lipped about where the other locations will be. What we do know is that there will be at least four others around the world, with potential sites identified in Asia and Australia as well as at least one more in the Caribbean.
Wherever they are built, CocoCay is likely to remain the most accessible of the bunch, with easy access from Royal Caribbean’s home port of Miami. Our cruise was just a four-night round-trip, which also included a stop in Nassau – the one-time pirate republic and present-day capital of the Bahamas.
The whole of this stretch of the Caribbean, including CocoCay and its neighbouring Berry Islands, were at the very heart of pirating in the 17th and 18th centuries, and rumours persist of buried treasure here. If early signs are anything to go by, Royal Caribbean appears to have struck gold above ground, too.