There's never been a shortage of bars and lounges on any ship -- but aside from the familiar high-gloss venues, a handful are cruising down an entirely new path when it comes to both highfalutin and plebeian potables. From ESPN sports bars to martini-makers that pour red caramel-apple and chocolate-chestnut libations, and from any-time-of-day Champagne chic to slow-burning hand-rolled cigars in comfy wingback chairs, we've put together a primer of best bets for Happy Hour.
Shaken, Not Stirred: The Martini Bar
Signature Elements: The "it" drink these days is the martini, and for a perfect pick-me-up after a day of sightseeing, you can sip a James Bond traditional -- or maybe something more exotic -- back onboard.
Signature Elements: Cruise lines target wine enthusiasts on a number of fronts. Just about every ship offers a sea-day "wine tasting" in the dining room. (Usually there's a cost of about $10, unless you are offered some form of frequent passenger pass.) The quality of presentations varies wildly. Some lines even offer special wine-tasting enrichment programming. For instance, Celebrity Life's Savor offers things like wine appreciation classes and wine tour excursions, while Holland America Line's Explorations offerings boast onboard culinary arts centers, where wine tastings take place. NCL, meanwhile, has teamed up with Beringer Winery to offer a unique wine and food pairing seminar once per cruise. Other wine-oriented onboard features include the ability to pre-order bottles, via interactive television, and the availability of package discounts -- say, six bottles from a pre-designed list for $100.
But, for actual wine-bar ambience, we have a handful of favorites, and our criteria range from great atmosphere and excellent-quality glassware to a wide by-the-glass variety and, of course, interesting wine lists.
Our Favorites: Our favorite haunt is Royal Caribbean's Vintages, found on Voyager-class, Freedom-class and, most recently, Oasis-class ships (pictured). It offers flight tastings (in an intriguing range of categories, based on everything from color to geographic origin) and intimate-sized wine tastings. For a unique, British twist, check out the Glass House wine bar -- created by TV wine expert Olly Smith -- on P&O Cruises' Azura. This place is a wino's dream, offering a selection of 32 wines, personally chosen by Smith; tastings are available.
MSC Cruises' wine bar, a staple on MSC Musica and Orchestra, is back on Poesia and Fantasia -- two of the line's newest ships. On MSC Poesia, the space is called Grappolo d'Oro, and on Fantasia, the venue goes by La Cantina Toscana; there's a hefty list of wines from provinces across Italy, along with Italian cheeses and meats. The light leather upholstery seems, at first, counterintuitive. (Wine bars are generally very dark and rich in tone.) But, ultimately, it creates an atmosphere that's very open and chic.
Runners-Up: You'll find interesting and eclectic wine lists and pleasantly low-key bar areas in the wine bars aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' Destiny-, Conquest- and Spirit-class ships. Queen Mary 2's Sir Samuel's boasts great atmosphere and a gorgeous bar. It also doubles as a coffee shop during the day.
Meanwhile, Cellar Masters on Celebrity's Solstice-class ships is a wine bar with an educational bent. The venue offers a daily wine tasting, featuring a different wine region each day and including in-depth discussions with knowledgeable sommeliers. Also, passengers can conduct do-it-yourself wine tastings 24 hours a day in Cellar Masters by purchasing "wine cards," inserting them in an automatic dispenser for a particular type of wine, and dispensing measured amounts into their glasses. Or, you can simply enjoy a glass with friends and family.
French Kiss: The Champagne Bar
Signature Elements: Not the newest kids on the block, but eternally popular, Champagne bars are nearly always the most elegant lounges on any ship.
Our Favorites: For posh, flute-in-hand reveling with de rigueur beluga caviar and foie gras (extra charge), Cunard and Veuve Clicquot's elegant Champagne Bar goes all-out on Queen Mary 2 (pictured) and Queen Victoria.
Runners-Up: Looking for a bit more of a bubbly ambience? Check out Magnum's Champagne and Wine Bar on NCL's Norwegian Jade, Jewel and Pearl. This venue is known for its Art Nouveau style and wide selection of libations. Princess' Dawn Princess and Sun Princess serve bubbly in Rendezvous; a similar venue on Sea Princess is called Premier Cru. Royal Caribbean's Champagne Bars make for quiet spots on its Voyager-, Freedom- and Oasis-class ships' otherwise bustling Royal Promenades.
