Carnival Miracle, 20-27 August 2006
My wife and I are in our late 20s, and this was our honeymoon cruise. I'll apologize up front for being long winded, but the main takeaway is: Yet another excellent cruise by Carnival! (although they'll sell you anything they can on the ship - we laughed at the pamphlet that was selling the bedding on our beds).
Pre-cruise We had booked through Priceline to get our cruise, hotel, and flight package deal. It was a pretty good deal for a Cat 8 Guarantee balcony since we booked it almost a year in advance, and the package came with lots of bells and whistles like a free rental car for a day, hotel stay at a Marriott, and shuttle service to and from the airport. When we finally got our docs, did I ever do the doc dance - we were upgraded to a suite (Suite 6176)! But then a few moments later I saw that, although they gave me a rental car voucher and hotel stay for the night before, I was still flying out the day of the cruise and scheduled to land in Tampa at 1:45. Suffice it to say this wasn't going to cut it, and after a quick call to Priceline, they were more than happy to fix it since they screwed up (to their own confession). They also threw in as an apology an extra hotel stay for future use. My second set of docs arrived 2 weeks later, and I kicked myself when I saw the flight times - 6am the day before the cruise. Since our wedding was the day before, there was no way I could make the 6am flight (which I had forgotten to mention previously), and another call to both Priceline and Carnival basically left me on my own (they fixed it once for me - which I understood). I ended up paying $100 pp to switch the flights to 12:30. Bottom line - Priceline was great, but if you want flexibility in your flights then arrange them on your own.
We stayed at the Renaissance right outside of the airport. The hotel was beautiful, clean, and right near a huge shopping plaza that we spent some time walking through. I was surprised that our package deal would give us a hotel that nice. The pool was also an added benefit, as we spent our first honeymoon night in the hot tub and pool floating around in our own private oasis. Bottom line - Since we were only there for the evening, it was perfect. If your stay is longer, you want more to see and do, or you want to be down in the middle of it all, you may want to try the waterfront area. But seeing how we weren't vacationing in Tampa, and we never even used the free car rental, the Renaissance fit our needs perfectly.
The next day we took the hotel shuttle service back to the airport so that we could catch up with the Carnival shuttle to the pier. The shuttle dropped us off at the Blue area (where they picked us up the day before). We walked into the terminal by the baggage claim (about 1030am at the time) to see a group of 3 or 4 Carnival representatives. They double checked our bookings and corralled us into the waiting area for the bus. I was told by one of the Carnival reps that the vouchers we had were worth $50 pp (not sure if I believed that one, but given Carnival prices it was probably real). Small complaint - I had spoken to Mears transportation (the owner of the shuttle) a couple of times that day. They had told me to go at 10, and that buses would be running every half hour to the pier. FALSE. We waited from 1000 to about 1100 for the first bus to leave (big greyhound that they packed to the gills). We almost didn't get on the first bus either, since they were going by flight numbers - to them, I wasn't there yet since my original flight was supposed to get in later that day. I spoke to them and they got me on the bus anyway. The ride to the pier was nice narrated by the bus driver who was pretty funny. Bottom line - Since it was part of the deal it was great. But at $50 pp, I would have rather avoided the cattle call and taken a taxi if it hadn't been included.
Embarkation This one will be short, and rightfully so, because our room upgrade to a suite came with VIP embarkation. When we walked into the terminal (I'll guess at roughly 1145am) there were lines galore. But over to the side was a small desk, with 2 Carnival employees, and no one there. We sat down with them; they gave us our cards, and personally escorted us past the lines to the point where you take the embarkation photos. We were on the boat within 15 minutes of walking into the terminal. We went to Horatio's (Lido deck) for lunch and then to the pool. NOTE: I knew better from the last time I cruised, but I forgot to wear/bring swimming trunks (they were packed away in my luggage still) for when you first get on. My wife had remembered, and immediately slipped into the pool. I waded at the pool edge (drinks in hand of course as they were immediately making the rounds with the drink of the day). We went to our rooms at about 2pm, but our luggage didn't end up getting there until about 6pm. It didn't bother me all that much though since I was already in vacation mode. Bottom line - VIP embarkation is worth it if you have the opportunity, and BRING BATHING SUITS in hand.
