When Royal Caribbean's gargantuan Oasis of the Seas debuted, people wondered if anyone would bother to get off the ship in port, as it could take a week to try out all the onboard activities. With 25 dining options, 21 pools and hot tubs, multiple live performances (including an ice rink and diving show) and seven "neighborhoods," the ship practically guarantees that no one will have trouble finding something to do.
But you don't need to sail on a 5,400-passenger ship to get the most from your days at sea. Any ship will do if you're content to spend your onboard time passed out on a sun lounger. But if you want the right mix of activity and relaxation options, it's key to pick the right ship -- and the right itinerary. It would be a shame to get all psyched up for sea days, only to find out your cruise only has one. Look for a good balance of sea and port days, and if you truly love time at sea, book an ocean crossing for a whole string of consecutive sea days.
Now that you know what to look for itinerary-wise, here's our selection of the best ships for days at sea. We chose our favorites based on their variety of onboard attractions, both indoors and out, to keep folks entertained. They also include plenty of daytime dining options. And if you need more inspiration, check out our companion piece: Top 10 Things to Do on Sea Days.
1. Norwegian Breakaway On Deck:Norwegian Breakaway is on a mission to keep passengers entertained, and there's no reason to give up the sun to have some fun on Norwegian's largest cruise ship. Adrenaline junkies should head to Decks 15 to 17, where they can try out four waterslides in the ship's Aqua Park. (Little ones have their own Splash and Play Zone.) Drier adventures await at the rock-climbing wall, mini-golf course, sports court and the Spider Web (a six-story climbing cage), as well as the new-to-Norwegian Sky Trail, a ropes course where you can bounce on a bungee trampoline, swing on a zip line and walks the "plank," which is cantilevered over the side of the ship.
Breakaway has the standard pool-lounge-hot tub areas, but it also features the adults-only Vibe Beach Club with hot tubs and oversized, padded loungers, and Spice H2O with a huge LED screen, bar, waterfalls and shallow pools.
Indoor Fun: The spa on Norwegian Breakaway offers all the usual treatments but also has a thermal suite that features steam rooms, a dry sauna, Vitality pool, hot tubs, heated tile loungers, salt rooms (for improving respiratory and skin problems) and even waterfalls. The large fitness center has all you need for working off those sea-day snacks. Classes include TRX, Flywheel, Fight Klub and Rockettes-inspired workouts.
At the crossroads of entertainment and dining, improv group Second City has devised a murder-mystery lunch event called Presumed Murdered, in which passengers play detective from salad to dessert. And little ones will get their sea days started right at the Nickelodeon Character Breakfast, where they can meet SpongeBob and Dora and have their pictures taken over green-slime pancakes. Norwegian's huge kids club features more Nickelodeon-themed activities in addition to games, arts and crafts, and play areas, while teens get a hangout packed with couches, foosball, flat-screen TV's and a D.J. simulator.
For virtual bowling or other video games, drop by the ship's atrium with its giant, two-story Wii screen.
All-Day Dining: Norwegian's Freestyle Dining concept means passengers can find plenty of dining options at all hours of the day, and Breakaway has 27 restaurants. There's always Norwegian's indoor-outdoor buffet area, and O'Sheehans doles out hot breakfast items and typical pub food with a side of (mini) bowling. One of the complimentary main dining rooms will also offer a sit-down lunch each day, or you can grab some seafood treats for takeaway at Ocean Blue on the Waterfront. An a la carte noodle bar makes for a more exotic lunch, or you can get room service -- and pizza -- delivered to your cabin.
Sisters: Breakaway will be joined in 2014 by sister Getaway. Norwegian Epic was our previous sea-day winner for Norwegian and is still a top choice for onboard fun, as are Norwegian's Jewel-class ships (Jewel, Gem, Pearl, Jade.
Norwegian Breakaway Cruise Fares:
2. Carnival Breeze On Deck: The coolest feature on Carnival Breeze's upper decks is SportSquare, an outdoor workout-and-play area that includes a two-level mini-golf course, billiards and foosball tables, outdoor cardio stations, basketball courts and a running track. Its centerpiece is the SkyCourse, where passengers don harnesses and run, swing and tiptoe through eight segments of an elevated ropes course.
