As cruise ships become larger and lines compete to offer the most innovative onboard amenities, cruise ship sun decks are undergoing revolutionary changes. Cruise lines are designing pool areas that mirror land resorts, the best of which have always offered fabulous recreation and sunning areas. Modern, multi-pool complexes -- including innovative new rides, water slides and movie screens rising several decks -- are standard features on new and updated cruise ships. Here are a few of the hottest trends:
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Peaceful, adults-only retreats are getting their day in the sun.
Cruise lines are taking a variety of approaches to this concept, offering spa-like sun decks (a la Princess Cruises' Sanctuary) with alfresco massages and healthful fare delivered to your lounger; solariums (Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises) with kid-free whirlpools and comfy chaises for two; and cabana rentals (Holland America and Oceania). Although many of these amenities come with additional fees, the blissful retreats might be worth the cost.
Sun decks have turned into fun decks.
Water slides can be found on Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, MSC, Carnival and Disney cruise ships. Norwegian and Carnival have added ropes courses. Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept of an onboard water park for kids on its Freedom-class ships, and its newer ships include everything from ziplines and surf simulators to skydiving simulators. Even Celebrity has real grass lawns on many of its vessels.
Pool decks and movies go hand in hand.
Princess introduced the industry's first outdoor cinema -- Movies Under the Stars, affectionately known as MUTS -- on Caribbean Princess. The outdoor LED screen has been so popular the line added one to each of its new ships and has rolled it out fleetwide (with the exception of Pacific Princess). Some Carnival, Costa, MSC, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Holland America and Disney ships feature their own versions of MUTS. The screens offer daytime programming, ranging from CNN to World Cup Soccer, as well as nighttime movies.
If dynamic pools and sun decks are priorities when choosing a cruise, check out our favorites.
1. Princess Cruises
Which Ships: Grand Princess, Star Princess, Golden Princess, Caribbean Princess, Diamond Princess, Sapphire Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, Ruby Princess, Royal Princess and Regal Princess
Sun Deck: If you want to be in the heart of the action, stick to the Calypso Reef and Neptune's Reef areas midship. Key components include large pools, hot tubs, bars, silly pool games, musical entertainment and dining options. Plus, all ships (save for Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess) feature sliding-glass roofs that cover the Calypso Reefs and pools. This is particularly useful in Alaska and Europe's Baltic during inclement weather. At night, the Calypso area is transformed into a swim-in cinema (referring again to the fabulous Movies Under the Stars feature, available on most Princess ships). Plus, spa pools, nestled in the courtyard of each Lotus Spa, offer swim-against-the-current features.
Distinctions: On Crown Princess, the line went a step further and introduced the concept of The Sanctuary, an adults-only haven with pampering services and at-your-deck-chair drink and snack delivery. The idea proved so popular that The Sanctuary can be found on all Princess ships (except Pacific Princess). If you want to kick back and relax without paying a premium, there's also the Terrace pool area -- definitely off the big-ship beaten path -- tucked away aft.
Poolside Dining: You can have pizza at Neptune's Reef and burgers at Trident Grill. At the Sanctuary, healthful fare, such as tuna pate and smoothies, is available for a small service fee.
2. Celebrity Cruises
Which Ships: Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection
Sun Deck: On the outdoor pool deck, kids and grown-ups alike can enjoy splashing through the "dancing" fountains next to the family and sports pools. The adults-only Solarium is a beautiful space, featuring a lap pool, whirlpools, glass walls and roof (with solar panels, to boot) and a water feature that lights up at night.
Distinctions: The top-of-ship Lawn Club is carpeted with actual living grass. Passengers can soak up the sun while playing bocce, putting golf balls or picnicking on the grass. Celebrity also offers a glass-blowing studio, open for demonstrations both day and night on Eclipse, Equinox and Solstice. On Silhouette and Reflection, the glass-blowing studio has been replaced by an outdoor interactive grill venue, and eight cabana-style alcoves are available for rent. Hammocks and Adirondack chairs have been added to the grassy plot. (It's also worth noting that Celebrity has updated Celebrity Summit and Infinity, so each of those Millennium-class ships now has a Rooftop Terrace with an outdoor movie screen.)
