Labadee vs. CocoCay: Which Royal Caribbean beach is right for you?

Yesterday

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It must be nice to have two private islands at your disposal for beachy vacation fun. Set sail on a Royal Caribbean cruise, and you, too, can enjoy the exclusive island life on one or both of the line’s private beaches, Labadee and Perfect Day at CocoCay.

I visited both ports on a Caribbean cruise aboard Wonder of the Seas and was surprised at how different the two destinations are. If you’re choosy about your beach day experience, you’ll want to do your homework and choose an itinerary featuring Labadee versus CocoCay based on the location and type of attractions, activities and setting you prefer.

Or, do like I did, and find an itinerary that includes both of Royal Caribbean’s private islands.

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In This Post

Where are Labadee and CocoCay located?

Island with tall waterslide tower and colorful balloon
Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay private island. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

You might find Labadee and CocoCay on the same itinerary, but geographically, they are very different.

CocoCay is a tiny island in the Bahamas, which is technically in the Atlantic Ocean not the Caribbean Sea. Royal Caribbean leases the entire island from the Bahamian government. The island, previously known as Little Stirrup Cay, is found in the Berry Islands archipelago within sight of Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay. CocoCay is southeast of Freeport and northwest of Nassau.

CocoCay is just a flat, sandy strip, dotted with trees.

Related: 9 things I learned after cruising to Royal Caribbean’s new private island getaway

Swimmers in water at Labadee's Columbus Cove beach with lush greenery in the background
Labadee’s Columbus Cove beach. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Labadee is located along the north coast of Haiti, near Cap-Haitien, in the Caribbean. While Royal Caribbean leases and controls the small peninsula where the beach is located, Labadee is not an island and is connected by road to the rest of Haiti. However, the area is fenced off and secured; passengers cannot travel into Haiti proper, and only select Haitians can come to Labadee to perform or sell crafts to cruise visitors.

Unfortunately, due to political instability in Haiti and other issues, calls on Labadee are less frequent and get canceled more often than calls on CocoCay.

Haiti looks nothing like the Bahamas. Cruise visitors might be surprised to wake up to lush, green, rolling hills and a line of sandy coves as far as the eye can see. The rolling terrain is what allows for the Dragon’s Tail Coaster ride at the far end of the beach.

What do both private beaches have in common? Piers. Ships can dock at either port and passengers can walk right off, with no need to take a small boat (called a tender) between ship and shore.

Labadee vs. CocoCay beaches

Woman walking on beach with green mountains behind her
Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private beach destination in Haiti. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

As different as these islands look, they’re both centered around a day at the beach. Labadee and CocoCay each offer guests numerous beach options with distinct vibes. All offer free lounge chairs for Royal Caribbean guests and tram service to the various beaches.

Labadee offers five different beaches on either side of the peninsula. The three southern beaches, on the pier side, are located within a sheltered cove, with calm waters (though the sand can be a bit rocky underwater). These include the exclusive Barefoot Beach Club (reserved for suite and Pinnacle guests); the quiet, cabana-lined Nellie’s Beach; and Columbus Cove, the site of the Aqua Park and water sports rentals.

The far, or northern, side of the peninsula fronts the open sea. If you want crashing waves and real surf, stop at Dragon’s Beach, the first beach you find when walking from the ship. It’s next to Adrenaline Beach, where a seawall reins in some of the rougher water and a floating bar lures visitors to take a break from beach volleyball and mountain coaster rides.

Labadee’s beaches are beautiful but feel more real than the overly manicured beaches you find on some private islands. You’ll also find local Haitians waiting to escort you to a lounge chair in exchange for a tip. It’s a fairly long walk from the ship to the far end of Columbus Cove; hop one of the open-sided trams or take a shuttle boat from the ship straight to Columbus Cove.

Related: Visiting a cruise line’s private island? Don’t make these 11 mistakes

Crowded beach with chairs and umbrellas with cruise ship in the background
Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay beach. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

CocoCay’s beaches are laid out in a circle, and most are a five to 10-minute walk from the Arrivals Plaza (where the pier meets the island). The postcard-perfect stretches of white sand feel manicured and resort-like.

The main oceanfront beaches are Chill Island, Breezy Bay Island and — the farthest — South Beach, near the sports courts and swim-up bar. The closest beach, Harbor Beach, is situated on an inlet that almost seems like a pond. It’s a great choice for families as the waters are calm, and it’s located next to the little kid splash area and the Skipper’s Grill barbecue.

If you want to enjoy the VIP lifestyle on your day off, you can purchase a day pass to the exclusive Coco Beach Club. You’ll get access to a private beach, upscale restaurant and infinity pool. Alternatively, you can book an overwater cabana or beachside bungalow for a private retreat, in addition to all the beach club amenities.

 

Things to do in Labadee vs. CocoCay

Cruise ship next to tall water slide tower on island.
Perfect Day at CocoCay. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

The attractions and activities are really what differentiate Labadee and Perfect Day at CocoCay.

