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Best Cruise Ship Sundecks

Cruise ship sundecks are popular hangouts for most passengers, but over the years, they’ve also been the source of much controversy. We’ve all been there: longing for a nice, long nap in the Caribbean sunshine or a dip in a refreshing pool, only to find our peaceful mentality destroyed by chair hogs (people who reserve deck chairs, then disappear for hours, preventing you from finding an empty lounger), crowded whirlpools, and rowdy kids splashing away—not to mention incredibly juvenile pool games, hosted by the entertainment staff (hairy chest contest, anyone?).

But, as cruise ships become larger and lines compete to offer the most innovative onboard amenities, sundecks—the top-deck areas of ships, more traditionally used as magnets for daytime activities—are undergoing revolutionary changes. The simplistic “one deck, one pool” mindset of the 90s has given way to modern multipool complexes—including thalassotherapy pools, adult-only pools, kiddie pools, and even waterslides. Need personal space or an escape from the poolside hubbub? On Celebrity Solstice, you can chill out in a field of real grass on the top deck of the ship. And, on all three Oceania ships and Holland America‘s (HAL) Eurodam, you can rent private cabanas.

The bottom line? Cruise lines are now designing pool areas that mirror on-land resorts—the best of which have always offered fabulous (and sometimes even fantastical) pool and sunning areas.

I note a few emerging trends:

  • The spa has headed outdoors. No longer are peaceful retreats and thalassotherapy pools hidden in the bowels of the spa. Princess‘ newest ships (and, soon, all of its ships) offer a new twist on the concept with The Sanctuary. This area, housed all the way forward and encircling the Lotus Spa pool a deck below, features gorgeous Italian chaise lounges, two cabanas for alfresco massages, MP3 players (with mostly relaxing music) for rent, and a special healthy menu—with waiters to fetch the food and drink. It’s been so popular on Crown, Emerald, and Ruby Princess that it fills up fast—even with a $15 per half-day surcharge. Celebrity Solstice’s solarium is an adults-only oasis with soothing water features, peaceful whirlpools, and a main pool large enough for laps. Or, book a spa treatment on one of Oceania’s three ships, and you’ll get an hour’s access to a private sundeck with padded loungers and a thalassotherapy pool for some in-the-sun peace.
  • To solve cruisers’ number one pet peeve—overcrowded sundecks with no free lounge chairs—lines like Oceania and Holland America offer private cabanas for rent. On HAL’s Eurodam, you can choose from cabanas located poolside or in The Retreat, a sundeck exclusive to cabana renters. Inside your private tent, you’ll find wicker couches and chairs, complimentary snacks—like fruit skewers—and Evian spray misters. Oceania’s cabanas feature teak double loungers with terry-covered cushions, and waitstaff will bring in food from the poolside grill (including milkshakes!) or afternoon tea.
  • Sundecks have also turned into fun decks. Waterslides can be found on many Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and Carnival ships (with more being added, thanks to Carnival’s Evolutions of Fun refurbishments). Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept of an onboard water park for kids on its Freedom-class ships, and even upscale Celebrity Solstice has a fountain, in which both adults and kids can cool off. Think that shuffleboard is the only fun thing to do top-of-ship? Now sundecks feature entire sports decks with rock-climbing walls, paddle tennis courts, life-size chess games, mini-golf and, on Royal Caribbean, onboard surfing.
  • Increasingly, pool areas—which, in older eras, were basically deserted at night—are being used for evening activities. (Rarely, though, do they have anything to do with swimming.) Princess’ Caribbean Princess introduced the industry’s first outdoor cinema/television—Movies Under the Stars (MUTS). The outdoor LED screen has been so popular that the line added one to each of its new ships and aims to roll the concept out fleetwide by 2011. Carnival Liberty, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Splendor, Costa Concordia, and Costa Serena, as well as MSC Musica and MSC Orchestra, feature their own versions of MUTS. The screens also offer daytime programming, ranging from CNN to World Cup Soccer. Plus, lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and NCL are using the pool decks for evening deck parties, featuring food, drinks, and dancing.

If dynamic pools and sundecks are priorities when choosing a cruise, check out our favorites:

Princess Cruises

Which Ships: Grand Princess, Star Princess, Golden Princess, Caribbean Princess, Diamond Princess, Sapphire Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess

Why: Versatility. You’ve got both the Calypso Reef and Neptune’s Reef areas midship. If you want to be in the heart of the action, key components include large pools, hot tubs, bars, silly pool games, musical entertainment, and dining options. 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 Emerald Princess, Ruby Princess, Star Princess, Caribbean Princess, and Grand Princess, and the deck will be added to ships, fleetwide, through 2010.

