If you are tired of the same ol', same ol', this may be an option for your next vacation. We recently spent 5 nights on Virgin Voyages cruise line's inaugural ship, the Scarlet Lady, and it was definitely not like any other cruise line. Richard Branson's newest baby is a venture into the type of cruise line that HE would want to sail on. If you have cruised in the past (or if you haven't), you will have to put aside any expectations or preconceived ideas of what cruising is like.
Having completed the line's travel advisor training, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: the unexpected. She did not disappoint. From the appearance of the ship, the crew members, the array of foods, their staterooms, entertainment, there was a lot of comments heard (either "That's different!" or "That's weird...") about how unusual it was for a cruise ship from other lines. I thought I would share our experience, to help you understand the brand a bit more, if you are thinking about trying it.
First off, we need to discuss the vocabulary that Virgin Voyages uses.
- Sailor - This is you, the guest.
- First Mate - This is your travel advisor (ME!), who help you with your booking.
- Sailor Services - This is their guest services, whether by phone or on board.
- Lady Ship - A play on Virgin's British roots, your Ladyship.
- Basic Bevvies - Beverages that are included with your cruise fare: filtered still and sparkling water, non-pressed juices, tea, soda, and drop coffee.
- Bar Tab - Your prepaid account for alcoholic beverages.
- Sailor Loot - Your onboard credit to spend on expenses while on the ship.
- Sea Band - A bracelet is used to unlock your room, ID you getting on and off the ship, making on board purchases, and more.
Pre-arrival and Boarding
As with most cruise lines trying to sail in a post-pandemic world, this line is very technology driven. Once you book your cruise, you can download the Virgin Voyages mobile app and start viewing information about your cruise. This is where you will create your account, set up preferences, book excursions, reserve dining, and more. I had a love/hate relationship with the app from pre-boarding and throughout the cruise (more on that later.) The app is quirky with flamingos and fun quotes but took a bit to figure out where everything was set up. Once I figured out how to find things, I did like the convenience of having it right at hand.
The issue many people have had, to date, is getting the mobile app to work as designed. Before sailing, I would attempt to open the app and often get a cute little octopus telling me there was some kind of issue and to try again later. That octopus became less cute, as I was trying to get dining and reservations booked and couldn't get on the app. I had contacted Sailor Services by phone to make a couple reservations. A majority of negative feedback was regarding the mobile app. The company is well aware of the issues that guests have faced with their app and are working hard to upgrade it.
You should receive your Sea Band in the mail with your name inscribed on it. For our sailing, the package arrived about three days before our embarkation. Since we had started our vacation earlier, we were issued Sea Bands when checking in. I feel like the Bands could be sent to Sailors sooner, for those who like to spend time exploring the port city a few days prior to the actual sailing.
The terminal for Virgin Voyages was still under construction during our sailing, so they had us routed to another terminal for embarkation. Things were a bit confusing at first but once we started our boarding process, it seemed to progress fine. Although, we laughed that, just as we thought we were close, there was another line to get into. We moved from security, having our carry on items checked, to the COVID testing area. There were several stations processing rapid tests on incoming guests. From there, we were sent to another area of the terminal where we sat to wait on our test results. When the results showed up on our email, we could then get into a line to get checked in, get our Sea Bands, and verify our ID and payment information. Once that was done, we were free to board the ship!
Crew members excitedly greeted us as we boarded and directed us toward the elevators. Once on our deck, we were then guided by our room steward to our stateroom, where he showed us a few items in the room and made note of our preferences.
You can see the difference in the Scarlet Lady when you first spot her at the terminal. While other lines are bright white, with the lines own logos, the Scarlet Lady's body is a battleship gray topped with Virgin's signature bright red. She is shaped more like a super-yacht than a megaship, and as you get closer you see spots of red from the hammock's on each balcony.
