I’ve been on more than 150 cruise ships; here are my first impressions of Scarlet Lady, the first-ever Virgin Voyages vessel
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I expected to hate it. I really did.
It turns out that this flashy new brand, which initially filled its marketing messages with so many images of the young and the hip that some people thought it was just for millennials, might be the perfect cruise line for someone like me: A somewhat balding, 52-year-old father of three who is starting to look back wistfully at the fun of his younger, more carefree days.
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I’m not sure what that says about Virgin Voyages’ prospects. It may not be what they want to hear. If too many people like me start booking Scarlet Lady, the line’s chances of drawing twentysomethings and thirtysomethings may be lost forever.
But maybe this is all part of the plan. People my age do have more money to spend than the youngsters.
The allure of Scarlet Lady
Designed as a no-kids zone, Scarlet Lady is filled with stylish, adult-oriented nightspots and bars promising a hopping scene late into the night as well as such hipster venues as a tattoo parlor and a colorful karaoke lounge. There’s onboard entertainment that is innovative and sometimes edgy in a way that you don’t normally see on cruise ships. There’s staff that are there in part to encourage you to let loose a little — or a lot.
In short, it feels like the sort of cruise ship that young people would want to sail on, even if, in the end, it doesn’t draw as many young people as some might have expected (early word is the average booker is in her or his 50s). And that may be what makes it the perfect ship for somewhat older people like me who miss the wilder and crazier days of their youth.
If we can’t be young again, at least we can pretend for a few days, right?
I expected to hate Scarlet Lady in part because of the way it was initially marketed, as a place for the young and the hip and the beautiful. That clearly isn’t me.
I also was put off a bit by Virgin Voyages’ “we know better” attitude toward cruising. It has been a cruise company that has talked itself up at times in the lead-up to Scarlet Lady’s launch by pooh-poohing the things that other cruise companies do. This seemed suspect to me given how incredibly successful these other cruise companies have been.
Could Virgin Voyages and its backers at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group really know better?
Now that I have been on board Scarlet Lady for a few days, I am starting to think that maybe, in a few areas at least, they do.
Here, some of my first impressions of the vessel, which is on its maiden voyage out of Miami (I will post more of my initial thoughts on the experience in the coming days):
It’s a ship for adults like no other
It’s taken me a few days to fully appreciate what a difference it makes that this is an adults-only cruise vessel — one where nobody under the age of 18 is allowed on board.
The fact that there are no kids on board means Virgin Voyages can offer a far more adult array of entertainment from one end of Scarlet Lady to the other than you’ll find on the ships of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and other big cruise brands, even during the daytime, and even in public areas such as around the pool. The line even can be a little naughty.
A couple of days ago, during an impromptu wedding event at the base of the swirling staircase in the center of the ship, an emcee loudly quizzed one of the two women getting married about their favorite sexual positions, much to the delight of the crowd of passengers looking on. You probably wouldn’t see that on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
Naughty sex talk also was the theme of a one-woman cabaret show called Never Sleep Alone that took place last night in the ship’s The Manor nightclub (transformed into a cabaret lounge). Raunchy and heavy on audience participation, it involved “resident sexologist” Alex Schiller, who claimed to have slept with more than 4,000 people, offering up tips on how to make sure you’re never lacking for a partner in bed at night.
In a playful hint at what we were supposed to do with the information, there were condoms on every table in the room for us to take away. And just to sexy it up a little more, Schiller (who some may know from her sex-focused podcast, also called Never Sleep Alone) stripped down to her bustier and stockings at the end of the show.
The kicker here is that I was watching this performance at 8 p.m., before I even had gone to dinner (there was another showing at 10:30 p.m.). This is a time when pretty much every other big ship at sea is running PG-rated entertainment in its showrooms to cater to a family crowd.
Virgin Voyages isn’t the first cruise line to tout adult-focused ships where no kids are allowed. A handful of other lines such as Viking and the U.K.’s Saga Cruises have similar no-kids policies. But those lines offer a more traditional cruise experience aimed at older travelers. They are lines for sixtysomething and seventysomething retirees looking for late-in-life “enrichment” in the form of onboard lectures and educational touring in ports.
As you can see from the image above, Virgin Voyages is offering a whole new type of adult cruise.
