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Cruise Review: Are Virgin Voyages cruises really the hottest ticket in the Caribbean?

James Wong discovers how Virgin have put the cool into cruising.

By James Wong  |  January 5, 2022
virgin scarlet lady

As a 30-something adventure-driven traveller, I’ll admit that cruises have never quite made it onto my radar. Retired couples, families with questionable parenting skills and sloppy buffets were what always sprang to mind (not to mention the Covid-era horror stories of late). But fast forward to the latter half of 2021 and the buzz behind Richard Branson’s latest sea-faring project was hard to ignore, at least here stateside.

Rave reviews in the press, former colleagues at Virgin’s private beach club in The Bahamas, influencers slung out on balcony-side red hammocks all over the gram – I questioned whether Virgin had finally shaken up the cruise industry and worked its sexy infrared magic once again. Had they actually made cruising cool?

December 2021. Port of Miami. I was about to make my cruise ship debut upon Virgin Voyage’s sparkling 2020-launched Scarlet Lady to find out for myself. Five nights on their Mayan Sol expedition, with stops at Costa Maya in Mexico, and Bimini in The Bahamas. The draw? Adults-only (i.e., no screaming kids), and an excellent package where 20+ eateries, all gratuities, Wi-Fi, basic beverages and unlimited fitness classes, are all included in the voyage fare.

Here’s how I did their rockstar voyage.

First impressions: Boarding an adult playground

Expecting long lines and portside chaos, I arrived hours early only to discover a quick and effortless check-in process. Rapid Covid tests were taken, and the results were processed whilst I signed in, meaning I was stepping on deck within just 20 minutes from security lane. “Ahoy there!” cheered the crew eager to let the fun times roll.

A station at the entrance cheekily named Lick Me Till… Ice Cream dished out Milan-esque cones as Lizzo’s ‘Juice’ blared from the speakers. This definitely was no stuffy old ship. I’d clearly packed too many books.

scarlet lady cabin
Accommodation is stylish and thoughtfully designed for comfort

The cabins: Boutique hotel rooms on water

The Scarlet Lady has 1,330 cabins and 78 RockStar Quarters (or suites) at perusal; all with a superyacht-inspired design infused with a W hotel meets Tokyo apartment edge. My Sea Terrace cabin was compact whilst making ample use of the given shape and size. Take the seabed, for example, engineered and handcrafted in Germany by Walter Knoll. Initially, it’s laid as a bed but can easily be pulled sideways and repositioned as a sofa, transforming the bedroom into a living space should you have company. Back to bed was my preference and made best sense of the dimensions of the room for me.

I was able to lay all my essentials out bedside – specs, snacks from the Galley (room service is available, but why wait for cake?), Made by Zen’s travel Nomad aroma diffuser (I was worried about seasickness, so needed the wind down) and even extra pillows. In a seashell – that’s a ton of space.

The bathroom featured a rain shower and sleek shelf-like counters that slotted one after another, and outside a balcony with hammock and seating set provided an ocean escape within your own private quarters. In addition, lights were mood-matching, adjusted by the touch of a button (including the curtain shutter) and the wardrobe was flexible. All detail felt diligently thoughtful and stylish. Thoughtful not just in design but also environmentally. Cabins have PIR presence sensors that automatically detect if the room is empty, putting everything on energy saver mode. We’re not your average cruisers here, remember, so the company’s commitment to operating one of the cleanest fleets at sea sure sits well with socially conscious vacationers (more on that later).

Dining options: Traditional ship buffets are swapped with culinary experiences you’d actually pay for in real life

Everything about the food on Virgin Voyages exceeded my expectations. We’re talking about unique spaces and a diverse array of options, some with Michelin-starred chefs behind them. No buffets, no dining hall, no cookie-cutter eateries. Here, you have dining options that you’d visit in their own right back home.

There are over 20 options, so I won’t go into each detail. But these were my highlights; The Wake, serving prime steaks with fine wines in a Titanic glam venue; The Test Kitchen, which you’ll guess by name is laboratory style. Guests are only given a list of ingredients and surprised with (camera-roll friendly) creations at the table; Gunbae, the only Korean barbecue at sea, which kicks off with a soju game; and my overall favourite, Razzle Dazzle.

scarlet lady food
Guests have the choice of over 20 on board dining options

You wouldn’t think that an innovative plant-based menu would exist on a cruise ship, but of course on Virgin it does. Here you’ll find veggie wonders such as whole roasted heirloom cauliflower, mushroom tartare and impossible meat takes on the classics. It was so good that I went back a total of three times. London really needs to open a Razzle Dazzle. 

For those who want the casual all-day drop-in, the Galley on deck 15 should do the trick. It’s where you’ll find everything from ramen to tacos to croissants. All on board is sustainably sourced and presented, and you won’t handle any single-use plastics. No straws, no bottled water (come refill your drinks at the fountains instead), no takeaway coffee cups. It’s about time.

Finally, unlike most restaurant businesses in North America, Virgin Voyages keeps in line with the rest of the world and pays staff a liveable wage. This means the absurd American culture of tipping can be left back onshore and patrons can enjoy genuine excellent service.

