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 L.E.D. 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 and, Oceania Cruises had cabanas for rent, 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 in 2010. And suddenly, Holland America, Carnival, P&O Cruises and NCL 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. Here, the lounges are upscale and plush, and Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies. The ships' Lotus Spas also have outposts here in two private cabanas, where various massages are offered. (But, on warm breeze-free days, the enclosed cabanas can get rather sticky.)
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 pre-loaded playlists include calming island, new age, soft pop and country music selections, among other genres.
Reality Intrudes: Half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) cost $10 per person. Evian misters cost $2.50, 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.)
Pampering Elements: At this point, only available on the fleet's two newest ships, The Retreat is a cordoned-off area on Deck 10, featuring 14 private cabanas for rent and outdoor seating with wicker couches and chairs. The open-air cabanas look over the main pool or out to sea, 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 guests are allowed in this 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 days. Also note that the line offers 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.
Pampering Elements: Unlike most of Carnival's outdoor public spaces, Serenity deck areas are entirely kid-free. Located on the aft deck with ocean views, the area features plush lounges, oversized shade umbrellas and two whirlpools. Waiters will provide bar service for sunbathers looking to cool off with an icy drink or frozen cocktail.
Serenity Secret: It's free to use.
Reality Intrudes: Because the area does not charge a usage fee, lounges 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.
Pampering Elements: Located on Deck 11, private cabanas line the forward-most area, overlooking the bow of the ship. Each cabana features a teak double-lounger with terry-covered cushions, fan and a phone for contacting room service. Drapes at the entrance can be adjusted for air and privacy. The mesh ceiling can be extended or retracted for similar purposes, and glass windows at the front provide respite from the wind, as well as ocean views. Waiters will bring bar drinks and selections from Waves Grill (the ship's burger, hot dog and sandwich bar) and afternoon tea. Cabana occupants can also request chilled towels, refreshing mist sprays and morning fruit skewers.
Serenity Secret: Passengers who book a cabana for the entire cruise not only pay a discounted rate, but they also receive a cabana bag with keepsake fluffy towels, sunscreen and body lotion. They can also reserve spa treatments at a discount. Another tip: Booking a cabana on one or two sea days -- Oceania's cruises are generally port intensive -- is also an affordable alternative to upgrading from an inside or outside cabin to one with a balcony.
Reality Intrudes: Cabana rentals cost $50 on port days and $100 on sea days. The rest of Deck 11 is open to the public and includes a shuffleboard court and golf putting greens, so you may have to pull your drapes for privacy during tournaments. Interestingly, Marina, Oceania's new ship that debuted in January 2011, was built sans cabanas.
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 adult-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.