Background: This was my fifth cruise on the Carnival Miracle due to the convenience of getting to the Port of New York without flying. Overall this is my ninth cruise, all with Carnival. Seven friends sailed with me and three of us did this same itinerary last year. We chose this cruise again because the ports are relaxing and there were a few others things we wanted to try that we didn't have time for last year.
Pre-Cruise: Five of us are from central Pennsylvania and we took a bus into NYC the night before the cruise from Scranton, PA. The prices were very reasonable for the bus, parking, and relaxed baggage restrictions. The other three met us in the city and traveled by bus or train. We stayed at the Eastgate Tower Hotel located on 39th and 2nd. It was a walk to Times Square, but still doable. When I booked in March they ran a special on a 2 bedroom suite for $309, including taxes. For a clean room that comfortably slept eight, that was a great deal. I highly recommend this hotel. After checking in we walked to Dave & Buster's in Times Square, and then took a subway to the Yankees game that evening. It was a fun day in the city to get the vacation started.
Embarkation: It took three cabs to transport all eight of us with our luggage to the cruise terminal for about $25 with the tip per taxi. We left the hotel a little after 9:00 AM and we all arrived at the pier by 9:40. We handed our luggage over to the porter inside the terminal and waited in a roped-off area. Once they began letting us through security around 10:30, the embarkation staff let those in the roped-off area line up first. Security and check in went fast and we were in the final waiting area with boarding zone 1 cards in less than 10 minutes. A wedding party boarded promptly at 11:30 followed immediately by pre-boarding and general boarding. Zone 1 was called around 11:45. It seems that every time I sail from New York, Carnival continues to improve the embarkation process and it is at the point where it couldn't get much better unless they allow guests to go thorough security and check in earlier.
Ship: The Carnival Miracle is my favorite ship. I like the Spirit class because they are large, but hold fewer passengers than the mega liners. The ship rarely feels crowded, especially if you are willing to look for lounge chairs on deck 10 or above. The dEcor is typical Carnival with some things a little over the top, but it really reminds you that you are on vacation away from the "real world." One of the best features of this ship is the large dining room in the aft section. This allows passengers to move from the front to the back without dodging a midship dining room. The ship is scheduled for dry dock in January 2012 and it is starting to look like it needs it. While it is still in great condition and the crew keeps The Miracle clean, normal wear is beginning to show, especially on the hull.
Cabins: The eight of us traveling paired up in four rooms. Two cabins were insides, 7293 and 7297, and these were square shaped compared to most cabins in this category. They seemed to have more storage space and they felt roomier than a standard inside. On the other side of the ship, we had extended balcony cabins 7254 and 7258. The cabins of both rooms were typical balcony cabins with a sofa and ample storage space. The extended balconies allow a little more movement and you don't feel like you are right at the balcony rail when sitting. It is actually possible to side around the little table and play a game. Cabin 7258 has an extra large balcony that is three times as long as a typical extended balcony. The balcony was furnished with two chairs and a table as well as two chaise loungers. The eight of us often met on the balcony and when we played games, we comfortably fit in less than half of the available space. The cabin steward for the balcony cabins, I Made, was very good. We rarely saw him due to the curves in the corridor, but the cabins were always made up when we came back from breakfast and dinner. At the beginning of the cruise he asked us our usual morning and evening routine and he clearly took this into account when servicing cabins. I cannot say much about the steward for the interior cabins, Boi, but he did quickly attend to some guest-caused issues such as spills.
Entertainment: We spent most of our evenings in the piano bar with Billy. The piano bars on the Spirit class ships usually don't get crowded due to their location, but that didn't stop Billy from singing for us and drawing a crowd some nights. He knows a wide range of songs and learns some that he doesn't know by the end of the cruise. During slower times, he even chatted with us and made us feel very welcome. One night he even played past 3:00 am! Below the piano bar, in Frankie and Johnny's, Music Unlimited, played nightly and they are a great cover band. Superstar Karaoke is a fun new addition where you sing karaoke with a live band. The host sings back-ups or helps keep participants on pitch when needed. She was an excellent singer and host.
