This review of the Scarlet Lady is part of a paid partnership with Virgin Voyages, however all views are our own.
“Holy Ship!” was the title of the email that landed in our inbox just a few weeks ago. Smiling at the cheeky pun, I opened the email to discover a ‘Special Invitation’ from Sir Richard Branson himself, requesting our company at the unveiling of his latest starlet – the Scarlet Lady.
Bold, beautiful and glamorous, Scarlet would be the poster-girl for Sir Richard’s latest venture; one that has seen him temporarily swap his galactic expeditions for adventures of the subaquatic kind.
It seemed that Virgin was now in the business of cruising.
The launch of Virgin Voyages has been on my radar for some time. As a brand that I’ve not only grown up with, but also regularly enjoy as a traveller (we’ve been fortune enough to travel Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic a few times), our experience of Virgin’s fun, tongue-in-cheek and ever disruptive ethos has always been incredibly positive.
Unsurprisingly, we therefore accepted Sir Richard’s invitation in a heartbeat.
Reading the email in a little more detail, I noticed that whilst we wouldn’t be heading to Miami – the Scarlet Lady’s eventual safe harbour – we would instead (and no less exotically) be spending the night docked in Dover.
Here, surrounded by the perhaps less than sparkling waters of the English Channel, the Scarlet Lady would be formally introduced to the world: welcoming her first guests (or, ‘Sailors’, as Virgin Voyages prefer to say), before making her maiden voyage across the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
And all we had to do? Our instructions were simple. We simply had to find our sea legs, board the Scarlet Lady and experience a night like no other.
It was time to rethink everything we thought we knew about cruising.
Introducing Virgin Voyages
In true Virgin style, Virgin Voyages – despite being the cruise industry’s newest kid on the block – has arrived without any hint of self-consciousness.
In fact, it has gone out of its way to stand out; walking the halls in technicolored clothes and popping gum as it goes.
Claiming to ‘redefine luxury cruising’ – blending super yacht inspired sophistication with eye-popping interiors – Virgin Voyages has produced a vision of cruising that is deliberately disruptive.
Indeed, whilst your usual cruise ship might be a palette of white and blue, the Scarlet Lady is a vision of red, silver foil and flash bulbs. Where traditional cruise brands might advocate quiet and relaxation, Virgin Voyages are ambassadors of fun and excitement. And whilst a night on a traditional cruise ship might feature an evening with the captain and the appearance of ball gowns, Richard Branson instead invites you to spend a night on his private island.
Virgin Voyages‘ first ship, the Scarlet Lady is the first of four Lady Ships to be launched by the brand. Docked in Miami from March 2020, the Scarlet Lady will set sale from Florida, before exploring the white shores of the Caribbean. Accommodating 2,770 ‘sailors’ and 1,160 crew, this is a ship that has been four years in the making.
Virgin Voyages’ next glittering starlet, the Valiant Lady, is due to set sail in May 2021. Based in Barcelona, the Valiant Lady will offer three distinct Mediterranean routes.
What Makes Virgin Voyages Different?
A selling point for some (and a deterrent for others), Virgin Voyages are strictly 18+ only. As a child-free thirty something, this is an aspect to Virgin Voyages that we can, quite literally, get onboard with.
The reason behind this is due to the strategic positioning of the brand. In a typically bold move, Virgin Voyages are tapping into an entirely new generation of ‘cruisers’. With an onboard tattoo parlour, world-famous DJs, resident drag queens, mixology classes and neon dance parties, Virgin Voyages are seeking the young and adventurous (read: Millennials and Gen X).
With Mark Ronson and Diplo already on the bill for some of Scarlet Lady’s first voyages to Branson’s privately owned Bimini Beach Club, this is certainly not a cruise for your average retiree.
Virgin Voyages’ Sustainability Commitment
It was Virgin Voyages’ commitment to sustainability that was the real determining factor behind our decision to attend the launch of the Scarlet Lady.
Acutely aware of the significant sustainability and environmental issues surrounding cruising, I decided to read the copious amount of literature dedicated to Virgin Voyages’ sustainability pledge.
And what a pledge it is.
Offsetting its carbon emissions from its very first cruise, Virgin Voyages will be the first cruise line in history to declare itself carbon-neutral from its first day of commercial operation.
Impressed? So was I. Here is just a round-up of the other ways that Virgin Voyages are attempting to turn cruising green.
‘Plastic ain’t fantastic’
Waving goodbye to single-use plastic, Virgin Voyages have banned the use of: straws, water bottles, shopping bags, ketchup packets, food packaging, stirrers and takeaway cups. We saw plenty of nods to this whilst exploring the Scarlet Lady, including recyclable coffee cups and water refill stations.
