Steve (DOS) and I sailed the Scarlet Lady from Miami for four nights to Key West and Bimini, Bahamas this past week as first time cruisers on Virgin Voyages. Here is our review, tips, opinions, likes and dislikes of this our first cruise on Virgin Voyages. This is a long post (so be warned!) and I’m going to break it up into several posts, so stay tuned as it takes quite a while to write these blogs and post photos. Welcome to the “un-cruise” world of Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady!
Over the years we have sailed on well over 80 cruises on multiple lines with lengths ranging from 2 to 17 nights to world wide destinations, as well as more local ports from Florida to the Bahamas. I mention this only for comparison purposes to this Virgin Voyages four night Key West/Bahamas cruise. We met quite a few fellow “sailors” who were sailing on their first cruise ever, and we explained to them some of the key differences vs other cruise ships, so they wouldn’t think other cruise lines are just like Virgin Voyages, even without the adult’s only part being factored in. Not that Virgin or other cruise lines are better or worse, it’s just many people compare their future cruises to their very first cruise, and Virgin is in a category of its own. Many of the fellow sailors we met had cruised before, but never on Virgin Voyages, so we could compare our experiences with them as well.
Overall Summary of Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady:
Wow – what can we say! Overall we had a wonderful time! It really surpassed our expectations, and was not a risqué adult cruise like we had worried it would be; rather a lively and care free cruise full of all adult ages, walks of life, diverse cultures, girls groups, mens groups, couples, singles, etc. The biggest change of course is there are no kids sailing on the ship, but other than that, the adult mix was fairly typical of other cruise lines passengers on a Bahamas 4 day cruise. On this ship however, it really took the social aspect to another level and interacting with each other was expected and felt natural as well.
Yes, being a new cruise line there are a few things they can tweak (app didn’t work for 1/2 the cruise, but didn’t affect charging drinks or purchases, room key access etc), the main pool area was very small; could repurpose the aft space with more shade and add another pool there instead of the “large rope net” sun area nobody used, better inventory and purchasing of some foods and wines by the Virgin order takers, as a couple of the wines by the bottle were not available, as well as an entree or two during the cruise, noise level from pool (we were directly underneath it as were many of the suites which was not an ideal location), gift shop was virtually cleaned out of inventory as they were switching vendors for the next cruise, etc. But none of these issues spoilt our cruise; I’m just pointing these out and we put on our comment card for improvement. There really was not much we did not like about this cruise!
As for everyone else reading this: First of all, NO this is not the cruise for everyone, especially families as all passengers must be 18 years or older to sail, and onboard (technically once in international waters a few miles out), passengers 18 years or older can legally drink alcohol aboard. We honestly didn’t see any 18 year old passengers, as most were from the mid 20’s to late 60s or higher, and it was quite a good mix of passengers.
I’ll list the cons as we saw them first, and you can decide if this is for you or not. Note the cons may be pros for you depending on your perspective. Like this post and others, these are our opinions only:
CONS, and Tips:
- No Kids allowed (18 or older only to sail) so is not a family cruise line
- Main pool area is small, i.e. more like a wading pool and often very crowded. It’s not the cruise to take if you want to lay by the pool and soak up the sun that’s for sure. It’s also quite social area with people hanging poolside, many with drinks in hand. If you don’t like a lively and/or party atmosphere, this would not be for you.
- Pool deck area can be noisy with the loud music blaring, so it is not a relaxing place if you’re looking for quiet. (There are other places to go for quiet, such as the aft Dock area, just not the main pool area, especially on a sea day when sailing.)
- The private island in Bimini, is actually part of a large resort which Virgin Voyages passengers have exclusive access to. While very nice, it’s not developed like other cruises private islands, i.e. RCCL’s Coco Cay with tons of waters slides, zip lines, balloon rides etc, if you’re into that. Instead there are several pools, loads of deck chairs and umbrellas and food and drink served in outdoor shaded buildings overlooking the beach and/or pools. Much more of a natural feeling, like the old Coco Cay.