Poolside Dining: The Mast Grill and Bar serves up greasy favorites like tacos, nachos, hot dogs, brats, burgers, fries and onion rings. If that leaves you feeling a little queasy, the spa and fitness center are only steps away.
3. Royal Caribbean
Which Ships: Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas
Sun Deck: Freedom-, Oasis- and Quantum-class ships make sure there's a swimming and sunning option for everyone. One pool is for swimming and another for sports (think water-jousting and pool volleyball), and of course, whirlpools are at the ready for a hot-water soak. Oasis, Harmony and Allure (and one upcoming Oasis-class new-build, to be launched in 2018) also have "zero entry" pools that are great for gradually wading into deeper water. The H2O Zone is for kids only. The expansive area is fitted with a kids' pool, water cannon and abstract, colorful sculpture fountains. Adults have their own play place in the kid-free Solarium, touting a pool, hammocks, swinging chairs and cantilevered whirlpools that hang over the side of the ship, providing incredible ocean views.
Distinctions: Royal Caribbean's signature pool attraction is the FlowRider, a surf simulator on which the most daring passengers can try their boogie-boarding and surfing skills. Freedom- and Quantum-class ships have one FlowRider each, while Oasis–class ships have two apiece. For armchair surfers, bleachers provide up-close views of the thrills and spills of the surfing daredevils. Ships in the Oasis and Quantum classes offer cutting-edge outdoor pursuits like skydiving and ziplining. What's more, Harmony of the Seas offers water slides, as well as the the 10-story Ultimate Abyss dry slide. (The line plans to eventually add water slides to all Oasis-class ships.)
Poolside Dining: The Solarium pool has a cafe that features pizza, while the self-serve Sprinkles provides frozen yogurt. If you're looking for a healthy drink option, Squeeze sells various fruit drinks.
4. Norwegian Cruise Line
Which Ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway
Sun Deck: Sun decks on Norwegian's Epic, Breakaway and Getaway begin with the typical pair of pools, surrounded by fountains and an ocean of loungers, but it doesn't end there. Little ones have their own place to frolic in the Splash and Play Zone, a shaded oasis of fountains, wading pools and animal sculptures (SpongeBob-themed ones on Breakaway and Getaway). This kiddie area is tucked under the water slides of Epic's mammoth Aqua Park. The main attraction there is the Epic Plunge, in which tube-riders zip into a giant funnel before dropping through a 200-foot-long chute into a pool below. On Breakaway and Getaway, passengers will also find ropes courses -- complete with planks that jut out over the sides of the ships -- next to the water slides, one deck up.
For a quieter retreat, head to Spice H2O, a tiered, stage-like space that serves as an adults-only pool during the day, complete with the huge outdoor LED screen that's becoming a staple of cruise ship sun decks these days. Another peaceful spot is the nearly hidden, unfrequented sun deck aft on Deck 18.
On newer Escape, passengers will find the largest ropes course at sea; Aqua Park, a giant water park; a two-story bar; and two huge LED screens.
Distinctions: In the Vibe Beach Club, staff are on hand to bring sunbathers chilled towels and spritz them with Evian water on hot days. In addition, you won't be harassed by waiters hawking drinks; if you're thirsty, put the flag on your lounger up, and someone will come over to take your order. But the real VIPs are the ones who can afford a pricey Owner's Suite, Penthouse, Spa Suite or Villa, all of which allow access to the Haven Courtyard sun deck with pool, whirlpools and comfy sun loungers.
Poolside Dining: The Grill offers limited breakfast items and typical grilled lunch items, such as hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken, as well as salad and dessert.