Nooks and Crannies: You can also kick back and relax; these ships’ spa pools, nestled in the courtyard of the Lotus Spa, offer a swim-against-the-current feature. There’s also the Terrace pool area—definitely off the big-ship beaten path—tucked away aft, under the disco. On most of Princess’ Grand-class ships, it offers shade and a gorgeous view of the wake, though on the more recent models, the disco has been redesigned, and the shade-producing structure no longer exists. So, on Diamond, Sapphire, Crown, Ruby, and Emerald, sunshine now fills the aft pool, as well. The aforementioned Sanctuary is, for those wanting to escape big-ship chaos and greasy poolside cuisine—a revelation.

Distinctions: All ships, save for Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess, feature a sliding glass roof—in case of inclement weather—that covers the Calypso Reef and Pool (particularly useful in Alaska or Europe’s Baltic). At night, the Calypso area is transformed into a swim-in cinema scenario. And I refer again to the fabulous MUTS feature, available on Grand Princess, Caribbean Princess, Sea Princess, Star Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess. The outdoor LED screen will be added to the remaining Grand-class ships between 2009 and 2011.

Poolside Dining: At the Neptune, you can have pizza; there’s also the Trident Grill for burgers and such, and the Movenpick ice cream bar. (Beware: This is a for-fee treat.) At the Sanctuary, fare such as tuna pate and healthy fruit drinks are available.


Which Ships: Millennium, Infinity, Summit, and Constellation

Why: You can party by one pool or undergo an exercise (not to mention diet) regimen in another. Specifically, the ships’ main pools are host to everything from fashion shows to pool butlers, who offer cool face towels; on sea days, expect a sorbet parade, when tuxedo-clad waiters (shouldn’t they be wearing tanks?) offer icy treats.

Nooks and Crannies: The ships’ thalassotherapy pools are part of the AquaSpa and so purposely offer a peaceful, more healthful ambience. In the main pool area, there are secluded sections for massages (for an extra fee).

Distinctions: These ships have a little-publicized “topless sunbathing” area (top deck, forward). The spas offer sunset yoga and Pilates on adjacent outdoor decks.

Poolside Dining: The AquaSpa is amazing. It’s a fabulous, healthy, low-salt, low-carb, and low-fat buffet, open from breakfast until early dinner for an absolutely guilt-free culinary experience.

Which Ship: Celebrity Solstice

Why: Celebrity has created some innovative spaces on its newest ship, including the Lawn Club (featuring the first non-artificial grass at sea) and a beautiful solarium.

Nooks and Crannies: 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—a cruise ship first. Guests can soak up the sun while playing bocce ball on two courts, putting golf balls, or picnicking on the grass. Also located here is Celebrity’s glass-blowing studio, open for demonstrations both day and night. Below, on the outdoor pool deck, kids and grown-ups alike can enjoy splashing through the “dancing” fountains next to the family and sports pools.

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.

Royal Caribbean

Which Ships: Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, and Independence of the Seas

Why: Freedom-class ships are a stretched version of Voyager-class ships, which enabled designers and builders to introduce new activities and gimmicks. An entirely new addition is H2O Zone—an expansive area, reserved only for children, fitted with a kiddie pool, water cannons, and abstract, colorful sculpture fountains. While kids are playing, adults can either relax in the Solarium pool area or, if looking more for activities, the Sports Pool midship.

The most daring passengers can try their surfing skills at the FlowRider, a surf simulator—in the far aft area of Deck 11—that is only found on the three Freedom-class ships. The rock-climbing walls are expanded versions of those found on the Voyager-class.

Nooks and Crannies: The Solarium pool area features hammocks, swinging chairs, and two cantilevered whirlpools that hang 100 feet above sea level.

Distinctions: Poolside entertainment encompasses both the usual (water aerobics and pool volleyball) and the wacky (pool golf, which involves chipping from the side of the pool onto a floating green). At night, the central pool area transforms into an outdoor disco.

Poolside Dining: The Solarium pool has a cafe that features pizzas, while the self-serve Sprinkles provides frozen yogurt. If looking for a healthy drink option, Squeeze sells various fruit drinks.


Which Ships: Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony

Why: Crystal‘s sundecks exude the same luxurious qualities as the rest of the ship—upscale decor and design, and plenty of space.

Distinctions: Crystal’s all-teak sundecks 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 pool and Jacuzzis are relaxing and are very rarely crowded. Plus, Crystal gives a nod to its active guests 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 Grill offers the typical poolside dining grill options, as well as more unusual specialty sandwiches. Tastes features themed buffets, as well as a casual dining option under the stars.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Which Ships: Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, and Norwegian Pearl

Why: New Freestyle 2.0 enhancements are bringing bits of luxury to the masses on NCL’s newest ships. Plus, as NCL borrows ideas from other lines, its sundecks are offering more options, such as rock-climbing walls and waterslides.