CocoCay is an amusement park with a side of beach. Its hot pink Daredevil’s Tower, “the tallest waterslide in North America” according to the line, is a standout feature that can be seen for miles. The tower marks the sprawling, pay-to-play Thrill Waterpark with its eight waterslides and two pools.

Other extra-fee, adrenaline-rush attractions include a rainbow-striped hot air balloon ride and zip line. Little kids can enjoy the Captain Jill’s Galleon play area and Splashaway Bay mini-water park for free.

Related: How to visit Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay on zero dollars

Not a fan of ocean waves and sandy bottoms? The Oasis Lagoon is a giant pool in the center of the island. It offers something for everything with a swim-up bar for adults and a sloped-entry section with fountains for the littlest cruisers.

Labadee’s extra-fee attractions blend into the landscape more. Its zip line is arguably more epic, starting in the forested hills and sailing across both Adrenaline and Dragon’s beaches. The Dragon’s Tail Coaster ride twists and turns through the hills; you can barely see the course from the beach. The Aqua Park is a floating obstacle course that’s much harder than it looks. A free, very basic splash area in the center of the peninsula is great for little kids to play in.

Labadee also has some walking paths throughout the peninsula that are hidden gems.

Both CocoCay and Labadee offer sports courts, kayaks and floating mat rentals. Both islands provide shopping opportunities; CocoCay has a logo store and a Bahamian straw market, while Labadee offers an extensive artisans’ village and market.

Labadee offers the more authentic shopping experience, where you can haggle with the Haitian shop owners to purchase locally made crafts. Note that you will get aggressive sales pitches, even when simply walking through the market from Town Square to Columbus Cove. Just say “no thanks” and keep going if you’re not interested in taking a look in the shops.

Shore excursions from the two islands

Rustic cabana on Labadee beach
A Barefoot Beach Club cabana on Royal Caribbean’s Labadee. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

You can book plenty of “shore excursions” on both Labadee and CocoCay, but the tour offerings fall into two categories.

The first is simply booking the aforementioned attractions or renting snorkel equipment and floating mats on the islands. On both islands, you can rent cabanas, bungalows and day beds to have a bit of privacy and shade, as well as VIP amenities. Though pricey, cabanas often sell out, so book online as early as you can before your sailing for the most options and the best prices.

The second are actual tours and activities you’d find in any port. In this department, Labadee has many more options, with a variety of tours. You can go by boat to even more private islands, go sport fishing or parasailing, or learn about Haitian culture in nearby areas. From this beach destination, you can book a snorkel, kayak or jet ski tour, too.

Related: What new cruisers should know about shore excursions

Labadee’s more unusual offerings include Royal Caribbean’s version of “paint night,” where you learn about (and taste) a tropical cocktail then paint a handcrafted local souvenir, and a walking tour of the island to learn about local history and geography.

On CocoCay, you can book a scuba dive trip or kayak tour, or boat off to a nearby island to swim with pigs or stingrays. The options are limited, likely because Royal Caribbean would rather you spend money on the island’s cruise line-operated attractions, such as the water park.

Food and drink on Royal Caribbean’s beaches

Outdoor restaurant with colorful signs and picnic tables on Royal Caribbean's CocoCay
Skipper’s Grill BBQ restaurant on Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Lunch is complimentary on both of Royal Caribbean’s private island beaches, and wherever you choose to play, food is never far away.

Labadee has three main barbecue venues: Dragon’s Café close to the pier, Café Labadee by Adrenaline Beach and Town Square, and Columbus Cove Café. All three serve up the typical burgers, hot dogs and barbecue chicken lunches you expect from a cruise line private island. Guests with access to Barefoot Beach Club can eat a more refined barbecue lunch there.

CocoCay has two main barbecue venues, Chill Grill by Chill Island and Skipper’s Grill by Harbor Beach. These serve burgers and dogs, plus tacos, sandwiches and salads, soft-serve ice cream and even self-serve beer (the latter for a fee). It also has three Snack Shack outposts that serve up comfort food such as mozzarella sticks, cheeseburgers, crispy chicken sandwiches, and even funnel cake. All these venues are included in your cruise fare.

Coco Beach Club has its own exclusive restaurant, and the Captain Jack’s bar serves up extra-fee bar food, such as chicken wings.

In general, you’ll find a slightly better food experience on CocoCay than on Labadee.

Both islands have plenty of bars, including floating bars, and each island has a signature drink (The Coco Loco and the Labadoozie). If you purchased a beverage package on the ship, it will also cover drinks on both islands – which is not always the case on other cruise lines’ private islands.

Bottom line

Giant swimming pool with swim-up bar on Royal Caribbean's CocoCay
Oasis Lagoon on Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

You can easily enjoy a relaxing day at the beach with free lunch and easily accessible drinks, plus activity and shopping options, on either of Royal Caribbean’s private island beaches.

You’ll prefer CocoCay if you’re willing to shell out for its amazing water park, want more lunch variety and desire a pristine, resort-like beach experience.

Labadee will be your favorite if you like a more natural setting, wish to learn more about local culture from the people who live nearby and want a simple beach day without feeling the need to spend money on thrill rides.

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Featured photo by Roberto Moiola/Sysaworld/Getty Images.

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