First, a bit about me (so you can understand this review a little better). My wife and I are thirtysomething parents of two young girls, which we left at home for this trip. This means we were mainly looking for quiet relaxation rather than excitement and nonstop entertainment. That's why we picked an 8-night cruise with only 3 ports - we love sea days! This was my 12th cruise (my wife's 15th), including 5 on Carnival, so my ratings are based on how this cruise compared to the others I have taken. On with the review:
The ship itself is in great shape - very clean and well-maintained. The layout isn't bad, with the exception of the Lido buffet, which was a little hard to navigate during busy times - it could've used wider walkways, but I guess they were trying to maximize seating. It was always easy to find good lounge chairs up on deck, especially on deck 10 toward the back, though the main pool areas got a bit crowded on sea days. One thing I do like about Carnival is that the only place you find Astroturf is on the mini-golf course.
The overall age of the passengers on this particular trip was a lot older than most other Carnival cruises we've been on - this was most likely due to the schedule (Wednesday - Thursday), trip length and time of year. We saw very few adults under the age of 35, and as a result there was usually not much happening in the disco or nightclubs at night. Not that we cared much - we didn't come to party. The casino was always hopping, though.
Embarkation was a breeze - Miracle was the only big ship in Port Everglades that day, so that's no surprise. There were about 4 lines we had to wait in, but they were constantly moving - I think the whole process took about 15-20 minutes. I guess that's an advantage of departing on a Wednesday. Even on busy days, Port Everglades is an easy fly-in port - heck, you can see the ships from the airport terminal. It's about a $14 cab ride that only takes 5 minutes, so there's really no need to book transfers with the ship. We got onboard at 1:30 - right at the time they started letting people into their rooms.
Our cabin was awesome - we chose a balcony stateroom on deck 4 facing aft, which is great because it gives you a slightly larger balcony than those on the sides of the ship, and it's not too windy on sea days. Our cabin steward was great & really looked after us. There was plenty of storage for all our stuff, and it was nice having a mini-fridge (although it didn't keep things very cold). Another nice feature was that you can not only check your Sail'n'Sign account from your cabin TV, but you can also see what's being served for dinner in the main dining room. (it wasn't 100% accurate every night, though)
Here's a quick tip - there will be a muster drill shortly before the ship sets sail - they will announce the time in advance. Try not to be inside your room when the general alarm sounds - it is positively deafening, and may cause your head to explode if you're standing too close to the speaker in your room.
The food was probably the biggest disappointment - it just wasn't quite as good as we've seen on other recent cruises. Not that it was terrible or anything - the other reviewers who have said the food on this ship is great aren't lying - I've just had better on nearly every other cruise I've taken. Maybe I'm too picky.
Breakfast in the upstairs buffet featured the usual choices. The best thing was the omelet stations, where you could also get fried eggs cooked to order. (not every ship has that option) We tried a couple of breakfasts in the main dining room, but found the service to be incredibly slow, and all the food seemed like it had been sitting under the heat lamps for way too long. We never made it to the dining room for lunch, but found the buffet to be more than adequate. The Horatio buffet is divided into 4 sections for lunch - one featuring "American" cuisine, one for Asian food, another for deli sandwiches, and one that featured a different international cuisine every day (Italian, Mexican, Indian, French, Caribbean, Greek, and - Chocolate!). Our favorite thing was the burgers & fries served by the pool. I tried the pizza a couple of times but found it to be bland and undercooked.
We ate most of our dinners in the main dining room, where it would've helped if our waiters could have given us some guidance - we can usually count on them to steer us toward the best choices each night, but our waiter was useless. I'm sure there were some great waiter teams aboard, but ours seemed completely indifferent - they almost never checked to make sure we liked our food, seldom refilled our water glasses, and often forgot to bring salads or appetizers. This was especially puzzling since the dining room wasn't much more than half full during our late seating. If this really bothered us, I'm sure we could've switched to a different section, but we really liked our table mates and didn't want to go to the trouble. Usually one of the best meals is Lobster Night (the first formal night). I usually have two or three of those tasty suckers (they're not that big) However we were only allowed one order per person on this cruise, which was bizarre. I've never been refused seconds on a cruise before! I've since heard that the mainstream cruise lines are about to discontinue serving lobster altogether (see the message boards.)
