It’s 5.30pm and my cruise companion and I take our seats around the hot plate of the Gunbae Korean restaurant. There are two other couples at our table: Ron and Jacinda are in their 70s, while Kerry and Graham, who have been cruising for 50 years, are in their 80s.

Our server sets down six shot glasses and a bottle of soju. Things are getting serious.

“For the drinking games later,” she says as she walks away with a wry smile. She returns after taking our orders to instruct us on the Korean counting game. We go around the table and take turns counting, having to clap with any number that mentions three, six or nine.

We fail miserably – knocking back our shots in just 10 minutes.

We’re on board Sir Richard Branson’s Resilient Lady, the ship that is supposed to change everything about cruising. Drag queens, bingo with The Diva and dancing till 6 am. Not at all your regular cruise program.

The grey and Virgin red ship has already caused quite a stir in the Australian cruise market. Of course, publicity dynamo Sir Richard has delivered the headlines. But more importantly, has been the word-of-mouth of those that have tried it.

“We’ve tried everything from Royal Caribbean, to Celebrity to Princess,” says Ron. “But this was something a bit different. Kerry and Graham and Jacinda and I are doing a back-to-back on Virgin.”

The people

We’re onboard a short Virgin Voyages cruise on Resilient Lady from Sydney to Burnie. The vibe is energetic and with tattoo parlours and deck parties raging till all hours of the morning, it certainly has drawn in a much younger crowd.

But don’t get drawn in by the hype. It’s not all cruise newbies and millennials. While groups were indeed celebrating their 30th birthdays, we were told one man onboard was celebrating his 100th. One digital nomad has been sailing and working on Virgin for the last eight months.

Ron and Jacinda stayed up for the Scarlet Night party even later than us.

The food

All restaurants onboard are included, with some additional menu items that you can pay for like oysters, lobster and other special dishes.

Restaurant bookings for our voyage opened three months before the ship set sail and my advice is to book as far in advance as you can, so you get to try as many of the restaurants.  

The Galley is Branson’s replacement for the buffet which he says encourages too much waste. It’s the most popular dining option for most cruisers as restaurants are booked out.

It offers a range of meal options, separated into different stations offering a new menu for lunch and dinner service. For breakfast, you could grab an express breakfast, bagels with schmear and lox or even an egg white omelette.

For lunch, you could pick up bento boxes of sushi, tacos, ramen, burgers, soup, salad and more.

The Mushroom dish at the Test Kitchen on Virgin
The Mushroom dish at the Test Kitchen on Virgin.

The specialty dining though, was particularly good. Our meal onboard was at the Test Kitchen, designed to give the cruiser a high-end degustation meal. Guests are given a menu with the focus ingredient, and the dishes are explained by the server.

We were served mushroom parfait, venison, a soft egg with peas and a decadent chocolate dessert.

Stand-out steak

We also dined at Pink Agave which has lovely small, medium and large Mexican plates. But the standout meal was The Wake, a steak and seafood restaurant serving everything from clam chowder to filet mignon. The menu is divided into entrees which have a seafood focus while the mains are centred around the dishes from the grill and a steak cut menu. You’ll also find sides like fries, creamed spinach and salads to accompany the meat.

My least favourite dining venture was Razzle Dazzle which, to be fair, we only dined at for breakfast. We found some of the dishes a little too avant-garde for our tastes.

There are little odes to Australia with Tim Tam-inspired desserts and even Allen’s lollies. The bars also have Red Rock Deli chips.

The beverages

No surprises there are plenty of bars onboard. Each has been themed.

There’s a Mediterranean-inspired bar, an ode to Resilient’s homeport of Athens; the Draught Haus dedicated to craft beers and The Red Bar which has drag-inspired cocktails and glittery champagne concoctions.

But unlike traditional cruise lines, Virgin Voyages does not have drinks packages with unlimited liquor. Rather, cruisers can purchase a bar tab of US$300 (which equates to around AU$457). And, they can continuously top it up.