Going against the industry norm of bigger-is-better, as you step on board, you are not greeted by a multi-level, grand atrium but by a single, wide-sweeping staircase connecting two decks midship. This concept was taken throughout the ship, with smaller venues and secret nooks to explore. I would really encourage you to explore each deck on your first day, to see what you can find!
Color and texture play a big role in the appearance, not just outside of the Scarlet Lady, but help create different moods through the ship. You will have everything from crisp, modern white tile, plush jewel-toned sofas, or a neutral spa-like lounge area. There were a lot of areas just begging to be your next social media photo op!
The center of the ship has some shops, as you may be accustomed to, but also has a tattoo shop (they were busy!), men's and women's salon for primping, and a makeup shop. If you're a lover of vinyl, Virgin has you covered, with a small shop you can peruse and listen to.
Cabins range from a 105-square foot solo sailor interior cabin to the Mega Rockstar Massive Suite's 2147-square feet. Regardless of which cabin you book, your cruise fare includes Wifi, all of your food (there are a couple of Treat Yourself dishes in the restaurants that come with an additional charge), tips for the crew, group workout classes, and basic bevvies. For our sailing, we stayed in a Sea Terrace room on deck 12. The room was very bright and felt roomy. Some complained about lack of storage but we found that for our 5-night sailing the shelves and wardrobe area was plenty of space for our things.
Want to really splurge? The Rockstar or Mega Rockstar suites are the way to go! The suites are definitely more spacious, having sitting areas or separate rooms. You also get more perks, even before boarding. Both the Rockstar and Mega Rockstar suites offer early booking or priority access to reservations (dining, events, and other experiences), a complimentary bar set up in your room, and access to Richard's Rooftop, a portion of the deck only accessible to suite guests. Both suite levels come with a "Rock Star Agent" to satisfy any of your needs, even before stepping on board.
The Mega Rockstar suites take the luxury up a few notches, making you feel like a true star! Aside from the perks you get in the Rockstar suites, you also get premium wifi, a bottomless in-room bar, a daily bar tab that you can use to by yourself (or your newest best friends) beverages throughout the ship, and private transfer from the airport to the cruise terminal. How can you spot a Rock Star or Mega Rockstar guest on the ship? They will be wearing a black Sea Band and may be wearing a "Rock Star" robe around the ship.
For those wanting to experience the Scarlet Lady on your own, you can book any of the cabins or suites available, but can also take advantage of an inside cabin designed specifically for the solo traveler.
My biggest complaint about the food is not having enough time to try it all. We still talk about some of the fabulous food we had during our 5 night cruise. Unlike traditional cruise experiences, you won't find expansive dining rooms or buffets lines. There are several restaurants on the ship that you can make reservations at, or can walk in for an available seating, if you want to be more spontaneous. On our five-night cruise, we ate dinner at Pink Agave (Mexican), Extra Virgin (Italian), The Wake (steakhouse), and Gunbae (Korean BBQ). While we did breakfast at Razzle Dazzle, the plant-based venue, we didn't get to try their lunch or dinner menus. The Wake also offered a delicious brunch menu. They also offer The Test Kitchen, for the more food-venturous. There the chef will provide set menu items, prepared in interesting ways. For a more casual setting, you can grab a bite in The Galley, which is a food cart inspired area, similar to a food court, where you can eat something from one spot, or mix it up with something from multiple areas. There is also The Dock at the aft section, grab and go meals in The Galley, the Pizza Place, Social Club, and room service.
The food was always freshly cooked, to order, and delicious! Granted, food is a very subjective topic and some folks have raised concern about not finding something to eat, as they are self-described picky eaters. This is something you don't really need to worry about. At the beginning of each dining experience, the server would greet you and ask if there are any dietary concerns or allergies they need to be aware of. While not an allergy-free kitchen, they will advise you and offer substitutions if a menu item has something that would be an issue. The menus everywhere (even the ice cream bar!) are labeled to show which items are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, or sugar-free.
