There's never been a shortage of bars and lounges on any cruise ship -- but aside from the familiar high-gloss venues, a handful are cruising down an entirely new path when it comes to both highfalutin and plebeian potables. From ESPN sports bars to martini-makers that pour red caramel-apple and chocolate-chestnut libations, and from any-time-of-day champagne chic to slow-burning hand-rolled cigars in comfy wingback chairs, we've put together a primer of Cruise Critic's best bets for Happy Hour.
Signature Elements: The "it" drink these days is the martini, and for a perfect pick-me-up after a day of sightseeing, you can sip a James Bond traditional -- or maybe something more exotic -- back onboard.
Our Favorites: Celebrity's Martini Bars, which double as ice bars aboard new ships Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Eclipse and Celebrity Silhouette, offer an unusual way to order and enjoy mixed drinks. Kept at consistently low temperatures, these venues -- along with an even colder ice bar on Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Epic -- are some of the "coolest" at sea. Featured are ice-topped bars, ice sculptures and ice blocks that function as stools. Norwegian Epic, Gem, Pearl, Jewel and Jade are also home to the aptly named Shaker's (or Mixer's) Martini Bar, which offers an updated take on the classic martini bar concept.
Signature Elements: Cruise lines target wine enthusiasts on a number of fronts. Just about every ship offers a sea-day "wine tasting" in the dining room. (Usually there's a cost of about $10, unless you are offered some form of frequent passenger pass.) The quality of presentations varies wildly. Some lines even offer special wine-tasting enrichment programming. For instance, Celebrity Life's Savor offers things like wine appreciation classes and wine tour excursions, while Holland AmericaLine's Explorations offerings boast onboard culinary arts centers, where wine tastings take place. NCL, meanwhile, has teamed up with Beringer Winery to offer a unique wine and food-pairing seminar once per cruise. Other wine-oriented onboard features include the ability to pre-order bottles via interactive television, and the availability of package discounts -- say, six bottles from a pre-designed list for $100.
But, for actual wine bar ambience, we have a handful of favorites, and our criteria range from great atmosphere and excellent quality glassware to a wide by-the-glass variety and, of course, interesting wine lists.
Our Favorites: Our favorite haunt is Royal Caribbean's Vintages, found on Voyager-class, Freedom-class and, most recently, Oasis-class ships (pictured). It offers flight tastings (in an intriguing range of categories, based on everything from color to geographic origin) and intimate-sized wine tastings. For a unique British twist, check out the Glass House wine bar -- created by TV wine expert Olly Smith -- on P&O Cruises' Azura. This place is a wino's dream, offering a selection of 32 wines, personally chosen by Smith; tastings are available.