- Very casual dress code. You can pretty much wear whatever you want within reason; i.e. shorts, T-shirts, polo shirts etc to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, although most men wore a polo type shirt to dinner with either shorts or long pants. People used to traditional cruise attire may not like this too casual atmosphere.
- Formal nights are non-existent, so don’t bring your suit or tux. They do have a couple themed nights such as a late night pajama party which is a blast, and the Scarlet Night where everyone dresses in red. Again, traditional cruise passengers may want a more conservative dress code.
- No announcements about activities or otherwise. (Actually this was a pro to us), but there are no shipboard announcements; i.e. “Bingo in 15 minutes”, “Art auctions in half an hour”, “show time at 7pm”, “dinner at 6pm”, or even the noon day bridge announcement from the Captain, and daily Cruise Director activity updates etc. etc. etc.
- There is not a Cruise Director aboard, rather an activities staff of lively youngsters that get you dancing, welcome you aboard, lead various activities etc and all friendly and helpful; especially the first couple days finding your way around the ship! Some people may miss having a Cruise Director introducing shows, announcements etc, but we did not miss this at all.
- Not good for introverts; this cruise is very, very, social, and it encourages everyone to get involved and chat with their fellow passengers. Unlike most ships, the seating areas are arranged like mini-living room type spaces, which encourages conversation among your fellow travelers.
- No plastic bottle policy. This we didn’t like but Virgin is being environmental friendly by banning all disposable plastics including water bottles on board. You can get as much water as you like from bars and individual water refill stations, but there is no bottled water available onboard, nor are you allowed to bring bottled water aboard. You are encouraged to bring your own refillable water bottle onboard, and water is delivered in your room twice daily during housekeeping, and is served via glass pitchers and glassware, and you can always get complimentary water at any bar as well.
- No all inclusive Drink package. Many ships have gone to this for an extra charge, but it works differently on Virgin Voyages. First, as a plus, soft drinks are included free of charge to everyone. For alcoholic drinks and others, these are charged to your account via your Virgin bracelet. (It is waterproof and we didn’t take ours off until after the cruise.). Virgin Voyages offers various booking incentives, onboard credit for booking a future cruise onboard etc, and we had $400 which was more than enough for the 4 day cruise.
- Basic internet is included, but there is a charge to upgrade to premium and multiple devices.
- Different, and eclectic type shows in the Red (main) theater. These are not Broadway type production shows, but of the couple shows we saw were a “Circus del Soleil” type show “Dual Reality”, and a modern technology type show “Ships Passing in the Night”. Both were great, but not your typical cruise-type show. The theater is smaller and more intimate than mega cruise ships, and you do need a (free) reservation for the shows ahead of time. Even with a reservation you should get there 20 – 30 minutes ahead of time for a good seat. You can take drinks into the theater with you. We really enjoyed the shows, but they are not like the traditional mega ship production shows, and the props are minimal.
- Passengers are called “sailors” and officers do not wear uniforms with stripes like traditional cruises. If you’re looking for the Captain or senior officers, they will be difficult to identify as there are no “stripes” to be found among the diverse crew members.
- Dining is in a world of its own. There is no main dining room, but rather several individually themed restaurants which are complimentary, but you need reservations for each night. There is not a traditional or my-time dining option, so each night is a different experience in a different dining room. You do need to make reservations for each dining room, which are all included in the cruise fare.
- I’m a meat and potatoes type guy, and found some of the food to be a bit too fancy, foo foo faha, but there was always something I could eat. “Foodies” on the other hand would love this!
- If you have a large group (more than 4 people), you definitely want to reserve your dining times ahead of departure if possible, as bigger groups tend to fill up in the various dining rooms. You can do this via the app anywhere from 45 days prior to departure to 60 days for Rock Star (suite) cabins.
