A view of the MSC Divina from atop the 115-foot lighthouse on Ocean Cay.
OCEAN CAY MSC MARINE RESERVE — As guests return to MSC Cruises ships from the line’s recently opened private island here in the Bahamas, they’re likely to retain images of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, moonlight paddleboarding and sunset cocktails.
But what they did not see is perhaps what makes Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve most special: a four-year effort to transform this former sand-excavation site into a tropical paradise and a continuing commitment to making the island a hub for coral restoration and marine conservation.
Ocean Cay opened Dec. 5, adding MSC to the ranks of cruise lines with private destinations in the Bahamas.
A beach cabana on Ocean Cay. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
While other private islands have made headlines recently with bells and whistles usually found on the ships themselves, MSC designed Ocean Cay to offer a “natural Bahamian island” experience.
The herculean effort to create what is essentially a model of marine restoration out of a treeless island with 1,500 tons of industrial waste on and around it guided that approach.
“We spent four years cleaning it up,” MSC COO Ken Muskat said. “They’d killed the marine life. We spent four years regenerating marine life and bringing it back. We have watersports and volleyball and so much to do. But we want to keep the natural beauty of the island as the focus. That’s the point.”
To underscore that point, MSC is working to designate 64 square miles of the sea around the island a marine reserve and is investing in a major coral restoration project. It is also building a lab on the island for marine biologists and students to lead restoration efforts. Guests will be able to participate in projects such as planting coral back in the ocean.
“We’re not trying to build an amusement park on the water,” Muskat said.
A shop on Ocean Ca, that sells only products made in the Bahamas. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
The 95-acre island, still a work in progress — MSC planted 77,000 trees and shrubs here, and it will soon be much lusher than it is now — has eight beaches: some wavy, ocean-facing ones, others surrounding a calm lagoon. Guests can kayak, stand-up paddleboard, snorkel, play in beach volleyball tournaments, walk 165 steps to the top of the lighthouse or get a massage in a beach cabana.
There are plenty of bars (I counted 10) and several shops serving coffee, ice cream and goods, including one featuring only products made in the Bahamas.
There is one main buffet area serving Caribbean-style salads in addition to standard cruise ship fare, and complimentary food trucks have been spread out on the island serving a very limited burger and hot dog-focused menu.
MSC plans to put more specialized menus on the trucks once a second buffet area opens later this year. As the waters around the island regenerate and start growing local catch like conch again, look for a Bahamian seafood truck serving conch fritters, lobster rolls and fish tacos using locally caught seafood.
Just as on the ships, MSC Yacht Club guests have their own part of the island with a private beach and restaurant.
Ocean Cay also stands out for being the only private island currently offering nighttime activities on every call, possibly because the island is only 65 miles from Miami, so ships can still arrive there the next morning.
I enjoyed sunset cocktails at the Lighthouse Bar while others had their feet in the sand along Sunset Beach. A Bahamian Junkanoo “street parade” wound along the island’s paths to Lighthouse Bay, where the beach was set up with chairs around fire pits. Twice a night, the 115-foot lighthouse puts on a light show. A DJ kicked off a dance party on the beach, while guests still on the ship watched from their balconies and the open decks.
Staying late also means unique excursions such as stargazing on the beach and nighttime stand-up paddleboarding on boards fitted with LEDs.
Muskat said the Ocean Cay experience fills what was a gap in the line’s offerings.
“This has helped fill that hole,” Muskat said. “Our aim is … for people debating MSC or another vacation, they use Ocean Cay as a reason to book MSC Cruises.”
Ocean Cay has proven so popular, he said, that future cruise itineraries could visit twice.
“There’s a lot of demand from guests,” he said. “They say they just can’t do everything in one day.”
And with so many beaches and private cabanas throughout, unlike on the pool deck of most cruise ships on a sunny day, there was plenty of space.
“One of the greatest comments we get is nobody feels crowded because there are so many places to spread out,” Muskat said. “The other is they wish we were here longer because there’s so much they didn’t get to see.”