Too hip or just right? Here's what it was really like sailing on Virgin Voyages for the first time
With a nighttime show called "Never Sleep Alone" that awards golden condoms to participants, an onboard tattoo parlor and in-room music and lighting settings with options like "get it on" and "hangover mode," adults-only Virgin Voyages clearly caters to a kid-free crowd. Still, I had no idea what to expect as I stepped onto Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady.
Leading up to its maiden voyage in 2021, Virgin Voyages marketed itself as the cruise line for vacationers who otherwise weren't interested in traditional cruising. It aimed to appeal to those who were young and hip, wanted to party and craved an atmosphere without little kids running around.
Up until recently, I'd only ever sailed with Disney Cruise Line — and with my kids in tow. However, the Virgin Voyages concept has intrigued me since it launched.
Could Richard Branson's edgy Virgin Voyages truly be a perfect match for trips without kids? Or, would I feel completely out of place and overwhelmed by the rock star attitude featured throughout the cruise line's ships?
There was only one way to satisfy my curiosity — I booked a sailing on Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady.
Would the four-night cruise from Miami, with stops in both Key West, Florida, and Bimini, Bahamas, impress me enough to consider Virgin Voyages for future trips? Here's what I took away from the experience — and whether I'd cruise with Virgin Voyages again.
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There's a surprisingly diverse crowd on board
Like many people, I went into my cruise expecting most passengers (or "sailors," as the line calls them) to be millennials based on the flashy marketing I've seen from the line. Much to my surprise, though, there was a fair mix of people on my sailing.
Sure, there were millennials in their late 20s, 30s and even early 40s — including me, as I fall within the oldest bracket for that generation — but for every 27-year-old on board, there was also someone close to 70 years old like the cruise line's founder, Richard Branson.
Last year, Tom McAlpin, the president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, told TPG's resident cruise expert Gene Sloan that on early sailings of Scarlet Lady, the average passenger age was in the 50s, with plenty on board in their 60s and 70s. Based on my trip, I'd say that is still a pretty accurate representation.
After a few days on board, it became clear that what passengers had in common wasn't the age listed in their passports but rather the shared desire to have a good time. For the most part, my fellow cruisers were a diverse, inclusive and vibrant group of vacationers who were all eager to strike up conversations with others, regardless of age.
Related: First look: 10 things I love about Virgin Voyages' new Valiant Lady cruise ship
The adult-oriented persona isn't as extreme as you might expect
While there is a "Scarlet Night" celebration featuring lots of red lights and sailors donning their best scarlet-colored attire, the atmosphere on board is far from what you'll find in Amsterdam's Red Light District.
The entertainment we experienced fell somewhere between PG-13 and R, though we admittedly headed to bed by 11 p.m., so perhaps offerings leaned more X-rated as the night went on.
There were a couple of shows that I wouldn't want to see with, say, my parents, such as the previously mentioned "Never Sleep Alone." During that event, participants were awarded golden condoms that granted access to a post-show VIP party. However, those adult activities were easy to spot on the agenda, so you could easily skip them if you wanted a more tame cruise experience.
Beyond the evening entertainment, the vibe was similar to what you'd find in Las Vegas. The pools, restaurants, spa, casino and exercise classes all featured plenty of skimpy outfits and adult-oriented jokes and innuendos, though you could avoid anything that was too outside your comfort zone.
Related: 5 cruise lines to try if you just can't stand being around kids on vacation
Dining options are plentiful (albeit hit or miss)
As far as I'm concerned, cruises are for eating — and Virgin Voyages offers numerous places to dine on Scarlet Lady.
In addition to featuring more than 20 grab-and-go spots and traditional sit-down eateries, there's the large Galley venue with various vendors arranged in a way similar to what you'd find in a food court or buffet.
Given all the options available, there were more places than we could try on our first Virgin Voyages cruise. Still, we sought to sample as much as possible during our four-night sailing.
If you're looking for a traditional sit-down experience, six onboard restaurants accept reservations for dinner: The Wake (which serves steaks and seafood), Razzle Dazzle Restaurant (a contemporary venue with vegetarian and American fare), The Test Kitchen (a laboratory-style eatery), Pink Agave (where gourmet Mexican cuisine is on the menu), Extra Virgin (an Italian-inspired venue) and Gunbae (which specializes in Korean barbecue).
Your cruise price covers dining at all of these spots, plus the quick bite options on the ship. However, some restaurants offer buy-up options labeled as "treat yourself" dishes that cost extra. For example, a half-dozen oysters at The Wake are going to set you back an additional $20, but the steak and clam chowder are 100% included.
Besides the main restaurants, there's the previously mentioned Galley, where you can savor everything from sushi roll bento boxes to 24-hour diner food. It is a hybrid of a grab-and-go and dine-in experience, meaning how you order will vary depending on which station you visit.
Additionally, you'll find casual spots that serve ice cream, pizza, poke bowls and more. You can also order room service; the food is complimentary, but there's a $5 delivery fee.
While I appreciated the array of options at our disposal, I found the quality of the food and service to be hit or miss. Some restaurants I loved so much that I went back a second time; at others, I took a solitary bite of food before deciding to move on.
For example, the tuna poke bowl I excitedly tried at the Sun Club Cafe was patently awful, and the sushi rolls at The Galley were disappointing, reminding me of what I'd find in my Texas grocery store.
