Make the Most of a Day in Great Stirrup Cay and Spend $0!

Great Stirrup Cay is Norwegian Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas. I've cruised a few times before, but this was my first time experiencing a cruise line's private island port. I am not going to lie, I didn't have high expectations for our visit. One of the things I like about cruising is that you can have a multitude of experiences from different cruise ports, especially cultural experiences. A cruise ship island is devoid of those cultural experiences. If you strip that all away, you just have a beach. And I do like the beach. But do I like a beach where 4500 people trade a boat for the sand for the day? I wasn't so sure! In the end, Great Stirrup Cay actually surprised me the most. But there were some things we did that set us up to enjoy the island even more and I'm sharing all my secrets with you so that you can enjoy them too. And it won't cost you any more money! 


Make the Most of a Day in Great Stirrup Cay and Spend $0!

great stirrup cay tips and tricks

Start here! Pros and Cons of Cruise Ship Island Ports of Call

This was my experience on our recent trip. We sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line and the first port on our 7-day itinerary was to stop in Great Stirrup Cay. 

About Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Great Stirrup Cay is part of the Berry Islands in the Bahamas. Great Stirrup Cay was the first private cruise ship-owned island back in the early '90s. Other cruise ship companies followed buying up other private islands, but this was the first! 

It used to be a pirate hideout when the British were settling in Nassau. It is now run by the cruise line and has been developed by the cruise line, and NCL has kept its guests in mind while doing that and has restaurants, food trucks, cabanas {for rent}, and more!

In the early days, tenders used to drive up Normandy beach style and unload passengers. They now have a tender port that is an improvement, and in the cruise world, talks often go round and round about building a dock so tenders won't need to be used to disembark. However, very little movement has been made on that. Weather is often a factor and winds and rough seas will often cancel the Great Stirrup Cay port for cruise passengers. The week before our sailing and the week after our sailing, Great Stirrup Cay was canceled due to weather, so we felt lucky that we were able to enjoy the port.

I didn't have high expectations about a cruise ship private island. I had read reviews that it felt busy and crowded. Two things I don't love on vacation. I also was setting myself for the possibility that it might not be a stop we could make because of the tender port and so I garnered my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed this port stop. But we also did a few things right that allowed us to enjoy it fully. So come close, I'm letting you in on my secrets!

How We Enjoyed Great Stirrup Cay Away From the Crowds {and didn't spend any money!}

In case you missed it: The 5 Things I'm Glad I Packed on my Caribbean Cruise

We actually used four of the five items I wrote about on the list when we stopped in Great Stirrup Cay for the day. As I mentioned before, I had low expectations for this private cruise line-owned island. I wasn't sure what the island would be like when a very full ship with 4000+ people stepped on it. But I was pretty sure it would feel like a bunch of people struggling to find a beach chair. 

I was wrong.

But then again, since Great Stirrup Cay is a tender port, the sea of humanity arrived in waves. And we were on one of the first tenders. So that's tip number 1!

Get an Early Tender

Arrive on the beach early. Tender priority is given to those people who have excursions booked first. There are multiple tenders and they run about every half an hour give or take. We made tender reservations shortly after checking into the cruise on embarkation day. They will give you an approximate time, but you are really just listening for your group number to be called. We were on tender number 7 and they gave us an approximate departure time of 8:30 am. 

Pro-tip: If you miss your tender number time, they don't seem to care! As long as you have a reservation on one, they will check you in and allow you to board. 


Know Where to Sit

This tip applies to both the tender and the beach.

On the tender

When you get on the tender from the ship you load from the top of the double-decker boat. The upper floor connects to the ship, and the lower floor connects to the land. If you can, from the ship, sit on the lower level so that when you arrive at Great Stirrup Cay you can get off first. When you return from the island, sit on the top of the boat by going upstairs. They rope off the bottom section of the tender until the top fully unloads and you could be sitting in the tender for 30 minutes or more.

At the Beach

Most people don't walk far when they get off the tender. There is a beautiful cove and hundreds of beach chairs set up, so why bother? But I'm telling you, unless you really do want to be where all the action {and the people} are, then keep walking! 

There is a paved path you can take that winds in front of the cabanas. You can walk on that path or take the beach and head towards the other side of the cove. 

The Best Spot in Great Stirrup Cay

I think we had the absolute best spot for our day in Great Stirrup Cay. We were looking for some natural shade {that's hard to come by!} since the umbrellas cost money, and since we had our hammock, we were looking for trees to put it up in. We found both near the Silver Cove cabana area. 

What is Silver Cove

Silver Cove is Great Stirrup Cay's newest section with bright blue water. Access is limited to those who book a villa for the day. Villas have air conditioning, private bathrooms, a bedroom, and a private porch. You will find a private swimming cove with its own restaurant, bar, and spa. Prices start at $500.

There is a private entry and a small fence lined with trees that separates the Silver Cove area from the "regular" area. This is where you are headed so you can find that perfect spot! 

