Cruise Review: Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady
To say I was excited about sailing on Virgin Voyages' adults-only Scarlet Lady is a bit of an understatement. I'd been watching the launch for months, had a sailing booked and then rescheduled, and checked the app obsessively in the weeks before stepping on board. So, did it live up to my expectations?
Because it seems to be what everyone wants to know, yes, I've cruised before. Five times, to be exact - four with Royal Caribbean, and one with Celebrity. I've done 3 night sailings, 7 night sailings, and 10 night sailings, all to the Caribbean, so I had a decent idea of what I was signing myself up for. The only thing I hadn't done was cruise solo. (I have traveled solo, just on land, and love it.)
Virgin has said from the beginning that they were out to create a different kind of cruise line. For one, they're entirely adults-only. For another, they spend more time in port - we didn't leave until well after dark. They're big on technology, with nearly everything handled digitally. There are no room keys, only bracelets, which serve to not only unlock your cabin door, but also pay for things on the ship. Daily activities, restaurant reservations, menus, and general information is housed within the Virgin Voyages app.
Other ways Virgin differentiates themselves from some of the more mainstream cruise lines is by including WIFI, sodas, juices, coffee, and tips in your cruise fare. Instead of a daily beverage package, sailors (yes, they have their own lingo onboard) have the opportunity to purchase a prepaid "bar tab" to be used for alcohol, smoothies, and gourmet coffee. You get a bonus if you add a certain amount before sailing, so if you're planning to drink more than a handful of drinks a day, it's definitely worth considering.
And finally, perhaps the thing I was most excited about, was the focus on sustainability. You won't find any single-use plastics, and there are refillable water stations onboard.
Before I get into my experience, here's what you need to know: I traveled solo, and I did receive a heavily discounted fare as a travel advisor. I used the port days to scuba dive, and won't be talking about shore excursions in this post. I did not purchase a bar tab, and I did not upgrade my WIFI. Ready for the details?
There's no denying the ship itself is gorgeous. It's sleek and modern and has a very West Elm vibe. I loved the furnishings, and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't red everywhere.
There are plenty of photo ops everywhere you look - truthfully, some of them are a little over-the-top and are clearly designed to make you Instafamous. Not that that stopped me from taking photos.
The ship was only at 50% capacity, which was really nice. Had it been full, yes, it would have felt crowded. The ship was designed by people who don't design cruise ships, and it kinda shows. Prime example? The pool area has exactly two toilets. I can't tell you how many times I waited 5 minutes to use the restroom (why it takes some of you that long to go is beyond me). And those water stations I was so excited about? They're a lot harder to find than they should be, especially on a ship that boasts about sustainability.
As with most ships (and resorts, let's be honest), it takes a while to find your way around. The signage isn't the greatest, and when I jokingly told a crew member I was lost, I was told to just follow the arrows and figure it out. Yes, really. Eventually, another passenger helped me, which was generally the way the rest of the week went. And, in case you were wondering - no, the app doesn't have deck plans, or even a "you are here" locator. Major oversight. I ended up taking a photo of the PAPER deck plan in the cabin, so I'd have it with me.
While it's true that most people spend very little time in their staterooms, as a solo traveler, I probably spent more time there than most. I was booked into a Sea Terrace (balcony) stateroom, located in roughly the middle of the ship. Virgin allows you to select a stateroom, or just take the best available - I let them assign me what they thought was best, and was perfectly happy with my location.
Virgin's staterooms are modern and chic, with a bed that transforms into a sofa during the day. I tried it once, and then stopped making my cabin steward go through it all since I wasn't in the room. The room also had a small desk, a minifridge, a chair, plenty of closet/storage space, and your standard tiny ship-sized bathroom. Even with the bed left made, I still had plenty of space, though that might not have been the case were I sharing with someone.
Without question, my favorite thing about the cabin was the hammock on the balcony. Made by Yellow Leaf, it was beyond comfortable, and where I spent most of my time when in the room. I loved it so much I'm currently trying to decide which color I want so I can have one at home. (Blue or Silver? Help a girl out!)
