Well, where to begin... Originally, I was scheduled to travel with my mom. We had purchased tickets to fly down to Tampa on Saturday and were planning to stay overnight at the Hyatt Downtown. Wednesday before sailing, my dad still wasn't out of the hospital, so she opted not to go. Thank heaven for travel insurance. On Friday morning, my DH calls me at work and tells me he is thinking about taking her place, but he won't know until 3:30 if he can get the time off - which he does get. A quick call to our TA and he is in. The change cost us $50. I have a RT ticket on NWA, but he is going to fly standby (as an employee). Wilma was in full force by now and we weren't even sure we would be able to fly into Tampa, let alone sail out. I knew that we would be going somewhere, just didn't know exactly where. We all decided that the lack of specific information just made for more anticipation, not stress. We dubbed it the Mystery Cruise.
The flight was smooth and we landed in Tampa and we were soon at the Hyatt Downtown. I had booked reservations through Priceline for $90 plus taxes and fees. Everything was in order and paid for, so we headed to our rooms to freshen up. We were going to go to Ybor City for drinks and dinner, but we had to find a way there, the Hyatt did not have any shuttle service at all. They did, however, have a "preferred" provider who was happy to take you anywhere for a fee that varied from driver to driver and could be negotiated in route. We went down to the Green Iguana and found out that nothing is allowed in Florida. You can't smoke in any building, so we opted to sit at one of the sidewalk tables. We were then told that we could sit there, but our chairs could not be outside of the line on the sidewalk, so we squished our group of 8 around three sides of two small tables. Later, our waitress came out and told us that we had to stand up because they had to take the tables and chairs off the sidewalk at 9:00! So there we were, standing on the sidewalk in front of a bar with our beer and cigarettes. We got a good laugh out of it, but it sure cut down on the amount of money we would have spent there.
We decided to ride with our friends (who were staying at the Marriott) in their free hotel shuttle back to the Marriott and walk the 6 blocks to the Hyatt. We sat in the lobby bar for a few hours and watched the White Sox win game one. I have to comment on the lobby bathrooms at the Hyatt. The toilets flush by themselves, the water comes out of the faucet automatically, soap dispenses all on its own, and the hand dryers turn on with a wave of your hand. Only one thing is missing......but I guess I prefer to do that by myself.
The next morning we gathered in the hotel lobby at 10:30. We walked over to the local CVS pharmacy to pick up a few things we had forgotten (I can't believe we forgot anything!) and then loaded up the shuttle. I had called the Hyatt and they said it was $3 pp to the pier, our first driver said it was $4 and our driver to Ybor City said it was $5. Not knowing whom to believe, and not willing to quibble over $4 per couple, we just hopped into the waiting shuttle and it turned out to be $3 pp. He got a nice tip from all of us. We were greeted by a very friendly porter who asked us if we needed assistance with our bags, which we did because we all had grossly overpacked. He pointed us in the right direction and we were checked in within minutes. My DH did not have a Sail-n-sign card yet, due to the last minute change, but he was told to go to the purser's desk and they would help him. Even though we were not due to board for another hour or so, we only waited about 30 minutes in the holding pen before we were called to board. Immediately upon entering the ship we found the sign that said our itinerary had changed (from sea, Caymans, Costa Maya, Belize, Coz, sea - to sea, Belize, sea Ocho Rios, Caymans, sea) and they threw in $25 pp credit. I immediately stomped over to the purser's desk and demanded a larger credit, a bigger room, and a free drink because I paid for a cruise to Coz and if I was going to be inconvenienced, then darn it, Carnival was going to compensate me. All right, I didn't stomp, complain, or even raise and eyebrow. I gratefully accepted our $50 and started looking forward to Jamaica.
Our first stop was to the purser's desk to sign up to have our dividers opened. Oops, wrong again, the first stop was the bar in the atrium, second stop was the purser's desk where we were told that we had to wait about an hour to get the SnS card for my DH. We all met up in Horatio's and had lunch and started drinking our vacation. The cards and dice came out and we entertained ourselves until our cabins were available. We unpacked quickly. There is a ton of space (a lot more that two people need) in the cabin for clothes. I did use my shoe holder - but only because it was more convenient to use that than it was to put everything in drawers or on the desk. I'm not a big fan of clutter.
Everyone was pleased with their cabins. We were on Deck 6 (Empress) right off the midship elevators. What a perfect location! Even though everyone had to walk by our rooms to get to their cabins, we never heard a sound. We had cabins 6184, 6186, and 6188. Our cabin (6184) was the first cabin on the port side that juts out after the line of suites that are recessed into the ship. No matter what the day, it always seemed to be sunny on the port side. When it would rain, the wind was always blowing from the starboard to the port side, so our balconies stayed dry, even though it was raining like mad on the other side of the ship. It took a couple of days to get the dividers down, but once they did come down we had a balcony that ran the length of three rooms.
