One of the most highly-anticipated new cruise ships of 2020 sailed into Dover on Friday. Sir Richard Branson’s sparkling new 2,770-passenger vessel Scarlet Lady has been four years in the making and is the first of four being launched by Virgin Voyages.
The weather when we arrived in Dover was wet and bleak to say the least, but this did not dampen the spirits of the crowd who had eagerly turned up for the weekend launch party to see if the brand’s new ship has lived up to all the hype.
Virgin Voyages has not been shy about admitting that it aims to redefine the traditional cruise model through its fleet, making it overall “sexier” and more appealing to a younger audience.
As Branson said at the press conference: “We got a big blank sheet of paper and wrote down all the things we don’t like about cruise ships and decided to do it differently.”
For its first ship, Virgin Voyages has targetted a younger, adults-only consumer, predominantly the millennial market.
By excluding children from the ship, Tom McAlpin, Virgin Voyages’ president and CEO, believes this is what makes Scarlet Lady stand out from its competitors: “It’s very different, it’s bold, and it allows us to do something in the industry others can’t do,” he said.
Scarlet Lady’s interiors, the work of renowned designers and architects such as Tom Dixon and Roman and Williams, have been designed to reflect that of a fashionable boutique hotel, rather than a traditional cruise liner.
And yet, Branson and his team still wanted to create “a yacht-like feel” and passengers will find cruise ship design references throughout. The overall look and feel is modern and industrial, with lots of brass and metal accents, along with “touches of red” (a subtle reminder of the Virgin brand).
The line made the deliberate decision not to work with designers who’d worked on a cruise ship before and in so doing have missed a trick, sacrificing practicality for the sake of style.
Public spaces have been scattered almost haphazardly around the ship, with no apparent cohesion, so I found myself frequently getting lost through the labyrinth of galleys and walkways.
That being said, the decor is undoubtedly impressive and stylish, and there were many areas of the ship that I loved, particularly the chic champagne bar The Sip, featuring a plush decor of velvet blue seating, a marble-topped bar and rose gold porthole windows.
My Sea Terrace Cabin was minimalistic and Virgin has included the novel idea of having beds convert into sofas during the daytime. While a great space saver, I believe that guests who need somewhere to rest and in some cases, nurse their hangovers after a heavy night of partying on board, might prefer to have their beds kept intact.
There are some nice touches, including the bathroom which featured dedicated makeup towels and a waterfall showerhead, and top marks for the hammock on the balcony, which I imagine would be a lovely spot to lounge in while sailing the Caribbean, but there could have been a lot more by way of storage space.
Those fortunate enough to stay in the Rockstar suites will not be able to fault the design. These have been decorated with a true rocker in mind, with a vibrant colour palette, guitars on the wall, a vinyl record player and a gold and marble bar.
Even grander than the Rockstar suites are the 15 Mega Rockstar suites onboard. Aptly named the Massive Suites, Fab Suites, Posh Suites and Gorgeous Suites, these offer the ultimate VIP experience, with guests having access to a hair and makeup squad, a free bottomless in-room bar, complimentary laundry service, faster wifi, and the use of a Rockstar Agent, who will tend to guests’ every whim.
In terms of restaurants, it was Virgin’s aim to create a “foodie paradise” and this it has certainly achieved. The cruise line has worked with top Michelin chefs from around the world to create the 20+ eateries onboard.
Scarlet Lady has done away with set seating and assigned dining times (typical of many traditional cruise liners) and instead all food is made to order. There are even late-night food options available, including a 24-hour burger and breakfast bar for guests who want to party late into the night.
Standout restaurants include Razzle Dazzle, which champions vegetarian cuisine, and Test Kitchen, offering experiential creations and concepts by world-class chefs like the Michelin-starred Brad Farmerie and Sohui Kim.
I was impressed with all of the restaurants and bars onboard, but felt the service, given the price of the cruise (starting from £840 per person), could have been sharper overall.
What is great is that all dining experiences are included in the basic fare (as are group workout classes, basic beverages, gratuities and wifi) regardless of room category, so guests on any budget will get to sample all of the restaurants during their voyage.
Where the ship really comes alive is through its entertainment venues. I was wowed by the Red Room, the ship’s theatre where guests will get to enjoy live music and entertainment, along with featured gigs and drag artist shows.
The Manor nightclub (named after Branson’s first recording studio) has one of the most Instagrammable entrances I’ve ever seen, lined with mirrors and glittering spotlights, and is undoubtedly a great place for cruisers to dance the night away.
Along with entertainment, there is a major focus on wellness with spas, gyms, yoga, wellness pools and a mud room on board. On deck 17 is The Runway, Scarlet Lady’s impressive running track, together with The Perch, an outdoor space for yoga and meditation classes.
In terms of whether I think Virgin has succeeded in shaking up the cruise industry with its first offering, I believe that it has.
Scarlet Lady offers something different to what’s out there on the market and there are some clever and unique touches, from the impressive entertainment venues to the first onboard tattoo parlour Squid Ink. While I am not convinced it will be inundated with requests from sailors requesting tatts, I applaud Virgin for the way it has pushed the boat out.
This isn’t a cruise ship that will suit everyone’s tastes and whether or not Scarlet Lady will be the new ship for millennials remains to be seen. However, if you’re looking for a ship that’s fun and entertaining, then Scarlet Lady is for you.
Scarlet Lady will set sail from Miami on her inaugural voyage, with cruises to Costa Maya in Mexico, Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, Key West and The Bahamas, commencing in April.
Get on Board
Five-night Dominican Daze itinerary on Scarlet Lady, calling at the line’s Beach Club at Bimini, departing 28 May 2021, prices from £840pp, virginvoyages.com