Background Information: We sailed on the Miracle three years ago at this time of year. It was also an 8 night cruise, but with a different itinerary.
We made reservations for this cruise about 16 months in advance using Carnival's Early Saver rate. The initial price was very good, we knew we were going to vacation this week, and we were able to book the Category 11 wraparound balcony suite we wanted, so we were willing to make the non-refundable deposit to guarantee us the lowest rate (if we ever found a lower rate and subject to stipulations). We received one price reduction within a few months after booking and Carnival immediately gave us a reduction in the balance owed. Since that time, Carnival changed the cabin/suite categories (our Category 11 was now a Vista Suite), and unfortunately they were not willing to honor price matching with the original category of cabin booked. I believe Carnival did not uphold its end of the Early Saver agreement in doing this and it left a bad taste in my mouth as a result. Other (original) Category 11 cabins which we were able to price match prior to the category change had price reductions, but since there were only a few Vista Suites on the ship under the new classification, once they quickly sold out, there was no more price matching. Again, I was very happy with the fare we paid, however, I felt that having made a full non-refundable deposit on the booking date, I made a commitment to Carnival, and Carnival did not uphold their end of the contract - they changed the rules in the middle of the game, and you can't do that with contracts.
We had some issues with setting up the dining arrangements. Having previously had freestyle dining with Norwegian, we were very excited to see that Carnival had countered with Your Time Dining. When I made the original booking, I chose Your Time Dining. Later, when we made final payment and printed out our cruise documents, Your Time Dining was indicated. About three weeks before our cruise, we received a "confirmation phone call" from Carnival. My wife said that the person making the call was clearly screwed up as he was saying we had Early Seating for dining. My wife corrected him that it was Your Time. A week or two goes by, and while checking the online reservation, I see that it was in fact changed to Early Seating, even though I'm holding printed cruise documents indicating Your Time. Attempting to change to Your Time on carnival.com was showing that Your Time would be a waitlist. I called Carnival and a very helpful representative was extremely apologetic, and said that it wouldn't be a problem, since we were in a suite, we automatically get our preference of seating. She said even though it showed as waitlist, the following day it would show as confirmed. Sure enough, the following day we were switched back to Your Time.
Travel To Port of Embarkation: The main reason we love sailing out of New York City is that it is a quick/easy commute for us to the port. We park our car at Metro Park rail station; take NJ Transit to Penn Station, and then a quick taxi ride. Within two hours of leaving our home, we were in the cruise terminal.
We did encounter a dockworker with an attitude at the terminal. We had our taxi drop us off a little before the Carnival drop-off location because of all of the traffic there. We wheeled our luggage the 100 or so feet to where the dockworkers were helping the people out of the taxis and grabbing their bags.
After standing around for about 5 minutes with no assistance, I put our bags on to one of the carts where other bags for the Miracle were being loaded. I was quickly reprimanded to take my bags off as others were put on. Eventually the dockworker tosses our bags on to the cart. Seeing the very public sign indicating No Tips Required, I wasn't going to reward this person for his sub-par performance. So we walked in to the terminal. As the Carnival representative tried a couple times to hurry us along to the check-in area (we were still 4 hours until departure) my wife advised her we wanted to see our bags come in as our friendly dockworker was letting the cart with them just sit outside while other carts were loaded and brought in. This went on for about 15 minutes until finally another worker brought them in.
Since we had VIP status with the Vista Suite, we were directed to a small private lounge where we were checked in within maybe 10 or 15 minutes. The wait was not an issue as it was a quiet and comfortable area. Once all of our info was set up in the computer, we were free to walk aboard.
Stateroom: When we sailed on Miracle three years ago, we were in 8268 - the Category 11 with the huge wraparound balcony. We took the same suite this time, on the other side of the ship - 8273. We enjoyed the suite even more than last time. On our last cruise, I distinctly remember being able to hear/feel the vibrations from the engines. This time - just a small hum, if even that. Maybe my hearing is not as good as three years ago and it just wasn't as noticeable, but, whatever it was, it was much better.
Upon meeting our cabin attendant Calvert, I asked that the mini bar be locked (which the price sheet in the cabin said was something they could do if requested). I was taken aback for a moment when he asked why we wanted it locked, and I simply said that we have a teenager, and though we trust her, I'd guess she might bring other acquaintances back to the cabin and it's them that I don't trust. Ironically, on our final account statement, there was a mini bar charge mid-week. When I advised the front desk that the mini bar was locked the entire week, there was not even a quibble to get the charge reversed.
