Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island in the Bahamas, offers gorgeous white sand beaches, water sports and activities, and a variety of restaurants and bars.
The very first cruise line private island, Great Stirrup Cay is a 268-acre piece of paradise in the Berry Islands in the Bahamas. There are so many things to do on Great Stirrup Cay, whether you want an active day or just some relaxation! Here’s everything you need to know before your visit.
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Who owns Great Stirrup Cay?
Norwegian Cruise Line started leasing Great Stirrup Cay in 1977, to develop it into a private island exclusively for NCL cruise ship passengers. NCL purchased the island outright in 1986.
You may notice some Royal Caribbean ships as you approach the island. Don’t worry, it’s not accessible to other cruise lines not owned by Norwegian! Great Stirrup Cay happens to be located adjacent to Little Stirrup Cay, home to RCC’s private island CocoCay.
Norwegian’s sister cruise lines, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, also offer occasional itineraries that include a day at Great Stirrup Cay.
NCL’s recent renovations
As part of their Norwegian Edge program, NCL has spent about $250 million renovating and improving Great Stirrup Cay. In addition to upgrading and enhancing the experience at the dining venues, and improving walkways and landscaping, they’ve also added more sports and adventure activities. For the ultimate in relaxation, the new luxury Silver Cove area features villas and a private lagoon.
If it’s been a few years since you’ve visited the private island, you’ll be amazed at how much it’s changed while still retaining its charm.
Is Great Stirrup Cay a tender port?
Yes. Great Stirrup Cay doesn’t yet have a pier for ships to dock at, so your ship will anchor offshore. Smaller boats, known as “tenders”, ferry passengers to and from the island.
You’ll need to pick up a complimentary ticket with a specific time to board the tender, or you can wait until Open Tender is called. Be warned that on NCL ships, Open Tender generally doesn’t start until the afternoon. By that time, many (if not all) of the restaurants and bars on the island will be closed.
Tip: Check your Freestyle Daily the day before you arrive at Great Stirrup Cay. It will list times and the location where you can pick up tender tickets. Tickets with early tender times go fast, so be sure to get your tickets as soon as possible.
Does anyone live on the island?
Norwegian does have a small staff that stays on the island, but there are no permanent residents. All food for the day is sent over on tender boats with the ship’s kitchen staff in the morning.
The staff you’ll meet during the day on Great Stirrup Cay come over from the ship. Even the people working at the straw market don’t live here – they take the ferry over from nearby Great Harbour Cay.
Is the food free on Great Stirrup Cay?
Yes, food is complimentary on Great Stirrup Cay! Currently, there are three dining options available to all guests on the island.
Jumbey Beach Grill is the largest dining venue, offering barbecue-style food in a buffet setting. Hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, and jerk chicken are popular, along with pizza, salads and corn-on-the-cob.
Abaco Taco is a make-your-own taco bar with a variety of toppings available. Choose a beef, chicken or fish soft taco, and load it up!
Tropic Like It’s Hot Food Truck‘s small menu features sandwiches including Mahi Mahi and BBQ pulled pork, ceviche, and grilled spiced chicken breast. They also offer desserts: rum cake and coconut fudge bars.
Guests who book a villa or a Mandara Spa treatment on the island have access to an additional complimentary restaurant. Silver Cove Restaurant and Bar offers an upscale buffet with elevated choices such as grilled lobster tail and jumbo shrimp ceviche.
Are drinks free on Great Stirrup Cay?
There are very limited complimentary beverages available with meals: coffee and ice water. Drink charges on Great Stirrup Cay work much like they do on board the ship. If you have a beverage package for your cruise, it will work on the island as well.
If you’d like to buy drinks, you use your cruise card to make your purchases just as you do on the ship.
Bars on GSC that are open to all guests include the Patrón Bar, Bertram’s Bar, Bacardi Bar, and the Lighthouse Beach Bar. In the exclusive Silver Cove area, there’s also the Silver Cove Bar and the Moët Bar. These are only accessible to Villa guests and those booking a treatment at the Mandara Spa.
What activities are offered at Great Stirrup Cay?
Enjoying the beach
Many visitors choose to just relax on the beach during their visit to the private island, and there’s plenty of beautiful sand for everyone! Beach access is free, and complimentary loungers are available. Most chairs are not shaded, so you might consider renting a clamshell to keep out of the sun.
