Well, that was fun. Serious fun. As in, 'I needed a day to recover from my vacation' kind of fun.
I'm back from the long-awaited first U.S. voyage aboard Virgin Voyages' first cruise ship, Scarlet Lady, which made its Miami debut last week in what was cheekily called a 'MerMaiden' voyage. Our four-day cruise included a day at sea along with calls on Nassau and the line's private Bimini Beach Club in the Bahamas.
Let's get one thing out of the way first: after touring Scarlet Lady in New York, I was prepared to love the ship and the Virgin take on cruising, and I did. While I'm past the Gen Z/younger Millennial age bracket that Virgin had originally intended to target with its cruises, I was definitely ready to embrace the upscale and modern dining options, the design-forward venues, the fitness classes, the funky deck parties and the overall vibe described as "rockstar" (a word that a 20something passenger onboard told me is now "cringey.")
We found many ground-breaking ideas and concepts onboard, some of which have already been outlined by my U.K. colleague Adam Coulter when Scarlet Lady sailed on the other side of the pond this summer. And while some of the most important innovations aboard Scarlet Lady worked well right out of the gate, there were a few things that need some tweaks for the execution to live up to the promise.
Here is our breakdown of what we loved on Scarlet Lady, what is almost there and what could use some work.
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Dining Aboard Scarlet Lady
Getting the shipboard food right is one of the most important things any cruise line can do, let alone one that's new to an already-crowded market. Virgin has hit this out of the park, with a wide variety of places to eat aboard Scarlet Lady and cuisine that is the most modern we've seen at sea.
To start with, every restaurant onboard has gluten free and vegan options; one of them, Razzle Dazzle, is vegetarian first -- something that's rarely seen in the traditional cruising world. We particularly liked the upscale Mexican cuisine at Pink Agave; the ramen bowls, tacos and French fries from different food stands in The Galley; the salmon poke bowl at the Sun Club Café; and the Korean barbecue at Gunbae (the drinking games here are hilarious; this place in particular is perfect for a group).
Even the most casual snacks are delicious. At the Lick Me Until Ice Cream counter, you can get cones not just in vanilla, but flavors like red velvet and blue corn. The jalapeno croissants at The Grounds Club were a morning addiction. Ditto for the cake pops at The Social Club candy counter and the made-fresh individual pizzas. On our four-day cruise we didn't have nearly enough time or room in our stomach to eat everything we wanted to -- Test Kitchen, I'm coming for you next time.
Scarlet Lady's Cabins
I stayed with a friend in an extended Sea Terrace cabin. While the aesthetics of the room are simple, it had everything we needed, particularly since this is one ship where I found I was out of the cabin much more than in it. (Even when I needed to do my work, there were attractive lounge spaces, such as nautical themed The Dock House, where I could go and write -- this isn’t the case on every cruise ship).
Because we were two friends traveling together, our beds were made up in an "L" shape, as opposed to two singles side by side. While I had expected the configuration to bother me, it actually didn't. Our heads were at the same end, but the fluffy pillows meant we weren't in each other's' faces. The L shape of the beds also meant that we had plenty of space during the day. The one downside to this configuration is that you can't put your suitcases under the bed, as you can on most other cruise ships.
The electronics in the room were controlled by a tablet, and proved easy to use. You could call for more towels or ice when needed. I was surprised that there wasn't a music option on the flat-screen TV so you could stream tunes into the room (of course, the Rock Star Suites come with their own record player). The bathrooms, while small, had a fantastic rainforest head and shampoo, conditioner and body wash that smelled amazing. The hammock on the balcony was also a nice touch -- I swayed in it while waving to passengers on Oasis of the Seas next to us in Nassau. They looked jealous!
Scarlet Lady's Entertainment
Virgin promised they would push the envelope with cruise ship entertainment, and we found this to be true on Scarlet Lady. We've already written about the jaw-dropping acrobatics of Dual Reality. While other lines such as Celebrity have brought aerial gymnasts to their ships, Dual Reality was a step beyond -- really, one of the best shows that I've seen at sea.
