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updated 9/22/2005 3:45:07 PM ET 2005-09-22T19:45:07

When Royal Caribbean made its first major unveiling of details of its newest ship -- the still-under-construction 158,000-ton, 3,600-passenger Freedom of the Seas -- in May, the big focus was on areas for swimming and sunning. Indeed, the pool and sun deck on that ship will be significantly larger -- in fact almost twice the size -- than those found on step-siblings in the fleet's Voyager class of ships.

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Among the handful of highlights (and these fall in the never-before-attempted category of shipboard pool areas) are a full-fledged water park, dedicated sports pool, an adults-only solarium with giant whirlpools cantilevered over a 112-ft. drop to the sea, evening sculpture gardens with elaborate lightings, and an outdoor disco.

Now, more than ever before, cruise ship sun decks -- the top-deck area of the ship more traditionally used as the magnet for daytime activities -- are undergoing evolutionary change. Sun decks were once very simple in design. On Celebrity's Horizon and Zenith (early 1990's), for instance, there's one main pool area that accommodates everything from silly pool games to quiet time for laid-back loungers. In contrast, Celebrity's uber-modern Millennium class ships -- Millennium, Constellation, Infinity and Summit -- offer an indoor thalassotherapy pool and a spa-style cafe in addition to two other swimming pools.

Inspiration for upgrades in pool areas is multi-pronged. The increased size of cruise ships has allowed (and forced, too) ship designers to create multiple pool areas rather than just one. Consider: Celebrity's Horizon measures 47,000 tons and carries 1,354 passengers while the line's Summit is 91,000 and 1,950 respectively. That means there's more space to play with -- and more passengers to accommodate.

Cruise lines are attempting in their design, and have particularly done so in the past five years, to mirror on-land resorts -- the best of which have always offered fabulous (and sometimes even fantastical) pool areas.

We note a few emerging trends:

Royal Caribbean is the first line to hire an artist to "decorate"; on its just-launched Mariner of the Seas, South Florida pop artist Romero Britto, known for his exuberant and joyful designs, has transformed its main pool area.

The whirlpool is a must have, and it comes in all shapes and sizes -- including the aforementioned Freedom of the Seas version, shaped like a half moon, seating 16 people and tucked into a windowed bow overlooking the sea.

Cruise lines are embracing themes. Disney was the pioneer in this category (its focus revolving, naturally, around Mickey Mouse), but others have created their own. NCL's Norwegian Spirit features a Greco-Roman decorating scheme (lots of columns and statues); Holland America's practice of commissioning pool sculptures creates an arty, upscale feel; and Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas has an African-themed pool area.

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 just introduced the industry's first outdoor cinema. "Movies Under the Stars" (also offered in daylight as "Movies Under the Sun") has been so popular the line has added it to Grand Princess and Sea Princess -- and intends to expand further.

Solariums are incredibly popular. Among those lines that have embraced the concept of a spa-style, glass-enclosed pool areas (in addition to the existing main pool area) are Holland America and Celebrity. Key to the solarium concept is a thalassotherapy pool.

Just about every sun deck on every cruise ship features some kind of alfresco dining facility; most typically you can expect to find hot dogs and hamburgers, and pizza. Celebrity's Millennium-class ships are innovators, however; they offer an AquaSpa dining area, which features light and healthy cuisine.

If a dynamic pool and sun deck is a priority when choosing a cruise, check out our favorites.

PRINCESS CRUISES

Which Ships: Grand Class (Grand Princess, Star Princess, Golden Princess and Caribbean Princess)

Why: Versatility. You've got both the Calypso Reef and Neptune's Reef areas-amidships-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 eating options.

Nooks & 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 track -- tucked away aft, under the disco. It offers shade and a gorgeous view of the wake.

Distinctions: All ships, save for Caribbean Princess, feature a sliding glass roof in case of inclement weather that covers the Calypso Reef and Pool (particularly useful in Alaska or Baltic Europe). Caribbean Princess, on the other hand, has the industry's first "Movies Under the Stars." At night, the Calypso area is transformed into a swim-in cinema scenario.

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.


DISNEY CRUISE LINE

Whips Ships: Disney Magic and Disney Wonder

Why: These sun decks are heaven for Disney lovers -- you can even dip into a pool shaped like Mickey Mouse's head. And while these may be family-designed ships, it's all done with style, so the sun decks are an aesthetically pleasing experience. We love that the three quite distinctive pool areas -- which all occupy the same deck (you can easily walk from one to the other to the other) -- are targeted at specific demographics. The Mickey Pool is for young kids (it's got a water slide); the Goofy Pool, 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.

Nooks & 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.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Which Ships: Radiance, Brilliance, Serenade and Jewel of the Seas

Why: Radiance-class ships, in essence, have three pool areas. There's the main pool: a place to see, be seen and watch the action; you'll find multiple (huge) whirlpools and nearly an all-day lineup of entertainment. What's special is the addition of a glass-covered pool with exotic themes ranging from the aforementioned African to Balinese, Indian to Thai. And, there's also a kids-only pool.

Nooks & Crannies: The solarium pool areas, particularly during the early evening hours (when most folks are either dining or preparing to do so).

Distinctions: Poolside entertainment encompasses both the usual (water aerobics and pool volleyball) and the wacky (pool golf, where there's a floating golf hole and you chip from side of pool into the hole). At night, we love the "Dancing Under The Stars" parties.

CELEBRITY

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); and on sea days expect a sorbet parade, when tuxedo-clad waiters (shouldn't they be wearing tanks?) offer icy treats.

Nooks & Crannies: The ships' thalassotherapy pools are part of the AquaSpa and so purposely offer a peaceful, more healthful ambiance. In the main pool area there are secluded sections for massages (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, low-fat buffet, open from breakfast until early dinner and offers an absolutely guilt-free culinary experience.

Helsinki-based Niemela is publisher of industry trade magazine Cruise Business Review.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

Cruise Critic has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas Award and was named in Travel + Leisure's "Best 35 Travel Sites" list.

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