Bar service was great, but if you weren't sitting at the bar, cocktail servers were a little hard to come by (except in the main show lounge). This was a sharp contrast to most of our other recent cruises, where the cocktail servers were on you before your butt hit the seats. We often saw them hiding out in the shadows looking bored - but when we managed to flag them down they seemed to come to life.
We did try the Supper Club one night, since it was one of the highlights of our cruise on Carnival's Conquest a few years ago. That also wasn't quite as good as we thought it would be. Of course, the food and service were much better than in the main dining room - in fact I'm pretty sure the waitstaff outnumbered the diners on the night we went. However, the portions were a bit skimpy, and many of the dishes seemed to be more about style than substance. I ordered the Surf & Turf, which consisted of a very small lobster tail and a filet mignon about the size of a walnut. My wife ordered the filet by itself, which was more than 4 times the size of mine, but it was a bit dry. The lobster bisque was amazing, though. Don't get me wrong - it was a lovely meal, and a nice change of pace from the main dining room. If had it to do over again, though, I think we would've spent the $60 on a nice dinner back home instead.
Outside the dining room, the staff was great - as other reviewers have noted, the cruise director and his supporting cast were charming and engaging, without being annoying. Those that participated in the many activities aboard seemed to have a great time (it's just not our thing).
Entertainment-wise, there were some really great musicians aboard, playing up on the lido deck and in the common areas before dinner. Of course, there were the usual pool games, competitions & "game shows" throughout the trip - and some of those are very entertaining. It seemed like they were cutting corners in the main show lounge, though. I mean, for two nights the main show of the evening was basically a passenger "talent" show. Give me a break! Like another recent reviewer, I also didn't care for the constant pre-show bingo games, but I'm sure some people thought that was cool. Our favorite show was the Village Idiots Jugglers, but I heard good things about the Frank Sinatra / Sammy Davis Jr impersonator, too. The other shows were a Beatles tribute, a hypnotist, and a comedian, I think.
Gosh, it's starting to sound like we hated the cruise! Not so - it was exactly what we were looking for - lots of rest and relaxation. We don't usually go to the shows anyway, and our favorite thing to do after dinner is SLEEP. We were a bit disappointed in the food, and we didn't luck into a great waiter for dinner, but other than that, the cruise was everything we could've hoped for.
We did get off the boat in each of the 3 ports of call, but we didn't take any ship-sponsored tours. In St. Maarten we went to Maho beach, where we had a tasty lunch and watch the planes come and go. In St. Lucia we took a great independent island tour with a local operator (don't forget your Dramamine - the roads are laid out like a roller coaster!) In St. Kitts, we took the water taxi to South Frigate Bay and hung out on the beach. (it was crowded & HOT) All great islands with very friendly people - I loved them all!
Disembarkation was not quite as hassle-free as embarkation (it never is). It seemed like a LOT of people chose the option of carrying their own bags off, in order to be in the first group to leave the ship. Those people were cleared to leave the ship starting at 8:20am, and at 9:15 there was still a line of them trying to leave! Once all those people got off the ship, the rest of us were called in groups based on luggage tags - by 10:15 everyone was off the boat. Since we were in the very last group, we had no trouble finding our bags, and the lines to get through customs weren't too bad - I'm sure it varies by how many ships are in port on any given day, among other things.
Bottom Line: if you're looking for a laid-back, relaxing cruise with a lot of lazy days at sea (like we were) - this is the cruise for you. But if you're looking for a lot of excitement & nightlife (especially if you're a bit younger), or if you're used to top-of-the-line food and service, you might want to keep looking.
Carnival Miracle is a fine ship, but you can tell they're cutting a few corners, especially in the food and entertainment department.