I had been perusing the cruise critic member reviews and boards for almost 2 weeks before booking MY first cruise(not booked by or paid for by my parents). I got so many great tips from this site and enjoyed reading so many member reviews before making my decision, that I felt the need to give back. So here goes.
Some background. I have been on a Big Red Boat cruise, a Princess cruise to Alaska and a RCL cruise to the Caribbean in my life, but had never actually booked or paid for the cruises myself. So this was a bit daunting when I realized how pricey excursions could be and the process of selecting cabin types was tough as well. Not to mention, picking the actual cruise and itinerary wasn't easy either.
My girlfriend and I wanted to cruise the week before Memorial Day and I broke down our choices to either a RCL cruise leaving out of Miami, or the Miracle out of NYC. Now, I live in Brooklyn, so I preferred the easy departure out of New York, but I was a bit worried about spending so much time on the ship. I did the math, and you actually spend 85% of your time on the ship and 15% of it on actual land. A big part of my decision to cruise the Miracle was definitely to avoid the hassle of booking flights and arranging transportation to and from Miami. In the end, the chance to simply grab a cab to the port cinched it. Besides, the Carnival was quite a bit cheaper. By the time I booked the cruise (4 weeks prior to sailing) the only rooms available were Interior Staterooms, so I decided to book the best available room which was a 4B (Interior Stateroom - Upper or Main Deck Guarantee) with no specific room number.
The embarkation process was a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot as the Miracle was about 2 hours late coming in so people were coming off while a mob of people were lined up to go on. This was a bit stressful and some people were quite impatient, but what can you do? Weather happens.
We ended up in various lines for 2 hours or so until we eventually boarded at 3:30. One of the confusing things was, since we had a Guarantee room, but no room/deck number, we didn't know which line to get into and the people at the terminal were a little clueless, so we just jumped into the shortest line. It didn't matter as the person checking us in was super friendly and helpful. Actually, almost every Carnival employee we ran into the entire cruise was really friendly. Well, until disembarkation time where the cruise staff got understandably flustered. More on that later.
Now the best part of the cruise was opening the door to our cabin (5224) and realizing that they had upgraded us to a Balcony! Oh. My. God. I knew it was possible to get upgraded, but never imagined that we'd wind up with a Balcony room on the Upper Deck. I was actually really worried that we'd wind up with an Oceanview Room on the Riviera (Deck 1), because it would technically be an upgrade. Anyways, we were obviously thrilled with our Balcony and did a happy upgrade dance, which we invented on the spot. The room was really quite unexpectedly large. We had the two twins pushed together as a King bed and was really comfortable. We never had any trouble sleeping. We had plenty of closet space and even the bathroom didn't seem all that tiny. This could be because I live in a small apartment, so am now used to living in small quarters, but either way, we were comfortable. Oh one thing, some people have mentioned bringing the over the door shoe holder thing. Not necessary. The tip that really came in handy though was a power strip. With camera, ipods, cell phones, it was nice to be able to plug everything in, instead of alternating.
After this perfect start to the cruise, we went about exploring the ship. We were towards the aft of the ship so of course, went to the Lido Deck first and grabbed a bite. This seems like a good time to review the food.
The Lido Deck buffet restaurant is called Horatio's. It had a few standard stations everyday. The grill was outside near the pool area and was fine. Standard burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, and minute steak sandwiches with fries. The pizza station was alright, and looked to be a big hit with the kids, but I'm spoiled living in NY with some truly good pizza. Yes, for everyone who's not from NY, it's probably incredibly annoying to read that, but hey, I can't help the truth. New York pizza is better than Carnival pizza. Anyways, the sandwich station was great though. I had a sandwich pretty much every day for lunch and the guys manning the panini press were great. The turkey with the basil pesto on a roll was especially tasty. Some other Horatio's highlights were the plentiful ice cream/yogurt machines and plenty of omelette stations for breakfasts.
Other places to eat are Bacchus (the main dining room) and Nick and Nora's. My girlfriend had been on NCL Dawn and remarked that it didn't seem like there were many restaurants compared to that one and I had been on one of RCL's bigger boats with the Johnny Rockets and stuff. Tell you what...I didn't really miss the options. The Lido deck did an OK job with just enough variety that I didn't have much to complain about.
