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Cruise Ship Review

Carnival Miracle - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

While not necessarily "miraculous," there were a lot of pleasant surprises onboard Carnival Miracle, the 19th ship in Carnival's massive fleet. First of all, the ship is just plain pretty, understated in comparison to flashier creations in the fleet -- interior architect Joe Farcus is known for super-showy designs. Still, Farcus always has a theme, and Miracle's is "fictional icons" -- guest hallways feature drawings of famous literary characters like Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe (and the more obscure Belgian detective Hercule Poirot). The lobby and atrium are named after the Metropolis of "Superman" fame, and there's even a Gotham lounge that gets its name from "Batman." Carnival Miracle is also laid out exceptionally well -- I've never found it so easy to find my way around a ship, maybe because it is just skirting the high side of mid-sized at 88,500 tons and carrying 2,124 passengers.

The service and the cuisine also exceeded my expectations. This is the first cruise I've been on in a long time, on any line, where I've been approached regularly and cheerfully for drinks service in the lido buffet -- and after years of being under the impression that the food on Carnival was nothing to write home about, I can honestly say the fact that I managed to gain eight pounds during my cruise speaks volumes about the improvements (much to the chagrin of the Weight Watchers police). Rolls were warm and crusty; fish was tender and flaky. Oh, and whoever came up with the idea of offering the pasta dishes in a smaller portion as a starter dish should get a raise!

Carnival Miracle is the fourth (and possibly last) ship in the Spirit class, which introduced some significant firsts for Carnival: alternative restaurants and onboard wedding chapels. Spirit-class ships also offer an impressive 80 percent ratio of outside cabins, as well as lots of nice little touches -- like museum-quality artwork and "designer" martinis.

Why the positive changes? Carnival is pushing to change its reputation in the industry and it shows, even in the little upgrades like softer bedding and big, plush pool towels. In fact, as Bob Dickinson writes in the welcome letter in the in-cabin directory, "A cruise onboard 'Today's Carnival' is significantly different from even a few years ago, as we've gone to great lengths to enhance virtually every aspect of the 'Fun Ship' vacation -- from expanding dining opportunities and entertainment options to upgraded spa and children's facilities."

However, even with the upgrades, Carnival has maintained its appeal with its traditional core audience: unpretentious and outgoing folks who like to party, and enjoy the rowdy and sometimes off-color pool games (though I'll never understand why the winner of the hairy chest competition had no hair to speak of). Drinking and dancing still goes on until the wee hours of the evening (ahem, morning). So even though this ship -- perhaps the mainstream line's nicest -- may have some people wondering, "Are we on Carnival?" the answer is definitely "yes."

Dining

The Bacchus Dining Room, named for the Greek god of wine (justly done up in purple hues with grape motifs on the ceiling and walls) is the main restaurant for dinner and probably the only room on the ship that struck me as too visually "loud" (though I did like the pale pink linens on the tables). I was surprised that there is only one dining room on Spirit-class ships (while Carnival Valor and even the older Celebration feature two main restaurants), but at two decks high, Bacchus comfortably accommodates all passengers in two seatings (early at 6 p.m., late at 8:15).

Tip: With nearly half of the ship's capacity heading to dinner in one place at one time, a line of people forms that eventually grows so long it snakes into the Metropolis Lounge. If you don't want to feel herded (or be asked repeatedly if you want formal or casual portraits taken), grab a seat and a drink, and mosey on in after the crowd has dispersed.

Still, even with so many hearty appetites in one place, dinner runs like a well-oiled machine; service was prompt and attentive (after accepting an offer for lemons from my waiter on the first night, I arrived each evening thereafter to find a plate of lemon wedges waiting for me), and aside from generally boring salads (iceberg lettuce and a few random tomatoes generally don't interest me), food consistently met or exceeded our expectations -- particularly high-quality, hearty cuts of meat that were brought out exactly as requested.

Menus feature Spa Carnival and low-carb entrees daily, as well as special selections for children and vegetarians. We noticed that many evenings, the low-carb choices mirrored the main menu choices -- fish, steak, chicken -- but were often prepared with lighter sauce or accompanied by healthier sides like steamed vegetables. I have a hard enough time choosing greens over potatoes or pasta on dry land, and so stuck with the regular menu throughout the cruise (which I suppose contributed to the eight-pound gain). Breakfast and lunch is also served here in an open-seating fashion every day. The breakfast menu is the same each morning, offering standard fare: French toast, pancakes, omelets, eggs benedict, etc. Lunch choices often reflect what's available in Horatio's, the buffet area.

Dinner at Nick & Nora's, nestled under a skylight in Carnival's signature red funnel, is truly unforgettable and worth the $30 per-person charge considering the quality of the meals, exquisite atmosphere and extra-attentive service. If you make reservations, be sure to take the glass-backed elevator up -- there is a gorgeous black and white photo of the 1930's Manhattan skyline that pops into view as you arrive, and it aptly feels as if you are leaving the cruise ship behind for something entirely different. There are plenty of cozy tables for couples and small groups. After seating my boyfriend and me in a dimly lit corner, our hostess offered to bring over another candle, but I declined, joking with her that my sunburn would be less visible in the dark. It was truly intimate and lovely, with prime cuts of meat, delicious Caesar salad prepared tableside and Versace china to boot. Leave room for dessert -- the trio of chocolate treats was almost too beautiful to eat (almost).

The lido dining option is Horatio's, a sprawling, one-level restaurant offering full breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as a casual dinner alternative and a late-night "bistro." Among the plentiful tables and chairs are cozy booths, which make it feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria (there are also tables set up poolside for those who prefer dining al fresco). Breakfast options include eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, grits, Cream of Wheat, bagels and (under-ripe) fruit. There is an omelet station each morning for made-to-order egg dishes, and separate islands for juice, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Assorted pastries and juices are brought around on carts by staff, a nice touch (fancier than usual for Carnival). Lunch options include hot buffet items (one afternoon featured surprisingly tender pork chops), a salad bar, an Asian station, a carving station and sweets. We never had to wait in line more than a few minutes and always found a place to sit.

The 24-hour pizzeria and 24-hour ice cream/frozen yogurt station are located here, along with a deli offering a variety of hot and cold items from tuna sandwiches and roast beef subs to gooey Reubens and Indian-spiced chicken tikka wraps (which we returned for several times during the week). There is also a poolside grill offering burgers, hot dogs and the like. Hot coffee is available at drinks stations throughout at no cost, but the offerings at the specialty coffee bar near the pizzeria, as well as The Fountainhead Cafe in the lower promenade area, are extra.

Room service is available around the clock. Tasty sandwiches are a nice touch (try the mozzarella with grilled veggies and basil aioli), though mainstays like juices, breads and pastries, salads, veggie platters, cookies and brownies, cakes, yogurt, fruit salad, and beverages (including bar service at regular bar prices) are also on the menu. Service was prompt; I called in a mid-afternoon order and it arrived in about 10 minutes. Full stateroom bar service is available 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. In-stateroom continental breakfast is available by hanging a checked-off menu on your doorknob -- and being that this is a "Fun Ship" and you're not exactly expected to turn in at a reasonable hour, the deadline for this is a generous 5 a.m. There are no hot dishes on the list, just fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and pastries, juice, milk, and tea and coffee.

