Booking: We booked directly through Carnival. While I initially went to a travel agent and gathered some information on various cruises, I found that Carnival's rate was the same as going through an agency...actually, it was a little cheaper. We did get their early saver rate, and with what the price was - we couldn't pass up the cruise! I must say that our travel agent through Carnival was wonderful - UP UNTIL WE PAID THE FINAL PAYMENT. Then I never heard from her again. Before when I had questions and would shoot her an e-mail, within an hour I would receive both an e-mail and phone call back with a reply. Once final payment was received, I would have to call (and sometimes speak with another agent) in order to get a question answered. I was a little turned-off by this, and may choose to book another way in the future; either through an actual travel agent or utilizing someone else through Carnival. However, again, I have to say our early saver rate was amazing - I think my husband actually ATE more than his share of what the cruise cost!
Getting to the Port (Embarkation?): My husband and I live about 2 hours outside of NYC, in the Pocono Mountains. Fortunately my parents were gracious enough to offer to drive us to the port (and pick us up). This saved us the $30/day Port Authority charge for parking...and saved us on the tolls as well, since they paid for that! We left home around 10am, and pulled up to the pier around noon. Seeing as how we were early, we asked the porter if we could drop our luggage off and grab a snack (my Mom and grandmother were the ones driving us, and they were getting hungry!), coming back with in an hour or so for our embarkation time. He was very friendly, said no problem, loaded our luggage (and we watched him take it in right away) and we definitely tipped him as added insurance! We then went to a cute little cafe a few blocks up; my husband and I just had a drink and my mom and grandmother enjoyed a delicious salad. About an hour later, we got back to the port and walked right into the elevator and up into check-in. All together it probably only took us about 20-30 minutes to get checked-in, receive our sail and sign cards and find two comfortable lounge chairs on the back of the lido deck to settle in at. Shortly after I had my first (and definitely not my last) ice cream cone...
Stateroom: Our stateroom was, what I am assuming, a typical inside cabin on a cruise ship. We were pleasantly surprised by the size (I think we thought it would be slightly larger than a closet) - while small, we could still move around and were quite comfortable in it. Our steward, Gerald, was amazing and could never do enough to help us out. I think we always had fresh ice, clean sheets, clean towels and fun towel animals. Never cruising before, we looked forward to walking in every evening after dinner and be surprised with a new critter on our bed (or hanging from the ceiling...)! I do have to comment - the body wash that they provide you with in the showers was great. I loved the smell, and I did feel really clean afterwards. I started using that after the second day (figuring I'd save mine, why not?) - however I used the shampoo on the last day (because everything was already packed for disembarkation, and I am GLAD I only used it once. It felt awful, and left my hair wanting to be washed again in normal shampoo. Just a word to the wise if you were planning on using theirs the whole time; you may want to bring your favorite bottle.
Food, Glorious Food!: Ok. Where do I begin? Again, we've never cruised before, so we can't compare it with other cruise lines. But we were definitely both very happy with the food. We choose "My Time Dining" for Bacchus dining hall, and we typically got there early in between 6-7pm. It was nice being able to just go whenever we wanted; however I do think I would have liked having the same waiter each night. We went to Bacchus 5 times for dinner (the rest of the time just did the buffet or room service - my husband isn't one for "dressing-up" and sometimes we were really just hungry for a sandwich or something. The buffets also had comparable foods on them as to what was served in Bacchus (for instance, lamb was served on the carving board at the buffet on evening when it was also being served in Bacchus). While it is nice being waited on, I also found I ate a lot more IN Bacchus than at the buffet!! (I think that was in part due to their Chocolate Melting Cake...)
We had three different waiters in Bacchus, the only one we had twice was Houston. I liked being remembered by name, and he knew some of our preferences even after only waiting on us one time. He was very friendly, and we thoroughly enjoyed dining there every time we went. Actually, all of our waiters went out of their way to take care of us and we were never disappointed.
Oh, and did I mention the Chocolate Melting Cake is simply TO DIE FOR?!
The room service was also pretty good. We did that twice for breakfast (on port days, to help us get an early start to enjoy the islands) and three times for a late-night snack. Breakfast was RIGHT on time both days, it was pretty amazing (we didn't even need to set our alarm clock - and what a perfect wake-up call!). The late-night snacks took quite a while to get to our room. If you plan on getting room service, expect at least 30 minutes to almost an hour in the evening.