The perfect location is NOT in Silver Cove, but Silver Cove adjacent. It won't cost you a dime!

We hung up our hammock and got comfortable in a few lounge chairs and our group of four all agreed that it was the best spot on the whole island! 

Most cruisers won't make their way past the first set of lounge chairs they see on the beach. If they do, they will then get "stuck" near the first food and bar area they run into thinking they've got it made, but friends, you know the secret! There are food trucks, a bar, AND clean bathrooms not to mention a beach that feels like it's all your own!

Pro tip: If you aren't bringing a hammock on your next beach vacation, you are missing out!


Amenities That Cost Money on Great Stirrup Cay {and How to Avoid the Charges!}

If you read this post I wrote about the pros and cons of cruise ship island ports, you will know that the cruise lines benefit from having their own island because they get to target you, the consumer, with all the additional extras and they {not the port country you are visiting} gets to keep the money they are making. It benefits the cruise line to have extra items that will continue to have you swiping your cruise ship card and spending money!

Here are a few of the things that I saw that cost extra money and how you can avoid the extra fees and still enjoy your time on the island without spending any money!

Beach Umbrellas

The beach is filled with lounge chairs. Some of them are near beach umbrellas and tents, and we didn't realize until we tried to get comfortable in one of them, that there is a fee for umbrella rental. We were glad that we found natural shade from a cluster of palm trees {that separated the "regular" cove from the "exclusive" cove}. 

Bring a hammock! The backpack ones pack into a small bag and take up next to no room! And they cost around $10! 

Pro tip: The chairs are lined up nicely on the beach but they aren't stuck in cement! You can move the chairs to make them more comfortable for you and your family. 

Beach Floats

I love to float in the water. It is one of my favorite things. So while it felt "extra" for me to be packing beach floats in my suitcase, I have no regrets! Especially when I saw that they were charging $22 per mat for the day. 

This is hands down my favorite beach float. I love that it floats me high enough out of the water so that I can read a book while floating and not get the pages wet. There are also cup holders. And they are inexpensive but last forever! I've had the same one for years! 

Pro tip: if you want to pack beach floats too, bring a battery-powered air pump {this one is pocket-sized} or consider packing a float that doesn't require as much air to fill up {we also had these}. I deflated the floats and all three of them fit into my backpack to bring back on the ship. 

Snorkel Sets

I have read that there are underwater art installations that the cruise line has created where fish and other marine wildlife have taken up residence. However, I didn't see a single thing in the water in the lagoon area I was swimming in for the day so I was glad we didn't spend the $40 on the snorkel rental! 

We do have our own snorkel sets that we've taken with us to Hawaii before, so if you have the room and you want to snorkel, pack a pair and go in search of the underwater snorkel garden.

Paddleboards and Kayaks

You can rent paddleboards on Great Stirrup Cay by the hour or book an excursion for a kayak tour with a group. I considered bringing my inflatable paddle board and if you love to SUP, then you could pack your own. The water is calm and lifeguards are watching. Kayaks are only available as part of a tour, so you have to stay with the group. 


There are limited excursions that are available on Great Stirrup Cay. Honestly, if it were me, I'd save my money and enjoy the island for free for the day so you can splurge on an excursion in another port. 

I was tempted to swim with the pigs in the Bahamas, a quick boat ride away, but after reading the reviews that you are basically swimming with dirty pigs in copious amounts of pig excrement, I changed my mind. And pigs scratch as they swim and the list of cons goes on...

They also have jet skis you can rent, and again, we were tempted, especially since we were with some of our favorite college kids. I did some more reading and you can't just jet ski on your own. You have to stay with the group and there are limits set that control your speed. If you are traveling with kids, there are age limits for drivers and passengers, so keep that in mind too. Again, no thank you. 

Another island excursion you can take part in is the zipline. It winds up and over and all around the island. We have had the opportunity to zipline in a whole of locations so we didn't feel like we needed to do another zipline excursion. But to each his own!

stirrup cay bahamas ncl private island know before you go

Food and Drinks are Included on Great Stirrup Cay

Free is my favorite four letter word, so when I heard that the food and drinks on the island were an extension of your cruise package {I mean, not really free, but you've already paid for them!}, I think it made me like the island even more. 

There are lots of various dining locations and bars including a large buffet-style building that has {what I hear} incredible jerk chicken. We stayed away from the main beach area, which is where the largest dining facility was. I didn't know it existed actually until we started to walk back to the tender. We actually took advantage of the food trucks that were located on the far end of the beach and the food was fine. 

We did have the drink package and the benefits extend to the island. If you take my advice and get on the island early, the lines are minimal to non-existent. Give it a few hours and the lines for the bar are ridiculous! They were the longest we stood in our entire trip and were not worth it for the quality of drinks we received. 

Pack your reusable water bottle, fill it up on the ship when you eat breakfast in the morning, and take it along with you. 

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