Ship Reviews

Ship Review: Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady

After four years of construction and even more of rumour and expectation, Virgin Voyages’ first cruise ship Scarlet Lady has finally entered service, instantly becoming one of the most innovative ships in decades that eschews just about every cruise industry tradition.

Virgin Voyages logo Richard Branson

Virgin Voyages first ship is the culmination of a long-held dream for Sir Richard Branson

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Carrying 2,700 passengers and offering more than 20 dining venues as part of the cruise fare, Scarlet Lady, designed by an all-hotel team of interior designers with no previous cruise ship experience, was a US $550-million gamble for Sir Richard Branson that is now paying huge dividends.

If that intro isn’t enough of a clue, one of the most defining features of this new cruise ship is that she is different from other ships in almost every way. As fellow cruise blogger Dave Monk says: “Compared to her traditional rivals, Scarlet Lady is the teenager who’s run away to sea, got a tattoo and spends too much time listening to loud music.”

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Virgin Voyages says its bringing Vinyl back with Voyage Vinyl

In some ways Scarlet Lady is a ship of contradictions. She has been designed for the millennial cruise market (think tatoo parlors, Karaoke bars, hammocks on cabin balconies and no traditional main dining room) yet she is an adults-only ship – a sector that most cruise lines until now have offered only to the retiree crowd.

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Suites come with outdoor showers on the balconies

While on the subject of pushing back against tradition. Scarlet Lady also offers no specialty restaurants, which means no nickle-and-diming upon boarding and a fantastic array of choice on her itineraries in the Caribbean.

The all-inclusive nature of the cruise fare extends to basic drinks like soda, juice, tea and coffee and bottled water, while alcoholic drinks don’t have a gratuity attached.

Bars and lounges aboard Scarlet Lady

Like dining options, there are countless spots at which passengers can abide aboard Scarlet Lady (in fact you can order a drink just about anywhere). What’s rather novel is that many of them are hidden gems, such as the small Loose Cannon bar with its arched, beamed ceiling resembling a capsized pirate ship, or the retro games machines arcade and Lick Me Till Ice Cream dessert parlour.

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Athletic Club aboard Scarlet Lady

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Some favorite bars and lounges include:

The yacht-inspired Athletic Club. Located at the top of the ship on Deck 16, it spans the entire stern, and boasts a white and red-striped semi-circular lounger that is the largest daybed at sea. It’s meant to be shared, so don’t be shy about claiming your spot. But, where you might have to fight for space will be the catamaran-inspired 220-square-foot area of triple netting where you can lay out and overlook the open space and decks below. There are also 10 cabanas with ocean views and drinks service from the bar.

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Richard’s Rooftop aboard Scarlet Lady

Also up here on the top deck is the uber-chic and uber-exclusive Richard’s Rooftop, an outdoor lounge with full bar service (naturally) that is reserved exclusively for the ship’s suite passengers. These lucky passengers recline in circular loungers, beneath giant umbrellas and accents of colored crystals that cast rainbow reflections around the space, which is of course named after Sir Richard, the founder of Virgin Group (the parent company of Virgin Voyages).

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The Dock aboard Scarlet Lady

If you aren’t using $100 bills as wet-wipes and staying in one of Scarlet Lady’s beautiful suites, fear not, for you can instead decamp to The Dock, an outdoor space down on Deck 7 inspired by the seaside lounges of the Hamptons and Ibiza and open to all. During the day, it offers relaxation in spades with wooden deck chairs, loungers and day beds, but by night gets a little more rowdy.

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The Manor aboard Scarlet Lady

For true rowdiness though, head to emerald, aubergine and gold Manor on the same deck, where entertainment is to be had in the early evening (more on that in a bit), while as the night progresses, it becomes the ship’s primary nightclub. It’s designed with platforms for the posers and corners for the couples and heaves to dance music late into the night.

Us millennials are as varied as Sir Richard’s business empire though, so Scarlet Lady isn’t just about booze and binging, there’s also the Gym and Tonic Bar for the health-concious among us, which serves up fresh, cold-pressed juices in a decidedly quieter atmosphere. As the name suggests, it’s part of the huge spa and fitness complex, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Dining aboard Scarlet Lady

When it comes to food and choice, Virgin Voyages have gone above and beyond with Scarlet Lady, while tailoring the experience perfectly for their target market (millennials cruising with kids in tow). There is also no dress code, no set dining times and (perhaps controversially) no main buffet.

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While I love a good cruise ship buffet, Scarlet Lady makes up for not having one by giving you free run of all the restaurants, grab-and-go spots and cafes on-board. There are 20 dining options in all, nine of which are proper sit-down restaurants.