- Drag Queen and “R rated” shows. They do have these, but it’s not in your face obvious, and we didn’t even notice this in the daily activities, but I guess it’s there if you’re looking for it. We did see the Drag Queen a couple times on the ship at the pool party and in one of the lounges, and even got our photo taken with “her”!
- Later embarkation times than most cruise lines: The earliest boarding time is 1:30pm, however many assigned times went to 4pm or so on boarding day. The ship departs later than most cruise ships, and ours sailed at 6:00pm. Debarkation time is later on the last day of the cruise, however, up to 10:30am.
- Party-type atmosphere. Yes, there definitely is a party vibe to this cruise, but you don’t have to partake in it if you don’t want to. The Scarlet Night pool party is from 10:30pm to midnight and HUGE, as is the first night Pajama party, but other than that, the lounges aboard the ship are similar to any other cruise line with live entertainment, and quieter areas to chat as well.
- Overall, the entire experience aboard Virgin Voyages, is a casual, yet slightly upscale experience with high quality food, entertainment and friendships in the making. If you don’t want to meet people or stay to yourself, this would not be the cruise for you as it’s a very friendly, diverse, and social type cruise, where you are in contact with people everywhere you go.
PROS and more Tips!
- Virgin Voyages is one of the most diverse and socially friendly cruises of any we have ever taken!
- Virgin is multi-cultural and gay friendly, and has such a variety of passengers and crew it makes for a fun, no kids experience. There is no judgement of other people, and the free spirit attitude aboard treats everyone equally; a refreshing quality I wish the world would embrace. You can easily start a chat with anyone aboard, and many of the seating areas are arranged in smaller sections, which is very conducive to meeting others. Even the elevators can be a chatty place as they have various changing colors and designs!
- Live and Let Live! I think because it’s 18 years and older, people (especially parents) are much more relaxed! We met so many parents that said “We love our kids so much, but we need a bit of a break every now and then”, and they truly relaxed and “let their hair down” knowing their kids were safe at home taken care of by their parents, friends or loved ones.
- “It feels like your back in College” is the way I described it to Steve (DOS)! I’ve never seen such a huge pool party on any ship as the one on Scarlet (RED) night from 10:30pm to midnight, where literally it felt like the whole ship was out on deck, all dressed in RED, and partying like it was New Years Eve 1999!
- The lack of announcements (actually NONE, except for the last day upon debarkation), makes the ship incredibly quiet in your cabin and other places. I woke up the first day in the port of Key West and it was so quiet I thought the power had gone out! I didn’t even feel the ship docking, much less any of the annoying go ashore announcements, or hall noise from other passengers.
- The tips are included and not expected anywhere onboard. The staff truly wants to please you, and are paid higher wages than most other ships.
- The food is incredible and diverse. We ate at a different restaurant each night, from The Wake, which is a wonderful steakhouse type restaurant, to Pink Agave which is an upscale Mexican themed restaurant, to Gunbae – fun (and loud!) hibachi type restaurant with good food and drinking games, and Extra Virgin which is a fantastic Italian Restaurant. There are also other restaurants such as Razzle Dazzle, which is a vegetarian style restaurant, but also with some “naughty” beef or pork items.
- There is also the Galley, which would be similar to other cruise lines casual buffet venue, however while the Galley looks like a buffet with the various food stations, it is a sit-down server style venue, again included in the cruise fare. Simply raise the red flag on the table, and a server will take and deliver your order. They do have some to-go, self service items such as salads, and Bento boxes etc.
- All restaurants are included in the cruise fare, and each restaurant is like a specialty dining venue on other ships. DO make a reservation for each restaurant prior to boarding; preferably 45 days for sailors and up to 60 days out for Suites (Rock Stars and Mega Rock Stars). If a restaurant is full, don’t panic as you can do this on board, but definitely try and pre-reserve for a large group.
- Pizza, burgers, the Dock for tapas (in the back of the ship), and the Galley offer meals and snacks as well.