Burning Issues: Cigar Bars
Signature Elements: In the late 90's, cigar bars were some of the hottest concepts onboard, designated as havens for cigar smokers. These days, the fervor has since died down a bit. The reason? Most passengers wanted to avoid the smoke, so such rooms stayed empty, night after night.
Our Favorites: Cigar aficionados need not fear -- cigar bars can still be found on a few ships. In fact, Carnival has embraced stogie-smoking in a big way. Although the line's newest ship, Carnival Magic, doesn't include a cigar bar, all ships in the Splendor and Conquest classes boast such haunts.
Runners-Up: Other great spots? NCL's Norwegian Epic includes the Humidor Cigar Lounge, which offers both premium and hand-rolled cigars, as well as comfortable seating and a wide selection of beverages. On Silversea's Silver Spirit (pictured), Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper's Humidor, you can relax in deep, lush chairs and couches that are set upon rich wooden floors, accented with handsome rugs.
On Princess Cruises' newest ships (Ruby Princess, Crown Princess and Emerald Princess), smokers should pay a visit to the Speakeasy Cigar Lounge. Furnished with dark woods, purple carpeting and comfy chairs, this is an ideal place to relax with a drink and a stogie after dinner. On Coral Princess, Diamond Princess and Island Princess, cigar connoisseurs should check out the rich, wood-paneled Churchill Lounge.
Though the chairs are cozy, and the walk-in humidor comes with spectacular views, guests do have to have their favorite cognacs sent over from Crooner's next door. A few stogie venues -- including Shooter's on Star Princess, Snooker's on Grand Princess and Player's on Golden Princess -- exist on Princess' other ships, as well.
Daily Grind: Coffee Bars
Signature Elements: Cafe latte culture continues to spread into the onboard milieu, with cruise ships fully embracing the great gourmet-coffee movement. While cruise ships have always offered complimentary coffee on a round-the-clock basis, these new-fangled coffee bars feature fancier brews. This has created untold revenue opportunities; expect to pay a land-based price for that cappuccino.
Our Favorites: Our nomination for best-at-sea has to go to Celebrity for two different coffee venues. One is Cafe al Bacio, found onboard the line's new Solstice-class ships (Solstice, Eclipse, Equinox and Silhouette). It serves coffee drinks and tea, as well as pastries. Although this modern-but-classy venue includes flashing lights, its warm yellow and brown hues and comfy chairs offer a relaxing space for a caffeine fix. Live music can also be found there. Additionally, this venue is strategically positioned near The Gelateria -- a great place to grab gelato or Italian ice to chase down that latte.
The other is the elegant and whimsical Cova Cafe, inspired and designed by the famous Milanese coffee bar of the same name. Beyond coffee drinks, it also has an Italian-influenced wine list, serves after-dinner liqueurs and features its own bakery, which offers best-at-sea pastries. (The chocolate croissants are marvelous.) The cafe appears only on Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Infinity, Celebrity Summit and Celebrity Constellation.
As part of a $525 million Signature of Excellence initiative, Holland America upgraded its vessels to include the Explorations Cafe, which 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.
Runners-Up: Other prime cruise lines for gourmet jolts include Royal Caribbean, whose Latte-Tudes serves Seattle's Best Coffee on Radiance of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas; these cafes also offer Internet terminals on site. Royal Caribbean's ever-so-slightly larger Voyager-class and Freedom-class ships and much-larger Oasis-class ships offer Seattle's Best coffee at Cafe Promenade, located along the Royal Promenade on each ship. These venues also offer a variety of sandwiches and pastries. Because they are positioned along the promenades on their respective ships, these venues are ideal for people-watching; food is available on the promenade 24 hours a day, making these locals some of the ships' main hubs.
On Disney Cruise Line's Disney Magic, Disney Wonder and Disney Dream, the Cove Cafe (pictured) is an adults-only venue for gourmet coffee treats, specialty teas, sweets and even cocktails -- plus Internet access, CD-listening stations, large-screen TV's and a decent paperback book and magazine selection.
Stop by Crystal's fleetwide cafe -- The Bistro -- for your hot or frozen-blended caffeine buzz in china created by artist Guy Buffet. Everything is complimentary, including edibles that range from international cheeses and pastries to assorted charcuterie. Finally, Seabourn's larger ships (Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest) feature a space called Seabourn Square, which includes a coffee bar -- something that's uncommon on most smaller ships.
