Virgin Voyages: Richard Branson launches the Scarlet Lady
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There’s a delicious irony that Scarlet Lady, launched with the fanfare we’ve come to expect from any Richard Branson project, ended up sailing its first cruise season around the British Isles rather than the more exotic Caribbean islands as originally planned. But its double-jabbed UK-resident Sailors (Virgin-speak for passengers) were delighted to shout Ahoy! (Virgin Voyages greeting) and get onboard what was one of the most anticipated cruise ships in years.
With its well-publicised tattoo parlour, sex workshops, RockStar Quarters for suites and more than 20 places to eat, adults-only all-inclusive Scarlet Lady was never going to be run-of-the-mill.
And with three more ships to come, including Valiant Lady launching in March 2022, this cruise industry disrupter is on course to cause considerably bigger waves over the coming years.
Who can travel on Scarlet Lady?
During the ship’s initial UK Seacations – three and four-night roundtrips from Portsmouth with no ports of call – only adult UK residents with proof of two vaccinations in the UK plus a negative PCR test at the port on embarkation day could set foot on the ship.
From October 6 2021, when the ship sails from Miami, the ship is subject to North American Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rules.
Consequently, the company declared: “We’re confident we can create a safe environment where our Sailors can enjoy their experience without masks, but are paying close attention to CDC guidelines as they evolve for vaccinated travellers.”
What’s it like onboard?
Pre-booked arrival times at Portsmouth meant a reasonably orderly embarkation day and there were plenty of crew around to help with last-minute problems for those having difficulty with the ship’s app.
All crew members wore masks at all times and Sailors (passengers) were encouraged to wear them indoors in crowded areas, although very few did. To be fair, this was because it was generally no longer a legal requirement in Britain and because of the atmosphere onboard.
Alcoholic drinks are reasonably priced – from about $8 for a glass of wine – with no hidden service charge, and there are no charges for food at any restaurant or café plus no gratuities at the end of the cruise – which is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for Brits.
The only notable difference on these post-lockdown cruises was that capacity was 65 per cent of the normal 2,770, groups were limited to six at restaurant tables and The Red Room theatre had social distancing so not all seats were available.
Cruises from Miami were also expected to operate at “limited capacity, contingent upon future CDC guidance”.
The WOW factor
There are several, although many are technical behind-the-scenes improvements that you might not notice initially – such as The Red Room’s flexibility. One night it looks like a perfectly normal cruise ship theatre with seats racked down to the stage, the next it’s a theatre in the round with a grandstand of seats either side of a central performance space.
And there are some extraordinary performances to look forward to if Duel Reality is anything to go by. This high-energy, high-risk, high-flying circus-style retelling of Romeo and Juliet literally has you gasping with fright and admiration in equal measure as acrobats jump over each other, climb poles and slide down head first.
Also amazing is the range of free dining opportunities and how each has its own galley kitchen to ensure that every meal is freshly made to order, which cuts down on the huge amount of potentially wasted food produced by the massive kitchens traditionally found on modern cruise ships.
Then there’s that tattoo studio, Squid Ink, where $150 will buy you a discreet memento of your holiday – small anchors were the most popular – although the two tattooists and one body piercer were happy to take on much bigger commissions.
Cabins, as Virgin Voyages calls them in its quirky British but in no way stuffy attitude, have simple clean lines and a palette of white, grey and red for the standard balcony and inside rooms.
There’s a slight 1970s retro feel to the white curved desk and cupboard that hides the fridge and $30 box of Time To Play sex paraphernalia stashed away on a few small shelves.
It’s all a bit Space Odyssey, to be honest. The large and comfortable Seabeds can be quickly folded into an L-shaped sofa by cabin Crew if you request it, leaving you space to play or party during the day before it’s transformed back into a bed at night.
Sea Terrace Cabins and suites have red hammocks on the balcony for you to laze in (bit of a knack to getting on one but you can lie down quite comfortably eventually) and the rain showers in the bathrooms are excellent, even though it’s a bit of a squeeze to get in and out of them too.
There are 1,330 cabins plus 78 RockStar Quarters that include two mega suites at the front of the ship with a choice of four guitars to play, a record player and selection of vinyl, fully stocked drinks cabinet in the lounge and a large chunk of real estate for a balcony with a Jacuzzi, loungers, outdoor sofas and coffee table. Indoors, the king size bed looks out towards the sea through a picture window and there’s a marble-effect bathroom with an enviable freestanding bath as well as walk-in shower.
At the other end of the scale the inside cabins are as big as the balcony cabins, and some have pull down bunks to sleep three or four people.
Even on a UK Seacation with no ports of call, there was plenty to do during the day inside or out.
Sunny days were spent lying around the pool or wallowing in the Well-Being Pool, a giant whirlpool in deck 15’s Aquatic Club, where there was no charge to use the large daybeds or cabanas – although there are private Grand Cabanas to hire on deck 16.
