Conservation, night stays set MSC’s private island apart

A view of the MSC Divina from atop the 115-foot lighthouse on Ocean Cay.
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.
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.

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.”

First Guests Arrive at MSC’s New Ocean Cay

MSC Ocean Cay Opens (AP Images for MSC Cruises)

MSC Cruises today welcomed the very first guests to Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, its new private island destination in The Bahamas, according to a press release. 

Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman of MSC Cruises, said: “Ocean Cay is founded on a deep commitment to ecological principles – beliefs that shape everything from how venues are built, to how the island is run, to the kinds of activities featured on the island. Having the first guests arrive on the island is a moment of great pride for all of us at MSC Cruises. We wanted to create for our guests something sustainable, with a higher purpose. Ocean Cay is not just a vacation island, it is a unique marine reserve where people and nature thrive in harmony.”

MSC Ocean Cay Opens (AP Images for MSC Cruises)

The island’s opening is a major milestone for MSC as it builds its North American operation, which has four ships sailing from Miami this winter. 

MSC has turned the island from what was once an industrial sand excavation site into a stunning tropical destination, while working with environmental engineers and other experts to revitalize the surrounding ocean beds, marine life and endangered coral, according to a company press release.

MSC Ocean Cay Opens (AP Images for MSC Cruises)

The project took nearly three years to complete. 7,500 tons of scrap metal was removed and, throughout the clean-up process, a team of expert divers and marine biologists carefully removed individual hard coral colonies from debris on the ocean bed and relocated them to an approved location outside the construction area. More than 75,000 plants and shrubs planted across the island to create a biodiverse and sustainable environment.

In the coming months, MSC Cruises will also introduce a Conservation Center on the island, which will serve as an active base for coral education and research. 

MSC Armonia to Homeport in Tampa

MSC Armonia

MSC Cruises announced it is sending the Armonia to homeport in Tampa for the 2020-2021 cruise season, adding a key new homeport to the company’s arsenal.

Starting Nov. 11, 2020, MSC Armonia will begin sailing from Tampa to the Caribbean, Mexico and the Bahamas year-round, with a full Winter season (Nov. 2020 – April 2021) of four- to five-night short cruises followed by a Summer season (May 2021-Nov. 2021) of week-long cruise options.

Gianni Onorato, MSC Cruises’ CEO, said: “The introduction of Tampa as a homeport is another important milestone as we continue to grow our presence and profile in North America to meet the growing demand for our product.

“MSC Armonia’s short cruises will be perfect for the first time U.S. guests to experience our European heritage and I’m sure that our seven-night product will appeal greatly to families.  With every sailing from Tampa including our exclusive Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve private island, all of the ship’s itineraries should also be extremely attractive for large U.S. groups and charters.”

“As MSC Cruises expands its presence in the U.S., the introduction of Tampa as a homeport plays an important role in our long-term deployment strategy for this region,” added Ken Muskat, EVP and Chief Operating Officer of MSC Cruises USA. “We’ve seen increased demand for cruise options from Tampa as vacationers from around the world look to explore the city and surrounding areas pre- and post-cruise. We’re looking forward to bringing MSC Armonia, one of our more classic and charming ships, to Tampa and to introducing even more travellers to the MSC Cruises experience, inspired by our European heritage.”

“We are thrilled that MSC Cruises will be offering year-round cruises from Port Tampa Bay next year,” said Paul Anderson, President and CEO of Port Tampa Bay. “MSC Cruises offers an enriching and immersive cruise experience, bringing together people from around the world. Tampa is also known for the unique experiences the city offers its residents and visitors, appealing to a diverse mix of nationalities and cultures. We couldn’t be more excited for MSC Armonia’s new home to be Port Tampa Bay.”

For the Winter 2020-2021 season, MSC Armonia will offer a variety of four- and five-night sailings, visiting destinations such as Key West; Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Progreso, Mexico; and Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.

“With a range of itineraries, including short cruise options, MSC Armonia’s itineraries from Tampa are ideal for groups, including family reunions, meetings, incentives and corporate events, as well as charters,” said Muskat. “In addition, the four- and five-night options are a great opportunity for someone who has never cruised before to try cruising as a vacation option or if they are new to MSC Cruises to check out one of our ships for the first time.”

Following its inaugural season in Tampa, MSC Armonia will then transition to 7-night sailings from May through Nov. 2021, with stops at Key West; Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve; Cozumel, Mexico; and Progreso, Mexico. Prices start at $299 per person.