The Punchliner Comedy Club hosted four comedians and an open mic night during the cruise. The shows drew huge crowds, so you needed to arrive about 30 minutes early to grab seats. Overall, the comedy was enjoyable but forgettable with the exception of Just June who was hilarious and crazy. All of her shows were different and very entertaining!
Since this was my fifth time on the Miracle, I did not attend all of the production shows I did see the Welcome Aboard show, Ticket to Ride, and Legends. Ticket to Ride is a revue of Beatles music and I always enjoy it. I did not see Generations, which showcases music from the 20s through the 80s, or Singin' with the Big Band. It is nice that the Miracle still has a 10 member show band. Other main shows included Marcus Monroe "Rockstar Juggler" and a magician. Both acts were very entertaining and heavy on comedy, but Marcus Monroe is not to be missed. I would pay an admission fee to see him perform on land. On another night, the Marriage Game served as the main show and those of us who cruised before felt a little cheated out of a show since this is normally hosted on an afternoon.
Activities: During the day I just relaxed on deck or on the balcony. There were typical lido games and trivia contests throughout the day as well as sports activities. There were several activities in the evening in the main lounge that helped pass the time waiting for main shows to begin. The bingos got a little annoying to those of us who don't play. It seemed they would wait until all other activities were over, then they would sell bingo tickets for half an hour before finally playing the five minute game.
This was my fifth sailing with Malcolm as the cruise director, and while I didn't see him around the ship as often this time, he is very friendly and creates a fun atmosphere. The assistant cruise director, Shawn, was over-the-top obnoxious at most events, although his Dr. Ruth adult trivia contest was well done. Simon and Rosie rounded out the entertainment staff very well. Both were very friendly, and Simon brought so much energy and personality to every event he hosted. He even sang (very well) at the farewell party. He will make an excellent cruise director.
Dining: Food on Carnival has always been very consistent in my experience, and this was no exception. The lido buffet serves a wide variety of food and is spread out so it is easy to find food with little wait if you are not picky. Separate stations consisted of salad, deli, Asian, international, grill, carved meats, and desserts. At 3:00 pm on sea days they also offered an ice cream sundae bar featuring a nice variety of toppings. Sushi was available on the promenade deck before dinner each night and I heard that they offered a few different rolls each evening and they changed throughout the cruise.
Dinner in the main dining room was excellent as usual. The eight of us were seated at table 150 with its own aft-view window on the port side. Our head waiter Ricky and assistant Hilario, both from the Philippines, were very good. They had several large tables so they were kept busy. The food looked and tasted delicious. The duck on the first formal night was one of the highlights as it was perfect. All of the steaks were good as well, but we needed to order them one level below what you want. If you want a medium steak, order it medium rare.
The night of Grand Turk all eight of us had reservations for Nick and Nora's, the steakhouse. I read many good things about it and we all had high expectations. The service and food were simply outstanding. The entire service took two hours and forty-five minutes, but it did not feel slow. With the different courses, presentation of the food, and complements of the chef, there was always something going on.
Outside of the dining areas, beverage service seemed very good on this cruise. Waiters and waitresses were not overbearing, but they were easy to find. The piano bar was not usually crowded, so service was personal and quick. One beverage waitress in particular, Jo Ann from the Philippians, remembered us by name and drink from a previous sailing a year ago and provided excellent service throughout the cruise.
Ports: We chose this cruise because we liked the 4 sea days and we wanted to visit the 3 ports. A few of us sailed this same itinerary last year, but we liked that the sea days and ports provided many opportunities to relax. We also wanted to rent a cabana on Half Moon Cay and explore the Aquaventure at Atlantis in Nassau.
