SHE: Silla, age 59. 2 cruises. Last: Caribbean Princess, 11/04.
PRE-CRUISE INFO: We booked last November through an online agency at a cost of $640, inside guarantee (Cat. IS). Approximately 60 days prior to the sail date, we were upgraded to an ocean view stateroom (Cat. 6A). The cruise was sold out.
EMBARKATION: Living just a half-hour from the Port of Tampa, we arranged for the Super Shuttle to provide transportation, at about half the cost of parking at the pier (it's been raised to $12/day). We arrived just after 10:00 a.m., and were admitted to the boarding area by 10:30; but something was missing ... namely, the ship. The difficulty with its inability to navigate the channel when another vessel is present appeared to have been resolved, since no such incident had occurred since last January ... until the day we sailed! We were geared for the worst, but it really wasn't bad at all. The terminal personnel kept us informed, we checked in quickly, and were on the bus to the ship before noon. The actual boarding was virtually identical to returning from a port of call. Because of having to move 2200 passengers and tons of luggage, the ship departed about an hour late ... but since we'd be at sea on day one, there was no problem making up the time.
THE SHIP: The Miracle is the latest addition to the Spirit class (88k gross tons), and has sailed regularly from Tampa since November. As with most newer Carnival builds, it is ornate ... but save for one venue, it works. This has to be the easiest ship to negotiate. All major facilities are on Decks Two and Three, and the remainder on Deck Nine (pools, buffet, etc.). Essentially it's a straight shot from bough to stern on each level, and there seemed to be rest rooms every few feet. There are three banks of elevators, all of which stop at every floor, except for the fancy glass ones, which don't go lower than the lobby. All facilities are clearly marked. I can truthfully state that I learned the whereabouts of just about everything by the time we went to dinner that evening.
The exception to the dEcor is, of course, the Bacchus Dining Room (the only one on the ship, other than the specialty restaurant). It can best be described as "grapes on steroids." I'd love to have some of whatever Farkas was smoking when he came up with that design. After a few days, though ... it still looked every bit as garish! On the positive side, however, was the traffic pattern on the upper level. Guests were shielded from viewing the dirty dishes and leftover food ... a really nice touch.
There were several pools on the Lido Deck, including one specifically designated for adults. They looked small, but somehow accommodated everyone comfortably. There was absolutely no problem finding a lounge chair at any time.
We had an issue with smoke in the casino on the Caribbean Princess. Unless you were next to a smoker, the air quality on the Miracle was fine.
Our stateroom was located on the lowermost (Riviera) deck, well forward, which did concern me. My apprehension turned out to be unfounded. We felt virtually no motion, heard no noise from the theatres or elevators ... not an issue at all. The accommodations themselves were excellent. There was more than enough drawer, hanging, and shelf space, the room was laid out very efficiently, and the bathroom was just fine (outstanding shower, with dispensers for gel and shampoo ... no conditioner, though). If there was one major disappointment, there was no refrigerator. Instead, the space was occupied by a pay-through-the-nose snack bar, which must be unlocked by the steward. It remained closed for the week. All three network stations (out of New York, of all places) are shown on the stateroom TV, as are TNT and several CNN's, in addition to those loops of shopping talks, video promotions and other self-aggrandizing hypes. We were pampered by our steward, Joseph Daniel (Haiti) and his assistant, Nadia (Latvia). Both were extremely courteous, personable and efficient.
Although we were so far down below deck, we didn't feel as if we were traveling steerage. The halls were well-lighted, there was floor-to-ceiling artwork every few feet ... a very nice feel.
A few words about the shops ... nothing special, no last-day deals, the usual schlock.
I'm not one for onboard entertainment (I much prefer concerts). But the productions were well-received, so I guess they were good. The comedians, hypnotist, juggler were nothing to rave about ... sort of The Ed Sullivan Show at sea ... I was waiting for the chimps!
The Cruise Director, Mark Hawkins, did an adequate job, His trademark is wearing two sneakers that don't match (even on formal nights). The advantage, I guess, is that he has pairs just like them in his room. I much prefer that CD's be as inconspicuous as possible. His assistant, "Karl With a K" is another matter. There should be a J in there somewhere, since he's basically a jackass. He wears those oversized clown ties, flits about like Tinker Bell ... he should be running the kiddie program.
PASSENGERS: It was a good mix of couples (there were four weddings aboard ship), families (although not very many school-age children... and those that were there presented no problems), seniors, singles ... overall, a very nice crowd. Smokers kept to their side of the ship, and I didn't observe any instances of diaper-clad children in the pools. Perhaps the presence of security officers had something to do with it.
