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Friday File: Beaches of Beauty

If you think a beach is a beach is a beach, which people who don’t lie in the sun might feel inclined to do, then you haven’t met our son-in-law. He will structure his family’s vacations around the quality of the beaches. Prompted by his discriminating eye, we’re re-visiting some that we’ve at least seen in our cruise travels…

TulumTULUM: This picture is taken from the ancient ruins of Tulum, and its accompanying beach provides an alternative for cranky teenagers (or adults) more interested in sunshine than sun gods.

GREAT STIRRUP CayGREAT STIRRUP CAY: This is Norwegian’s private island, which means this is Norwegian’s private beach, available only to its cruise-ship passengers. It has everything you might want, especially people.

BarcelonaBARCELONA: You don’t expect to find palm trees, or beaches like this, in Barcelona…at least we didn’t. The lack of beach-goers had more to do with the time of year (May) than the quality of sand. 

Huatulco-2HUATULCO: A nice spot frequented mostly by the locals who live near this pretty place in southern Mexico, and just a short cab ride from the Celebrity Millennium…well worth whatever it cost us.

St. MaartenST. MAARTEN: The bar from which this shot is taken does a booming business all day, thanks mostly to cruise tourists from Philipsburg, 20 minutes away from being this close to landing jets.

MIAMI: There are places that lay claim to being the most famous of beaches, but is there one better known than Miami Beach (okay, Fort Lauderdale) and its view for passing cruise ships?
ArubaARUBA: White sandy beaches that stretch seven miles along this tiny island, flanked by some of the most expensive hotels you’ll find. The good news is the beaches are all public — it’s the law.
Costa MayaCOSTA MAYA: A popular Mexican port still recovering from Hurricane Dean (2007) doesn’t have a lot to do within walking distance of the ship, but this beach near the pier is a hotspot for passengers.

Today at portsandbows.com: Koningsdam coming to America

Royal Princess
14 nights
April 25, 2015
Fort LauderdalePonta DelgadaCorkRotterdamBrusselsSouthampton
Inside: $696
Cost per day: $49


Yo Ho Ho…on Great Stirrup Cay

What's going on here? If you ask passengers which cruise line would be most likely to wear the unflattering moniker of "booze cruise" chances are the response would be Carnival, the line that admittedly tries to take "fun" to the extreme without directly linking it to the consummation of alcohol.

But…is that Norwegian, making a run at the title?

One week, Kevin Sheehan's favorite cruise line seals a deal with the Mondavi GSK-Bacardi barfamily, known for many decades of turning grapes into red and white beverages that are downed by drinkers who don't care for the exotics and the hard stuff.

The next week, Norwegian proudly locks arms with Bacardi, the people who make rum and who as of yesterday have a "first of its kind" rum bar at Great Stirrup Cay, the Caribbean island owned by the cruise line. 

Now, for those of us who don't have this spirit on our drink menu, a rum bar is a rum bar s a rum bar. Apparently there is something unique about this one, other than the fact that it's on the beach at Great Stirrup Cay, but it seems you need to go there to find out. Yes, on a Norwegian ship (the Pearl is a regular).

And maybe that's the whole idea. Maybe it has nothing to do with taking on Carnival after all.

Carnival Ecstasy
4 nights
January 20, 2014
Miami (return): Key WestCozumel 
Inside: $169
Cost per day: $42

Pearl's Sweet Cruise Alabama

Quickly now, who wants to vacation with Alabama. Not IN Alabama, but WITH…as in the country super group?

Well, you can.

Alabama hasn't toured for a decade but in October they're doing a mini-tour, of sorts, on the Norwegian Pearl, and can it be coincidence that they chose this ship because of Minnie Pearl, whose humanitarian award they won?

This tour is four nights long — Miami to the Bahamas and back — and Alabama will play on two of the nights. They'll also have some of their favorite bands on the Pearl, a dozen musical friends to participate in four nights of music at sea. including a beach party at Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian's private island.

There will be plenty of time for photos and autographs and all of the trappings of having a private audience with celebrities. Because it's a cruise in which Norwegian is partnering with Sixthman, which specializes in theme cruises, presumably everybody on the ship will have access to everything on the agenda.

Launched four years after Alabama retired, the Pearl carries 2,394 passengers.

In the group's heydey, there were four of them — lead singer Randy Owen, his cousin Teddy Gentry, their distant cousin Jeff Cook and drummer Mark Herndon. A bitter lawsuit filed by Herndon after their farewell tour made Alabama a threesome, one that pops up now and again at awards shows and events like the cruise, and sometimes even in a recording studio.

Alabama produced 41 or 42 or 43 singles that made it to No. 1, depending on your source, and one of the CDs in our collection is entitled: For The Record 41 Number One Hits. Next fall marks the 40th anniversary of the day Alabama launched that career, in South Carolina, and they'll be celebrating it on a cruise ship…off the coast of Florida.

The cost of this vacation with Alabama starts around $1,000 (per person) for an inside stateroom, including taxes and gratuities. A balcony room goes for more than $1,500, and "tickets" go on sale March 20. By then you should know who their "friends" will be.

When you take two concerts and factor in the exclusivity angle, the price shouldn't come as a surprise..

Royal Caribbean Independence of the Seas
8 nights
February 10, 2013
Fort Lauderdale (return): St. Maarten, St. KittsSan Juan, Labadee
Inside: $429
Cost per day: $61

Cabanalife new at Great Stirrup Cay


One day, we'll go back to Great Stirrup Cay, a private island we visited a couple of years ago. We were going to be in Florida, and we were looking for a short cruise to…anywhere…after almost a month of writing about being on ships.