Still hungry? Each afternoon, a sushi cart is set up outside of Maguire's Bar offering salmon, shrimp and assorted rolls (free of charge), but that's not even the best part -- sake is available (unfortunately not free of charge) in Maguire's to accompany your Japanese snack. Yum.

Public Rooms

Passengers enter the ship in the Metropolis Lobby at the base of the atrium, named after the Metropolis of "Superman" fame and done up with Art Deco-meets-classic furnishing and blue Murano glass lights. The lobby's Jeeves Lounge is a natural meeting place for pre-dinner drinks, particularly when the ship's classical trio begins playing (piano and strings). The Gotham Lounge is another popular spot for pre-dinner drinks, right near the main entrance to Bacchus.

There is an outdoor promenade on Deck 3 as well as an enclosed "winter garden" promenade fashioned after Gatsby's garden in the novel "The Great Gatsby," with white trellises and a faux stone floor, which we found oddly quiet at all times of the day compared to other public areas.

Frankenstein's Lab is the pretty nifty two-deck disco. Neon "electricity bolts" line the walls along with slabs of grayish purple stone, gargoyles hold up the bar stools and cocktail tables, and a gigantic light-up Frankenstein patrols the dance floor. This is used for a teens-only dance party each evening, but becomes a hot spot for adults much, much later -- think way after midnight.

The photo gallery is located on Deck 3, around the perimeter of the lobby. The gift shops are located near here as well, selling the usual logo wear, souvenirs, sunscreen, perfume, duty-free liquors and cigarettes, T-shirts and jewelry. The Formalities shop rents out tuxedos.

Mr. Lucky's casino is enormous with table games and slot machines galore. I was particularly enamored of the precious Garfield (yes, the cartoon cat) nickel slots, but every time I passed through the casino there was a line to play at both machines! I finally got my chance to sit down and play one afternoon, plunked down my entire gambling budget of $10, and left with $20! For low-key card playing, check out the Joker, a small card room located forward on Deck 2.

Sam's piano bar features live music each evening, and the pianists take requests -- there's actually a huge binder of songs to flip through and microphones along the bar for guests with a little gusto (we watched one girl get up on the piano and sing "I Will Survive"). I myself was content to sit in the corner and hum along to the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling." One neat feature here is that the piano is on a platform that spins ... though this may not be so neat for anyone feeling a little seasick!

Maguire's sports bar is packed with television screen and bar-top gaming machines, but never too many people, unfortunately. Still, stop by and look carefully at the more than 300 signed photographs of athletes on the wall -- pictures of Joe Farcus and his design assistants are scattered among them (in Farcus' case, a high-school yearbook photo of him playing basketball).

Right next door is Frankie & Johnnie's (the name is licensed by the steakhouse of the same name in New York City), a secondary show lounge with "hot" red walls, chairs and floors. If you like 50's, 60's and 70's classic rock and R&B, check out the "Music Unlimited Band." This lounge is also the setting for daytime activities like Family Feud tournaments.

The Raven Library is pretty in dark mahogany-style wood, with loveseats and tables, but the selection, as usual on Carnival ships, is pretty sad (why even bother to have a library, frankly?) -- there is only one glass case of books (three cabinets of five shelves each) and about three random board games. It also doubles as the Internet cafe, and houses 10 computers and a printer. Connectivity is sold in packages or a la carte, though per-minute prices are lower when you buy in bulk. A block of 100 minutes is $55 or 55 cents a minute, while a block of 250 minutes is $100 or 40 cents a minute; otherwise, expect to pay 75 cents per minute. Convenient and reliable wireless access is available to laptop users on Decks 2, 3, 9 and 10. Directly across from here is the small wedding chapel.

Note: Make it a point to ditch the elevator from time to time. There are beautiful glass vases on display in the stairwells, all very different and colorful and fascinating.

Cabins

Either Carnival has broken the soundproofing barrier or I was in an exceptionally quiet corridor because I slept (and napped) without disruption each and every day. Surely, the heavy drapes didn't hurt, working wonders blocking out the sun and, quite frankly, adding a classy touch to my balconied stateroom.

In fact, the staterooms in general have a more modern, grown-up feel than those on older ships in the fleet, and upgrades and initiatives to promote "Today's Carnival" are really apparent here. I was tempted to jump underneath the soft duvet every time I came into the stateroom. Furniture is constructed of solid cherry wood, and cabins are well lit with attractive lamps and fixtures. I also liked the little "goodies" left waiting in the bathroom at embarkation (though they aren't replenished throughout the trip), including samples of Physique hair products, Reach Access flossers, razors for men and women, Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste and Lever 2000 soap.

Inside cabins represent only 20 percent of the total number onboard, which means a fairly significant 80 percent (849 cabins) are outsides -- another plus, and a huge draw for modern-day cruisers. Of these 849 cabins, 624 are oceanviews with private verandahs, 68 are partial-view oceanviews with French doors, and just 99 are standard oceanviews (which interestingly enough, measure the same as standard insides at 185 square ft.).

Still, 185 square ft. is fairly roomy for an inside, all things considered. Inside cabins are laid out with a small desk/vanity area, a bathroom with a curtained stand-alone shower (there are both shower gel and shampoo pumps in the shower), twin beds that convert to a queen, decent closet space (two cabinets with hanging bars and one with wide shelves), a television with remote, and a mini-fridge. Higher cabins have a little sitting area with a peach sofa and table, except for adjoining staterooms which have chairs in place of a sofa so as not to block the door. All oceanview staterooms come with terry robes for use onboard. Balcony cabins measure from 225 square ft. (including the verandah). Balconies are outfitted with a plastic table and two plastic chairs. All balconies feature an extended barrier for extra privacy from neighbors.

Note: Categories 8C, 8E, 8G and 8I feature "extended" balconies, which add 50 percent more space, but jut out a tad further and are visible from above (so don't do anything you wouldn't want your neighbors to the north to see!).

Suites (there are 52 of them) range from 360 square ft. to 465 square ft. and have larger verandahs with upgraded furnishings and whirlpool tubs; pick a suite at the aft corner for a wrap-around verandah.

There are 16 cabins specifically designed for wheelchair-bound passengers, in a variety of stateroom categories.

Entertainment

We've always found Carnival to do a good job with entertainment, and this sailing was no exception. The elaborate production shows onboard included a high-energy medley of popular music from the last few decades, called "Legends," and a Beatles-themed production that I unfortunately missed but was, according to fellow folks onboard, quite fun.

The three-level main show lounge was one of my favorite places on the ship design-wise, fashioned after the Paris Opera House and "The Phantom of the Opera." White enamel masks and mini candelabras line the maroon and gold walls, and almost feel magical. Stone figures hold up orange "stained glass" lights atop the entryways.

