"It IS a Trap"
Whenever I speak to friends who are reluctant to go on a cruise, they express similar misgivings about feeling too confined. They'll say: "I couldn't spend so much time trapped with other people." Or "I would feel trapped on a ship in the middle of the ocean."
Before I sailed on the Carnival Miracle, I admit I had similar reservations. After four or five days into an eight-day cruise, I wondered if I might find myself shaking my fist at the sea, vainly shouting the very meme my friends feared. But as we departed Grand Turk, on our sixth day, I became acutely aware that being confined to an 86,000 gross-ton "Fun Ship" does something pretty wonderful to your vacation. It makes it your inescapable truth. Even if I wanted to, there was nowhere I could go to find lasting reminders of my daily routine. Although land-based vacations certainly offer escape from the everyday, they can't always make the everyday inescapable. A traffic jam here, a botched restaurant reservation there, and worlds collide: Vacation World, meet Real World. On the Miracle the Real World always seemed to lie somewhere beyond the horizon. On day six, in the middle of the ocean with my mom, trapped with 2,500 other passengers—as well as 4 swimming pools, 5 whirlpools, 7 buffet stations, one 24-hour pizzeria, 12 bars, a Gotham Lounge, Gatsby Garden, Fountainhead Café, Frankenstein Club, and one Yellow Brick Road—I realized I was as far away from commonplace concerns as I could be. Standing above the Lido deck, staring at the sparkling sea, I actually felt that the voyage couldn't be long enough.
By entering this trap, I had escaped.
My Cruise Curriculum
The Miracle was my second cruise. I had previously sailed on a 3-day launch of the Disney Fantasy with my wife and son. As a family-fun experience it was unbeatable, but from it I figured I had learned all there was to know about mainstream cruising. Cruise ships now offer an astounding array of themes and voyages. You can hand quilt or head bang your way to ports of call across the globe. With so many options, I felt another mainstream cruise wasn't terribly necessary or even relevant. But my supervisor, a veteran cruiser, is wise. Before I could begin covering boutique vessels sailing European rivers, he knew I needed to experience the captivating indulgences of a longer, mainstream cruise.
Streamlining the Mainstream
With very little trial and error, Mom and I quickly discovered the daily rhythms that made our time on the Miracle seem too short. Carnival's Fun Ships breed content: Everywhere we were was pretty much right where we wanted to be—even when surrounded by people whose idea of fun was very different from ours. Each day we circulated among dozens of scenes with crowds of people enjoying everything from hairy-chest contests to bean-bag-tossing competitions to champagne art auctions. If we weren't participating, we were people-watching. If we wanted no part of any of it, there were plenty of tranquil indoor and outdoor lounge spaces in which to retreat. In fact, I managed to both brush up on long-neglected dodge-ball skills and catch up on a substantial amount of reading. Here are a few more discoveries we made that confirmed the wisdom of my boss and helped us fully enjoy the "trappings" of Carnival's mainstream cruises.
Early Dinner Seating
Carnival offers three options for dinner times in the main dining room: an early seating at 6, a late seating at 8:15, and "Your Time" flexible seating that allows you to dine any time from 5:45 to 9. We discovered an elegant equation contained within the early time slot: During the mid- to late summer, sunsets occur around 7:30; the main dining room is on the 3rd floor, the promenade deck. This adds up to one gorgeous after-dinner stroll after another. Each night we finished our meal perfectly timed to the sunset. The Miracle's promenade is wider than many ships' and surprisingly, was not heavily trafficked. We had long stretches of the deck to ourselves next to an ocean that shimmered like an endless field of opal gemstones under a darkening, pink-streaked sky.
Another advantage of assigned seating is the personalized attention. Our waitstaff didn't just serve us, they befriended us. Our head-waitress always greeted Mom with a warm hug, and they bestowed on us the type of preferential treatment it can take months to achieve at your neighborhood restaurant. Items not on the menu were routinely provided: In my case, chocolate chip cookies from upstairs that I was fond of; for Mom, olive oil and grated parmesan, which she requested at our first dinner, accompanied her bread every time. On a separate occasion, when we found our waitress working the dessert station upstairs, she waved us to the front of the line, disappeared momentarily, and returned with fresh-from-the oven pie to offer us the first slices. You can't develop this type of relationship if you opt for the "Your Time" schedule, because your table and waitstaff will vary.
A common complaint about cruises is the cost of add-on purchases. Hundreds of extra dollars can be spent on onshore excursions and activities (even WiFi can set you back more than a C-note). And on Carnival's ship there's no shortage of overcharged extras, but Mom and I found two experiences to be exceptional values. First was a wine-pairing seminar. For $15 per person, the ship's sommelier provided a generous seminar on food-and-wine pairings in the elegant dining room of Nick and Nora's Steakhouse. We were given 5 glasses of premium wine—not scanty sips, but glasses half-full—to accompany samples of cheese, fruit, steak, and salmon. We learned that the "oaky," "earthy" flavor, with slight cherry notes, of the Murphy Goode Pinot Noir, makes it a diverse table wine that goes well with steak, seafood, or pasta. And the bolder Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, with its spicy notes and blueberry, plumb, black currant accents, complements cheese, lamb, and steak. It was a splendid survey of international wines and an intoxicating (to say the least) way to spend the afternoon.
Carnival has a reputation for serving way-better-than-standard buffet fare as well as quality dishes in its main dining room. But if you want a break from bustling mealtime scenes, an unhurried, multiple course meal at Nick and Nora's Steakhouse is a delicious departure. For $35 per person, you get a feast that would cost at least twice as much at upscale steakhouses back home. Mom and I, both occasional carnivores, sliced into 18-ounce fork-tender steaks—each bite succulent and savory on its own, downright voluptuous when dipped in the peppercorn, garlic, or mushroom sauces on the lazy Susan placed center table. The salad and side dishes were superb, the colossal cheesecake slices supremely rich.
A Convert's Tips
Deck chairs around the pools go fast. Groups of teens and young adults stake out their spots early and stay put for most of the day. For peak hours, 10:30 am–2:30 pm, you'll have better luck on the upper-most decks—the sun deck (10), and particularly a couple select areas on the sports deck (11). The adult's-only lounge also gets crowded at this time, but chairs can be found. Also note: Times like these make a balcony stateroom well worth the extra cost.
If slots are your game, enjoy, but realize that there is nary a loose machine to be found. Payout ranges are often a stingy 70%, so don't be surprised if you don't hit the big one. You can increase your chances of a payout by entering a slot tournament. Or, for better odds and even more sociability, enter one of the daily Black Jack or Texas Hold 'em tournaments.
Your stateroom showers are adequate, but the showers in the fitness room /spa locker rooms are roomy, multi-nozzle aquazones. You don't have to book a spa treatment to avail yourself of these luxurious rain-showers. Workout (or not) and rinse off.Photo credits: Carnival ships courtesy of Carnival Cruises; all other photos courtesy of Eric Wechter