Words by Priya Joshi
“I’m going on holiday. On my own.” It’s a simple enough notion, but you would be surprised at the bewilderment the idea of travelling alone elicits from people, who, at best, assume you have no friends and, at worst, think you might not come back alive.
As someone who has always lived a very independent life, made more so by the nature of my job that often requires me to attend events or festivals alone, I’m used to flying solo. But then I realise – I have never actually flown solo. Of course, I’ve endured any number of long-haul flights alone, but have always met up with friends or family at the other end for the actual holiday.
But if multiple lockdown’s have taught us anything, it’s the importance of having some time and space for yourself. It’s no coincidence that post-pandemic, solo travel is on the rise with reports of a 42% increase in solo traveller bookings over the last two years. And more women than ever before are opting for independent adventures recognising the benefits of a few days respite from the routine of daily life and even a break from the kids, though they may not say it out loud. And with people staying single for longer, with more disposable income of their own and the freedom to chart their own course, there is no reason not to.
If you’re not quite ready to disappear alone in the wilderness of the Rockies or trek the Pacific West trail in complete solitude, a solo cruise holiday might be the perfection solution, providing the perfect balance of time alone and ample opportunities to engage with fellow travellers when you want some human company.
I decided it’s time I ventured out on my own on Virgin Voyages newest luxury cruise ship to see how I would fare on a three-day solo holiday as I make my own great escape on the aptly named Valiant Lady.
Valiant Lady is the second ship in Sir Richard Branson’s expanding fleet, and the sister ship of Scarlett Lady that was launched amidst much fanfare last year. With capacity for over 2,700 passengers and a crew of 1,500, the £700m ship is adorned in the bold red of the Virgin brand, a vibrant flourish on the ocean and a glittering leviathan that stands out from its rivals in design and concept.
“We’re turning everything on its head,” a welcome email announces as if offering a caveat to prepare you to expect the unexpected. This is no ordinary cruise. But nothing Sir Richard ever does is just ‘ordinary’.
A rock and roll rebel on the high seas and the brainchild of Branson, the ship has all the hallmarks of the Virgin brand, with innovation at its helm, daring to go one step beyond and stepping out in uncharted waters. Reinventing a cruise experience, Virgin Voyages have thrown out the stuffy image of the conventional cruise holiday favoured by retirees. An adult only cruise aimed at ‘the young and the young at heart’ this is the party equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for grown-ups, where all your disco dreams come true.
Virgin cruises are for the discerning independent traveller with a taste for the finer things in life and a sense of fun think high-tech living, luxury spa treatments, fine dining, edgy entertainment and live gigs. With all the glamour and the ingenuity of the Virgin brand underlying every aspect of the ship, Virgin Voyages puts the cool in cruises.
The immediate and obvious advantage of a cruise ship for the solo traveller is that everything is literally on your doorstep and there’s no end of things to do. The only difficulty is fitting everything in.
A quick scan of the daily schedule will give you all you need to plan a day of activities, dining and all-round self-indulgence and travelling solo means there’s no arguing about who wants to do what. It’s all up to you. And the Virgin way is to do it your way whether that means a party weekender or three days of luxury and relaxation. I decide my way will be a health reset with a touch of indulgence.
Arriving in Portsmouth on a chilly but sunny day in March, a quick flash of my passport and covid documents and I’m speedily sent through to board the Valiant Lady for the ‘Mer-maiden’ launch. You quickly learn that Sir Richard loves a pun.
The first thing to note is the diverse age groups of the guests with the vast majority seemingly in their late 30s and 40s as compared with the usual over 60s and many of them first time cruisers. It’s a demographic in keeping with the Virgin mantra committed to bringing cruise holidays into the modern age with experiences tailored for big kids. And the youthful vibe is instantly evident upon boarding, as guests are greeted by glamourous dancing mer-people, while the staff attending the lifts can’t help but shimmy their way between floors. This is sailing the Virgin way and the party has already started.
The tone is set by Branson and stories of the kindness he shows his crew and team are relayed to me with sincere affection. That same sense of pride and respect filters through the staff and into their interactions with the guests on board. Make no mistake, Virgin Voyages is all Branson, heart, soul – and drag queens.
It all starts in the new age cabins. It’s worth spending a few minutes in your cabin exploring the gadgets and gizmos that make this a high-tech experience including a personal tablet allowing you to turn on your lights, draw the curtains, call housekeeping or order a late-night snack, all at the touch of a button. Classes, spa treatments and reservations at the restaurants are booked online on an app on your phone, so Wi-fi is a necessity and complimentary.
