It was somewhat surreal. I’d stepped out of an overcast, blustery afternoon in Dover and into the glistening interior of Richard Branson’s debut cruise ship, Scarlet Lady. I’d passed by the ship’s mostly gunmetal grey exterior – perhaps an acquired taste. Her scarlet stern is signed in white with Virgin's scrawling logo, so she’ll be unmistakable in port, or at sea.
Dover was the first stop on Scarlet Lady’s world tour, before she moved on to Liverpool, followed by New York and Miami, where she will be christened on March 28. Following some preview voyages, she'll be sailing on four-and five-night cruises from Miami to Key West, the Bahamas and Mexico.
I’d first seen Scarlet Lady at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, back in summer 2018 when her name was revealed. Here, Branson promised to shake up the world of cruise, ditching traditional trappings such as set dining times and buffets, and introducing fresh features instead: from drag-themed brunches to a variety of workout spaces.
Glass of champagne in hand, I was led into The Manor nightclub, named after Branson’s first recording studio.
“Ahoy!” yelled Virgin Voyages president Tom McAlpin up into the balcony of The Manor. “Ahoy!” replied the crew lining the upper level.
Branson strolled in to applause, looking suitably nautical in a navy- and white-striped jumper. This month marks 50 years since he began trading under the Virgin name – and Scarlet Lady's launch was an opportunity to look back at brand’s evolution. “Something like a million people have worked for Virgin over [that time],” said Branson. “This year we’ve got space [Virgin Galactic], a cruise company [Virgin Voyages] and a few other things.”
He added: “Every detail on this ship is incredible.
"I have dreamed of starting my own cruise line since I was in my twenties and I’m thrilled that moment has arrived.
“The Scarlet Lady is truly special and we’ve worked with some of the world’s most sought-after designers, artists and architects to craft an extraordinary experience.”
Virgin Voyages is a cruise company for “the young at heart” – at least that’s the line Branson and CEO Tom McAlpin have repeated since its first rumblings. From what I’d seen so far, it met the Instagrammable test, but would the ship deliver the luxury to warrant its price tag – around £650 per person for a five-night voyage? Among initial impressions suggested that she may be best suited to the American cruise market, which has a younger clientele and is well-versed in shorter trips to the Bahamas and Mexico.
Why is Scarlet Lady adults-only?
A major talking point at the press conference was the decision to make Scarlet Lady adults-only. This is a brave choice, with most large cruise lines pulling in significant business from families with children.
“What did it was listening to our future sailors – we did a lot of research,” said McAlpin.
“As we started to speaking to parents, they told us ‘I don’t feel comfortable bringing my kids on something that is an adults-focused experience, and by the way, I need a break from my kids, too’.”
Virgin Voyages gave a taste of the adults-focused sailing experience by setting the club into action mid-conference. With spot lights dancing, smoke machines fuming and music blaring, McAlpin was keen to demonstrate that he’d realised his vision of creating “the best nightclub at sea”.
As the welcome concluded (with Branson sweeping off to a mother-son holiday in Morocco), there was opportunity to explore the 20 restaurants and bars, which have been adroitly jigsawed together by Dee Cooper – senior vice president of design – and her team.
Does the food and drink deliver?
Virgin Voyages has thrown out set dining times, seating plans and endless buffets and has brought in food and drink options to suit almost every taste. From Korean barbecue in Gunbae to experimental dishes in The Test Kitchen (a restaurant-cum-cooking-school that also offers workshops, a mixology school and coffee 'labs'), the menus have been put together with the help of Michelin-starred chefs, including New York’s Brad Farmerie and Sohui Kim.
Our first stop was Sip, a champagne lounge that serves breakfast, afternoon tea, and a wide selection of drinks. Plush velvet seating and portholes with metallic surrounds make for a glamourous meeting place.
Later, I ate dinner at The Wake. It takes inspiration from The Wolseley in London and The Grill in New York. The cream leather seating, wood panelling and low lighting made it the classiest-looking restaurant on board – it even features a staircase modelled on the Titanic’s. My meal was slow to arrive (but teething problems should be allowed for, and our waiter geed up the kitchen). A well-curated menu of steaks and seafood included a tasty – if shallow – bowl of razor clam chowder, and juicy pan-roasted salmon. Food at The Wake was good and well-presented, but not as outstanding as ocean cruise passengers may have come to expect from high-end ships. However, with the first season starting in April, there is still time to perfect what's on offer.
A morning stop in Razzle Dazzle – where white-and-black zigzag patterns, silvery mirrored accents and red lighting make a bold impression – delivered a fun breakfast menu. This included coconut milk fairy toast (with rainbow sprinkles) and a tumeric egg scramble.
Other dining highlights include Pink Agave, a Mexican joint serving mezcal and tamales. The Galley, meanwhile, has the feel of the trendy food halls that have been springing up across London, yet it is a buffet in all but name. Around breakfast time, passengers were queuing for a full English and milling around the cereals.
How about the entertainment?
