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Escape to the perfect Caribbean: a visit to the art island Ocean Cay

The wind tugs at the palm trees. The freshly planted trees brace themselves against the wind and are said to take root in the sandy subsoil of an island that until recently was barren wasteland. For several decades, the fine powder sand was industrially extracted on Ocean Cay to be shipped to the coasts of Florida.

“The island was a ruin, a former mine,” said Gianni Onorato, head of MSC Cruises, in an interview with the star a year ago. “The sea around the island was full of scrap metal, so we had to dispose of 5,000 tons of industrial waste to get the island back to its original state.”

On his cell phone he showed underwater pictures of rusted metal pipes, sunken diesel aggregates and old car tires. Everything that was no longer needed simply ended up in the sea, between corals in the turquoise-blue water. But environmental sins are a thing of the past. The island, located 100 kilometers east of Miami, is to become the center of a marine reserve with an intact ecosystem and a top destination for tourists.

Finest powder sand instead of new superlatives

Several times a week since the beginning of 2020, one of the four MSC Cruises cruise ships based in Florida’s ports has been mooring in Ocean Cay for one day when the luxury liners sail from the United States to the Caribbean. Then after breakfast up to 4000 people flock to the island, which is hardly wider than the ship.

In contrast to other private islands upgraded to amusement parks by US shipping companies, Ocean Cay did not become an oversized extension of a sundeck with even more spectacular water slides, zip lines and a chlorinated freshwater pool. “We wanted something different from the competition, to be authentic and eco-friendly,” says Michelle McGregor.

Michelle McGregor, Operations Manager at Ocean Cay

Michelle McGregor, Operations Manager at Ocean Cay

The 46-year-old Canadian is the operations manager of the island and knows the business with artificial cruise islands in the Caribbean. MSC Cruises had wooed Mc Gregor from Royal Caribbean International to help develop the concept for the conversion project.

The private shipping company MSC Cruises, based in Geneva, has spent a lot of money on the project and has already invested $ 200 million in the conversion project – in an artificial vacation paradise.

With Ocean Cay as a docking station from the retort, you avoid various problems in the Caribbean. There is bitter poverty on many islands in the region that passengers would otherwise be confronted with. For example, in countries like Jamaica the average gross national income per capita per year is less than $ 4,750 or in the Dominican Republic just under $ 7,000.

At the same time, ships are literally being circumnavigated by ports that suffer from overtourism due to increasing cruise ship tourism. Not so on Ocean Cay: here the tour operator has his destination fully under control.

Ocean Cay transformation project

Within four years, not only was another port of call for cruise ships, but also a new marine reserve of 165 square kilometers around Ocean Cay. However, almost mountains were relocated to do this: the navigation channel had to be deepened for cruise giants of 171,000 GT and 333 meters long and the land mass had to be changed. A dredged lagoon meanders to the middle of the island, on the banks of which are North and South Beach.

There were also accommodations for the 120 island residents – almost all Bahamians from neighboring islands – shops, a central restaurant, beach bars and a lighthouse. It has no classic function as a navigation sign, but serves as a radio mast, viewing platform and illuminated tower for the evening LED light shows.

The beach at Lighthouse Bay with the 30 meter high lighthouse of Ocean Cay

The beach at Lighthouse Bay with the 30 meter high lighthouse of Ocean Cay

Now the island is turning green again. 75,000 bushes, more than 4,600 palm trees and other trees have been planted. Underwater, the island was not only cleaned up: marine biologists examined the condition of the corals, seagrass meadows, mussel populations and the fish population. In the meantime, endangered coral species and up to 400 coral colonies have been settled.

Life and diversity are slowly returning to the underwater world: “We counted six different shark species and a total of 90 fish species,” says Owen R. O’Shea, “from nurse sharks to tiger and lemon sharks.” The full bearded biologist from Center for Ocean Research and Education (CORE) is part of the team of consultants who drew up the environmental reports for the inventory of the underwater flora and fauna.

Michelle McGregor has also scheduled a marine science laboratory. The project on a hill is still like a construction site. But collaboration with the University of the Bahamas, the University of Miami, and Nova Southestern University in Florida has started; her students offer guided tours on the subject of marine biology.

Chill, swim, snorkel

But the day guests show less interest in science and environmental issues, but more for their personal needs: They flow under the constant music sprinkling from the floor speakers to the large lagoon, where the free beach chairs and colorful bean bags are seized: splashing in the milky-azure blue water is the order of the day , The cruise guests are spread across the seven different beach areas, all of which are within walking distance. Surprisingly, there is less crowding on the three kilometers of beach than on the Platja de Palma at the start of the season in Mallorca.

A MSC cruise ship is moored off Ocean Cay, Bahamas.

“The water temperature and everything is ideal,” says Horst from Hanover. The German spontaneously pushed in the three-day trip to the Bahamas during his Florida vacation. “I booked a cruise for the first time in my life. Yesterday during a shore excursion in Freeport, in the north of the Bahamas, we saw what the hurricane had done there,” he says, standing halfway in the warm lagoon water. Many buildings are destroyed, others are still abandoned. In early September 2019, “Dorian” swept across the North Islands and destroyed 13,000 houses.

In contrast, Ocean Cay meets his expectations of undisturbed vacation happiness. Unlike going ashore in Cuba, Jamaica or in the interior of other Caribbean island states, visitors are not confronted with poverty and misery here. The renatured art island Ocean Cay is a place free from dirt, crime, traffickers, social tensions and other problems – an apparently intact world that does not exist in the real Caribbean.

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