Nooks and Crannies: Certain pools are designated adults-only and kids-only, so adults can enjoy a soak in solace, while the young ones splash about without inciting the wrath of nearby grown-ups. Plus, if you can afford a pricey Garden Villa or Courtyard Villa, you’ll have your own private or semi-private sundeck, respectively, with pool, whirlpool, and comfy sun loungers.

Distinctions: NCL’s sundecks now feature rock-climbing walls, waterslides, card tables, and elegant lounge chairs and couches, in addition to multiple pools and whirlpools. Other sundeck activities include mini-golf, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, volleyball/basketball, and human-size chess. And, as part of NCL’s fleetwide Freestyle 2.0 program, onboard staff will now bring sunbathers chilled towels and spritz them with Evian misters 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; if you’d rather be left in peace to snooze, put the flag down, and no one will bother you.

Poolside Dining: The Grill offers limited breakfast items and typical grilled lunch items, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken, as well as salads and desserts.

Ocean Village

Which Ships: Ocean Village and Ocean Village Two

Why: The ultra-casual line prides itself on giving British passengers a relaxed time at sea. Both ships have two pools on the top deck—one a family pool and the other an adults-only pool. Hot tubs are also available for a quick dip.

Distinctions: On its own website, Ocean Village says that it prides itself on having “larger pools” than many other ships. This may be true, but the pool deck area can still get very crowded (particularly on Ocean Village Two), since, when the sun comes out, the British like nothing better than lounging on sun beds. Ocean Village Two has a giant gantry for a weekly acrobatic deck show, which isn’t to be missed.

Poolside Dining: On both Ocean Village ships, La Luna offers free pizza all day, and by night, you can dine on Italian cuisine under the stars. Ocean Village Two also has an ice cream bar up on deck.

Disney Cruise Line

Which Ships: Disney Magic and Disney Wonder

Why: These sundecks are heaven for Disney lovers. You can even dip into a pool shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. Disney’s pool areas are great for kids, naturally, but also stylish enough for adults. In fact, I love that the three quite distinctive pool areas—which all occupy the same deck (you can easily walk from one to the other)—are targeted at specific demographics. The Mickey Pool is for young kids (it’s got a waterslide); the Goofy Pool, in the center, is for folks of all ages (and is the site for the majority of the musical entertainment); and the Quiet Cove is for mom and dad … no kids allowed.

Nooks and Crannies: The aforementioned Quiet Cove. Most passengers honor the no-kids rule.

Distinctions: The entertainment at the Goofy Pool is exuberant and fun—expect to meet up with icons Mickey and Minnie Mouse and, of course, Goofy himself. It’s the place to go for the tropical deck party, the sail-away party, ice-carving demos, and prize bingo.

Poolside Dining: For families, Pluto’s Dog House Snack Bar, adjacent to the Mickey Pool, and Pinocchio’s Pizzeria, by the Goofy Pool, are terrific alfresco options. Alas, parents seeking the peace of the Quiet Cove have two bars but must brave the frivolity of the family pool areas to get a bite to eat.

Fred. Olsen

Which Ship: Balmoral

Why: A recent refurbishment added a completely new main pool on Deck 11, so the ship now has two pool decks—the original on Deck 7 and the new top-of-ship area.

Distinctions: The top-deck pool, with its beautiful tiling, is one of the prettiest at sea. However, you’ve got to be a hard-core sun worshipper to appreciate its charms, as the lack of an extra sundeck above means no shade in this area. The Deck 7 pool is the more social pool—nice vibe, but the lounge chairs fill up fast. Both pool areas feature whirlpools, as well.

Poolside Dining: The Palms Cafe is located next to the Deck 7 pool area. The all-buffet restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, with the occasional theme night casual dinner, deck party BBQ, midnight buffet, or afternoon tea. It’s also the only venue to offer free coffee and tea around the clock.

P&O Cruises

Which Ship: Ventura

Why: The inclusion of Ventura, which launched in 2008 as the largest cruise ship ever built for the British market, is a no-brainer as it’s designed on the same platform as the Grand-class Princess ships I’ve already complimented.

Like its Princess cousins, the versatile Ventura has three pool areas. The Beachcomber has a sky dome 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, such as Marco’s Pizzeria. The Laguna Pool is a quieter setup, located aft, and the Terrace Pool—part of the ship’s spa, featuring swim-against-the-current technology—is located forward.

Nooks and Crannies: The cozy Laguna Pool is a hideaway.

Distinctions: The sliding glass roof over the main pool gives the ship lots more flexibility in seasons and itineraries—so that fun and games can go on, regardless of the temperature.

Poolside Dining: Among the options are Marco’s Pizzeria and Ice Cream, located adjacent to the Beachcomber. There’s also the Beach House restaurant, aimed at families, and the Waterside Food Court, the ship’s buffet venue.

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