For dining on the Scarlet Lady, I would try to eat at each of the restaurants at least once, if you can. You may find that you have a difficult time deciding what to order. My tip for couples or groups having a hard time deciding, is to order a couple of menu items to share. We did this for Extra Virgin and were both able to enjoy the Carbonara and the beef Bolognese. For solo travelers, ask for a half order of sides or appetizers, if you'd like to try more than one. The staff is very accommodating!
Most all the food items are included in your cruise fare. There are a couple of "Treat Yourself" items a couple of the restaurants that offer items for an additional amount, such as a seafood platter in Pink Agave or a Tomahawk steak at The Wake. Your room service is also included, although there is a $5 delivery charge. If you purchase something off the room service menu that is an additional charge, your $5 delivery fee is waived.
Keep in mind that Virgin does not include alcoholic beverages in their cruise fare. For the time being, you can put money on your Bar Tab before the cruise and get bonus Loot ($50-$100) added to your account. Anything over the pre-paid Bar Tab is added to your onboard account, to be paid at the end of the cruise.
Being an 18+ cruise line, you can expect things will be a little different than lines open to all ages. There were situations either referencing adult topics or innuendo but it was not pushed on guests. The evening entertainment may include a dock party, DJ dancing at The Manor nightclub, or a band playing at On the Rocks. There are a couple shows on board, the most popular being Duel Reality, where you root for a side in an acrobatic show down. Never Sleep Alone is a more participatory show where attendees can opt to sit in the main floor area to take part in the show, or the balcony if they don't want to be part of the experience. During the show, you are encouraged to divulge intimate details to other show attendees, during questions asked by the host. If this may make you uncomfortable, you may want to skip this show or sit above the main floor. We really enjoyed the deck parties and live music, which we felt the ship could use more of. The band at On the Rocks really livened things up on the last couple nights of our sailing. For those who aren't into shows, the Social Club area of the ship offered trivia games, air hockey, foosball, and an arcade that harkened to our childhood in the 80's. There are also a couple of karaoke rooms of varying sizes, if you want a private area to belt out a few notes with your travel mates.
During the day, there are a few organized events to keep you occupied but the focus during the morning and early afternoon is really on the fitness and wellness activities. You can find information about what is going on each day on the mobile app, which could be challenging to access at times. If you need to have a planned activities throughout the day, this may not be your favorite experience.
While many ships have a party where everyone dresses in white, Virgin has Scarlet Night. They encourage everyone to don their red attire and folks were dressed in everything from fancy to funky. The Scarlet Lady herself dressed for the occasion, as the ship was transformed in the evening, inside and out. The two main decks were bustling as the pop-up entertainers were showing up everywhere. The fun stretched out late into the night from venue to venue.
Wellness does reign with Virgin Voyages. They have extensive fitness activities throughout the day and into the night, with a couple different gym and spa areas. Morning yoga, bungee classes, HIIT workouts, and more are on board. Most of the group classes are included in your cruise fare and you can also push yourself with specialized training sessions. Due to COVID restrictions, some of the classes are limited in size and need to be reserved ahead of time. You can talk to a crew member on board if you want more info about this.
Virgin Voyages has a no-judge attitude, so whether you live in the gym at home or have never set foot in one, they will have welcome you and help you find your way. They also preach balance in a work hard/play hard way. There was reference to the cruise ship being a "detox/retox" environment where you can enjoy your party but also recover in healthy ways the next day.
The crew aboard the Scarlet Lady was about as diverse as it's passengers. Everyone from dining staff, bartenders, room stewards, and those working in the shops were very friendly and helpful with our needs. Several of them indicated how much they enjoyed working for Virgin Voyages because they were allowed some form of individualism. Things such as tattoos, piercings, hair styles, and sexual orientation wasn't looked down upon and that freedom to be themselves seemed to enrich the experience.
