Could Harvest Caye be the Caribbean’s new cruising hot spot?
ARVEST CAYE, Belize — There’s always been something a little exotic about the idea of a cruise to Belize, a country known for ancient Mayan ruins, lush rain forests and one of the world’s most spectacular barrier reefs. But the reality of visiting the sparsely populated Central American nation by ship often doesn’t quite lived up to expectations.
The only port in the country capable of receiving large cruise vessels until now, at Belize City, is a difficult place to land. Passengers arriving on big ships must tender a long way to shore on small boats, a time-consuming and often unpleasant process. Once there, they are dumped into a sometimes seedy neighborhood with little in the way of allures. Some just turn around and head back to the ship.
Enter Harvest Caye, a new gateway to Belize about 70 miles down the coast that some in the cruise industry think could transform the experience of visiting the country by ship — and become one of the Western Caribbean’s most popular cruise destinations.
Unveiled in November, the sprawling cruise hub is located on a 78-acre island about a mile off the mainland that has the feel of a big Caribbean beach resort.
Owned and developed by Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Harvest Caye features a picture-perfect, seven-acre beach lined with lounge chairs; an enormous, amorphous pool with a swim-up bar; and, notably, its own pier capable of receiving the world’s biggest cruise ships. No more tendering to shore. There’s also an array of water activities such as parasailing and kayaking available as well as zip lining.
Harvest Caye also is home to a shopping village, bars and eateries that include a branch of Jimmy Buffett’s LandShark chain. Just a few steps away from LandShark is a kids splash park, complete with a dump bucket and squirting jets. The island also offers an exclusive enclave of upscale, air conditioned beach villas that can be rented for the day for $499.
In short, Harvest Caye boasts everything one needs for a relaxing day at the beach, and for many cruisers coming here, that’s exactly what a visit will be. In that respect, it has a lot in common with the self-contained private islands that cruise lines began developing in the Bahamas in the 1970s.
Still, Norwegian executives are quick to point out Harvest Caye was not designed as a traditional private island experience. It’s primary role, they say, is as a hub for exploring Belize.
“When you use the term private island around cruise people they think of the Bahamas and a free barbecue, and that’s not what we’re trying to create here,” says Colin Murphy, the Norwegian executive who spearheaded the development. “We don’t want to keep everybody on the island. We want people to go (to the mainland).”
During a tour of the island earlier this month, Murphy pointed to the marina from which Norwegian is dispatching excursions to the mainland. Already, the company is selling half-day outings to the Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit, which are about 45 minutes away. Rain forest river tubing and rafting excursions also are available, and more day trips are in the works, says Murphy.
The tours begin with a 15-minute boat ride from the island to a small, Norwegian-developed transportation hub on the mainland in an area known as Malacate. For now, it’s the only way a visiting cruiser can gain access to the mainland. But Murphy says Norwegian hopes to add a water taxi service to the nearby town of Placencia (pop. 1,512) for passengers who want to explore on their own. The service has been delayed due to damage to the town’s dock during a recent hurricane, he says.
Murphy says the idea with the beach resort-type development on Harvest Caye is to offer something wonderful for the passengers who don’t go on excursions. Two-thirds or so of cruisers don’t normally sign up for a tour in a destination such as Belize, he says. At ports such as Belize City, such cruisers often are left disappointed.
“What would happen in other places is the 30% or 40% who take the tour have a wonderful time, but the remainder don’t, so we wanted somewhere you don’t have to spend a penny (on tours) to still have a great time,” Murphy says.
As much as possible, Harvest Caye is designed to offer a taste of Belize to passengers who never venture beyond it, Murphy says. The island’s shops, restaurants and bars are staffed by several hundred locals, not cruise ship workers as is common at cruise line private islands. With a few exceptions, the venues also have a distinctly Belizean theme. In the place of such cruise port staples as Diamonds International and Colombian Emeralds, the shopping area is chock full of locally-operated shops such as Moho Chocolates, which sells chocolates, soaps and other products made from cacao grown on 200 small farms across the country. Local Belikin beer and Belizean shrimp ceviche are menu highlights at eateries.
The island also is home to a small outdoor nature center that houses such iconic Belizean wildlife as keel-billed toucans and a boa constrictor — the latter found on the island during construction. Free to visitors, the nature center also offers a walk-through butterfly house filled iridescent blue morpho and Isabella butterflies. Scarlet macaws are on the way.
“Some of the ports you go to these days, you come back and think, ‘where did I go?’ because they’re all the same. Same retailers, same restaurants,” Murphy says.
“I wanted something that really felt Belizean.”
Norwegian spent millions on the development, which took nearly three years to complete. The pier alone required a massive amount of work including extensive dredging to allow the biggest ships to reach it and tie up. Its construction was a milestone for Belize, which never has had a pier capable of receiving large passenger vessels.