I think it really started about five years back. All of a sudden, without any warning, cruise ships began to sprout swathes of plush, oversized outdoor sofas and chairs where none had ever been before. Areas once lined with rows of sturdy, teak steamer chairs suddenly mutated into what looked like nothing less than annexes of South Beach.
And not before time.
For years, interior architecture on cruise ships has evolved at a steady rate of knots, both in terms of decor and function. But outdoor decks had changed little since the eighties in terms of comfort; though water slides, aqua parks and rock climbing walls erupted all over the bigger ships, the comfort factor of those same open decks remained stuck in the Love Boat era. As lounging areas go, they were hardly used after dusk.
That’s the way many of the cruise lines wanted it, too. We were expected to be indoors, having fun and spending our dollars in the bars, shops and casinos that gave those ships their whole reason for existence. Life after seven o’clock on board was geared around the entire shopping mall experience. It took literally years for the cruise lines to realise that those same outer decks were nothing less than under performing acres of prime real estate. Some got this quicker than others.
Suddenly, plush double divans and cushioned pods began to spring up in strategic upper deck locales. On the bigger ships, these evolved into adults only zones, typified by the Serenity Decks on Carnival ships. Surprisingly, the biggest of mass market lines has been one of the most profligate in terms of the massive outdoor upgrades in deck areas.
Of course, where this kind of expansive largesse really works is on the small to medium sized ships, where there is not quite the same scrum to get these prime spots, and where there is less chance of there being somebody’s kids running around and generally spoiling the mood. In particular, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea have been very good at creating some deft, aft facing little eyries on their upper decks. A martini; a little mood music, and a gently flaring sunset; these refurbed, largely repurposed terraces have raised the bar of the entire small ship cruise experience.
As ever, sassy Crystal has taken a slightly different route. It stripped out the magrodome covered pools on both it’s ships, closed over the gap, and then filled the entire area with huge, overstuffed sofas, chairs and pod beds. The result? Probably the most attractive- and practical- indoor/outdoor lounging areas of any ships afloat. A dramatic enhancement to a pair of already stellar ships.
Mind you, the daddy of all outdoor lounging areas for me remains that small, perfectly formed upper deck terrace on the mesmerising little Paul Gauguin, just outside the La Palette disco. To be fair, I think this has as much to do with the quality of the matchless Tahitian sunsets it showcases as much as everything else, but the small, plush, intimate sensation of height certainly helps as well.
The bottom line is that cruise lines have finally woken up to the potential of using these spaces at night. On the fabulous new Europa 2 the other week, we had an outdoor party round the pool area that could have been something straight out of the South Beach or Mykonos playbook. And almost all of the ship’s inhabitants were up there, enjoying the space, style, fun and luxury through till the small hours.
There’s something special, unique and wonderfully self indulgent about lounging about under the stars, with or without friends. A simple, timeless pleasure, deftly rediscovered. Happy sailing.