Thanks to www.cruisecritic.com for guiding me through the cruise process w/relative ease. I was able to research cruise lines and particular ships within each cruise line to determine who we wanted to sail w/ and where we wanted to go. After reading many reviews, one of the ships I had narrowed it down to was the Carnival Miracle. Seeing as we were heading to Tampa at the end of February anyway, the Miracle became the obvious choice.
In the weeks leading up to the cruise, I would check travel websites every day to see how full the ship was and if the price had changed. By doing this, I was able to get an upgrade in our cabin (we had originally booked an interior room and were upgraded to an obstructed view w/ French doors - room 4193) and also received a $300 onboard credit. So before we even boarded the ship, we were pleased.
We arrived in Tampa on Friday night and spent time w/family and friends. On sailing day, we arrived at the Port of Tampa just after 11 am. Drop off and check-in were extremely easy. We were in Group 2 to board the ship. When our group was called, we got in line to get our sign & sail cards and were exposed to the Carnival photographers for the first time. I think I have taken enough photos w/ ring buoys to last me a lifetime! We then boarded the ship. You walk into the Metropolis Lobby, which is an 11-story atrium w/ glass elevators that run the entire length. It was very dramatic. And there was a lot of Renaissance style art onboard. We headed straight to Horatio's on the Lido deck for our first introduction to cruise food. And the drink of the day! We thought that the drinks were complimentary - they were everywhere. But we soon found out they weren't when the server asked for our sign & sail card.
By 12:30 we were done eating and ready to tour the boat. Great time to walk around and explore. And we were very excited to be there. Just before 2 pm, we were able to get into our cabin. Heck - even w/ an obstructed view (great view of the bottom side of the lifeboats), we were happy to have natural light and to be able to hear the sounds of nature. After we dropped off our luggage, we decided to explore some more. This is when I was asked to "model" for the Spa and received a free facial, valued at $109 and lasting an hour! It was divine, even though it was in the elevator area right in front of the Spa.
We then went back to our rooms. Our luggage arrived safely, including our "refreshments". We unpacked everything and didn't even notice when the ship started to sail - it was so smooth. We then headed outside to witness the Miracle passing under the Skyway Bridge - a beautiful cable suspension bridge in Tampa.
We had late seating for dinner (8:15), so we had plenty of time. We stood on the Funnel deck - and it was the only time we were up there because the rest of the cruise it is also used as the topless deck. Very few people joined us up there to watch as we went under the Skyway. The ship appeared to barely pass under the bridge. For someone who used to design and inspect bridges, it was a fun experience.
DEcor: The ship was nicely decorated, in very good condition and exotic.
Dining: We ate breakfast and lunch in Horatio's which was usually good. We aren't extremely picky. Both were buffet style and had a large selection. All but one of our dinners was in the Bacchus Dining Room. The dEcor was different, but fun. The room had several Pepto-Bismol colored pink lights everywhere that I believe were supposed to represent grapes. We arranged our seating so we sat w/ a guy we met after passing under the Skyway who was sailing alone and had just booked the cruise that morning. He was wearing a Seminoles jacket, and naturally, Scott, being an FSU grad, approached him. They hit it off and we asked him to join us for dinner. In Bacchus, our servers were Julian (from Indonesia) and Winston (from India). Both were extremely entertaining and we really enjoyed our conversations with them. Julian was obsessed w/ Scott's muscles and was himself concerned because he'd gone from a 28 waist two years ago to a 30 waist recently. So he wanted all these workout tips from Scott and even got Scott's email address so he could send Scott his workout routine. Too funny! The food was decent. The appetizers were usually good. The salads were pretty bland and we learned quickly that if we ordered vinaigrette dressing, that we needed to order it w/ balsamic vinegar, otherwise they just brought a serving of oil. The entrees were good. I ordered the fish most every night and was pleased. Scott quickly learned that he could order as much as he wanted of whatever he wanted. So he quickly loaded up on all the protein he could. I tried a dessert most every night and enjoyed each one. Every night the waiters would entertain us by dancing to a song. They'd invite the guests to join in with the dancing. Neither Scott nor I minded and found ourselves sticking around for it and even joined in the conga line, following Winston who was sporting an afro wig. It wasn't hard to finish up your meal and leave before the entertainment started if that wasn't your cup of tea.We ate one night at the supper club, Nick & Nora's. It had an extra charge of $30pp for the food. The atmosphere was nice, the service was good and the food was also good. We both ordered the filet mignon and enjoyed it. Scott was much more pleased w/ the overall experience than I was. I felt we got what we paid for. Atlanta has so many fine-dining restaurants that eating at Nick & Nora's didn't blow me away - well - except for the dessert because it was just overindulgent. But it was still a nice experience and a nice change of pace from Bacchus. It wasn't crowded and we had a beautiful view of the sunset.