- The safety video is a hoot you watch on the in-room TV or your phone, and is like watching a rock concert; informative but fun! You still have to go to your muster station to check-in, but it’s a quick process, and no life jacket is required, so you can leave that in your room.
- Embarkation/Debarkation is a breeze and Virgin really has the crowd flow spaced out via the app times to maximize the efficiency in coming and going off the ship.
- The private “island of Bimini”, actually a private resort that Virgin utilizes exclusively for their cruise ships, is a paradise place of relaxation. The ship is docked in Bimini, (no ship tender is required to get to shore) and a shuttle bus is provided to the resort area. The Resort Club is for all cruise guests only, and there is no solicitation on the beach or at the Club House, so it’s a peaceful day to really relax with food and drink readily available.
- For Rock Star’s (suite guests) there are many more amenities including a fully stocked complimentary bar ensuite, much larger accommodations, a dedicated “Rock Star Agent”, and a private Club area at the Bimini Beach Club which is wonderful!
- Overall, if you’re not traveling as a family, and you don’t mind letting “your hair down” and having fun, I think you will LOVE Virgin Voyages. Just don’t expect a quiet, relaxing, and formal dress code experience like on some of the traditional lines, and be prepared to socialize and have fun, and make a little noise (especially at Gunbae Restaurant where they have a drinking game), dance, and even play the complimentary retro arcade games! Pac Man anyone?
Prior to sailing you are given an embarkation time, which you will receive via the Virgin app while you are updating your travel documents, uploading your photo for security etc. You should upload these documents as soon as you book your cruise to get an earlier boarding time if desired. The earliest boarding time for our sailing was 1:30pm, which was reserved for frequent VIP “sailors” (what Virgin calls its passengers), and Suite guests (which Virgin calls Rock Stars or Mega Rock Stars for the top suites).
The boarding times are staggered and are enforced to keep the crowd control flowing, so don’t get there several hours before boarding time as you will have to wait. We got to the port at 1pm, and as Rock Stars, we had a separate entrance, quickly went thru security, collected our wrist bands (which would serve as our room key and charge card), and then had a short wait in the VIP lounge, where snacks, teas, coffees and waters were served.
While waiting we met several frequent sailors who were traveling in a large group, who were not only fun, but gave us quite a few pointers on sailing and once onboard, even an informal tour of the ship. We also got “Lei’d” by them once onboard at the Champagne boarding party, as they brought flowery leis, hats etc. for their group, and included us as well. Great start to the cruise and we hadn’t even boarded yet!
One tip we discovered while waiting to board was we could connect to the ships wifi, and hence the Virgin app, which was a huge timesaver as we still had to book all our dining and show reservations as the dinner reservations were all unavailable as we booked inside the 45 day pre-booking window. We had been told to do this as soon as we boarded the ship, but fortunately we got a jump start on reserving these while waiting in the pre-boarding lounge area.
Boarding began with our group at 1:40pm, and was very orderly and easy. Compared to other cruises, the boarding time is later than most (going until 4pm or so), but the ship didn’t depart until 6:30pm. Also on the flip side, the debarkation goes until 10:30am on the final day, which allows for a much more relaxing morning, and plenty of time for breakfast, and not being out of the cabin until 10:30am compared to usually 8am or so on other ships.
As Rock Stars we boarded with the cruise staff welcoming us aboard with megaphones in their hands, and inviting us to the Manor for a complimentary hosted champagne party with other Rock Stars and staff!
Here we met Roxanne, who would be our dedicated Rock Star Agent for the entire cruise, and functioned as our personal go-to Concierge person for assistance, and kept us informed on daily activities and times; helpful as there are no overhead announcements. She would also leaves us notes in the room, along with the daily program and anything else of interest. Roxanne really rocked!
Finding our Room!