Activities/Entertainment Onboard: I'm going to roll these into one category because my husband and I didn't do too many activities onboard. We were lounge lizards during the day, picking out a lounge chair on the sun deck and taking a nap, and at night we usually went to the show or wandered aimlessly around the deck just enjoying each other's company! (Quick side note: We made a ritual of going out on the deck to watch the sunset every night. It was amazing - and there was hardly ANYONE on the decks this time of night! I think it was due to being "dinner time" as well (but we typically ate early). I highly recommend this; even though our sunsets were blocked to clouds - they were still awesome to watch.)
Danny seemed like he was a good cruise director, we enjoyed his messages and didn't think they were "overdone." When we saw him at the shows and few things we did attend, again he seemed very active and fun - but not too "overly boisterous."
Of the "main shows" we attended, the juggler, Marcos Monroe, was fun. The Beatles show...interesting? And we really enjoyed the ventriloquist, Phil Hughes. My husband isn't one for shows, but he enjoyed all three!
We really just enjoyed the relaxation aspect of the cruise - we didn't partake in all of the games, as we're really "not into" all of that. We did do some gambling in the casino, just blackjack and face-up blackjack. We thought face-up blackjack would be easy...it's NOT! The dealer constantly won, but we had a fun group at the table with us so we had a few good laughs and enjoyed the conversation. (Plus, if you go to play, a tip - the dealer WINS on a PUSH in face-up blackjack.)
Random Things to Note Onboard: The Internet usage is extremely expensive! I did not need to buy a huge package, and I wish they offered a smaller one - maybe 20-30 minutes long for a more reasonable rate. I only e-mailed twice (just to send a note home). Tip: If you are utilizing the Internet to send an e-mail home to loved-ones; don't use your minutes! Type the e-mail in word FIRST, then log on, copy and paste (or attach - but remember, attachments take longer to, well, attach) and then send it! I did this twice - and both times was on the Internet for less than three minutes each time to send an e-mail that was about two pages long both times. However for the 6-7 minutes of Internet time, plus their activation fee, I wound up paying nearly $10.00 for it.
The coffee was the only thing that my husband did NOT like as far as food on the cruise. Actually - it was really his only complaint during the week. The coffee bar is slightly better. My thought is...next time maybe bring some of those Starbucks instant brew mixes and mix them in with the hot water. They actually taste pretty decent, especially when doctored with some sugar and cream.
The sushi bar is good, and fun, however if you are going to the buffet for dinner - they offer the same sushi (not as nice of a presentation, as in sashimi not on top of a roll, etc., but still it's the same!) next to the salad bar! Why wait in line downstairs and in an out-of-the-way location when you can go up there and get it right with your meal (or as an appetizer before hand)?
The muster drill was probably our only other complaint. It was a complete waste of 20 minutes. I'm not saying it's not a good idea to do a muster drill - it's just the fact that we arrived on time (which no one else seemed to do), and were placed near the back of the lines. There were at least 5 rows of people in front of us. Therefore when it came time for them to show you how to put on a lifejacket - I couldn't tell you because I couldn't see them...let alone hear due to everyone else rolling eyes and making snide comments. I think they need a better system...
Ports of Call: Our Miracle cruise consisted of Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay and Nassau. We did not book ANY excursions through Carnival, as they all seemed really short and none yelled out to me "book me, book me!"
Grand Turk - We really enjoyed Grand Turk. We walked down the end of the beach together (where no one else was) and found hundreds of conch shells just lying on the beach. It was an unreal sight, and nice to have some privacy! We also had some beach time, and after a while went back on the boat, rinsed off from the sand and saltwater, got changed and headed back out to Margaritaville and the shops! It's nice docking that close to the land, as we didn't mind running back on the ship at all! We also grabbed a quick sandwich while back onboard (why pay for food when we get it there for free?). We did the obligatory Margarita at Margaritaville, and walked around and looked at all of the overpriced souvenirs before getting back on the Miracle.
Half Moon Cay - I would go on a cruise that only offered THIS island as it's only port of call. It truly is a beautiful place. We were going to book the glass bottom boat that went through the eco-lagoon, but we decided on it the night before and it was already sold-out. No worries, we instead did our own "walking tour" of the island and enjoyed every moment of it. The plants and flowers are breathtaking, and we walked all the way over to Sting Ray Cove and watched the sting rays at play! You could walk right up to the water's edge where the "excursion" was taking place - and for those not too sure about booking the sting ray excursion (like me), this was a great way to still see them and not be too close - and to see if you'd like it for next time. Also, I don't think the water could be any more clear (I'd drink it if it weren't for the salt...) and the sand any whiter. I did snorkel on my own there (my parents' had snorkeling gear from a trip and I borrowed it for the cruise) - but did not see any fish. I wish I would have done the snorkeling in Grand Turk as you could look in the water and see fish right next to you there.
