She's called Scarlet Lady and I was one of the first to step aboard and stay overnight on Virgin Voyages first cruise ship when she came to Dover. What did I think? Read on ....
As far as size goes, Scarlet Lady is not one of the behemoths of the ocean. She holds 2,770 passengers and 1160 crew. Not small by any means, but she is what is termed 'mid size'.
Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder said “....... The benefit of our five decades in business .... is that we can offer a voyage like no other.” Ah, but besides calling passengers 'sailors' and travel agents 'first mates', is this ship really like 'no other'?
In some ways, yes it is. For starters, this is where to find the only tattoo parlour at sea. (A tattoo from 'Squid Ink' starts at £80 if you're interested.) 'Voyage Vinyl' is the first and only record shop at sea where 'sailors' can wear head phones to enjoy current albums and blast-from-the-past greats. Fancy a drag brunch? You'll be in your element here then and maybe you'll also enjoy the Korean barbecue that promises noisy drinking games. Now apparently millennials (the market * this ship is aiming at) consider public karaoke totally uncool, so private karaoke booths are available and there's an app instead of a cruise director. So far, so different.
These days though, when wellness is the buzzword, Scarlet Lady's so-called 'Vitamin Sea' offerings are not so different from those on other ships. There's a space on the top deck for outdoor yoga, meditation and stretching, a gym, spa, running track and classes in cardio and spin. The Athletics Club features a boxing ring and there's a small swimming pool.
As far as accommodation goes, my small Central Sea Terrace cabin had little in the way of storage space. A tiddler-size bathroom had no toiletries except for a bar of black soap which left sooty marks on the wash basin every time I used it. However I understand that 'sailors' paying for their trip are provided with a more interesting selection of goodies. The bed was different though. Called a Seabed, it converts from bed to lounger meaning more space for those 'sailors' who want to lounge by day or bring friends round. The balcony hammock is a first too. They were handwoven by artisans from a social enterprise that fosters community transformation in Thailand.
Millennials with cash to splash may want to bag a RockStar suite. They come with hot tubs, personal music room and outdoor shower where you can rinse off under the moonlight. What's more, you get a dedicated RockStar Agent (that's someone you can ask to bring you what you want, what you really, really want ... and they get it for you. I suppose there are limits though.) But that's not all. You'll have a glam crew on hand (that's a hair and makeup team in case you don't know) and fully stocked bar with mixology equipment.
What about food? Branson didn't want the dreaded cruise buffet to be part of his dream but, you know, I feel the Galley is just that, a buffet restaurant in disguise. 'Razzle Dazzle' serves mainly veggie fare with the odd piece of chicken and pork finding its way on to the dinner menu, then there's the aforementioned Korean barbecue restaurant and Test Kitchen which is a cookery school by day and morphs into a restaurant in the evening. Oh and there's an ice cream shop - guess what it's called? 'Lick Me Till Ice Cream' . Clever. A plus point is there's no set seating or assigned dining times as is the case on some ships. That's something I'd definitely be glad to see disappearing into the ether. Cruise lines who are guilty of that, please take note!
Now, Scarlet Lady's entertainment may not be everyone's cup of tea but it is definitely different from the usual Broadway-type shows most cruise ships insist on wheeling out. The Untitled Dance Show Party Thing is best described as an immersive dance experience on a rotating stage. Parts of the show are narrated by a cosmic cat. No, I don't know why, either.
Design is open plan so one area flows seamlessly into the next. However, it gave me the impression of being in a large, narrow corridor which I didn't feel was comfortable or cosy.
One overnight doesn't give a lot of time to really get to grips with everything so I don't know whether this cruise ship - and Branson has three more in the same mould coming along soon - will prove to be a hit or miss. As it is with a lot of things, time will tell.
All dining, group workout classes, basic beverages, gratuities and wifi are included in the cruise fare.
* Besides millennials, Richard Branson is hedging his bets by saying that if you're young-at-heart, no matter how old you actually are, you'll love being on board. One thing that is definitely an on board no-no and that's kids. Yes, no kidding.
All images copyright me, Mike & Virgin
Protecting the Ocean
Virgin Voyages is one of first cruise lines to use Climeon, a technology that utilises heat generated from the ship’s engines to generate electricity, so decreasing the demand for fuel.
I was one of the guests invited to Dover to see HRH The Duchess of Cornwall perform the naming ceremony for Saga's new 554 cabin ship, Spirit of Discovery, designed as a British ‘boutique’ hotel on the sea. What's more, it's the first cruise ship to be named at the port for over a decade.
