Belize has been a favorite destination for Caribbean travelers for decades, with lush jungles, plentiful islands and a gorgeous reef to explore. It is also where you will also find Harvest Caye, Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island resort.
I have now been to Belize three times, all on cruise ships. The first two visits were aboard Royal Caribbean ships, docking in Belize City. Our most recent visit was aboard the Norwegian Breakaway and we docked at Harvest Caye, which I feel has revolutionized cruising to Belize.
I have enjoyed each of my visits and have been able to explore the Mayan ruins at Lamanai, go zip lining through the jungle canopy and go tubing on a jungle river. In each instance, one of my favorite parts of the excursion was traversing the countryside and seeing this gorgeous country up close and personal.
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Harvest Caye: Norwegian Cruise Line’s Private Island
We have already visited one of Norwegian’s private islands, Great Stirrup Cay, on the brief cruise we took to the Bahamas back in 2019. We enjoyed our time on the island, got to relax on the beach, do a little swimming and ate some good food while we were there. It was a relaxing time at, essentially, a beach resort.
When we booked our cruise aboard the Norwegian Breakaway, we had similar expectations for Harvest Caye. Honestly, though, Harvest Caye still managed to beat our expectations. This island is an excellent shore excursion in and of itself!
Read more about our time aboard the Norwegian Breakaway in an upcoming article.
Why Harvest Caye Is so Revolutionary for Visitors to Belize?
The difficulty for cruisers has always been the shallow port of Belize City.
Cruise ships are simply too large to dock at Belize City, forcing passengers to transfer via boat (called a tender) to the port. While the process is not bad, it is cumbersome. Once you got to Belize City, there was a small shopping and dining area but getting out to explore the city meant pushing your way through those pitching tours and cabbies, like many cruise ports.
Norwegian Cruise Lines opened Harvest Caye, off the southern coast of Belize, in November 2016 and, as far as I am concerned, completely revolutionized visiting Belize on a cruise ship.
You don’t have to tender into port at Harvest Caye! The ship can dock at the island and you can easily walk ashore to explore this private resort. The island is extensive with plenty of offerings for guests to enjoy.
Want to get away from the resort and see the mainland of Belize? You can easily do that via a shore excursion or by getting a ferry ticket to the mainland town of Placencia Village. We opted for a shore excursion. Still, the ferry was quick and comfortable.
Want to go back to the ship? Just walk back down the covered walkway to easily return to the ship. No waiting in line for the tender.
One difference between Harvest Caye and many other cruise ship private islands is that here all the businesses and restaurants are owned and operated by locals. Yes, that means that you have to pay for food and drink. But that also means you get to support the local economy without going to the mainland.
What is There to Do at Harvest Caye?
As you walk onto the low island, you are immediately greeted by a shopping area with several locally-owned and operated shops. Sorry, you won’t find Diamonds International and the like but will find plenty of shops with Belizean goods, including a bottle shop where we acquired a sampling of Belizean rum.
Pro tip: Belize is a Caribbean Basin Initiative country, meaning US travelers can bring home a liter of Belizean rum in addition to the liter of alcohol you can bring back from other countries on your cruise.
From there, you can wander to the large, man-made beach. There are literally thousands of lounge chairs, many nestled under the palms. There are also cabanas and sunshades for rent if you want more shade or even air conditioning.
If the salt water is not your thing, there is a massive pool complex, again with plenty of lounge chairs and plenty of palm trees along with a restaurant and swim-up bar. Just a few steps away from the pool is the kids’ splash area, with water slides and water toys.
But What if I Don’t Want to Spend All My Time at the Beach/Pool?
For the more adventurous, there are several zip lines, including one from the lighthouse, allowing you to soar above the island (fee).
There’s also an area for renting a kayak or paddle board so you can go out to explore the saltwater lagoon on your own.
Lastly, there is a small wildlife park that has several small animals and birds, along with a butterfly enclosure. We really enjoyed seeing some of the native animals and birds. The wildlife park is well done but we would have loved to see more animals.
What About Food and Drink at Harvest Caye?
There are plenty of restaurants and bars on the island. Since we spent most of the day on a shore excursion, we did not get a chance to try any of them but they looked good.
There are two things to note: 1) as mentioned above, the food is not included, unlike Norwegian’s private island in the Bahamas. You will need to bring cash or a card with you. Your Freestyle card is not accepted on the island. 2) Jimmy Buffett fans will be sad to know the island no longer has a Landshark Bar and Grill. I imagine that is due to the launch of the Margaritaville at Sea cruise line.