Nassau - This is the only stop where we booked an excursion, and it was NOT through Carnival. Friends of my parents recently went on The Miracle and at their Nassau stop did a tour called "Taste of Nassau." We found it on Island Marketing's website and I decided to book it. The cost was $30.00/pp and included an authentic lunch at Arawak Cay Fish Fry! Not sure what to expect, we were a little hesitant - especially since we arrived early at the designated meeting place and no one else was there! Fortunately a few minutes later our friendly tour guide showed up, and stated that there would only be one other couple with us! (They were extremely friendly, and we were glad to share this experience with them - they had arrived on the Fantasy from Charleston!) We waited a few moments for them and then began our tour. First stop was Fort Fincastle, and then a climb down Queen's Staircase (our guide was nice enough to pick us up at the BOTTOM of the stairs...). This was after pointing out interesting sights along the way, such as the courthouses, schools and other old buildings throughout Nassau. Then we headed over to Atlantis - again, with him pointing out important points of interest along the way. Atlantis is seriously amazing, and we loved every minute we were there. He dropped us off for about half an hour, and let us explore on our own. (He did the same with the fort and Queen's Staircase.) He then drove us around Nassau, pointing out where the Prime Minister lives, the embassy is and other sights of interest. The definite highlight is that we went to the fish fry area for lunch and ate at one of the small restaurants there. The food was DELICIOUS! There is seriously no better way to sample the local cuisine than at one of these little places. Like the other couple with us said, "We wouldn't come here on our own, or by the looks of it, but boy was the food good!" They were certainly right! We had conch fritters, conch, grouper and much more - and plenty of it! We also enjoyed a delicious Kalik - a must have if you go to Nassau. When the tour was over, instead of taking us back to the port, we all asked to be dropped off in the shopping district by the straw market and Senor Frogs. The tour definitely gave us a "highlight" of Nassau - and I would highly recommend it.
The straw market was...not what I expected! I was thinking more of Bahamian souvenirs, not knock-off Coach purses...but, it was an experience. We did our shopping and then headed back to the ship. There were two other Carnival ships in dock that day, so it was definitely a busy day in Nassau.
Disembarkation: This was a pretty easy process. I had told my parents' to be there around 10:30AM (I was told the night before our code would be 16, so we would be called around 10AM) - and they were pretty right on the money. What we learned for next time is to CARRY our luggage off - we decided to check it. They get called off the ship MUCH earlier and we were thinking it would be nice to have our luggage already taken care of while going through customs (which all they do is glance at your passport and say "welcome home!") - when you have to pick up your luggage first anyways! However if you do want the extra two hours on the ship (which we were on the Lido deck enjoying breakfast, so I won't complain) - then I recommend checking your luggage!
We then carried the luggage ourselves to the pick-up area, and within 10 minutes my parents arrived and we were on our way home! Other than the typical NYC traffic, once we made it through the Lincoln we were home within 2 hours. I don't see how I would pick to cruise out of anywhere else seeing how easy it was to get there, and get back. And it's also nice not having to worry about flying or checking additional luggage and being able to bring as many souvenirs back as we wanted! (within reason, of course...)
Summary: We LOVED it! We really don't have any complaints, and when asked if he would go back - my husband, usually the less excited of the two of us, answered with an enthusiastic "ABSOLUTELY!" We both agreed that it was one of the best vacations we had ever been on, and one of the most relaxed! We've done vacations like Disney World and Universal and Williamsburg, VA., and vacations where we were constantly "on the go." This one wasn't like that. We felt that on the cruise we could be as active as we wanted, or as relaxed as we wanted. It's up to you how busy you want your experience to be. The ports were truly wonderful, and we made them relaxing as well - doing what we wanted. And the time before and after the ports was a perfect amount to really relax and enjoy everything that the floating resort known as "The Miracle" has to offer. We truly felt pampered the entire time, and I for one loved not lifting a finger the entire week. I'm already starting a campaign for gathering the whole family together and going to Bermuda on The Miracle... :) I'd definitely say our first cruise was an amazing experience...and in a way, a Miracle - due to the fact that we went in the midst of hurricane season and barely experienced a drizzle of rain!