FOOD: There's lots to say here. The self-serve restaurants and dining room must be discussed separately. During lunch, the selections at the numerous buffet areas were unbelievable ... Chinese, Deli (grilled Reubens, pastrami), and Rotisserie (different carved meats, ribs, potatoes), were always available ... and one station changed its theme daily (French, Italian, Japanese, Indian, All-American, chocolate-covered everything). In addition there's a real salad bar, dessert section, pizza, and the burger-hot-dog-Philly-cheesesteak extravaganza. The variety and quality were excellent.
But as great as the midday meals were, that's how disappointing breakfast was ... very ordinary fare, the only variety being pancakes alternating with French toast (both of which were so dry, they had to be drenched in syrup), and oatmeal with Cream of Wheat. It was by far the worst selection I've ever seen aboard ship. Freshly-prepared eggs and omelets were available, but nothing else of any merit. There were beverage stations all over the place, so the usual lines for coffee and juice were eliminated. We ate in the dining room after our first day, and found everything to be much fresher and well-prepared.
As for dinner, meals were, for the most part, very good, although nothing was outstanding. Appetizers were nicely presented, meat was cooked as ordered (although somewhat inconsistent as to tenderness ... the prime rib was perfect, the chateaubriand a bit tough), and shellfish was prepared just right. Finfish, however, tended to be a bit dry. Selection wasn't quite what it was a few years ago, and there were a few clunkers ... veal parmigiana wasn't even close, and pan-seared red snapper was obviously frozen (this species does not freeze well). The "always available" selections were salmon and steak ... that's it.
The highlight of our dining experience, however, was meeting two absolutely wonderful young ladies, who attended to our every need with efficiency and professionalism, and were the warmest and most personable staff members I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Tatiana and Jana (pronounced yanna) are both from Slovakia, and speak absolutely perfect English. Unfortunately, unless you're booked on the Miracle sometime before August, you won't have the opportunity to experience them. Both are leaving at the end of July, Tatiana to attend nursing school in (of all places) South Dakota, and Jana to return home and begin college. These gals are truly the daughters I never had!
We did not avail ourselves of Nick & Nora's, the alternative restaurant. We spoke to several people who did, and as usual, reviews were mixed ... greatest meal ever; overkill; pampered beyond belief; couldn't wait to get out of there after over two hours of eating ... to each his own. Incidentally, the price for this option was increased to $30 a few weeks ago.
A brief word about the coffee ... uuuuggghhhh! Usually, the dining room serves real ground stuff, while the reconstituted syrup is used everywhere else. It was all syrup, all the time, on the Miracle! The amount of cream I used increased with each cup, and I was drinking almost pure half-and-half (at least that was the real thing) by the time the cruise ended. This potion will take the paint off your car! If I sail any Carnival ship again, I'll make it a point to bring my own.
THE PORTS: The ship makes four stops: Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel and Belize. This is the only itinerary it sails.
Grand Cayman: We tendered in about 8:30 on Tuesday, did a bit of souvenir shopping (although many businesses were closed), and eventually found our way to Capt. Bryan's Stingray City Adventure. I've used him before, and booked the trip on-line through Island Marketing. Incidentally, that organization does not conduct tours, but refers people to the various excursions throughout the Caribbean. A 20% credit card deposit is required, which represents its fee. The balance is paid directly to the operator. At $34, it's an outstanding value, considering the hordes of people who pay about $50 through Carnival, and are packed in like sardines on those double-decker boats. We were on a catamaran with about twenty other folks, and had a spot with the rays pretty much to ourselves. Since there's no shopping to speak of (the Cayman dollar is stronger than ours), and inasmuch as we live just a stone's throw form two of the top ten beaches in the world, this excursion was pretty much our only option ... but as usual, it was quite an experience. I enjoyed it immensely. We were joined in port by the Disney Magic and Zuiderdam ... a pretty light day.
Costa Maya: I was anxious to return there. On my last visit (December, 2002), I was pretty impressed by the facilities and ambience (including a pool, very clean restrooms, local entertainment, a nice variety of shops), and was even more excited over what the Mexican government had planned for the area (it was touted to be a future rival to Cozumel). I can sum up progress in two words ... absolutely none! Not an inch of road has been paved outside of the pier, the local merchants have taken on a style reminiscent of Jamaica, and the overall atmosphere has, if anything, declined a bit. This was a major disappointment. I was able, however, to pick up an ample supply of my blood pressure medication, for about a third of what I pay in the States ... and I have a prescription plan. The Zuiderdam followed us from Georgetown, and the Explorer of the Seas arrived just after we did.