If you're looking to get wet and wild, skip the tiny Beach and Tides pools and head to WaterWorks. Tots can waddle around a splash park, speed demons can choose from two waterslides, and everyone can cool down with the Power Drencher, a massive bucket that, when full of water, dumps it contents on folks waiting below. Adults looking for respite can relax in the kid-free Serenity area, with its own bar, whirlpools, shaded double loungers and hammocks.
Indoor Fun: Carnival's ships emphasize outdoor activities, but Ocean Plaza is the hub for indoor fun on Carnival Breeze. Groove to some live music, or compete for a Ship on a Stick during trivia games at the stage. If you get the munchies or the thirsties, the Plaza Cafe patisserie and Plaza Bar will meet your needs.
Otherwise, you can sneak away to the Cloud 9 Spa for some "me" time. There are a thermal suite and thalassotherapy pool -- in addition to the salon and treatment rooms -- but they tend to be more convivial than sedate.
All-Day Dining: Carnival's Lido Deck buffet is one of the best around. Food stations include a comfort food setup (mac 'n' cheese, meatloaf), a deli (featuring made-to-order sandwiches) and a Mongolian wok station. Above the buffet is Carnival's Italian venue, Cucina del Capitano, which offers a free pasta bar at lunch. Also on the pool deck, find Guy's Burger Joint, with its calorie-laden burgers and fries; the BlueIguana Cantina, serving burritos and tacos; a 24-hour pizza parlor; and Tandoor, for Carnival's signature Indian food (curries, grilled meats and fish).
The Blush main dining room offers open seating for breakfast and lunch. Choose from club sandwiches, Caesar salads, pasta dishes and burgers for your midday repast. The Punchliner Comedy Brunch features teasers from the ship's comedians and dishes like huevos y carne (a Mexican-style steak-and-eggs dish) and breakfast burritos.
On Deck 5, even more eateries await. Bonsai Sushi is Carnival's first stand-alone, sit-down sushi venue. Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ plies passengers with grilled sausage and chicken, pulled pork and jalapeno cornbread. The RedFrog Pub offers a bite and a beer with a bit more hip factor. Done up in kitschy island decor with giant TV screens, it serves mini-meals like grouper fingers, conch fritters and roti (for a fee), as well as the house brew, ThirstyFrog Red ale. Musicians perform live, starting in the late afternoon.
Sisters: Sisters Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic have many of Breeze's attractions but are missing some of the aforementioned dining and drinking establishments.
Carnival Breeze Cruise Fares:
3. Allure of the Seas On Deck: The world's largest cruise ship, Allure of the Seas, challenges anyone to be bored onboard, given its large variety of on-ship activities and attractions. The top deck has three pools (including a sloped-entry pool and one for games like pool volleyball) and the H20 Zone, a colorful aquapark with a giant water-spraying octopus, a kiddie pool and a pair of family-friendly hot tubs. A thalassotherapy pool can be found in the glass-covered Solarium.
The ultimate in water fun are the ship's two FlowRider surf pools for standup surfing and boogie-boarding. If you're not up for public humiliation, grab a drink, find a bleacher seat and enjoy the wipeouts in shaded comfort. Allure also sports a zip-line, two rock-climbing walls and sports courts for basketball, Ping-Pong and mini-golf.
The deep Aquatheater pool does double duty as a venue for scuba lessons and a stage for whimsical performances that feature acrobats and divers. If you can't get a seat, look for standing room on public balconies by the rock-climbing walls.
Indoor Fun: Allure's neighborhood concept includes two areas that are technically within the ship but open to the sky. Take a nature stroll through Central Park, which is covered in some 12,000 plants and 60 trees. You can pop into shops like the Coach store and a Romero Britto boutique, and grab a bite at the Park Cafe or a drink at the Trellis Bar. Or head to the more boisterous indoor-outdoor Boardwalk, with its build-a-pet shop, a kids clothing store, candy shop, ice cream parlor, floating bar, various eateries (see below) and Zoltar, an animatronic fortune teller. One lovely touch there is the handmade carousel, which is free to ride. If you're traveling with kids, keep an eye out for clowns and balloon animal artists strolling by.
