The wait is over. Virgin Voyages’ relentlessly hyped Scarlet Lady has made her debut, calling at the British port of Dover on a grey, wintery day en route to her new home port, Miami.

For years now, we’ve heard Virgin founder Richard Branson talking about ripping up the rulebook and making cruising cool. But has he succeeded?

First impression: All battleship grey and scarlet, the ship certainly looks hip, although it’s an unusual shape. The superstructure is rounded at the back so it resembles a Miami condo plonked on top of a floating platform.

The adults-only ship appears to have been designed for Instagram, with every single space styled and structured, from the elliptical staircase that sweeps down into the main lobby to the mirrored corridor, lit by hundreds of pinprick lights, that leads to the nightclub, The Manor. Neon memes adorn walls, often with saucy innuendo, like the ice cream bar: Lick me till Ice Cream.

A bar onboard the Scarlet Lady
A bar onboard the Scarlet Lady

I was surprised at how industrial Scarlet Lady felt. It’s not a cosy ship. Parts feel almost stark, although the British winter isn’t the ideal showcase for a vessel built for the Caribbean. I like the big, circular portholes and abundance of gleaming chrome, both of which evoke a sense of nostalgia. Some much-anticipated features were smaller than I’d expected; the Voyage Vinyl record store is just a few shelves by the DJ booth, for example, when I’d been hoping for a proper shop like the record stores of my teenage years.

Here’s what I did like. Scarlet Lady will be perfect for fitness buffs; the gym is enormous and there’s a big space on Deck 17 for outdoor yoga as well as a boxing ring and outdoor gym equipment. The bright red running track is on stilts and encircles Deck 17 with unlimited sea views; perfect for a stroll, even if you don’t run. Aft on Deck 16, the Athletic Club has a continuous lounger that curves right round the profile of the ship and a big catamaran net suspended in the middle, with views 16 decks down to the water. My favourite outdoor space is The Dock on deck 7, an al fresco lounge with oversized sunbeds and potted plants.

The spa is beautiful, with a vast thermal suite of heated stone lounging spaces, a small pool, a glass-walled sauna and a mud room. It’s expensive, though; a 50-minute massage costs US$155 and a thermal suite pass on a sea day is a whopping $125, or $75 on a port day.

The Subtle Groom on the Scarlet Lady
The Subtle Groom on the Scarlet Lady

I thought the theatre, the Red Room, was exceptional, the shows genuinely edgy. We saw Duel Reality, an astonishingly athletic dance performance loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, with trapeze, giant poles and a gravity-defying acrobatic sequence on a see-saw.

The nightclub, The Manor, is extremely cool, spanning two decks with a thumping sound system. Late at night, it was packed, the ship’s resident drag queens the star attraction.

Other aspects are not so hot. I’ve nothing against a buffet. It’s the best way to feed people quickly at breakfast when the beach is beckoning. Branson claims to have banished the buffet but The Galley, a ‘food hall concept’, offers tacos, burgers and wraps from different serving stations and isn’t even as nice as some ships’ actual buffets. The main pool – the only pool, really, as the other one on deck is a whirlpool – is tiny. It’s got a massive surround, presumably for posing on (more Instagramming) but you couldn’t do laps in it.

The running track on the Scarlet Lady
The running track on the Scarlet Lady

I think the cabins will appeal more to younger cruisers than Gen X; they don’t whisper ‘luxury’, even though this ship is priced at the top end of the premium lines. Done out in grey, white and red, they have a minimalist feel – hipster, maybe, but boutique, no. There’s a weird setup whereby the bed splits in two, one section flush against the wall and the other becoming a kind of day bed. It reminds me of very old river cruise boats, with their bench-like beds, and not in a good way. The bathrooms are tiny; I heard one passenger, sorry, Sailor, as Virgin Voyages calls its customers, comparing hers to an aeroplane loo. The hammocks on the balconies are a nice touch, though.

I reckon this ship has real millennial appeal – the communal feel of a lot of the dining venues, the lounging spaces, the hip restaurants like the Korean barbecue that promises noisy drinking games, bottomless brunches, drag queens and a tattoo parlour. But CEO Tom McAlpin believes its appeal is broader, saying: “We’re not aiming at a specific demographic. We’re for people who want to have a good time. They want a sophisticated, luxurious experience, but at their pace. They might be 30 to 60, not just millennials. People who want to have fun and feel young again.”

A suite onboard the Scarlet Lady
A suite onboard the Scarlet Lady

Fact File

Cruise line: Virgin Voyages

Ship: Scarlet Lady

Launched: 2020

Star rating: Not yet rated

Tonnage: 110,000

Passenger decks: 14

Passenger capacity: 2,700

Crew: 1,150


Highs: Lots included – all restaurants, wifi, workout classes and tips. Edgy design and hopping nightlife, with a sense that anything goes

Lows: Stark cabins and some spaces feel over-designed

Verdict: A ship for the style-conscious – but not the shy and retiring.

Guitars in the rockstar suite on the Scarlet Lady
Guitars in the rockstar suite on the Scarlet Lady