We also got a seat -- which were so hard to come by, people on the wait list started rushing the door -- at the Never Sleep Alone show. Led by sexologist "Dr. A", the show is really a racy expansion of some of the adult game shows that you find on other cruise ships. Our tip: Go upstairs if you want to avoid being pulled on stage for antics that could include sex simulation.
But it was the last show we saw, "Untitleddancepartyshowthing", that really blew us away. It's not a typical show, with a plot, characters or even seats for the audience. Designed by The Dance Cartel -- three New York choreographers known for immersive pop-up party-performances -- the show features a body-positive cast that dances, sings and performs both for and with the audience, who is standing the entire time. It's edgy, it's cool and it's like nothing that you've seen on a cruise ship before. We want to go again.
The line told its sailors to bring a splash of red for its theme party, and surprisingly, most people complied. And if you didn't, the line set up an area where people could grab all kinds of fun and funky red-colored accessories (anything from literal rose-colored glasses to kimonos to headpieces and wigs), which they could wear and keep. Sequined crew members were there to help you pull it all together. This idea was downright brilliant. It meant that no one felt left out, and there was really no excuse for you not to be wearing something red.
The Scarlet Night events were held in several places on the ship, starting with a performance in the roundabout to a deck party that I can only describe as trippy. It had everything: sea shanty/hip hop mashups; declarations of fealty to the sea goddess manifested as a blow-up octopus; dancing with moon orbs; and passengers jumping clothed into the pool. The night really represented the "come as you are" Virgin motto -- we saw men in white gossamer capes; women in tulle pants and more than one person wearing wings.
Scarlet Lady's Cocktails & Lounge Areas
With such a focus on nightlife and entertainment, you'd expect the bars and lounges to be top notch. And they were. What we really liked was the diversity. Sure, you could dance it out at the glitzy Manor. But you could also chill with a sundowner outdoors at The Dock. Or sneak away and have an actual conversation at On the Rocks.
All of the restaurants onboard had their own bars, and we found these nice places to go for that pre-dinner drink. Sip Lounge has an extravagant high tea with Champagne for $35 per person that many people could miss. We didn't even make it to Loose Cannon or a few other venues that looked great. Again, four days is not enough time to do everything.
(I will say that by the end of the cruise, I was a little sick of Miami-style lounge music, which was prevalent throughout the ship. The line could use some diversification there).
The Squid Ink Tattoo Parlor
This unexpected hit for the ship had booking lines with waits of more than an hour on the first day and was so busy, the line is considering adding an extra artist. We've written down everything you need to know about getting a tattoo at sea, but our advice is if you want to get inked, come prepared and get there early.
With all this fun and frivolity, it was a good thing that we didn't have to be out of our rooms at the crack of dawn. We really love that Virgin has made it a point to move debarkation back to 10:30 a.m., which means that you can mentally have a Saturday night out, without worrying about packing up. You also have time to grab brunch. Getting off the ship was a cinch -- a big contrast to getting on (more on that below).
Virgin Voyages: Mixed
Onboard Fitness Options
My friend and I were both excited to take advantage of the many free fitness classes that the line was touting. Scarlet Lady has a significant amount of real estate dedicated to fitness, with two gyms near the pool (one of them solely for cardio), a raised running track, a boxing ring and a special kettlebell weight room.
In the end, our favorite class ended up being the silliest. Don't miss the VHS Workout, a class that leans into the 80s aesthetic, complete with headbands and Shake Weights. It's not only hilarious, you will get a workout. This Peloton devotee was also impressed with the spin class, and the fact that the ship has bike shoes you can use to "clip in."
That being said, if you didn't get on the Virgin Voyages app to book classes right away, you were definitely out of luck. While it's great to have small and intimate fitness classes – particularly during a pandemic -- it was very frustrating to look on the app and see nothing available. More on scheduling below, but we feel that if Virgin wants to make fitness the priority like it says it does, more classes have to be available, particularly at peak times.
Scarlet Lady's Crew
We loved the diversity of Scarlet Lady's crew. Tattoos, piercings and different hair colors abounded, as well as body positivity. It looked like a group of young people we would see in a city. And we also appreciate that Virgin is giving their crew some outstanding benefits, including free WiFi, free gourmet coffee and more solo cabins.
