Virgin Voyages hopes to draw cruise newbies like me: Here's my first impression from its first sailing
I joined our principal cruise writer Gene Sloan on the "MerMaiden Voyage" of Scarlet Lady, the long-awaited first official sailing from Virgin Voyages — and my experience surprised me.
For background, I'm by no means a cruise expert. Before this trip, I'd only ever been on one cruise (a four-night Carnival cruise to Mexico when I was 17). Considering I've not gone anywhere near a cruise ship in the almost decade since that trip, I think you can guess how much I enjoyed myself.
However, when the opportunity came up to check out Virgin Voyages, I was intrigued. The cruise had been marketed as sort of the "anti-cruise." It's adults-only, with fun dining venues and unique entertainment. There's even a tattoo parlor onboard.
My initial impression of the ship (and the overall experience) shifted throughout the days I spent onboard. I'm a cruise newbie, so I don't have a lot to compare the ship to in terms of service, dining options or price. As such, here are my thoughts on the U.S.'s newest cruise line, Virgin Voyages.
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'Cool mom' complex
From the moment I stepped into the dock, it was very clear Virgin Voyages was trying extremely hard to be cool and edgy ... to the point of some things being just a bit on the "cringey" side.
The music in the building where you awaited your COVID-19 test results (Virgin Voyages tests all passengers before they board Scarlet Lady — a great touch that not every cruise line is doing) was blaring.
And I'm saying that as a 26-year-old who straddles the line between Millennial and Gen Z. The music and bass in that building was enough to make me feel hungover without ever taking a sip of alcohol.
There were women in mermaid costumes set up for photo ops. The costumes? Exquisite. The cast members? Wonderful. But my first introduction to the cruise being blaring music and 70-year-old men taking photos with scantily-clad young "mermaids" in front of the Virgin Voyages branded sign didn't exactly hype me up for the next four days. And don't even get me started on the full-on rocker musical production that was the safety briefing.
Onboard, there were sexual innuendos everywhere. Drink stations had "tap that — hot" and "tap that — cold" branding. The ice cream parlor is named Lick Me 'Til Ice Cream. The rooms have a mood lighting setting labeled Get It On. The on-board medical clinic advertises free condoms 24/7 on its door.
I get it — they were going for a "this isn't your mother's cruise ship" vibe. However, as someone who is in the demographic that it seems like they were trying to target early on, it just felt like they were trying to be the cool mom from "Mean Girls." Cool moms are great ... but they are still your parent at the end of the day.
But a surprisingly fun experience
Needless to say, my expectations about how much fun I was going to have on this ship dropped dramatically the first hour or so I was on board. In fact, I'd typed up a pretty scathing first impressions draft my first night on the ship before deciding to wait until the end of the cruise to give my full opinion — and I'm so glad I did.
Yes, Virgin Voyages is nothing if not Extra™ (I mean, did we expect anything less from Richard Branson?). But there is a lot of potential for this to be a great cruise for the younger crowd, who typically don't choose to spend our limited travel funds on this type of vacation.
There were a few things that missed the mark for me, but there was also a lot to love about my experience onboard.
What I loved about the cruise
I won't dig into every single thing I loved about the cruise (and I'm doing a deeper dive into the best activities onboard in another story), but there were a few aspects of this cruise that impressed me:
Rather than a traditional buffet or main dining hall (which is what I remember from my last cruise in 2013), there are a number of unique restaurants, bars, lounges and quick-service dining options — more in line with what you'd see at an all-inclusive resort. All dining is covered with your voyage ticket, with the exception of alcoholic drinks, specialty coffees (no free iced lattes on the high seas for me) and a few specific top-dollar food items.
Top spots for me included Gunbae (a Korean BBQ spot) and Pink Agave (the Mexican restaurant onboard). But even the restaurants that weren't my favorite (Test Kitchen and The Wake) were still decent and definitely worth checking out if you can while onboard.
Additionally, the room service was better than I've ever had at a hotel. It comes in a cute branded sailor's bag in stackable containers. Everything I ordered was delivered hot and well-prepared.