For true indoor shopping, the Royal Promenade is sized like a real mall -- it runs the length of a football field. There you'll find tax- and duty-free shops for liquor and jewelry purchases, a Starbucks, the Rising Tide bar (which travels up and down three decks between the Royal Promenade and Central Park), a Guess store and other retail options. Activities like flash-mob dance classes and parades with Dreamworks characters and colorful costumes take place there.
Royal Caribbean's top-of-the-line shows aren't just reserved for the evening. Catch matinees of its ice-skating shows as well as midday showings of Broadway spectaculars such as "Chicago." Other daytime entertainment options include recent 3D movies from the DreamWorks cache (in the specially equipped Amber Theater), dance classes, alcohol tastings, character meet-and-greets and ice skating in Studio B.
All-Day Dining: You can't go hungry on Allure of the Seas. Beyond lunch in the Windjammer Marketplace buffet and Adagio main dining room, passengers can find lunch at Sorrento's Pizzeria; the Park Cafe, serving up salads and sandwiches; the Boardwalk Dog House with its seven varieties of wieners; the Wipeout Cafe for burgers and chicken with a view of the onboard sports action; the Vitality Spa Cafe or Solarium Bistro for yogurt parfaits, healthy sandwiches and other light fare; Vintage for tapas; Giovanni's Table for casual Italian; Johnny Rockets, a fast-food burger joint; Rita's Cantina, a Mexi-Cali beach bar with a la carte food; and the Cafe Promenade for snacks and sandwiches. And don't forget all the empty calories you can consume with midday cravings for ice cream, donuts and cupcakes.
Sisters: Elder sibling Oasis of the Seas is nearly identical, minus a few show, shop and restaurant variations.
Allure of the Seas Cruise Fares:
4. Disney Fantasy On Deck: The much bally-hooed main attraction of Fantasy's upper decks is the AquaDuck, the first watercoaster at sea. It's more kiddie fun than big thrills, despite the track's precipitous swing 13 feet out from the side of the ship -- and its 42-inch height requirement that leaves little siblings pouting. Behind the Duck's entrance is a water play area called the AquaLab, guaranteed to leave you soaking wet.
Fantasy's pool areas have something for everyone. The Mickey Pool with waterslide is kid heaven, Donald's Pool gives front-row seats to the giant outdoor movie screen, Nemo's Reef is the toddler splash area for the diapered set, and Quiet Cove is the adults-only pool area. An additional adults-only sun deck features a splash pool and rain curtain. The requisite all-purpose sports court, mini-golf, walking track and Ping-Pong tables make an appearance on the Sports Deck.
Indoor Fun: You might have a serendipitous run-in with your favorite Disney character or princess, or you can find them at scheduled meet-and-greets. The whole family can play detective with a mystery game that places clues in hallway art that magically comes to life when you pass by; on Fantasy, there's a version that features the lovable Muppets.
Disney's kids clubs are some of the biggest and best in the industry, keeping the under-18's from whining too much on sea days. The Oceaneer's Club has play areas straight out of Pixar movies such as "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc.," interactive high-tech MagicPlay Floors, an animator's studio and a sound studio. Tweens can hang out in the ship's faux funnel where there's an 18-foot-tall video wall, video karaoke and computers with a ship-specific social media app. Teens get a 9,000-square-foot club that includes a fountain bar and its own outdoor space with a sun deck and wading pools. Even the Senses Spa -- which offers the usual adult pampering treatments -- has a teens-only area with age-appropriate treatments.
Kiddos with credit cards (or generous parents) can go for sea-day splurges at the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique. At this salon-cum-costume shop, tykes can be transformed into princesses and pirates -- with hair-styling, makeup and wardrobe -- for a fee.
All-Day Dining: Cabanas, on Deck 11, is the all-day buffet, while Flo's Cafe has quick eats like burgers, chicken fingers, wraps and pizza. For more formal, sit-down repast, try the Versailles-inspired Enchanted Garden or the Royal Palace, a venue that pays homage to Disney's favorite princesses. Grownups can sneak away to brunch at Palo, which offers a cold buffet (meats and cheese, shrimp, salads, desserts) and a selection of hot made-to-order items (omelets, fish); afternoon tea is served there, as well.
