Even During a Pandemic, Virgin Voyages Wants to Make Cruises Cool
A tour of the much delayed, multi-billion-dollar launch of Richard Branson’s cruise line
Is it safe to go in the water yet?
We’ve been writing about Virgin Voyages since 2018, when we rhapsoized about the nascent cruise line from the Richard Branson-founded Virgin Group.
No kids! A bar in every on-ship restaurant! Tattoos for passengers! Plus, Michelin-star chefs and a bright, fun and elevated design aesthetic. Maybe hitting the water with thousands of strangers could be … cool?
So in February of 2020 we were invited on board the VV’s 2,770-passenger ship the Scarlet Lady as it docked in New York. “Soon you’ll be realigning your chakras (also, learning what a chakra even is?) with sun-decked yoga on our insta-worthy terraces,” as our booking confirmation cheekily promised. The first voyage was scheduled for April.
And then, well, Covid-19.
The cruise industry hit pause, and even its initial attempts to set sail again during a pandemic seemed destined for failure. Forget cool: would we actually ever cruise again?
Fast forward sixteen months, and I’m getting ready to finally board the Scarlet Lady. But first, I need to prove my vaccination status. Then, I have to get tested just before I board. And finally, card in hand, I’m re-re-re-re-re-re-checked — yes, six times — before I even leave the dock at Pier 88 and enter the vessel for a pared-down, three-hour preview. (I’m walking down that pier’s long passageway as “Sugar We’re Going Down” plays overhead, a random and perhaps inopportune omen).
Then I’m on-board (masked except when eating/drinking), sipping on some sort of delicious coffee-and-tonic concoction and discussing a feature of the Virgin Voyages app where you can simply shake your phone and a crew member will find you and deliver Champagne.
Which is nice. Outside of the masks — and the somewhat wide distance everyone is politely giving each other — and it almost feels normal on board. Over the next few hours, our tiny group visits an Instagram-ready nightclub, theater, spa, suites, casino, luxury stores, fitness rooms, pools and many, many restaurants and bars. Virgin’s distinct red color is everywhere, as is other enhanced mood lighting, an ever-shifting soundtrack (and occasional DJ) and chic crew members who sport uniforms that have what look like little superhero capes (at least on the women).
But before we get to the ship and the adults-by-design experience, let’s talk safety … which is really what you should be asking first, second and third if you’re considering boarding a multi-night cruise right now.
Currently, the cruise line is operating under the idea that “vaccination is the way to go,” says Frank Weber, Virgin Voyages’s SVP-Hotel Operations and our tour guide for the day. So passengers are vaccinated (a requirement since the ship is stopping in the Bahamas), as is the crew, which undergoes a more rigorous follow-up testing schedule as well. The short cruises help — once you get through protocols, there won’t be a need to retest. Masks, admittedly, are only encouraged.
Still, the situation is fluid. Virgin is doing a “simulated” cruise with the CDC in October to cover all their bases in case anything changes. “The political situation is tricky,” admits Weber, alluding to the anti-mask, anti-vaccine-passport wishes of, well, Florida’s government and a key port for Virgin; that state’s anti-safety wishes, thankfully, have been so far has been blocked by the courts.
The ship hasn’t changed much since we started writing about it, pre-pandemic. It’s a 2,770-passenger vessel with current plans to operate at 50% capacity. The Scarlet Lady will, hopefully, run from PortMiami with five-night itineraries to the Caribbean, with about a 2.5:1 passenger-to-crew ratio. Each sailing will feature a stop in Bimini, Bahamas, so passengers can experience The Beach Club at Bimini.
With your fare, you have access to 20+ eateries, with all gratuities covered, plus free wifi, unlimited group fitness classes. 87 percent of the rooms have balconies, and there are a total of 1,330 cabins and 78 “RockStar Quarters,” a few of which come with their own selection of guitars.
And here’s what there is not: Formal nights. Cruise directors. Drink packages. A main dining room. Children. Bottled water. “We don’t want this to be a one-size-fits-all experience,” says Weber.
Putting aside the pandemic just for a moment, we found five things we loved during our visit:
Each restaurant is a unique experience akin to, well, an actual restaurant
With no main dining hall, passengers (they call ’em “Sailors”) have access to nearly two-dozen eating experiences, each one overseen by its own executive chef and crew and offering up different music, design choices and, obviously, menus. You book everything through an OpenTable-like app and wait in a virtual queue (or at the bar, of which there is one in each eatery).
Most impressive? A molecular gastronomy focused Tasting Menu (which doubles as a cooking school) and Gunbae, an interactive Korean barbeque that utilizes specially engineered flameless grills and a multitude of drinking games.
One of the main “shows” is called UNTITLED DANCESHOWPARTYTHING
It’s part of Virgin’s multitude of live entertainment offerings, which stretches from pop-up “micro plays” to an acrobatic re-telling of Romeo & Juliet.
The Popcorn Old Fashioned
When on board, head over to Razzle Dazzle, a primarily vegetarian venue, and order a Popcorn Old Fashioned. It’s basically your favorite whiskey tipple served in a hard-plastic popcorn bucket and covered with kettlecorn. It’s divine.
A few interesting “firsts” in the cruise industry
The on-board tattoo parlor, Squid Ink, is certainly unique. It’s probably the only cruise ship that can brag about a bookable karaoke, gaming and movie lounge designed by Roman Coppola. And there’s an on-board record store, Voyage Vinyl, where multiple copies of a limited-edition Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks immediately greet the eyes. “Music is part of our DNA,” says Weber. “That was the record that started it all. Richard signed them, and that was the beginning of Virgin Records.”
And speaking of Richard, you might see him on board.
We did (he didn’t stop to say hi). When on board, he’s probably staying in one of the two Mega RockStars suites, which are 2,147 square feet and feature a private hot tub, a Peek-a-View outdoor shower, circular conversation pit, a lookout point with stargazing loungers and two full-length hammocks, as well as a runway outdoor dining table for six … where a staircase “will help sailors make their way on top of the table for dancing.”
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