Sailing out of the harbor, we passed the harbor patrol station. We were greeted with a wave and "Say Hi to Wilma for us!" Going under the bridge was cool, but if you aren't ready for it, it comes up fast. We had to run like mad to make it to Deck 12 to see it go by. I was curious about the ambulance parked on the bridge right above where we passed under. Do you think people actually try to jump onto the ship?
That night we went to dinner (late seating) and Tanya and Svetlana were our waitresses. They were wonderful. Svetlana caught my DH sneaking his own bread - she teased him the rest of the night about it. They really worked well with our rather crazy group and we were disappointed to find that when we added another couple, we had to move downstairs to a different table to accommodate the larger group. We saw Svetlana every morning at Horatio's and always stopped to chat. Two of the guys in our group wore shorts that night, just because they could. Everyone adhered to the dress code all week, except the last night, when it really got loose. I taught everyone the fine art of how to order two entrees ("I'd like this and that") - they were all very impressed by my skill and finesse and the men immediately mastered the talent. The food was better than my cooking, but not as good as some restaurants I have visited.
Thanks to Wilma, the ship was a rockin' and rollin' all night long. We hung out on our balconies and watched the ship do battle with 15 foot waves. It really was awesome to watch. You just had to hold on tight. Lying in bed at night it sounded like the ship would twist apart, but having paid close attention at the muster drill, I slept soundly.
Oh, and speaking of the muster drill. Never ever, never ever be the first to arrive at muster. Take your time and be the last. They line you up in rows as you gather, the first to come have their backs against the wall and new rows are added in front of them. We were the last row of people and the wall was seven rows back. It was hot and muggy, but we were up front enjoying the breeze and the view. Remember: never, never, never.
The bed linens are wonderfully soft. No towel animal the first night. Our mini bar wasn't working but Jorge (our steward) got it going for us (after he cleaned it out). He introduced himself as George, but I didn't want to be an ugly American, so I asked him if he preferred Jorge. So Jorge it was for the rest of the week. Except for my SIL, Ann, who made the mistake of calling him Xavier. We never let her live it down. He was a "stealth steward." You never saw him, but your ice bucket was always full, beds made or turned down, chocolates and towel animals every night, clean towels every day (even though we had hung them up to dry), etc. My only complaint was that I left a sticky note for him asking for a needle and black thread so I could fix my dress. I had to track him down to get an answer and I was surprised to hear that he could not fulfill my request. Seemed odd that something that simple couldn't be found, but someone else in our group had the required items. I gave him an extra $20 the first time I saw him, but I do not know if that affected his service in any way.
Mr. Lucky's (the casino). My SILs are big on the poker machines. I'm pretty sure they both came out about $500 ahead by the end of the trip. Kathy was getting her drinks for free with a t-shirt on the last day. If you play machines, be sure to activate your Ocean Players account. It gives you money back at the end. About midway through the cruise the machines were paying out left and right. On the last couple of days, they were sucking money right from your pockets if you got too close.
Deck 12. Let's preface this by saying Victoria's Secret is not knocking at my door. Neither are they knocking on the doors of any of the other women I found on the funnel deck. This is a lovely place to lie in the sun and feel the breeze blow across your body. For someone who grew up in the frozen north, this is something new. Don't be afraid, ladies. Go for it. My only complaints are that the bar service is bad; if it is hot you have to keep putting your top on and running downstairs to the pool to cool off; and Carnival security does not always enforce the "adults only" rule that well. We had a group of 13-14 year old boys come up on the deck and make a lot of noise about the great view. I figured if they wanted to ogle my 41-year-old-nursed-two-babies breasts, go ahead. The sight probably blinded them. It was quiet (but you could still hear the band on the Lido Deck) and there were always deck chairs available.
Horatio's (Lido Deck restaurant). The food was adequate. Don't miss the seafood buffet, I think it was on Monday. By the end of the week the breakfast foods get old, so be sure to hit Bacchus for open seating breakfast. The only way to get milk for breakfast is to find the cereal bar and grab a few cartons. We drink a lot of milk, so we took plenty back to our cabin and put them in the mini bar. I did the make your own omelets a few times - ingredients are limited, but it is still much better than the scrambled eggs on the buffet line. The coffee is terrible, but if you put enough cream and sugar in it, you can drink it.