Shows: We didn't experience much of the entertainment on the ship. We did see the Welcome Aboard show the first night. The dancing and singing was decent and entertaining, but we left during the comedian's act. He just wasn't very good. We went to see the show Generations - which was very enjoyable just for the songs they were singing. I enjoyed the disco generation the most! We saw the Newlywed, Middlywed and Oldlywed game (as the cruise director Mark Hawkins called them). That was hilarious and the couples that participated were good sports. Other than that, we didn't watch any other shows. We witnessed the belly-flop contest, which was funny, and took part in the parties on the Lido deck in the evenings (Jamaican Sunsplash, Mexican Mardi Gras, Disco Fever, and the bathrobe party). There was always something to do on the ship, if you wanted something to do. Basketball, shuffleboard, swimming, the Spa, a gym, the casino, trivia, movies, plus much, much more. Oh yeah - and the cruise director Mark has a silly sense of humor but we enjoyed it. He's easily recognizable w/ the mismatched pair of shoes he always wears.
Other: The formal nights were fun. It was nice to just people watch. We discovered we enjoyed the opportunity to utilize the Photo Galleries and the different backdrops each night. Saw several families use it as a way to get family portraits done. We took a couple of photos ourselves and bought two of them. You're never obligated to buy but if you do want to buy, you have to purchase the 8x10 print for $20. Then, and only then, can you buy smaller prints of that one particular shot. They can be scanned at home. The age on the ship ranged from babies to senior citizens. We neither noticed nor cared the age of the people onboard. We met several people and covered most generations and enjoyed each encounter. Everyone was so friendly. The crew was exceptionally friendly. They were all pleasant and most every crewmember we passed had a smile on his/her face and enjoyed talking to the passengers. And it was educational talking w/ them. Besides listing their names, the nametags they wore listed which country they were from. And what a great job they did keeping that ship clean. If I could only keep my house that clean..... And our room steward, Thana, was really sweet. We loved the towel animals she left in our room each night. Definitely the little things really stood out for us.
One thing I did enjoy was watching the sunset most every night. Having the late dining time allowed us to relax in the evenings on deck while it was still relatively warm out. A few mornings I got up to run. I tried to use the treadmills but most were busy, so I opted for the Sun Deck instead. Deck 11 had the track on it - but it was just too small. The Sun Deck had to have been close to 400 meters and if it was early enough, it wasn't too bad running on it. But once 8 am rolled around, it was just getting too crowded to continue.
Excursions: We booked all of our excursions independently. The ports of call were Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize and Costa Maya. Never once did we have a problem getting off the ship. The only port that wasn't a tender port was Costa Maya (tender is when you have to take a boat from the cruise ship to the port).