Sisters:Disney Dream, Fantasy's elder sibling, is a near twin, but Dream is lacking the AquaLab, Muppets mystery game, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and the new adults-only sun deck.
Disney Fantasy Cruise Fares:
5. Queen Mary 2 On Deck: With much of its time spent sailing back and forth across the Atlantic, Queen Mary 2 can offer lots of sea days -- but the weather won't always be the best for top-deck sunning. Still, the ship does have multiple pools, including the Terrace Pool, the Sun Deck Splash Pool on the top of the ship, the all-weather Pavilion Pool with a retractable dome, and the Minnows Pool for kids.
Sports facilities include a basketball court, a paddle-tennis court and a Ping-Pong table in the Pavilion pool area. Or get old-school with shuffleboard and deck quoits. The promenade deck loops around the ship for a midday walk.
Indoor Fun: While you can certainly laze around all day, QM2 makes it possible to imbue your sea days with culture and learning opportunities, offering an excellent enrichment program. Cunard Insights explores historical and contemporary issues presented by explorers, academics, former politicians, musicians, historians and filmmakers. Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts actors teach acting workshops, and Julliard musicians offer jazz appreciation workshops when they're onboard. Presenters from the Royal Astronomical Society talk stars and solar systems, and you can even stargaze during the day with a film in Illuminations, the only planetarium at sea.
Not enough for you? The Cunard ConneXions program offers a wide variety of programming, from computer workshops and watercolor-painting to wine-tasting and ballroom dance lessons. Plus, you can join a shipwide book club for literary discussions or just browse in the well-stocked library onboard. If you'd rather pamper your body, QM2 is home to one of the only Canyon Ranch SpaClubs at sea. The two-deck facility includes the spa itself, where you can indulge in massages and other, more exotic treatments. One of the highlights of the space is the Aqua Therapy Centre, which is equipped with an aqua therapy pool, a whirlpool, reflexology basin, sensory showers, Finnish sauna, aromatic steam room, herbal sauna and ice fountain. Stylists at the Beauty & Skin Care Centre will beautify your hair and nails as you gaze out to sea, and you can get your heart racing with the latest gym equipment at the Fitness Centre.
All-Day Dining: Passengers can enjoy daytime dining in their assigned main dining rooms (Britannia, Princess Grill or Queens Grill). Britannia is open seating at lunch, while Grill passengers have assigned tables. The buffet restaurant, Kings Court, is located on Deck 7 instead of by the pool. There are actually four different themed areas in Kings Court: The Carvery (roasted meats), La Piazza (pasta), Lotus (Asian) and Chef's Galley. By the pool, you can dine on typical grill fare at the Boardwalk or soups and sandwiches at the Pavilion.
For a lunch splurge, the Todd English alternative restaurant serves up sophisticated fare for $20 a person. Another popular but free alternative dining area is the ship's Golden Lion Pub, serving authentic pub food like bangers and mash, fish and chips, and shepherd's pie. It was completely redesigned during a 2012 shipwide refurbishment.
Traditional tea service can be found in the Queens Rooms, where waiters and waitresses serve tea, finger sandwiches, pastries, and, of course, scones with clotted cream. You can also find a more casual, self-service afternoon tea in Lotus at Kings Court, and Grill passengers can take their tea at the exclusive Queens Grill Lounge.
Sisters:Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth share some of QM2's dedication to enrichment programming, but they don't have all the bells and whistles (no planetarium, for example).
Queen Mary 2 Cruise Fares:
6. Crystal Serenity On Deck:Crystal Serenity is a great ship for those who appreciate an outdoor stroll onboard, because it makes more use of its wraparound promenade than most cruise ships. Its Walking on Water program utilizes cotton vests that have pockets for weights, so walkers can increase their resistance training when striding around the promenade deck. Motivational music and day-by-day walking programs are part of the package. And if you're into walking accessories, you can ramp it up with complimentary LEKI USA walking poles for a low-impact, full-body Nordic Walking workout.
