The new cruise line is rocking the sea and making waves, so we gave it a spin.
All-night dance parties, six restaurants serving up menus from Korean BBQ through to vegan eats (and not a buffet in sight), drag shows, a comedic sex-therapist cabaret, circus performances to rival Cirque Du Soleil, an on-board tattoo parlour…and that’s just the beginning.
Welcome to Virgin Voyages.
Stepping foot on board Valiant Lady I’m greeted by a trio of popping and gyrating staff members more akin to the 2am welcome at my local gay club.
It’s a little bit of a shock to the system on a Sunday afternoon, but it doesn’t take long to get in the groove of the “party” cruise line that’s aiming to disrupt and revitalise the industry, and encourage a new generation to give cruising a go.
There’s a level of energy bubbling away amongst the newly embarked guests, or “sailors” as Virgin calls us, as each is granted a hip red wrist band instead of the usual clunky lanyard room key.
Stepping inside the Valiant Lady‘s cabins
Lifts are glimmering with underwater scenes and drenched in bright red and blue downlights.
The two-toned pink and turquoise curtains open to my sea terrace on entry and the room is spacious, modern and cleverly fitted out. A Virgin-red hammock beckons on the balcony, lighting has several mood options, and at the push of a button, the comfy bed is transformed into an L-shaped couch perfect for day-lounging, or twin share accommodation instead of the queen bed configuration.
Rockstar quarters are available for those that want to live to the max – complete with a personal “agent” for the voyage to look after your every whim.
The in-room welcome safety video has Virgin stamped all over it: it’s a music video, with instructions cleverly disguised as rock lyrics.
The pre-embarkation experience begins in advance, by downloading the compulsory Virgin Voyages app, where guest details are stored, bookings are made for excursions, dining, spa treatments, shows and so on. It’s also where the daily agenda is listed, though paper copies are available each day throughout the ship.
Still clunky and slow at times, I like where the app aims to sit in terms of serviceability. However, it’s still got a way to go before it’s smooth sailing on the tech front, but I’ve no doubt the savvy tech team will sort it out shortly.
There’s no denying this ship is sexy.
From her sleek lines and grey and red branding, through to the fit staff (there’s no shortage of biceps on board), and the interiors designed by some of the globe’s top architects and designers, including WORKac, Roman and Williams, and Roman Coppola. Each space has a unique personality with the customer experience and brand story at the forefront of the design.
Indulging in everything onboard
A champagne bar with caviar textured wallpaper, a record shop complete with an in-house DJ, a hotdog and candy-laden US diner leading onto an old-school games arcade, a cosy coffee shop (try the choc marshmallow cookies), and a giant net to lounge on for those who dare; it hangs directly over the ocean on deck 16.
Each Virgin ship features unique and original artwork by some of the world’s leading contemporary and street artists. Think giant melting ice-cream sculptures, murals, and textured wall hangings. Take part in the art scavenger hunt to explore them all in a fun way.
Inclusivity and equality are key values of Virgin Voyages, and across the seven days I’ve not seen one foot put out of place. Staff are encouraged to express themselves with makeup, jewellery, tattoos, and their sense of humour shining through service.
A cheeky waitstaff informs me that he is the English Breakfast when I ask for details on the secret breakfast menu at Razzle Dazzle, the veg-led and personality fuelled restaurant. It’s also worth noting that Virgin staff aren’t shuffled below deck when not on duty.
It’s a refreshing approach, with off-duty staff being allowed to enjoy the ship alongside guests. While guests have priority, staff can dine at the restaurants, and enjoy the entertainment and facilities during their well-earnt time-off.
The result? Happy staff, guests that enjoy conversations and connections with the ship stars off duty, and an overwhelmingly fun and energized boat. The proof is in the pudding with seventy per cent of staff jumping ship to join Virgin from other cruise lines.
In an attempt to balance out the endless stream of culinary indulgences, I utilise our Mediterranean at-sea day for a double session at the gym, and while peddling off some late-night pizza I watch as a team of engineers swiftly install the disability chair for the pool in front of the gym window.
The ship caters for wheelchairs as professionally as it caters for all manner of dietaries, lifestyle choices and genders.
The only demographic not included? Kids. This is a serious adults-only ship, designed for over 18s.
Let’s talk entertainment.
