“We make cocktails properly here,” says the barman as he hands me a G&T – with a slice of feta cheese in it.
It’s not your average cocktail, but then Virgin Voyages is not your average cruise line – and its first ship, Scarlet Lady, is certainly not designed to be your average ship.
The line has tried hard to construct a ship that, it hopes, will appeal people who believe cruising isn’t for them. And to a certain extent it has succeeded.
There are a number of elements that separate Virgin Voyages from competitor cruise lines: being adult-only for a start, as well as the absence of a cruise director and the removal of the stereotypical buffet – replaced instead with a series of food stations featuring made-to-order dishes, a move which the line believes will help cut down food wastage.
The onboard entertainment is also unique – from an evening performance featuring an acrobatic version of Romeo and Juliet to a late-night show named Untitled DanceShowPartyThing which features a laser cat, a giant pink whale and a rendition of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On – more familiarly known as the Titanic movie theme tune (yes, really!).
“This is not your typical cruise line,” president and chief executive Tom McAlpin stressed again with a chuckle when I asked him about the performance. That is certainly true, but I wonder if at times the line tries too hard to meet its objective.
The cabins, for instance, (I stayed in a Sea Terrace) have sofa beds – an unusual quirk for a cruise line (especially one as highly priced as Virgin Voyages). Yes, the cabin felt more spacious as a result but I was left wondering how many people might prefer to keep their bed made, rather than having it transformed back into a sofa every morning.
The hammock on the cabin balcony was a nice touch (the dismal weather in Dover and strong winds meant I sadly didn’t get a chance to try it).
But back inside the rooms, I noticed a distinct lack of drawers to unpack clothes into, although there is a narrow wardrobe rail and curtain. With most sailings comprising three or five nights, the assumption is perhaps that people will need less space to unpack, but a bit more furniture would have been nice. It seemed the line is not expecting people to spend much time in their rooms.
If they wish to while their days away by the pool on the main pool deck though, they may face a challenge. There is just one relatively small pool – an unusual design choice given the ship’s Caribbean itineraries. There are, however, a number of hot tubs – one of which the line claims to be the largest at sea.
The onboard entertainment though, is likely to keep guests distracted. The target market is “young at heart” and with DJs and bands performing at various spaces throughout the ship, as well as a curated playlist playing throughout other areas, the vibe onboard Scarlet Lady felt like one big party.
To keep guests further entertained there are a number of “happenings” that take place across the ship featuring various different cast members, from Tora the drag queen to Dr Alex the “sex therapist”. Different performances are conducted at any one time, as we found out on Friday night. We were in The Dock House, enjoying cocktails, when the carnival arrived, weaving its way through the crowd as people shook maracas and banged drums. Venetian masks were handed out and pretty soon the whole bar was dancing and it was impossible to distinguish crew members from passengers.
Another impressive element of this new cruise line is its commitment to diversity. Throughout the ship I noticed a mix of gender neutral and accessible toilets. Meanwhile, on the sustainability side, I spied reusable toiletries in the cabin bathrooms and refillable condiment bottles in the dining areas.
The line has also vowed Scarlet Lady will be the first cruise ship to be carbon neutral, using carbon offsetting programmes in the destinations it visits. There are the obvious challenges with carbon offsetting but it is refreshing nonetheless to see a cruise line making such a bold commitment.
Most impressive though, was the verdict of the people who perhaps matter most onboard a cruise ship – the crew. Everyone I met had big smiles, and were clearly excited to be onboard the new ship. A waiter in one of the restaurants explained why – he had spent a long career at sea, sailing for another large cruise line before joining Virgin Voyages, and he told me emphatically: “I’ve never been treated like this before.”
I asked if he was happier here. “Oh, yes,” he grinned. “I still can’t believe we have free Wi-Fi. They really want to treat us well, I feel like Richard really cares about us. I love it.”
Tell us what you think of Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady – and, crucially, whether you think it will appeal to your customers.