Dining: We chose Your Time Dining since we thoroughly enjoyed Freestyle when we last sailed with NCL. When given the option to dine at a set time every night, or be free to choose, I don't understand why anyone would not choose Your Time. We like the ability to vary our dining time depending how the day flows - and things routinely change day to day - especially when in port or on excursions.
All nights, with Your Time, we were seated immediately. Our dining times varied from 5:45PM to maybe 8PM or 8:30PM one night.
On the first night our waiter was Houston. He was a nice enough person, however, we felt rushed. The second night Mile was our waiter, and let me say this guy was incredible. He was personable, went out of his way to make our meal enjoyable, and it made the entire experience memorable. My wife made a comment that the only reason we sailed Carnival was so I could get the Chocolate Melting Cake. On this particular evening, we all had different desserts, and he said "Let me bring you a serving of the Melting Cake as well".
Third night, we had Houston again, and once again felt rushed. From then on, we made sure we were in Mile's section each evening. One other night, Mile noticed my wife only finished maybe half of her chicken entrEe. He asked if it was dry - as if he already knew, and asked, almost pleading if he could bring a different entrEe. This was our sixth cruise, and it has been quite some time since we had service comparable to what Mile gave us. It was refreshing and welcome.
As far as the food itself, it was very good every evening. Much better than what I remember from our prior Miracle cruise. One or two evenings the Chocolate Melting Cake was quite firm and overdone in my opinion. However, on the last evening, it was just perfect, leaving a good impression.
Food at the buffets was as I remembered - no real difference. If there was a difference, it wasn't noticeable. If I had to rate the buffets - they were average, exactly what you'd expect at a buffet. I didn't have any meals in the main dining room other than dinner each evening. All other meals were at the buffets. I particularly lie the buffets because of the wide variety of options, and because I don't have to wait to be served.
Activities: Each day there were a sufficient number of activities throughout the day. I will say, right off the bat, that we were pleasantly surprised that unlike prior cruises on Carnival and other lines, we did not get the continual announcements for art auctions and bingo. It was simply incredible! Possibly there were one or two announcements over the entire week for each. Kudos to Carnival!
My wife and I enjoy many of the trivia type activities. Unfortunately, with many of these, the coordinators would simply race through them - finishing in maybe 15 minutes.
One disappointment for my wife was the scrapbooking sessions. We went to the first one, which gathered in the picture studio area. The two gentlemen running it were standing there, jokingly reading a sheet of paper giving the definition of what scrapbooking is. Upon seeing how these guys were doing nothing more than reading a script and joking about it, there was no reason to stay and hear what they were going to say. Message to Carnival - if your session leaders have no experience in the class/subject they are going to be speaking about, do yourselves and everyone else a favor and don't offer it. I can imagine that the scrapbooking sessions didn't amount to much other than a vehicle to sell Carnival scrapbooking albums and packages.
On the last sea day, we went on the galley and the backstage tours. These were both just ok - nothing exciting, nothing really outstanding or memorable. This may be due to the fact that Carnival is now offering the behind the scenes tour where you have to pay $95/person for the 3-¾ hour tour. The galley tour group was huge - probably 200 to 300 people. The tour consisted of a long processional down the corridor of Deck 1 (probably a fire safety hazard) and then in one side of the Deck 1 galley, walk through/around, and out the other side. This was disappointing considering when we did the galley tour three years prior; we went up the escalators and toured other galleys as well.
The backstage tour was new and not offered on our prior cruise, but was nothing exciting either. Most of the time was spent on the Q&A session that followed.
Children's Clubs: On our prior Miracle cruise our daughter was 10 years old. The kids club was awful. On that cruise, she went to the first meeting, made a couple of friends, and then signed herself out never to go back the entire cruise. This cruise was the complete opposite. Since this cruise was the week of Labor Day, we knew there would be many less kids aboard because they'd be back in school. Our homeschooler doesn't have an issue with that. This time, our daughter again made a few friends early on, but returned to the club daily to meet up with them, participate in many of the activities, and had an extremely good time. I don't know if it was the fact that the counselor(s) was better, if it was because there were less kids aboard, or if the program is just better than before. Whatever it was, it was done right, and we were thankful for that.
Service: In general, service was very good. As mentioned previously, Mile provided the service that we'll be remembering the cruise by. Cabin service was good/average.