I usually balk at the gaudy, over-the-top themes invoked by Carnival's Farcus, but Mad Hatter's Ball, the alternate show lounge beneath Phantom, works beautifully. The entrance from Deck 2 is inviting with sparkling red hearts dancing down the winding staircase with really funky frosted lamps in red and ivory lighting the way. The lounge itself is very plush and fantastical -- like you fell down Alice's rabbit hole. There were several late-night adult comedy shows in Mad Hatter's Ball, and a friendly bartender who made fabulous appletinis, so I loved returning there.

I also really enjoyed the fabulous jazz trio that played in the Gotham Lounge after both dining seatings. During the day, cruisers participate in art auctions, trivia contests, ship-sponsored "pub" crawls, big-screen movies, bingo games, slot tournaments, fun contests and game shows like "Newlywed, Not-So-Newlywed" (which I wish wasn't so short, because it was awfully amusing).

Fitness and Recreation

There are four pools onboard -- three main pools, each with a whirlpool, and one children's pool -- though none are particularly large. We found the midship Ulysses Pool area to be the liveliest of the bunch, housing the stage for live Calypso music as well as the grill and the Odyssey Bar. For a quieter swim, try Orpheus (forward; the whirlpool here is adult-only, though it can still get raucous after a couple of drinking hours have passed) or Sirens (on the other side of Odyssey Bar). The entrance to the twisty slide is up on the Sports Deck along with a jogging track (15.2 laps equals one mile), a ball court (for basketball and soccer) and a putting green. There are areas designated for shuffleboard and Ping-Pong as well.

Spa Carnival is run by Steiner Leisure, and is pretty run-of-the-mill with a small reception area and 10 private treatment rooms, and sauna and steam rooms available for men and women. Treatments are pretty much in the on-every-cruise vein, ranging from aromastone therapy and body wraps to facials and massages. A basic massage will soak you $109, though on port days you might get lucky and pay $10 or so less.

The multi-level fitness center, located far forward on Decks 9 and 10, was impressive even to me (and I consider a jog to the fridge a huge workout!). One wall is comprised entirely of picture windows overlooking the water, which offers a really nice view (though there is a strip of deck that wraps around here as well so passers-by can watch you through the glass, which I'm not crazy about). Steppers, bikes, rowers, treadmills and weights -- all high-tech -- are placed facing the windows on escalating levels that give the whole room an arena or stadium sort of feel. And there is a foamy, inviting hot tub smack dab in the center.

The fitness center offers Pilates, yoga and cycling classes for a fee of $10, but if you are interested in taking one, be sure to check in at the facility in advance because the start times printed in Carnival Capers may be wrong. I finally got up the guts on the last sea day to try cycling (and even picked up some cute Carnival shorts in the gift shop just for the occasion), but when I stopped by to sign up, the staff member looked at me like I was crazy and said there was no cycling class that afternoon -- even though, there it was, in black and white in the daily program. I was bummed.

For gamers, Wizards is an impressively sleek and spacious arcade with at least two dozen new-looking machines and two air hockey tables (very important -- I find air hockey to be a fun afternoon diversion!). You may have to look twice for it though; it's tucked behind the Phantom Lounge (access it from the forward stairs leading out of Gatsby's Garden).

Family

Pinocchio's Club, the children's facility on Miracle, made me wish I could cruise as a kid -- in this day and age, of course. It is a colorful, adult-free hideaway (save from the very cool and cheerful youth staff), but what's inside is even better: five brand-new eMac computers, several small televisions hooked up to PlayStation consoles and a mosaic of wall-mounted screens for watching movies. There's also a huge flat-screen TV set up with Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR as it is known by followers, which is basically an arcade dance simulation game where you can create your own routines and even track the calories you burn -- loads of fun for the kids. There's also a game cabinet, bookshelf, arts and crafts tables, a candy art machine (so neat), and a spin art machine.

The actual children's program, Camp Carnival, is tailored for many age groups. Children are broken up into four categories: Toddlers (ages 2 - 5), Juniors (ages 6 - 8), Intermediates (ages 9 - 11) and Teens (ages 12 - 15). Activities are also tailored for the age groups, and baby-sitting services, basically a slumber party in the play room, are available for a very reasonable cost -- $6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child in the same family -- from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. Toddlers do not have to be potty-trained to participate, as long as parents provide the staff with diapers and toiletries as necessary.

An all-you-can-drink Fountain Fun Card is available for children at $28 for a weeklong cruise; adults may also purchase a fountain card for $38.50, but I found this to be awfully expensive. Soft drinks range from just $1 to $1.50, so you'd have to drink a whole lot of soda to get your money's worth -- plus, while your buck-fifty can get you a fresh soda, we noticed that guests who proffered up the fountain card at the bar were served whatever dregs were left in already-open cans. Admittedly, kids consume more soft drinks (and less wine) than I, so parents may want to consider this rather than paying a la carte.

Fellow Passengers

We noticed a lot of couples and groups of friends traveling together, with most passengers ranging in age from 25 to 55, plus a good number of families, though you'll find even more kids onboard in the summer and during school breaks. There seemed to be a lot of first-timers onboard our particular sailing. I overheard many folks asking questions about proper dress code, the difference between early and late dinner, and most importantly, what was and wasn't "free."

Dress Code

Our seven-night cruise included two formal evenings, during which most men wore dark suits rather than tuxes, and women opted for business-y pants suits or evening dresses -- some rather glitzy. All other nights are deemed casual (we saw everything from ratty jeans to pretty sundresses) or "elegant casual" (a skirt or pants and blouse is fine for women, and most men wore Dockers-type pants with a buttoned shirt or polo).

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $10 per person, per day, broken down to $5.50 to the headwaiter/waiter, $1 to the assistant waiter/cooks and $3.50 to the cabin steward; the amount is automatically added to your shipboard account but can be adjusted in either direction at the purser's desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'; the room service menu suggests tipping -- a buck or two -- as it's delivered.

--By Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor

Dining

The Bacchus Dining Room, named for the Greek god of wine (justly done up in purple hues with grape motifs on the ceiling and walls) is the main restaurant for dinner and probably the only room on the ship that struck me as too visually "loud" (though I did like the pale pink linens on the tables). I was surprised that there is only one dining room on Spirit-class ships (while Carnival Valor and even the older Celebration feature two main restaurants), but at two decks high, Bacchus comfortably accommodates all passengers in two seatings (early at 6 p.m., late at 8:15) or on a flexible basis, via Carnival's "Your Choice Dining" program. With the flexible option, passengers can have dinner in the main dining room anytime they like between 5:45 and 9:30 p.m. (times may vary). Dining assignments -- which you select before the cruise -- are made on a first come, first served basis, so if you have your heart set on one or the other, consider booking earlier rather than later.

Tip: With nearly half of the ship's capacity heading to dinner in one place at one time, a line of people forms that eventually grows so long it snakes into the Metropolis Lounge. If you don't want to feel herded (or be asked repeatedly if you want formal or casual portraits taken), grab a seat and a drink, and mosey on in after the crowd has dispersed.