The entertainment sets a new bar
Virgin Voyages promised to shake things up when it comes to cruise ship entertainment, and — in my opinion, at least — it has delivered. Big time. The entertainment that you’ll see on Scarlet Lady is edgy and experimental and really pushes the boundaries of what entertainment at sea can be — and not just because it includes a sex-themed show with a “resident sexologist.”
For starters, the line has done away with the traditional, Broadway-style theater with rows of fixed seats that you’ll find on most big cruise vessels as well as the traditional, Broadway-style shows and Las Vegas-style musical reviews that you’ll typically find playing in them. In its place is a soaring, box-like entertainment space called the Red Room that can transform into all sorts of configurations to allow for different types of unusual performances.
The Red Room, notably, is home to what is surely the most avant-garde “show” ever on a cruise ship — an energetic, dance party-meets-performance extravaganza called UNTITLED DANCESHOWPARTYTHING. Created by the well-known choreographers Sam Pinkleton and Ani Taj, it takes place in the Red Room configured as a flat dance floor, with a rolling stage in the middle and several other platforms on which dancers perform and interact as showgoers stand on the dance floor around them. The music is blasting, and the walls are lined with video screens projecting an ever-changing kaleidoscope of often incongruous images, including a giant cat head that exclaims “don’t be an a**hole” to the crowd as assistants push the stage around the room, ushering showgoers out of the way. At times, the dancers encourage the crowd to join in with the dancing, and many do.
The line has described the show as “a hype music video disguised as an absurdist style dance party,” and that pretty much sums it up. I absolutely loved it.
Reconfigured to have two rows of stadium seating with a performance area in the middle, the Red Room hosts another wowzer of a show called Duel Reality that is a modern take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” told through highly choreographed, music-infused acrobatics.
Other entertainment on board is more subtle but no less avante-garde. Throughout this sailing, small groups of performers have appeared as if out of nowhere in lounges and bars to perform short “micro plays” lasting just a few minutes before disappearing. I was sitting in Sip, the ship’s Champagne bar, a few nights ago with my TPG colleague Madison Blancaflor (stay tuned for her take on Scarlet Lady in the next few days) when a seemingly crazed man wearing a poncho and carrying an umbrella began asking me if I had “seen her.” He then launched into a tale that I think was about some sort of rogue sailing ship of old.
Madison and I were both so stunned by this odd intrusion into our otherwise quiet conversation that neither of us really caught what he was talking about. But in retrospect, it was kind of delightful (at least for me. Madison seems to still be a bit traumatized by the whole experience).
The entertainment on Scarlet Lady also includes a lot of party-like events such as the everyone-wear-red-and-be-prepared-to-dance Scarlet Night Pool Party that happens on the second night of this itinerary. There are performers dancing on the pool deck and part-way through the event, they encourage passengers to jump into the water with them.
There also is nightly dancing in the ship’s two-story-high nightclub, The Manor.
In general, it’s a ship where there’s always a party going on somewhere at night, and there’s always music playing in almost every venue, even in places where it probably shouldn’t be (often at a sound level several twists of the speaker dial too high — at least for a 52-year-old like me; by the time you get to my age, you like to actually be able to hear the people with whom you’re talking in bars and restaurants).
The dining sets a new bar, too
The days of cruise ships having one big main dining room where everybody on board eats in fixed seatings is long gone. These days, you’ll find a wide choice of restaurants on most big cruise vessels, and even smaller vessels offer at least a few choices.
But the idea of a main dining room hasn’t completely disappeared from the cruise world. On many ships, even when there are a lot of restaurant choices, there still is one or more “main” restaurants that is notably bigger than all the rest and where you will eat the bulk of your meals.
Often, these big main dining rooms are included in the fare, whereas the smaller “specialty” restaurants, which typically offer a more intimate and upscale experience, come with an extra charge.
Virgin Voyages has done away with this sort of main vs. specialty restaurant arrangement completely on Scarlet Lady. There really is no main dining room on the ship. There is no default place where you will eat on most nights. Like a resort on land, Scarlet Lady is home to an array of eateries, none notably bigger than another, and there is no differentiation between “included eateries” and extra-charge venues.
The cost of going to any of the restaurants on Scarlet Lady is the same: nothing.
My take on this is one word: finally. Longtime cruisers are accustomed to the idea of the main dining rooms vs. specialty restaurants split on cruise ships. But to anyone who isn’t a regular cruiser, it can just feel weird — and outdated. I suspect it’s a major hurdle for many non-cruisers (still the majority of Americans) to give cruising a try.
