Sir Richard Branson has spent the last 50 years shaking up the recording, aviation and holiday industries and has now turned his attention to Cruise World. One thing common to all his businesses is the way he treats his staff – Sir Richard is quoted as saying “Clients don’t come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” Talking to the crew on board Scarlet Lady it seems that its not just talk – well designed crew areas, housekeeping for staff cabins, comfortable classy uniforms, individuality positively encouraged, good working conditions and excellent pay – this crew definitely feel valued and wow does it show. I was onboard the new Virgin Voyages ship Scarlet Lady on her first night in the UK – the weather was appalling and caused some issues with boarding but we had plenty of time to have a good look round and to be absolutely blown away – not just by the weather but by the enthusiasm, friendliness, helpfulness and genuine interest of the crew in every venue and at every level. From the Lovely Miss Tora – the resident Drag queen – to our cabin steward, all of the staff we met, from restaurant, housekeeping or entertainment teams were fun, happy, stylish, hugely proud of their ship and with a real sense of family.
As well as the staff there were other things that I absolutely loved about the Scarlet Lady, a few that I personally wasn’t so keen on on and some that seemed positively DAFT such as the duplication on numbers on either side of the ship. To be fair the cabins are also either labelled A or Z to designate which side of the ship you are on but I think its going to cause a fair bit of confusion and personally I always rely on odd and even cabin numbers to work out which way I’m going and on which side!
This is part of Bransons ‘disruptive’ take on tradition which starts with a modernising shakeup in terminology onboard – gone are words such as cruise, passengers, buffet, balcony, port and starboard and in comes a new language – voyage, sailors, Galley, terrace, A and Z respectively. Oddly though, the toilets (some of which are trendily gender neutral) are labelled as The Heads which was causing complete confusion to those ‘sailors’ new to ‘voyaging’ – none of whom seemed to have got the memo about it not being a ‘boat’ either!
I was NOT IMPRESSED with the lack of pool provision – neither the pool on deck or the spa pool were big enough for serious swimming, more suited to a quick dip to cool down- there’s so much impressive sports equipment on board that I was actually surprised that the ship didn’t feature an endless pool for serious swimmers. The pools, plunge pools and jacuzzis are really just about adequate for sitting in with a drink but I really wasn’t that impressed. Other sports, spa, beauty provision seemed top class and well though out – maybe Sir Richard doesn’t swim!
On the other hand while there’s been a lot of criticism about the cabin design I actually LIKED the room – the hammock on the terrace was a lovely touch and surprisingly comfortable. I didn’t think that the ability to reconfigure the bed in various ways was hugely useful and would probably request it was left as a bed – it seemed to be causing a lot of extra work for the cabin stewards as well as extra laundry in replacing sheets. However the bed itself was extremely comfortable with high quality linens, pillows and duvet. Absolutely couldn’t fault it!
There was maybe the odd niggle about the lack of storage, positioning of switches and charging points but on the other hand there was a huge wardrobe with lots of hanging space and shelving, two full length mirrors and a nice desk with a handy charging shelf – different from a conventional cruise cabin but no better or worse than many hotel rooms and absolutely fine for the 5 day voyages that the ship will be running out of Miami. The bathroom itself was quite small but the towels were good quality and the shower was larger than usual with a proper door rather than a curtain , both a handheld and overhead shower and full size bottles of body wash, shampoo and conditioner – part of Virgins impressive environmental manifesto for the ship which includes a ban on all all single use plastics. The app and iPad weren’t in use for this preview so I can’t comment on those.
What I absolutely LOVED though was the food on board – I would be very very happy to spend five days on board just to get the chance to try all the different restaurants! There is no main dining room – instead there are six restaurants that would be classified as ‘speciality restaurants on a conventional cruise but here with no ‘cover charge’ as well as some more ‘snack’ based restaurants ( Pizza, American Diner, Tapas) and a Food Court where the emphasis is on fast food, cooked to order – all day breakfast, noodles, bento, sweet treats.… Interestingly each restaurant has its own head chef and kitchen. – there isn’t a conventional ‘main’ kitchen or executive chef. The result is some very exciting menus in very varied, individual and exciting venues.