Still, even with so many hearty appetites in one place, dinner runs like a well-oiled machine; service was prompt and attentive (after accepting an offer for lemons from my waiter on the first night, I arrived each evening thereafter to find a plate of lemon wedges waiting for me), and aside from generally boring salads (iceberg lettuce and a few random tomatoes generally don't interest me), food consistently met or exceeded our expectations -- particularly high-quality, hearty cuts of meat that were brought out exactly as requested.

Menus feature Spa Carnival and low-carb entrees daily, as well as special selections for children and vegetarians. We noticed that many evenings, the low-carb choices mirrored the main menu choices -- fish, steak, chicken -- but were often prepared with lighter sauce or accompanied by healthier sides like steamed vegetables. I have a hard enough time choosing greens over potatoes or pasta on dry land, and so stuck with the regular menu throughout the cruise (which I suppose contributed to the eight-pound gain). Breakfast and lunch is also served here in an open-seating fashion every day. The breakfast menu is the same each morning, offering standard fare: French toast, pancakes, omelets, eggs benedict, etc. Lunch choices often reflect what's available in Horatio's, the buffet area.

Dinner at Nick & Nora's, nestled under a skylight in Carnival's signature red funnel, is truly unforgettable and worth the $30 per-person charge considering the quality of the meals, exquisite atmosphere and extra-attentive service. If you make reservations, be sure to take the glass-backed elevator up -- there is a gorgeous black and white photo of the 1930's Manhattan skyline that pops into view as you arrive, and it aptly feels as if you are leaving the cruise ship behind for something entirely different. There are plenty of cozy tables for couples and small groups. After seating my boyfriend and me in a dimly lit corner, our hostess offered to bring over another candle, but I declined, joking with her that my sunburn would be less visible in the dark. It was truly intimate and lovely, with prime cuts of meat, delicious Caesar salad prepared tableside and Versace china to boot. Leave room for dessert -- the trio of chocolate treats was almost too beautiful to eat (almost).

The lido dining option is Horatio's, a sprawling, one-level restaurant offering full breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as a casual dinner alternative and a late-night "bistro." Among the plentiful tables and chairs are cozy booths, which make it feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria (there are also tables set up poolside for those who prefer dining al fresco). Breakfast options include eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, grits, Cream of Wheat, bagels and (under-ripe) fruit. There is an omelet station each morning for made-to-order egg dishes, and separate islands for juice, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Assorted pastries and juices are brought around on carts by staff, a nice touch (fancier than usual for Carnival). Lunch options include hot buffet items (one afternoon featured surprisingly tender pork chops), a salad bar, an Asian station, a carving station and sweets. We never had to wait in line more than a few minutes and always found a place to sit.

The 24-hour pizzeria and 24-hour ice cream/frozen yogurt station are located here, along with a deli offering a variety of hot and cold items from tuna sandwiches and roast beef subs to gooey Reubens and Indian-spiced chicken tikka wraps (which we returned for several times during the week). There is also a poolside grill offering burgers, hot dogs and the like. Hot coffee is available at drinks stations throughout at no cost, but the offerings at the specialty coffee bar near the pizzeria, as well as The Fountainhead Cafe in the lower promenade area, are extra.

Room service is available around the clock. Tasty sandwiches are a nice touch (try the mozzarella with grilled veggies and basil aioli), though mainstays like juices, breads and pastries, salads, veggie platters, cookies and brownies, cakes, yogurt, fruit salad, and beverages (including bar service at regular bar prices) are also on the menu. Service was prompt; I called in a mid-afternoon order and it arrived in about 10 minutes. Full stateroom bar service is available 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. In-stateroom continental breakfast is available by hanging a checked-off menu on your doorknob -- and being that this is a "Fun Ship" and you're not exactly expected to turn in at a reasonable hour, the deadline for this is a generous 5 a.m. There are no hot dishes on the list, just fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and pastries, juice, milk, and tea and coffee.

Still hungry? Each afternoon, a sushi cart is set up outside of Maguire's Bar offering salmon, shrimp and assorted rolls (free of charge), but that's not even the best part -- sake is available (unfortunately not free of charge) in Maguire's to accompany your Japanese snack. Yum.

Dining

The Bacchus Dining Room, named for the Greek god of wine (justly done up in purple hues with grape motifs on the ceiling and walls) is the main restaurant for dinner and probably the only room on the ship that struck me as too visually "loud" (though I did like the pale pink linens on the tables). I was surprised that there is only one dining room on Spirit-class ships (while Carnival Valor and even the older Celebration feature two main restaurants), but at two decks high, Bacchus comfortably accommodates all passengers in two seatings (early at 6 p.m., late at 8:15).

Tip: With nearly half of the ship's capacity heading to dinner in one place at one time, a line of people forms that eventually grows so long it snakes into the Metropolis Lounge. If you don't want to feel herded (or be asked repeatedly if you want formal or casual portraits taken), grab a seat and a drink, and mosey on in after the crowd has dispersed.

Still, even with so many hearty appetites in one place, dinner runs like a well-oiled machine; service was prompt and attentive (after accepting an offer for lemons from my waiter on the first night, I arrived each evening thereafter to find a plate of lemon wedges waiting for me), and aside from generally boring salads (iceberg lettuce and a few random tomatoes generally don't interest me), food consistently met or exceeded our expectations -- particularly high-quality, hearty cuts of meat that were brought out exactly as requested.

Menus feature Spa Carnival and low-carb entrees daily, as well as special selections for children and vegetarians. We noticed that many evenings, the low-carb choices mirrored the main menu choices -- fish, steak, chicken -- but were often prepared with lighter sauce or accompanied by healthier sides like steamed vegetables. I have a hard enough time choosing greens over potatoes or pasta on dry land, and so stuck with the regular menu throughout the cruise (which I suppose contributed to the eight-pound gain). Breakfast and lunch is also served here in an open-seating fashion every day. The breakfast menu is the same each morning, offering standard fare: French toast, pancakes, omelets, eggs benedict, etc. Lunch choices often reflect what's available in Horatio's, the buffet area.

Dinner at Nick & Nora's, nestled under a skylight in Carnival's signature red funnel, is truly unforgettable and worth the $30 per-person charge considering the quality of the meals, exquisite atmosphere and extra-attentive service. If you make reservations, be sure to take the glass-backed elevator up -- there is a gorgeous black and white photo of the 1930's Manhattan skyline that pops into view as you arrive, and it aptly feels as if you are leaving the cruise ship behind for something entirely different. There are plenty of cozy tables for couples and small groups. After seating my boyfriend and me in a dimly lit corner, our hostess offered to bring over another candle, but I declined, joking with her that my sunburn would be less visible in the dark. It was truly intimate and lovely, with prime cuts of meat, delicious Caesar salad prepared tableside and Versace china to boot. Leave room for dessert -- the trio of chocolate treats was almost too beautiful to eat (almost).