Grand Cayman: We booked the Rays, Reef and Rum tour w/ Nativeway Water Sports. Scott and I didn't have any problem getting off on the first tender. We took the elevator down to Deck 1, got off, and just joined the masses of people streaming down the stairs already to Deck A to load onto a tender. The tender ride to shore was relatively short and we were onshore much earlier than needed. We decided to explore a little and stop at the liquor store - where a few bottles of rum were purchased. We finally met up w/ our tour and rode approximately 30-40 minutes to our launch point. The group was relatively small - which was nice - and our first stop was Stingray City. This was definitely fun and worthwhile. The seas were a little rough that day so it was tough battling the waves crashing over you. But feeling the stingrays brush up against you felt like rubbing a mushroom across your leg. Those suckers are heavy too. I tried holding one in my arms but he had to weigh at least 60 pounds and swam off before the instructor could grab hold of him. On the way to the Reef to snorkel, one of the two motors in the boat stopped working. In addition to this, two little kids on the boat got sick. So between diesel fumes and puke, it wasn't the best moment. But everyone onboard had a great attitude, so no one minded. We putted over to the backup Reef (because the seas were too rough to go to the normal reef they snorkel) on one motor and met up w/ the other boat from Nativeway that was only doing the Rays and Reef. After trying to snorkel (the seas were just too rough for a novice swimmer like me and there wasn't much down there to see), and no success in getting the second motor to work, in order for us to make it to Rum Point Beach, the two boats had to get cozy and every passenger had to switch boats. This took several minutes, but the staff from Nativeway was very cautious with everyone and took great care. They definitely were a great bunch. After getting on the much smaller boat, we set sail for Rum Point. After reading the descriptions of this place, I was expecting paradise. What I got was a tiki bar. Yes - the water was beautiful, but there wasn't much beach and it was crowded w/ tables and lounge chairs. So I wasn't overly impressed. We ordered lunch on the boat and when we got it, it was good. But we made the mistake of also ordering - in addition to our sandwiches, a conch chowder. First of all, it wasn't very good. Second, we had to pay extra for it - $7 and some change. Third - when I went to pay, they tried to give me back Cayman dollars - um - no thank you. So then I dug around for smaller bills - and was told they don't take American change - or give American change. So - just remember - only order 1 item off the menu!! We had just about an hour at Rum Point due to the delay at sea. The last tender for the Miracle left at 3 pm - and we just made one of those last tenders. It took us awhile to make it back across the bay to the other side of the island. When we finally got to the dock, there were several others from the Miracle that were frantic about missing the tender, so I let them worry and wasn't really concerned. Our driver made good time back to the port, and we were able to board a tender at 3 pm. We noticed one other tender come in after us. Even with all the unfortunate events of the tour, I did enjoy the staff from Nativeway and thought they did a good job.Cozumel: We didn't book an excursion here and figured this would be our shopping day. We weren't in any rush to get off the ship. This also was a port where you had to get a number for your tender and they would call you. We took our time and headed to Cozumel around noon. We took the advice of the Shopping Guide from the ship and took a taxi from the port to the Forum shops in Cozumel. There was so much devastation from Hurricane Wilma. They definitely are working hard to bring back the buildings and I saw very little work on the piers that used to exist. Vegetation was completely wiped clean and several shops were still destroyed. We were in Key West at Christmas after Wilma hit - and saw what damage it did there. But after seeing Cozumel, Key West was lucky. Shopping in Cozumel was a rude awakening - and you learn real quick how to say "no thank you" and just keep walking. It got annoying and to the point that we didn't want to shop there anymore. We picked up a few tiny things - but were glad to leave. If we ever go back, we'll book an excursion. We did get lucky w/ the tenders in Cozumel. These tenders are huge - hold about 400 people so they take a long time to load and unload. Well - getting off the cruise ship, we were one of the last ones to board the tender and then were the first ones off in Cozumel. And the exact same thing happened upon our return. Not sure how we got that lucky - because it can be a 20-minute wait each time you load or unload.