After lingering in the champagne party for awhile and meeting other guests, we went to find our room, which was 14245Z. As we were given a wrist band upon checkin which is used as a room key as well as for any shipboard charges, it was a challenge at first to remember this long room number! To make it easier, I took a photo of the room number plaque, which actually makes logical sense when you break the number string down: 14 – 245 – Z, where 14 is our deck number, 245 is our room number, and Z indicates the starboard (right side) of the ship facing forward. Virgin calls the starboard side the ZED (Z) side, while the Left (PORT) side is the A or Alpha side. While you scan your band when ordering a drink (more on that below), they do ask your room number, so it helps to remember what it is, including the letter Z.
Our cabin was towards the front of the ship, and actually quite convenient between the midship elevators and the forward bank of elevators. There is also an aft third bank of elevators which was wonderful, unlike some of the newer mega ships with only two banks of elevators and crowds to board them. We never had an issue waiting for the elevators or stopping on every floor like kids would do on some of the mega ships, annoyingly pressing every button or riding up and down the elevators just for fun.
We had a Brilliance Rock Star Suite which was very large and quite comfortable. While it was a single room with separate large bath and shower area, it measured around 396 square feet, plus an 86 square foot balcony with two doors leading to it. The room was quite comfortable for the two of us.
The cabin came stocked with a complimentary full bar and fridge, although oddly no sodas or bottled water, (bottled water being banned from the ship) and a pull out drawer with every cocktail apparatus you would need for a rock star party, along with books on mixing cocktails. We don’t normally drink liquor (rather beer and wine), so Roxanne told us we could switch out the liquors or bring them home with us, which is what we did. Anyone need a bottle of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Johnny Walker Black Whiskey, Titos Vodka, Bacardi Rum, Bombay Gin or Teremana Tequila? Will give them out to friends when we get home. They weren’t the mini bottles either like on an airplane, they were decent size bottles perfect for the home or shipboard bar.
The King-Size bed was huge and very comfortable with the bedding top notch. In a bit of an oddity (but nothing is too out of the ordinary for a Virgin Voyages ship!), there was a huge oval shaped window above the bed headboard, which looked into the oversized rainfall shower! The toilet area was separate, but you could peak in at your mate or vice versa in the shower, although the steam quickly covered the tinted windows.
There was not a tub in our suite, but the shower was quite large, as was the rest of bathroom with large vanity area and sink. There were two Rock Star robes hanging on the bathroom door for our use aboard the cruise.
In the bedroom there was plenty of storage space, and a large L shaped sofa, and round chair that looked like it could hold a large beanbag cushion, but didn’t. There is a phone which we used occasionally; mainly to call Roxane with a question or two, and as we were Rock Stars, Virgin even provided us a retro (and working) turntable with external Bose speakers, and several LP albums! Spice girls you go! LOL! Supposedly there is a record store or exchange somewhere on the ship for other albums but we were too busy with everything else aboard and never did pursue it.
The balcony was adequate, and had two chairs and a table, although unfortunately no recliners like the aft cabin suites had. We normally book an aft cabin on other ships, however we booked late on this voyage and all of the aft suites were sold out. The only downside I had to this cabin was it was directly underneath the main pool area, and was quite noisy on the one sea day we had. For the nighttime deck parties we were up on deck anyway so it wasn’t an issue for us; just for a late afternoon nap it was a bit noisy in the room and on the balcony. On the plus side, all balcony cabins and suites have a red hammock to sit or swing on!
DOS swings in the red hammock on the balcony.
Who said muster drills aren’t any fun? Again, Virgin Voyages has to be original, and you can watch the creative Rock Star video on your in-room TV or on the app. Here’s a few still photos from the video:
While putting this post together I found this YouTube link to the muster drill video which is informative, while being entertaining as well! Just remember you have to watch it on the app or on the TV on the ship to get credit for viewing it. It’s about six minutes long, but it also gives you an insight into the ships rock-n-roll vibe.
Then at some point prior to sailing, you need to actually go to your muster station (you do not need to bring your life jacket) and go thru a quick 5 minute follow-up with a crew member and small group of fellow sailors. The muster stations are indoors in one of the public rooms, (ours was held in the Manor, which is the ship’s disco at night) and you just need to have your bracelet scanned that you were there.