The lido dining option is Horatio's, a sprawling, one-level restaurant offering full breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as a casual dinner alternative and a late-night "bistro." Among the plentiful tables and chairs are cozy booths, which make it feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria (there are also tables set up poolside for those who prefer dining al fresco). Breakfast options include eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, grits, Cream of Wheat, bagels and (under-ripe) fruit. There is an omelet station each morning for made-to-order egg dishes, and separate islands for juice, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Assorted pastries and juices are brought around on carts by staff, a nice touch (fancier than usual for Carnival). Lunch options include hot buffet items (one afternoon featured surprisingly tender pork chops), a salad bar, an Asian station, a carving station and sweets. We never had to wait in line more than a few minutes and always found a place to sit.

The 24-hour pizzeria and 24-hour ice cream/frozen yogurt station are located here, along with a deli offering a variety of hot and cold items from tuna sandwiches and roast beef subs to gooey Reubens and Indian-spiced chicken tikka wraps (which we returned for several times during the week). There is also a poolside grill offering burgers, hot dogs and the like. Hot coffee is available at drinks stations throughout at no cost, but the offerings at the specialty coffee bar near the pizzeria, as well as The Fountainhead Cafe in the lower promenade area, are extra.

Room service is available around the clock. Tasty sandwiches are a nice touch (try the mozzarella with grilled veggies and basil aioli), though mainstays like juices, breads and pastries, salads, veggie platters, cookies and brownies, cakes, yogurt, fruit salad, and beverages (including bar service at regular bar prices) are also on the menu. Service was prompt; I called in a mid-afternoon order and it arrived in about 10 minutes. Full stateroom bar service is available 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. In-stateroom continental breakfast is available by hanging a checked-off menu on your doorknob -- and being that this is a "Fun Ship" and you're not exactly expected to turn in at a reasonable hour, the deadline for this is a generous 5 a.m. There are no hot dishes on the list, just fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and pastries, juice, milk, and tea and coffee.

Still hungry? Each afternoon, a sushi cart is set up outside of Maguire's Bar offering salmon, shrimp and assorted rolls (free of charge), but that's not even the best part -- sake is available (unfortunately not free of charge) in Maguire's to accompany your Japanese snack. Yum.While not necessarily "miraculous," there were a lot of pleasant surprises onboard Carnival Miracle, the 19th ship in Carnival's massive fleet. First of all, the ship is just plain pretty, understated in comparison to flashier creations in the fleet -- interior architect Joe Farcus is known for super-showy designs. Still, Farcus always has a theme, and Miracle's is "fictional icons" -- guest hallways feature drawings of famous literary characters like Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe (and the more obscure Belgian detective Hercule Poirot). The lobby and atrium are named after the Metropolis of "Superman" fame, and there's even a Gotham lounge that gets its name from "Batman." Carnival Miracle is also laid out exceptionally well -- I've never found it so easy to find my way around a ship, maybe because it is just skirting the high side of mid-sized at 88,500 tons and carrying 2,124 passengers.

The service and the cuisine also exceeded my expectations. This is the first cruise I've been on in a long time, on any line, where I've been approached regularly and cheerfully for drinks service in the lido buffet -- and after years of being under the impression that the food on Carnival was nothing to write home about, I can honestly say the fact that I managed to gain eight pounds during my cruise speaks volumes about the improvements (much to the chagrin of the Weight Watchers police). Rolls were warm and crusty; fish was tender and flaky. Oh, and whoever came up with the idea of offering the pasta dishes in a smaller portion as a starter dish should get a raise!

Carnival Miracle is the fourth (and possibly last) ship in the Spirit class, which introduced some significant firsts for Carnival: alternative restaurants and onboard wedding chapels. Spirit-class ships also offer an impressive 80 percent ratio of outside cabins, as well as lots of nice little touches -- like museum-quality artwork and "designer" martinis.

Why the positive changes? Carnival is pushing to change its reputation in the industry and it shows, even in the little upgrades like softer bedding and big, plush pool towels. In fact, as Bob Dickinson writes in the welcome letter in the in-cabin directory, "A cruise onboard 'Today's Carnival' is significantly different from even a few years ago, as we've gone to great lengths to enhance virtually every aspect of the 'Fun Ship' vacation -- from expanding dining opportunities and entertainment options to upgraded spa and children's facilities."

However, even with the upgrades, Carnival has maintained its appeal with its traditional core audience: unpretentious and outgoing folks who like to party, and enjoy the rowdy and sometimes off-color pool games (though I'll never understand why the winner of the hairy chest competition had no hair to speak of). Drinking and dancing still goes on until the wee hours of the evening (ahem, morning). So even though this ship -- perhaps the mainstream line's nicest -- may have some people wondering, "Are we on Carnival?" the answer is definitely "yes."

Dining

The Bacchus Dining Room, named for the Greek god of wine (justly done up in purple hues with grape motifs on the ceiling and walls) is the main restaurant for dinner and probably the only room on the ship that struck me as too visually "loud" (though I did like the pale pink linens on the tables). I was surprised that there is only one dining room on Spirit-class ships (while Carnival Valor and even the older Celebration feature two main restaurants), but at two decks high, Bacchus comfortably accommodates all passengers in two seatings (early at 6 p.m., late at 8:15) or on a flexible basis, via Carnival's "Your Choice Dining" program. With the flexible option, passengers can have dinner in the main dining room anytime they like between 5:45 and 9:30 p.m. (times may vary). Dining assignments -- which you select before the cruise -- are made on a first come, first served basis, so if you have your heart set on one or the other, consider booking earlier rather than later.

Tip: With nearly half of the ship's capacity heading to dinner in one place at one time, a line of people forms that eventually grows so long it snakes into the Metropolis Lounge. If you don't want to feel herded (or be asked repeatedly if you want formal or casual portraits taken), grab a seat and a drink, and mosey on in after the crowd has dispersed.

Still, even with so many hearty appetites in one place, dinner runs like a well-oiled machine; service was prompt and attentive (after accepting an offer for lemons from my waiter on the first night, I arrived each evening thereafter to find a plate of lemon wedges waiting for me), and aside from generally boring salads (iceberg lettuce and a few random tomatoes generally don't interest me), food consistently met or exceeded our expectations -- particularly high-quality, hearty cuts of meat that were brought out exactly as requested.

Menus feature Spa Carnival and low-carb entrees daily, as well as special selections for children and vegetarians. We noticed that many evenings, the low-carb choices mirrored the main menu choices -- fish, steak, chicken -- but were often prepared with lighter sauce or accompanied by healthier sides like steamed vegetables. I have a hard enough time choosing greens over potatoes or pasta on dry land, and so stuck with the regular menu throughout the cruise (which I suppose contributed to the eight-pound gain). Breakfast and lunch is also served here in an open-seating fashion every day. The breakfast menu is the same each morning, offering standard fare: French toast, pancakes, omelets, eggs benedict, etc. Lunch choices often reflect what's available in Horatio's, the buffet area.

