Julie Peasgood swaps conventional cruising for new experiences on board Scarlet Lady, Sir Richard Branson’s first foray into the high seas.
I’m perched on a high stool in the innovative Test Kitchen, one of the 20+ eateries on board Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, and delighting in some of the finest food I have ever eaten at sea (or on land). I hadn’t wanted to sit at the bar but now I’m here it’s a distinct advantage being able to witness the studious, laboratory-like assembly of micro herbs, miniature flowers and smoke-filled domes revealing tender venison topped with strands of dark chocolate. Michelin-starred chef Matt Lambert has channelled his inner Heston Blumenthal and it’s seriously good.
The food on board Richard Branson’s first foray onto the high seas is largely excellent. The Wake with its cosmopolitan evening combo of steaks and seafood transforms itself into an upmarket breakfast venue, there is an ice-cream parlour serving flavours I didn’t think existed and The Pizza Place’s ‘Pretty Fly for a White Pie’ is mouth-watering. I’m also intrigued by Razzle Dazzle, a plant-based American diner serving coconut milk fairy toast (revelatory) and a nearby secret bar that’s a cross between an Apple store and an operating theatre.
There are no buffets onboard Scarlet Lady – in fact Sir Richard eschews many of the conventional cruise hallmarks in his mission to be different; you won’t find a library, ballroom, cinema or Cruise Director, and dress codes don’t exist. Instead your onboard life is controlled by an App (not great for the less tech-savvy) and you can swap the conventional for new experiences, with everything from a tattoo parlour to upswing bungee classes, a barber’s shop and a boxing ring.
The entertainment is groundbreaking too: The Red Room can house transformative theatre in different seating configurations, and it’s there we marvel at Duel Reality, an awe-inspiring display of gymnastics and aerial circus skills. Virgin is also featuring a Festival Stage series of class acts handpicked from the Edinburgh Fringe.
What’s not quite so classy is Never Sleep Alone, a slightly toe-curling, interactive show in which pretend sex therapist, ‘Doctor’ Ava, delivers a stream of fast-talking erotic ‘advice’. Most of the audience in The Manor (the custom-built nightclub) seemed to love it though, and it’s cleverly pitched for the younger clientele that Virgin is trying to attract; most passengers were in their 20s, 30s and 40s rather than the more usual 50s, 60s and 70s.
This 17-deck, adult-only colossus has been shaped by a cluster of celebrated designers and boasts 1,330 cabins and 78 superior RockStar Quarters, sleeping a total of 2,800 passengers – although as each cabin also houses a small box of sex toys (an extra at around £20-a-pop) I’m not sure how much sleep is expected to feature on the menu.
If you do happen to nod off, the beds are extremely comfortable and on request can be made into an ingenious sofa configuration in the daytime – though don’t pack too much as there’s very little storage on offer. The sunbeds on deck are lovely too, with double ‘sun-mattresses’ proving the most sought-after, alongside (my personal favourite) mini cabanas – based on continental beach chairs and providing private, cosy hideaways.
Virgin’s inaugural fleet will be known as the ‘Lady Ships’ – a play on the term ‘your ladyship,’ giving a nod to Virgin’s British heritage. But Scarlet Lady’s home will ultimately be Miami, and she is followed by Valiant Lady and Resilient Lady, both of whom will reside in Europe.
I’m a little resistant to the jolly ‘Ahoy sailor’ announcements that herald us over the tannoy, but they are mercifully kept to a minimum and the crew are universally welcoming and attentive. Scarlet Lady is advertised as ‘bringing all the glamour of a boutique hotel to sea, where tranquillity meets curiosity with no kids, no buffets, and no limits.’ They have certainly thrown the rulebook overboard, and although my feeling is that it may not be the number one ship for seniors, it has huge appeal for the young at heart…