Space is clearly close to Sir Richard Branson’s heart, since he’s invested a stellar amount of money on his Virgin Galactic suborbital flights project.
But I’m more interested in how the unusual use of space works in the Sea Terrace cabins on Scarlet Lady, his first cruise ship, since the bed converts to a day sofa.
And it works brilliantly, so you have a ‘bedroom’ at night and a ‘lounge’ by day. My wife Debbie and I loved the concept.
Virgin Voyages promises a sea change for its Sailors (we are not called passengers) and we got one. Though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Branson announced his long-held ambition to dive into the holidays-at-sea market in 2014, and Scarlet Lady was planned for launch in April 2020.
The pandemic ended that dream, but among the return-to-cruising trips are British Isles seacations, and that’s what we’re doing on board Scarlet Lady: brought over from Miami for a series of short sailings from Portsmouth into the Celtic Sea.
Branson wants to shake up cruises just as he did the record and airline industries – and he might be on course to do it with a dazzlingly different offering.
As he said: “Our goal was to curate voyages that celebrate and protect the oceans we sail and communities we travel to – while creating an elevated and ethereal sailing experience.’’
Let’s see if he’s right…
With a Covid test at the port and, suitably negative, we’re issued with a band and a touch ‘lozenge’ to use for embarkation security, payments and unlocking our cabin door.
Most of the pre-cruise check-in process was done via a smartphone app at home, a wearying process of freezes, crashes and reinstalling.
As we board, I admire the 108,192 gross tonnage ship’s distinctive vertical bow and the dashes of vivid Virgin red against on-trend grey.
Because of tides, we board on Deck 4, not at the normal Deck 5 area, where there’s no lofty atrium, but a stylish area with a giant ceiling compass where the red slots always point north.
Government virus restrictions mean a reduced capacity of 1,169 out of a potential 2,816 Sailors; we’ll have plenty of space.
Besides the bed/sofa switch (left in the hands of our fab steward, Darwin), we loved the balcony hammock.
It’s not the biggest cabin and we were concerned about storage, but once we’d put away our kit for the four-night trip we felt there was ample room for a week with clothes for a warm climate.
The bathroom has a good rainfall shower and the amenities are fine (except for the sludgy black soap).
Cabins also have a box containing condoms and a vibrator to buy for $30. You don’t get that on Cunard!
Before sailing there’s a safety briefing and, yes, it’s unusual – a razzmatazz music video which made what is normally a pretty tedious, if important, message rather enjoyable (you also have one-to-one lifejacket instructions).
The TV, lights, a/c, curtains and steward services are operated by the cabin tablet, which worked well, as did the slow-but-steady free wi-fi.
You will be wowed. There’s no main restaurant but there are many choices and six no-fee signature dining venues (heroically, we managed five).
The Wake: a smart steakhouse where we had a superb filet mignon.
Razzle Dazzle: named and styled for First World War ship camouflage, it is ‘veggie forward’ but does have chicken and salmon dishes. The vegan ‘Impossible’ plant burger is phenomenal.
Pink Agave: Mexican cuisine with a modest menu but what’s there is done well. The seared shrimp and marinated beef short rib and Monterrey Jack were lovely.
Test Kitchen: ‘experimental’ food with six courses – triple mushroom mousse/pate, confit egg and peas, scallops and jamon, beef with chocolate and beetroot jus (it looked like a Mafia hit), blue cheese ice cream, chocolate and coconut cake. Glad we tried it, but it would be the last one we’d return to.
Gunbae: a Korean barbecue sharing experience with a lively atmosphere. We feasted on seafood, sliced steak and pork belly, egg fried rice and various veg. Memorable.
We never made it to the Extra Virgin Italian, but heard great reports from fellow Sailors. Also a shout out to The Dock for its meze, the Galley food court for variety and the Lick Me Till… Ice Cream (ooh, er) gelato stall. We tested this extensively – that key lime and chocolate is not going to eat itself.
This is 21st century food for sure – I had more avocados in four nights than I’ve had in the last four years.
On a restaurant tour, Virgin Voyages executive Anders Karlsson said: “We like to collaborate with a number of influences … so we can be innovative, creative and experiential.”
A fab choice, from the Draft Haus craft beer venue to Sip Lounge, a plush champagne spot, with everything in between.
