Jake and I went on our first cruise this summer (June 2010) about the Carnival Miracle. For those who have never been on the Miracle, it’s a “spirit class” ship with a passenger capacity of a little over 2,000 people. Although that sounded like a lot of people on a single boat to me, the Miracle is one of Carnival’s smaller ships.
After months of anticipation, planning, list making, shopping and packing, the big day finally arrived. We were cruising with my aunt, her husband and their ten-year-old son. Our Carnival Miracle cruise left from New York City on a Thursday afternoon, arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico at 4pm on Sunday, St. Thomas, V.I., bright and early Monday morning and Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos on Tuesday around 10am, then headed back to NYC, arriving on Friday morning.
Our first day aboard the ship was a flurry of crazy activity. I lost my aunt about two hours before departure when she went off to take a tour of the ship while Jake and I explored on our own. Miraculously (no pun intended), we managed to find them about twenty minutes before embarking on our journey (which, by the way, didn’t happen until after 5pm). We were allowed in our rooms around 1pm, so Jake and I headed down there to check it out. I was really surprised at how nice the rooms are. We had an interior room, and I was expecting it to be a lot smaller. But the room was just the right size for the two of us. I know my aunt felt a little cramped in hers with two adults and a ten-year old though. The bathroom is itty-bitty, with just enough space to maneuver through. But the rest of the room was, well, relatively roomy. The closets were a decent size and storage space was plentiful.
I don’t want to bore you with excessive details about my every moment on the boat, so I’ll narrow it down to three categories: the awesome, the mediocre and the awful.
Best Features of the Carnival Miracle
I can’t say enough great things about this free Carnival Miracle service for children (I think they have to be over two years old). At first, I was a little nervous, and felt kind of guilty sending Jake down there. I felt like I was trying to get rid of him on our vacation. I told him after the first day, if he didn’t like it I wouldn’t make him go back. But he loved it. In fact, he became obsessed with it. He went first thing in the morning, I picked him up from noon to two, he went back until dinner, then back again until 9pm. We only did this on days that we were at sea. He was with me at port because I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving him behind and I really wanted him to experience new places with me. The counselors at Camp Carnival were just fantastic, and Jake came home with a new craft (and a new face painting) almost every day. He played and had a good time with other kids while I read on the deck and wandered around on my own for a few hours almost every day.
Customer Service: Every single ship employee, from the steward who cleaned my room to the woman handing out shopping tips and coupons for free jewelry, was exceptional. Our room steward, as well as several others on our floor, knew Jake by name and addressed him like an important little human rather than a random little kid. He loved this because it really made him feel special. We looked forward to returning from dinner every night to see what towel animal our steward had created (our favorite was the monkey), and I enjoyed sitting down to pour over the brochure outlining the next day’s activities.
Cleanliness: It amazes me how clean a giant floating vessel remains even after eight days of people running around in bare feet and soaking wet bathing suits. What is even more astonishing is that there are hardly any garbage cans outside the food deck. I think tiny little elves hide under all the tables, waiting for you to leave something behind so they can whisk it away to fairy-land. Either that, or the cleaning crew works insanely hard.
Latte Time!: Under the “mediocre to awful category, you’ll find the free coffee. However, the lattes and miscellaneous coffee beverages that you actually have to pay for are awesome. My aunt and I had our afternoon latte time every day, while the kids had huge milkshakes. The prices are average, about what you would expect to pay at Starbucks, which isn’t bad considering you’re in the middle of the ocean. But the selection was fantastic, the service was top of the line and the drinks were delicious. They also have huge (really HUGE) pieces of cake for sale. It took Jake and I two sittings to finish a single slice of the amazing zillion layer chocolate cake.
St. Thomas: This was my favorite port and I would love to go back and spend a few days there sometime. St. Thomas is gorgeous. We did the Harbor Safari excursion, which included a round trip ferry ride from the ship to Charlotte Amalie, a tour bus up to Blackbeard’s Castle and admission into all the museums down the 99 Steps. Once delivered to the top of the hill at the castle, the tour became self-guided. While the tour was interesting and fun, the best part was back at the bottom of the hill—the shopping! Now, if you’re into jewelry (which I’m not), you’ll especially love St. Thomas because you will find a jewelry store pretty much every five feet. If you happen to be one of those people who really could care less about diamonds and gemstones (like me), you will still find dozens of awesome stores in which to spend your money. While the prices in the actual stores are fairly average, the real deals are at the packed open market at the base of the 99 Steps. We bought t-shirts for $2, handbags for $5 and a ton of other souvenirs. Plus, they like to haggle. If you start walking away, they’ll go lower on their price. I spent about $200 in St. Thomas and came home with two bags full of souvenirs.
