I’ve been “onboard” with the Virgin Voyages project for well over a year now and have attended many of their briefing sessions and launch parties and listened to the hype and their ideas. I used to think to myself – “if they can pull all that off, Scarlet Lady really will be a game changer”.
On Saturday I joined the ship for an overnight stay, and I can confirm Virgin Voyages has achieved (almost) everything it set out to.
Cabins are functional, if a little basic, with an open wardrobe and shelves covered by a curtain. There’s not a great deal of storage but it’s probably plenty for the four- and five-night itineraries the ship is offering, especially as there is no real dress code – meaning no posh frocks or tuxedos needing to be hung up.
The bed set-up during the day is an L-shape sofa, with the stewards then making it up into a bed for the evening. I liked this idea and it made the room more useful during the day. The bed was also surprisingly comfortable and you couldn’t feel the “join”.
There are no single-use plastic bottles of shower gels in the bathroom – these have been replaced instead by larger bottles, which was good to see. The cabin also turns itself off when you leave, and even draws the curtains automatically to save on air con and electricity. The higher grade Rock Star suites were large and some of the balconies were huge, but they felt a little under-furnished and not quite lavish enough for me to justify the price point (Massive Suites are priced at about £4,500pp for a four-day sailing, cruise only).
Where Virgin Voyages has really excelled is in its public spaces and restaurants. All the food I tried (I sampled Razzle Dazzle, The Wake and Test Kitchen restaurants) was excellent and worthy of a six-star ship, with innovative menus and lots of vegan and veggie options. Bars were well designed, and the attention to detail was excellent – they definitely haven’t scrimped on the finish at all.
Crew and staff have all been hand-picked and not from the usual crewing agencies, so everyone was individual and quirky in their own way – think tattoos, hair colouring and piercings, which showed off their personality. All were genuinely friendly, and represented 60 nationalities. They are a real feather in Virgin Voyages’ cap. Some were new to cruise and others had worked on competitor ships – but all said the way Virgin Voyages is looking after them is amazing.
I loved the quirky entertainment, drag queens, and pop-up “happenings” around the ship. The acrobatic and fun dance party is certainly something I’ve never seen the likes of before on a ship, and personally I think entertainment like this on a cruise is long overdue.
I didn’t really have much of a chance to enjoy the outside open decks – the weather in Dover was pretty horrendous and the crew ended up having to remove deck furniture, as the winds were so strong.
I would suggest this ship is not for everyone, and I’m sure Virgin Voyages makes no apologies for that. Richard Branson has always said he wanted to cruise but there wasn’t anything in the market that tempted him – it’s not an age thing, he said, it’s a mind-set. Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady is the result of this.
It will be Marmite for a lot of people. Most of your regular cruise clients will not like it, but then, it really isn’t for them. Scarlet Lady is aimed a new-to-cruise market that always thought cruise was too boring and stuffy to interest them.
Virgin Voyages are really shaking things up, and I think in the Caribbean this ship will be great on the shorter cruises it operates. Think young-at-heart couples, solo travellers and friends who enjoy the South Beach lifestyle with fitness and healthy food options, but who also enjoy good food and a party lifestyle in the evening.
Has Virgin Voyages got it all right? I’m sure time will tell, and as the ship beds in to her regular run I’m convinced there will be tweaks and changes, as with all new launches. But I do think Virgin Voyages has made a good start.
It will shake up the cruise industry and maybe this is what’s needed to get cruising to appeal to a wider audience. Personally, I loved it and would definitely cruise on Scarlet Lady for my own holiday.
Scott Anderson is general manager at the Luxury Cruise Company.