We ate in Gunbae – a Korean BBQ experience – we shared a table with four other guests, ate interesting and unusual food served by efficient, informed and helpful staff. However I had complete FOMO about all the other restaurants on board and had to be dissuaded from asking to have one course in each! Eating in a different restaurant every night would be an awesome foodie experience. Each is individually styled and feels completely different – the views from the eponymous Wave restaurant are stunning ( or would be if they weren’t of Dover), Test Kitchen a gleaming ordered space of brushed steel and gleaming glass and Razzle Dazzle takes its inspiration from the WW1 ships camouflage of the same name and interpreted it in Virgin red as well as the more conventional black and white. The staff here were quick to explain that although it is the vegetarian restaurant on board it also has a list of ‘naughty’ extras including salmon, pork, chicken and smoked bacon. I’m not sure you need the option though as friends who ate here said that they would never have known that the ‘impossible burger’ and the ‘fish and chips’ were both veggie! We couldn’t view the outside spaces due to the wind but I suspect my favourite spot will be on the Dock on Deck 7, eating a little Mezze, sipping white wine and watching the world slip away..
The entertainment on board was less formal than on a conventional cruise ship as you’d expect! Lots of games, including a video arcade You didn’t always have to go in search of it – sometimes it came to you!
There are various ‘pop up’ acts, even a parade, and an interactive Drag lunch in Razzle Dazzle restaurant. Live music in both the Dock House and the beautiful copper themed Sip champagne bar were at a level where you could sit nearby and listen or sit elsewhere and chat – that was one of the other things I LOVED about Scarlet Lady – the little tucked away areas and conversational seating groups in every bar and restaurant. The ship has been designed so that although it takes about 2700 guests you should never be in a space where you see more than about 200 of them at once. This presumably doesn’t include the Red Room performance space – state of the art sound, lighting and electronic screens, reconfigured in an hour or so to form a conventional theatre, an arena like area with seating either side or a huge dance floor and catwalk.
We saw some literally jaw dropping acrobatics and dance in a Romeo and Juliet / West Side story update and then a late night show that I absolutely didn’t understand but absolutely loved! I LOVED The Manor night club with its wonderful but disorientating mirrored entrance, an updated Studio 54 type disco with the Groupie karaoke rooms where you could colour coordinate your diamante mic and feather boa! I’m not quite sure when you’re meant to sleep but once you locate it inside the wardrobe there is an electronic Do Not Disturb sign for your door!
The crew are in love with the ship, the brand and their boss and it shows, the Scarlet Lady is a stunning ship, the attention to detail and the variation in entertainment , dining and decor is really impressive.
Do I think all cruisers will love Scarlet Lady? No.
Do all cruisers love the same ships and cruise lines? No of course not.
And that’s why it doesn’t really matter what we all think! Sir Richard and the Virgin brand haven’t been successful for nearly fifty years by misjudging their market – they create a product that appeals to a new one and hope to convert other people as customers too. Having a great time aboard this ship isn’t about being young as much as it is about being young at heart and I for one can’t wait to visit her again – I’m firmly in the red corner!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Virgin Voyages for this overnight stay. All views and opinions are my own and I retain editorial control. I was not paid to attend this trip.
You might like to see the initial notes I made on the train home
• Food – choice of restaurants, menus, reduced waste by cooking order
• Layout, decor – games room, nooks and crannies, innovative use space, usb ports on table
• Red Room Theatre – innovative use of space, incredible acrobats, stork?
• The Manor – lighting, mirrored entrance, sound not too loud
• Dock House – seating, charging points, band!
Ecological statements and efforts
Spa especially pool, quartz bed also beauty stuff was elsewhere which is better. More mirrors!
Pop up experiences – entertainment brought to you – loved Miss Tora
Live music – guitarist and the band – music added to rather than overwhelmed the experience
Outdoor fitness stuff and gym spaces looked great.
Beds ( but VERY comfy) It doesn’t actually seem to give much more usable space and the twin bed configuration is weird. Concerned about extra laundry which seems at odds with ecological aims and about extra work for staff – tightest spot is at foot of bed with could have done with being a few inches wider.
Swimming pool – looks very small but presumably not many people will use using in comparison to gym/ keep fit/yoga space?
A-Z is fine but duplicated cabin numbers just seems too complicated
The light switches hidden inside the wardrobe behind the door which we didn’t find until we were leaving – presumably also on no functioning iPad.
OVERALL – am not target market – am old enough to be target markets’ Mum but was made to feel of value and completely welcome by absolutely everyone I met – age is just a number on Virgin!
Would love to spend time aboard somewhere hot when all of the ship was available especially on a cruise with lots of port days so don’t notice lack of pool too much!