Dinner at Nick & Nora's, nestled under a skylight in Carnival's signature red funnel, is truly unforgettable and worth the $30 per-person charge considering the quality of the meals, exquisite atmosphere and extra-attentive service. If you make reservations, be sure to take the glass-backed elevator up -- there is a gorgeous black and white photo of the 1930's Manhattan skyline that pops into view as you arrive, and it aptly feels as if you are leaving the cruise ship behind for something entirely different. There are plenty of cozy tables for couples and small groups. After seating my boyfriend and me in a dimly lit corner, our hostess offered to bring over another candle, but I declined, joking with her that my sunburn would be less visible in the dark. It was truly intimate and lovely, with prime cuts of meat, delicious Caesar salad prepared tableside and Versace china to boot. Leave room for dessert -- the trio of chocolate treats was almost too beautiful to eat (almost).

The lido dining option is Horatio's, a sprawling, one-level restaurant offering full breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as a casual dinner alternative and a late-night "bistro." Among the plentiful tables and chairs are cozy booths, which make it feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria (there are also tables set up poolside for those who prefer dining al fresco). Breakfast options include eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, grits, Cream of Wheat, bagels and (under-ripe) fruit. There is an omelet station each morning for made-to-order egg dishes, and separate islands for juice, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Assorted pastries and juices are brought around on carts by staff, a nice touch (fancier than usual for Carnival). Lunch options include hot buffet items (one afternoon featured surprisingly tender pork chops), a salad bar, an Asian station, a carving station and sweets. We never had to wait in line more than a few minutes and always found a place to sit.

The 24-hour pizzeria and 24-hour ice cream/frozen yogurt station are located here, along with a deli offering a variety of hot and cold items from tuna sandwiches and roast beef subs to gooey Reubens and Indian-spiced chicken tikka wraps (which we returned for several times during the week). There is also a poolside grill offering burgers, hot dogs and the like. Hot coffee is available at drinks stations throughout at no cost, but the offerings at the specialty coffee bar near the pizzeria, as well as The Fountainhead Cafe in the lower promenade area, are extra.

Room service is available around the clock. Tasty sandwiches are a nice touch (try the mozzarella with grilled veggies and basil aioli), though mainstays like juices, breads and pastries, salads, veggie platters, cookies and brownies, cakes, yogurt, fruit salad, and beverages (including bar service at regular bar prices) are also on the menu. Service was prompt; I called in a mid-afternoon order and it arrived in about 10 minutes. Full stateroom bar service is available 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. In-stateroom continental breakfast is available by hanging a checked-off menu on your doorknob -- and being that this is a "Fun Ship" and you're not exactly expected to turn in at a reasonable hour, the deadline for this is a generous 5 a.m. There are no hot dishes on the list, just fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and pastries, juice, milk, and tea and coffee.

Still hungry? Each afternoon, a sushi cart is set up outside of Maguire's Bar offering salmon, shrimp and assorted rolls (free of charge), but that's not even the best part -- sake is available (unfortunately not free of charge) in Maguire's to accompany your Japanese snack. Yum.

Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $10 per person, per day, broken down to $5.50 to the headwaiter/waiter, $1 to the assistant waiter/cooks and $3.50 to the cabin steward; the amount is automatically added to your shipboard account but can be adjusted in either direction at the purser's desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'; the room service menu suggests tipping -- a buck or two -- as it's delivered.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'.While not necessarily "miraculous," there is much to praise about Carnival Miracle, the fourth of four "mid-sized" Spirit-class ships. First of all, the 88,500-ton, 2,124-passenger vessel, which launched in 2004, is just plain pretty, understated in comparison to flashier creations in the fleet -- legendary interior architect Joe Farcus is known for super-showy designs. Still, Farcus always has a theme, and Miracle's is "fictional icons" -- guest hallways feature drawings of famous literary characters like Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe (and the more obscure Belgian detective Hercule Poirot). The lobby and atrium are named after the Metropolis of "Superman" fame, and there's even a Gotham lounge that gets its name from "Batman." Carnival Miracle is also laid out exceptionally well and a breeze to navigate.

Second (and third and fourth), Miracle and its Spirit-class brethren introduced some significant firsts for Carnival: fantastic alternative steakhouses found on every Carnival new-build thereafter and onboard wedding chapels. Spirit-class ships also offer an impressive 80 percent ratio of outside cabins (and 80 p, as well as lots of nice little touches -- like museum-quality artwork and "designer" martinis.

Good news: A January 2012 dry-dock refreshed Miracle from bow-to-stern and added yet another signature Carnival feature. Beyond the obligatory under-the-hood work and touch-ups to carpeting and upholstery, the ship gained Carnival's adults-only Serenity deck. The popular kid-free retreat, featuring plush loungers, a pair of hot tubs and an endless view of the wake, is now featured on 21 out of 23 Carnival ships.

Ultimately, Carnival Miracle offers quintessential Carnival -- solid dining options, unpretentious fun and affordable rates -- in a less mega-sized package.

Dining

The Bacchus Dining Room, named for the Greek god of wine, is the main restaurant for dinner. It's visually "loud" in purple hues with grape motifs on the ceiling and walls, and pale pink table linens. Surprisingly, there is only one dining room on Spirit-class ships (while Carnival Valor and even the older Celebration feature two main restaurants), but at two decks high, Bacchus comfortably accommodates all passengers in two seatings (early at 6 p.m., late at 8:15) or on a flexible basis, via Carnival's "Your Choice Dining" program. With the flexible option, passengers can have dinner in the main dining room anytime they like between 5:45 and 9:30 p.m. (times may vary). Dining assignments -- which you select before the cruise -- are made on a first come, first served basis, so if you have your heart set on one or the other, consider booking sooner rather than later.

Dinner runs like a well-oiled machine; service is prompt and attentive, and aside from generally boring salads (iceberg lettuce and a few random tomatoes), food consistently meets or exceeds expectations -- particularly high-quality, hearty cuts of meat that are brought out as requested.

Menus feature Spa Carnival and low-carb entrees daily, as well as special selections for children and vegetarians. Often, the low-carb choices mirror the main menu choices -- fish, steak, chicken -- but are prepared with lighter sauce or accompanied by healthier sides like steamed vegetables. Breakfast and lunch is also served here in an open-seating fashion every day. The breakfast menu is the same each morning, offering standard fare: French toast, pancakes, omelets, eggs Benedict, etc. Lunch choices often reflect what's available in Horatio's, the buffet area.

Dinner at Nick & Nora's, nestled under a skylight in Carnival's signature red funnel, is truly unforgettable and worth the $30 per-person charge considering the quality of the meals, exquisite atmosphere and extra-attentive service. If you make reservations, be sure to take the glass-backed elevator up -- there is a gorgeous black and white photo of the 1930's Manhattan skyline that pops into view as you arrive, and it aptly feels as if you are leaving the cruise ship behind for something entirely different. There are plenty of cozy tables for couples and small groups. Truly intimate and lovely, with prime cuts of meat, delicious Caesar salad prepared tableside and Versace china to boot. Leave room for dessert, such as a trio of chocolate treats.

