The drive from suburban Philadelphia was uneventful - not too much traffic for a Thursday morning. One of the reasons we chose this cruise is because it sails from NY and we could travel to the ship easily. Dropping off luggage and checking in was easier at the NYC ship terminal than any other port we've been. No lines and very little waiting. The terminal itself is a rusty, decrepit old mess and at $180/week parking is a bit steep, but it sure beats driving or flying to Florida. We were on the ship within one hour of our noon arrival at the pier. Nicely done.
SHIP AND STATEROOMS
The ship itself is in fine shape and the dEcor is predictably Carnival gaudy. Having sailed Carnival a bunch of times before we expected that. Cleaning and maintenance were always evident. This was our first trip on a Spirit class ship and navigating the ship is easier than on other types. We used the gym each day and found it not too crowded. It's a fine ship.
We had two balcony staterooms and two interior cabins across the hall. The rooms seemed a bit smaller than on other ships, but by no means cramped. Bathrooms are quite small and have the traditional quarter-circle cruise ship shower. We placed passengers in our four rooms to get the best price and the purser's desk was very cooperative issuing new keys so everyone could change rooms. Our cabin steward was the most apathetic we'd ever had. He did what he needed to do and not much more - for instance, we had to ask for ice and fresh beach towels every day. After two or three days of that sort of thing you would think he might catch on, but he didn't. We had the partition between our balconies opened to create one larger space and enjoyed coffee on the balcony each morning and happy hour each evening before dinner.
This cruise was completely sold out, but the ship rarely felt crowded. Plenty of chairs on the deck. Few long lines. I don't know what Carnival did with all those people at night, but moving around the ship was generally easy.
We had breakfast at Horatio's buffet every day but one and it was about what we expected. Decent variety and decent food. It was always possible to find something decent to eat, whether you wanted an omelet or just cereal, fruit and coffee. The espresso bar was a nice feature and at $3.00 a quite good tall latte was cheaper than at Starbucks. We did eat breakfast in the Bacchus dining room one morning. The food there is definitely better, but we found it took too long to complete the meal and the overall atmosphere was just too stuffy for breakfast.
Lunch at Horatio's followed the same pattern. The food was decent and plentiful and there is good variety on this ship. In addition to changing features each day, there are always stations for salad, pizza, deli sandwiches, Chinese food, hot dogs and hamburgers. However, lunchtime was the only time the ship ever felt really crowded to us and it was difficult to find a table at times. Too many of the passengers also have no idea how to act (more about that later.)
We had the late dinner seating at Bacchus. This ship has only one formal restaurant instead of two, but again it never seemed crowded. And I know Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, but the wall-to-wall grape dEcor was pretty gaudy even by Carnival standards - who ever designed that dining room has never heard of "less is more."
We chose to put the six kids at one table and the six adults at another and that worked out fine. Our headwaiter Alex (Philippines) was attentive, pleasant and fun. He did magic tricks for the kids after dinner and remembered names, meal preferences, etc. Our assistant waiter Jennet (Vietnam) was more quiet but also performed well. Our bar waiter Allen (St. Vincent) was also very good. Each of them received tips beyond the Sign and Sail amount.
Dinner fare ranged from fair to slightly above average. Carnival is not a "gourmet" cruise line so this met our expectations. We found the appetizers to be the best part of each meal and there was no trouble ordering two (or three) if you wanted to sample. Entrees were disappointing overall - we only had two that the group agreed were very good and nothing was truly outstanding. We had the best luck with entrees by sticking to the "chef's selections." Alex thankfully steered us away from certain dishes. Often we each ordered one entrEe then ordered two additional entrees for the table to share. That allowed us to sample a dish or two that we thought looked interesting. There is a nicely varied wine list that will allow you to spend from $20 - $200 on a bottle of wine if you choose. We found some really good wines in the $30 range each night.
We enjoyed dinner at Nick and Nora's supper club one evening for a $30 per person upcharge. It was easily the best meal we had while on board and is well worth the $$ if you want to splurge one night. Service is attentive and almost fawning. The meal takes about 2 1/2 hours. With drinks, wine and fees our dinner at N&N came to an additional $140 per couple. Nice evening if you want to spend the extra dollars.
ON BOARD ACTIVITIES
This itinerary has 5 days at sea, so it's important to take advantage of the activities the ship has to offer otherwise you get bored or just cook in the sun. Luckily, our kids never once complained about being bored. They did a variety of the kid activities offered and seemed to like them all, though their favorite activities seemed to be ice cream and the chocolate fountain. They even enjoyed afternoon tea with their Mom's (just when you think you have your kids figured out.) As for the adults, we lounged by the pool early and late, usually getting out of the sun midday to have lunch, work out or read.
We saw several of the shows and they were hit-or-miss. One of the R-rated comedians was quite funny and the other was terrible. The production shows had a high-school quality, but the kids liked them. The talent shows put on by guests were fun to watch, but who on earth brings a flute on a cruise with them? Gotta wonder sometimes.
We broke even at the casino for the week and were envious of the woman who hit the progressive table for $52,000. Dealers were skilled and patient with newbies. Again, for all the people on the ship the casino never felt crowded and it was easy to find a seat even at the $5 tables.
We each enjoyed a quality massage at Spa Carnival, but have a complaint. At $119, the 50-minute Swedish massage is already pricey. So why is it necessary for the Spa Carnival staff to try to sell you $150 worth of products at the end of your massage? We chuckled that while each of us had a massage at the same hour with a different masseuse, they all "coincidentally" recommended the same overpriced products to us at the end. In our opinion, a massage should be a massage and not an opportunity to hard sell the guest (our bartenders never tried to sell us a blender after we ordered our drinks!) Carnival needs to tone this down. Take advantage of Spa Carnival if you wish, but beware.
