Ask anyone who is cruise-averse to list the reasons for skipping a vacay on the open seas, and they’ll probably cite gluttonous buffets chockablock with dishes whose temperatures are as lukewarm as the feeling of mediocrity they inspire, throngs of passengers cattle-herded to excursions and theme park-quality entertainment. I used to place myself squarely in this camp, until a jaunt around the Caribbean on a small sailing ship and on a river cruise down the Rhine River with stops in some of Europe’s most charming cities and festive Christmas markets showed me that cruising could be different.
This was the same feeling I experienced recently on a five-night itinerary on Virgin Voyages’ inaugural ship, the Scarlet Lady.
Billionaire Richard Branson’s cruise line originally planned to launch on April 1, 2020, but the pandemic had other ideas. That was just as well, as reps announced in March a requirement that when it finally set sail in October 2021, all crew and passengers would need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Oh, did I mention Virgin Voyages is also adults-only? Yet another benefit to anyone salty about sharing a crowded pool deck with the preschool-aged set.) While the Scarlet Lady can carry 2,770 passengers, it started out sailing at around 50 percent capacity, which makes everything from getting a coveted 7:30 pm dinner reservations to bellying up to the bar for a Mojito easy breezy.
Feeling part of a protected bubble did give my best friend and me a much-missed sense of security. In addition to requiring guests to be fully vaccinated, we were also subject to a rapid covid test during check-in, after which we were instructed to wait out our results—which arrived via email in about 10 minutes—before embarking. Masks were also required until we got on board; even afterwards they proved to be a hard habit to break, especially around so many other people. But crew members assured us it was up to us whether we wanted to don them.
As is the trend among cruise lines, Virgin Voyages forgoes the traditional key card in favor of a wearable bracelet which also serves as a method to charge onboard purchases. Theirs are adorned with quippy sayings like “Feeling Nauti,” and the irreverent touches don’t stop there. At tattoo parlor Squid Ink, you can book a session to finally get that mermaid or anchor permanently painted on your arm (it’s covered with a waterproof material so you can swim and sunbathe.)
NSA (Never Sleep Alone) is one of the Scarlet Lady’s on-board nightly entertainment series, part self-help show, part sex romp, with a host who’s a mashup of Dr. Phil and Dr. Ruth and condom favors doled out as guests exit. And you can get a scoop or two at the sundae shop, which received the moniker Lick Me Till Ice Cream. No, this is definitely not your grandparent’s cruise line.
But depending on your age, it might be your parent’s. I had assumed from the website that the target passenger would hover somewhere in-between Gens Y and Z. Not so. Turns out it’s a magnet for my ilk, Gen X. While you will see guests ranging from their 30s to their 60s and beyond, the average age on the Scarlet Lady is 48. Guess that explained why I loved the selections from the live DJ on the pool deck, which segued from Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” to Erasure’s “A Little Respect” to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and back again.
And why I wasn’t the only one who found it to be an utterly addictive playlist to sing along to while cooling off in the wading pool and what’s deemed the largest hot tub at sea. Or why Beth and I felt right at home among our cohorts raised on aerobics and legwarmers at VHS (Videos, Headbands, Simmons), a fitness class where clips from a made-to-look-retro workout video were interspersed with live instructors in spandex, muscle shirts and short shorts coaxing us through a routine pulled straight from the Jane Fonda era. (Extra points for the arm work—and the double entendres—attendees got from the inclusion of Shake Weights, which arrived on the scene decades after this 80’s inspired workout but somehow fit right into the absurdity of it all.)
Diversions on and off the ship are designed so that you need not spend too much time in your room, unless, that is, you want to. Cabins come in categories ranging from Insider to Sea View to several varieties of Sea Terrace and can accommodate up to three “sailors”, thanks to a Seabed that’s configurable as a double, two singles, and even a sectional sofa for pre- (or post-) dinner cocktail parties. (Eighty-six percent of Virgin Voyages cabins feature a balcony and 93 percent have an ocean view.) We stayed in a Central Sea Terrace, which was definitely roomy enough for two passengers and our stuff. The cabin is well-appointed and thoughtfully designed, with underbed storage for suitcases, ample closet space and a luxurious Rainshower in the bathroom.
Room features are controlled via a tablet, including smart mood lighting that intuitively changes with the sunset (and can be adjusted according to what PG- or R-rated activities you have planned), temperature, the pink and blue ombre balcony curtain, housekeeping requests or ordering room service. Two chairs and a small table on the balcony are joined by a red hammock–perfect for a mid-afternoon snooze after a little day drinking. Unlike some other cruise lines standard Wi-Fi is included, or you can upgrade to a faster speed for a small fee. (The upcharge didn’t make a noticeable difference.) All gratuities—for food, drinks and housekeeping—are also included.