The lido buffet is Horatio's, a sprawling, one-level restaurant offering full breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as a casual dinner alternative and a late-night "bistro." Among the plentiful tables and chairs are cozy booths, which make it feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria (there are also tables set up poolside for those who prefer dining alfresco). Breakfast options include eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, grits, Cream of Wheat, bagels and fruit. There is an omelet station each morning for made-to-order egg dishes, and separate islands for juice, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Assorted pastries and juices are brought around on carts by staff, a nice touch (fancier than usual for Carnival). Lunch options include hot buffet items (such as surprisingly tender pork chops), a salad bar, an Asian station, a carving station and sweets. There's rarely a line more than a few minutes and nearly always a place to sit.

The 24-hour pizzeria and 24-hour ice cream/frozen yogurt station are located here, along with a deli offering a variety of hot and cold items from tuna sandwiches and roast beef subs to gooey Reubens and Indian-spiced chicken tikka wraps. There is also a poolside grill offering burgers, hot dogs and the like. Hot coffee is available at drinks stations throughout at no cost, but the offerings at the specialty coffee bar near the pizzeria, as well as The Fountainhead Cafe in the lower promenade area, are extra.

Each afternoon, a sushi cart is set up outside of Maguire's Bar offering rotating options like salmon, shrimp and assorted rolls (free of charge). But that's not even the best part -- sake is available (unfortunately not free of charge) in Maguire's to accompany your Japanese snack.

The Punchliner Comedy Brunch was the result of Carnival's relationship with comedian George Lopez. Available on sea days, the brunch features a five- to six-minute comedy performance by an in-house stand-up every hour on the hour. The Mexican-inspired brunch menu is pretty interesting –- there's a Caesar salad with fried chicken and jerk bacon, a breakfast burrito and huevos rancheros. There's also a Bloody Mary bar. There is no extra charge to dine (bloody Marys are extra) though reservations are recommended.

Carnival Miracle's Taste Bar (Deck 2 along the Promenade) is available from 5 – 8 p.m. on sea days and select port days. The dining option (free) features a selection of tapas curated from a number of Carnival's newest dining venues (many of which are not found on Miracle). You can pair tastes with a specially selected cocktail for $5. For example, you might find roasted pork tacos and lime tortilla soup inspired by the BlueIguana Cantina (debuted on Carnival Liberty), with a Blue Margarita as the accompanying drink. Or, try "Nonna's" meatballs and ricotta bruchetta, inspired by the Cucina del Capitano Italian restaurant introduced on Carnival Magic, paired with the venue's house Chianti.

Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.

Still hungry? Room service is available around the clock. Tasty sandwiches are a nice touch (try the mozzarella with grilled veggies and basil aioli), though mainstays like juices, breads and pastries, salads, veggie platters, cookies and brownies, cakes, yogurt, fruit salad, and beverages (including bar service at regular bar prices) are also on the menu. Service is usually prompt. Full stateroom bar service is available 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. In-cabin continental breakfast is available by hanging a checked-off menu on your doorknob -- and being that this is a "Fun Ship" and you're not exactly expected to turn in at a reasonable hour, the deadline for this is a generous 5 a.m. There are no hot dishes on the list, just fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and pastries, juice, milk, tea and coffee.

Public Rooms

Passengers enter the ship in the Metropolis Lobby at the base of the atrium, named after the Metropolis of "Superman" fame and done up with Art Deco-meets-classic furnishing and blue Murano glass lights. The lobby's Jeeves Lounge is a natural meeting place for pre-dinner drinks, particularly when the ship's classical trio begins playing (piano and strings). The Gotham Lounge is another popular spot for pre-dinner drinks, right near the main entrance to Bacchus.

There is an outdoor promenade on Deck 3 as well as an enclosed "winter garden" promenade fashioned after Gatsby's garden in the novel "The Great Gatsby," with white trellises and a faux-stone floor, which can be oddly quiet at all times of the day compared to other public areas.

The photo gallery is located on Deck 3, around the perimeter of the lobby. The gift shops are located near here as well, selling the usual logo wear, souvenirs, sunscreen, perfume, duty-free liquors and cigarettes, T-shirts and jewelry. The Formalities shop rents out tuxedos.

The Raven Library is pretty in dark mahogany-style wood, with loveseats and tables, but the selection, as usual on Carnival ships, is pretty sad (why even bother to have a library, frankly?) -- there is only one glass case of books (three cabinets of five shelves each) and about three random board games. It also doubles as the Internet cafe, and houses 10 computers and a printer. Connectivity is sold in a number of packages or a la carte, though per-minute prices are lower when you buy in bulk. For instance, a block of 120 minutes is $59 or 49 cents a minute; 480 minutes for $159 or about 33 cents a minute; otherwise, expect to pay 75 cents per minute. Wireless access is available to laptop users on Decks 2, 3, 9 and 10. Directly across from here is the small wedding chapel.

Note: Make it a point to ditch the elevator from time to time. There are beautiful glass vases on display in the stairwells, all very different and colorful and fascinating.

Cabins

Seemingly well soundproofed, cabins are rather quiet during the day and night. Heavy drapes help with noise and sun, and add a classy touch to balconied cabin.

Furniture is constructed of solid cherry wood, and cabins are well lit with attractive lamps and fixtures. Flat-screen TV's were added to all the cabins in January 2012. Little "goodies" are left waiting in the bathroom at embarkation (though they aren't replenished throughout the trip), including samples of Physique hair products, Reach Access flossers, razors for men and women, Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste and Lever 2000 soap.

Inside cabins represent only 20 percent of the total number onboard, which means a fairly significant 80 percent (849 cabins) are outsides -- another plus, and a huge draw for modern-day cruisers. Of these 849 cabins, 624 are oceanviews with private verandahs, 68 are partial-view oceanviews with French doors, and just 99 are standard oceanviews (which, interestingly enough, measure the same as standard insides at 185 square feet).

Still, 185 square feet is fairly roomy for an inside, all things considered. Inside cabins are laid out with a small desk/vanity area, a bathroom with a curtained stand-alone shower (there are both shower gel and shampoo pumps in the shower), twin beds that convert to a queen, decent closet space (two cabinets with hanging bars and one with wide shelves), a flat-screen television with remote, and a mini-fridge. Higher cabins have a little sitting area with a peach sofa and table, except for adjoining staterooms which have chairs in place of a sofa so as not to block the door. All oceanview staterooms come with terry robes for use onboard. Balcony cabins measure from 225 square ft. (including the verandah). Balconies are outfitted with a plastic table and two plastic chairs. All balconies feature an extended barrier for extra privacy from neighbors.

Note: Categories 8C, 8E, 8G and 8I feature "extended" balconies, which add 50 percent more space, but jut out a tad further and are visible from above. (So don't do anything you wouldn't want your neighbors to the north to see!)

Suites (there are 52 of them) range from 360 square feet to 465 square feet and have larger verandahs with upgraded furnishings and whirlpool tubs; pick a suite at the aft corner for a wrap-around verandah.

There are 16 cabins specifically designed for wheelchair-bound passengers, in a variety of stateroom categories.