There were plenty of outlets (including USB charging ports), and for the most part, they were fairly well located. The weird thing? No outlet in the bathroom. That wasn't an issue for me, since I just used the mirror at the desk, but I heard from a couple of men that not having somewhere to plug in their electric razor was a bit of a hassle.
Otherwise, the AC worked well, the bed was comfortable, and the shower was strong. (Tip - I didn't realize until the last night that I could make it hotter. Just press the little button and then turn the dial to the right.) The lights were controlled by a tablet, but you could also use the light switch, so really the tablet was more of a gimmick. But, they did have a decent selection of included movies if you wanted to hang out in your cabin.
My main complaint? THE NOISE. It wasn't the location - that was fine. But my balcony door creaked whenever the ship was moving...which happened to be all night, right? And, there was a water runoff pipe on the balcony that gurgled nonstop. While minor, the bedroom noise became a bit of a problem after the 4th night of bad sleep. And before you ask, yes, I had a white noise app on, and no, I'm not a light sleeper.
All throughout this cruise, the one thing I heard over and over again was how phenomenal the food was. Look, food is subjective. Two people can have the exact same meal and have completely different opinions, so always take food reviews with a grain of salt.
Having said that, I'm going to tell you that the food was far from phenomenal. In fact, some of it was downright bad.
Virgin has done away with the buffet concept - except, not really. They have The Galley, which is essentially just a food hall bordering on served buffet. You sit down, and someone takes your order. Or, you go up to the station to order, and take it to your table. Either way, it takes approximately 3 minutes to get your food. I tried about half of the stations, and the best I can say is that it was adequate. Nothing wowed me, and in most cases, I didn't even finish it. I generally judge a place on the quality of their omelets, and Virgin needs to work on theirs. And, please don't try the sushi.
They do offer a few grab-and-go options, mostly salads or snacks. It was a nice option, but don't expect variety here: I ate a lot of crudités, and a lot of oatmeal. Again, do not try the sushi.
Meals in the restaurants were better, though they still felt (and looked) mass-produced, and took only a few minutes to arrive. I'm all for efficiency, but I had to wonder about food waste. How much were they throwing away if everything was precooked and just waiting for someone to request it?
I tried all of the "main" restaurants, and enjoyed the Italian and Korean BBQ most, and had by far the best service there too. Props to the Gelato Girl, who takes her art seriously, and does a bang up job. I'd been really looking forward to the vegetarian restaurant - order the squash ravioli there - and was underwhelmed. In fact, that's probably how I felt most often: underwhelmed. The Test Kitchen, which is billed as an innovative dining experience, was underwhelming. Smoking an egg yolk and putting it with some peas isn't very innovative, nor very tasty. Pink Agave, the Mexican, was tasty, but the menu descriptions didn't match what I received. I only had the steakhouse for brunch, where the beef was cooked well and the eggs were again cooked badly. Maybe Virgin just has an issue with eggs?
And, though I can't really fault Virgin, I'm still annoyed that Americans don't seem to value fruits and vegetables, and finding them often requires a lot of foraging and strange looks. Carb lovers will be happy; vegetarians, not so much.
As for the drinks, I didn't order a ton of them, because I had wine in my stateroom that did more than enough for me. (You can bring two bottles on per stateroom.) The few cocktails I had ranged in price from $11 to $16, and were decent - nothing to write home about, but nothing bad either. All told, I spent around $120 on alcohol on the ship, and most of that was for the Test Kitchen's cocktail pairing.
Perhaps the question I got most often was, "what was it like traveling solo?". I'll be honest - it was pretty awful.
In hindsight, I should have booked the Korean BBQ on the first night, because they seat you with strangers. I also should have booked a shore excursion to dive in Cozumel, because I'd have met other divers - though, that's a tough one, because I'd wanted my own guide, and ended up having a fantastic experience. Those two things would have helped my experience, no doubt.
But, you know what else would have helped? Virgin being more welcoming and inclusive.