We gravitated to On The Rocks martini and cocktail bar with its live music, while The Dock and the Athletic Club are nice stern alfresco areas.
Costs are US$ and at the lower end of the scale for usually pricey non-British ships, with the stipulation from cruise line boss Tom McAlpin there should be dollar single-figure drinks on every tariff. For example, a draught Heineken is about £3.70, with a glass of sparkling wine about £6.50.
More good news is that the included ‘basic bevvies’ are decent – that covers tea and filter coffee, non-pressed fruit juices, the likes of Coke and Fanta, plus filtered still and sparkling water. Barista brews are from about £3.70 and very good.
Hit the decks
There’s a wraparound promenade on Deck 7 and we liked the elevated Runway jogging and walking track on Deck 17, keeping step-counters away from the pool and sunbathing areas.
Cabanas can be hired and there are plenty of Jacuzzis; the actual pool space is limited as it’s more aimed at sitting in the water with a cocktail than swimming.
The highlight has to be The Net, a red catamaran mesh suspended over the stern on Deck 16. It’s about 10,000ft above the sea (possibly a slight exaggeration) and a tad unnerving at first, but once you’re on it’s a bouncy hoot.
Wellness & Fitness
A key feature with the stylish Redemption spa and terrific gyms.
If you want to get off the ship in better shape than you got on, there’s anything from cardio workouts to yoga and medi-spa treatments. If you want to look a bit different there’s Squid Ink, the first tattoo shop at sea. It was doing a brisk trade.
Red and Green
The line is making a real effort to be planet friendly. During the tour with Anders (which also included a visit to the bridge to meet charming and witty Captain Giovanni Schiaffino) I learned that when the ship was being designed, any potential supplier that could not meet Virgin’s strict eco protocols was ruled out.
Examples on board include loo roll and tissues made from sustainable sugar cane, Sailor bands made from recycled ocean plastic and responsible food sourcing.
A lot and it’s diverse – music, comedy, acrobatics, a vinyl record store with DJ, the fun of Sailors and even the ship showing a splash of red for Scarlet Night (where we met Andy, the ship’s ‘Charmer’ with his mind-bending card tricks), bingo, pub quizzes and more. We are still trying to figure out Andy’s tricks, done on a bar table right under our noses. Baffling!
Standout for us was the Duel Reality show by Montreal’s The 7 Fingers troupe. It’s a fantastic theatrical circus take on Romeo and Juliet and one of the best shows we’ve seen on a cruise ship: 10/10.
We also took in the hilarious Mr Thing comedy show which stormed the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019.
But we missed the Never Sleep Alone sexologist show featuring Dr Alex Schiller, alter ego of US comedian Roslyn Hart. However, she was a guest on Mr Thing and truly a force of nature.
Scarlet Lady will winter in Miami and Puerto Rico for the Caribbean, then head around the Med from Barcelona next summer.
The line’s second ship, Valiant Lady, will debut in Portsmouth in March and will be identical to Scarlet. Resilient Lady will follow in the Med in July, with an unnamed fourth ship expected in 2023; she could be a new design.
Is Richard Branson on to something with his take on cruising? It’s going to be a fascinating journey as new ships and concepts arrive.
Virgin Voyages is not about your age, it’s about your attitude of mind. Watch this space.
- Loved the fantastic included food.
- Loved the crew’s slick, upbeat service.Loved the line’s enthusiasm for sustainability.
- Loved the night/day cabin makeover.
- Loved the elevated walking/jogging track.
- Loved The Net.
- Loved the ship’s sleek design.
- Loved plenty of shade.
- The app was pretty grim at first, but after a couple of further updates it worked better when we were on the ship.
- Constantly having to use the app on board became a little tiresome, so we ended up asking for printed menus to avoid squinting at them on our phones.
- Oh, that awful black soap in the cabin bathroom. Very messy, all over the sink and towels. Literally a black mark from me.
Get on board
Virgin Voyages offer a four night Fire & Sunset Soirée sailing on Scarlet Lady departing from Miami to the Bahamas on October 6 calling at Nassau and a private beach club experience in Bimini. From £470 per person, cruise only.
Valiant Lady will sail a three night Long Weekender from Portsmouth to Zeebrugge on March 18, priced from £450 per person.
An 11 night Canary Islands, Spain, & Portugal itinerary from Portsmouth on March 21 starts at £1,600 per person. Find out more at virginvoyages.com.
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