Belize: Oh boy - where to begin! Well - we had no trouble getting off on the first tender. We did the same thing as we did in Grand Cayman. So again we were early - better to be safe than sorry. We booked the Cave Tubing and Zip line w/ Belize Cruise Excursions. They were great. Definitely no complaints there. There were ten of us booked for this excursion. Six of us were on the Miracle and arrived early. We had to wait for the other four who were on a different ship and arrived 45 minutes later. We then headed off on our hour drive through the Belizean countryside. Belize is a third-world country and definitely different by American standards - but never once did I feel unsafe there. We drove through the rich part of town and even saw where the Prime Minister lives. Just looks like an ordinary house you see in Florida that is about 30 years old. Definitely a lot of poverty in Belize. We also came across several people wearing red shirts standing outside a large building. We found out they represented the UDP (United Democratic Party) and were awaiting the results from the elections the previous day. We finally leave the city and make our way across the countryside. The last six miles of the trek is on a gravel road - with some segments a lot rougher than others. We get to the site and head to the zip line first because there weren't any lines. Definitely a lot of fun - with six runs and eight tree stands. The highest stand was 85 feet off the ground - looks pretty high when you're in the treetops! And they were definitely safe. Went by way too fast. Next was the cave tubing. We were done early enough and were able to hike fast enough, that we were able to do two caves. The river was "refreshing" but after awhile got a little chilly. When you're in a dark cave floating along a river - there's a tendency for a chill to set in. And the caves were long! A few rapids but not many. The second cave was much more exciting than the first cave - with a waterfall inside, some light w/ vegetation and several dramatic openings. We also saw a miniature loch ness monster - aka - a dog - swim by in one of the caves. After the second cave, we were able to float further down the river in the nice, warm sun. The scenery was amazing. When we finally got to the end and out of the water, little did we know; the journey was only just beginning. We pulled our tubes out of the water and started our 5-10 minute hike back to the vehicles. It was about 2:45 when we got back. The last tender for the ship was 4 pm - and we were still about an hour outside the city. I wasn't worried because we had not driven fast on the way out - so I felt we had a buffer built in there. Several of us changed while the driver ordered our food. We hopped in the minivan at about 3 pm - ready to hit the road. And let me say - the food was fabulous. For $5, I was more than stuffed. We leave the site and start our journey down the well-graded gravel road. They had been doing road construction on a portion of it on the way in. Apparently they were still doing road construction on the way out. We were about 1 mile from the site and stopped in traffic - about fifth in line. The crew had placed tar on one side of the road - but left the other side closed to traffic for some unknown reason. Our driver gets out and starts to walk around asking questions. In the meantime, we're stuffing our faces in the car. The food was great. I was happy. After about 10 minutes, he gets back in the minivan. He wasn't in a good mood. I look behind us and notice that several other vehicles have gotten in line, including a bus. Unfortunately it was a Royal Caribbean bus - which didn't help us Carnival Miracle cruisers any. About 5 minutes later, a dump truck filled with gravel passes us in reverse and starts backing down the vacant lane. Our driver decides to follow him until the construction worker stops him. That didn't last too long as our driver decided that he really needed to get us back to the port before the ship set sail. As the dump truck approaches the end of the tar strip in the right lane, he stops - therefore blocking traffic again. So here we sit, with tar to the right of us, a dump truck in front of us, and brush to the left. After several minutes, the dump truck decides that he should continue to back up and allow the traffic to pass. Ah - freedom at last. So here we are with 35 minutes to go before the last tender takes off and we're still an hour outside the city. So the driver puts the pedal to the metal and we gun it down the add'l 5 miles of gravel road (and the final three miles were not nicely graded. Scott compared it to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride). We hit the pavement a few minutes later and the driver proceeds to get on the phone to his partners at the port informing them that we were stuck in construction and running late. After talking w/her, he hung up the phone confident we would make it back in time. And then he proceeded to gun it down the highway. I still wasn't worried. We weren't the only ones late from our ship. There was comfort in numbers. We made good