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'm Gilly, award winning journalist, travel writer and author of 12 books. Published credits include the Telegraph, Daily Mail, CNN, Independent, Daily Express, BBC magazines, Town & Country House, The Scotsman, The Sun, Lonely Planet, Sunday Times cruise, Selling Travel, Cruise Trade News, Cruise Critic, etc