5. Holland America
Which Ships: Koningsdam, Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam
Sun Deck: On all three ships, the main midship Lido pools, which can be covered by a retractable magrodome roof in inclement weather, are tastefully decorated in earth tones with brown wicker-like chaises and plush cushions. Each is surrounded by a jumbo whirlpool and a pair of smaller ones. The second Sea View pool is located aft. This adults-only pool features two hot tubs and plenty of deck space with a view of the open sea and the wake.
Distinctions: To solve the problem of overcrowded sun decks with no vacant lounge chairs, Holland America offers private cabanas for rent, both on the Lido Deck and in an exclusive area one deck up. Inside your private tent, you'll find wicker couches and chairs, Evian spray misters, a special menu for lunch service, complimentary snacks like fruit skewers, and iPods uploaded with music. On Koningsdam, a large movie screen by the main pool displays films under the stars at night.
Poolside Dining: On Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, Slice offers pizza by the Sea View pool, and the Terrace Grill serves the Lido pool; both eateries also include bars for frosty beverages. On Koningsdam, sweet-treat spot Gelato and Dive In, serving up burgers, dogs and fries, are both located by the Lido Pool.
6. Disney Cruise Line
Which Ships: Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy
Sun Deck: Disney's pool areas are great for kids, naturally, but also stylish enough for adults. In fact, we love that the three quite distinctive pool areas -- which all occupy the same deck, allowing you to easily walk from one to the other -- are targeted at specific demographics. Mickey's Pool, which boasts a water slide, is for young kids; Goofy's Family Pool (Donald's Pool on Dream), in the center, is for folks of all ages and is the site for major musical entertainment; and the Quiet Cove is for mom and dad -- no kids allowed.
Distinctions: During an extensive refurbishment, Disney Magic received the see-through body slide AquaDunk, as well as AquaLab -- a Huey, Dewey and Louie-themed splash area that offers dump buckets, sprayers and a kid-friendly water slide. Disney Dream's and Disney Fantasy's pool areas feature the AquaDuck water coaster: a transparent acrylic tube that propels riders along on a raft, up and down four decks of the ship -- at one point swinging out 13 feet over the side and 150 feet above the ocean. Nemo's Reef is a small water park area for the youngest passengers. Disney also utilizes its pool areas for fabulous deck parties, often involving fireworks.
Poolside Dining: For families, Pluto's Dog House Snack Bar (adjacent to Mickey's Pool) and Pinocchio's Pizzeria (by Goofy's Pool) are terrific alfresco options. Parents seeking the peace of the Quiet Cove have two bars, one of which serves snacks.
7. P&O Cruises
Which Ships: Ventura, Azura and Britannia
Sun Deck: Ventura is designed on the same platform as the Grand-class Princess ships we've already cited. It has four pool areas with five pools. The Beachcomber has a sliding-glass roof so you can swim anytime, even when the weather's not warm. This "main" pool also features hot tubs, bars, silly pool games, musical entertainment and dining options. Opposite the Beachcomber is Laguna Pool, again flanked by hot tubs. A plunge pool is aft, next to the children's area. The Terrace Pool is a quieter setup, located aft, and the Endless Pool, part of the ship's spa, is located forward.
Azura boasts five pools: the Aqua and Coral pools are midship and tend to draw families, while Terrace Pool is adults-only. There's a plunge pool aft, and Azura's fifth pool, Oasis, is reserved for spa and Retreat passengers.
Britannia has five pools, including Serenity (a "quiet zone" pool) and a hydrotherapy pool.
Distinctions: On all three ships, the Retreat offers outdoor spa terraces with for-fee cabanas and alfresco spa treatments. Ventura's Endless Pool features swim-against-the-current technology for aquatic workouts.
Poolside Dining: Among the options are a pizzeria and ice cream spot between the two main pools. There are also two bars, a grill, a restaurant aimed at families and the ship's buffet venue. Passengers can enjoy smoothies, fresh fruit and other nourishing snacks in the Retreat.