Deck chairs. It is hard to give a good opinion on this because the weather on sea days was pretty bad. The last day, however, was nice and there was a lot of chair saving going on. I watched a chair on the Lido deck (Deck 9) aft sit empty for 45 minutes until I went over and sat on it. A man three (empty) chairs down informed me that those chairs "belonged" to his friends who had gone inside for a bite to eat. I politely told him that the chair had been empty for at least the last ½ hour and chair saving was not allowed. He grumbled a reply about not arguing with me and I set the towel aside and proceeded to sit for the next hour reading my book in the sun. No one ever returned to claim the chair during my stay and several around me opened up. That must have been one big bite they were eating. Chairs were always available on the sun deck (deck 10) and drink service up there was fine. Again, the weather for sunning was lousy - if it was sunny, the wind was so strong you had to weight everything down or it would go overboard, otherwise it was raining.
Bacchus Dining Room - I thought the food was good, not spectacular, but good. Considering the logistics of feeding 2600 people a night and still being able to offer 6 different entrees, the fact that the food is edible is amazing. The presentation was excellent, especially the desserts. There was always a design drawn on the plate with chocolate or fruit glaze with the dessert in the middle. What I liked best is that I could try something new without the financial commitment. I ordered quail, and when I didn't care for it, Edwin brought me fish. I ordered the Pumpkin soup and Edwin felt I needed the smoked salmon, too. Good thing, too, because I hated the pumpkin soup. Our poor assistant waiter did not speak English very well, and our group tends to talk fast and furious when we get together. I think he was a little overwhelmed. He also looked very uncomfortable when the waiters had to dance. I think it would be a good idea for the dancing waiters to cease and desist. If the ship is trying to maintain a higher level of decorum by enforcing a dress code, then having silly dancing going on doesn't really enhance the atmosphere any. Edwin was very nice. He learned our names and caught onto our preferences right away. He always had a suggestion if we were undecided. If someone was on the fence trying to decide, both items usually found their way to our table. The desserts were always wonderful. Kissey, kissey, bye bye! (If you have sailed on the Miracle, you'll get it)
Activities/Cruise Director: Mark Hawkins. I found Mr. Hawkins to be delightful and very funny. His debarkation talk was hysterical. He is not afraid to make fun of himself and always has a good joke or two. You can't miss him. He's the guy wearing two different shoes. At the debark talk, when he asks if anyone needs a carry-on bag - be the first to raise your hand. I was and I was presented with a lovely Carnival zippered beach bag. I really didn't need a carry-on but I had gotten used to his MO and I knew there would be something in it for me if I raised my hand. My advice, get involved. Cheer for your team (red, white, or blue). Volunteer for games. Play trivia. Covet the ship on a stick. Check out the art auctions, even if you have no intention of buying. We participated in just about every activity (whether it was trivia, bingo, scavenger hunts, game shows) and just had a blast. My DH was captain of the men's Lido Olympics team and we still laugh about the "taunting of the women" after the men were presented with their medals. We came home with three medals and one ship on a stick. They make great souvenirs for your kids.
Go to the shopping talks with the Super Shopper. While you can take her store recommendations with a grain of salt, she offers some great insight into getting the better deals and authentic stuff. If you can’t get to the live talk, they tape it and play it on the TV during the trip. Her best suggestion was the t-shirts at Del-Sol. In artificial light they are black and white, but when you take them out into the sun, they change to bright colors. The brighter the sun, the brighter the color becomes. My kids love them. They are obviously more expensive than the standard t-shirt, but they are very unique. You can find them in the Caymans. I wish they sold sweatshirts there; my kids won’t be able to wear their gifts until April.
Here’s my humble opinion on bingo. Waste of money. Right before the debark talk they have a single $20 bingo game for a free cruise for two (oceanview stateroom, any ship, 3, 5 or 7 days). The room was packed, at least 200 people playing bingo. Even with my public education I figure they just raised $4,000 on this game alone. Two ladies bingoed at the same time – and they made them flip for the prize. The whole room was booing but they refused to give both winners a cruise. They wouldn’t even split the prize and give each winner a cruise for one. In general, the bingo games were not worth it – unless you can’t live without your weekly bingo game.
Bars/Booze and Sail-n-Sign. It is possible that a bottle of vodka might have been inadvertently packed in my luggage. Even with this contraband, our bar tab was approximately $350. That was a lot of buckets of beer. Our total SS bill was $930. Breaking it down: $450 went to Mr. (un)Lucky at the casino, $350 to various bars around the ship, and $130 to the gift shop/photos. There aren’t any fantastic sales on the last day of the cruise (except for Carnival logo t-shirts and other misc. t-shirts) go ahead and purchase when you see it. Liquor prices on board are equal to shore prices, so save yourself the hassle and purchase what you can on board. The selection is limited, so you might not find your particular brand on the ship. My brother’s comment was that no discount was worth schlepping booze across the world. We have determined that the cigarettes are cheaper but different. On the plus side, I was going to quit smoking after the cruise, but the cigarettes were so bad that I couldn’t even enjoy them, so I quit two days early. Now I don’t remember smoking as being pleasurable or relaxing so it was easier to quit.