This top deck is home to The Athletic Club, a mix of daybeds and loungers plus sports equipment including a miniature boxing ring among the outdoor gym equipment and there’s also a running track and basketball court for practising your slam dunks.
The deck 15 gym, B-Complex, has sea views for its running and rowing machines, bikes and cross trainers and more sea views on the other side of the ship for its weights, stretching classes and yoga studio. There are loads of exercise classes, from yoga to bungee classes – low-impact stretching while suspended on bungee cords – plus retro 1980s exercise classes and barre classes – a combination of ballet, yoga and pilates.
There are also board games, paid-for bingo, pub quizzes and the usual attempt to encourage you to buy health or beauty products after admittedly quite interesting health and beauty workshops.
Think of Scarlet Lady as a village and you’ll understand its dining options – Italian, Mexican, Korean, Vegetarian – are like any that a lively high street might offer.
There is no main dining room with set sittings but six restaurants that you can book on your ship’s app (each seat around 200) and a collection of other eating places where you just rock up for a meal.
There is no charge for any of the restaurants, although some have “treat yourself” options for those who want something extra-special.
One of the best is The Test Kitchen, an experimental dining room that offers set dinners of six courses paired with wine, beer, cocktails or alcohol-free concoctions (you pay for the drinks but at $35 for six glasses of different wines etc it’s very reasonable). Each course is a surprise – egg with peas works better than you would think – and there’s a vegetarian set menu too.
Gunbae is a high-energy Korean barbecue restaurant with excitable staff who cook short ribs, pork belly, prawns and vegetables at grills in the middle of each table. These electric grills were specially designed for the ship, as were the silent extractor fans above them so you don’t get hot sitting around the grill or leave smelling of stir fry – although you might be worse for wear from drinking games set up by staff.
Pink Agave is an “elevated” Mexican, serving unusual takes on traditional dishes, while Razzle Dazzle Restaurant is mainly vegetarian and open from breakfast onwards. You can start your day with turmeric scrambled eggs and sourdough, toasted brioche with condensed milk and sprinkles or go totally hipster and try the avo toast with gochujang pickled cucumber, watermelon radish, finger lime and toasted seeds.
Extra Virgin is the best place for Italian meals, although you can also sit at the bar for drinks and apperitivo – small dishes such as hand-stretched mozzarella on grilled focaccia or smoked chicken liver mousse with grilled ciabatta.
But possibly the most sophisticated restaurant is The Wake, a steakhouse at the back of the ship that serves brunch – including a raw bar of lobster, oysters, shrimp, mussels and crab – while dinner is suitably meaty.
You can only book into these restaurants once, although there’s a wait list if you want to return, but there’s no booking necessary for other eating places. These include The Dock House, which serves mezze-style snacks and grilled shrimp, chicken, octopus, steak or goat cheese polenta on deck 7, and nearby Pizza Place – both have indoor and outdoor seating.
Most of the other eating experiences happen in The Galley on deck 15 – not a buffet but a smorgasbord of street food including tacos and burritos, noodles, Japanese food or burgers – all served to your table.
There’s also an all-day breakfast available, if you need a fry-up in the middle of the afternoon or after midnight, and hidden away on deck 16 is the Sun Club Café, which serves bowls of Asian-fusion fragrant rice with tuna or salmon for lunch.
You’ll also find barista-made coffee and speciality tea to buy in The Galley or at Grounds Club on deck 7.
As you might expect from anything to do with Virgin, there is plenty of live music from early evening until late at night.
The best live music venue is The Manor, which takes its logo from the original Virgin Music studios and it’s also the venue for DJs and cabaret. One of the most enjoyed cabaret shows during the UK seacations was Never Sleep Alone by resident sexologist Dr A, which was as funny as its publicity suggested but not as embarrassing as it could have been – only volunteers were called up to the stage to take part in games and demonstrations.
Duel Reality was the hit show of the Seacations – a jaw-dropping display of acrobatic skills – but two more are promised for the Caribbean.
And you can’t miss the Splash of Scarlet Party on every sailing, which takes place in all the venues on decks 6 and 7 from 6pm cocktails to the midnight Afterparty. There’s also a pool party, Odyssea, on the last night with The Diva and Scarlet’s Band playing dance songs from 70s disco onwards.
UK Seacations are sold out but Scarlet Lady’s Caribbean sailings start from October 6, 2021, continuing until April 2022. The round-trips from Miami call at Key West and Beach Club at Bimini on typical four-night trips and Costa Maya or Puerto Plata and Bimini on typical five-night cruises.
Prices start from around £1,240 per cabin, two sharing, cruise-only, for four-night Fire & Sunset Soirees, departing October 6, 2021 virginvoyages.com.
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