The suite (6176 Empress Deck) was awesome. The location was just about right in the middle of the boat (slightly forward), and had easy access to all destinations of the ship. The suite was huge and more than I ever expected. It was decorated with Congratulations stuff all over and had a fruit/cheese basket (courtesy of the OPC). And the bathrobes were extra plush! We're afraid that the suite has spoiled us and we'd never be able to settle for a smaller room - it definitely added a different aspect to the cruise. On my past cruise, the room was only something to sleep in. However, the suite was bright and airy, and we spent many mornings/evenings watching the horizon from the room/balcony. It was very beautiful and peaceful. Bottom line - Although we LOVED the suite and it gave us the most memorable honeymoon, I don't know that I would ever explicitly book one due to the price differential. I'm assuming a standard balcony room would be comparable (although I haven't seen one).
Ports of Call Grand Cayman
Since this was our first time to Grand Cayman, we did the tourist thing with Seven Mile Beach, Hell, Turtle Farm, and Stingray City. Tendering was a piece of cake (to my surprise) we didn't try to get off until 915am, which probably helped. I'll preface the whole thing with the beach was cool, Hell and Turtle Farm pretty neat, and the stingrays themselves are awesome (although I screamed like a girl while my wife actually put one on her head for a photo - those stingrays are BIG). However, in Carnival fashion, we were part of a cattle call the whole time. We were escorted over to the vans, that sat 2 people on the right, one on the left, and then when everyone was in, a seat slid out in the aisle for a 4th person. My wife and I were in the front passenger seats of the van, which was cool, but even so, WAY too packed. With hindsight, I would have preferred to take a private tour and not be bunched up with so many people. Hell is cool, but again is a tiny area and the vans were just packing people in there. Same with the turtle farm. By the time we got to the boat to take us out to Stingray city we were HOT! We all packed onto the boat (and by all I mean our van, as well as a bunch of other vans). Both levels of the boat were shoulder-to-shoulder people. While baking in the sun, we were told we had to wait another 10 minutes for the last van to show up which was running late. When we finally got underway they handed out masks/snorkels (which they didn't have enough of due to the number of people they packed on). The stingrays were cool when we got there it's a must see, and the water is the bluest blue. On the way back they tried to do the whole rum punch thing, but there was one cooler of punch on the side of the boat, and about 100 people trying to get to it in single file. Bottom line - I hate to sour this one, but this is the last time I book an excursion through Carnival. They are too concerned with quantity of people and not the quality of the experience. My recommendation to anyone going that doesn't like the herd mentality - get off the ship, find someone doing personal tours of the beach, Hell, Turtle Farm, etc. You can experience it all in not much time and for not as much money. And look into getting out to the stingrays either a) on a true booze cruise boat that actually has room to stand and not be elbow to elbow, or b) on a catamaran/private boat. I wished I had researched this one a bit more before arriving.
We had done tons of research on Cozumel before cruising, a lot of which was through www.cozumelmycozumel.com, which proved VERY helpful. When we arrived we didn't have to tender since we had access to the pier (lucky us). We were in awe of the amount of devastation that the hurricane had left, but you could see all around where they were starting to make progress getting back to normal. The vegetation is the one area that will definitely take time, however. We didn't book excursions here since we felt prepared. We were off the boat right away, skipped by all of the excursions, and straight to a taxi. We asked the taxi ($10) to bring us to the Corona Beach Club, which was a neat little club we had read about that would allow us to snorkel (we brought our own but they rented it there as well). We were the only ones there for about an hour and a half, until another couple looking to go snorkeling away from the pack showed up. The beach club had a bunch of patio sets, chairs, sand, etc. that was free of charge - they just ask that you eat/drink there. So after snorkeling around (and we did see quite a few fish) we grabbed a few beers and a few chicken tacos and relaxed. I also bought a t-shirt from them $18 and tipped them $2 since somehow no one in Cozumel ever has change. Hmmm J. Do yourself a favor and make sure you have lots of various bills for exact change.