And that’s it for the Muster Drill! It will soon be time for Sail-Away! Let the party continue!
Sail-Away from Miami!
Departure from Miami is a bit later than most cruise ships, and we departed at 6pm or so. As I said earlier, we met up with a fun group of veteran Virgin passengers and Jenna, the group organizer gave us a quick and fun tour around the ship. This was really helpful as we had no idea where anything was on this 110,000 ton, 2,800 passenger ship. Here are a few photos from along the way:
DOS and I really enjoyed touring around the ship, and we ended up meeting the rest of the group in the aft of the ship, at the Dock, where we had drinks prior to the ships sail-away. The Dock offers great aft views and has a bar and also serves tapas as well.
Jenna, the group leader handed out red bags which contained streamers on a stick, and a couple candy items, and we were good for the sail-away, which happened up on the pool deck a little while later.
The Sail-Away party from Miami is a huge bash with all of the activities staff livening the sailors up, dancing, performing, and best of all, bar staff servers handing out complimentary glasses of champagne; really as much as you wanted in the hour celebration! We’re not huge champagne fans, but it was nice having a couple more glasses of bubbly, and cheering with our fellow sailors and newfound friends! What a huge party! One of several to come on this short 4 night cruise!
Dinner in The Wake Restaurant
After the sail-away party our checked luggage had arrived and we unpacked, showered at got ready for dinner. Our dinner reservation the first night was at The Wake Restaurant with a 7:30pm reservation time. Of all the restaurants aboard, The Wake is the largest restaurant, and if you can get a good table (we lucked out with a prime spot), you get beautiful views of the wake of the ship out the aft windows.
The Wake offers a very nice menu, where steak is one of the featured highlights among several other entrees and appetizers. (DOS had rack of Lamb, while I had a ribeye.) They also have one of the best selections of wines by the glass or bottle aboard the ship, and the desserts were delicious!
Before our trip we had read reviews that many people thought the service was off, but I would say it’s more leisurely than slow, and we liked the pace of the meal and various courses. It was a wonderful first dinner aboard for us at The Wake.
After Dinner Pajama Party!
Ok, so how many ships sailing today actually have a pajama party (PJ) for adults? After dinner we headed back to our cabin to change for the PJ party. It was originally going to be held in the Athletic Club area up on deck, however it was a bit to windy the first night, so it was moved indoors to the Manor.
On the way back to our room to change clothes, we ran into some of the group we had met, who had signed up for the Pub Crawl. I would like to do that some time, but the time slots did not work out for us this cruise. It’s one of the few activities that cost extra, ($50) but goes to several pubs, each offering the pubs signature drink. The pub crawlers are all given Venice-like masks, and there are fun drinking games along the way.
We also found the central staircase which, is a large circular staircase in the lobby area of the ship. Unlike the larger mega ships, there is not a grand foyer or multi-deck promenade; instead the ship is rather subdued instead of huge and grand, and designed with many smaller venues and seating areas, such as this performer shown below inside the circular staircase.
Back in our room, DOS and I changed into the silk PJ’s we had brought with us, along with our Panama hats we had gotten several years back in Ecuador. DOS wore blue, while I wore red PJ’s. Here’s a couple pics along the way to the Manor.
When I say it was a big PJ party; that would be the understatement of the year; it was HUGE! It was here that I told DOS I felt like I was back in college during the disco days of youth! WOW it was packed with what felt like everyone aboard the ship (again all adults!) in this 2 level venue. We actually went upstairs as it was so busy down below, although the second level was crazy busy too. Here are some pics from the PJ party:
Anyway, we stayed for an hour or so, and headed back to the room. What an action packed first day of the cruise on The Scarlet Lady it was! I’ll end this post here, and pick up next with Day two when I get the next post completed. Enjoy for now! Cheers and goodnight!