Cruise ship sun decks have always been popular hangouts for passengers, but the original "one deck, one pool" mindset of the 1990's has gotten stale. With limited deck and pool space, adults longing for a nice, long nap in the Caribbean sunshine or a peaceful dip in a refreshing pool had to share space with rowdy kids splashing away or overly chipper cruise staff hosting interactive and noisy pool games (hairy chest contest, anyone?). Soakers were packed shoulder to shoulder into hot tubs, and more active vacationers got restless, with little room for lap swimming or more adrenaline-pumping water-based activities.
But, as cruise ships become larger and lines compete to offer the most innovative onboard amenities, cruise ship sun decks are undergoing revolutionary changes. Modern, multi-pool complexes -- including adults-only pools, for-fee cabana rentals, kiddie pools and even waterslides -- are now standard features on new cruise ships.
The bottom line: Cruise lines are now designing pool areas that mirror on-land resorts, the best of which have always offered fabulous pool and sunning areas.
Here are a few of the hottest trends:
Peaceful, adult-only retreats are getting their day in the sun. 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; adults-only 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 may be worth the cost.
Sun decks have turned into fun decks. Waterslides can be found on NCL, Carnival and Disney cruise ships. Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept of an onboard water park for kids on its Freedom-class ships, and even upscale Celebrity has fountains on its newest ships, in which both adults and kids can cool off. RCI's Freedom- and Oasis-class vessels even feature surfing simulators.
Pool decks and movies now go hand in hand. Princess introduced the industry's first outdoor cinema -- Movies Under the Stars, affectionately known as M.U.T.S. -- on Caribbean Princess. The outdoor LED screen has been so popular that the line added one to each of its new ships and has rolled it out to most of its fleet. Several Carnival, Costa, MSC, Royal Caribbean 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.
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 a sliding-glass roof that covers the Calypso Reef and pool. This is particularly useful in Alaska and Europe's Baltic during inclement weather. At night, the Calypso area is transformed into a swyim-in cinema scenario. And we refer 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 a swim-against-the-current feature.
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 Ocean Princess and Pacific Princess). And 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 the Neptune and burgers at Trident Grill. At the Sanctuary, healthful fare, such as tuna pate and fruit drinks, is available for a small service fee.
Sun Deck: On the outdoor pool deck, kids and grownups 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 -- an at-sea first. Passengers can soak up the sun while playing bocce ball on two courts, putting golf balls or picnicking on the grass. Also there is Celebrity's glass-blowing studio, open for demonstrations both day and night. On Silhouette, the glass-blowing studio has been replaced by an outdoor, interactive grill venue, and eight cabana-style alcoves are available for rent. Plus hammocks and Adirondack chairs have been added to the grassy plot.
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.
Sun Deck: Freedom-class and Oasis-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 and Allure also have a "zero entry" pool that's 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 is the FlowRider, a surf simulator on which the most daring passengers can try their boogey-boarding and surfing skills. Freedom-class ships have one FlowRider each, while Oasis and Allure have two apiece. For armchair surfers, bleachers provide up-close views of the thrills and spills of the surfing daredevils.
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 healthful drink option, Squeeze sells various fruit drinks.
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. The pools and Jacuzzis are relaxing and are 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, as well as a casual dining option under the stars.
Sun Deck: Epic's sun deck begins 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. This kiddie area is tucked under the water slides of Epic's mammoth Aqua Park. The main attraction here 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.
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 sundeck aft on Deck 18.
Distinctions: Staff are on hand to bring sunbathers chilled towels and spritz them with Evian water on hot days. In addition, you'll no longer 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 or Villa, all of which allow access to the semiprivate Villas 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.
Sun Deck: On both 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 with 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 cruisers' No. 1 pet peeve -- 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.
Poolside Dining: Slice offers pizza by the Sea View pool, and the Terrace Grill serves the Lido pool; both eateries also include bars for frosty beverages.
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 waterslide, 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 the major musical entertainment; and the Quiet Cove is for mom and dad -- no kids allowed.
Distinctions: Disney Dream and Fantasy's pool area also features 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, 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.
Sun Deck: Ventura is designed on the same platform as the Grand-class Princess ships we've already cited. It has four pool areas: The Beachcomber has a sliding glass roof so you can swim when the weather's warm and when it isn't. 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, launched in 2010, offers even more than its sister. It boasts five pools: the Aqua and Coral pools are mid-ship and tend to draw families, while Terrace Pool is adults-only. There's a plunge pool aft. Azura's fourth pool, Oasis, is reserved for spa and Retreat passengers.
Distinctions: Azura's Retreat is an outdoor spa terrace with cabanas for rent and alfresco spa treatments. Ventura's Endless Pool features swim-against-the-current technology for an aqua workout.
Poolside Dining: Among the options are a pizzeria and ice cream spot, between the two main pools. There are two bars, a grill, also a restaurant aimed at families and the ship's buffet venue.
Sun Deck: Oceania's sun deck is centered on a tranquil saltwater pool that's ringed by comfortable, cushion-topped loungers and straddled by a pair of whirlpools. A gorgeous outdoor living area -- boasting plush couches, deep armchairs and a view of all the goings on -- is tucked away behind the pools and is perfect for folks who prefer to sit in the shade.
Distinctions: Oceania's Insignia, Regatta and Nautica rent private cabanas that allow passengers to escape from the general cruise melee. Oceania's cabanas feature teak double loungers with terry-covered cushions, and waitstaff will bring in food from the poolside grill or afternoon tea. On Marina, a fantastic and otherwise hidden sun deck with a huge whirlpool is available to all passengers, 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 treats on a hot day.
Sun Deck: Carnival has long been known for its candy-colored, high-energy sun decks -- featuring corkscrew waterslides, adult-only havens and casual dining options -- but 2012's Carnival Breeze boasts the line's best ship-topper to date.
Distinctions: Nearly every inch of Breeze's sun deck is utilized. SportSquare is an outdoor activity hub with a two-deck mini-golf course set amid al fresco billiards and foosball tables. Directly above is the SkyCourse, on which harnessed passenger navigate a series of wobbly planks, dangling ropes and other vertigo-inducing challenges. All the way forward, the WaterWorks aqua park features a pair of 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. Oddly, the adults-only Serenity, a private enclave with black whicker loungers, clamshells and hammocks topped with teal cushions, is nearby. The midship Beach Pool also features Carnival's signature Seaside Theatre, a jumbotron that airs TV episodes, movies and sporting events.
Poolside Dining: Casual eats rule the pool. At the Beach Pool, Guy's Burger Joint, an oft-thronged venue, serves greased-out burgers (with all the toppings) designed by Food Network stalwart Guy Fieri. Across from Guy's is the Blue Iguana Cantina, which specializes in rolled-to-order burritos and tacos alongside a salsa and hot sauce bar. The stern-situated Tides Pool features Carnival's staple 24-hour pizzeria, serving cruising's best made-to-order mini-pies, and Tandoor, which doles out Indian comfort food (grilled meats, daal, curries) with the requisite accompaniments (raita, achar, chutneys).