Wine and beer are not cheap onboard Virgin’s Resilient Lady – prices for a Heineken are US& (AU$10.70). And cocktails start from around US$14 ($21.32) which is what you could expect to pay on land. The prime benefit of purchasing a bar tab before you sail is that you’ll get US$350 worth for US$300.

Other beverages like juice, soft drinks, tea and filtered coffee are included in the fare. But taking barista coffee away from an Australian is like having the yin without the yang, the Sonny without the Cher.

We were told Virgin decided to reduce the price of the barista coffee for the Australian market, realising it was a deal-breaker for a country like ours. A small cup of coffee starts from US$3 (AU$4.50) which is far more palatable than drinking the American mud water.

Entertainment and activities

The idea of Virgin’s Resilient Lady is to do as little or as much as you want. There are meditation, yoga and even aerial fitness classes that are included in your fare. The gym on Resilient Lady is expansive – there are plenty of weight machines, treadmills, elliptical trainers and even a boxing ring and bag. I have never seen so many cruisers wanting to get fit.

During the day, most people lazed by the pool to capitalise on the good weather. While inside, cruisers were listening to live music, playing bingo or trivia, milling around watching dodgeball tournaments or trying their hand at pickleball.

By late afternoon, the ship is quiet and it’s a lovely time to enjoy some of the outdoor areas. Guests are either getting dolled up for the theme of the evening or having their disco naps, readying themselves for the long night ahead.

Show times are either 8 pm or 10 pm for Persephone, the sexy and seductive interactive aerial dance performance or Lola’s Library which blends cabaret and crime. Virgin’s Resilient Lady will also host themed evenings like Scarlet Night and pyjama parties. It is sweet to see couples in their 70s dressing in matching pyjamas, taking a spin on the dance floor of The Manor.

The calm before the storm - preparations for the Scarlet Night party
The calm before the storm – preparations for the Scarlet Night party.

The accommodation on Virgin’s Resilient Lady

Suites are comfortable on the ship and everything from the lighting to the television to the curtains is operated via a tablet. It also allows you to change the mood lighting to suit either getting pumped for the day ahead, if you need a Zen mood, or if had a bit too much to drink the night before. We were in a Sea Terrace which had unobstructed views.

The balconies are big and the hammock is a nice touch, especially for my cruise companion who enjoyed a few pina coladas watching the sea go by. The beds are comfortable and there is a fold-out sofa and a vanity desk. For cruisers sailing on longer voyages, there is plenty of wardrobe space. The bathroom is basic but there are some nice touches such as make-up towels for the ladies, and a waterfall rain-head option or handheld spray.

There’s also a bar fridge for you to store water, soft drink cans and bottles of wine, which the cruise line allows you to bring onboard. There’s a limit of two bottles per cabin.

My cruise companion enjoying his pina colada on Virgin
My cruise companion enjoying his pina colada on Virgin.

The verdict

While it might be attracting a much younger, first-to-cruise kind of traveller, it hasn’t stopped inquisitive regular sailors trying the new ship. It’s fun and relaxing at the same time, and it’s nice to see different cruisers or all shapes and sizes. It’s a great entry point for millennials and Gen Z’s looking to try out a cruise.

“We met Kerry and Graham on a ship years ago, and we’ve stayed such good friends that we now cruise with them regularly,” said Ron.

“We’ve tried lots of cruise lines but what we like about Virgin is that it’s something different. And also, with all the young people onboard, it makes us feel young!”

What you need to know

  • Once you book your voyage, you must download the Virgin Voyages app to book your restaurants, check your daily itinerary, and book your spot for shows.
  • Book your restaurants as soon as reservations open. Otherwise, you’ll lose the chance to try the food.
  • Richard Branson has removed plenty of the traditional aspects of cruising – a main dining room, buffet and gratuities. Gratuities are absorbed into your cruise fare and drinks bill.
  • Prices are charged in USD so be careful with your conversions. Signs were on display on the first day to make passengers aware that they will be charged in US currency.
  • Basic WiFi is included in the fare but if you want to stream videos, you’ll have to pay US$30.