We were looking for a little R&R, and so it was that the Norwegian Sky took us to Great Stirrup Cay, which became our good fortune.

Last week, NCL announced its newest "shore excursion" called Cabanas on the Cay. They've built 10 of them, for up to 60 passengers who want to be on the beach in luxury. The cost is $250 a day (okay, $249) but it's not as costly as it sounds.

First of all, take five friends and it's only $41.50 each. Throw in a $10 all-day pass to the Hippo Waterslide, and you're down to $31.50. Then there's a $50 food credit for you to share (?) with your cabanamates and a large float that goes for $25 for the day. And for your bottom line of just over $20 you get priority tender service, a fruit basket, bottled water and an exclusive menu of seafood, charcuterie and sushi.

While it would be nice to experience cabanalife for a day, that's not the only reason we'd like to go back to Great Stirrup Cay.

We'd like to go back to see…

• If the building with x-ray security and the four tender docks that were being built to make it an easy on/off tendering process are functioning

• If Kent Albury still runs around the island he manages on his ATV with more phones and pagers ringing and beeping than you'd hear on Wall Street

• If the flushing channel that splits the island in half changes the water in the tendering bay four times every day, like it was designed to do

• If the beach is still as relatively pristine as it was, or if all the new additions have turned it into an amusement park on sand

NCL usually has five ships a year stopping at Great Stirrup Cay. The Sky and the Pearl from Miami, and the Gem from New York, are all still making it a port. The Jewel starts a New York-to-Bahamas run in October. Next year, the new ship Breakaway will visit during 7-day cruises from the Big Apple.

Norwegian was the first cruise line to buy its own island. That was almost 42 years ago and, like many NCL innovations, it prompted other cruise lines to follow suit.

You know what they say about imitation…

Norwegian Sky
3 nights
July 13, 2012
Miami (return): Great Stirrup Cay, Nassau  
Inside: $249
Cost per day: $83

Norwegian's Tropical Bahamian Island

GREAT STIRRUP CAY — Until we met Kent Albury, we thought “Bad Billy” was the kid down the street that terrorized the neighborhood. Other kids were afraid of what he’d do to them. Parents were afraid their kids would be like him.

In Kent’s vocabulary, “Bad Billy” is the wind. When it blows from the north or west onto this island owned by Norwegian Cruise Line, at 25 knots (just under 35 mph), that’s bad. Tender boats can be held at bay. We never thought to ask where “Billy” came from…probably just a Kent-ism.

Bahamian born, Kent Albury is the manager of Great Stirrup Cay, and if you’re wondering why an island needs a manager, especially an island which is mostly deserted except for cruise-ship passengers, you’re about to find out. NCL’s little piece of paradise is under construction that will make it a bigger piece of paradise. That’s bigger, as in more usable.

The existing beach will be devoid of its existing buildings, creating more room for sand, and more room for beach lovers. The beach will also be about half a mile longer than it is in these pictures and include amenities like a pool and aqua park for kids, a new food pavilion that has dishwashers and a water treatment plant. All of this will cut down on transporting food and the garbage left behind to and from the cruise ship that’s parked out on these tropical waters.

Passengers are tendered in boats that carry 450, because there’s no pier for cruise ships, and there isn’t likely to be in the foreseeable future. The tender boats simply drive up into the sand that is such valuable real estate. New tender docks are due for completion this month, along with a terminal that will speed up everything, because there will be four docks and return-to-ship security will be completed before catching the return tender.

To give it some perspective, you can see Royal Caribbean’s island (Little Coco Cay) from here, and Great Stirrup Cay is, to quote Albury, “five times larger.”

The expansion project will be complete in a  year and will cost $20 million. That’s why he’s here, driving around the island in a 4×4 that makes you feel you’re in the Australian outback, answering a battery of phones and pagers like he’s a Wall Street banker, and entertaining people like us with his unique Bahamian accent and sense of humor.

He generously and eagerly took us to parts of the island only construction workers — and perhaps men washing up on deserted islands looking for beautiful women — had ever seen. He showed us where the new beach will go, the tender docks that are being carved out of limestone, the brown dirt road the locals call I-95, a 200-year-old building that was recently discovered after a hurricane, even the inside of the trailer where he lives, complete with satellite dish and flat-screen TV.

A few things are clear about Kent. He is passionate about this little island that his employer owns. He loves doing this, although he admits needing an occasional escape from the isolation — his wife of 26 years lives an hour away by plane…or a day away by boat. He is environmentally responsible: “We’re building a flushing channel that splits the island in two, so the water in the tender area can be changed four times every 24 hours.”

On the subject of being environmentally friendly, being able to wash dishes eliminates or greatly reduces the current use of paper plates. Water treatment does what water treatment does. Processing garbage means refuse from beach users doesn’t have to be tendered back to the mother ship.

Even during construction, Great Stirrup Cay has no more than 100 residents. Five NCL ships drop by with weekly loads of passengers — the Gem, Pearl, Sun, Dawn and the one that brought us here, the Sky. Locals who work the beach come from “the mainland” — Great Harbor Cay, a 15-minute speedboat ride away. Generally, about two-thirds of a ship’s passengers come ashore, always by tender.

The only time they can’t…well, that’s Bad Billy’s fault.

You get two for the price of one these days…we’re also writing blogs on the Norwegian Epic during its Caribbean debut, for our Canadian colleague Phil Reimer. Check out our Epic reports by clicking on Ports And Bows.

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