time and hit the outskirts of the city at 4 pm. We proceeded through town and came to a dead stop. Wouldn't you know it - we hit town just as school was getting out and the political rallies from the election results were in full force. Traffic was at a standstill. The partners start to call our driver about every three minutes "Where are you?" The phone calls were getting frantic and I was coming to accept the possibility that we might have to find our own way to Costa Maya. We probably had less than a two-mile drive from the time we came to a complete stop until the time we hit the port - but it took over 20 minutes. We FINALLY pull into the port at 4:25 (25 minutes AFTER the last tender). I jump out of the van, hand the driver a tip (because he was fantastic) and run through the terminal. I came flying out the other end, sign and sail cards in hand, and head straight for the security guards. They ask how many are in the party and what our room numbers are (our room numbers - we thought we were in some real trouble now - but we later realized they knew what guests from which rooms were missing) and let us proceed to the tender. Ah - there it was - just sitting there - waiting for us. All six of us jump onboard and proceed to the back to sit down - ready to sail. But do we set sail - no - we wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, someone got up and asked what we were waiting for. That's when we found out there were still two people missing. After about 15 minutes, the boat finally set sail, without the two missing passengers. It's a 20-minute tender ride to the cruise ship - and the ship was scheduled to depart at 5 pm. I felt terrible for those people left behind. They had to have been caught up in the same mess we were. We arrive at the boat, wave to all those watching from the Lido deck, and the crew kicks us off the tender. By the time Scott and I made it to our cabin, we were already going 5 knots. So - we made it by the skin of our teeth. Never again will we cut it that close.
But that's not the end of the Belize story. The next day I started to itch on my neck. Just periodically and nothing that really alarmed me. But by the next morning, I started to feel bumps. And what do you know - a perfectly shaped rash around my neck in a symmetrical pattern and down my chest to where the top of my swimsuit was. Hmmm - this rash was mysteriously in a shape similar to how a life preserver would sit around ones neck. And I do recall the guide saying how there were several poisonous bushes along our walk through the rainforest. So who knows what crazy Belizean bush disease I brought back with me. All I know is about ten days later - the rash is mostly gone. The memories Belize will hold for us!
Costa Maya: This was much less thrilling. It was a dock port, so we could get on and off the boat at our leisure. The water was incredibly blue - just beautiful. We had signed up for the Chacchoben Ruins tour with David. Great tour. A wealth of information and definitely a nice, relaxing time. The ruins were about an hour outside the city. We went over speed bumps made of rope and a security checkpoint that said if we had any complaints to call - but they never provided a phone number. Otherwise, there wasn't much to see on the ride over. After we made it back to the pier, we just relaxed on the beach. It was a nice, man-made port. There was a bar w/ a pool that you could swim up to order your drinks. The colors were very vibrant on the buildings. A few restaurants opened up towards the ocean. We relaxed on some lounge chairs and hammocks on the beach. It was very relaxing. Finally, with plenty of time to spare, we made our way back to the ship. I wanted to watch to see if there was anyone running late like we were the previous day. And there was. About 10 minutes AFTER we were supposed to have set sail, and 30 minutes after they started to page two women, racing down the pier was a golf cart carrying the two women. According to one of the members of their party, they had gone scuba diving on their own that day. And as soon as they boarded the ship, they were pulled into the Purser's office. A travel agent told me that the ships are charged docking fees for whenever they are docked past their departure time. Now whether or not they were charged w/ anything, I don't know - but I'm just called we didn't get called into the Purser's (Principal's) office!
Debarkation: What a breeze. We packed our bags the night before and left them outside our room. For those that had items to declare, they had to go to customs between 6:30-7:30. I had read the lines were extremely long at 6:30, so Scott went down at 7:30 and there was no line. We then ate our last breakfast on the ship and headed back to the cabin for our carryon luggage. We were in no hurry to get off the ship as Scott's mom wasn't picking us up until 10:30. So even with lounging around and waiting until they almost kicked us off the ship - we were off and found our entire luggage by 9:30. Vacation was over - and all that lay ahead of us was the long drive back to Atlanta. Oh well!! It was fun!