I’m a former indie rock kid, now a dad in my mid-40s, who learned to love to cruise a half dozen years ago because of my two daughters’ love of kid’s clubs, water slides, and 24-hour soft serve. I still listen to and purchase albums, but I never expected to buy Fuzagi’s Red Medicine or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In An Aeroplane Over the Sea on vinyl on a cruise ship. I also never expected to be on a mass-market ship with no waterpark, no soft serve machine, and no kid’s clubs (or kids, for that matter). And I absolutely never, ever expected to attend a sex therapy show anywhere, let alone during a vacation at sea.
Virgin Voyages, the newest and flashiest disruptor in the cruise industry, is built from scratch to defy your (and my) expectations and, if not redefine what a cruise can be, at least make it edgier for progressive adults on the prowl for something more akin to the raucous days and nights we spend exploring a big, thriving, throbbing city. Think high-end fashion, record shopping, diverse and top-notch food and drink, and modern entertainment that pushes the envelope, all surrounded by an even more diverse collection of people.
The Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyage’s maiden vessel, is nearly all-inclusive in the traditional sense (free WiFi, complimentary soda and group exercise classes, all tips and gratuities included, and no specialty dining up-charges) but is 100% inclusive in the social sense of the word, with an LGBTQIA+ positive atmosphere where, to quote Nirvana, everyone is encouraged to, “Come as you are.”
During my final upscale dinner on the MerMaiden sailing last week, I met Ruben, an airline pilot from Miami. While not all the dishes served in Test Kitchen, the ship’s most ambitious gastronomical dining spot, hit the mark (the blue cheese mousse mermaid tail is pretty but it needs butter lettuce or crackers or some other accoutrement to make it edible), the ship itself, according to Ruben, hit all the right notes. He pointed out that the unisex bathrooms, gender-neutral signage, and a vibrant crew resembling a truer cross-section of the modern global community—with piercings, tattoos, and colorful hair—helped to make him feel “safer” and more “seen” than any cruise he has been on.
Crew and sailors (Virgin’s name for their passengers) being encouraged to come as they are is no accident. This was Richard Branson’s idea from the beginning, although Virgin Voyages being adult-only was not the original plan. Instead, a pivot during the planning stage saw the Scarlet Lady “stray off course,” says SVP of Hotel Operations Frank Weber, becoming the vessel it is today, with a capacity of 2700 sailors, all over the age of 18. Sporting an untucked short-sleeve pink dress shirt, green-striped Adidas all-stars, and tattoo sleeve, Weber guided me through the Scarlet Lady’s The Manor nightclub, with its Instagrammable mirrored entryway and peekaboo voyeur window into the dressing room, and The Red Room, the ship’s theatrical space adaptable for a trio of configurations. We passed through the full-service spa as sailors chillaxed in saunas, steam rooms, and hot tubs. We walked the High Street shops, including the Squid Ink tattoo parlor where the mermaid on Weber’s right arm was added to his colorful collection, and in and out of the ship’s many dining spots.
There are handfuls of delicious eateries dishing out made-to-order grub in the food hall-style Galley. It’s here where you can, and should, devour some of the best ramen you will ever eat, bento boxes of sushi, Impossible burgers, tacos, salads, and a retro neon-sign diner serving breakfast around the clock. The Pizza Shop and neighboring Lick Me ‘Till Ice Cream are some of the best guilty-pleasure casual eats at sea, The Dock is the spot at the back of the ship to wave farewell to ports with a fruity cocktail and shrimp skewer in hand as you gather around Rosita, the only actual planted tree at sea, as you sail away into the evening from the private Beach Club at Bimini, Costa Maya, Nassau, Cozumel, and Miami. Finally, Weber and I visited the Scarlet Lady’s six rock stars, the six standalone sit-down restaurants–from the plant-based Razzle Dazzle to the Korean BBQ of Gumbea, each with their own kitchen, bar, head chef, and dedicated waitstaff who understand and explain the menus with an impressive literary flair.
I also saw the B-Complex cycle room where I’d later attend a free spin class, the unique outdoor boxing ring that was originally going to be the teen club, and The Den, an as-yet underutilized space that looks youthful but will never feature any actual youths.
Even this proud dad can admit that the lack of children on board is wonderful. But the clever tech of this dazzling ship is the true wonder. With a tablet to control the temperature, mood lighting, movies, and music, you are in total control over your cabin. Housekeeping is also a thoroughly bespoke experience on Virgin. Through lights and buttons on the wall by your door, you indicate if you want A.M. service and/or nightly turn down, and on the tablet or by using the Virgin Voyages app 24/7, you can have more ice and water delivered (in reusable carafes and glasses instead of plastic bottles and cups), more clean towels dropped off, or any maintenance concerns addressed. This is a private, personalized experience that can be low-key luxurious to your comfort level. After all, luxury is a subjective concept. Some, like my wife and I, find high levels of service suffocating and don’t always need turn-down service if we are only going to tangle up the sheets in a fit of passion. This self-directed approach to service eliminates wasted time because stewards don’t need to bother turning down every bed when surely not every sailor needs, wants, or cares about this ritualistic service. Reducing waste is a big goal of this mid-size ship.
It’s day two of our sailing and I’m ensconced in the red hammock on our Sea Terrace room’s balcony. There’s a metal spoon shoveling scrumptious dark chocolate mousse from a reusable thick plastic container into my mouth just as the lights of Nassau flick on and the sun, like a sleepy toddler, gives up its fight to stay awake. It’s here in this serene moment that I come to fully understand Virgin Voyages modus operandi.
It’s all about sustainability. It’s the way Virgin Voyages welcomes and celebrates who you truly are. It’s the total absence of buffets that all but eliminate the waste of food, and it is the packaging and flatware and reusable room service bags and bottle refill stations all over the Scarlet Lady. A Voyage with Virgin is designed to sustain you and your way of life while at sea, and sustain the planet too.
There were and will be groups with matching custom-made shirts, a culture celebrating drinking alcohol, and of course, bingo—this is, after all, still a cruise vacation, but Virgin embodies something tangibly different and unique in the near-all inclusive space. There’s a freedom on this ship that emboldens you to drop whatever mask you choose or are forced to wear on land. It’s an intoxicating and powerful feeling, and even though your Virgin Voyage in the Caribbean will last only 4 or 5 nights, the experiences had and shared with others on Scarlet Lady will sustain you for far, far longer.