Booking and Embarkation: We booked the cruise about two weeks prior to embarkation through an internet agency, and our booking was managed very professionally. We flew on AirTran from Boston to Fort Lauderdale a week before the cruise and we stayed in Port Everglades at Extended Stay America Apartments just around the corner from the cruise ship terminal. AirTran was excellent, and so was our apartment that we booked for a very low price on Hotwire.com The apartment had a full kitchen and was surrounded by good shops (including the large Publix supermarket) and cafes, and is only 5 minutes on the local tourist trolley bus from the excellent palm-fringed Fort Lauderdale beach. The sight of the cruise ships on the horizon, and in dock at the terminal, whetted our appetite for what was to come for us.
We embarked on 1 December, arriving at the terminal at the earliest time recommended by Carnival in the documentation they supplied to us. We were very surprised at how easy and fast our embarkation was. There were no lines and we were attended to immediately at each point of the process. We were on Miracle within 10 minutes of arriving at the terminal. On boarding, we were surprised to see so many people already on board; they must have checked in well before the recommended time. We chose to drag our own suitcases on board rather than check them in at the terminal for later delivery to our room. This proved to be an easy task as there were escalators and elevators where needed, and no need to lug anything up stairs. This proved also to be a wise move as it was well into the first evening before many of the other passengers received their checked-in luggage.
Through the eyes of first-time cruisers, the facilities and amenities on the as-new Miracle were very impressive. The two pools on the top deck though were small and crowded, and located in very public areas with little privacy for users.
Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the passengers were American with only a few from other countries, and we seemed to be the only Australians. Not that this mattered at all - we like Americans. The age profile of the passengers was much older than I was expecting - possibly this was a reflection of the itinerary of this particular cruise. I don't mean this in a critical way at all - the passengers were an excellent group of people. However for anyone looking to spend a week with a young to middle-aged crowd (this wasn't an issue for us), I would suggest choosing a different itinerary.
Room, Food and Dining Services: Our ocean-view stateroom mid-ship on Deck 1 was excellent. It was modern, very clean, well-appointed, spacious, and very stable. The bed was very comfortable, better than many hotels/motels we had stayed in over the previous four months. We detected little ship movement in our room throughout the cruise. The room attendants were unobtrusive, and maintained our room excellently. In summary, our room and room-servicing were absolutely first-class.
Unfortunately I cannot say the same about the food and dining services, particularly in the Bacchus dining room. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but in my opinion the quality of the food served in Bacchus was inconsistent. It certainly wasn't bad and we never went hungry. I think that would be impossible on Miracle with all the dining options available! But on several occasions the food didn't seem really fresh or well-prepared, and I wasn't the only one who occasionally returned dishes to the kitchen un-eaten. On one evening lobster was served and I found it to be barely edible. I certainly wouldn't have ordered it on a second occasion had it made an encore appearance (fortunately it didn't). Overall I would rate the food served in Bacchus as equivalent to that in a good street cafe, but certainly not of the standard of a good restaurant. Of course this opinion needs to be tempered by the acknowledgement of the many challenges a cruise ship must face to deliver consistently good meals to so many people. My other beef with Bacchus (please excuse the pun) was the antics of the waiting staff. They seem to have taken it upon themselves to be amateur entertainers as well as waiters, and we were treated to increasingly silly tricks and turns as the cruise progressed. In my opinion they should stick to waiting and put their effort into sharpening up their waiting skills rather than attempting to be vaudeville performers. This is a shame as on a personal level I found the waiting staff to be excellent, friendly people eager to please, and equal to any staff on the ship. I think the management could make a real improvement here by refocusing concentration on food quality and service, and leaving the theatrics to the performers in the Phantom Lounge. To be fair though, I must record here that many other passengers, including my wife, seemed to find the waiters' antics more fun than I did. Perhaps I'm just becoming an old sour-puss.
The food elsewhere on the ship was quite good. Horatio's had some excellent cafe food. The pizza and burgers was excellent, so was the sushi, and the Indian food served one lunch-time was the best meal I had on the whole cruise. It was first-class.
Passengers were assigned to fixed seats in the Bacchus dining room, and so we soon became well-acquainted with our fellow diners. We all got along so well that we decided to travel as a small group on shore excursion days. This has led to friendships that have continued since the cruise ended. We found that the fixed-seating arrangement promoted such friendships with fellow passengers that may not have been so easy to initiate otherwise.
Ship Activities: There was a wide range of activities and concert performances on Miracle. We attended the nightly performances in the Phantom Lounge and these were of a good standard. We went to an interesting Wine and Food Pairing seminar in Nick and Nora's restaurant, an art auction, the Captain's cocktail party, karaoke (there were some very talented passengers on the ship), shopping seminars, galley tour and a lot of general walking around admiring the views and soaking up the pleasant and friendly atmosphere throughout the ship.
Shore Excursions: The shore excursions on this itinerary were in Colon in Panama (not through the canal though), Limon in Costa Rica and Belize City in Belize. At each stop we negotiated tours ourselves with local operators on the docks as soon as we disembarked, at prices much lower than the ship-advertised tours. This is not without risks though. In Belize, the vehicle of the driver we hired had obviously been involved in several previous collisions and we had to stop for a wheel change when the tread peeled off a tyre, and again later when the replacement tyre went flat! This all added to the adventure though, and we arrived unscathed back at the Miracle dock on time.
In Panama we visited the Gatun Locks on the Canal. This was fascinating and educational, and with many vessels passing through each day, visitors are sure to see the locks in operation. A must-see. Then we went to the small seaside town of Portobelo that has a very colorful history. Unlike some previous reviewers, we found this to be a very interesting and picturesque town and well-worth visiting. In Limon we hired a small boat to take us along the Tortuguera Canals. We saw many birds, a baby croc, iguanas and sloths in the jungle vegetation that spilled down to the water's edge. In Belize we went to an ancient Mayan temple ruin and then to what was touted as a baboon sanctuary but was actually a tribe of black howler monkeys. Very interesting nevertheless. Many passengers spent the day shopping in Belize for jewelry for which Belize is well-known. Each of the three shore excursions was only several hours long, and so the time ashore passed very quickly and we had to keep a close watch on the time. We have written up our shore excursions in more detail on our travel blog at www.2albatrosses.blogspot.com
Disembarkation was a breeze. We were off the ship at 9am, and at the Fort Lauderdale airport by 9.15am. There we caught a Delta Airlines flight to Los Angeles via Atlanta. Late that evening we flew out of LA, flying through the night to Sydney, Australia, and the following day we completed the final leg to our home town in Adelaide, South Australia.
All things weighed up, we had a fantastic time and the cruise on Miracle was indeed a great final phase of our long overseas trip, and a travel experience unlike any other we have experienced. We found cruising to be a great, fun way to travel.
Carnival obviously are very professional operators. The Miracle crew was generally excellent, and the most important things of all like passenger safety and security, passenger movement and ship-handling were all managed so well that such issues rarely entered our consciousness, enabling us and our fellow passengers to concentrate on having fun.
We eagerly await the next time we step aboard a cruise ship. Might it be a Carnival ship? Might it be the Miracle? Yes. Yes.