Personalised mood settings allow you to set the tone from zen, hangover, and get it on, to cinema mode, when, in an instant your cabin is transformed from a tranquil relaxation zone, into party mode or movie night. For the rock stars on board, the real ones and the ones with the money for a rock and roll lifestyle, you could always check into one of the aptly names Rockstar suites for £20k. It’s a lavish space with an inclusive unlimited supply of alcohol, champagne delivered to your door at the press of a button and a member of staff at your service around the clock.
When food beckons, there are no end of options available. Laidback, cool and casual, formality has been thrown out with the captain’s table. There are more than 20 restaurants on the ship, each with a unique take on dining on the high seas and there’s not a buffet in sight. Casual eateries offer food presented with as much thought as the fine dining restaurants where the menus are devised by Michelin star chefs.
Located on Deck 15, The Galley is a walk-in international food hall, where you can order a quick bite serving everything from all night fry ups, Bento boxes, pastries and cakes, burgers and healthy options from the salad cart. The names of the eateries in the Galley are a clue as to the laidback vibe with Mexican at Let’s Taco Bout It, Well Bread for fresh bakes and grilled sandwiches at Hot off the Press. Sir Branson loves to toss in a good pun with his tossed salads.
Food is where Virgin Voyages comes into its own and while on a conventional cruise you can expect to be charged for speciality dinners, here an egalitarian approach is adopted, where everyone gets to experience fine dining at no extra cost. The standard of food is nothing less than a Mayfair dining experience and the service is exemplary. The food alone justifies the entire cost of the holiday and I planned to try out as many of the restaurants as I could.
Queue’s form at the pizza bar as home-made pizzas are prepared and baked in front of you. I take my steaming hot boxed pizza and kick off my solo experience with a quiet lunch on Richard’s Rooftop, an exclusive area with VIP access to a private bar, beach beds and loungers, and a chance to take in the view before we set sail. Meanwhile, excited guests are gathering for cocktails in The Dockhouse, a sophisticated space for meeting friends and family before the evening’s entertainment and people watching, as guests or ‘sailors’ as they are known, emerge from their cabins in their best partywear for a night of revelry.
I find it’s also a good spot to get chatting to other passengers and it’s not long into my first cocktail before someone stops for a chat and enquires as to why I’m on my own. A solo traveller is met with some surprise, but leads to friendly conversations and everyone, especially the seasoned cruisers are eager to share their experience of the ship. Whether it’s helpful staff or well-meaning fellow travellers, it’s evident that there’s little risk of being deprived of human company for too long.
My first dinner is booked at 9pm at the ship’s popular Italian trattoria Extra Virgin offering a taste of authentic Italian cuisine with fresh handmade pasta and regionally inspired fare. Wines are matched to the menu and the perfectly cooked pasta dishes leave you hungry for more.
While you might initially feel a little conspicuous dining alone amongst all the couple and groups, there’s the advantage of bypassing discussions about what to order, and with a meal for one, your food arrives quickly. It’s a chance to really savour the food and while well-meaning guests can’t help but check in on you, a chat between courses is useful for finding out what is the best dessert on the menu. We all agree, it is the delightfully light mini doughnuts.
The evening’s entertainment begins with acclaimed sexologist Dr A’s Never Sleep Alone show in The Manor, an intimate club style venue with a pimped out VIP area and a dazzling corridor of all-encompassing sparkling lights – a full circle video or at least a photo are a must. It’s one of the few times I wish I had a travel companion on hand to take some photos, but fellow sailors and crew are always happy to help with a photo.
A far cry from the traditional cruise entertainment you might associate with Jane McDonald, that comprises show tunes and theatre productions not dissimilar to watching a school play, Never Sleep Alone is an edgy and risqué interactive performance. With a mix of spicy chat and sex talk dating expert Dr Alex Schiller pulls in a full crowd, encouraging guests to drop their inhibitions and take to the stage for some intimate confessions and grown-up games. If you’re not quite ready to get candid in front of a watching audience, just sit back and watch the on-stage antics from a safe distance.
By now the on-board party is in full swing and the party people are headed for The Red Room for the randomly titled ‘Untitled Dance Show Party Thing’. It’s a full-on club night with a DJ set in front of a giant video wall and elaborate lasers and lighting.
Another chance to lose your inhibitions and dance the night away like no one’s watching.
But if you’re in the mood for something a little more sedate, head for On the Rocks, a space in the main atrium of the ship where you can listen to live sets, with performers such as Morf The One Man band playing top tunes on an acoustic guitar. Guests lounge on comfy chairs and leather sofas or gather by the bar for the live set making for a mellow end to an already busy first day on board. This is one where you can sing along with a drink in hand, and no one will ask you why you’re on your own.
Three days away alone presents a good opportunity for a health reset and along with classes there’s a fully equipped gym, personalised training sessions and running track for fitness enthusiasts.