But there were a few incidents that made us wonder if the crew received the memo of Sailor First. In the line for tattoos, we overheard several crew members booking prime appointments on the last day, taking coveted spots away from passengers. And at the Scarlet Night pool party, we saw crew members take up prime banquettes for seating, leaving passengers wandering around looking for places to sit.
This isn't a problem that is necessarily only on Virgin. Before operations restarted, crew members were used to having ships to themselves, devoid of passengers. On Odyssey of the Seas, for example, we saw crew members hogging gym equipment from paying guests before the ship changed its policy. We're sure that Scarlet Lady will work this kink out.
The Virgin Voyages App
The Virgin app is clever and we love the line's voice. Features like "Shake for Champagne," where you can shake the app and have bubbly delivered to you are super cool. We also loved the line's irreverent safety video, which you could watch on your app as part of your e-muster drill, and the port guides, which gave important information on how to get around.
The only problem is that there were long stretches of time when our app didn't work. At a certain point in the trip, I gave up, which meant I missed crucial information about debarkation (my friend was able to get hers back online). The ship's top brass said that paper copies of scheduling and everything else is available for those who need it. But when you promise a ship that's hip and trendy, you expect the technology to work.
Virgin Voyages: Misses
Getting on Scarlet Lady was an exercise in patience. All in all, it took us a full two hours to board the ship in Miami, which is much longer than we've experienced on other cruise lines this summer. We're not exactly sure why the hold-up occurred. The delays weren't due to the testing process -- the line to sign up and then take an antigen COVID-19 test kept moving. And our results for the test came within a speedy 15 minutes.
Rather, it was the actual check in that took a long time, and we're not sure why. We had uploaded our pertinent information, such as our passport scan and our vaccine card, into the app before we left, and also filled out the health form online. But for some reason, the people at the check-in desks had to manually repeat these processes all over again. It didn't help that loud music was blaring in the background (although personally we loved the festive vibe).
First impressions count, and Virgin is halfway there. We're sure that as the cruise line gets up to speed, wait time to get on the ship will die down.
We felt our frustration with the Virgin Voyages app the most when we tried to schedule our dinner reservations. All of the best times were snatched up early, and we were confronted with meal times of 5:30 and 10 p.m. at most venues.
Luckily, we were able to clear this up once we were onboard. And the line has told us that the app has a "digital queue" option that will make it easier for people on the waiting list to get into the restaurant of their choice. Going forward, it's also good to know that there are a certain amount of tables open for walk-ins too, although we were told distinctly by the hostess at The Wake that reservations were necessary.
As I noted above, the food on Virgin is top notch at all the venues. Booking a time to eat shouldn't be a chore.
Shore Excursions in Nassau
It's not a secret that Nassau was not the first port choice for Scarlet Lady. The ship originally had Cuba, and then Key West as a stop, as well as Bimini. It's hard to plan exciting excursions in such a tried-and-true port, but we were hopeful when we signed up for the line's "Travel Diaries: Snap Your Own Adventure", a tour that promised to "hip up the best (and far-less-traveled) views Nassau has to offer and share your images with the world."
We weren't that long into the tour when I realized that what was promised wouldn't be delivered. Instead of an Instagram-worthy trip, the excursion ended up being a standard bus tour that included a drive through the airport and take-out sandwiches in Styrofoam containers.
Two Virgin employees were on our tour, and we are confident that the line will take another look at their offerings. (We heard poor reviews of a culinary tour in Nassau as well, although my friend loved her snorkeling excursion). If Virgin wants to truly be different, they will have to shine in port as well.
With all those caveats, is Scarlet Lady a winner? For me, absolutely. It's the most fun I've had on a ship since I first tried full-ship theme cruises. And I'd even posit that Virgin Voyages is similar to a theme cruise in one respect -- when you're onboard, you know you are with other people who, to a certain degree, have the same mindset that you do.
Is Virgin Voyages for you? That's up for you to decide. But if you're looking for a ship that is more like a hip hotel than a cruise, if you are craving more modern food or entertainment than you typically find at sea, if you're ready to let loose and have a blast, then give it a try.