This is, after all, a very entertaining voyage from daybreak through until the unspeakable hours of the early morning. There’s no theatre, instead, The Red Room is a genius multi-purpose space that can transform from tiered theatre seating to circus space, to revolving dance stage, to runway. It allows for an entertainment schedule that defies pigeon-holing.
UNTITLED DANCESHOWPARTYTHING has got to be seen, an explanation doesn’t do it justice. Performers, musicians, DJs and hosts are of world-class quality.
There’s not a weak link, and the ship has taken the unique angle of scrapping the position of Cruise Director, instead breaking the role up to a team of hosts – the “Happenings Team”, each with their specialized skill.
The other main entertainment space, The Manor, is designed by Roman and Williams and inspired by Branson’s first music studio.
It’s easy to forget you are at sea once within the mirrored, starry hallway. Dark and moody, with a dark green and gold fit out and plenty of nooks and crannies, this multi-functional space operates as a cabaret venue evolving into a late-night club.
You’ll also find karaoke rooms, a games arcade, old-school board games and foosball tables, quiz nights, craft sessions, and of course a casino and shops – including a vibrator store.
Music plays a key role, with live and piped music setting the tone of each venue.
Scarlet Night is the party night of the cruise, with the ship activated via pop-up installations, roving performers and culminating in a wet n’ wild red-themed rooftop pool party.
Don’t forget to pack your red party outfit, as it’s quite the night.
Dining on board is cutting edge.
Gone is the classic cruise line-up of a dining room, casual buffet, steakhouse and Italian restaurant.
Instead, you’ll find six unique restaurants, each with its own sommelier, kitchen, executive chef and bespoke waitstaff.
Throughout the cruise, I dined at each once, along with as many of the casual eateries and bars as possible.
There’s not much you can’t find onboard – bento boxes, all-day English fry-ups, toasties, ramen, poke bowls, tapas, salads, burgers, hotdogs, tacos, an ice-cream parlour and a pizza lounge – even the largest appetite would find it hard to get through the whole range over a seven-day itinerary.
Sustainability is a huge focus , with Virgin Voyages is committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The bookability and cook-to-order nature of all menus (even casual), means that food waste is at a minimum.
There is no disposable cutlery, packaging or water bottles provided at any point – instead, grab a container and bring it back when done.
Another radical initiative: all food is included in the price of the cruise. There’s no surcharge for the fanciest of steaks or the super-fun Korean BBQ, which gives a real sense of freedom of choice and indulgence.
From fine dining and wining at the Wake, experimental cooking at TheTest Kitchen, Italian at Extra Virgin, Mexican at Pink Agave, Korean BBQ (and drinking games) at Gunbae through to the veg-heavy Razzle Dazzle, there is something for everyone.
That goes for drinks too – each venue has its own wine and cocktail list, with oodles of non-alcoholic options.
It’s as easy to party hard, as it is to detox and enjoy a pampering wellness retreat with five grooming and pampering spaces onboard including the Redemption Spa: a sleek and angular hideaway complete with hydrotherapy pool, mud room, salt room, cold plunge pools, sauna and steam room. I enjoyed both a deep tissue massage and an acupuncture session onboard with qualified therapists for each treatment.
A cruise with Virgin Voyages encourages guests to live life to the full. On my last sail away, I’m joined in the rooftop spa by one of the more mature sailors – a stylish 76-year-old British lady. “Do you think my tattoo will be okay in the water?” she asks her son while giving us a good look at her freshly inked leg – complete with a V for Virgin on it. This is her first cruise, but it certainly won’t be her last.
Virgin might be a newcomer to the industry, but there’s no question they are here to stay. More please.
This is a true innovation in the cruise industry. Dining, entertainment, design – every element delivers and is aligned with Branson’s vision. Whether you are after a party at sea or a wellness retreat – It’s a wild choose your own adventure for grownups.
The compulsory app functionality still needs some polishing – it’s clunky at times. Shore excursions work with small local operators and we had a few last-minute cancellations (standard really in Covid times), but it was a high quality and intimate experience on the tours that ran. This is a cruise with a lot going for it, but if you are after a “best of the musicals” stage show and an old-school buffet stick to one of the classic (and perhaps soon-to-be outdated) cruise lines out there.
Who is Virgin Cruises best for?
A luxury cruise for the young at heart. 18 to 60+. Couples, friends, adult families, singles (there are singles events if you’re looking for love), LGBTQ, disabled. The average age of guests is 42-46, with a maximum of 2770 sailors on any one cruise.