Sunrise yoga and morning mediations are accompanied by an instantly calming view of the sea. For something more invigorating there’s VHS Workout, an 80’s inspired aerobics class. It’s Flashdance vibes with headbands, leg warmers and lurid leotards as you dance to some top tracks from your youth. Injecting some fun into your daily exercise routine and a reminder not to take yourself too seriously, you leave with a skip in your step and an infectious tune in your head.
Of course, retail therapy is an all-important part of any holiday and I head for the High Street on Deck 5, where you’ll find designer handbags, womenswear, jewellery and skin care as well as a Virgin store for branded merchandise and mementos of your stay.
There’s the Dry Dock, an on-board hair salon so you can be coiffured to perfection, Stubble and Groom barbers for men and if you’re really ready to reinvent yourself head for Squid Ink for a rather more permanent reminder of your trip. A small tattoo will set you back £115. I ponder the fleeting thought that this might just be the thing that finally impresses the kids when I return home. At sea it’s easy to get swept up in the fun and frivolity of it all and make rash decisions you regret later.
I decide instead to continue my health fix with a nourishing breakfast at Razzle Dazzle, an eatery with an imaginative vegan menu where the food is as artistic as it is inventive. With a twist on the conventional, the acai bowl is a colourful confection of exotic fruits and the avo toast is perfectly spiced with a touch of chilli.
For something a bit naughty, for the five-year-old inside, you can try the fairy toast, which like most things on the ship is literally dipped in sprinkles. The orange, carrot and ginger juice will liven the senses and if you need a bigger pick me up you can ask for a shot of something stronger in your smoothie.
After an overnight sail, the ship is in Bruges and while there’s plenty to keep you occupied on board, a day’s stopover is a good chance to check out the local town. Turn to the app to book a guided tour or take a coach transfer into town where you can explore the local markets, take a relaxing river boat ride, load up on Belgian chocolates, stop for a beer in one of the many bars or marvel at the architecture. It’s a welcome chance to wander off and do your own thing while browsing for souvenirs.
Back on board after a day of sightseeing and a quick change later, it’s time to discover the wonders of The Test Kitchen. Described as part restaurant, part cooking school, the six-course tasting menu is a gastronomic experience courtesy of the specially appointed Michelin-star chef Matt Lambert. Here, you will discover inventive concoctions presented with flair and bringing a sense of drama to your dining experience.
Fully satiated and my palate stimulated, I head for The Red Room for Duel Reality, a unique retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with an elaborate circus twist. The Red Room – the larger-than-life entertainment space – is the first multi-form theatre at sea and an innovation in design which allows the area to be adapted creating a multi-functional space. This is where the entertainment team take centre stage, supplanting the old school cruise ship crooners and elevating the on-board entertainment experience in every sense of the word with a dynamic performance.
For this show, the audience are split, seated into two opposing camps as they witness a brawl break out between rival gangs. A raucous dance battle ensues and the watching crowd, set in their rival red and blue camps become part of the rumble, encouraged to jeer their nemesis and cheer for their gang. The dancers themselves are endlessly enthralling, spinning, spiralling, and leaping from poles, vaulting off one another through hoops in a high energy dance-off that leaves you breathless, all while telling an emotional love story. With minimalist staging it is a feat of athleticism, poise and grace and a highlight of the entire trip, not to be missed.
At the end of the performance, I head up to The Galley for a hot drink before bed. With hot and cold drinks on tap lots of people have the same idea and many make the most of the all-night breakfast. It’s not long before I find myself chatting to a group of people who share stories of their travels and cruise experiences. Travelling alone is a good chance to meet new people, make new friends and to be regaled with unheard tales of misadventures and triumphs. Two hours have passed exchanging funny anecdotes with strangers, and I haven’t even noticed the time.
With the ship now sailing back to port, today is dedicated to health and well-being. After pursuing the numerous on-board activities, I find I have a full schedule of classes and seminars to fill up the morning. I opt for ‘on the upswing’, an indoor bungee class, purely because I’ve never done it before, and holidays are a great time to try something new. Guided by an instructor, the exercises are performed with the support of a harness hanging from the ceiling. And when the hard work is done, we dangle for a moment, swinging as we gaze out at sea.
Seminars follow at The Roundabout on Deck 7 on nutrition and exercise, skincare and Forever (Looking) Young while there are beauty consultations on the High Street and a class to help perfect your posture. I sign up for everything!
Feeling virtuous after my morning of health focused activities I’ve booked myself into The Wake for brunch as a reward. Inspired by The Wolseley it is the most popular and the most decadent eatery on board with waiting staff immaculately dressed as they serve up an array of exquisitely prepared steaks, fish and desserts.