In the cabins, you’ll also discover recycled toilet tissue, alongside refillable shower gel and shampoo containers.
Food for Thought
Sustainability is also woven through Virgin’s foodie side. Eliminating buffets from all of its onboard eateries, Virgin Voyages are committed to significantly lowering food waste. Instead, all food onboard is made to order; no mean feat when catering for up to 2,770 hungry guests each day.
During our stay, we spoke to an incredibly knowledgable chef regarding this radically different approach to catering. With no mass pre-preparation before orders, it’s estimated that 225 tons of food waste will be prevented (per ship) each year.
Furthermore, the food and drink onboard the Scarlet Lady is also sustainably sourced, right down to the aromatic beans in your morning coffee.
As a brand that is ultimately striving for carbon-free fuels, Virgin Voyages are passionate about reducing their existing carbon footprint.
Whilst carbon-free fuels are still someway off, Virgin Voyages are working hard to seek better energy alternatives. Working with Climeon, a cutting-edge technology that utilises heat generated from the ship’s engines to generate electricity, Virgin Voyages are already radically reducing their dependence on fossil fuels.
You’ll also find deliberately ‘low-energy vibes’ throughout the ship, including cabin sensors to turn off lights and lower air-conditioning when cabins are unoccupied.
The image of swarms of ‘cruisers’ descending upon small, fragile ecosystems is something that gives cruising a bad rap. Aware of their impact on the communities and ecosystems that they visit, Virgin Voyages are therefore instead offering small-group ‘treading lightly‘ experiences when on land.
This dedication to eco-tourism also (thankfully) includes eliminating ‘swim with’ activities with vulnerable sea life, instead focusing their efforts on creating ‘warmer cultural synergies’ and empowering the local businesses that they visit.
The Cabins on the Scarlet Lady
After boarding the magnificent Scarlet Lady, it was our cabin that I was most excited to explore. Having experienced rather worn, 1990s inspired accommodation on a cruise the year before, I was excited to experience Virgin’s take on life at sea.
In terms of cabins, the Scarlet Lady offers: Rockstar Suites, Sea Terrace Cabins, Sea View Cabins and Insider Cabins.
Insistent that all its ‘sailors’ have access to a healthy dose of ‘Vitamin Sea’, 80% of the cabins onboard are sea facing. Indeed, forget dark, claustrophobic cabins – the Scarlet Lady is a ship championing accommodation filled with fresh sea air and views of iridescent oceans.
Virgin Voyages’ Rockstar Suites
Located on the 15th floor of the ship, the Tom-Dixon designed Rockstar Suites are the top-tier accommodation onboard the Scarlet Lady.
Grabbing our ship map, it was these suites that we first visited on our self-guided tour of the Scarlet Lady.
Stepping into the largest of the suites, the 2147 sq ft (and aptly named) ‘Massive Suite’, it became immediately clear that this accommodation will blow other cruise liners out the water (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Boasting a room dedicated to your very own Fender guitars, a large wrap-around bathroom with marble bath, a walk-in shower and a private terrace complete with hot tub and private cabana, this is a suite truly made for those living the rockstar lifestyle.
(Or, in our case, wannabe rockstars).
The other Rockstar Suites were equally as impressive, with the ‘Fab Suite’, ‘Posh Suite’ and ‘Gorgeous Suite’ all offering an incredible level of luxury and high end design.
For those lucky ones able to afford the Rockstar Suites (expect to pay upwards of £15,000 for a 5-6 night cruise), you’ll be given further privileges during your Virgin Voyages experience.
These include: private transfers, access to the exclusive ‘Richard’s Rooftop’, a hair and makeup team (yes, you read that right), personal ‘riders’ and keys to exclusive onboard events.
Sea Terrace Cabins
Despite not staying in a Rockstar Suite during our time onboard the Scarlet Lady (alas), we still had a thoroughly enjoyable stay in one of the ship’s Sea Terrace Cabins.
Every Sea Terrace Cabin offers a sea-facing balcony (complete with hand-woven hammock made by women in specific villages in rural Thailand) and a bed that handily transforms into a corner sofa (configurable seabed), therefore offering a ‘day and night’ mode.
The configurable seabed was something that received a lot of mixed reviews from guests onboard. Whilst I can see how it might be handy during the day if you have guests in your room, I’m not entirely sure how much use I would get from it.
Despite this, the cabin was bright, spacious and filled with small design quirks: ideal for those with a middle-range budget. We particularly enjoyed the ‘roomy rainshower’, which was far bigger and more powerful than previous cruise ships we’ve been on.