As with any new brand, there are growing pains, and the crew worked hard to resolve any issues that arose and to make sure each sailor was enjoying their trip. They responded well to polite feedback, and were patient and apologetic to those who felt that belittling workers for things out of their control was the best way to address issues. We really enjoyed chatting up the bar crew at On the Rocks (shout out to Edgar, Mina, and Emmanuel) in the evenings, and their recommendations for some of cocktails.
This is a very tech-centric cruise line, from pre-cruise through disembarkation. The use of the mobile app is encouraged for pre-cruise reservations and check-ins, used while boarding, and to get back on the ship at ports. When you are in your cabin, you have a tablet with welcoming information (look for the QR coaster on the desk) and access to a muster-video that must be viewed before your actual muster check in. The tablet is also used to control: the lights (mood settings such as "Zen", "Pump You Up", Hangover", and "Get it On"), opening and closing the curtains, and a television control, where you can choose from a large selection of complimentary movies.
In an effort to be planet-friendly, the cruise relies on the app rather than printing off menus and other info. All of the restaurants and bars will have coasters with scannable QR codes for that venues food and drink menus options. This worked well, especially in low-lit areas (for those of us who forgot to grab their glasses), to be able to zoom in on the phone. There were paper copies of the menus available at each location, on request. Daily ship activities, port and excursion information, reservations for dining or group classes were all made using the app. This is where the love/hate relationship mentioned earlier comes into play.
The app was colorful, was cheeky in content, and easy enough to use... when it worked. More often than not, the app would indicate that something was wrong and it couldn't open properly, even BEFORE getting on the ship. We tried uninstalling/reinstalling the app and that would generally work, even though it was a pain. We then tried force-stopping the app in settings, then clearing the cache, which worked well. However, that got old after having to do it each time. The crew was well aware of the issues and the complaints from guests (the crew had a few issues on their end too with tech but seemed to be able to work through it pretty fast), and indicated that it was something that was being worked on.
This is not your average cruise ship! Just as designed, Virgin is breaking the mold on the current trend that bigger-is-better and is creating a ship that feels intimate. We were halfway through our cruise and were still finding little cubbies where you could sit and relax. It is definitely "Insta-worthy", as it is heavy on color and design that almost begs to be shared on social media. As I mentioned, we could not stop talking about the food when we got back, craving one more serving of some of our favorite dishes. It IS an adult cruise but didn't find it as risque as we felt it was going to be, based on the advertising. It felt more along the lines of an adult-only resort, some areas were more party, others more chill. With at least three additional ships in production, it will be interesting to see if they each have the same feel. (I'm ready to go back, if only to stretch out on the balcony hammock in the sun.)
I loved the diversity on the cruise. There were young and older, couples and singles, straight and LBGT+, and everyone seemed to be able to be themselves, without judgement. This included the crew members, who often blended in with the guests. Virgin doesn't seem to be going after the younger crowd, but more the young-at-heart crowd. They encouraged getting "lost" exploring the ship, would have a lounge right next to teeter totters and swings. It had a premium cruise line look but didn't feel stuffy or pretentious. At our dinner in the steakhouse, there were some couples dressed in cocktail outfits at one table and the next table shorts and a polo. (And it didn't seem to bother anyone!)
Overall, I think the line is a great option for those who are looking for a new cruising experience, or some of those who haven't cruised before because they prefer the vibe at a resort. There are certainly some things that need to be improved upon, as with any brand starting out, but we enjoyed our time on the Scarlet Lady and plan to go again in the next year or so. I'm looking forward to seeing what changes are made to the cruise experience in that time. (Keep an eye out and we'll announce when we're going, if anyone would like to join us!)
We will have a separate blog post detailing our experience and details on the shore excursion and port stops.
If you sail with Virgin Voyages in 2021, you can be part of their Sea-Blazers program. This is a LIFETIME benefit with the company that gives you:
- $125 lifetime bar tab bonus
- $300 off a 2022 sailing
- Exclusive Sea-Blazer gift
- Cool bragging rights
Interested in more information or booking a cabin on a Virgin Voyages cruise? Schedule a free consultation here!