Caribbean -- Private Isles: Gilligan's Little Trip Is All Fantasy

Imagine stopping off for a day at Gilligan's Island to explore the lush jungle, swim in a blue lagoon or sunbathe on a palm-lined beach.

You can do just that on certain cruises, but don't expect Gilligan or Ginger to pop out of the bushes. Gilligan's Island it may be, but the actors and the props from the long-running television show that was filmed there are long gone.

Actually, Gilligan's Island isn't its name. It's really Salt Cay, one of the Bahamas islands, and it's one of several private islands used for beach outings by Florida-based cruise ships.

Poor Gilligan. He wouldn't recognize the place today. It's got shelters and bathrooms and bars and all sorts of conveniences Gilligan and his fellow maroonees could only dream about.

What's more, it's got people, hundreds of them, all off cruise ships and trying to enjoy the island life that Gilligan and his friends wanted so badly to get away from.

Some of them just laze around, getting a tan, while others take a more active role, putting on masks to go snorkeling in the clear waters, getting in some body surfing on the wave beach or limbering up for a limbo contest. All that whets the thirst and the appetite, so the bar and the barbecue line start getting busy during the midday hours.

Burgers, dogs and merrymaking

Pretty much the same scene takes place at other private islands used by cruise ships. Beach activities and water sports, of course, are the big attraction. But some also have booths offering native crafts and bring bands ashore to provide music.

Generally, the lines transport passengers to their islands free and make no charge for the food served there (same as on board the ship).

Hamburgers and hot dogs are the usual fare at these outings. Charges are made, however, for soda pop and bar drinks and for the use of water sports equipment such as sailboats, snorkel masks, paddleboats, etc.

Norwegian Cruise Line, which created the whole beach outing idea back in 1977 when it bought Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, offers an extensive water sports program there. You can go snorkeling, sailboating, kayaking, paddleboating or just float around on a buoyant mat. On shore, you can listen to steel drum music, do the limbo, play shuffleboard or volleyball, or simply plop into a chaise lounge and let the sun do its thing. Shoppers can browse at a straw market. And, to be sure, there's the barbecue and the bar.

As at the other islands, small boats called tenders ferry passengers between the island and the ship anchored offshore (or, in the case of Salt Cay, tied up at the dock in Nassau). NCL's original launch, Bahamarama Mama, still makes the run for the three NCL ships that call there - the Seaward, the Dreamward and the Norway. NCL renovated the island recently, dredging the beach to make it larger and improving its facilities.

Reefs, real and otherwise

On the next island over from NCL's private island is Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Little Stirrup Cay. The line calls it CocoCay, and it offers a similar variety of activities to the line's passengers.

Snorkelers in particular like CocoCay, because RCCL has developed three snorkeling areas. For one, the line built a concrete replica of Blackbeard's 16th century pirate vessel, broke it in two and sank the pieces 30 feet apart to provide a habitat for tropical fish and other sea life. They call the "wreck" Queen Anne's Revenge. To make another snorkeling area, the line bought a seized drug-runner's airplane and sank it offshore. The third area is the natural offshore reef.

Passengers arriving by launch at CocoCay enter a harbor that is guarded by a nine-foot bronze statue of a mermaid - one of only two harbor mermaids in the world, RCCL boasts. (The other is the famed Little Mermaid at the Copenhagen harbor.) RCCL has a straw market ashore, along with the usual pavilions for food and drink, volleyball courts and water sports activity concessions.

Three RCCL ships call at CocoCay - Nordic Empress, Sovereign of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas. No two are there at the same time. The line recently spent $1 million to renovate the island's facilities.

For about three years, until President Aristide was ousted from office by the ruling cabal, RCCL ran beach outings to Labadee, a peninsula on the north coast of Haiti.

"It's a lot bigger and nicer than CocoCay," said RCCL spokesman Rich Steck. "We'll go back there when Haiti settles down." Steck says Labadee has five beaches, each different, a secluded anchorage, some ruins and is the site of the Western Hemisphere's first bawdy house. The cruise line has a 99-year lease on the site.

The name game

Unlike the islands developed by NCL and RCCL, whose ships anchor offshore, Salt Cay is reached by tenders from the Nassau docks, a trip of about 40 to 45 minutes. Also, Salt Cay is used by several cruise lines, each of which has given it a name of its own.

Dolphin Cruises, which operates the Dolphin IV and SeaBreeze out of Miami, calls the island Blue Lagoon Island. Majesty Cruises, whose Royal Majesty also sails from Miami, dubs it Royal Isle. For Premier Cruises, with two ships making cruises out of Port Canaveral, it's Salt Cay.

An unusual attraction at this island is the dolphin encounter, where guests (for a separate charge, $30) can swim with the fish. It is available to all three cruise lines that use the island.

Passengers on Premier's three- and four-day cruises pay $20 for the first adult and $10 for each additional, with children under 12 free.

In addition to the usual water sports, Premier also offers parasailing. As Premier is kid-oriented, it has youth counselors ashore and offers such special activities for children as treasure hunts and games.

Premier's Port Canaveral-based ships used to take their beach outings at Great Guana Cay, part of the Abaco chain in the Bahamas. But the difficulty of getting in and out of the harbor prompted the line to change to Salt Cay about a year ago. Today, the line's Atlantic and Oceanic call at Salt Cay.

For those who really want to laze on the island, the Dolphin and Majesty Cruises have set up two dozen hammocks in the trees. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Private-island outings

-- Getting there: Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ferry their passengers to their private islands free. Dolphin IV also transports its passengers free because the outing is part of its itinerary, but for SeaBreeze and Royal Majesty the outing is a shore excursion with a charge of $25 (children under 12 with adult go free). Premier also charges for the excursion. $20 for the first adult. $10 for each additional adult, children under 12 free.

-- Water sports: Snorkeling, $20 to $25 for complete gear, less for partial outfitting; floating mats, $5-$15 a day; sailboats, $20-$25 per hour; paddleboats, $8-$10 per half-hour; 2-person kayaks, $8 per half-hour; underwater camera, $16-$20, dolphin encounter, $30.

-- Food and drink: Most cruise lines provide food without charge, as they would on board. All lines charge for soda pop and alcoholic drinks.

-- Information: Dolphin Cruise Line, (800) 222-1003; Majesty Cruise Line, (800) 532-7788; Norwegian Cruise Lines, (800) 327-7030; Premier Cruise Lines, (800) 327-7113; Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, (800) 327-6700.

Jay Clarke is travel editor of the Miami Herald.