Outside your cabin, you’ll find fun nods on board to Branson’s first venture Virgin Records, including private karaoke booths and a vintage vinyl shop where you can snag pressings of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and Dare by the Human League, which gave the label its first chart-topping single (“Don’t You Want Me?”) But true music fans craving a more immersive experience than flipping through 33’s will want to book a Tom Dixon-designed Rock Star Suite.
Depending on the category, these baller accommodations feature niceties like guitars to pluck, a turntable with selection of vinyl, dedicated Agent providing 24/7 concierge services, bottomless in-room bar, large marble bathrooms, hammocks, outdoor showers and private hot tubs. They also give access to Richard’s Rooftop, a members-only sundeck with sofas, daybeds, jacuzzis, a cocktail bar and complimentary Moet & Chandon Champagne daily during happy hour. (A neon sign nearby declared “Save Water, Drink Champagne.” Challenge accepted.)
Take some time to really explore the ship and you’ll stumble upon fun spots, like a hall of infinity mirrors that serves both as the entrance to one of the restaurants and a cool photo opp. Ditto for a wall lined with swings, images and neon signs announcing “Love” and “Peace” that staff say is the most IG-able place on board. The spa is a fun place to spend a few hours, with hot and cold plunge pools, saunas, steam warms and warm marble slabs to lounge and watch the passing waves before a massage or facial. And an outdoor sports area has a basketball court, weights and a mesh lounging net where you can see the sea below.
But while all these parlor tricks are great fun, let’s face it: the food is what brings (and keeps) many of us on board. This is where Virgin Voyages truly shines. While you can’t queue up for a midnight chocolate buffet—or buffets of any kind, actually—you can dine well, at any concept, during any meal, including in your cabin. Passengers are encouraged to make dining reservations at the sit-down restaurants through the Virgin Voyages app.
(During my sailing, using the app was a painful process, and the empathetic staff nodded sympathetically. Up until the day I debarked, the app was still telling me I had to watch the muster safety video which I had watched half a dozen times to get it to stop reminding me. Let’s just say the technology is a work in progress.)
Fortunately, even if you can’t get the reservation you want, there are a certain number of tables reserved for walkups, a logistic aided by the fact that we were sailing way under capacity. Dinner at Gunbae starts with a drinking game and shots of soju to loosen up groups seated around the communal round tables; afterwards, staff sets out small bowls of the Korean snacks called banchan before your server prepares Wagyu, short ribs, pork belly and other Korean barbecue from custom-made grills. Pink Agave serves modern Mexican cuisine and touts the largest selection of mezcal at sea; we swooned over the pomegranate aril-studded guacamole, street corn with spicy aioli, seared shrimp with mole amarillo and roasted duck with smoked yam puree.
You can watch the chefs in the open kitchen prepare endless boards of house-cured charcuterie at Extra Virgin but be sure to save room for homemade pasta like fluffy potato gnocchi with hen of the woods mushrooms, spinach and truffle butter and oxtail agnolotti, as well as grilled sea bass with lemon, fennel and Yukon Gold potatoes. Test Kitchen is a molecular gastronomy journey, where servers in lab coats present six courses of dishes listed only with a single ingredient: “Mushroom,” “Egg,” “Scallop,” Venison,” “Blue Cheese” and “Chocolate”; be prepared to arrive armed with endurance, though, as the experience (which can include optional add-on wine pairings) takes several hours.
Two of the restaurants do as well of a star turn in the A.M. and at lunchtime as they do when the sun goes down. The Wake—named for the wave of displaced water the ship leaves behind that’s viewable from many of the tables in the dining room—well executes many of the dishes you’d expect at a signature steakhouse. The wedge salad is made with baby gem lettuce, creamy, smoky clam chowder subs in for French onion soup, and cuts range from hanger steak to filet mignon to New Zealand lamb chops are served with a variety of sauces like rich bone marrow Bearnaise. Their three-course brunch offers a few of the same savory options as well as some sweet ones, like coconut panna cotta dessert-for-breakfast.
We almost passed over dining at Razzle Dazzle when we heard it was a “vegan-friendly” restaurant, though we discovered it uses that term loosely. It would have been a shame to miss their nutty gazpacho flecked with Marcona almonds, charred spiced shishito peppers, cobb salad with pickled eggs or a “probiotic hash” with root vegetables and kimchi topped with oven easy eggs. A “Naughty” section of the menu lets you enjoy items like a fried chicken sandwich or pretzel pork schnitzel red cabbage slaw. The sweets here are to die-for, starting at brunch, when “coconut milk fairy toast” is embellished with rainbow sprinkles and a jar full of stuffed homemade cookies comes with a carafe of toasted cinnamon cereal-infused milk.