Photographers. I loved them. Guys, rent a tux. If your DW/DGF is putting the effort into wearing a sparkly dress, don’t ruin the picture by wearing your old sport coat. And now that you look hot, get your picture taken everywhere. They have many stations located within a reasonable proximity of the dining room and you just sit down, smile and move on. I saw some beautiful portraits of couples. Families were having fun with their group shots – one family were dressed in their formals and were sporting the “redneck teeth.”
Excursions. Go independent. We had no trouble getting off the ship on time and meeting up with our guides. My SIL Kathy was worried about making it back to the ship on time in Belize because the itinerary change brought us into port later than normal. I thought Kathy was going to crawl out of her skin when we stopped for gas. Poor Yhonny and Raphael! They drove like bats out of hell to get us to the river and then paddled and pulled us down the river to make sure we beat the Carnival tour back to the ship. We skipped the lunch and had plenty of time to shop in Belize. If you take this excursion, do not get uptight about the time, stop for the lunch. Yhonny will get you back long before the last tender. We were rerouted to Ocho Rios and opted to not go anywhere farther than Margaritaville. We spent the entire day there, drinking, swimming in the pool and on the beach and we spent about as much as the cost of an organized tour (our bar tab was $140). At the Caymans we went on the Rays, Reef and Rum Point tour. Talk about bang for your buck. Cost is $55 and that includes a great lunch. It was very wavy on the day we were there and somewhat overcast, but the tour was fantastic. Our boat with eight people was one of the first there and there were only about 20 other people on the sand bar for the first ½ hour-45 minutes. We played in the water and fed the rays and then the Carnival Cattle Barge showed up, three boats with at least 40-50 people per boat. Our guide immediately packed us up and moved us over to the snorkeling area where Charlie hopped in and began feeding fish to attract them. What a great sight! Then on to Rum Point where we had lunch and played on the beach. The weather wasn’t great, but if it had been you never would have gotten me off that beach.
Capers. The right hand side of the Capers is perforated. Tear it off in the morning and stuff it in your pocket. That way you always know what is going on and where. There is a daily raffle on the bottom - pay attention to that. If nothing else, it forces you to check out other areas of the ship.
We enjoyed the art found around the ship, especially the picture that was behind us at dinner. But then again, we like porn.
Talk to the person next to you on the Lido Deck, in the elevator, at dinner. Don’t sit at a table for two unless you are complete snobs, don’t shower, or chew with your mouth open. You will really enjoy meeting new people, and you can always change tables if you mates are complete snobs, stink, and have bad table manners. I work for the Minnesota Dental Association and I managed to meet a member of our association onboard. He is a retired dentist from Bloomington who now maintains homes in Brainerd/Cross Lake and somewhere in Florida.
The bathrobe party was fun. Depending on the wind speed, going commando is optional.
Speaking of going commando, I did see three gentlemen dressed in kilts on formal night. Never thought I would find a guy in a dress to be sexy, but oy vey!
They did enforce the “adults only” rule in the pools.
Sweaters are a “must have” item. Some parts of the ship are cooler than others.
I found some cute “trip memorabilia” that wasn’t stamped with the Carnival logo, port names, etc. in the gift shop. Just something that when I look at it, I know I bought it on the ship, but it looks nice on my shelf. I also saw one woman walk off the ship with a four foot high wooden giraffe that I would have killed for and wished I would have found. All you people going on the Miracle after me – if you find the giraffe, give me a call at the MDA and I’ll buy it from you. (With my luck I’ll end up with a whole herd!)
Magnets are cheap and it is fun to shop for them. We tried to out-do each other in the cool magnet department. The rum cakes are good, but only if you really like rum.
The ship was immaculately clean, kids were under control (some were even cute!), age range varied from 24-94, staff was very friendly, etc.
Debarkation was a non-event. We left our luggage outside our cabin the night before but kept the suitcases full of fragile stuff. We were off the ship by 9:30, found our luggage immediately and walked through customs with a “Welcome home – everything seems to be in order.” I’m not even sure he looked at the form. The vans were ready and waiting for us and we made it to the airport by 10:00. Shuttle from pier to airport was $9/pp plus tip. If you have flights anywhere from 11:00 on, take your time getting off the ship. There really is no need to stand in line in the atrium.