8. Crystal Cruises
Which Ships: Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony
Sun Deck: Crystal's sun decks exude the same luxurious qualities as the rest of the ships' venues -- spacious upscale decor. Crystal's all-teak sun decks are furnished with comfortable, padded lounge chairs (not the tacky plastic kind). You can use as many fluffy pool towels as you'd like, and the pools and Jacuzzis are relaxing and rarely crowded.
Distinctions: Crystal gives a nod to its active passengers with paddle tennis courts, shuffleboard, golf driving nets, a putting green and Ping-Pong tables.
Poolside Dining: Crystal's poolside buffets are some of the best around. The Trident Bar and Grill offers typical poolside dining options, as well as more unusual specialty sandwiches. Tastes features themed buffets and a casual dining option under the stars.
9. Oceania Cruises
Which Ships: Sirena, Marina, Insignia, Nautica, Regatta and Riviera
Sun Deck: The sun decks on Oceania ships are centered on tranquil saltwater pools, each ringed by comfortable, cushion-topped loungers and straddled by a pair of whirlpools. Gorgeous outdoor living areas -- boasting plush couches, deep armchairs and people-watching views -- are tucked away behind the pools, and they're perfect for folks who prefer to sit in the shade.
Distinctions: The Spa Terrace -- a fantastic and otherwise hidden sun deck with a huge whirlpool -- is available for free to all passengers who receive spa treatments, as well as those booked in Concierge cabins and higher. It's available to all other cruisers for a fee, based on the number of days of access; passes start at $25 for one day and go up to $175 for 10 days. It's located just beyond the spa at the bow of the ship.
Poolside Dining: The poolside Waves Grill offers sandwich fare -- creative burgers and paninis, whose recipes came from Oceania's staff -- and waiter service. Milkshakes served from a dedicated station are refreshing on hot days.
10. Carnival Cruise Line
Which Ships: Carnival Vista, Carnival Breeze and Carnival Sunshine
Sun Deck: Carnival has long been known for its candy-colored, high-energy sun decks -- featuring corkscrew water slides, adults-only havens and casual dining options -- but Carnival Breeze, Carnival Vista and Carnival Sunshine boast the line's best ship-toppers.
Distinctions: All three ships offer SportSquare, an outdoor activity hub with attractions like mini-golf, mini-bowling, alfresco billiards and foosball tables. They each also have the SkyCourse, on which harnessed passengers navigate a series of wobbly planks, dangling ropes and other vertigo-inducing challenges. The WaterWorks aqua park features corkscrew slides, a host of water-spraying apparatuses and the Power Drencher, a dump bucket that reverses poles at regular intervals, sending forth a torrent of water on yelping, mock-shocked passengers. Vista's water park is the largest in the fleet and offers the colorful Kaleid-O-Slide.
Vista, Breeze and Sunshine also offer the adults-only Serenity, a private enclave with black wicker loungers, clamshells and hammocks topped with teal cushions. On Breeze, it's oddly located by WaterWorks; on Sunshine, it's three decks high.
The midship main pool features Carnival's signature Seaside Theatre, a giant screen that airs TV episodes, movies and sporting events.
Carnival Vista is the only ship to offer SkyRide, the cruise industry's "first pedal-powered open-air aerial attraction." It's a hanging pod that you can pedal around the deck, while suspended in midair.
Poolside Dining: Casual eats rule the pool areas. At the main pool, Guy's Burger Joint, an oft-thronged venue, serves greasy burgers (with all the toppings) designed by Food Network stalwart Guy Fieri. Across from Guy's is the BlueIguana Cantina, which specializes in rolled-to-order burritos and tacos alongside a salsa and hot sauce bar. The stern-situated Tides Pool on Breeze and Vista features Carnival's staple 24-hour pizzeria, serving made-to-order mini-pies.
--Updated by Caroline Costello, Cruise Critic contributor