The cruise director has never mattered to us, but if you need to know that sort of thing our CD was Brent Mitchell. He seemed an easy-going 30-something guy from Toronto and added to the experience when we saw him. We liked him far better than the unctuous British-types we've seen previously.
Lots of good nightlife on this ship. If you like to party you will not be disappointed. Our favorite was the group Music Boardwalk at Frankie and Johnnie's lounge. They are four Philippine guys who manage to crank out some remarkably authentic sounding music - whether it is Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queen or KC and the Sunshine Band. They had the placing rocking into the wee hours most nights - my Sign and Sail balance will attest to that. Their unsure command of the language created some pretty funny lyrics now and then, but they were a lot of fun.
There were plenty of other fun things to do at night and we'd recommend just walking the ship and dropping into anything that looks good. The only thing we would not recommend is the piano bar with entertainer Buster Freeze. We found him to be a pompous jerk who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.
Our first stop was Sunday in San Juan with a 3 - 12 pm port stay. We read a number of people on these boards who said, "just stay on the ship" while in San Juan and we couldn't disagree more. We walked from the dock up to Fort El Morro - it's mostly uphill and might be a bit strenuous for some - and had a great time. There is a bunch of upscale shopping along Calle Cristo, plus neat little bars and vendor stalls. The fort itself is a National Park and really interesting ($3 entry over age 15.) Even our kids loved the history of the fort. Walking back we happened onto two different street festivals and enjoyed the vendors, entertainment and a chance to see the "real" Old San Juan. We had dinner at the Parrot Club (about 4 blocks from the cruise ship terminal) and recommend walking out that way to avoid the packed and touristy Senor Frogs. Overall we found Old San Juan to be friendly, charming and interesting. It was the surprise gem of our trip.
In St. Thomas our group of 12 chartered the sailboat "Fury" with Captain Mike at usvisailing.com. Mike picked us up at the cruise ship dock and we sailed 3-4 miles from St. Thomas to Buck Island for a snorkel. We saw several sea turtles, stingrays and barracuda plus hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish. Our younger kids had never snorkeled before and they loved it. Buck Island was uncrowded and we got over one hour to snorkel. Captain Mike and his first mate John are good, friendly guys how can tell you a lot about the islands and how they transplanted to St. Thomas from the states. Drinks and snacks are included. Our cost was $90 per person to have the boat to ourselves, though Mike charters groups every day from the Marriott hotel. Highly recommended.
Tortola was a half-day stay, so we taxied over to Cane Garden Bay to sit on the beach (otherwise we would have gone to the Caribbean and never seen a beach!) Our taxi broke down on the way, but a replacement came in only about 10 minutes. Cane Garden is a great horseshoe shaped stretch of white sand with calm waters and is as pretty as any beach we've seen - including those on St. John. Go far to the left to avoid the vendors and guys hawking $10 beach chairs. $6 taxi per person each way. 6 different beach bars for refreshments, etc. plus t-shirt shops and snorkel rentals.
Uneventful. 45 minutes from the time they called our color until we were packed and on the road.
OK, a few complaints - they by no means ruined a good cruise, but they bugged us nonetheless. Anyway, flamers get ready.
All over our country you see signs that say "No shoes, no shirt, no service." Why doesn't that standard apply on a Carnival cruise? I don't care how sexy you believe your own body to be - when you are eating a meal PUT ON A SHIRT. Each day dozens of men hit the buffet line without shirts and without shoes. Boorish. Do these men sit at their own kitchen tables without shirts? Personally, I don't want to be in line at the buffet while the guy next to me gives himself a full chest scratch and I yank my tray off the line to avoid his hair shower- but it happened. Likewise the ladies - you might look great in your bikini at the pool, but at mealtime COVER IT UP. I understand that some people cross through the dining area during mealtime, but if you grab a try and stand in line, somebody from Carnival needs to say "I'm sorry, but we do require a shirt and shoes if you wish to eat." At worst it's unsanitary; at best it's classless. People who object should be thrown overboard - since they are already attired for a swim.
And it still bugs me that on formal night Carnival allows people into the dining room in whatever slovenly dress they desire. Who hears it's formal night and decides to wear a backwards baseball cap? Act like you've been somewhere nicer than Chuck E Cheese. Formal night is one of the grand old traditions of cruising but on Carnival it's going down the tubes. In the late seating, only 2 in 3 men even bothered with a tie. The maitre'd actually had to make an announcement the evening before the second formal night indicating that shorts would not be allowed in the dining room on formal night (shorts are not supposed to be worn in the dining room at all.) I think I would respect Carnival more if they just dropped the pretense and eliminated formal night. Give the people what they want. But if they are going to keep formal night, do it right.
Oh, and one more thing. Don't change your baby's diaper in the buffet restaurant. That's what bathrooms are for.
End of rant.
All in all, we enjoyed our Miracle cruise and rate it a 4 out of 5. There were plenty of shipboard activities for all ages. Our kids loved the experience. We had a good time and continue to believe that dollar for dollar Carnival delivers a strong value. When we cruise with our children we will continue to be Carnival cruisers. Our next cruise is for the grown-ups only, though, and we've booked with Celebrity. We'll be anxious to see the difference and decide where the cost/value relationship ends up.