Entertainment

Carnival does a good job with entertainment, as a rule. The elaborate production shows onboard include a high-energy medley of popular music from the last few decades, called "Legends," and a Beatles-themed production that is quite fun.

The three-level main show lounge is fashioned after the Paris Opera House and "The Phantom of the Opera." White enamel masks and mini candelabras line the maroon and gold walls, and almost feel magical. Stone figures hold up orange "stained glass" lights atop the entryways.

Carnival's Farcus tends towards gaudy, over-the-top themes, but Mad Hatter's Ball, the alternate show lounge beneath Phantom, works beautifully. The entrance from Deck 2 is inviting with sparkling red hearts dancing down the winding staircase and funky frosted lamps in red and ivory lighting the way. The lounge itself is plush and fantastical -- like a fall down Alice's rabbit hole. There are several late-night adult comedy shows in Mad Hatter's Ball, and a friendly bartender who makes fabulous appletinis.

Frankenstein's Lab is the pretty nifty two-deck disco. It received new furniture and carpeting as part of the recent refurb. Neon "electricity bolts" line the walls along with slabs of grayish purple stone, gargoyles hold up the bar stools and cocktail tables, and a gigantic light-up Frankenstein patrols the dance floor. This is used for a teens-only dance party each evening, but becomes a hot spot for adults much, much later -- think way after midnight.

Mr. Lucky's casino is enormous with table games and slot machines galore. Particularly precious are the Garfield (yes, the cartoon cat) nickel slots, but there is often a line to play at both machines. For low-key card playing, check out the Joker, a small card room located forward on Deck 2.

Sam's piano bar features live music each evening, and the pianists take requests -- there's actually a huge binder of songs to flip through and microphones along the bar for guests with a little gusto. One neat feature here is that the piano is on a platform that spins ... though this may not be so neat for anyone feeling a little seasick!

A fabulous jazz trio plays in the Gotham Lounge after both dining seatings. During the day, cruisers participate in art auctions, trivia contests, ship-sponsored "pub" crawls, big-screen movies, bingo games, slot tournaments, fun contests and game shows like "Newlywed, Not-So-Newlywed."

Fitness and Recreation

There are four pools onboard -- three main pools, each with a whirlpool, and one children's pool -- though none are particularly large. Updates to the pools were part of the January 2012 dry-dock, which also saw the addition of the popular Serenity area for adults only that includes a full bar. The midship Ulysses Pool area seems to be the liveliest of the bunch, housing the stage for live Calypso music as well as the grill and the Odyssey Bar. For a quieter swim, try Orpheus (forward; the whirlpool here is adult-only, though it can still get raucous after a couple of drinking hours have passed) or Sirens (on the other side of Odyssey Bar). The entrance to the twisty slide is up on the Sports Deck along with a jogging track (15.2 laps equals one mile), a ball court (for basketball and soccer) and a putting green. There are areas designated for shuffleboard and Ping-Pong as well.

Spa Carnival is run by Steiner Leisure, and is pretty run-of-the-mill with a small reception area and 10 private treatment rooms, and sauna and steam rooms available for men and women. Treatments are pretty much in the on-every-cruise vein, ranging from aromastone therapy and body wraps to facials and massages. A basic massage will soak you $109, though on port days you might get lucky and pay $10 or so less.

The multi-level fitness center, located far forward on Decks 9 and 10, is impressive. One wall is comprised entirely of picture windows overlooking the water, which offers a really nice view (though there is a strip of deck that wraps around here as well so passers-by can watch you through the glass). Steppers, bikes, rowers, treadmills and weights -- all high-tech -- are placed facing the windows on escalating levels that give the whole room an arena or stadium sort of feel. And there is a foamy, inviting hot tub smack dab in the center.

The fitness center offers Pilates, yoga and cycling classes for a fee of $10, but if you are interested in taking one, be sure to check in at the facility in advance because the start times printed in Carnival Capers may be wrong.

For gamers, Wizards is an impressively sleek and spacious arcade with at least two dozen new-looking machines and two air hockey tables. You may have to look twice for it though; it's tucked behind the Phantom Lounge (access it from the forward stairs leading out of Gatsby's Garden).

Family

Pinocchio's Club, the children's facility on Miracle, is a colorful, adult-free hideaway (save from the very cool and cheerful youth staff), but what's inside is even better: five eMac computers, several small televisions hooked up to PlayStation consoles and a mosaic of wall-mounted screens for watching movies. There's also a huge flat-screen TV set up with Dance Dance Revolution, which is basically an arcade dance simulation game where you can create your own routines and even track the calories you burn -- loads of fun for the kids. There's also a game cabinet, bookshelf, arts and crafts tables, a candy art machine (so neat), and a spin art machine.

Club O2, on the Sun Deck, is the place to be for passengers aged 15 to 17. It has a full array of gaming consoles, a dance floor, music-listening stations and soda bar, plus activities such as karaoke, dance classes and midnight mini-golf forays. Circle C, the designated venue for the 12-to-14 'tween set, is on Deck 4 forward, and has has a dance floor, video jukebox and Internet stations. Activities include dance parties, game shows and Wii competitions. Both spaces have dedicated directors, and both are generally open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. on days in port and from noon during sea days.

The actual children's program, Camp Carnival, is tailored for many age groups. Children are broken up into four categories: ages 2 - 5, ages 6 - 8 and ages 9 - 11. Activities are also tailored for the age groups, and baby-sitting services, basically a slumber party in the play room, are available for a reasonable cost -- $6.75 per child -- from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. Toddlers do not have to be potty-trained to participate, as long as parents provide the staff with diapers and toiletries as necessary.

An all-you-can-drink Bottomless Bubbles program is available for children at $4.50 per day; adults may also purchase a fountain card for $6 per day. Soft drinks range from just $1 to $1.50, so you'd have to drink a whole lot of soda to get your money's worth -- plus, while your buck-fifty can get you a fresh soda, we noticed that guests who proffered up the fountain card at the bar were served whatever dregs were left in already-open cans. Admittedly, kids consume more soft drinks (and less wine) than adults might, so parents may want to consider this option rather than paying a la carte.

Fellow Passengers

You may find a lot of couples and groups of friends traveling together, with most passengers ranging in age from 25 to 55, plus a good number of families, though you'll find even more kids onboard in the summer and during school breaks. Caribbean cruises are popular with a lot of first-timers, so you may overhear folks asking questions about proper dress code, the difference between early and late dinner, and most importantly, what is and isn't "free."

Dress Code

A seven-night cruise includes two formal evenings, during which most men wear dark suits rather than tuxes, and women opt for business-y pants suits or evening dresses -- some rather glitzy. All other nights are deemed casual (when you're likely to see everything from ratty jeans to pretty sundresses) or "elegant casual" (a skirt or pants and blouse is fine for women, and most men wear Dockers-type pants with a buttoned shirt or polo).

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff.

Fellow Passengers

You may find a lot of couples and groups of friends traveling together, with most passengers ranging in age from 25 to 55, plus a good number of families, though you'll find even more kids onboard in the summer and during school breaks.

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