The Sea Terrace cabin also offers:
- Mood lighting that intuitively matches the light as the sun sets (this lit our cabin just beautifully)
- Tablets to stream films or programmes directly to the TV screens
- A steward to assist you with the basics, including fresh water for the room
The Scarlet Lady’s Restaurants and Eateries
In the past, we’ve found that one of the most confusing elements of ‘cruising’ is just where we can (and cannot) eat.
With seemingly infinite (and often pedantic) rules dictating what’s covered in terms of food and drink, finding somewhere to enjoy a meal on a cruise can be an unexpectedly stressful experience.
As you might have guessed, however, Virgin Voyages do things a little differently when it comes to keeping your bellies filled and palettes stimulated.
Offering over 20 free eateries onboard, dining on the Scarlet Lady is exciting, inclusive and downright delicious.
From a steak house to a Korean BBQ, a Mediterranean restaurant to an American fast food joint, the food we experienced whilst on board the Scarlet Lady was further evidence of the audience that Virgin are hoping to attract: young, worldly and (if I do say so myself) discerning.
Forget stale buffets and stuffy dining halls, the Scarlet Lady’s onboard cuisine and restaurant interiors are one of her biggest triumphs.
Feeling rather peckish after a late night dance party? Head up to the 24/7 diner (as we did) for a slice of pizza, burger or a bowl of steaming noodles. Have a craving for a snack at 2am, whilst in bed? No problem – room service is available both day and night.
When it comes to food, it seems Virgin Voyages have really thought of everything; with many of the menus even created by Michelin starred chefs.
For our dinner aboard the Scarlet Lady, we were treated to an exceptional six-course taster menu at the ever-creative ‘The Test Kitchen’. This laboratory-like eatery, inspired by Escoffier’s ‘Ma Cuisine’, is part cooking school, part restaurant.
Alongside some of our friends from the blogging world, our tastebuds were treated to an eclectic mix of tastes and textures, as fireworks exploded outside the restaurant’s stylish portholes.
Before disembarking the boat, we headed to one of the fanciest restaurants onboard – The Wave – for a delicious breakfast. Making our way down the grand, art-nouveau inspired staircase, we entered a world of bygone glamour.
Forget a tired looking breakfast buffet of soggy scrambled eggs, The Wave offers a three course breakfast of made-to-order dishes, including crab inspired Eggs Benedict and crispy polenta cakes.
The Scarlet Lady’s Bars
Eateries aside, the bars onboard the Scarlet Lady are the equal stars of the show.
On arrival, one of our first tasks was to find the champagne bar, simply called ‘Sip’, to grab a sparkling glass of Moët.
A gleaming rose gold and chrome bar – featuring inviting bottles of champagne on ice – we concluded that Sip wouldn’t look out of place in central Mayfair.
During our self-guided tour of the ship, we skipped through many more diverse and stylish watering holes. Including ‘On the Rocks’ cocktail bar, the ‘Draught Haus’ pub and the ‘Grounds Club’, the bars and coffee shops onboard The Scarlet lady were all expectedly fun, sleek and stylish.
For full dining and beverage packages onboard the Scarlet Lady, take a look here.
The Ship’s Public Spaces
In need of some space whilst enjoying your Virgin Voyage? Worry not.
On reflection, it was perhaps the public spaces onboard the Scarlet Lady that truly blew us away. Wandering a nearly empty ship (thanks to being some of the first few passengers onboard), we moved from space to space in child-like excitement.
From relaxed beach-style spaces to book your onshore excursions, to Mexican inspired, white-washed havens of tranquility and calm, there are plenty of places onboard to relax with a cocktail in hand (all without a crowd in sight).
By far our favourite spot on the ship was the deliberately nostalgic retro games room.
Here, ensconced within midnight blue surroundings, guests are invited to step into a 1980s extravaganza of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and Daytona Racing. Grabbing our seats, we quickly lost ourselves in this Americana inspired hideaway; sipping glasses of cola as we went.
Wellness Onboard the Scarlet Lady
Cruising, a pastime perhaps best reserved for retirees, is rarely associated with fitness and wellness. In fact, it is conversely portrayed as a method of travel that suits life’s slower travellers: an adventure involving air-conditioned minibuses, comatose tour groups and fiercely guarded sun loungers.
However, when aboard a Virgin Voyage cruise, your health and wellness comes first.
With an extensive and sleek black gym, an athletics club, ‘the runway’ running track, an outdoor yoga space and a heavenly wellbeing zone, a Virgin Voyage cruise encourages you to find balance during your vacation.
Offering something for everyone, including sunrise yoga and HIIT classes, a Virgin Voyage is your opportunity to ‘check in’ with your health and fitness.