For more leisurely pursuits, stretch out on one of the long couches or oversized circular "pod beds" that surround the main Seahorse Pool and catch some rays. You can perfect your golf game at the onboard driving nets and putting green -- with or without a lesson from the ship's pro -- or try a game of shuffleboard. A very Crystal pastime is paddle-tennis, and there are two full-size courts due to the demand.
Indoor Fun: Crystal is one of the best lines for onboard enrichment with its dynamic Creative Learning Institute. You can educate yourself in a range of subjects, including foreign languages, art, computer skills, music and cooking. If you'd rather kick back with a coffee or cocktail and listen to an expert, you can attend lectures on topics like political science, current affairs, food and wine, astronomy, art and antiques. Crystal often adds themes to its sailings -- such as golf, big-band music, football, politics and emerging artists -- with activities to match.
All-Day Dining: If you're a fan of afternoon tea, you've hit the jackpot on Crystal Serenity. The superb afternoon teas are held in the serene Palm Court, with live music, white-gloved waiters and a variety of teas, scones, finger sandwiches and other treats. The ship is also known for its themed afternoon teas: During the Mozart Tea, waiters dressed in period costumes serve Austrian specialties, while a classical quartet plays music by -- you guessed it -- the famous composer.
For a real meal, you can find sit-down fare in the Crystal Dining Room, sandwiches at the casual Bistro, a wide selection of dishes at the Lido Buffet, casual dining with waiter service at the poolside Tastes and burgers at the Trident Grill.
Sisters:Crystal Symphony also focuses on learning at sea, but it's slightly older and smaller than Crystal Serenity.
Crystal Serenity Cruise Fares:
7. Celebrity Eclipse On Deck:Celebrity Eclipse -- and its Solstice-class sisters -- puts a new spin on top-deck fun with the first real grass lawns at sea. The Lawn Club on Eclipse is the perfect spot for a sea-day picnic, a game of bocce or oversized Jenga, or a little putting practice. Or perhaps just stroll around barefoot, feeling the grass between your toes.
Eclipse also has one of cruising's most inviting pool decks. Parents can take the kids into the shallow family pool, while everyone can join the games in the sports pool. Vertical fountain jets spray visitors to the Wet Zone, a fun place for water play or a quick cool-down. The adults-only Solarium invites with a circular spa pool, a swim pool and two whirlpools, as well as comfy padded loungers, circular daybeds and hammocks. Hot tubs are scattered throughout.
Indoor Fun: Celebrity's enrichment program, CelebrityLife, runs the gamut from intellectual lectures by Smithsonian Journeys speakers to the less serious mixology and dance classes. On the brainy side, take advantage of Celebrity's partnership with Rosetta Stone for language learning and Apple for computer and technology workshops. The library onboard is small but picturesque; if you can find an empty seat, you might just want to curl up there with a book.
Foodies can learn about wine-and-food pairings, compete in culinary contests and join expert-led wine-tastings -- or independent ones. Passengers can conduct do-it-yourself wine-tastings at the Cellar Masters wine bar with its automatic wine dispensers. If you like to kick it at a convivial watering hole, the Martini Bar is a great sea-day afternoon hangout. The enthusiastic bartenders will mix you brightly colored concoctions while juggling martini shakers and performing other fun tricks. (Hint: Order two "flights" to find out exactly how many martinis your bartenders can pour at one time.)
The gym at the spa offers all the newest fitness machines as well as a serpentine jogging track. Work out on your own, or sign up for a class in yoga, aerobics and the like.
All-Day Dining: Celebrity has one of the best buffets in the biz, and the Oceanview Cafe is an expansive multistation venue for lunch and all-day snacking. Choices include a carving station and taco, pasta, stir-fry, sandwich, soup, salad and other specialty stops. For less healthy fare, pick up some burgers and hot dogs at the Mast Grill; for healthier choices, drop by the AquaSpa Cafe in the Solarium for salads and grilled seafood. If you prefer sit-down service, the Moonlight Sonata main restaurant is open midday. (Good bets are the lunchtime salads and burgers.)