Got Game: Sports Bars
Signature Elements: You may be thousands of miles from land, but it's still possible to root for the home team, via onboard sports bars. Many lines have negotiated with ESPN and other sports channels to show telecasts.
Our Favorites: Disney Wonder and Disney Magic fill the sports gap with the adults-only Diversions, which features special game tables for backgammon, checkers and chess. Norwegian Epic features O'Sheehan's (pictured), where passengers can bowl, throw darts and play pool or foosball before enjoying dinner and drinks. Most Carnival ships, with the exception of Fantasy and Dream classes, have sports bars on the Promenade deck. They're decorated with life-size figures of athletes and tables and chairs made to look like sports equipment.
Runners-Up: On Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas, Scoreboard Sports Bar offers up lots of noise, plenty of sports memorabilia, ESPN feeds and handfuls of free peanuts. On Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas, the 19th Hole kicks sports-bar ambience up a notch with a country club feel. There, panoramic views mix with live ESPN feeds. Celebrity Millennium features Extreme Sports -- the company's first-ever sport bar, where surfboards hang from the ceiling.
Pub Reporter: The English Saloon
Signature Elements: Pubs evoke images of cozy, dark-wood places that hint of cold and damp, pints of lager, and chalkboard menus offering fish-n-chips and mushy peas -- not to mention cheery fellowship. Cruise ships tend to offer more upmarket recreations. (And, way too often for purist tastes, you'll find Budweiser, rather than Bass, on draught.)
Our Favorites: Our special favorites include The Pearly Kings Pub on Norwegian Dawn; on sea days, it serves up traditional pub grub, along with some English pool. (Catch British television comedies on the in-bar televisions.) Carnival Victory has the Irish Sea Bar -- an apparent nod to the land of Ire -- which has a classic pub feel, thanks to its dark woods and rounded bar, which somewhat resembles an old-fashioned wooden keg.
A fleetwide staple on all Princess cruise ships is the Wheelhouse Bar. Decor varies from ship to ship, but the pub lunch offered daily features standard English fare like bangers and mash, fish-n-chips, a ploughman's lunch and traditional cottage pie.
Eschewing the "British" in British pub is Carnival Magic's RedFrog Pub, a Caribbean-themed dynamo featuring for-fee appetizers ($3.33 for conch fritters, roti and the like), chill live music and an exclusive brew, Thirsty Frog Red Ale. (Tip: Check out the drink specials each evening.) Carnival is rolling out this concept nearly fleet-wide through 2015, so be on the lookout.
Runners-Up: Aboard Queen Mary 2, Cunard's Golden Lion Pub reeks of authenticity with its fine lagers, ales on tap and classic pub fare like fish-n-chips. Additionally, P&O's Azura features Brodie's (pictured), a publike venue that also offers karaoke. Royal Caribbean seems committed to the concept on its Voyager- and Freedom-class ships; pubs have cool monikers like Pig & Whistle, Bull & Bear, Dog & Badger, Crown & Kettle, Duck & Dog, Wig & Gavel and Two Poets. The concept carries over to Oasis of the Seas -- the first of two ships in the Oasis class -- with the Globe & Atlas pub, which is located on the Royal Promenade. There's a good selection of imported beers and ales, but don't look for anything edible -- except fistfuls of pretzels and peanuts.
Tickle the Ivories: Piano Bars
Signature Elements: This trendy type of bar is relatively new and appears on vessels in several mass-market lines' fleets. In addition to the usual mixed drinks served in other happy hour venues, piano bars also include live piano music, with plenty of opportunities to sing along.
Our Favorites: Carnival earns top honors in this category, with piano bars on all its ships. Though no two look the same (pictured is Carnival Splendor), you can expect the same rollicking atmosphere with plenty of singalongs, 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!
Runners Up: Although piano bars offer something different in their own right, NCL's newest ship, Norwegian Epic, has found a way to spice up its offerings even more by including not one, but two, pianos -- dueling pianos, to be precise. This unique take on what is slowly becoming a more mainstream cruise feature offers a bit of a competitive twist while passengers sip cocktails. Royal Caribbean also offers live piano music in its Schooner Bar, available on Voyager- and Freedom-class ships. These locales are nautically themed, and pianists will take requests while passengers sip their favorite liquid refreshments. Holland America is breathing new life into its piano bars with new Mix bar areas on Veendam, Statendam, Maasdam, Ryndam, and Rotterdam. The lounges sport contemporary decor and multiple specialized bars for martinis, Champagne, spirits and ales.