The sun shone at the afternoon garden party, believed to be the first to be held on a quayside. I have to say it all looked very pretty with Yorkshire grown grass adorning the harbour and lots of traditional bunting, masses of flowers, foliage and parasols. The British theme continued with a parade by The Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines Collingwood and specially blended Spirit of Discovery English sparkling wine from Balfour Hush Heath Estate, served at afternoon tea in the marquee. A Spitfire flew overhead too.
click on images to enlarge © Mike Pickup
Lots of dignitaries and celebrities had come along to enjoy the festivities and in a little game of 'spot the celeb' I saw Dame Esther Rantzen, dancer Wayne Sleep, Falklands War hero Simon Weston and several minor actors and actresses.
The Duchess, in a navy coat dress and cream and navy wide-brimmed hat, named Spirit of Discovery with a jeroboam of the aforementioned English sparkling wine. It sounded like a cannon going off against the side of the ship and set off a cloud of red and green confetti.
image of The Duchess © Gilly Pickup
During a tour of the ship HRH met musician Jools Holland. She told him that last time she named a ship, Cunard's Queen Victoria in 2007, the bottle of Champagne would not break even although she pressed the button several times. Eventually, someone had to physically smash the bottle on the side of the ship! No such hiccups this time though - which must have been something of a relief for her!
Part of her duties at the ceremony included cutting a cake. No ordinary cake though, this splendid affair was a two-metre long replica of Spirit of Discovery, designed and made by Mark Tilling, winner of Bake Off Crème de la Crème. I don't know where the cake was headed, as it wasn't cut into pieces for the guests or dignitaries so I hope perhaps it was donated to a hospice, hospital, children's home or similar worthy recipients.
HRH is the patron of the charity Silver Line, which provides a 24-hour telephone service for older people who feel lonely or isolated. The charity is Saga’s first national charity partner. During HRH's speech she said of the charity, “Since its launch in 2013, it has received over 2 million calls and the support of Saga will ensure that its vital work can continue.”
Robin Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of Saga Travel, said, “We firmly believe that Spirit of Discovery creates a new British quality standard in the cruising market and we can’t wait to welcome guests on board.”
The occasion celebrated the start of a significant new era for Saga Cruises, the only remaining British registered, independent cruise company. Spirit of Discovery is their first commissioned ship. She has been registered in the UK and her port of registry, London, is displayed on the stern. Sister ship, Spirit of Adventure, will also fly the Red Ensign at her launch in 2020.
The inaugural cruise of Spirit of Discovery, named ‘A British First’, departs from Dover on 10 July to sail around the British Isles.
Jools Holland will sail on a trio of cruises aboard new ship Spirit of Discovery next year, playing a mix of Boogie-Woogie, R&B, Jazz and Soul during two performances, accompanied by his band of musicians.
As part of a five-year partnership with Saga Cruises, Jools has also endorsed one of Spirit of Discovery’s three specialty restaurants, The Club by Jools, inspired by 1950s cabaret lounges.
The venue, with resident and guest musicians, offers steaks, live music and cocktails.
2020 cruises featuring Jools Holland's appearances are:
A Baltic Fable : Jools Holland and his band will perform on this cruise to six Baltic cities celebrating history and culture of the region from tales of the Russian Tsars to Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. There’s also more music including fun sounds from an Oompah Band to the iconic pop of ABBA. 16 nights from £3,647 per person, departing Dover on August 7, 2020.
Sounds of Spain: Music on this cruise continues with the enchanting sounds of the Spanish guitar and flamenco performances. Tours ashore feature a trail of Valencia’s street art and visiting UNESCO-listed old town of Ibiza. On the Spanish mainland, guests visit the ports Almeria and Cadiz, with their beautiful buildings and sun-dappled squares. 14 nights from £2,975 per person, departing Southampton on March 15, 2020.
Western France and the Costa Verde
Music and gastronomy are the two main themes on this cruise which features two new ports for Saga Cruises, San Sebastian and Marin. Spirit of Discovery will sail along the Garonne to Bordeaux for guests to join an exclusive dinner at a local château, while along the coast of northern Spain there are more treats including pintxos and Galician wine. 15 nights from £3,721 per person, departing Dover on July 23, 2020.
For details call free on 0800 656 9919 or visit saga.co.uk/ocean-cruises
Prices for the above cruises featuring Jools Holland on board include all meals and entertainment, choice of table wines at lunch and dinner, afternoon tea, 24-hour room service, welcome cocktail party, free wifi, all on-board gratuities, porterage, free shuttle bus to nearest town centre (whenever possible and when the ship is berthed more than 500 yards away), optional travel insurance and additional cancellation rights, or a discount if passenger has own insurance.
I'm Gilly, award winning journalist, travel writer and 12 x author. I'm published in national and regional papers / magazines.