Even better? Group workout classes are entirely free of charge.
The Scarlet Lady: Entertainment
I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to learn that as a brand determined to redefine cruising, the entertainment found onboard the Scarlet Lady is far from your traditional cruise ship fare.
Opening an unassuming door while on our self-guided tour of the Scarlet Lady, we found ourselves in a dazzling, Instagram-inspired corridor. With wall to floor glass filled with twinkling lights, this was most certainly, as cliche as it sounds, a space built for a generation wedded to social media.
After getting our fill of selfies in the newly named ‘Instagram Corridor’ we made our way past the glittering lights and into the ship’s very own nightclub.
That’s right – nightclub.
Named after Sir Richard Branson’s first recording studio, The Manor is a two storey, three bar inspired 70s night club and theatrical space. Discovering that we were the only ones in the club (it was 3pm, after all), we stood bemused as red strobe lighting flashed above us and dance music shook the floor beneath us.
It was brilliantly surreal and wholly, entirely – Virgin.
The Red Room
During our stay aboard The Scarlet Lady, we were treated to not one, but two, shows in the ship’s much celebrated Red Room. Having changed from our day clothes into our evening wear, we gathered in anticipation, ready for the first show of the night – the mysteriously titled ‘Duel Reality’.
Forget Jane McDonald inspired cabaret shows, Duel Reality is a modern, mesmerising take on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Produced by 7 Fingers, this circus-inspired take on Shakespeare’s famous love story was truly immersive and utterly beautiful.
Our second visit to the Red Room was an altogether different experience. After dinner we made our way back to the venue, where we discovered that the space had been transformed from a theatre into a club, complete with dance stage, podiums and – wait for it – a giant, fluorescent whale.
Named the ‘Untitled Dance Party Thing’, guests began to gather for this event with increasing curiosity,
With the undulating waves below us – a storm now overhead – swirling fluorescent lights and booming music surrounding us, we were suddenly greeted by a dance troop dressed all in neon.
With more energy than a pack of puppies, the dance group took to the stage to perform what can only be described as a ‘unique’ take on millennial culture.
Indeed, encouraged to ‘keep an open mind’ as we entered the Red Room, the show was a nod to the stresses and ills of our modern age. Themes of selfies, mobile phone obsessions and influencers (the irony) featured throughout the performance, all to the back drop of irresistible dance music.
Poignant, often uncomfortable, and completely mesmerising, this was certainly cruise ship entertainment, but just not as you knew it.
The Redemption Spa
Designed as a place for sailors to wash away their ‘sins’, the Scarlet Lady’s Redemption Spa was another of our favourite spots on the ship.
Cosied away on the 5th floor, the spa was (apparently) the place to come to ‘redeem’ yourself after a night under the heady lights of the Manor.
A gleaming, tranquil paradise, we were shown around this extensive spa with a glass of champagne in hand. Boasting icy plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms, mud rooms and heated hammams to stretch out on as the Miami sun sets, the Redemption Spa was a place where I could have spent all night.
The Finer Details: Tips and WiFi
Unlike many cruises, where you’ll stand in horror as your final bill soars thanks to eye-wateringly expensive WiFi options and tipping policies, Virgin Voyages have you covered.
Standard WiFi (the kind that lets you upload that important photo to Instagram) and tipping are all included in your package. For those intending to upgrade to streaming services, guests can pay for a Premium WiFi plan before their arrival on the ship.
The Scarlet Lady: Final Thoughts
Stepping off the Scarlet Lady’s gangway, returning to the cold and grey of Dover’s Port, we left our inaugural Virgin Voyage both dazed and exhausted.
After a surreal 24-hours of eye-popping decor, delicious food and neon dance parties, we were more than a little disappointed that our time aboard Virgin’s first Lady had come (so quickly) to an end.
Sporting new, matching ear piercings that we’d decided to spontaneously get while visiting the ship’s tattoo parlour, we left the Scarlet Lady already longing to meet again; perhaps this time in the more exotic surroundings of the Caribbean sea.
Focused on an entirely new generation of cruisers – i.e. those looking to do things a little differently – Virgin Voyages are for the curious, the thrill seekers and the live-life-to-the-full-ers. Waving goodbye to the stereotypical image of cruise liners, Virgin Voyages have created something different entirely: a veritable floating rainbow of dance parties, 24/7 eateries, sunrise spin sessions and sumptuous spa treatments.
Unapologetically different, Virgin Voyages won’t be for everyone, but isn’t that the point?
Would my parents book this cruise? Perhaps not. But would I?
In an instant.
Want to find out more about Virgin Voyages? See here.