Grand Turk is a small island with friendly people and beautiful beaches. It is a great place to snorkel or dive since "the wall" (a 7000 foot drop off in the Atlantic) is only about 40 yards from parts of the island. Five people in the group did a snorkel excursion through Carnival called "Ultimate Snorkeling Adventure." The water was choppy, so it was a struggle to stay afloat, but otherwise they reported positive things about the excursion.
Half Moon Cay is my favorite port. It is a private island and gorgeous. The sand is like powder, the water is blue, and the foliage is green. We rented a cabana and felt that we got our money's worth. Chips, salsa, fresh fruits and vegetables, dips, and eight sodas in a cooler were already waiting for us in the cabana when we arrived. Snorkeling gear and floating mats for four people are also provided. Eight of us comfortably fit in the cabana for shade, and the ceiling fan, air conditioner, and misting fan were appreciated. We chose cabana 12 because it is a little more private as it is down the beach from the crowds. It is also only 2 cabanas away from restrooms and the main path leading to the food service areas. Getting to the cabana in the morning was simple as we just walked straight down to the tender around 8:40 since we had priority. Others in our group picked up tender stickers at the same time, but still made it on the first tender to shore with us. The line to tender back to the ship moved pretty well and took about 15 minutes. It was a great day on the island, and I will rent a cabana again for the convenience and comfort.
Last year in Nassau we visited the public areas of Atlantis and decided we would buy the day pass to experience the Aquaventure waterpark this time. We booked two rooms at the Comfort Suites across the street from Atlantis because it included day passes. When we went ashore, we grabbed a taxi and he took us over to the hotel where we checked in. Since rooms wouldn't be ready until 3:00 PM, I asked them to automatically check us out so we did not have to go back to the hotel. It was about a 3 minute walk from the front desk of the Comfort Suites to the nearest entrance of Atlantis. Once inside we had to walk through the casino and into the lower level of the lobby to receive our wristbands. Right across from the desk was the entrance to The Dig, the aquarium, so we walked through that and right out to the pools and slides. Atlantis is a huge property and we only saw about half of it in the day we were there. We really liked the "lazy river" that circled the new water slides since it was very long and included rapids and waves. The lines for the slides on that side were also pretty short, so we did them a few times and they left you back off in the "lazy river." I don't know if I would really want to stay at Atlantis for an extended period of time, but I would visit it again on a cruise. After leaving Atlantis around 3:30, we walked around the shops near the terminal and were back on the ship around 4:30.
Finally, while not a port, four of us did the Behind the Fun tour on the ship the last sea day. It was a three and a half hour tour that was very informative and interesting. We visited several crew-only areas including back stage in the main lounge, the main galley, food stores, beer and soda stores, recycling room, engine control room, laundry rooms, crew bar, the steakhouse galley, and the bridge. In each area, the person in charge spoke with us and answered questions. We had plenty of time in the engine control room and on the bridge, and the officers were very welcoming. This was a great way to see some of the hard work people have to do to allow us to enjoy the vacation.
Debarkation: Many of us in the group wanted to debark early to catch an early bus home from port authority. This was the first time I carried my own bags off the ship and it was not a good experience. Debarkation in New York is usually pretty easy, but we docked at the same pier as the Carnival Glory, who beat us into port so they were already debarking. This created a very crowded customs area and a lot of standing and waiting. Those of us with passports made it through about 20 minutes quicker than passengers with birth certificates. People at the port were directing us in many different locations. One person on a bull horn was shouting that taxis are across the street and private pick-ups are upstairs. The next minute he would switch and announce taxis are upstairs and private pick-ups are across the street. Since I sailed from NYC before I knew both are upstairs, but it is usually quicker to grab a cab across the street. Overall, I was disappointed in the debarkation process due to both ships being at the same pier and port workers being apathetic and occasionally misleading.
Conclusion: Even though debarkation was a mess, the rest of the cruise, including embarkation was excellent! The staff was very friendly and there was a lot of good entertainment. The piano bar, ports, and balcony were definitely the highlights of the cruise and I recommend this itinerary for anyone looking for eight relaxing days at sea.