I was treated to two performances in The Red Room, a theatre space that can be rearranged to suit different productions. For the first show, 'Dual Reality', we were handed blue and red wrist bands and directed to either side of a central stage. Two groups of male and female performers appeared: one set dressed in blue, one in red. What ensued was an impressive feat of acrobatics (with elements of dance and a little singing) using props such as chains attached to the ceiling, a seesaw-like contraption, and hula hoops. The audience was gripped, and the final scenes – during which the performers stripped down to their underwear and audience members were invited to join the dance – got everyone talking. (Branson had, after all, promised to make cruise sexy.)
— Telegraph Cruise (@TelegraphCruise) February 21, 2020
The after-dinner show was less successful, aside from the complete transformation of The Red Room. The theatre space became a club-slash-catwalk. Dance music accompanied a troupe of dancers who, dressed in overalls, performed quirky skits that seemed to be based on selfie-taking influencers and celebrities. A pink blow-up whale and films of neon cats and coffee presses completed the scene. I, like many others, walked out before the end – although a enthusiastic contingent of twenty-something bloggers seemed to be lapping it up.
Richard's Rooftop, a VIP club on the upper-deck, will add another entertainment space under the warm Caribbean sun. Plus, select on-deck DJ voyages will bring appearances from Mark Ronson, Diplo and MK – and there's even a cruise for Branson's birthday.
Does the wellbeing programme deliver?
Virgin Voyages passengers can enjoy group exercise classes without any extra charges. Even the least enthusiastic gym-goers may be enticed by the variety on offer. First you have the two sides of B-Complex, Bike and Burn (for cycle and cardio workouts) and Build and Balance (for yoga and strength – including aerial yoga classes), then The Athletic Club (a retro outdoor workout area), while on the topdeck you’ll find The Runway running track and The Perch (for outdoor yoga, meditation and stretching).
There are plenty of pampering opportunities post-workout, including Redemption spa. While the wind whipped around the ship, this space (inspired by an underwater cave) offered a welcome retreat. Inside, you’ll find a mud room, a salt room, a couples' room (where massages start with a bath treatment), a Quartz crystal bed (for massages; $295/£228) and central plunge pool complete with an overhead cylinder that mimics a clear night sky. However, a day pass while you’re at sea (when you’re most likely to want to pass more than a couple of hours here) costs £96/$125: a fairly hefty cost if you fancy a return visit.
Manicures and pedicures are available in the Tune Up. The Drydock – a blow dry bar kitted out in peach and pink décor – offers a millennial-friendly menu, including 'ethereal colourful hair' and the 'lunar braid bar'. Together with Stubble & Groom, the onboard barbershop, these add to the ship’s aesthetic – rather than feeling like a squirrelled-away afterthought as some at-sea salons do.
Squid Ink tattoo parlour – where you can get a design, or a piercing – is a novel addition. On the back wall is a intricate squid mural, hand drawn with a sketching pen. While it piqued the curiosity of many onboard, it remains to be seen how many cruise passengers are craving a tattoo.
What are the cabins like?
The decor is consistent across the cabin categories (including Sea Views, XL Sea Terrace, Insider and Social Insider). Neutral walls and carpets are brightened up with pops of red and metallics. I was unconvinced by the 'Sea Bed', which means that (on request), it can be transformed into a sofa for daytime entertaining. While it was of a decent size, and led to a sound night’s sleep, it did resemble a sofa bed.
The cabin felt spacious, but some of the details were a little flimsy – the storage in a Sea View cabin, for example, was merely a single wardrobe/drawer unit, a clothing rail, and a set of shelves under the desk – plus a drawer (meant for bedding) under the sofa bed section. It reminded me a little of a well-organised Airbnb, kitted out in the latest Ikea furniture. The bathroom is compact (although the shower pressure was strong).
For those seeking a more luxurious experience, the RockStar suites had more of a wow factor (with a starting price of £26,410, you’d expect as much). The Massive Suite, the largest on board, comes with its own guitar room and a lounge with a circular sofa.
A purple and blue colour scheme runs throughout with some pleasing extra details, including a record player (the RockStar suite record collection was curated by Mark Ronson), a telescope and – on the giant balcony – a whirlpool tub. The roomy, marble bathrooms include a separate bathtub and shower. While an app is on the way for all passengers, RockStar guests can also control their suites with a tablet (found in the room).
Here's an extra taste of our overnight stay on #ScarletLady. If you're tempted to book a cruise with @VirginVoyages, this is what you'll find in a Sea Terrace cabin – the bed can be transformed into a sofa by day pic.twitter.com/l5VLby11QJ
— Telegraph Cruise (@TelegraphCruise) February 23, 2020
How to book
Prices for the April season start at £1,280 for an Insider cabin on the five-night Riviera Maya voyage. Sailing from Miami, it stops at Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and The Beach Club at Bimini (virginvoyages.com).
The line is also offering two, Sneak-a-Peek, three-night voyages, sailing from Miami and stopping at the The Beach Club at Bimini in March with prices starting at £1,870 for a central Sea Terrace cabin (virginvoyages.com).
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