Related: You can order a ‘secret’ steak at the vegetarian restaurant on the new Virgin Voyages ship — but don’t
While the bed wasn't the most comfortable I've ever slept on, my XL Sea Terrace cabin was great overall. The bed can be converted into a couch during the day to give you more space; there's a small desk and vanity area; still and sparkling water is replaced daily by room service; and each cabin is outfitted with an iPad to make controlling lighting and the TV easier. The shower had excellent water pressure, and the bathroom had plenty of counter space.
While it wasn't overly spacious compared to many resort restrooms, I imagine it was quite roomy for a typical cruise. From what I remember of the small inside cabin I stayed in on a Carnival cruise back in 2013, it was definitely cramped. This cabin was comparable to a standard hotel room.
It's clear that Virgin Voyages was going for unique entertainment options when crafting the cruise lineup — and they certainly succeeded. Think: An arcade area with classics such as PacMan and Pinball, a pub where trivia nights were held, a bookable pub crawl one night onboard, a dance party performance ... even an interactive show featuring a "sexologist."
And even the more "standard" cruise entertainment options such as the gym area, pool and casino were more enjoyable in an adults-only setting. No waterslides taking up room on the pool deck, no screaming kids hogging the basketball court, no kids running through the casino with parents chasing after them.
While not part of this maiden voyage, there will also eventually be drag show brunch event onboard — a performance I'm very sad to have missed.
Was every entertainment option a knock-out? No. And to be fair, as a New Yorker, I could experience similar shows and parties in the city without paying close to $2,000 (the cost for me to sail on this four-night voyage). But even as a cruise newbie, it was clear that the entertainment options onboard were innovative. Plus, they were fun to attend with the new friends I made while onboard.
I actually got to meet and interact with a fair number of the entertainment cast that was onboard. Rather than being nameless faces that you see on stage once or twice, you might hang out with them poolside while they have on mermaid or merman fins. You could dance with them at The Manor (the nightclub onboard). You could run into them at the Beach Club at Bimini before the bonfire.
I don't know if that's standard for a cruise or not, but it felt very cool to me. It made for a more intimate experience where I felt more invested in the performances because I had actually met some of the people on stage.
It's clear Virgin Voyages set out with the intention of being a sustainable cruise line.
The line is carbon neutral for direct emissions, design choices on board the ship were made to minimize its carbon footprint, no single-use plastics were on board the ship and more.
Most of the sustainability processes were subtle (reusable to-go cups for my morning coffee, for example), but effective. And as someone who cares a great deal about climate change and sustainable travel, the thoughtfulness that went into making Virgin Voyages more sustainable as a brand is greatly appreciated.
The service was phenomenal. Every single crew member I interacted with was friendly and helpful — whether it was helping me find a certain location, assisting with booking a reservation or event, delivering room service, housekeeping and more.
My first night onboard the ship, I had dinner reservations at Pink Agave. My phone was on 1% battery, and I just knew it was going to die on me before I could take photos of my meal. I asked the hostess at check-in for my reservation if I could be seated by an outlet if available (they were everywhere onboard the ship for easy charging on the go — another small detail I was impressed with).
While they didn't have any tables near an outlet at the restaurant, the hostess offered to plug in my phone to her computer so it could charge up while I ordered drinks and perused the menu so that my phone wouldn't die. I was blown away.
And that's not the only time a crew member went the extra mile to make the cruise a great experience. I was truly impressed with the level of service onboard.
What I wished was different
While there was a lot I enjoyed about this cruise, it wasn't all smooth sailing (pun most definitely intended). This is Virgin Voyages' first sailing, and there are still some kinks they need to work out.
Here are a few aspects of the cruise that missed the mark for me:
Safety briefing production
Rather than forcing everyone to go through a full drill on day one, there was a short muster drill check-in at my designated meeting spot and a safety video to watch either on the app or in the TV in the room.
It was a great concept (no one likes a long, drawn-out safety drill, and this format is a solid alternative), but the actual production was just a little hard to watch. The performers were talented, but I felt like I was watching a number from Camp Rock.
Surprise micro performances
At one point during the cruise, I was having drinks at one of the bars on board when a random man dressed in a poncho ran (yes, ran) up to us and asked if I'd "heard her singing." I was caught off-guard and quite unsure how to react, so I just awkwardly shook my head. The man then proceeded to launch into a story about a night he spent on the ocean (and a couple of crew members popped out to help with some effects).