Tip: If you don’t want to spring for a clamshell, get to the island as early as possible. There are limited loungers in a shady area under the trees, but they go fast!
Bertram’s Cove Beach, the main beach on the island, is the largest and closest to the tender dock. Since it’s so easily accessible, it’s always the most crowded beach as well. If you don’t mind being a little farther away from most amenities, keep walking and you’ll find Cabana Beach and then Fiesta Beach.
Although these smaller beaches are generally where cabana guests go, they’re also open to anyone. And they’re usually a lot less crowded!
Floating on the waves
If you’d prefer to relax ON the water, you can rent a floating mat for $16 a day. Pick them up at Mat and Float Rentals, across from Bertram’s Cove Beach. You can’t miss it – the mats are a seriously bright shade of yellow!
Snorkeling at the underwater sculpture garden
Snorkeling is a very popular activity for visitors to Great Stirrup Cay! The best snorkeling spots in Bertram’s Cove are easily accessible from the main beach. You can rent snorkel equipment for the day ($30/adult, $15/child) but we prefer to pack our own full-face snorkel masks.
The sculpture garden is located just in front of the large rock formations you’ll notice rising out of the water. If you’re not sure exactly where to go, just ask the staff at Susan’s Rock Snorkel Center.
Ziplining from the new lighthouse
One of the newest attractions on GSC is the ziplining course. Starting from the 110-foot (33.5 m) replica lighthouse, the new course features 2935 feet (895 m) of zipline!
You’ll be able to reach speeds of up to 30 mph (48 kmh) while enjoying a birds-eye view of the island and the sparkling waters surrounding it.
Age and weight restrictions do apply, and closed-toe shoes are required to participate. Currently, NCL is not offering zipline tickets for pre-purchase before your cruise, so ask at the Shore Excursions desk on the ship or at the Information Booth on the island.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP)
Stand-up paddle boarding (or SUP) is a fun way to get out on the water, and it’s a great workout, too! SUP is easy to learn, and the staff will give you pointers before sending you out to paddle around Bertram’s Cove.
Board and paddle rentals are $27 per hour, and there’s no minimum age requirement, so the whole family can join in.
Get pampered at Mandara Spa
If a soothing spa treatment is more your style, be sure to book a facial or massage at Mandara Spa in Silver Cove. Spa therapists will work their magic while you relax to the song of the ocean waves. Treatment rooms open to the secluded beach on the north side of the lagoon.
Guests who sign up for a spa treatment have an added perk – access to the private lagoon and Silver Cove’s restaurant and bars, normally reserved for those renting a villa.
Is there entertainment on Great Stirrup Cay?
Entertainment on the private island is focused on music and dancing, and is centered around the bars and the bandstand. Expect lively dancing from the ship’s entertainment staff, especially at the Bacardi Bar! They’ll encourage guests to come up and dance with them. Even if you’re not a dancer, it’s fun to watch the high-energy staff interact with guests who may or may not have had a couple of rum cocktails.
Live music with a Caribbean flair is played by local musicians at the bandstand directly across from the main beach at Bertram’s Cove. There’s plenty of room to dance on the sand, away from the crowds sunning on the beach.
What shore excursions can you take from Great Stirrup Cay?
Since the island is uninhabited, your only options for shore excursions are those you book through the cruise line.
Stingray City Bahamas ($79/$59 kids): Not to be confused with the famous Stingray City off of Grand Cayman where you can feed wild rays, this excursion takes you on a speedboat ride to Stingray City Bahamas to interact with and feed tame stingrays in an enclosed area offshore. Snorkeling equipment is also provided.
Catamaran & Snorkel ($69/$49 kids): A double-decker covered snorkel boat will take you to a live coral reef where you can swim amongst native fish and marine life. On your return, refreshments, snacks, and complimentary adult beverages are offered.
Wave Runner Tour (from $99): This 45-minute personal watercraft tour through the Berry Islands will let you see area highlights like the Lighthouse at Great Stirrup Cay, Slaughter Harbor and the abandoned island community of Cistern Cay. Single and double wave runners are offered. Age and weight restrictions apply to this tour, so read carefully before booking.
Parasailing Tour ($105 adults and kids): Join a small group for a one-hour speedboat excursion where you’ll each have a chance to try tandem parasailing. Solo guests will be paired up, so you don’t need to book tickets in pairs. Age and weight restrictions apply to this tour.