I did have a brief encounter with the Internet Cafe manager, and to be blunt, he was quite rude. A placard in the Internet Cafe the first two days indicated a special free time promotion when purchasing an Internet plan and to "See the Manager" for details. Well, I tried to see the manager (five or six attempts) for the better part of two days each time we passed by the cafe and he was never around. Finally, we caught him on the third day and when I inquired, he snapped "that's impossible because I was here all day for both days" - not quite.
Entertainment: I'm personally not that big of an entertainment aficionado when it comes to the big nighttime production shows on Carnival. I did go to Ticket to Ride with my family, and being a big Beatles fan, unfortunately, as with the same show three years ago, this one did not do it for me.
I did also go to one of the PG comedy shows during the day and it was ok.
Port & Shore Excursions: I had been reviewing Carnival's shore excursion list for about the past year, and every time that I did, I became frustrated. Most of the Carnival excursions are extremely short - only an hour to an hour and a half for most yet came with premium pricing. Early on, I signed our daughter up for the Deluxe Flowrider in Grand Turk, only because it was something I thought she'd get excited about, and it was reasonably priced.
Since we were visiting Nassau and had never been to Atlantis, I wanted to find a good excursion/package. Once again, those offered by Carnival seemed to be on the expensive side. On my own, I had reviewed the special day experiences that Atlantis offered. I immediately became interested in the Trainer for a Day program and knew my family would enjoy it. It is pretty pricey itself, but it was for a full day and wasn't as quick and dirty as the dolphin experiences offered through Carnival. We had done the dolphin experience in Cozumel a number of years ago and weren't too impressed with what you got - the one offered by Atlantis/Carnival appeared to be the same, and again, extremely pricey for what you got.
As the months passed, I became more interested in the Trainer for a Day program, but was very concerned because of the high price (at roughly $350 per person) and it was non-refundable. My nightmare was that we'd book it, our cruise would skip Nassau, and we'd be out $1000! I contacted Carnival to see if there was any possibility of booking the program through them (even if it meant paying an additional fee) because if we skipped Nassau or we were late returning to the ship, as a Carnival excursion we'd be protected. I figured they were running other excursions to Atlantis and Dolphin Cay, so we were just going to the same place - same transportation, no big deal. Unfortunately, the folks at Carnival were of no assistance.
After checking our travel insurance, I noticed that prepaid excursions would be reimbursed in the event of an itinerary change, so I booked it figuring it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Although the Miracle cruise prior to ours did skip Nassau due to hurricane Earl, ours went off without a hitch - we had beautiful weather all week, we did the Trainer for a Day program and were the only ones doing it that day so we had a trainer all to ourselves and personal attention of many of the other trainers and employees at Dolphin Cay. It was unquestionably the highlight of our cruise and was in fact the once-in-a-lifetime experience I envisioned it would be.
Disembarkation: While coming in to NY Harbor, we saw a Holland American ship ahead of us, and the Norwegian Jewel behind us. As we came up to the piers in midtown, we then saw the P&O Aurora already docked - clearly there was going to be a pretty good amount of traffic with four ships docking and unloading.
Having the VIP status got us in Group 2 for disembarkation. We hung out in our suite until about 8:45AM even though we were supposed to be out by 8:30. We made our way to the Jeeves Lounge as it was quiet and only a few people were waiting there. The self-disembark passengers had all completed and none of the regular groups had been called yet - unloading the luggage was apparently taking longer than expected. Some time between about 9:15AM and 9:30 groups 1/2/3 were called and we were on our way. As on our past Miracle cruise, when we entered the lobby, the line for disembarkation went through the casino - which always reeks of smoke. Luckily, the line moved quickly and we were off within minutes. Once in the terminal, we found our luggage quickly, were directed to the far end of the terminal where a customs agent had nobody waiting. The agent took a quick glance at our customs declaration, didn't even bother to look at our passports and welcomed us home. We quickly caught a taxi, arrived at Penn Station at 10AM and made the 10:14AM Northeast Corridor train back to Metro Park. We were in our car by 11:15AM for the short drive home.
Summary: I was pleasantly surprised with how much better this cruise was than our previous one on the Miracle three years ago. The ship does appear to be aging and could probably use some updating/renovations in the cabins and some of the public areas. Overall service was better, the food was better in general, and the Cruise Director and staff was much better.
When referring to our prior Miracle cruise in another review I posted on Cruise Critic two years ago, I rated it only 3.75 on a scale of 5. This cruise I would rate 4.25 - much better all around.