Published on Sunday, February 23, 2020

Review of Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady

Virgin Voyages promised us something totally different with its first cruise ship the Scarlet Lady, teasing us with videos of 'rockstar' suites and talk of reinventing cruising to appeal to a new generation, but does it live up to the hype?

TravelMole joined around 1,000 travel agents who were invited onboard for a first peek at the 2,770-passenger adult-only Scarlet Lady in Dover, before she makes her transatlantic voyage (via Liverpool), first to New York and then onwards to her home port of Miami.

While it's not entirely fair to judge a ship from a brief overnight visit, especially when you're anchored in blustery Blighty instead of sailing around the calm Caribbean, what is immediately apparent is that the Scarlet Lady is quite unlike other mid-size cruise ships.

However, it's not so much about what's been added as what has been removed from the traditional cruise ship formula that makes Scarlet Lady so different. Gone is the giant, soaring atrium - the focal point of many ships - and the big eating and entertainment spaces, the mass dining experiences and extensive buffets (although there is a small one still); and there are no allocated dining times and set seating, all of which have been ditched for the Scarlet Lady, along with Broadway-style shows.

Taking inspiration from boutique hotels, Virgin Voyages has created more intimate spaces, smaller dining rooms with waiter service, several open-plan bars rather than separate pubs and lounges, and while most other mid-size ships have large theatres for big productions, Scarlet Lady has the Red Room, a much smaller, flexible entertainment space for its own, unique shows.

Décor is fresh and modern, think Ibiza-meets-1920s Miami vibe, with lots of soft pink, beiges and brass tones, while the open-plan, free-flowing design avoids a feeling of claustrophobia I associate with some cruise ships.

There's no big wow factor, no eye-popping never-seen-at-sea before attraction, instead Virgin Voyages says it's re-worked the traditional cruise elements to make them more fun, more relaxed and more appealing to a younger generation who, as senior VP of design Dee Couper said, might want to be 'a little bit scruffy onboard'.

"We're not about gimmicks, like racetracks," said senior vice president hotel operations Frank Weber. "The cruise industry has gone wild, ships have become theme parks at sea, but what they've lost is the hospitality, so we've gone back to the core product, providing great food and exceptional service."

In truth, I wouldn't say the food I sampled on the Scarlet Lady during her brief stay in Dover was great, certainly not nearly as good as my experience on Norwegian Cruise Line ships, and the service, while super-friendly, was slow and haphazard, but I couldn't fault the enthusiasm of the staff, some of whom have never worked on a cruise ship before.

Weber said he was confident the teething problems would be sorted out by the time the ship takes its first paying guests in April. "We will be doing more staff training and everything will be tested during the voyage across the Atlantic," he said. "Things won't be perfect now, but they will be sorted out by the time we arrive in the US."

Capacity is being limited on the early cruises out of Miami to ensure service standards are maintained. 

During my overnight stay, I dined in The Wake, and although I enjoyed the sophisticated ambience, I thought the food was bland and the choice limited. Much better was my breakfast in Razzle Dazzle (pictured), the veggie restaurant, where the food was more creative. There are four other restaurants onboard, all included in the price of the fare.

As Virgin intends to buy only sustainably sourced ingredients for all of its restaurants - a fact that will go down well with eco-conscious cruisers - many of the dishes it will offer in the US weren't available for Scarlet Lady's UK debut, said Weber. "I can assure you, you will see a different quality in the US," he added.

The cabins:


While Virgin Voyages' pre-launch marketing focused on its 'Mega Rockstar' suites, most passengers will be booking its more modest accommodation, which vary from snug 'Insider' cabins to 'XL Sea Terrace' rooms.

Clever design elements, including two sofas that transformed into a double bed, the open wardrobe, a wedge-shaped dressing table and mood lighting, plus the white walls and furniture meant my 'Central Sea Terrace' cabin (above) with a balcony felt more spacious than it appears on the photos. The mattress (which was extensively tested by Virgin staff in a warehouse in Miami) was very comfortable, the power shower in the small but adequate bathroom was excellent and there was enough storage for a couple for a three- or four-night voyage.

Modern touches in the cabins include flat-screen TVs, free wifi, and USB charging points, and it was good to see toiletries are provided in refillable canisters and water is provided in carafes rather than single-use plastic bottles.

The 'Sea View Cabins' without balconies have giant portholes and a window seat and they have a nice, spacious feel. I'm not sure I'd want to be cooped up in an Insider cabin (left) although they looked less cramped than those I've seen on other ships. At the other end of the scale, if you've got a booking from a group of six friends, they might like the two-bedroom 'Mega Rockstar Massive Suite', which comes with an equally massive balcony with hot tub, outdoor shower and table made for dancing, plus its own music room, of course.

Evening entertainment:

The line-up of shows includes Duel Reality, a high-energy, breath-taking, death-defying sort of acrobatic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, which is truly spectacular and knocks the spots off any Broadway-style production I've seen on other cruises, although it does get a bit weird at the end when the cast strip down to their underwear and dance with the audience.  The late-night immersive Untitled Dancepartyshowthing is hard to describe, except to say that is was narrated by a giant cat, involved a drag queen and lots of flash-mob-style dancing. Guests will either love it or wander out thinking "what the heck was that?"

There's also a nightclub, The Manor, with a dazzling entrance, and a casino.

What else?

There will be free daily group exercise classes onboard, plus there's a spa and gym (for an extra charge, unless you book a treatment), the biggest hot tub at sea on Deck 15 and a jogging track. The onboard tattoo parlour and boutiques such as the MAC makeup bar are in line with Virgin's target market of young or 'young at heart' passengers. 

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