(If you are unfamiliar with the origin of the term “razzle dazzle” like I was, it refers to the method of painting ships with diagonal stripes in World War I to make it difficult to determine their direction or heading. You can spot this unique camouflage on the retro photographs at the entrance and on the eye-catching yet dizzying red, black and white geometric patterns and stripes on the floor and decor.)
Our favorite spot for a midday nosh was The Dock, an al fresco Mediterranean mezze lounge with shareable small plates like roasted red pepper hummus, crispy polenta cakes, charred octopus, grilled garlic shrimp and pita-wrapped lamb skewers with tzatziki.
Despite the lack of buffets onboard, you don’t have to commit to a seated meal if you want a quick bite. The Galley is a food hall/food court mashup with stalls for sushi rolls, ramen, burgers, diner food, tacos, bowls and salads to stay or take, and refrigerated grab and go cases in various places around the ship are stocked with sandwiches and salads. All food, with the exception of a handful of “Treat Yourself” upcharges at the specialty restaurants, is included with your sailing.
And be sure to order room service at least once during your voyage, which is available 24 hours a day for a $5 delivery fee and cleverly served in rugged canvas sea bags. We spent mornings in our cabin doing work while nibbling on egg white frittatas with spinach and mushrooms and endless cups of coffee poured from aluminum travel carafes.
Equally thought out are the beverage programs, designed in part with mixologists from the Bar Lab and Cocktail Cartel and renowned global bartenders Charles Joly and Julia Momose. I really appreciated how each cocktail and wine list was unique to the specific concept. That meant herb-forward cocktails and a menu of vermouth spritzers at The Dock, amaro and aperitivo sips at Extra Virgin, spiked aqua fresca at Pink Agave and soju libations at Gunbae. Unlike some cruise lines, Virgin doesn’t offer an unlimited beverage package, but drinks are moderately-priced and very well-crafted. (The line has a new partnership with Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin, and you’ll find lots of other respected and top shelf brands on the back bar shelf.)
Ports of calls vary and continue to expand as the line gets its sea legs. Our itinerary, the Mayan Sol, embarked from PortMiami and lasted five nights, with two destinations interspersed with alternating days to play at sea. The first stop was Costa Maya in the southern end of Mexico’s Riviera Maya region, close to Belize, a destination that didn’t require tenders to get to port—we docked right next to a Royal Caribbean ship.
Paid excursions depart from shore, a “fake town” of sorts that also houses a bunch of restaurants, Tequila bars and souvenir shops and range from an almost-full day trip to Mayan ruins, to a snorkeling expedition, to scuba diving. We decided to take things a little more low-key and book a Beach Escape; a short bus took us to a beach club, where we had our pick of lounge chairs (many with umbrellas) and a small but pretty beach. Admission included unlimited beverages, though potables were limited to frozen sips and beer, and tacos, nachos and bites were available for purchase.
Our second destination after another day at sea was the Bahamian island of Bimini. Virgin Voyages contracts with ResortsWorld International to provide exclusive access to the Bimini Beach Club when the Scarlet Lady is at port, accessible to guests via a continuous tram that runs back and forth all day from the ship to the club. I have to say that while I would be annoyed if I were a resort guest on a port day, we were thrilled to spend the day here as the space is stunning. The long stretch of beach is lined with ample lounge chairs and umbrellas as well as sofas and loveseats under shade sails and a hammock grove.
The poolscape is equally impressive, with a DJ booth and staff tossing in huge inflatable floats, leaving you to decide if you are #TeamNarwhal, #TeamUnicorn or #TeamPizzaSlice. Lunch is included and quite delicious considering it’s served from a shack on the beach; don’t miss the lechon asado with mojo marinade, watermelon and jicama salad with cucumber, mint and calypso vinaigrette, grilled corn on the cob with jerk mayo and toasted coconut, and rum cake with guava sauce. Less impressive are the small, overpriced cocktails; better to whet your whistle with their canned counterparts, including wine. Since this club is an extension of the ship, your bracelet is your wallet.
As much as we adored the beach club in Bimini, we also loved the ship so much we looked forward to returning that afternoon for a glass of bubbly on our balcony to toast the sunset and our last full day. During our five days on board we chatted with a variety of guests who were equally excited about the tack Virgin Voyages has taken with the cabins, the dining, the activities and just the overall experience. But you can’t please everyone, right? One couple told us they overheard another whispering to themselves that “Branson should have stuck to airplanes.” Ha.
As for me, immediately on my return I began perusing the website for future itineraries–something I’ve never done with any of the other cruise lines I’ve experienced. My take? Whether cruising newbie or seasoned sailor, if you are an epicurean who’s open-minded and up for new experiences, you’ll find that the playful ways Virgin Voyages puts a little bit of the devil on the deep blue sea make the life aquatic a lot more fun.