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Extra Virgin aboard Scarlet Lady

Extra Virgin is an Italian restaurant channeling a trattoria (not too casual or too formal) and serves regional dishes and handmade pasta after Amari, digestive and other traditional Italian aperitifs designed to stimulate the appetite. And in another nod to the millennial market, the wine menu has an infographic to help diners better understand Italian wine and pick out the right option – which is especially handy during the daily Aperitivo hour with drink specials and small plates on offer.

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Geonbae, Scarlet Lady’s Korean BBQ

Geonbae is Scarlet Lady’s Asian restaurant, but while almost every mainstream cruise ship now offers an Asian eatery, Scarlet Lady goes one further with a Korean BBQ restaurant. The built-in grills at the tables where you cook your own meals under a chef’s direction are a fantastic Instagram-opportunity, but you’ll want to put your phones away as the night goes on because things get wild. Dinner begins with a complimentary round of soju and throughout the night diners are encouraged to participate in various Korean drinking games (the clue is in the name of restaurant, which means ‘cheers’ in Korean).

Razzle Dazzle takes wild to another level though. This is undoubtedly the most lively eatery on-board. Your first hint of this comes before you even enter with an entryway of red and white stripes that give way to black and white around the tables. The name and design comes from the practice of camouflaging ships during World Wars I and II using patterns of black and white paint. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about this restaurant, there are a range of decidedly modern menu options, such as vegetarian and vegan fare or smoothies for the more health-conscious. But, if you’re in the mood, you can also have your smoothie ‘spiked’ with a range of spirits or bourbons and during your meal you will be entertained by Scarlet Lady’s resident drag performer and friends. For an extra fee, diners can opt to enjoy bottomless drag-inspired cocktails. Expect much hilarity and tableside dancing as the night progresses.

Pink Agave is the spot for those who want something a bit more elegant. This Mexican restaurant is decked out in electric blue metallic lighting fixtures, which sounds tacky but it works. Oversized banquet tables provide couples privacy even when sharing a table and during lunch the large porthole windows provide a view of the sea and lots of natural light. If you want an intimate couples’ dinner, go for the elongated curved lounger with round tables for two in the centre of the restaurant. There’s also a bar area in the foyer with an expansive collection of mezcals and signature cocktails such as Agua Fresca and the menu features tlayudas, memelas, sopes, tortas, esquites, and tamales, which are all meant to be shared with the table. If your group wants something more exclusive, you book the private dining room too.

Wake is possibly the closest Scarlet Lady comes to a main dining room, although it most emphatically is not the main dining room. It’s the largest restaurant on-board and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but at night is transformed into a steakhouse with offerings that include a raw bar (designed to look like the bow of a speedboat for the Instagrammers among you), and seafood classics if red meat isn’t your bag. The 5,866-square-foot restaurant is located at the stern and has expansive views of the wake during breakfast and lunch.

The Galley is the closest Scarlet Lady comes to having a buffet. It’s a food hall-style casual eatery where quick but tasty meals can be had throughout the day. There are more than eight stations and food carts, each offering a unique selection of signature dishes that change for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s a dedicated bakery and pastry shop, a panini shop, a burger grill, a taco shack, a sushi bar with bento boxes, a noodle bar, a soup and salad stand, and a 24-hour American-style diner. It’s fantastic.

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Test Kitchen aboard Scarlet Lady

Test Kitchen is every millennial ‘foodies’ dream. It’s all about the construction of meals and takes a scientific approach to taste, with lighting fixtures that mimic the periodic table in the entranceway. This metaphor is carried through in the restaurant itself with design elements that include metallic furniture, beakers and test tubes.

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At Test Kitchen, diners are given ingredients and encouraged to experiment with their food

Diners are given an ingredient list and follow along as the chef combines the list of flavors throughout the course of the meal. Naturally, this is also the location for cooking classes during the day, cocktail mixing by night, as well as coffee labs, and at least one late-night lock-in on each cruise. During the lock-in, diners raid the chef’s fridge and dig into a midnight feast.

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The Dock aboard Scarlet Lady

At The Dock, you can enjoy Mediterranean small plates, flame-grilled skewers, salads, dips and mezzes at the stern in the open-air in a beach club-inspired space. As the name would suggest, there are many a seafood option out here.

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The Pizza Place aboard Scarlet Lady

The Pizza Place is very much ‘as it says on the tin’ with a classic menu of fresh-made pizzas and design-your-own options based on a variety of ingredients. The casual spot also has a beach club-inspired design with white and pastel colored furniture, as well as hammocks for lounging when you’re full to bursting.