It took me longer than it probably should have to realize that this was a planned performance, and we weren't being accosted by a random drunken stranger à la the NYC subway at 2 a.m.
Virgin Voyages was clearly trying to be a tech-focused cruise. The events itineraries were really only readily available on the app, each room was outfitted with a tablet, a bracelet acted as your mobile wallet and room key, you could grab a self-serve beer or wine with your bracelet 24/7 ... and the list goes on.
However, if you're going to rely heavily on technology such as an app or a bracelet fob, those things have to work seamlessly to provide a great experience. My bracelet didn't work part of the time (thankfully crew members were able to jot down my room number to charge drinks or services to when the bracelet wouldn't work), the Wi-Fi was very slow (even though I bought the faster Wi-Fi package for an additional $40) and the app was finicky at best.
In theory, I loved the bracelet fobs, the app and the tablet in the room. But in practice, they made some aspects of the cruise harder to navigate because of hiccups that still need to be worked out.
Related: How fast is the internet on Scarlet Lady? We put it to the test
All of the upcharges
Booking a Virgin Voyages cruise is expensive as it is, but one of the supposed value-props is that it's supposed to lean toward all-inclusive. Meals (and basic drinks like water or soda), one of the Wi-Fi options and gratuity are all included.
However, there are a lot of upcharges that don't make sense to me for a cruise that already costs so much money.
There are no drink packages, which means every beer, wine or cocktail you drink must be purchased as-is. That's easily $8–$18 a pop, which adds up quickly on a cruise designed to provide a space for adults to let go and have fun without fear or judgment. Plus, specialty coffees are also not included. I had to pay Starbucks prices for my morning iced coffee kick. Not the end of the world, but definitely a turnoff considering the overall price of the cruise.
Related: Bubbly, please: You can order Champagne anywhere onboard this cruise by shaking your phone
Additionally, the spa area is an additional $70 per day — even if you purchase a separate spa treatment. So even though I purchased a nearly $200 spa treatment, I would have had to pay an additional $70 to spend any time in the broader spa area. I would have loved to try out the sauna, but I couldn't without shelling out more cash.
Sold out reservations and activities
There was a great lineup of restaurants, events, excursions and workout classes to choose from — but almost all of those bookable events were sold out the moment I stepped onto the ship (and I had an earlier boarding time).
For example, I'd been looking forward to trying out the bungee fitness class. However, there were only two classes offered, and both were sold out by the time I was checked in and able to board (and you had to wait until you were onboard before booking any workout classes).
Dining reservations and event tickets were also incredibly hard to come by — despite the fact that the ship wasn't selling cabins at full capacity for its maiden voyage. I shudder to consider how quickly everything would sell out if the ship was at full capacity.
Would I go on another Virgin Voyages cruise?
If you would have asked me that after the first night of the cruise, I would have said: "definitely not." In fact, Gene asked me that on our second night before dinner, and that was the first thing out of my mouth.
But after experiencing more of what the ship has to offer over the course of the last week, my tune changed. If I could find a great group of friends to go with me, I would definitely book this cruise again (or one of the future Virgin Voyages itineraries).
No, it wasn't the perfect trip. In my personal opinion, it's a bit pricey for what you get and there are definitely some communication and tech issues the brand needs to tweak.
But I did have a good time overall, and I met new people with who I plan on staying connected long after disembarking from the ship. I'd give this itinerary a solid 7/10.
Give it time before booking
As with any new product or service, it will take some time for kinks to be worked out and for the brand to truly hit its stride. I think Virgin Voyages has a lot of potential — particularly as a cruise option for younger travelers who wouldn't usually book a cruise.
If you're interested in booking a voyage, I'd wait a few months while the company finishes building out the onboard lineup (such as adding the drag show brunch) and working out some of the tech issues.
Then, grab your best red dress and your closest friends, and set sail on what is truly a unique experience you won't forget. I'm not usually a fan of cruises, but I was pleasantly surprised by my experience onboard.
Related: I’ve been on more than 150 cruise ships; here are my first impressions of Scarlet Lady, the first-ever Virgin Voyages vessel