I know. I can't believe I just said that either.
The truth is, everywhere I went I was treated like a second or third-class sailor. I was seated in the corner of every restaurant, next to the kitchen, until I finally spoke up and asked to be moved to a table with a view. I was seated in the farthest, darkest spot in the cabaret. I - thankfully - was able to choose my own seat in the theater, or I'd have been in the back there too. I was blatantly ignored at the pool and the bar, with servers looking RIGHT AT ME and then walking the other direction. More than once I was asked, by crew, why I was solo and where my husband was (nice assumptions there, btw).
So, that could have been better. But, Virgin also could have organized events for singles, or encouraged more interaction between guests by offering more group-centric activities and relying a little less on themed parties to get people talking. My best moments on the ship were in the fitness classes, because at least in there we had something to share with each other.
As for the nightlife, I found it fairly tame, which wasn't a problem, but was a bit of a surprise. Same with the pool days - they were almost quiet. I had no problem reading by the pool all day; I saw others working out there. It was a nice change from the frantic all-day extravaganza on other ships, but at the same time, it almost got boring. Basically, your choices were work out (I did a lot of that), eat (see above comment about crudités), drink (see above comment regarding restrooms), or go to workshops on makeup/clothes/how to take great Instagram photos (I probably could have used those, tbh). And the one (far too short) arts and crafts activity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I don't really know what I wanted, but I didn't quite get it.
If it puts it in perspective, I had more than one couple tell me they'd had more fun on the Disney Cruise.
Truth be told, at times I got the distinct impression that Virgin cared more about breaking the mold than they did about guest experience. I had a couple of run-ins with staff who were clearly trying to be funny, and clearly weren't. Like the guy who joked that Virgin would be in the clear if I died scuba diving, because I was recently certified.
Then, I had run-ins with staff that were just plain inappropriate. Like the security guard who told me to stop making excuses and hiding things when I informed him my dive bag was going to get his scanner wet. Or, the hostess who told me she didn't have a window table, because those were reserved for couples. Or, the masseuse who told me to lose weight. Twice.
The reliance on technology, and the app, was a bit of a double-edged sword. For one thing, the app is buggy. For a cruise line that had well over a year to work out the kinks thanks to Covid, a buggy app is unacceptable. If you're going to put everything in the app, it better damn well work, and it better be amazing. Put deck plans in there, for crying out loud. Show restaurant times on the lineup page. Provide an app onboarding overview, so people know what's there. Make the signup process easier for fitness classes, shows, and workshops - or get rid of it completely.
But even then, there's something to be said for disconnecting on vacation, and the use of the app doesn't help with that. It felt like a constant tether, something I had to check and be present with. Which meant, then I was constantly checking email, Facebook, and everything else.
The Final Verdict
I was asked if I'd sail with Virgin again, or if I'd recommend it to my clients, and truthfully, that's a tough one. I met many people on board who loved the ship, the atmosphere, and the experience. I have no doubt my experience solo was an exception - but then again, who I was with (or not) shouldn't have mattered.
I loved the adults-only atmosphere, and the fitness classes, and the variety of dining options on board (even if the execution on those dining options wasn't my cup of tea). I loved the cabin (except for the noise), and the little touches around the ship like the water stations and viewfinders. I appreciated having WIFI and tips and sodas included, and I appreciated the relatively transparent pricing on everything else. And, the long port days were definitely a plus.
But, I didn't feel welcome, and at the end of the day, couldn't wait to get off the ship. Everything felt harder than it should have been - from having to scan a QR code in a dark restaurant to trying to decipher the arrows to having to restart the app 8 times a day. Some of that is to be expected from a new ship, with a new crew, and will likely be worked out in the coming months. The service issues are another story, and one that I've already taken back to Virgin for resolution on. I have to hope they'll take the feedback seriously.
Until then, there are other ways I'd choose to spend my vacation days.
What do you think? Are you intrigued enough to give Virgin Voyages a try, or are you like me and would rather try something else?