Grand Turk: While St. Thomas was my favorite stop, Grand Turk was Jake’s. That was our beach day, because there really isn’t much else to do on the small island, and Grand Turk is extremely hot. So hot that I couldn’t walk on the beach without flip-flops. The strangest part was swimming less than 100 yards from the boat, since the water is shallow near the beach but drops off dramatically all of the sudden. After playing in the ocean for a while, checking out the shops (they are fairly expensive there since it’s a British island) and perusing Margaretville just to say we did, we took off on our excursion—swimming with the sting rays. This involved a boat ride across the bay to Gibbs Cay, a tiny island a mile or so away. While I thought the sting rays were awesome, Jake didn’t want anything to do with them, aside from just looking at them. I held one, let it kiss me (a freaky experience) and got the sting ray massage. Jake enjoyed snorkeling a few feet from the beach (neither of us are strong swimmers) and playing in the sand, right up until the chafing started. Then he practically screamed and cried all the way back to the boat, where I liberally applied soothing antibiotic cream.
So-So Features of the Carnival Miracle
: I’m sorry, I know most people rave about how awesome cruise food is, but I wasn’t thrilled. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I was expecting an amazing feast morning, noon and night. We only dined in the formal dining room three times because it was too close to the front of the boat, too rocky, too cramped and too slow. Jake got impatient very fast, I got seasick and I accidentally knocked water all over my uncle the first night. The five of us were crammed into a single booth, and the selections on the menu really weren’t that impressive. The dessert was fantastic though, especially the signature warm melting chocolate cake. Jake and I spent most of the trip eating at the buffet, which had a nice selection, but we’re both picky eaters so we ended up eating the same thing day after day. Again, the desserts rocked.
Room Service: While the service itself was great, the selection wasn’t. I really wish they would have had a few more snack-type foods on the menu, as we usually ordered at night. Jake loved ordering room service though, and it’s free, so I guess I can’t complain too much. I do recommend ordering extra stuff for breakfast, like cereal, fruit and maybe a muffin, and stashing it for later. Also, grab cookies off the buffet during feeding time, stick them in a bag and stash those as well. Jake and I had a “loot drawer” with snacks that we procured throughout the day.
San Juan: San Juan itself is really pretty, but we didn’t get off the boat until after 4pm and had to meet our excursion at 6, so we were pretty rushed. Thank goodness we did a tour of Fort San Felipe del Morro on our own, otherwise that port would have been a total bust. The fort is easy walking distance (although all uphill) from the ship, costs only a few dollars to tour, and offers stunning views from the top. We also did a little quick shopping before heading back to wait for our bus tour. I do not recommend bus tours, unless you have no desire to really see anything. It was raining, which made it even worse. Jake fell asleep and missed the whole tour. After it was over, most of the shops were closed, so we were back on the boat by 8pm, even though we didn’t sail off until midnight. Sadly, there wasn’t much more for us to do at night there, especially with two young children. I wouldn’t mind going back one day and seeing it when I have a little more time, but I left feeling like San Juan was a waste of a port because of the late arrival.
The Case of My Missing Suitcase: The day we arrived on the boat was a bit of a luggage nightmare. I waited patiently, watching everyone get their suitcases, watching my son’s luggage arrive without issue, watching and waiting, waiting and watching for my suitcase to appear. It did not come. So I of course burst into tears, ran to the customer service desk and, in my most panicky voice, explained that my suitcase was missing. They pointed to a collection of luggage and asked if it was in there. Thankfully, it was. Both tags, which were laminated, stapled and taped onto the bag, had fallen off. I don’t even want to know how rough they handled my bag to make that happen. So while it could have been an awful nightmare, it turned into a mediocre event that ended well. Sadly, three days into the cruise, a letter was still circulating asking if anyone had another passenger’s luggage, so not everyone had a happy conclusion.
Areas They Really Could Improve Upon
By day eight, we were ready to be off the boat. Eight days may have been a little too long, especially since four of those days are spent in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but water in sight. We had to leave our room by 8am, but we were the last group off the boat. They call you by some seemingly random set of numbers. I can’t remember what time we finally got off, but it was close to 11am. For about three hours, we sat with all our carry-on bags, which had multiplied since the day we got on, and waited. Worse, they turn off all the water on the ship, so you can’t wash your hands after eating or using the restroom.
Once off the boat, the nightmare of finding our bags began. They were all tossed in one area in no logical order. I was almost crying as I tried to hang on to Jake, all our bags and search for our two very heavy suitcases that looked just like everyone else’s very heavy black suitcase. I finally found them and tried to lug them by myself through customs, where they took pity on me and practically shooed me through, and began the long journey to the area where we had to wait for the cab. My uncle, who had his hands very full as well, grabbed one of my suitcases when it must have become clear that I wasn’t going to make it.
Conclusion: Overall, I loved my first cruise experience. I’m glad my maiden voyage was on a relatively small ship versus one of the huge ones, although I would like to try one of those next. Jake had a great time and asked when we’ll be going again. I didn’t get seasick until the last two days (I think I got sun stroke or something in Grand Turk), thanks to my $7 Sea-Bands. While they may not be fashionable, they work like a charm, even for a girl who gets motion sickness just looking at a car. I would highly recommend Carnival Cruise Lines, especially for anyone driving with a child. I took hundreds of pictures and have a lot more to say about every stage of my trip, but I’m already at over 2,000 words, so I’ll spare you the excessive details.