Recreation aboard Scarlet Lady

After all that food and booze you might want to burn it off and Scarlet Lady has you covered. Despite what the above sections might imply, Virgin Voyages is actually all about ‘Vitamin Sea’, which is its clever way of saying self-care, similar to how it calls all of us ‘sailors’ instead of passengers.

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There are actually as many ways to stay healthy aboard Scarlet Lady as there are ways to over-indulge. Virgin Voyages has put healthy travel at the forefront of many of its onboard experiences, such as a wide variety of group fitness classes provided at no additional charge and loads of nooks and crannies around the ship for rest and relaxation, like The Crow’s Nest.

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The Crow’s Nest

This secluded sundeck all the way forward near the top of the ship offers 360-degree views and yoga at sunrise and sunset. It’s the closest you’ll find to an observation lounge aboard the ship (minus the roof).

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Outdoor Boxing, because why not?

Also up here is the Atheletic Club, a 1920s New York-style outdoor training zone with a boxing ring, plus strength and gymnastics equipment. And further aft you’ll find the Well-being Pool, which is the ship’s main pool (one of two in this area) and can get busy during sea days.

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Well Being Pool aboard Scarlet Lady

Surrounding it is the artistic adult playground and fitness apparatus called MyBeast, along with plenty of bar spaces and sunloungers.

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The gym aboard Scarlet Lady

The gym and spa itself is called the B-Complex and features strength (Technogym ARTIS equipment), spin, yoga and cardio equipment in its Build, Burn, Bike and Balance rooms.

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The spa aboard Scarlet Lady

The Redemption Spa has been designed with an underwater cave theme and offers a hydrotherapy pool, mud room, salt room, cold plunge pools, quartz beds and an array of spa treatments. Virgin Voyages clearly thought they were getting a little too traditional by providing a spa onboard, because at night this space becomes an evening hot spot, with DJ-hosted spa parties.

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Squid Ink tattoo parlour aboard Scarlet Lady

It’s also here that we find the ship’s much-hyped tattoo parlor (the first at sea), called Squid Ink, offering a selection of exclusive tattoo designs created specifically for Virgin Voyages, as well as piercings and permanent makeup.

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Metrosexual millennial men can also head to Stubble & Groom, the men’s barbership, compete with a male pedicure area overlooking a porthole ocean view.

Entertainment aboard Scarlet Lady

Scarlet Lady’s entertainment line-up is as eclectic and eccentric as everything else about this ship. All through the ship there are aerialists, comedy, pop-up music, and interactive theater as well as unexpected tableside shows during dinner in some of the restaurants.

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The Red Room aboard Scarlet Lady

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There’s no cruise director. Instead, the ship has a group of people dedicated to coordinating entertainment or “happenings” around the vessel. They comprise a variety of theater producers, directors and artists.

One of the producers created the New York City-based ‘Sleep No More’ and the Tony Award-nominated choreographer of the Broadway musical ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812’.

And expect to leave your comfort zone at times, because entertainment aboard Scarlet Lady isn’t a one-way street. Passengers aren’t just an audience to shows, you have the opportunity to participate with the cast and become a part of the performance.

Most of the theatre offered on-board takes place in the slightly intimidatingly named Red Room at the bow. The Red Room is a multiform theater that can transform into four different configurations for traditional, fashion show-esque alley stage, dance flat-floor, and reverse stage.

This means that on every night of a four or five night voyage there isn’t just a different show on, but an entirely different style of show as well.

Six original shows were created, including an acrobatic retelling of Romeo & Juliet called ‘Duel Reality’ and a show by one of the producers behind ‘Sleep No More’ and ‘Queen of the Night’.

Then there’s the slightly darker ‘Never Sleep Alone’ by straight-talking relationship therapist, Dr. Alex Shiller (the alter ego of immersive performer Roslyn Hart), with audience participation.

Staterooms aboard Scarlet Lady

There are 1,408 cabins aboard Scarlet Lady, and the vast majority of them (93%!) have ocean views or balconies. In fact, 86% of them are balcony cabins. So she’s been designed with stateroom categories better-suited to a luxury line and it shows.

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Cabin categories include Solo Insiders, Social Insiders, Insiders, Sea View, Sea Terrace, XL Sea Terrace, and then the suites, which is a whole different discussion.

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Sea View Terrace cabin

All cabins have presence sensors that detect when you leave the cabin and go into energy saver mode, triggering the blinds to close and air-conditioning to adjust to an eco-saver temperature (no messing around with the cruise card in the door slot).

