This was our 4th Cruise with our entire family, DW and two sons 14 & 18. For our last 2 we sailed the E Caribbean on the Norwegian Jewel and RCI Jewel of the seas, so I will include my comparisons throughout. As for the Cruise Critics Roll call, I found RCI does the most to accommodate a meet and mingle and with both NCL and CCL you're on your own.
We have used the Cruise air on all occasions and have to travel the day prior due to being in Winnipeg Canada. Both RCI and CCL provide the hotel at no charge and NCL had us pay. This time we were booked at the Sheraton Airport hotel. It's a very nice hotel to stay at to recover from an early flight but there is nothing around it, so if you plan to go to the beach, or eat elsewhere consider somewhere else.
The transfer to the pier went fairly and well and we arrived at about 1PM. Then we entered the long cattle lines to get through security and then checked in. The lines were long and event though they were constantly moving it took us about 1 ½ hour to get through it. It was our first cruise with CCL but I was surprised that we didn't see a VIP line for previous cruisers.
Once aboard the ship was quite comparable in size to both the NCL & RCI Jewel ships we sailed on. The decor on NCL was playful, RCI was rich and sophisticated and the Miracle was bold and entertaining. I had read previous reviews criticizing the nudity but it all tastefully done in an artsy way that blends quite well. All of the rooms embrace a theme to let you know where you are.
We all shared a balcony stateroom on the Empress deck and it was the best layout of all the other ships to accommodate 4 people. The washroom was a good size and combines the toilet in the sink area. The shower was separated by a curtain with an adjustable height, just make sure the curtain is inside the ridge at the bottom or you'll get water all over the floor. The sofa bed runs the length of the room beside the queen bed and the Pullman came out directly above it, so you did not loose any floor space with the beds made up. Kervin, our stateroom attendant removed the robes so we could get our 7 bags of luggage into the cabinets and they all fit under the queen bed , with room to get them in & out.
This was a special Christmas/New Years cruises so we had 4 ports of call with 2 sea days before & after. We had sunny weather every day and relatively calm seas. On the southbound sea days, we were moving fast, 22 Kts into a strong wind so the ship was pitching a bit, which was felt mostly in the bow where the Theater, Mad Hatters ball and Pinoccios (kids club)are. Some kids became nauseous and the kids activities should be relocated in these circumstances.
The daily entertainment consisted of trivia games, bingo and shopping/excursion talks. The Cruise Director Brent was witty, as were his male counterparts who go by Big Sexy and Beef. The two female assistant directors were not as charismatic. They did the horse racing that we had seen by RCI but IMHO, it was not done as well. RCI makes it a part of the pool games and CCL does it in the theatre with the bingo crowd. There was the usual chair saving going on in all the popular places but you could always get a chair. The Caribbean band, Versatile, played all the classics during the day and made good atmosphere for sun tanning and sipping on fruity drinks. The topless deck is gone and mini golf is now on the upper most forward deck.
There were adequate waiters delivering drinks on the upper decks. CCL is the best for non-alcoholic beverages all day long. You can get fruit punch, lemonade, orange/apple juice and Ice tea all day long, so you don't really need the pop card unless you're addicted to it. The have a couple of specialty coffee shops on board for purchase but you can get espresso & cappuccino in the Bacchus Dining room during meal times.
Food Service - Horatios buffet has several steam lines with specialized food groups. If everyone could understand that you start where the plates are then it work but that doesn't always happen. The food is good for breakfast and a quick lunch. You can go to the dining room for breakfast it you wish and you will be seated on your own or with a group as you request. This works well for sea days and the room service is good for port days. The supper menu gave several daily choices along with standard favorites like steak if you wish. There was never a problem requesting 2 appetizers or entree's if you wish but I found the portions to be fine, especially if you want a late night snack or the midnight buffets. We were on the upper deck with Dennis and Ubiwan to provide us with very good service. The dining room has many details you cannot see in most of the pictures you see, so I actually didn't mind it as much as I though I would. The halogen lighting keeps it bright until the dim the lights so the waiters can dance and sing for you at the end of some of the meals. Silly, but entertaining. NCL had freestyle dining and RCI had early and late seating. The main difference was with the table sizes, in that the Miracle had many smaller tables, so you would just eat with your group and not share a table with other passengers. Our service and meals were good enough and I didn't feel like paying the $ 30 pp for Nick and Nora's, to get the quality of food and service that used to be standard for cruising. Decide for yourself.