That said, if you don’t want to pay for a meal, just walk back to the boat! You can easily get on and off the boat throughout the day.
What Do I Do if I Want to Go to the Mainland Belize?
For some travelers, spending the day at a private beach resort is the perfect vacation day. For others, it is too confining and they want to explore.
There are two ways to get to the mainland: book a shore excursion through Norwegian or purchase ferry tickets from the shore excursion desk aboard the ship. There is limited capacity for the ferry, so make sure you get your tickets early.
The marina, where you can rent some personal watercraft as well, is where you will meet for your shore excursions and where you can pick up the ferry.
One of the main complaints about Harvest Caye is from travelers who want to really experience the country. Harvest Caye does make that a little more difficult than when docking in Belize City.
That said, cruising is hardly the way to truly experience a country. No matter your intention, it is simply not possible to experience a country in the time most cruise ships are in port. It is about getting a taste of that country if that’s what you want.
Shore Excursions from Harvest Caye
You will find several options for shore excursions from Harvest Caye. That said, the island’s location on the south end of the country does limit some of those excursions. Most folks won’t know the difference but having been to Belize twice before, I recognized a few missing opportunities due to location.
In particular, on my first trip to Belize (2004), I took a tour up the New River to the massive Mayan ruin complex of Lamanai. It was an excellent experience and I would do that tour again! I would not, however, try to do that shore excursion, even from a private vendor, from Harvest Caye. The distances involved would make missing the departure of the cruise ship a real possibility.
On my second trip to Belize (2015), Bonnie and I did a zip-lining trip and cave tubing in the rainforest with a couple of our friends and had a blast. It was a cool way to see the jungle and explore a local cave.
I am actually really looking forward to coming back to Belize so we can explore the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve. This area is one of the best jaguar habitats in the world. There is an excellent book about the work that went into creating this wildlife preserve by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz called Jaguar. It’s an exceptional work that is presently out of print, so you might have trouble finding it. If you can find a copy, it would be great to read it before you visit Belize.
Rainforest River Tubing Shore Excursion
On this latest trip, we opted to do a rainforest river tubing excursion. It was an excellent experience.
We started our trip at the marina where we caught a catamaran ferry across to the mainland. From there, we picked up a bus for a drive through the countryside of Belize, getting to see various small towns along the way, with the mountains looming to the west.
As we turned towards the mountains, we passed through various fruit fields and headed into the jungle. The ride got a little rough but we didn’t mind. We arrived at the take-out point where we could rent lockers and pick up some snacks.
If there was one negative to our excursion, it was the lack of hearty food to buy for lunch. We were able to get some Pringles, a Snickers bar and a Belikin beer (tasty!) before heading upriver to the put-in for the tubes. A couple of Clif bars would have gone a long way in keeping us feeling well-fed and we wished we had them.
There were also not enough lockers to go around but we were able store our gear aboard the bus, so it was no big deal.
When it came time to put in, the guide leashed our tubes together and we had our guide with us in the water making sure we made it through the “rapids” just fine. There were a few minor rapids but nothing to worry about.
Seriously, the best part of this excursion was relaxing along the river and enjoying the jungle views. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife but did see a termite colony up in a tree and several bats and birds.
The float lasted about 90 minutes and then we were able to change and grab another snack if we wanted one. Again, we enjoyed the bus ride back because it was a window tour of southern Belize.
Final Thoughts on Harvest Caye in Belize
What makes Harvest Caye such an improvement on tendering to Belize City is it truly offers cruise passengers a choice.
Do you want to spend the day enjoying a beach resort? You can. You don’t need to pay anything extra if you don’t want to. Want to spend the morning at the beach and then walk aboard for lunch? No problem!
Do you want to spend the day exploring a rural coastal town in Belize? You can. It will cost you a few extra bucks for a ferry but you can spend time on your own on the mainland. Do you want to take a shore excursion? The island has a great setup and organization for shore excursions.
Is Harvest Caye an “authentic” Belizean experience? Hardly. It’s a private beach resort. But every aspect, from the covered walkway to and from the pier to the spacing of the palm trees is well-engineered to make for a great customer experience. If you want an authentic Belizean experience, the best way would be to fly to the country and spend a week or two exploring and getting to know the people. As I said before, you simply aren’t going to get that on a cruise.
Still, we had a blast and really enjoyed the time we spent at Harvest Caye. If we return to Belize aboard a Norwegian ship, we will be excited to spend even more time on the island.
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