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Ocean View cabin with seabed

All standard cabins (Solo Insiders to XL Sea Terraces) feature an in-room entertainment system with a 43-inch, 4K TV, mini bar, desk with mirror and flexible wardrobes. The ensuite bathrooms have rain shower heads, and those with balconies have handcrafted hammocks.

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Sea Terrace cabin

But its the bed that again really sets Virgin Voyages apart and shows its propensity to embrace risk in the name of innovation. Most cabins have a Seabed that converts from a full-sized bed to a lounger. It’s a fantastic use of space that takes inspiration from long-distance rail travel.

The RockStar Suites

The 78 RockStar suites need their own section, because there’s much to discuss here. These suites have embraced the ‘what’s old is new’ ethos of the millennial market with retro-futuristic designs that feature leather finishes, brass makeup vanities and marble ensuites.

Amenities include working vinyl turntables (with a collection of classic records), terrace hammocks, full bars and cocktail kits with the first round on the house, vintage guitars and peek-a-boo outdoor showers.

Benefits for suites guests include priority boarding and early access to onboard entertainment, restaurantand excursions bookings, and even private transfers to and from the ship in Miami.

There are eight types of RockStar Suites onboard:

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Seriously Suite

It starts with the entry-level Seriously Suites, of which there are 24. Each is 352-square feet including the balcony and feature a fully stocked bar, peek-a-boo shower and balcony hammock.

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Brilliant Suite

Then there are the 18 Brilliant Suites. These 481 square foot cabins have an open plan and can sleep up to four thanks to the large convertible sofa.

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Brilliant Suite Terrace

They also have a fully stocked bar, and the larger balcony features a peek-a-boo shower and balcony sun chairs.

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Sweet Aft Suite

At the stern of the ship are the 7 Sweet Aft Suites, which are sub-divided further into three with the “biggest” balcony, two with an “even bigger” balcony and two with a “pretty big” balcony. From anywhere in the suites (ranging in size from 416 to 661 square feet), whether the bed or the shower, you get an ocean view.

There are 14 Cheeky Corner Suites, which are again subdivided among those with big, bigger biggest balconies. Six have a “biggest” terrace, four have an “even bigger” terrace and four have “pretty big” terrace balconies. All 14 of these suites sleep two people and feature an open bedroom overlooking the wake of the ship, a large wardrobe with extra space, and a corner sofa. The suites range in size from 607 to 847 square feet, depending on the balcony size.

Then there are the suites within the suites category, with four of the largest types of suite aboard all located on Deck 15. They come with even more benefits, like a custom bar setup and a RockStar concierge. Passengers staying in these suites can also include a ‘rider’ (a list of demands given by celebrities to venues and hotels).

The smallest of these top suites are the nine Gorgeous Suites (570 square feet). They sleep four, have an open plan with lounge and bedroom areas, marble ensuites, showers on the big balcony and sunbathing areas.

The two 833-square-foot Posh Suites also sleep four and also have separate living and bedroom areas, but come with a convertible sofa in the living area, an extra half bathroom, and a balcony with a peek-a-view outdoor shower, stargazing lounges, a sofa and hammock.

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Fab Suite

The two 950-square-foot Fab Suites sleep up to four and feature distinct (but not completely separate) bedroom and living room areas. There’s a convertible sofa that sleeps two in the living room, and an extra half bathroom and entertainment credenza. The bedroom space has a large wardrobe with extra closet space and out on the balcony there’s a peek-a-boo outdoor shower, stargazing loungers, a sofa and hammock.

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Massive Suite

Then there are the two best suites on-board. The 2,147-square-foot Massive Suites. Also sleeping four, these suites are more like luxury apartments with a master bedroom; music room (which doubles as an extra bedroom) stocked with guitars and an amplifier; a living room with vinyl turntable; dressing area with a hot tub, vanity and two wardrobes; and marble bathroom with a peek-a-boo shower that overlooks the bedroom and out to the ocean.

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The Music Room and Guest Bedroom in the largest ‘Massive Suite’.

Each Massive Suite also has a huge balcony with a hot tub, an outdoor shower, circular lounge area, a ‘lookout point’ with stargazing loungers, two full-length hammocks, and an outdoor dining table for six. The dining table has a staircase to make table dancing more accessible!

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The terrace of Virgin Voyages’ Massive Suite

Scarlet Lady then is unashedly loud, brash and proudly unique. If this ship was a person at your traditional Friday brunch in Dubai, he or she would be the one taking a selfie in the most public spot possible – perhaps even using props.

It’s a cruise concept that’s sure to be like marmite for many passengers, but one things for sure, if you’re of the opinion that less isn’t more, that less is a bore – you’ll love Scarlet Lady.

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