Opinions about cruising's best bars vary like the color of cocktails. One passenger's top-shelf piano lounge might be another's sun deck dive. But we have our favorites -- levitating lounges, pubs with delicious fish and chips, and alfresco bars where you can watch a spectacular sunset as you nurse an Ocean Breeze.
What makes a bar stand out for us? Often, it's originality and innovation, a new twist on the ol' purveyor of gin-and-tonics and buckets of beer. You might find an ice bar gimmicky, but it's certainly different. In other cases, we applaud onboard establishments for offering unique drinks or pairing food and booze; sometimes, these bars are simply places where, time and again, we've spent an enjoyable evening.
So, whether you're a beer connoisseur or like your cocktails in the brightest of hues, we invite you to enjoy our list of best bars at sea.
What's Cool: Sometimes a fruity martini is just what the doctor ordered. Carnival's Alchemy Bar takes that a step further, with an "Olde Apothecary" theme, featuring bartenders in lab coats and a dark wood bar decorated with apothecary jars. They'll write you a prescription for Passion Potions (like a Martini Seduction), Energizing Elixirs (Spicy Chipotle Pineapple Martini) or Cocktail Therapy (Curative Peach Cosmopolitan).
What's Cool: Order a martini flight and try out six colorful beverages, poured from a tower of martini shakers into a pyramid of glasses. The bartenders here have watched "Cocktail" too many times, and they put on an impressive display of bottle-tossing and -twirling as they mix your drinks. An ice-topped bar and a central location add to the appeal.
What's Cool: The first thing you notice about the Commodore Club is its sweeping shape; located all the way forward, the lounge offers views that span three sides. Chairs, many tucked into windowed nooks, are deep and comfortable. What's really special about the Commodore Club is that its out-of-the-way location (far from the throngs enjoying pre-dinner drinks at Britannia-adjacent venues) gives it a more secluded air. And, as befits Cunard, the more formal evening dress codes means everyone's dressed to impress. The drinks? The bar's nautical theme evokes a more glamorous era, which means it's the place to order a Manhattan or a martini, straight up or with a twist.
What's Cool: Princess' wine bar, found in the bustling Piazza area, serves up wine flights and a selection of new- and old-world vintages in a faux wine cellar setting. (Think dim lighting and wooden barrels.) But it's more than just a bar; along with your vino, you can order sushi and tapas for a light, sophisticated meal (free with beverage purchase). As you sip, don't forget to check out the street performers who entertain in the Piazza. Note that sushi and tapas are not served on Grand and Sapphire Princess, and only sushi is served on Star Princess.
What's Cool: Although the wine bars on these ships all have different names, they offer a hefty list of wines from provinces across Italy. The bars' light leather upholstery seems, at first, counterintuitive; wine bars, after all, are generally very dark and rich in tone. But, ultimately, the decor creates an atmosphere that's open and chic. Knowledgeable sommeliers on each sailing offer tastings that include information about the various vintages, their regions and the processes that go into making the wines. There's a small fee associated with the tastings, but you'll also get a plate of tasty cheeses and meats to accompany each glass of vino.
What's Cool: La Reserve isn't just an ordinary wine bar; it's a venue for wine tastings and gourmet wine-themed dinners. Tastings, developed by Wine Spectator, might focus on wines from your cruise region or show how different types of wine glasses affect your enjoyment of the vintage. Multicourse dinners pair fine cuisine with premium wines and are a collaboration between the executive chef and Wine Spectator's wine aficionados. La Reserve's elegant setting, with upper-deck views, simply adds to the experience.
What's Cool: It's pink. Really pink. It's decorated with pink Champagne bottles, pink plush chairs, pink bubble lights and pink Champagne glasses. Yet it's not overbearing. In fact, it's downright charming. Lighted glass bubbles adorn the walls, and savvy cruisers might catch a glimpse of Dumbo dancing sporadically in them. Champagne and Champagne cocktails are, of course, the drinks of choice. Champagne cocktail options include standbys like bellinis, as well as more inventive drinks that include Elderberry cocktails.
What's Cool: The Humidor feels like a traditional smoking room in an old British country house, where you can relax on deep, lush chairs and couches set on rich wooden floors, accented with handsome rugs and prints on the walls. It's well ventilated, but it still retains that delicious, rich cigar aroma that has permeated into the furniture. There's a bar adjoining it, and it has excellent waiter service. All cigar bars should be like this.