Cozumel: We docked at Puerto Maya, the more southern berth. Having been there at least a dozen times, I decided to do something a bit different, at the behest of several cruise site contributors. We rented a car, and drove the circumference of the island. It's very different on the eastern side ... crashing waves, beautiful formations ... a nice way to spend a day. Alamo and Hertz have facilities there. It's a little different from US locations: most vehicles don't have a/c (believe it or not), many have manual transmissions, and none are of the current model year. We wound up with an automatic, air-conditioned 2001 Chevy Malibu, and paid $25 for the day. Be careful, though: your automobile insurance likely does not cover you; but my Chase Platinum MasterCard afforded the necessary protection ... otherwise, be prepared to spend about another $50 for insurance. We managed to get in a bit of shopping (nothing major), some downtown (tough to find a parking place, but it can be done), some at the plaza located at the dock. This was a banner port day (6 ships). We were joined at Puerto Maya by the Caribbean Princess, Explorer and Empress of the Seas (the largest and smallest cruise ships afloat docked next to each other). The Inspiration and Holiday were berthed downtown. Needless to say, Carlos & Charlie's, Senor Frog's, and the streets themselves, were absolutely packed! Had I not had anything planned, I wouldn't have left the shopping plaza adjacent to the port.
Belize: This was my first visit to the former British Honduras. If you're not planning an excursion, stay on the ship until at least 10:30 ... there's a two-hour time difference, and you'll find just about everything closed until then. Because of the ship's size and lack of port facilities, the trip by tender is approximately nine miles ... about a 15-minute ride. We opted for a tour of the city, the Altun-Ha ruins and the adjacent rainforest. Once again, I booked it through Island Marketing, and was referred to Philip Elliott, owner/operator of Phil's Tours. I found the five hours I spent with him highly educational and very informative. I now know why so many Americans retire there ... it may not be for me, but the cost of living makes it manageable for many folks on limited incomes. Altun-Ha is hardly the largest site, but I preferred not to journey several hours each way ... did that once, and my kidneys have yet to recover. Unlike Costa Maya, this area is preparing to become a major port. Carnival is building a dock, and there's new construction everywhere. You might have read about some unrest there recently. Actually, it was a protest by the teachers, who walked out after learning that the Prime Minister had squandered much of the increased education funding. The protest was peaceful, and lasted about two hours. We were the only ship in port.
Some Observations: This gives me an opportunity to comment on several of my pet peeves relating to cruising. Here goes:
(1) The Shopping Guide ... it is now official: there are absolutely no bargains in the western Caribbean! The port lecturer, Donia (from South Africa via Egypt) did her very best to convince folks otherwise, and succeeded to a degree. When all else fails, there's those two magic words, Diamonds International! There must be at least a dozen in every port, in addition to the permutations (Tanzanite International, Columbian Emeralds International, International International, National International, Amnesty International) ... and on it goes.
(2) Park West Galleries ... the young British auctioneer aboard the Miracle is one slick operator. She intersperses phrases as, "His work is increasing in value every day," and, "You'll never be able to own a .... at these prices again," when in fact much of the works are available by the thousands. She practically came out of her shoes when presenting a signed Dali print. I live near the Dali Museum, and there's a virtual unlimited supply of them. In his later years, he signed countless reproductions, many before the works were actually completed. The same is true for the other artists who themselves have become the products: Thomas Kincade and Peter Max come to mind ... both well-represented aboard ship. This gal spoke so quickly, in an effort to precipitate bidding frenzies. Several winning bidders changed their minds when they discovered that frames were not included, and that the cost of shipping the print in a tube would be $35. One couple bid $125 for something, only to discover that it would cost well over $300 framed and delivered. I'm certain it happens often. One must understand that what Park West sells is not investment-quality art. If you like it, and are happy with the price, buy it ... but don't expect it to fund your retirement.
(3) Tanzanite ... this is the most overhyped, obscenely priced semi-precious gemstone in the history of jewelry! It's all a product of an ingenious marketing scheme, fueled by cruise line shopping guides. Because it's found exclusively in one location, artificial control of the price is easy ... when the market goes flat, the cry of, "The mine is drying up!" re-emerges. There are thousands of pieces in hundreds of stores, and even a chain of jewelry emporiums with Tanzanite in its name. How rare can this stuff be? Hardly anyone ever heard of it until cruise ship port lecturers started touting it. Again, if you like it, and the price is right, buy it. But is it worth $1000 a carat? Hey; perception is indeed reality!
CONCLUSION: The Miracle is a beautiful ship. Service is excellent throughout, and my overall rating is 3.5 out of 5. But for what I paid, it was a bargain. Would I sail it again? Yes, if the ship is the primary consideration; no, if I'm looking to put a dent in my Christmas list. I'd like to see an alternative itinerary (although it being on the west coast of Florida might preclude this) since I'm pretty much Cozumel'd out. I do prefer the eastern and southern Caribbean countries. But if you're a fan of the western Caribbean, you should find this four-port cruise to your liking.