Review of Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady
Whoa, I’ve just returned from a sneak preview of the world’s newest cruise ship, the Scarlet Lady by just-launched line Virgin Voyages, where I danced with a man in his underpants after watching a death-defying sort-of circus act and joined a flash-mob-style dance act orchestrated by a giant talking cat.
Virgin promised us something different with the launch of Scarlet Lady and while the ship itself lacks any stand-out features, it has certainly delivered a cruise ship that has a radically different vibe to others I’ve visited.
To be honest, cruising really isn’t my thing. One of the reasons I’ve never even considered paying for a cruise is that all of the ships I’ve visited feel like a cross between an old people’s home, a floating theme park and a creche. Scarlet Lady, on the other hand, is clearly aimed at a very different market to your average cruiser. It will be just for adults, no kids allowed (although Richard Branson did bring his 5-year-old grandkids on board for the launch) and while it might not attract many millennials, it hopes to entice the young or ‘young at heart’.
Its sweet spot, one of its executives told me, is people in their 30s to 60s who’ve never cruised before.
So what’s the Scarlet Lady like? Well here are some of the things I loved:
It’s what’s known in the cruise industry as a ‘mid-size’ ship, so although it looks pretty huge, it carries only 2,770 passengers, which is half that of some of the bigger ships. As a result, it’s less daunting, easier to find your way around and feels less like a giant hotel.
Think Ibiza beach hotel meets Miami urban cool, with soft pinks, greys, creams and copper tones and the odd splash of Virgin’s signature red. Despite the chilled vibe, it has an undercurrent of 1920s glamour mixed with 1950s fun. Overall, it feels bright and fresh, open and airy, unlike many cruise ships that feel stuffy and claustrophobic.
Huge all-day buffets are a feature on many ships and while they have speciality restaurants, you often have to pay extra for a reservation, but Scarlet Lady has six restaurants, all of which are included in the fare and most are table service, which I prefer. Also, there is no set seating or dining times, which I hate.
They are super-friendly and full of beans, many I spoke to were absolutely thrilled to be working for Virgin! I didn’t meet one who didn’t have a big smile (but bear in mind, this is the launch, if staff aren’t enthusiastic on day one, there’s very little hope things will get better!).
This is the most important bit, and for me, it hit the right spot. The ship definitely has a fun ‘let’s party’ atmosphere but it isn’t in your face; the dress code is relaxed, as one executive told me, it’s okay to be ‘a bit scruffy’, and the atmosphere is decidedly chilled.
These range from snug ‘Insider’ cabins without portholes (including some singles) to suites. I had a Central Sea View Terrace cabin with a balcony; it felt more spacious than similar grade cabins on other ships, it had two sofas that cleverly converted into a double or twin beds (though I’m not sure why they didn’t just leave it as a bed), and a small but adequate bathroom with a really great shower. I loved the bright red hammock outside.
Scarlet Lady also has 78 suites of different categories. Of course, these are fab, but super pricey. You could squeeze six friends into the Massive Suite, which has a huge balcony with a table made for dancing (with steps up for the less able-bodied!), and a hot tub, but still, it’s expensive.
For the record, founder Sir Richard Branson says that his favourite cabins are the Massive Suite and the Insider, he wouldn’t go for anything else.
I’ve never been a fan of the big Broadway-style shows on other ships, I don’t think they come close to the real deal, but Virgin has developed its own shows for Scarlet Lady, which take place in a much smaller theatre with seats either side of the stage, so they feel much more immersive. Its Duel Reality show is a high-energy acrobatic sort of retelling of Romeo and Juliet, which is truly spectacular, although it gets a bit weird at the end when the cast strip down to their undies and dance with the audience.
The late night UntitledDanceThing is so weird that it’s hard to describe but it involves a drag queen, flash-mob dancing in the crowd and a spinning giant cat’s head dictating the moves. You’ll either love it or hate it.
There’s also a casino and a nightclub, but I didn’t spend much time in either of these so can’t really comment except to say the club had some serious base.
While staff were super-friendly, they weren’t terribly efficient. In Razzle Dazzle, where I ate breakfast, they forgot milk for my tea even though I asked twice, they brought fizzy water when I’d asked for still, and I had to ask three times for a hot water top up.
In The Wake, where I had dinner, the staff weren’t familiar with the menu and just smiled when asked questions. The service was also incredibly slow, even though it wasn’t busy, and meals were delivered to the wrong tables and dishes forgotten.
Sorry to say, what I tried wasn’t great. I thought the menu in The Wake was too limited, it was mostly meat or fish and one of the fish dishes wasn’t available and the waiter said one wasn’t good, which only left the salmon, which was farmed, which I don’t like. There was no veggie option. My companions chose various cuts of steak, which they all liked, but I thought my fish was bland, the pudding – a cheesecake – was too sweet and sickly, and altogether I thought the menu was unimaginative.
My breakfast in Razzle Dazzle, the ship’s more relaxed, vegetarian restaurant was much better, the menu was extensive and there were some unusual flavours, which I loved.
Virgin executives have promised the food will be better on cruises out of Miami, which start next month.
Would I pay for it?
To be honest, I think the starting price of more than £1,200 for an Inside cabin for two people for a five-day cruise in the Caribbean is too much, even though it includes all food, soft drinks, group exercise classes and gratuities. But then again, I’m not your typical cruiser and I don’t think I ever will be, despite Virgin’s efforts to create a ship for people just like me.
Here’s a promotional video made by Virgin Voyages so you can see more of the Scarlet Lady.