This was our first cruise, and we chose Carnival Miracle with 8 other friends, all of us middle-aged, convivial, and outgoing.
Embarkation was efficient and friendly. I was impressed with the systems.
I didn't know what to expect from the ship's decor, but I must have been expecting something . . . tasteful. This ship is garish beyond belief, with zany, clashing, over-the-top decor. In a few venues, it works (Mad Hatter's, Phantom Lounge, Sam's), but it is jarring and gaudy in the dining areas and common spaces. Our cabin was tastefully decorated, restful, and efficiently designed for comfort and function - very impressive. We had an extended balcony and loved it. Our steward, Michael, did a great job and was one of the aspects we found to re-define hospitality.
We have heard so much about the food on cruises, but we were amazed to find that what people apparently rave about is the QUANTITY, not the quality. We were surpised to find the breakfast and lunch buffets full of ho-hum, cheap staples with long shelf lives (canned peaches, the same deli meat for a week). If you have kids, the 24/7 pizza and burgers are probably great, but I was underwhelmed. Still, the other passengers scarfed it down. One feature we liked was every lunch day had one buffet with a different ethnic theme. Dinner was competent - the meats were done perfectly every time, sides were strange combos of long shelf-life staples (peas, broccoli). Portion sizes were reasonable. Shrimp were economy-sized rather than really jumbo. I had expected more variety, more tropical fruits, more interesting vegetables, and entrees that followed food trends more closely - but this is solid, middle-America decent, not exciting. Our service at dinner was extraordinary - really far exceeded our expectations. The servers were friendly, personable, really got to know us, and highly skilled at entertaining. They could teach landlubber restaurants and hoteliers a thing or two about hospitality.
The rest of the staff (guest services, shore desk, service in lobby and bars, etc.) were civil at best, but mostly exhausted and while not unfriendly, pretty worn-out and seemed beaten down. Their attitudes ranged from icy indifference (guest services) to exhausted compliance (lido deck). We had several issues with guest services folks being very unhelpful and twice giving us incorrect information.
Entertainment . . . for a fun ship, we found it extremely difficult to have fun between 8 pm and 11 pm. Unless you attended the shows, NONE of the venues other than karaoke (often filled with half-drunk teens and little kids) were open! No real entertainment - a wan singer in the lobby who quit after first dinner and sang songs about death, a jaded piano bar guy who wouldn't play your requests, the disco was constantly shutting down, and we couldn't get bar service in there. One of the shows - Ticket To Ride - was delightful, as was any show including the staff dancers/orchestra, but the singer they brought in was an off-putting egomaniac. He did a kids number when he clearly hates kids.
Malcolm the Cruise Director - the only time we saw him, he was on stage or on camera. He rattled on and on with extraneous and often confusing information that wasn't relevant. He said that if you sign up for the Panama native experience you would see "some exposed puppies." This didn't make clear that he was informing us that native Panamanian dress includes topless women, but it did make clear that he can't speak maturely about another culture - how disrespectful! I felt his entire demeanor all week showed a real disdain for his customers, and I would have liked him to spend more time figuring out activities for people to do and keeping the bars open than sharing his personal views on every topic under the sun for hours on our TV. I found him sophmoric and unprofessional.
In the end, we thought that most of the cruise was fun - largely because of our cabin steward, dinner waiters and traveling companions - but that Carnival was not the right brand for us. We hope that their exhausted staff get some time off.
Efficiently designed, comfy bed, nice balcony, great steward.
Colon is filthy and dangerous. Carnival is remiss in not educating its passengers that this is not an appropriate place to get out and wander by yourself. However, our shore excursion to Gamboa aerial tram was excellent, professional, and gorgeous. We saw tapirs, a toucan, and some great views of the Panama Canal - the tour guides rocked.
Puerto Limon is also a pit, but not as dangerous as Colon. Our trip to the Veragua nature preserve was SPECTACULAR - all of the guides were trained naturalists, everyone was very professional, we saw lots of rainforest flora and fauna, and the facilities there were spotless, beautifully designed, and delightful.
Belize City is fairly groovy and felt safe if a little run down. We booked a private birding tour with BirdsEyeView Resort out of Crooked Tree, and had a fantastic time on a very special nature reserve - 65 species!!! Got to see some of Belize, too. Loved it.