Kayak Tour ($59/$39 kids): Away from the crowds, you’ll join a group to paddle your two-person kayak in the waters south of Great Stirrup Cay. Orientation on how to use your kayak is provided by your tour guide.
Swim With the Pigs ($109/$89 kids): Yes, you can swim with pigs during your visit to Great Stirrup Cay! The pigs aren’t on GSC itself, but on nearby Treasure Island. Note that the operators of this shore excursion don’t allow guests to take their own photos (you can purchase pictures).
Tip: If your Bahamas cruise also stops in Freeport, I recommend the Swim With The Pigs excursion that NCL offers there – you can take unlimited photos and video with no additional charge.
Unusual things to do on Great Stirrup Cay
If you’re looking for some out-of-the-ordinary things to do on Great Stirrup Cay, I have a couple of recommendations for you, especially if you enjoy history.
Walk out to the real lighthouse
You’ll no doubt see the new replica lighthouse that NCL uses for ziplining, since it’s in a very central location. But did you know there’s a real lighthouse on the island as well? This lighthouse was originally constructed in 1863 by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service.
Although the station was manned for many years, the light is currently fully-automated and solar-powered. The nearly 80-foot (24 m) lighthouse’s beam is visible for over 20 miles.
To get to the lighthouse, walk back and to the left of the tenders and look for the Lighthouse Trail. The journey is about a mile each way, and you may even spot some local wildlife, including iguanas and hummingbirds on your walk. Definitely take some closed-toe walking shoes if you want to do this short hike.
Visit the Great Stirrup Cay Cemetery
There were two early-nineteenth-century burials on the island, and you can visit the tiny cemetery with their memorials. The first burial was Captain Allan Bertram (1790-1834), the namesake of Bertram’s Cove. The British Navy captain, commander of HMS Tweed, asked to be buried here facing the beach that he loved.
In 1979, Norwegian Cruise Line installed a stone marker and plaque on the location of his grave. The tiny cemetery is located on a grassy area across from the main beach.
Also located here is the grave of Elizabeth Hixson (1813-1838), a young woman from Virginia who was traveling by sea with her husband and daughter. Elizabeth had been ill, and hoped that the climate in Florida, where her brother lived, would help her condition.
She passed away during the journey, and her husband hoped to make it to Key West for burial. Winds were too calm, so they were forced to stop at the nearest island, Great Stirrup Cay. She was buried next to Captain Bertram.
Are there cabana rentals at Great Stirrup Cay?
You can rent an open-air cabana on the island, starting at $199 for a Classic Cabana that will accommodate six people. Premier Cabanas have room for eight guests, and start at $249 for the day.
You can add up to two extra guests to either size cabana, with a $25 charge per person.
Cabanas feature a sofa and several chairs, and a small patio. The front of each structure is open to the outside, but curtains can be drawn for privacy.
Both cabana styles offer complimentary bottled water as well as up to four free floating mats. Each group of cabanas is located close to small beaches that are often far less crowded than the main beach. Classic Cabanas are near Fiesta Beach, and Premier Cabanas are located close to Cabana Beach.
What perks are there if you rent a villa in Silver Cove?
If you’re looking for even more luxury, Great Stirrup Cay’s exclusive new Silver Cove area offers private villas for the day. Renting a Lagoon Villa for eight guests (starting at $599), Lagoon 1-Bedroom Villa for 10 (starting at $449), or Lagoon 2-Bedroom Family Suite Villa for 10 (starting at $599) allows guests to partake in exclusive offerings.
Much like the cabanas on the island, two extra guests are allowed over the stated capacity, with a charge of $49 per person.
With a villa rental you’ll have access to the Silver Cove Restaurant and Bar, the Moët Bar, as well as the private beach at Silver Cove Lagoon (with its new overwater swings).
Each fully-furnished villa features air conditioning, private bathrooms, and a patio. Villa guests also can partake in fresh fruit, chilled water, and complimentary on-demand movies. Room service is available if you’d prefer to dine in the villa. Villa guests also have access to complimentary floats and beach umbrellas.
Tip: If you’re thinking of visiting the Moët Bar in Silver Cove, consider upgrading your beverage package to the Premium Plus Beverage Package. Drinks at this bar start at $25, so none are covered by the Premium Beverage Package.
