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Half Moon Cay: My Own Private Island

I admit, when I first started traveling, my interests were pretty limited. I simply longed for a beautiful beach. This was before my introduction to Europe, before Asia, before South America and Alaska. I just wanted to find the most pristine sandy coves fronting the most luscious clear waters — and rank them. More than a million miles intervened, and naturally, thankfully, my travel repertoire expanded, to cultural and architectural sites, to diverse cuisines and, most meaningfully, to interactions with the citizens of dozens of fascinating countries.

Of course my love of beaches never faded, so what a treat, at the end of my Panama Canal cruise on Westerdam, to disembark on Half Moon Cay. Full disclosure: I was here before on Nieuw Amsterdam, on my first Holland America Line cruise in 2011. So I’m feeling lots of anticipation as the crew, with friendly Dutch cadets like Jelmer onboard, on hand to see that everyone has a great time. Just like before, I book a cabana, and as I make my way to it, soft fine sands underfoot, I wonder if today is going to be a replay of that sunny Bahamian day eight years ago. When I see the water, I barely have the patience to find my cabana and meet my smiling butler, and then I’m grabbing my swim goggles and running past pine trees and lounge chairs down to the water’s edge. The loungers are arrayed so perfectly — with a clearing in the center that seems made just for my ease of access into the sea.

HAaf Moon Cay Cabana

It’s like before and yet feels new. I feel like I’m being reborn as the person I was before those million miles, when all I wanted was pure sensation, and the thing that made me most alive, most joyful, was this — this flat, safe, electric blue water. I swim out towards the buoy line, completely energized. It takes me longer than I imagined. Most roped-off swimming areas, on other beaches, are fairly modest, but Half Moon Cay’s is generous — deep into the bay and wide. When I tell people that the only place I feel truly physically comfortable is in the water, it’s Half Moon Cay that I think of.

When I was here before, I swam laps parallel to ship; now I do the same. This time, another Holland America Line ship, Koningsdam, has joined Westerdam in the Atlantic, and I’m reminded that Holland America Line guests don’t have to share this sandy dot of paradise with anyone else. Exclusivity is luxury.

So is exclusive service. Earlier I was guided straight to the tender by a Westerdam butler, and now, as I emerge from the aqua water at my private cabana, I walk in soft sands and pass cruise guests in hammocks as I approach the blue cottage with its upscale woven furniture. My butler Cecep cannot wait to feed me. I’m glad I worked up an appetite for the ample fruit and guacamole spread … and the lobster sandwich (which counts as an especially hearty and toothsome appetizer) … and the grilled mahi-mahi and strip steak … and the molten chocolate cake and ice cream. The indulgent lunch goes on all day, in more than one sitting, as I have a date with Déjà Vu to fit in there — that’s the sturdy brown horse who will carry me around the island during one of Half Moon Cay’s signature excursions.

Drew on a horse

The island features lush vegetation and not too much elevation, but enough for me to remember to lean forward when heading uphill. Déjà Vu is really well-behaved compared to other horses I’ve been on. He doesn’t pull ahead or step out of line or cut off other horses. The Jamaican horse trainers keep a close watch beside us, and before I know it, it’s time to exchange my leather saddle for a soft saddle. I know from my previous trip that the horse will be as excited as I am to be in that cool, transparent water, and will pick up the pace accordingly. I’m in the water from my knees down and it’s a thrilling ride.

By the time I dismount and say goodbye to Déjà Vu, time is running short. I swim more laps, noting that the sandy bottom almost looks vacuumed. I vary my breathing style, so sometimes I take in the vastness of the Atlantic and the floating pair of Holland America Line ships, and other times I turn and breathe to enjoy the view of the gently curving stretch of beach. I see there are some new arrivals since my last visit: Two-story cabanas bathed in the tropical colors of teal, canary yellow and fuchsia. Good, I think. I left something for next time.

THAT MOMENT ON HALF MOON CAY WHEN…
… I have my second lobster

I know there’s more food to come: The Lobster Shack is brand-new, and it’s the kind of amenity that guests are sure to be surprised by, because it feels so organic and authentic. It doesn’t try to be expansive or fancy: The motto seems to be, Do a few things but do them well. So the menu consists of grilled lobster platters with rice and beans, lobster rolls, and chowder. Chefs are manning the long grill at the back of the shack, turning over the crustaceans diligently with their tongs.

Lobster shack

It’s almost closing time, so I order up my lobster. It’s funny how I thought I was full until I smelled that perfectly charred seafood. I ask one of the chefs what makes Caribbean lobster so different from other varieties. “It’s the subtle flavor and the tenderness,” he tells me. Minutes later, I find that he’s right. And his comment applies to my whole day.

Drew LimskyDrew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.

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