After a couple of hours at the Corona beach club we were ready to move on. The owners of the club went out of their way to call us a taxi and wait for it at the street very nice of them. We then asked the taxi to take us to the San Francisco Beach club. He ended up taking us to the Paradise Beach club, literally right next door to the San Fran club, and said to walk up through that club and over on the beach. We assumed he got a kickback from the Paradise club, which didn't matter to us as the places looked the same. We ended up staying at Paradise. The beach was free, but it was (I believe) $8 pp to use their snorkeling equipment, floating rock wall, trampoline, kayaks, floating chairs, etc. Well worth it we had a ton of fun here, although it is a very popular spot (I think the Carnival Tours probably brought you there as well for your first born - $15 cab ride for two people did us fine). We sunbathed in the chairs, and drinks were brought out to you (at almost regular drink prices). The trampoline and rock wall were fun. We did grab our own snorkel equipment again to give it a shot, but the artificial sand beaches of the club a) give you nothing to look at if you could see, and b) won't let you see because the sand stirs up. Don't plan on snorkeling at these beach clubs if that's what you're looking for. But this place was fun for both kids and those of us that still think we're kids.
Finally, per the recommendation of friends back home, we took a $15 cab ride from the beach club to Carlos n Charlies. If you've never experienced this place, you must. Warning: Make sure you know how to get back to the ship. They definitely know how to peer pressure you into shots of ??? (I still don't know what it is that I drank), and fun was had by all (the crowd was slightly younger upper 20s to 30s). Two yards of drinks and 10 shots later, we escaped while we could still stand and took a taxi back to the boat. Bottom line If you're looking for a fun day of being beach bums and a little early afternoon partying, go to the clubs and Carlos n Charlies. You won't regret it (okay, maybe just a little the next morning).
The day after Carlos n Charlies I almost slept in but I'm glad I didn't. We had arranged cave tubing beforehand with Yhoni (from cave-tubing.com). I had missed the getting off the boat talks that we were supposedly supposed to sit through. That morning we went down to the gangway and slipped in line (I know I know boo hiss, and after we got on the tender I realized everybody had numbers on their chest oops). I wasn't about to wait in line for the Carnival tours to get off anyway. Say what you will, but my money is green just like everybody else. We chose cave-tubing.com because of all of the positive reviews, and we weren't disappointed one bit. They set out to make their trip memorable and fun as best they can by comparison to the Carnival herds (and they are always drawing out comparisons along the way that make you appreciate what you're getting). We thought they did a great job. We boarded an air-conditioned bus right outside the terminal (although I wouldn't stray to far away from the terminal). The bus had 4 tour guides on it, all being comedians on the way down. The roads were a little bumpy, but the cashew wine that they served us seemed to make the bumps subside, just a bit. They asked us on the way whether we wanted to do 1 cave or 2, and obviously we all chose 2. We hiked about 30 minutes in the rainforest, which I didn't mind as this was the only exercise I had received the whole cruise. As we were marching along at a decent pace, we passed large lines of Carnival-brand cave tubing people (from what I heard talking to people on the ship afterward, they paid double the money, for half the service and experience). The caves were beautiful. We split into chains of tubes, about 8-10 people long, with a guide at the beginning of each chain. The guide talked us through the cave, showing the various formations. It was a blast. After we came out of the first cave we passed a mass of people from the Carnival excursion that started in at the second cave. When you get out of the caves, there is a small rapids. Our guide made sure that we were safe going down the rapids, as opposed to the Carnival excursion goers that were on their own. I actually did see one tuber that was on her own wipe-out against some rocks in the rapids but I'm glad the person was ok. When done, we stopped at Cheers (a local bar/restaurant) to enjoy a meal of beans, rice, chicken, and a couple of Belikin (local beer). Finally, when reaching the pier, we settled up with them ($45 pp plus we added a healthy tip for the extra fun). Bottom line - Avoid Carnival as the excursion. Try cave-tubing.com (or any other company that does it on their own). You will appreciate the service you get. In our opinions, this was a can't-miss experience.
This will be short, right to the Bottom line - I knew what to expect when I got here from other reviews and I received just that. We hung out at the pool right off the pier, listened to music, and enjoyed a few drinks. I received a nice tan here, but other than that; I can't speak for this port.