Eggs benedict are a favourite on the brunch menu. Seated by a portal I tuck into the perfectly poached dish while I watch the rise and fall of the waves, to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald on the soft jazz soundtrack in the background, transporting you for a moment to a different era. It’s the perfect opportunity for some uninterrupted indulgence and I happily bask in the lavish experience.
The Redemption Spa is a haven of tranquillity. For my afternoon I’ve booked a facial in the on-board spa. Treatments and access to the spa facilities come at an additional cost, but the Sailor loot, the on-board currency that comes with most bookings, is handy for this. Everything is pre-booked on the app so as soon as I arrive my therapist is ready with a robe and leads me to the swanky black and gold changing area. It’s the most luxurious spa facility I’ve seen on land or sea and the treatment rooms are equipped with the latest technology.
Massage therapies are popular with men and women alike and catering to those looking for a shared health experience, the spa also features couples’ massages preceded by a couple’s reviving bathing ritual. There are a number of treatments designed to roll your stresses away, from the Awakening Bamboo massage, the Recovery Salt Stone massage using pink Himalayan salt stones and the three step Body Reclamation treatment.
There are also a range of options for facial treatments including a rejuvenating technology facial remedy and vitamin infused facial. After a scan of my face, an imaging app highlights the areas of sun damage, hyper pigmentation and uneven skin tone and based on the findings my therapist Dory suggests the ideal facial treatment.
She tells me she has previously treated celebrities and even royalty but with the ship recently launching she is most excited to treat the clients on board. “To me, every guest is like royalty,” she explains. It is easily one of the most relaxing 90 minutes I’ve had on board the ship and the perfect solo activity. My treatment complete, I venture into the lavish interior of the spa where I am handed a pot of mud and guided through the heated marble relaxation areas into the various sauna, steam room and mud spa facilities before finishing with the salt detox.
I’ve unwittingly picked the perfect time to use the facilities which are a popular feature. Go after 7pm when everyone else is headed for dinner and you’ll have the spa facility largely to yourself.
If you want to take your rejuvenation plan a step further, you can also get a consultation at the Medi Spa where a licenced skin specialist and aesthetic physician Dr Carmen Carvajal is on board to cater to those looking for a deeper treatment. Step into her clinic, where after a consultation, your needs assessed, you can opt for a facial dermal filler treatment and receive a dose of a facial injectable such as Dysport where it’s needed most. And if you partied hard the night before there’s even a 30-minute IV Hydration therapy using vitamin enriched solutions to hydrate and restore your energy levels.
Of course, another advantage to being a solo traveller is that you can discreetly have all the treatments you need while on board, and when people comment on how refreshed you look after your trip, attribute it to the sea air.
The ship is filled with surprises from the colouring canvas mid deck where you can stop and take a moment for some mindful colouring in, or the secret one-way mirror window in the VIP area of The Manor where you can watch the performers doing their make up before the shows. And don’t be surprised if you are accosted by a member of the ship’s team with an invitation to a secret hideaway. With a group of similarly unsuspecting guests, I am led through a maze of corridors and downstairs through the inner sanctum of the ship. Our phones are locked away and we are assembled a small space at the very nose of the ship for an impromptu magic act that leaves us confounded and enthralled.
The final night on the Valiant lady and I still have the Mexican sharing dishes at Pink Agave and the grilled barbecue bites prepared in front of you at the Korean restaurant Gunbae to sample.
Of course, the trip ends just as it started as everyone comes out to join the party for ‘scarlett night’ when the ship and the guests come out decked out in all red attire. A giant inflatable octopus is draped across the lounge area and the drag queens come out to play bedecked in shimmer and glitter. You can’t help but to be swept away by the fun and frivolity.
The karaoke parties continue in the private booths and while I’m tempted to launch into a rendition of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman, I decide to leave it to the professionals and retreat to The Manor where there’s more live music on the billing with a night of soul and blues with The Slam Allen Band. It’s an intimate gig and a chance to sing along to some of my favourite Motown sounds performed by the charismatic Slam Allen. It’s the perfect, soulful end to my evening and my three-day getaway.
While some guests retire to the on-board casino to try their luck or head to bar for a night cap, I leave the late-night revellers to carry on the party in the Red Room and retire to my cabin. A pizza delivered to my door and cinema mode activated, and I settle in for movie night.
After a weekend of health focused fun, inventive food, enthralling entertainment and a taste of life the Virgin way I am walking taller, my skin revived, my palate invigorated and my senses alive after a new adventure in cruising. And I’m happy that I did it all my way – sailing solo.
Imagery provided by Virgin Voyages. Credit: TEAM Photographers: Lifestyle: Melanie Acevedo, Cabins: Sang An, Agent: Kenna Zimmer, Sarah Laird and Good Company