Pulsating bass rhythms, eardrum-bursting vocals, thunderous applause: you'd think I was in a stadium with thousands of rock fans, but I was actually on the main pool deck during my first Princess cruise. I was looking for someplace sunny to read and maybe nap a bit, but my longing for reverie was constantly interrupted by the thudding rock music of a concert playing on a giant LED screen -- not to mention the constant buzz of my fellow cruise passengers chatting, ordering drinks and splashing in the ship's pools. As I stuck my fingers in my ears, I wondered if I'd have to bid adieu to onboard R&R on day one of my vacation.
Fortunately, on Crown Princess, I had an option. I simply headed all the way forward to the front of the Sports Deck -- a place where, by some feat of engineering, the sounds from Movies Under the Stars could not be heard. On this exclusive sun deck, I put my feet up on comfy, plush lounge chairs under the shade of a potted tree, knowing for certain I'd be undisturbed by wet, shrieking children, loud calypso bands or rowdy cruise passengers. I had found my moment of Zen, my island of calm or, as Princess prefers to call it, The Sanctuary.
When Princess Cruises introduced The Sanctuary -- an adults-only, exclusive sun deck, geared toward peaceful relaxation -- it started a new trend in cruise-ship sun decks. Sure, lines like Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean had adults-only areas, but no one had a designated deck space with spa-like amenities -- cabana massages, healthy snacks and refreshing beverages -- and atmosphere. The idea proved so popular that Princess started charging admission to the area, mostly for crowd control purposes, and ultimately added Sanctuaries to all its ships. And suddenly, Holland America, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and P&O Cruises began creating their own versions of this shipboard hideaway.
Serenity decks, as we've chosen to call them, come in a variety of shapes and sizes: actual deck areas versus private cabanas, for free or for a fee. What they have in common is some measure of exclusivity, amenities not available in the main deck areas and an atmosphere of quiet relaxation. If you're hoping to get away from the crowds on your next cruise, don't miss our top spots for serenity in the sun.
Pampering Elements: Princess got the concept -- an exclusive, adults-only sun deck, dedicated to quiet relaxation and attentive service -- right on the first try. There, the lounges are upscale and plush, and Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled face towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies. The ships' Lotus Spas also have outposts there in two private cabanas, where various massages are offered. (But, on warm breeze-free days, the enclosed cabanas can get rather sticky.) You can even take part in a sunset yoga session right on the deck.
Serenity Secret: Book an outdoor massage, and you'll be able to enjoy The Sanctuary free of charge for an hour after the treatment. If you're tired of your own musical choices, you can borrow an MP3 player for free for use in The Sanctuary; 10 preloaded playlists include calming island, new age, soft pop and country music selections, among other genres. (Outdoor massages are not available on Island Princess.)
Reality Intrudes: Half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) cost $20 per person. Passes for a full day cost $40 each. Personal Evian misters cost $3.95, though you can enjoy a gratis spritz from the Sanctuary stewards periodically throughout the day. Drinks from the Sanctuary menu run $1.50 to $3, and a food delivery surcharge of $3 applies to all orders. (All snacks are free.)
Deck Name: Holland America's The Retreat and Cabana Club
Pampering Elements: The Retreat is a cordoned-off area overlooking the lido deck on both Eurodam and Noordam, and on Holland America's newest ship, Nieuw Amsterdam, the area is called Cabana Club. The Retreat and Cabana Club feature 14 private cabanas for rent and outdoor seating with wicker couches and chairs. The open-air cabanas are equipped with drapery that can be pulled across for privacy and lounges inside for relaxing. They're stocked with bathrobes, towels, handheld fans, Evian spray misters and iPods. Occupants can savor complimentary iced fruit skewers, chocolate-covered strawberries, Champagne and chilled waters, and basic massages are available at a discount on port days. If you want more sun, extra loungers are located on the open deck next to the cabanas. Only Retreat and Cabana Club passengers are allowed in that area, so you won't have to fight for chairs.