The Ship Bacchus Dining The food was pretty good, but I seemed to remember it being better on our last cruise. I thought that with the introduction/pushing of Nick and Noras (the upscale restaurant) that the other food suffered a little. The presentation of all of the food was always beautiful. But I found the tastes to seem to blend from night to night and the seafood had a lot of sauces on them. We had second seating (table 329), and our servers were awesome. Our drink server was, however, a little slow. By the second night I knew to order a drink well before I needed it. We tried breakfast once in the dining room but it was the same food from Horatio's, expect with the added wait of a waiter. Oh, and after speaking to the Maitre D', the lights were completely changed out on the cruise before us so they were an interesting purple (still a little over the top) compared to the pepto-pink.
Photographs Wow - Talk about photo opportunities! Everywhere you turn there is someone to take your photo. We saw them on all decks, especially the Lido and the Promenade (for more formal pictures). They were off the gangway, at the ports, in the stores, on the excursions you name it. We were a little disappointed that the pictures were so expensive ($8 for small pics - $20 for the formal ones) and they didn't have many discounts. But if you don't have any good photographs of you and/or the family, this is your opportunity to get the perfect picture.
Spa We didn't partake in the spa too much other than the couple's massage we signed up for. We did the massage in Costa Maya in the morning since we knew there wasn't much going on there. It was well worth it, although at the end (of course) they try to sell you stuff. Carnival's attempt at selling you anything and everything got REAL old, but once I said no to the seaweed gel that I MUST APPLY TO ANKLES NIGHTLY or I will never feel relaxed again they said ok and backed off.
Horatio's Breakfast was so so- it never changed from day to day. Lunch was always good. Many choices. We did our best to not make too many trips. And you can't miss the chocolate buffet!
Room Service We had room service every morning for coffee, juice, and croissants. It was nice to be able to slowly wake up and enjoy the balcony view. They were pretty accurate with the time of room service you request as well.
Nick and Nora's We never got a chance to try it but heard from others that it was very good.
Entertainment There was something for everyone. We didn't do a whole lot of the shows although my wife liked them I found them to be a poor attempt at Broadway. But with everything there is to do on the ship, you can't be bored. The hypnotist was awesome - we went to both the PG and the R rated shows, and both were hilarious. My wife actually went up there and was hypnotized. The past guest party was pretty nice - just another opportunity to get a couple of free drinks and appetizers, but was much appreciated. The Lido deck activities were a blast, from bathrobes and beer party to hair chest competitions (although just once I was hoping they would lower the beer/liquor prices to something that didn't make me wince as much). I was disappointed that we didn't get to see the comedian because I hear he was funny.
And then there is the water slide. I've heard a lot of complaints about the water slide, and having to push yourself to the bottom. I thought the same thing the first couple times I went down it. And the Carnival employee standing there didn't say a word. Then someone came up to me and said to cross my arms over the chest, arch my back, cross my legs and push my heel downward. Wouldn't you know it, I zoomed down that puppy (plug eyes, nose, ears or you get a stinging salt water enema)! Excellent fun! Too bad the Carnival employees don't say anything when you're scraping your bottom down a slide manually. But whomever that was that gave me the pointer - thank you!
Stewards Ours (Clarence) was very friendly and always called me out by name and wished me a good day. We found the clothes that we had left strewn about folded in a neat pile every day, and the rooms always tidy. We always had ice every morning/evening. The only down side was the souvenir cups had stuff in them that in the past our steward cleaned up for us. Ours sat there until the last day when I finally cleaned them out (pretty gross by that point too).
Debarkation We put our luggage out the night before. The morning of debarkation, from about 800 - 900 the self-assisters went off. We had breakfast, and then walked off the ship. Our luggage was there, customs a breeze, and back on the Mears transportation bus we went. It is worth, however, waiting a little bit for the initial line to subside when they call for general debarkation. Your luggage isn't going anywhere, and it'll give you a couple more minutes of vacation.
Summary Excellent cruise, and can't wait to do it again! If there are any specific questions, please let me know. Read Less