Bars: Champagne, cocktails and beer all reasonably priced (but you can really treat yourself if you want to)

Basic bevvies are included with your voyage, including filtered still and sparkling water, juices, sodas, teas and drip coffee. Alcoholic beverages, cold-pressed juices and specialty coffees require a swipe of your wrist band, but these are reasonably priced and no more than a visit to a local bar or café in the city.

Suite guests have exclusive access to a chic outdoor lounge and bar called Richard’s Rooftop, and as for the rest of us, there are plenty of watering holes to disperse on. These include the champagne lounge, Sip, which also has a very British afternoon high tea and a massive variety of bubbles from $9 flutes to $1,000 vintage bottles; outdoor lounge The Dock; nightclub The Manor; and beer tap house Draught Haus.

Virgin Voyages also just announced a partnership with Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin, so expect plenty of gin-based festivity onboard over the coming months. What’s great is that each bar on the ship has its own menu and distinct feel, so this isn’t a matter of the same cocktails served at different ends of the ship. When you go bar hopping it really feels like bar hopping.

scarlet lady pool
With smooth curves and nautical details, the pool deck has a sophisticated glamour

Wellness: Keeping fit at sea

Fitness, both physical and mental, is at the core of Virgin Voyages. I was pleased to perform some kind of wellness activity daily (which balanced out the expected overindulgence). Most physical activity can be found close to the surface at The Perch and the outdoor training centre which has a racetrack, boxing ring, basketball court, and a variety of gym equipment (there’s also an indoor gym for those who don’t fancy all that Vitamin Sea). In addition, a B-Complex studio hosts spin, yoga and a bungee workout class against a backdrop of the ocean.

The Redemption Spa on deck 5 is a cosy hideaway to pass a half-day at sea, with both modern and contemporary treatments on offer. Stick around and enjoy the Knibb-designed enclave afterward, complete with hydrotherapy pool, mud room, salt room, cold plunge pools and quartz beds. For alternative pampering, upstairs along the ‘high street’ you also have the high street beauty staples such as Stubble and Groom (an upscale barbershop for men), Dry Dock (a beauty bar), MAC store (retail therapy is therapy, after all) and Squid Ink (a tattoo and piercing shop for the more adventurous).

Entertainment with a sprinkle of naughty

The beauty of no kids on board means no filter. Virgin Voyages brings together a festival-like line-up that is developed by the world’s most renowned producers, directors, choreographers and artists.

The Red Room is where the biggies happen and, like the cabins, is transformed depending on show schedule. I watched two different shows here, both with completely different layouts. The first was night one’s ‘Untitled Dance Show Party Thing’ a very Gen-Z dance party that had me feeling Tik-Tok star 22. A few days later I was back at The Red Room for Dual Reality, arguably the star of the entertainment program, it’s a Romeo and Juliet tale told through acrobatics, music, dance and more. The quality of the performances was astounding, and again, these were the kind of shows you’d actually Stubhub a ridiculous amount of money to see.

Other performances I attended were Never Sleep Alone (NSA), a raunchy stand up by straight-talking relationship therapist producers Roslyn Hart and Alfredo Guenzani (and a great opportunity for singles to mingle), and Scarlet Night, a follow-the-actor situation reminiscent of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More immersive theatre experience (except splashed in red and on a cruise ship).

scarlet lady show
Virgin Voyages brings together a festival-like line up of entertainment

The vessel also has private karaoke booths, a casino, a record shop, magic room, and is overall more than equipped to cater to all manner of tastes. As I said before, I’d packed way too many books.

Stops: A chance to do culture

One of the things that always put me off a cruise was that I didn’t think I’d be satisfied culturally. Though there were only two stops on this particular voyage, they both offered easy-to-book (via an app) excursions that allowed for plenty of discovery.

In Costa Maya, I opted in for a tour of the ancient Mayan ruins (an hour away from port) and in Bimini I swam with stingrays before retreating to Virgin Voyages’ Beach Club at Bimini. Now, this is indeed a treat and such an incredible addition to an already excellent value-for-money package.

Everything at the beach club is included so there’s absolutely no nickel-and-dime situation here. We had lunch (fresh Red Snapper) from the beach shack, enjoyed a lounger on the beach, refilled on iced sodas, swam in turquoise waters to the soundtrack of local DJs, and were transported via shuttle to and from the boat, at zero additional cost. This would not be the case if the beach club were owned and operated by another company. There’s also a bonfire celebration at sunset, which I missed that night. But seriously each stop was a 10 out of 10.

Overall verdict: Cruises are cool, but only if they’re by Virgin

OK, so this was my first cruise, but I know it’ll be a hard one to top. Virgin Voyages means it when they say everything is included. Aside from optional excursions, a massage and champagne, I didn’t spend an extra penny. The rate covered everything from accommodation, food and Wi-fi to beach club, shows and even a crazy bungee workout class.

On top of that, everything, whether included or at additional cost, was quality. The kind of things that I, as a millennial, would absolutely pay for if I were in Central London or NYC. This vessel in red truly is the Ferrari of cruise ships, and I am its loyal passenger.

Factbox

Virgin Voyages Caribbean cruises depart from Port Miami, a 20-minute taxi ride from Miami International Airport (MIA). Passengers must be vaccinated before boarding and take a Covid test at the terminal. 

Phone: +44 (20) 30034919
Website: virginvoyages.com

Photography courtesy of Chase Dorsett and Virgin Voyages