What's Cool: Although smoking is more prevalent on MSC's ships than it is on mainstream U.S. lines, we often found the cigar bars, which vary in name from ship to ship, uncrowded and quiet. With rich woods and cushy leather seating, they offer elegant places to escape the general population onboard, whether it's to read, write, nap or have a smoke. Some -- like the Hitchcock Lounge on Poesia, which features silhouettes of Alfred Hitchcock -- even have fun themes. (Surprisingly, the ones we visited didn't smell anything like smoke, so nonsmokers shouldn't worry about stepping inside.)
What's Cool: The view from Meridian -- located on Deck 12, aft -- is spectacular, with huge windows and vast outdoor spaces that ensure passengers will never miss the passing scenery. A large granite bar runs the length of the lounge, which is decorated with lots of high-backed leather chairs and travel-themed decor. Cigars are available for purchase at the outside bar. Meridian is nestled between restaurants Palo and Remy, so aficionados don't have far to go for an after-dinner stogie.
What's Cool: Cafe al Bacio combines the best of cruise-ship watering holes: delicious eats and drinks, inviting decor and a social setting. The coffee stand serves a wide array of extra-fee specialty coffees, teas and liqueurs, as well as gratis freshly baked pastries. Its warm yellow and brown hues and comfy chairs offer a relaxing space for a caffeine fix -- and after dinner, you'd be hard pressed to find an empty spot. The venue is strategically positioned near The Gelateria, a great place to grab gelato or Italian ice to chase down that latte. It's located on a main thoroughfare, so you can watch the cruise-ship world passing by.
What's Cool: Found on all vessels, the Explorations Cafe combines a coffee shop, Internet cafe and a library -- making these spaces ideal for those who want to check e-mail or curl up with a good book while sipping some Joe. Beverages offered at Explorations cost extra, but complimentary cookies, pastries, fruit and sandwiches are available. Even better, the cafe's plush chairs and sofas are super-comfy, and many offer great views. You'll need a caffeine hit to stay awake if you sink into one of those soft seats.
What's Cool: Seabourn's larger ships feature a space called Seabourn Square, which serves as a great gathering place and hub of the ship. The coffee bar offers specialty coffees, liqueurs, cakes and pastries, as well as a library (with both books and DVDs), Internet terminals and desks for Seabourn staffers (shore excursions, concierges, etc.).
What's Cool: Disney's association with ESPN means sports fans won't miss a game while sailing. The line's sports bars -- all adults-only at night -- have numerous flat-screen high-def TVs with digital surround sound and cozy spaces that allow for quiet conversation, even when the bar is packed and the big game is on.
What's Cool: One reviewer described Carnival's EA Sports Bar as the man-cave to end all man-caves. It's chock full of flat-screen TVs that can show individual games or combine to show a single game across several screens. The bar is stocked with a selection of beer, bar snacks, sports tickers running game scores from around the world, and free video games from EA Sports.
What's Cool: Called The Sports Bar on all ships (except Magnifica, where it's known as L'Olimpiade), these venues are more than just a place to watch the game with a beer. With a relaxed and colorful atmosphere, each features a bar, a pair of mini-bowling lanes, a Formula 1 racing simulator, sports memorabilia, plenty of tables and chairs in various alcoves, and, of course, an astounding number of flat-screen TVs for watching live competitions.
What's Cool: The pubby Wheelhouse Bar is a Princess staple, but decor varies from ship to ship. While the dark woods and nautical pictures are well and good, it's the special (complimentary) pub lunch that gets us through the doors. The menu features English fare like bangers and mash, fish-n-chips (the most popular option), a ploughman's lunch and traditional cottage pie. And, of course, Guinness and other beers make perfect bedfellows to the Brit-style lunch.
What's Cool: Cunard's Golden Lion Pub reeks of authenticity with its fine lagers, ales on tap and classic pub fare like fish-n-chips. Entertainment is also pub-worthy with pub quizzes, live music and sporting events on the telly.
What's Cool: At O'Sheehans, passengers can bowl, throw darts and play pool or foosball before enjoying dinner and drinks. The 24-hour venue serves up complimentary breakfast (like scrambled-egg wraps) and pub fare (Buffalo wings, fish-n-chips), and it's the best spot for draft beer. Bowling enthusiasts take note: while the Epic version features three full-sized lanes, the Breakaway version only offers two mini-bowling lanes, with shorter lanes and smaller pins and balls, hidden away at the back of the pub.
