Waterslides, swim-up bars and caster-sugar sands… Sara Macefield and family check out Perfect Day, the new private island retreat from Royal Caribbean.
I’m floating 450ft up in the sky in a hot air balloon and in the distance I can make out tiny uninhabited islands of the Bahamas, while directly beneath me is a colourful patchwork of candy-coloured waterslides writhing like giant snakes between a cluster of azure pools. This is a bird’s eye view of Perfect Day – the new resort from Royal Caribbean on its private island CocoCay. After a $250 million investment, the tiny isle opened in May as an aquatic pleasure zone bursting with thrills and chills.
I’ve arrived with my family on board the world’s largest ship, Symphony of the Seas, on the final stop – and highlight – of our one-week voyage through the Caribbean.
As we sail in, there’s no mistaking the eye-catching Daredevil’s Tower, housing seven waterslides including the stomach-churning Daredevil’s Peak which, at 135ft high, is the tallest waterslide in North America.
Even from our elevated vantage point, 15 decks up, it looks scarily stratospheric, but this doesn’t deter my 16-year-old twin daughters, Dani and Holly, who tear off as soon as we arrive to be among the first to plummet down.
When they return, they are bursting with excitement as they recount their breakneck descent through the slide’s twists and turns before blasting out at the base.
Much against my better judgement, I’m persuaded to give it a try, though on the long climb to the top my reluctance grows, and on hearing the blood-curdling screams of riders ahead of me, I bottle it.
Knowing that I’ll never live this down, I gather my courage and climb up to the scary-looking Screeching Serpent instead. With a 50ft vertical drop, it’s hardly a soft option and seems frighteningly high, but I push off and close my eyes. It feels as though I’m free-falling for a few seconds before I whoosh to the bottom in a giant plume of spray that completely envelopes me.
It’s an exhilarating blast that fires me up to try other challenging, but somewhat gentler, alternatives including the Sling Shot. This becomes our favourite as we race down the chute in four-person rafts, to be catapulted upwards in a ‘zero gravity’ moment before hurtling to the bottom.
Such thrills make it easy to while away the hours, and we spend nearly all day here, particularly as it can take an hour or more to queue for the most popular slides.
There are eight rides altogether comprising 13 slides as some are dual or quad racers and they are all contained in the Thrill Waterpark section of Perfect Day which, to my surprise, comes with a charge of $99.99. This applies to everyone over four years old and with under-14s needing to be accompanied by an older guest, they need to pay too, even if they don’t want to use the slides – so there’s a definite feeling of wanting to get your money’s worth.
The waterpark also has tamer alternatives, with a huge wave pool (the largest in the Caribbean) and an Adventure Pool, which attracts youngsters wanting to climb on to the floating lily pads, swing ropes and small rock wall.
But it’s not all about family fun as outside the waterpark there’s a selection of chill-out zones to retreat to.
As the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, the Oasis Lagoon is a focal point with its swim-up islands and swim-up bar, and even boasts underwater music. A short walk away is Splashaway Bay, a small aqua park for young children with waterslides, fountains, pools and drench buckets – and both are free of charge.
Beach fans can choose from three areas to stretch out on with Harbor Beach, where you can watch zip-liners swoop in on the final leg of the expansive 1,600ft course which crosses the island; Chill Island, the best spot for snorkelling and jet-skiing; and South Beach with its long stretch of powder-white sand and floating bar that offers the perfect incentive to go for a swim.
Volleyball, beach basketball and soccer courts are strung along the beachfront, and it’s here and around the wave pool that you’ll find indulgent cabanas for hire. Taking up to eight guests and with an attendant, they offer the ultimate in hedonistic style. At up to $1,500 for the day, they come at a price, though that doesn’t seem to deter guests as they all appear to be taken.
Aside from the numerous sun-loungers and umbrellas, there are changing areas with secure lockers (make sure you grab one as soon as you arrive as they are on a first-come, first-served basis), water/drinks stations and dining areas.
