“Get Out There” is a monthly column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
Virgin picked a less than ideal time to launch a cruise ship. While crossing the Atlantic to begin its maiden voyage in 2020, the sleek Scarlet Lady had to figuratively “turn around” the same week coronavirus hijacked the world. “After five years of hard work, we were suddenly forced to send everyone home until further notice,” CEO Tom McAlpin told me.
Thankfully for food lovers, fitness lovers, and adults-only cruise lovers, that notice finally arrived last October, after 18 months of waiting. I was recently invited to sail on this brand new, 4000 person, “medium sized” ship on a five day caribbean cruise from its home port in Miami. So you know, prices start around a grand per person—basic drinks, wifi, all restaurants, fitness classes, and gratuities included.
So what’s the verdict? Save for a few minor quibbles, Virgin’s Scarlet Lady is the most delicious, cheeky, and feel-good ship I’ve ever sailed on. Here’s why:
I’ve floated on several different ships of varying sizes from 3-14 day itineraries and the food always left me wanting more—a lot more in worst cases, a little more in best cases. Virgin Voyages, however, left me wanting for nothing. There are no buffets or large dining rooms on board. Instead, all 20 eateries have their own kitchens and executive chefs. The result is like hopping from one trendy NYC restaurant to another, all week long, without the rehashed dishes you’ll find elsewhere. Standouts include poke, street corn, clam chowder, handmade pizza, the razzledazzle watermelon, mediterrania pitas, fried avocado tacos, filet mignon, and eating family style so our party could try everything.
Indulging on vacation is a great way to let go, especially on an all-inclusive cruise. But Virgin has struck the perfect balance of allowing gluttony while gently encouraging wellness, if you’re into that sort of thing. In fact, all fitness classes are included (the bungie course crushes), the track on deck 17 is pedestrian only (no dodging lounge chairs like on other ships), and there’s just a really good vibe about working hard and power lounging at the spa. I was even offered a free health test after one class. Since my result was favorable, I immediately committed myself to gaining a few pounds for the remainder of the trip. All in a day’s work.
Most people don’t go on a cruise to stay in a cramped cabin. I certainly don’t. But I was genuinely impressed with the size of my Sea Terrace room—its king bed, hammock balcony (oh so nice), and spacious bathroom felt twice as big as competing cabins. Better yet, 86% of the Scarlet Lady’s cabins have a balcony and over 90% are ocean view. To further underscore the whole wellness and “we really care about you” atmosphere, even the bathroom products are top shelf. The only objection I heard was the lack of bathroom curtain doors when shacking up with platonic roommates.
Virgin is known for being a playful brand and their first cruise ship is no different. While never taking themselves seriously, the ship uses playful language like “Shore Things” and shuns the trite protocols and tight schedules that define much of the industry. Our captain, for example, only made two short announcements the entire trip—at the beginning and end—and didn’t parade around in formal wear offering to take pictures with guests. This was a refreshing change. As one official put it, “Our customers don’t want mass formality.” So come as you are and relax as you please.
Scarlet Lady’s attention to detail is akin to Disney for adults. Which makes sense as the CEO previously worked as president of the highly-rated Disney Cruise Lines. In this case, there’s an onboard tattoo parlor, free DJ workshops, and a legit $8 million dollar nightclub that feels like a modern Studio 54 for seafaring adults. Its champagne entrance alone will make you feel like a big deal. There’s also an exclusive Virgin beach resort at port in Bimini, Bahamas—replete with poolside DJs, all-inclusive restaurants, and the clearest water you’ll find in the caribbean. No kids, no dress code, no set schedules, just gobs of rest and relaxation.
Not everything was perfect. The required onboard smartphone app was clunky at times. With exception to a couple of wicked dance parties, most of the performance art was just okay. And at just 25% capacity during my sailing, which was great for avoiding lines, the ship wasn’t fully stress tested. To top it off, there was a nervous moment where my wife almost failed her covid test and couldn’t board, which would have really sucked. Not Virgin’s fault, of course. But the risk we all run while cruising in pandemic.
Nevertheless, “We have the experience and crew,” McAlpin justifiably says. “We just need awareness.” Consider yourself notified. Four and half stars out of five. Cruising is back, baby. And thanks to strict boarding requirements, it’s one of the safest places to avoid coronavirus right now.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with an adolescent family and their “bullador beagle.”