Similarly, The Wake was lackluster, to say the least. While some fellow cruisers we met enjoyed the restaurant, it was extremely underwhelming during our visit, serving the worst shrimp and grits I've ever had. Not to mention, the service was slow and seafood options were surprisingly limited for a restaurant that claims to specialize in steak and seafood.
It wasn't all mediocre, though.
Gunbae's Korean fare was not only delicious but served in a setting that was an absolute blast to experience. It really captured how Virgin markets itself by offering staff-led drinking games and communal seating that encourages socializing. We had such a great time there that when we walked into a quiet and sparsely populated restaurant on our last night, we turned around and went back to Gunbae for a repeat experience that was just as memorable as our first visit.
Pink Agave was another standout restaurant. It didn't offer as much of a party vibe as Gunbae, but it still felt lively and served a solid selection of Mexican dishes.
Related: Cruise ship restaurant nirvana: The 9 best meals you can have at sea
The cabins are decent but could be improved
Unless you splurge on a pricy RockStar suite, you'll be placed in a cabin that looks modern but otherwise seems fairly standard, other than the fancy mood lighting.
Our Sea Terrace cabin was spotless and stayed true to the modern theme featured throughout the ship, but it wasn't the most comfortable spot on the whole.
While we enjoyed the red outdoor hammock that was shockingly comfortable and not merely a cute, Instagram-worthy gimmick, as well as the selection of in-room movies, which ranged from the original "Top Gun" to newer releases like "Elvis," the rest of the cabin left a lot to be desired.
The bathroom was quite small, to the point where it bordered on being a claustrophobic experience.
The bed was also rather hard and uncomfortable for my personal tastes, so much so that by the last night of our trip, I was ready to return to my more inviting setup at home.
Additionally, unlike Disney Cruise Line, where cabin attendants make it a point to get to know you and your preferences, Virgin Voyages lacked the same personalized service. I never interacted with a person in charge of our cabin, as it would be serviced while we were out (after pushing a button that sent the request to the crew) by a person that, to us, remained nameless and faceless.
Related: Virgin Voyages to debut cruise loyalty program in 2023, with temporary perks available now
The private beach club is top-notch
While other ports of call vary based on the sailing, a constant for Scarlet Lady is a stop at its private beach club in the Bahamas.
Situated on the island of Bimini, this spot was, in a word, fabulous.
Although it's not quite a private island like Royal Caribbean's CocoCay and Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay, that doesn't really matter. You'll feel like you're in an exclusive setting after taking the open-air tram from the ship's dock to the modern, beautiful beach club.
The club offers a couple of large pools, ample lounge chairs and towels, plenty of bars and a picture-perfect beach. A swim-up bar would have been nice, but that's being picky.
During your visit to the club, any drinks you order are charged to the ship, so bar tab credits you have during your cruise will work here, too. The food, which ranged from snapper steamed in a banana leaf to a salad featuring Bahamian mango and macadamia, is included, though some dishes were better than others. I loved mixing the curry, rice and snapper I ordered all together to create a pretty tasty bowl.
On-island entertainment is available as well, though I can't speak to what happened as the afternoon wore on, as we hit our sun quota by midday. However, rumor has it there was a pool float party that occurred after our departure.
Related: Virgin Voyages hopes to draw cruise newbies like me: Here's my first impression from its first sailing
You won't find the usual cruise experience on board
Virgin Voyages does not simply give its amenities and activities quirky names — like "Lick Me Til Ice Cream" for the onboard ice cream shop. The overall experience is a bit different than what you'll come across on traditional cruise lines.
To start, there are no drink packages — and that was a big complaint I heard on the ship from folks who were used to sailing with other lines that offer unlimited drink inclusion options. Instead, Virgin Voyages offers a bar tab that you can load before you sail. Sometimes bar tab credit is also included with the sailing as part of a promotion.
Blessedly, there are no keycards and associated lanyards to keep up with but rather adjustable bracelets that look like friendship bracelets from middle school. Unlike the ones from your childhood, these have built-in technology that opens your cabin door, allows you to charge things to your account and more.
There are also no set dining times, restaurant rotations or dress codes, though you can — and should — make dinner reservations. As a result, you can dine at whichever restaurant you prefer at a time that works for you.
Other than the cabin cleanings, the crew was more noticeable, too. We saw crew members on the basketball courts, eating in The Galley and just generally out and about around the ship even when they didn't appear to be on the clock, which helped create a more relaxed atmosphere.
Additionally, we didn't have to worry about extra tips, taxes or fees. Tips for the crew, spa services and more are factored into your cruise price, so what you see on the menu really is what you can expect to pay.
Another noticeable (and welcome) difference was how laid-back the line was with announcements and disembarking. Outside of a welcome announcement from the captain on the first day, we didn't hear another peep. On the last day, you just had to be off the ship by a respectable 10:45 a.m., so you could still go to a workout class, play some air hockey and have brunch without feeling rushed to depart.
Related: 21 tips and tricks that will make your first cruise go smoothly
Despite some underwhelming aspects here and there, such as some design choices we didn't love and a very crowded pool area, we had a great time.
The late-night spicy ramen, social atmosphere and fun ports more than made up for any hiccups. For us, it was like a four-day long party without the hangover.
In fact, we had such a great time that before disembarking Scarlet Lady, we put a $300 deposit down on a future Virgin Voyages sailing so we could receive $900 in discounts and credits the next time around.
It's safe to say that overall, the cruise was absolutely worth it — and one we can't wait to do all over again.
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