Serenity Secret: You can request specific cabanas from the available options. For more space, choose a corner cabana. For sea views, select a side-facing cabana.
Reality Intrudes: Daylong cabana rentals cost $45 on port days or $75 on sea days. You can also rent them for the entire cruise. These packages range from $299 for a seven-night cruise to $599 for a 16- to 20-night cruise. Families who want to fit four people in a cabana must pay more -- $65 per port day, $115 per sea day and $449 to $899 for seven to 20 nights. Also note that the line offers more affordable cabanas on Deck 9 by the pool; these are furnished with double-sized loungers and are great for families with kids but don't necessarily induce feelings of serenity.
Deck Name: Carnival's Serenity
Where to Find Serenity: Fleetwide, except for Carnival Conquest and Carnival Triumph
Pampering Elements: Unlike most of Carnival's outdoor public spaces, Serenity deck areas are entirely kid free; passengers must be 21 or older to use the area. Location and amenities vary by ship, but Serenity features plush loungers, oversized shade umbrellas, and pools and/or whirlpools. (Carnival Splendor only has a deck area without a pool or hot tub.) The recently refurbished Carnival Sunshine's Serenity area spans three decks and features a waterfall. Waiters provide bar service for sunbathers looking to cool off with an icy drink or frozen cocktail, and a variety of music is played throughout the day.
Serenity Secret: It's free to use.
Reality Intrudes: Because the area does not charge a usage fee, loungers are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and typical chair-hogging may apply. Depending on the time of day and popularity of the area, the Serenity deck may feel more or less serene. Although the area is accessible 24/7, whirlpool and bar hours are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., but be sure to check once you're onboard, as it can vary.
Pampering Elements: Situated high on Deck 16 forward, the Retreat is an exclusive sun deck area with its own private terrace, cabanas and sun beds. (Some double beds are available, too.) During summer Mediterranean cruises, the adults-only space offers a perfect respite from the main sun deck area, which can be overrun with kids, pool games and bands.
Serenity Secret: A word of advice: Book early for the Retreat. It can sell out quickly.
Reality Intrudes: Prices range from £12 for a port day to £20 for a sea day. If you are, however, booked in the spa cabins, you will have VIP access into The Retreat.
Deck name: Norwegian Cruise Line's Posh, Vibe and Spice H20
Pampering Elements: Spice H20 is a kids-free lounge area, located on Deck 15 aboard Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. During the day, the area serves as a quiet escape, complete with hot tubs, loungers and a serene waterfall. Just don't expect serenity at night, when the space is converted into an open-air dance club. Passengers reach Norwegian Epic's exclusive Posh Beach Club by private glass elevator. The area has a Mediterranean flair with cushioned daybeds, a full bar, water spritzers, cold towels and fruit skewers. It's complimentary to passengers staying in Villas. The Vibe Beach Club aboard Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway -- which features ocean views, an oversized hot tub, chaise-style loungers and a soothing water feature -- functions similarly to Posh and offers the same amenities.
Serenity Secret: Only a limited number of passes for Vibe and Posh are available, so you'll want to purchase them as early as possible.
Reality Intrudes: There's no fee for Spice H20, but Posh and Vibe will cost you. Passengers can purchase one-day ($15), one-week ($59) or 10-day ($119) passes to Posh, with access for weekly and longer passes beginning the second day of the cruise. While Posh is free for Villa suite passengers, Haven suite cruisers on Norwegian's newest ships will have to pay the standard rates to gain access to Vibe. A daily pass is $20, a weekly pass is $79, a cabana rental for two passengers on a sea day is $99 and includes a $30 credit toward food and beverage, and a cabana rental for two passengers for the full cruise length is $299, which includes a $100 food and beverage credit. Aside from the credit allotted for cabana rentals at Vibe, passengers in all three venues must pay regular prices for all bar purchases.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor; updated by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor