Almost all of us have dreamed of escaping to our own private island at one time or another, but Ines Almeida actually did it.
Okay, so it’s not really HER private island. Coco Cay, a little slip of land in the Bahamas Berry Island chain, actually belongs to Royal Caribbean. The popular cruise line spent more than $21 million turning the deserted isle into a perfect one-day stop for its passengers touring the Caribbean waters.
And a perfect island getaway it is. The azure waters are warm and clear, and the white sand beaches are clean and tidy. Island huts in colorful Caribbean pinks and blues serve every possible cool drink, while all sorts of adventures, from wave runner tours to snorkeling, await the willing and able.
Almeida is one of two island managers at this private island destination. She lives alone in a small house, just meters from the shore. Most nights, she goes to sleep under a star-filled sky and awakens to bright rays of sun glistening across the crystal waters.
Four days a week, a huge cruise ship pulls up offshore, ferrying 3,000 plus visitors to spend an idyllic day on the beaches of this little slice of heaven. Almeida’s job is to ensure a positive experience for island visitors.
But that’s no easy task. There are lunches to serve, sports-shops to man and tourists to float high into the air on parasails. There are snorkelers to tend to (a few meet the occasional jellyfish) and swimmers to keep an eye on, not to mention the tidying up that must be done. The island staff works hard to make sure the guests are safe and happy – and they do it so well that they make it look easy.
Many guests say that this private island stop is the most enjoyable part of their cruise. After all, what could be better than sitting on a tidy beach, drinking a piña colada and soaking in the rays?
Yet, these weren’t always such calm waters. Between 1714 and 1718, the feared Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard the Pirate, pillaged and destroyed ships all over this region. Other pirates sailed the Caribbean, as well, taking treasures and wealth, and crushing anything — and anyone – that stood in their path. Tales handed down from generation to generation claim that these serene-looking islands were used as a base for evil plunders. Some say that Blackbeard himself is buried here.
But those violent days are long gone. Today Coco Cay is one of islands that make up the Bahamas – and it is where Almeida has chosen to make her home.
With her bright smile and energetic spirit, she is clearly a people-person who enjoys her job. “It’s exciting having the guests on the island,” says the 44-year-old island manager. “You look forward to having them here, and no day is ever the same. But then you also look forward to the solitude after they leave.”
When the crowds are gone, the island goes silent. And while Almeida and the other 45 staff who live here take occasional boat trips to Great Harbor, Bahamas or fly to Nassau for shopping, they spend most of their time on the island.
Bahamian fishermen pull up to shore several times a week, offering their fresh catch for sale. “You can fish on the rocks here on the island,” says Almeida. “But I never catch anything. The fish keep eating my bait.”
Island Supervisor Mark Fowler, who grew up on a nearby Bahamian island, is more successful with a rod. “I go out bottom fishing with friends for grouper and snapper,” he says. “Sometimes we go free diving for conch and lobster.”
The island staff lives in new housing, and a cook provides tasty meals. Others, like Fowler, enjoy creating seafood culinary masterpieces. This is obviously a group that eats well.
Wild chickens and peacocks roam the island, along with an occasional iguana. For a while, Almeida and the staff enjoyed the company of Buffy, her cocker spaniel. The dog was a constant companion, riding along on the golf carts the group uses for transportation or walking with Almeida along the beach at sunset.
But Buffy is gone now, and Almeida is hesitant to replace her pet too soon. So for now, she is alone, visiting her friends and family on the mainland every few months. Yet she is content and happy to be here.
It is a destination that Almeida never even dreamed of as a child.
“I was born in Angola,” she says. “But my family had to leave in 1975, when I was 16. We didn’t want to go, but a civil war had started, and it wasn’t safe.”
Almeida’s parents and their four children moved to Portugal, but a year later Almeida moved to Switzerland to be a nanny. Finally, in 1983, the young Angolan woman went to visit a friend in the United States and ended up staying.
She worked as a live-in housekeeper in New Jersey, and then started her own housecleaning business while attending college. Eventually, she took a vacation to Captiva Island, which is just off the coast of Florida, and she knew that she had found the lifestyle she loved.
“I loved being by the water,” she says. “I barely swim, but I like being near the ocean. It’s so relaxing. And the isolation didn’t bother me. I was past the partying and social scene.”
She worked at an inn on the island for several years before working her way up the ladder at several hotels and resorts. Then in 1996, she saw an ad for an executive housekeeper aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.
“I had never worked on a ship, which is totally different from a hotel,” says Almeida, “but I liked it.”
The hardest adjustment was the lack of privacy on the ship. “I had my own cabin,” she says, “But you’re living and working with people of more than 100 different nationalities. You have to adjust and learn to respect other beliefs and cultures.”
One thing she never got used to was sailing. “I was seasick for three and a half years,” she laughs. “Everybody used to make fun of me.”
When she heard that Royal Caribbean was planning a private island destination, Almeida jumped at the chance to work there.
“I was very aware that it was going to be isolated here,” she says. “You can’t just hop in the car and go to the movies, but that didn’t bother me. Besides, we have satellite TV, email and the Internet, a Miami phone line and Bahamian cell phones. We’re not isolated at all!”
The island has a reverse osmosis water system and generators to produce electricity. It has its own garbage dump and sewage treatment plant. All of the food and other supplies are brought in by cruise ship once a week.
Yet with all its modern convenience, Coco Cay is still a tiny sliver of land isolated in the Caribbean.
“My favorite time of day is when the sun goes down,” Almeida says. “The stars are out, and we can walk around the island just by the light of the moon. The moonlight reflects on the water, and we can lie on the beach and watch the stars. It’s so peaceful and unbelievable. I absolutely love that.”