Night Life - Franki and Jonnies is where the band Music Manila rocks the house. They do an excellent job of classic rock and country. Larry is the piano player in Sam's Piano bar and he can play well but has a limited selection and if he knows a request he often just stops in the middle of it. I know not all players know all songs but he could even use sheet music with the words to keep it lively. I like a good piano bar but I found he was waiting for the crowd to motivate him rather than the other way around. They have a guitar player singing in the Casino, a classical ensemble in the atrium and also in Jeeves lounge. The Mad Hatters Ball is under the theatre and was mostly an evening Karaoke bar and showed the odd movie at night. Dance Music is in Frankenstein's and doesn't really get going until 11:30 and is a younger grinding type of crowd. I found with a 9 day cruise that they didn't have enough variety or energy to carry things off without being repetitive. Both NCL and RCI seemed to make a better use of the room size for the entertainment to keep the passengers entertained and involves.
Shows - The two production shows "Band on the Run" and "Generations" were well performed. The other shows included the Village Idiots Jugglers, a R&B singer, a very good tribute to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, a Hypnotist and a couple shows with passenger talent show and participation. The Show band was excellent and probably the best of all cruise lines. They could have broken out into a Jazz band in one of the smaller clubs at night. The Phantom Lounge is the theatre and is not as open as both the NCL and RCI jewel ships, giving a closed in up close feel.
Teens Club. DS was 14 and did not participate with many of the activities but with over 100 kids in the 12-14 range there were always friends for him to hang out with and things to do. They did build a Club O2 room for the 15-17 year olds but it is not always open so the RCI Jewel wins out here. RCI also has a curfew of 1 AM for all teens under 18 that the kids don't like but the adults do. DS 18 was in an awkward position because he couldn't go into the teen's club; he could go to the bars after 11PM but couldn't drink. Once again due to the holiday's there were enough young adults to get together and have a great time.
Ports included: St Maarten, St Lucia, St Kitts & Tortola was added for the Christmas Cruise. We did all tours, except St Maarten, with CCL Excursions but you can save some money if you do your research and go it on your own. Just allow that extra buffer to get back to the ship.
St Maarten - We walked to the taxi stand that shows all prices as pp depending on how many in your party. It was $6 pp each way to get us to Orient Beach. We were dropped off by bikini's but walked up to Le String, where we got 1 long chairs an umbrella and a drink for $ 8 (drinks are $ 6 alone). We were a little to the left of Club Orient with full nudity but basically from Pedro's to the right you noticed the odd topless Woman but it's pretty tame considering there were 5 Cruise ships in town. The trip is only about 20 minutes from the pier but leave a couple hours early because there's only one road and it can get busy or an accident will block it completely.
St Lucia - We did the Pirates trip on the Brig Unicorn. They had ample rum punch, you could climb the rigging with assistance for a picture and it was kind of fun to sail on. We sailed to park for a mock battle, a treasure hunt and a short swim. It was chartered by CCL this time but If not, you can book it on your own for a bit less and the trip is longer. Some Cruise Critics members used Cosol tours on their own and liked it.
St Kitts - We did the Brimstone Hill Fortress tour. We had a very good driver who gave us lots of history as we drove through town and around the island. If you stop for a picture with the monkey they want $5 to cover food costs. They stop at a batik (wax fabric tinting) studio and gardens before going to the fort. Both make for excellent photo ops.
Tortola - We went to the Baths at Virgin Gorda. Again costly with CCL but the timings worked out well as we were picked up straight from the pier for the 30 min ferry trip to the island with a short open taxi ride to the top of the Baths. The walk down on the trail took another 10 minutes or so and then you have swimming around all the rock formations. To get to devils bay you travel under the boulders in the caves which was a beautiful trip but slow with 150 cruise passengers. Wait for the crowd to thin out but it's worth seeing.
They do X-Ray your bags when you board but CCL seems to be the most lenient about people smuggling alcohol on in port unless you a teen. If you do not declare it they will either ask you to declare it or they may confiscate it. Be prepared to hand in at least one bottle.
Christmas on board was nice but I was surprised that they did not offer a multi-denominational service. The New Years Eve Party was held on the Lido and Upper deck and was an absolute blast.
Debarkation - They use colored luggage tag with numbers to debark by priority. You can do a self assist walk off first thing if you take "all" of your luggage. The also give priority to FLL Excursions passengers. We were scheduled for a 1210 flight so were given priority tag 2 and staged in the Phantom Lounge. Right after the self assist we were led off the ship and the luggage was easy to find and the lower numbers were closer to the exits so they would be cleared first as people left the ship. We had minor problems with the Greyhound Transfers in both ways and all ship companies should pay closer attention in this area.
Ok so for my comparison I would sail any of these ships again but if price or the itinerary were not a factor I would choose RCI 1st overall then Carnival and NCL. This was by a small margin, so I guess I'll have to try Princess to complete the circuit.