Even though there are 6,000 of us on the island, there’s enough room for everyone to spread out and while it feels busy, it doesn’t feel packed.
To get your bearings, and if you don’t feel like walking, it’s worth hopping on the complimentary tram that trundles regulary between the water park and South Beach, though nothing is more than a few minutes away.
But the best views are reserved for the Up, Up and Away helium balloon – the highest vantage point in the Bahamas From here, I get perfect views of the ship that’s been our home for the last week. Able to carry nearly 6,700 guests (there are 6,500 on our sailing), Symphony of the Seas is more like a floating mini Las Vegas.
The ship is truly vast; a behemoth that towers over all the others at Miami when we arrive to board. And yet embarkation is incredibly smooth; we turn up at our allocated time, there are no queues and the terminal has an orderly ambience as we walk up to one of the roving check-in staff equipped with an iPad, who checks us in and takes our photos.
It’s as quick and easy as that; one of the fastest check-ins I’ve ever experienced, which means it takes less than 15 minutes to get on board and find our superior balcony cabin where, again, I am pleasantly surprised.
I’d been secretly dreading sharing with the twins now they are bigger, noisier, and messier, and wondered how we’d all cope being cooped up in close confines. But it was one of the most spacious cabins we’ve stayed in with a giant double bed and two-person sofa-bed. It was well designed too with enough storage space for the four of us, though my husband Geoff didn’t get much of a look-in with his clothes when pitched against the numerous dresses and shoes of three females, as we all fought for the best storage.
Being on such a huge ship takes some getting used to as there’s so much to see across the extensive decks but, conversely, this turns out to be a decent way of walking off unwanted calories that are so easy to accrue – especially when we spot the complimentary ice-cream machines.
There are seven different neighbourhoods, including the parkland Central Park area filled with thousands of plants and even simulated birdsong, while the fairground-inspired Boardwalk even has a full-size carousel.
There’s little chance for boredom thanks to a long list of diversions found across the ship: surf-simulators, a zip wire, rock-climbing walls, the Ultimate Abyss slide which plunges 100ft into the pool below and a trio of waterslides.
For us, the real highlight is the entertainment, which is easily the best at sea and equal to anything you might see at London’s West End. Imaginative ice-shows, breath-taking Aqua Theater performances and a stunning stage show called Flight, where one of the highlights involves a plane flying over the audience, are all top-notch.
With so many passengers, life on board is full-on and busy, but there are enough places around the ship for crowds to disperse to. Even on sea days, I’m pleasantly surprised at the ease of finding vacant sun-beds on the upper decks overlooking the pools – though the pools themselves are so packed it is impossible to swim.
The adults-only Solarium and Solarium Bistro are havens that offer a blissful retreat from the busy main decks.
We find it impossible to make reservations in the main restaurant, so have to turn up and hope for the best. Arriving before 7pm is the secret to getting straight in, any later can mean a 20-minute wait.
Yet, overall, life on board isn’t as manic as I expect and on the two other port days, at St Thomas and St Kitts, when most people disembark, it’s positively peaceful.
While we decided to stay on board and revel in the quiet spots by the pool during the day in St Thomas, at St Kitts we venture off on an island tour costing just $20 each with a local taxi driver, which superbly showcases the rustic unspoilt beauty of this corner of the Caribbean.
There isn’t a waterslide in sight, but as we stand admiring the stunning vista of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the turquoise sheen of the Caribbean Sea on the other it’s clear that nature provides the thrills here.
Royal Caribbean International offers sailings ranging from three nights to one week that call at Perfect Day from several US ports including Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, New Orleans and New York. A seven-night round-trip sailing from Miami on Symphony of the Seas, calling at St Maarten, St Thomas and Perfect Day, costs from £4,558 for a family of four, departing on 15 August 2020. Flights cost extra. For more details, visit royalcaribbean.co.uk.