If you don't mind forking over a few bucks for your lunch, Bistro on Five does breakfast, lunch and dessert crepes, as well as panini sandwiches, soups and salads. If you go the savory route, hit the gelateria next door for a sweet ending to your meal.
Sisters: Eclipse is the third in the Solstice Class; Solstice, Equinox, Silhouette and Reflection are all great sea-day choices. The biggest differences are in the specialty dining venues and Lawn Club attractions.
Celebrity Eclipse Cruise Fares:
8. Ruby Princess On Deck: You can choose whether you want your in-the-sun lounge time to be active and fun or quiet and calming aboard Ruby Princess. If you like a little action with your tan, the two main pool areas on Deck 15 are for you. At Neptune's Reef and Pool, you can be a joiner with fun activities such as ice-carving demonstrations and silly games, or rock out to the music performances. The Calypso Reef and Pool is part pool and part cinema with its giant Movies Under the Stars screen looming.
For a more Zen sea day, shell out for a coveted spot in the Sanctuary, the adults-only sun deck. You can recline on an extra-plush lounger while stewards fetch drinks and healthy snacks for you. Forgot your iPod? Borrow an MP3 player with Bose headphones that's loaded with playlists.
There are also two pools onboard that are quieter than the main pool deck venues. The adults-only Lotus Spa Pool features swim-against-the-current technology and two warm whirlpools. The Terrace Pool overlooks the ocean at the very aft of the ship and is a calming place for a dip.
Indoor Fun: The heart of Ruby Princess is the Piazza, the atrium where street performers sing, dance, juggle, do magic tricks and perform acrobatics while you chill with a coffee, cocktail or cookie.
Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program doesn't take itself as seriously as the "edutainment" offerings of lines like Cunard or Crystal. Sure, you can learn about computers and art history, but the program also encompasses scrapbooking, wine-tastings, cooking demos and dance classes.
And there's always the Lotus Spa. Relax with a massage or facial, or get high-tech with acupuncture, Botox treatments, detoxifying wraps or teeth-whitening. For some indoor relaxation, head to the Thermal Suite, with its sauna, aromatherapy steam rooms and hot-rock beds. If paying for a thermal suite will only make you more tense, know that fee-free saunas are located in the spa locker rooms.
All-Day Dining: One of the more original lunch options on Ruby Princess is the English-style pub lunch at the Wheelhouse Bar. The menu offers cottage pie, fish and chips, bangers and mash, or a ploughman's lunch. Lunch is free, but you'll need to pay to wash it down with a Guinness.
You can also find casual dining options in the Piazza. Vines is an uncommon combination of a wine and sushi bar. You can snack on Nigiri- (with rice) or Sashimi-style sushi, as well as artisan cheeses, and choose from 30 kinds of wine. The International Cafe has the feel of a European sidewalk cafe, and offers coffee, morning pastries, tea sandwiches, light salads and snacks. Food is free, unless you want a fancy dessert, like chocolate fondue with fruit for dipping, chocolate-covered strawberries or gelato (all for a small fee). Penny-pinchers need not fret: Every afternoon there's a free cookies-and-milk break. (Don't want to leave the pool? The crew bring cookies by the pool deck, too.)
Balcony cabin residents can sleep in and order the Champagne Balcony Breakfast ($28 per person), complete with pastries, fresh fruit, quiche and a split of Champagne. It's elegantly served on your private verandah.
Other daytime dining venues include the Da Vinci dining room, the Horizon Court and Cafe Caribe buffets; the Trident Grill for burgers, hot dogs or chicken sandwiches; and poolside venues for pizza and ice cream.
Sisters:Crown and Emerald Princess are Ruby's closest sisters, with their class' signature Piazza, Sanctuary and Movies Under the Stars. Royal Princess is the line's newest ship, in a class of its own. It has an enlarged Piazza and Movies Under the Stars, updated kids' club, a television studio, new and improved dining venues, and the SeaWalk, a glass walkway that hangs off the side of the ship. (Small balconies and less-than-enthusiastic passenger reviews keep us from nominating it as Princess' best for sea days at this time.)
Ruby Princess Cruise Fares:
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor
--Image at top right appears courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief.