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Is Virgin Voyages the Perfect Cruise for Cruise Haters?

By Jeri Clausing

Oct 14, 2021

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Book a “rock star” suite on Virgin Voyages’ new “Scarlet Lady” vessel to truly embrace the glam factor.

Courtesy of Virgin Voyages

Book a “rock star” suite on Virgin Voyages’ new “Scarlet Lady” vessel to truly embrace the glam factor.

Richard Branson said he didn’t like cruises. So, he developed a cruise line for people like him. Did he succeed?

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When Virgin Voyages’ 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady sailed out of Miami for its “mermaiden” Caribbean cruise earlier this month, the send-off was everything you would expect from the Richard Branson brand—energetic, edgy, cheeky.

The check-in area pulsed with ’80s dance music. Champagne flowed and people wearing mermaid costumes waved to passengers.

Onboard the loud music and party vibe continued as the Scarlet Lady, its wake brightly lit against the darkening Miami skyline, set sail for the Bahamas while passengers sipped champagne and cocktails on the deck and the crew prepared for a first night of pub crawls, dance parties, stargazing with an “astral storyteller” (who relays mythical tales of the stars), and a rooftop pajama party.

With more than 2,700 passengers, the “Scarlet Lady” is still big-ship cruising—with some twists.

Given the festive atmosphere, I did a double take a few days later when during casual chatter in the spa’s spacious cave-inspired thermal room, I overheard a woman who cruises regularly say that what she liked most about the new ship was that “it’s quiet.”

“There aren’t any kids,” she said.

And that, according to Frank Weber, senior vice president of hotel operations for Scarlet Lady, is one of the major selling points of the new adults-only cruise line, which Branson has said he developed to disrupt the cruise industry and attract people like himself who have never been interested in cruising.

I, too, generally fall into that category of the big-ship cruising averse, so I jumped at the chance to join the sailing and see if I could be swayed.

The line, like all things Virgin, is definitely different—from its bright-red and gray decor and yacht-inspired design to its provocative venue names and edgy sexual undertones. Homemade ice cream is served up at the “Lick Me Till Ice Cream” stand and the interactive “Never Sleep Alone” comedy show ends with the (not real) sex therapist-host asking volunteers from the audience to simulate oral sex on each other using watermelons and bananas.

The question is whether the fun, very adult atmosphere with an almost overwhelming menu of onboard shows, parties, wellness offerings, fine dining, and unconventional amenities like the Squid Ink tattoo parlor is different enough to redefine big-ship cruising and lure those who haven’t traditionally been onboard (so to speak) with big-ship cruising.

The answer is yes and no.

What I liked most about Virgin Voyages and what sets the cruise line apart

The casual, inclusive “come as you are” atmosphere. Unlike many cruises, which often have at least one formal night and some basic rules about how to dress for dinner, there is no dress code—ever. That meant I was able to keep my heels in my suitcase and slip on my favorite gold flip-flops for dinner.

Passengers can detox and unwind in the expansive spa and wellness areas.

Many of the public restrooms and the entire spa, including locker rooms, are gender neutral. The dance shows feature all body shapes and dancers of varying sexual orientations. Both men and women were dressed as mermaids for the Retro-Glam pool party. Tattoos, costumes, piercings, cross-dressing, and wild-colored hair are all welcome and embraced. One of the most popular onboard services is Squid Ink, the tattoo and piercing parlor, which drew a nearly hour-long line of people when it opened to take appointments on departure.

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Consent messaging. While sex is definitely an underlying theme across the ship’s venues and shows, so, too, are reminders about responsible behavior. A description of “Never Sleep Alone” reminded guests that “no means no.” And it’s a message that was repeated by the host during the show. Likewise, one of the dance party descriptors reminded guests that “Consent is everything, on and off the dance floor.”

Vaccines and testing. On all Virgin Voyages sailings for the foreseeable future, everyone onboard must be vaccinated, so masks are optional (except for crew, who are required to wear them). As an added safeguard, the line performs rapid COVID-19 antigen tests on everyone before they board, so I felt comfortable wandering the ship mask-free.

The food, service, and health and safety protocols are all above par on Virgin Voyages, our reporter writes.

Crew interactions. While many cruise lines confine crew to their own quarters during downtime and when they’re off duty, the crew onboard the Scarlet Lady are allowed to mingle with guests and use the public spaces when they’re not working. With most of the paying passengers in their 40s and 50s, the younger crew adds to the diversity of the crowd, and the crew appeared happy to be socializing with guests. And as anyone in hospitality knows, happy employees make for happy guests. Indeed, I found the service outstanding at every turn, I never waited more than 10 minutes for my morning coffee, and my cheerful room attendant seemed to have a sixth sense for when I left my cabin, swooping in to straighten up, make my bed, and refresh my towels. And when we found out there was no food at Richard’s Rooftop, a sundeck and bar area typically reserved for suite guests, the bartender offered to run next door to grab us some poke bowls.

The food. With no main dining area other than the food court-style Galley that offers everything from street tacos to ramen noodles, burgers, and a variety of grab-and-go meal boxes, there are multiple smaller dining venues that have dedicated chefs and staff to deliver dining experiences that truthfully rival those of popular big-city restaurants. There’s homemade pasta at Extra Virgin, authentic cooked-at-your table Korean barbecue at Gunbae (which opens every meal with shots of soju). Vegans and their nonvegan friends can eat together at Razzle Dazzle, which has a “naughty” menu of nonvegan options that includes a fried chicken sandwich. Tastings and wine-pairing menus are offered at the Test Kitchen, traditional steaks and seafood at the Wake, and Mexican-inspired dishes with a host of mezcal and tequila-based drinks at Pink Agave. My favorites were Pink Agave and Gunbae, although I didn’t have a chance to try Extra Virgin, a venue that really caught my eye.

The Mexican-inspired cuisine at the Pink Agave restaurant is a culinary highlight of the food-rich ship.

The shows. Like the restaurants on board, the shows are held in multiple, smaller venues (typically for around 350 to 450 guests) across the ship, not in one main, large theater. They range from comedy to Cirque du Soleil–style acrobatic shows and dance performances. The shows are top-quality productions that are generally no longer than an hour, perfect for those of us with shorter attention spans.

On the “Scarlet Lady” you can party to your heart’s content or relax with intent—or both.

There really is something for everyone. Want a wellness escape? There is essentially a full-size health club on board with boxing rings, basketball courts, and a full menu of fitness classes throughout the day and evening that include ’80s-style Richard Simmons–inspired aerobic workouts, the latest in interval training, and aerial yoga. A variety of wellness workshops cover posture, skincare, and balancing mind and meditation. The spa has a huge thermal area with cold and hot tubs, mud and salt rooms, plus a steam room and sauna.

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You can also party to your heart’s content at the more than half dozen indoor and outdoor bars that encourage partying until the wee hours of the morning. For fun minus the partying, guests can join board game competitions, book karaoke rooms, participate in trivia contests, take mixology classes, head to the Craft Room for great beers, taste champagne, and enjoy high tea at the bar Sip. At the relaxed, Mediterranean-inspired Dock House, quieter acoustic and folk song performances are held both indoors and out.

The drawbacks of Virgin Voyages

In the end, however, Scarlet Lady is still a big ship with a lot of passengers. That means you have to plan ahead and act quickly on embarkation to secure prime dinner reservations and spots in the most popular shows and workout classes. And while the line bills itself as all-inclusive, all alcoholic drinks and excursions are extra, and the free Wi-Fi all but unusable. I paid $40 to upgrade for the four-day cruise after I was unable to send email on the free network.

While Virgin promises unique excursions at price points lower than other cruise lines, executives say many of those are still being developed. Our four-night, three-day cruise had just two stops, in Nassau and Bimini. Shore excursions were similar to those offered by other lines. Nassau options included a jeep tour, snorkeling with sea turtles, and frolicking with Bahamas’ famed swimming pigs with prices in the $100 to $200 range per excursion. Our second (and only other stop) was to the private Bimini beach club Virgin developed in partnership with Resorts World. When Virgin is in port, the beach club, with its beautiful white sand beach and pool, is reserved exclusively for Virgin passengers and is staffed by Virgin crew members, who prepare local cuisine and offer a host of tropical cocktails. Activities include summer camp–style games like tug-of-war. The line also offers excursions around Bimini, including an opportunity to scuba dive or swim with sharks. 

While sleek in design, the majority of cabins are “cruise-ship small.”

Although there are 78 “rock star” suites as large as 2,100 square feet with marble bathrooms, hot tubs, and perks that include a personal assistant, hair and makeup crews, and a nightly swimsuit drying service, the majority of cabins, like my Sea Terrace room with a balcony, are traditional cruise-ship small, with especially tight bathrooms. Still, they are well laid out with a bed that can be split and turned into a couch during the day, and they include a small desk and adjacent seating area. They also have fun features, like a red hammock on each balcony and mood lighting

So, did the line deliver on its goal of providing a unique, fun, adult experience for the young at heart? Yes. Did it convince me to eschew my annual trip with my husband to a relaxing beach resort? Probably not. But if I were to pick a big ocean cruise for a more active, fun-focused group trip with the girls or with other couples, Virgin Voyages would definitely top the list.

The Scarlet Lady is currently sailing from Miami to the Bahamas and along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Sailings to the Dominican Republic are scheduled for December. Prices per person start at around $1,500 (based on double occupancy). The line will likely add transatlantic and European sailings next year. Virgin Voyages will be launching two additional ships, the Valiant Lady and the Resilient Lady, but has yet to release the exact dates when those vessels will set sail.

>> Next: The Better Way to Cruise in Venice

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