Virgin Voyages says it’s too cool for buffets. But guess what I just found on its first ship

Oct 8, 2021

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Clearly, I am on the wrong ship.

As I write this, I am sitting in a sprawling, casual food court at the top of a cruise vessel that looks suspiciously similar to a cruise ship buffet.

But if I’m on the ship that I think I am, that can’t be.

The ship I think I am on right now, the new Virgin Voyages vessel Scarlet Lady, doesn’t have a buffet. Or so the line says.

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As part of trying to shake up the cruise industry by doing things in a new way, Virgin Voyages decided to eschew buffets as well as dress codes, big theater production shows and other staples of the cruise experience that have long had some non-cruisers rolling their eyes at the idea of ever stepping foot on a cruise vessel.

Except that, here I am, on the line’s maiden voyage out of Miami, in this cruise ship buffet-like space.

It’s called The Galley, and it’s filled with lots of tables and chairs and lots of food stations — just like you’d find in a cruise ship buffet. It’s located just behind the ship’s main pool area, where the buffet typically can be found on cruise ships. It’s a place where you seat yourself wherever you want and eat quickly before getting back to the fun onboard, just like at a typical cruise ship buffet.

The Galley on Scarlet Lady is a large food court-like space with multiple food stations and lots of seating. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

To be sure, The Galley isn’t quite the same as the traditional cruise ship buffet. There are no carry-your-giant-plate-down-the-line areas where a tub full of Italian spaghetti with meatballs sits incongruously next to a tub full of Indian chicken tikka masala.

But in its mix of food stations — serving everything from Asian noodles and paninis to sushi and hamburgers — it reminds me a lot of the food station-style buffets that have become more common in recent years on the vessels of such lines as Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line.

RELATED: You can order a ‘secret’ steak on Scarlet Lady

Reorganizing cruise ship buffets around separate food stations dedicated to specific cuisines isn’t a new idea. You’ll find individual food stations at Carnival buffets for (made-to-order) wok-cooked Asian dishes and Indian cuisine, for instance, and Carnival’s ships also offer separate burger and burrito stations around the pool deck that are essentially extensions of the buffet area.

A food station called Diner & Dash at The Galley on Scarlet Lady serves all-day breakfast. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

What Virgin Voyages has done here is taken the idea of breaking up the buffet area with a few specialized food stations to its logical conclusion by doing away with the run-the-line mixed dishes areas completely. All the food available in The Galley is split between one of 10 separate food stations dedicated to specific cuisines or types of items (12 if you count a standalone popsicle stand in the middle of the space and a dedicated coffee bar).

One big difference with The Galley as compared to a typical cruise ship buffet — at least for now — is that much of the food is delivered to your seat. You don’t wander around with a tray picking out what you want at the different stations.

A food station at The Galley called The Sweet Side serves a mix of desserts. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
Drink stations at The Galley are self-serve, as is typical at cruise ship buffets. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

There are some items that are grab-and-go, including the sushi, from a station called Bento Baby (the sushi is individually packaged to grab at the sushi station), and wraps and salads in two grab-and-go areas on each side of The Galley that each are called Quickeze.

Nonalcoholic drinks also are self-serve from multiple hot and cold drinks stations. There also is a self-serve alcohol station where you can tap a Virgin Voyages-issue wristband to get wine or beer by the glass (for an extra charge).

But, for the most part, the way The Galley is working right now is that you first look around at all the stations to see what’s on offer, and then you place an order with one of the roving order takers. You also will find a querty code at every table that will let you pull up a menu of everything that’s available at all the stations on your mobile device to help with your ordering (though, sadly, you can’t order through your mobile phone).

RELATED: Why you’ve got it all wrong if you think Virgin Voyages is just for millennials 

Within a couple of minutes of placing an order, someone brings your items over to your table.

I’m told this table service is a temporary feature of The Galley that was implemented for safety reasons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may not be for the long term. Eventually, you likely will grab all of your items yourself at the stations, just like at a typical cruise ship buffet.

TPG’s Gene Sloan bites down on a cheeseburger at The Galley. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

But for now, at least, your food in The Galley is mostly being delivered to your table. That means that Virgin Voyages does have an argument for the time being in saying it isn’t a buffet, which by definition is a food venue where diners serve themselves. I will give Virgin Voyages that.

But as Shakespeare pointed out, a rose given another name is still a rose. What I’m seeing here at The Galley as I quickly scarf down a cheeseburger and fries ordered up from the burger station (dubbed the Burger Bar), with a coffee that I grabbed separately from the self-serve drink stand, is something that looks very similar to what you’ll find in the buffet space on countless cruise vessels.

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 at his author’s page.

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Featured image of courtesy of Virgin Voyages. 

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