Are lockers available?
There aren’t any lockers available on the island for passengers to secure their valuables. I recommend taking an inexpensive waterproof pouch that you can hang around your neck. You’ll be able to fit a cell phone, cash and your license inside while you enjoy the water.
Does Great Stirrup Cay have a pool?
Currently, GSC doesn’t have a swimming pool. However, part of NCL’s improvement plan for the future does include a swimming pool complex and water features including a lazy river.
Is WiFi available on the island?
The island doesn’t offer WiFi, but there is a cell tower. If you have an international plan on your phone, you should be able to access cellular data. The signal usually works on board the ship when it’s anchored offshore as well.
If you have a WiFi package on board the ship, you won’t be able to use it on Great Stirrup Cay. The signal doesn’t reach the island.
How do you get around on Great Stirrup Cay?
Unlike some other cruise line private islands, there isn’t a regular shuttle or tram to transport guests around Great Stirrup Cay. One exception is transportation to Silver Cove, since it’s a bit of a hike from where you’ll exit your tender.
If you have a shore excursion that departs from the dock on the south side of the island, shuttles will take you to and from that location.
Thankfully, most of the action on the island is centrally located by the main beach at Bertram’s Cove. Most bars and restaurants are in this area, and restrooms are just a quick walk from the beach.
What about guests with mobility challenges?
Beach wheelchairs are available on the island, free of charge. However, they can’t be pre-ordered, and are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you or one of your cruising group is unable to walk at all, tendering to the island may not be possible. NCL, like many other cruise lines, reserves the right to deny boarding of their tenders to guests who can’t enter or exit the boat on foot. This is entirely for the safety of guests as well as the safety of crew members who assist people entering and exiting tenders. Keep this in mind when you ask crew members if you or your group member will be allowed to tender.
On the flip side, staying on board the ship during a port day at Great Stirrup Cay can be incredibly fun. You won’t have to deal with crowds, and it could be a perfect day of relaxation when the pool deck, restaurants, and bars are almost empty. This would be a great day to book a (maybe discounted) spa treatment!
Can you buy souvenirs on the island?
Souvenirs are available at the Berried Treasures Bazaar, a straw market run by local Bahamians. The colorful open-air market offers clothing and accessories, and a variety of local crafts.
Since NCL doesn’t run the bazaar, you won’t be able to use your cruise card here. It’s cash-only (US dollars) so be sure to bring cash for the market if you think you might want to do some shopping.
What do you need to bring to Great Stirrup Cay?
Your must-haves for Great Stirrup Cay are pretty basic:
- cruise card
- photo ID (needs to be a valid driver’s license if you’re doing the wave runner tour)
I also recommend a few extras to make your day on the island more fun and comfortable:
- water shoes
- tennis shoes for visiting the lighthouse or ziplining
- hat or visor
- reusable water bottle
- snorkel gear
- cash for souvenirs at the straw market
Remember when you’re packing your beach bag to double-check that you’ve packed everything you’ll need for the day. Returning to the ship and tendering back to the island likely won’t be practical.
What’s the weather like in the area?
The Berry Islands are warm enough for swimming year-round, making Great Stirrup Cay a wonderful place to visit any time of year. The warmest months are July and August, where highs average 91°F (33°C). January is the coldest month, with highs of 79°F (26°C).
The rainiest time of year in the Berry Islands is June through September, with the islands seeing 4-6 inches (10-16 cm) of rain per month.
Hurricane season runs from the beginning of June through the end of November. The peak hurricane period in the Bahamas lasts from early August until late October.
Ships planning to visit Great Stirrup Cay often will cancel during rough sea conditions because it’s a tender port. If you have your heart set on a day on this private island, you might want to consider booking your cruise outside of this season.
What cruise ships go to Great Stirrup Cay?
Do you have a specific ship you love or would like to try? As of 2020, there are 17 ships featuring itineraries that include Great Stirrup Cay:
Norwegian Cruise Line
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Don’t forget to check out these resources before your Caribbean cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line:
- What to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise
- What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag
- 25 Norwegian Cruise Tips You Need to Know
- Norwegian’s Free at Sea: The Ultimate Guide
- 2020 Guide to Norwegian Cruise Line Drink Packages
Have you visited Great Stirrup Cay on a Norwegian cruise? What did you think of the island? Let me know in the comments below!
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