We ate at Bacchus for most of the dinners except one night, when we had Nick and Nora's reservations. Yes, the restaurant's decor is gaudy and Vegas-style with purple neon and those purple "grape" lights everywhere, but whatever. It was festive. LOL. We actually went to the maitre'd and asked for a table for 2 the first afternoon and he arranged it immediately with zero fuss at all. It's not that we're not friendly, but we just wanted to relax and didn't want to deal with having to make small talk. We got a nice little table for two on the upper level overlooking the lower level. Our waiter and assistant waiter were friendly and helpful. I liked that they saved our unused bottled water from night to night. My GF loved it when they sung and danced. Oh right...the food. It wasn't the best I've had, it wasn't the worst I've had. It was, for the most part, absolutely acceptable. I wouldn't ask for any recipes or anything or even really recommend anything in particular, but we only had one dish the whole time that either of us really hated. It was some chicken dish, but come on, chicken always turns out dry in these banquet style settings.
With regards to Nick and Nora's, I have to agree that it was absolutely worth the extra cost and time. There isn't much to say except that I would recommend that you do it at least once. Gorgeous setting, very romantic, nice hushed service, beautiful plates, tasty food. Too much food, but it's a great experience.
So overall, if you're expecting unbelievable, 3 star Michelin food, you're gonna be disappointed. However, if you expect mediocre mall food, then you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Now, as far as the public rooms go, I liked them. Everything was clean and the rooms were interesting enough with plenty of places to sit and read a book and get away from the crowd. We laid out in the sun only twice and the pool areas were a little smaller than I expected, but there were plenty of chairs. The other main rooms that we went into, were the Phantom Lounge and Mad Hatter's Ball. These were nice. The shows were all super cheesy. Now I completely understand when Simon Cowell on American Idol calls a singer "cruise ship quality" what he means. I could not sit thru any of the shows except the Ticket to Ride (Beatles tribute) show. All in all, entertainment was kind of weak. In fact, our entertainment highlight for the cruise was a fellow cruiser who did an absolutely unforgettable karaoke version of "I Be Strokin'". I have never heard this song, but he gave the funniest, most entertaining karaoke performance I've ever seen. Louie, if you're reading this, you are the man.
Activity-wise, we didn't really participate in too many of the shipboard activities, preferring to hang out in our room instead. Bingo was ridiculous ($20 for three cards and one game). Later on in the cruise, after the ports of call, they had some bingo specials (more games for $20 or $10 cards). The casino was a casino. Nothing special. The gym was alright, except I didn't understand the hours. I usually like to run after work, or later at night, and the gym was closed at 8PM, which seems silly, because you don't really need someone in there supervising the treadmills, but whatever. BTW, that was actually not so much fun, trying to run on a moving ship. Gotta be careful. The photos weren't super expensive, unless you got the posed portraits. The port of call gangway pics and dinner pics were only 9 bucks, and were a great keepsake. We ended up only spending $50 on pics because we had so many with our own cameras.
OK, that's about all I can think of to review about the ship itself. As far as the shore excursions, I'm not sure whether to post here or on the boards, so I'll give the short version here and post a little bit more on the boards. I'm pretty proactive and a good planner so I decided against booking any excursions through the ship itself so can't comment on those. But here's what we did...
First port of call was San Juan, PR. On the advice I got from the boards, I booked the two hour Segway tour with Jose about two weeks before sailing thru emails. It was an absolute blast. My GF said this was the highlight of her cruise. $70 per person, worth every penny. Didn't feel like Senor Frog's (GF's not a big drinker), and the restaurants were super-touristy style, so we grabbed Cold Stone by the dock and went back on board for dinner.
Second port of call was St. Thomas, USVI. Once again, CruiseCritic.com was huge in recommending St. John and Trunk Bay. After this review, I'm going to try to find out which member gave great info and thank them personally, because having all the ferry schedules and taxi costs broken down made it simple for us to bypass the cruise shore excursion. This was actually one though, that if you had let the cruise ship plan it for you, you wouldn't actually spend all that much more. I just like being flexible and not being herded back and forth like cattle. Trunk Bay was gorgeous and worth the commute and the $40 per person in transportation costs. My GF snorkeled for the first time and enjoyed it. The sand is perfect and it definitely seems like you're in a bit of paradise there. Especially if you went early like we did and avoided the cruise ship crowd.
Last port of call was Tortola, BVI. I had read that there wasn't much to do besides The Baths at Virgin Gorda, so that's what we did. Thru the ship, the excursion was $79pp, but (once again, thru the boards here) we arranged thru Speedy's and spent $33pp. I believe the cruise people got a little more time there (I didn't want to take any chances of missing the ship home so left the Baths early), but we had enough beach and snorkeling the day before in St. John, so didn't mind leaving a bit early.
To sum up, our Miracle experience was fantastic. We were upgraded to a balcony room which was an amazing surprise. We had a table for two in the dining room. We had perfect weather the entire cruise. It rained a few hours before we arrived in San Juan, but all that did was make a gorgeous rainbow that we saw when we arrived at the Fort on our Segways.
All in all, a nearly perfect vacation.