What's Cool: Carnival earns top honors in this category, with piano bars on all its ships. Though no two look the same, you can expect a nearly identical rollicking atmosphere with plenty of sing-alongs, group toasts and some adult-themed tunes after midnight. The most coveted spots are the stools surrounding the pianos, which revolve slowly so everyone gets a good view of the ivories. But arrive early to snag a choice spot -- some of Carnival's pianists have nearly cult-like followings!
What's Cool: Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed bar and trivia basecamp also turns into a piano bar at night. The individual pianists really affect the after-hours atmosphere; some host lively sing-alongs, complete with props, while others provide background music to a packed house of post-dinner merrymakers. If he's not playing your song, feel free to make a request.
What's Cool: Beer snobs, noses upturned at the sight of Bud, have long been ignored on cruise ships. Not anymore. On several ships, Celebrity has transformed its iconic Michael's Club, forgoing the country club style of earlier versions and trading cognac for craft beer. MC features a changing menu of 60-plus ales, stouts and lagers, from Newcastle to Dues Brut Des Flanders, a beer-sparkling wine concoction that's $49 for a 750ml bottle. Ask one of the trained "beer sommeliers" to help you match brew to palate. There are great salty snacks to munch on, and entertainment comes by way of acoustic guitar and televised sports.
What's Cool: Eschewing the "British" in British pub is Carnival's RedFrog Pub, a Caribbean-themed space featuring for-fee appetizers (conch fritters, roti and the like), chill live music, games like ring toss and table shuffleboard, and an exclusive brew on draft. Carnival's ThirstyFrog Red Ale can be ordered by the pint or by the 100-ounce beer tube. (Tip: Check out the drink specials each evening.) You can also find the signature beer at the RedFrog Rum Bar on the pool decks of the aforementioned ships, plus Conquest, Dream, Glory, Liberty and Triumph; however, these venues focus on libations and not munchies.
What's Cool: It levitates. This Oasis-class novelty bar, evocative of a space pod, floats up and down three decks between the Royal Promenade and the foliage-filled Central Park. Take-offs typically occur every 30 minutes during designated hours. The ride is about 20 minutes, but the "driver" can adjust the speed up and down. While the bar is one-of-a-kind, don't expect the same from the menu; you'll find a standard selection of cocktails and beers.
What's Cool: It's not just cool, it's freezing. The air in this spine-tingler is kept at a constant 17 degrees, all the better to keep the cocktail glasses, bar and ice sculptures from getting all wishy-washy. (Yep, they're all made of ice.) Just don a parka at the door, take a deep breath, and enter the enchanting little cavern with multihued ice walls mimicking the aurora borealis. You can stay in there for up to 45 minutes, but trust us ... you won't. The cover charge includes a toasty, warm parka and two drinks (all of which are made with Svedka vodka).
What's Cool: The round, UFO-esque tower in the middle of every Royal Caribbean ship houses the line's signature Viking Crown Lounge. While some are more expansive and others are carved up with specialty restaurants and VIP lounges, they all offer sloping windows and great views over the outer decks and out to sea. Head there for sunset or sailaway -- it's an ideal place to snuggle into a comfy couch, order a drink and watch the world go by.
What's Cool: One of the best places for a great view at sea is the Palm Court on Crystal's two ships (Deck 11, forward). The highlight of the sleekly modern lounge, located just over the bridge, is the 5.5-foot high windows along the sides and the 10-foot windows toward the front, providing stunning 300-degree views. Stand right at the front when docking to see exactly what the captain is seeing. Aside from the view, Palm Court is a wonderfully quiet place during the day to curl up on a comfy chair with a good book. In the late afternoon and evening, the space comes alive with high tea and jazz.
What's Cool: Sunset Bar's unimpeded aft views are particularly breathtaking. Celebrity paid careful attention to the scenery in designing the bar, where railings are barely noticeable and glass spans as far as the eye can see. The proximity to the ships' unique Lawn Clubs provides a breezy backyard feel and makes for the perfect location for a sunset cocktail.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, with additional reporting by Cruise Critic staff