Virgin Voyages hypes the fact that it has more than 20 eateries on Scarlet Lady. But the reality is there are just six restaurants. The line gets to the higher number in part by counting all of the many separate food stations at Scarlet Lady’s buffet-like food court. There are about a dozen of these stations, depending on how you count them.
But six restaurants for a ship the size of Scarlet Lady still is impressive (at 110,000 tons, Scarlet Lady isn’t nearly as big as the biggest ships from some other lines).
I’ve tried four of the six eateries so far, and I’ve enjoyed them all, even if I quibbled a bit about the quality of a ‘secret,’ off-menu steak that is available at one of them.
I particularly loved Gunbae, a Korean barbecue eatery with circular tables built around specially engineered flameless grills where servers cook Korean-style seafood and meat in front of you. These same servers also lead you in Korean drinking games (the first round of shots of Korean soju is on them).
I also was impressed with the pasta dishes at Extra Virgin, the ship’s Italian eatery. I ordered a side of carbonara to accompany my main course, a porcini-rubbed New York Strip steak, just to test it. I was pleasantly surprised to see the dish was made with bucatini, the long, narrow tube-like pasta that is considered proper for carbonara but often isn’t used at Italian restaurants.
The pasta, notably, is hand-made on site.
It’s inclusive in a wonderful way
The fact that none of the restaurants mentioned above come with a charge is a big deal.
There are $2,000-a-night luxury ships such as Crystal Cruises‘ new Crystal Endeavor that include the cost of dining in all of their restaurants in their fares. But you don’t see this sort of thing on the bigger ships operated by the likes of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.
And it’s not just the restaurants that are included in the fare on Scarlet Lady. So are gratuities for the ship’s staff, a line item that can cost $15 a day per person or more on many lines, and onboard Wi-Fi (for a basic Wi-Fi connection that is relatively slow; a faster connection on this sailing came with a $40 per person, per cruise upcharge ).
In addition, a wide array of wellness classes, including spin classes and yoga classes, are included in the fare. That’s not something you see on many lines.
A common complaint about Virgin Voyages that I have heard from cruising regulars over the past year as it has prepared to debut is that its pricing is too high. And, indeed, it’s not an inexpensive line. The starting rate for four-night Scarlet Lady sailings out of Miami over the coming months is $650 per person. That’s more than four times as much as the $151 per person starting rate you’ll find for some four-night sailings out of Miami on what many cruisers consider the port city’s best short-haul ship: Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.
But you’ll pay a lot more in “extras” if sailing on Freedom of the Seas, where specialty restaurants, gratuities and Wi-Fi are not included in the fare.
I’m not blown away by everything that I am encountering on Scarlet Lady. While much of the ship is well-designed, with stylish, contemporary spaces, there are a few areas that are so minimalist as to appear almost unfinished. The elevator hallways, in particular, are so plain, unadorned and brightly lit that they give off the air of a hospital ward. There also is a noticeable lack of signage around the ship, to the point that it took me two days to discover one tucked-away bar called The Loose Cannon. Virgin Voyages’ app isn’t much help when it comes to getting you around, either (nor is it particularly intuitive).
But, for the most part, I am impressed by what I am seeing on Scarlet Lady — and that’s coming from someone who has sailed on more than 150 different ships during 20-plus years of writing about cruising. Virgin Voyages clearly has spent a lot of time rethinking what a cruise can be, and it has come up with some wonderful new ways of doing things.
That doesn’t mean that I’m sure Virgin Voyages is going to be a success. It’s possible that, despite the line’s best efforts, the ship is still not cool enough for the young and the hip crowd that some have thought would be its natural market. Maybe no cruise ship can be. It also may be too pricey for a younger crowd. At the same time, Scarlet Lady may turn out to be just a tad too cool for many people in my generation, even for those of us looking to have some fun.
It’s a fine line that Virgin Voyages is trying to walk. Whether it’s a hit with the younger generations, older generations, both groups of people, or none at all, remains to be seen.
Gene Sloan is part of a three-person team from TPG and sister brand Lonely Planet reporting live this week from Scarlet Lady’s maiden voyage out of Miami. You can find all of his dispatches on his author’s page.
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Featured image of courtesy of Virgin Voyages.
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