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Virgin Voyages gets its sea legs

Passengers gather around the pool as the Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages’ first cruise ship, prepares to sail. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
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“Yoha!”

On a sweltry morning in early December, two cruisers were cracking up at the Miami terminal where Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady was docked. They repeated the curious word and laughed.

“Yoha!” they giggled.

After catching their breath, they shared their inside joke. They pointed to a sign on a median where shuttles and taxis were dropping off passengers. The giant red letters spelled out “AHOY.”

“I read it from the other side, and didn’t know what ‘yoha’ meant,” one half of the traveling duo said as she clutched a coffee cup that did not contain a hot beverage. (She shook it so I could hear the citrus garnish.)

“It’s ahoy, not yoha!” her friend exclaimed, delivering the punchline.

We chuckled at the mistake, but in all seriousness, her confusion was justified: The new cruise line, a rebel on the sapphire seas, was sometimes puzzling. On more than one occasion, I was not sure whether a particular experience was intended (ahoy) or accidental (yoha).

“Welcome to uncharted territory,” the message on my five-night Riviera Maya confirmation stated. “We’re turning everything on its head.”

The Virgin Group, which owns Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic, is a familiar fixture in higher altitudes. The company’s billionaire founder, Sir Richard Branson, had been interested in creating a cruise line since his days as a young entrepreneur. However, his idea did not stir to life until about seven years ago, when he was in his 60s.

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Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri delivered the cruise line’s first vessel, Scarlet Lady, in February 2020. Her maiden voyage — or MerMaiden, in Virgin’s pun-laced parlance — was scheduled for April 1, 2020, from Miami. The pandemic upended those plans. Instead, the ship launched from Portsmouth, England, in August 2021. The following month, Scarlet Lady, which bears the name of a vintage Virgin Atlantic plane, crossed the Atlantic.

On Oct. 6, she finally set sail from her home port of Miami. Since then, the 2,770-passenger ship has been regularly cruising to ports in the Bahamas, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Within the next two years, the fleet will grow to four vessels on both sides of the Atlantic. Or at least that’s the goal.

The coronavirus continues to hammer away at the cruise industry, which received a serious bruising at the start of the pandemic. As omicron cases surge worldwide, thousands of passengers and crew members on U.S.-based cruise ships have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past few weeks. Several Caribbean ports, such as Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, recently turned away vessels carrying infected travelers. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its warning to Level 4, the highest category, and advised against cruising, even for vaccinated travelers.

“As we’ve seen globally with the new variant, breakthrough cases have become a very recent reality,” a Virgin Voyages spokesperson said. “We will always follow expert advice as we all continue to live with, and adapt to, covid-19.” The company has implemented several safety measures, such as a vaccine mandate for all passengers and staff and preboarding testing at the Miami port. It is also encouraging travelers to receive a booster shot and wear masks indoors.

Branson, an iconoclast with a ski slope of white hair, wanted his cruise line to stand out from the other fish in the sea. For example, Virgin Voyages caters to adults; the youngest passenger allowed onboard can vote but not drink. (For an age-appropriate buzz, the Grounds Club offers kombucha and espresso shots.) The ship is tech-forward: An app performs the duties of Julie McCoy, and every cabin comes with a tablet that can request housekeeping services, play movies on the TV and set the mood — “Zen,” “Hangover,” “Get It On.” Basic WiFi is complimentary, as are fitness classes and specialty restaurants, a rarity in the industry. Soda flows freely from dispensers.

The company’s commitment to the environment runs deep. Its Epic Sea Change For All initiative features such eco-friendly practices as a single-use plastic ban and carbon offsetting. Passengers can fill their reusable water bottles at public spigots, a throwback to pre-norovirus days, and buy coral-reef-safe sunscreen in the gift shop. Of course, the green is paired with a fiery red. Virgin’s cheeky spirit and inimitable style, including a liberal application of its signature color, have shed their land legs for a mermaid tail.

On the day of our departure, two male crew members dressed in short red jumpsuits greeted passengers on the gangplank. “Ahoy, sailors,” they said with straight faces and a bounce in their steps.

I first booked passage on the Scarlet Lady for spring 2020. To keep me on the hook, the cruise line dangled some beguiling bait. After several cancellations, I requested a refund and walked away from a $500 onboard credit and a suite with the full bratty rock star treatment.

When I returned a year later, several cabin categories were already sold out, a consequence of growing demand and capacity limits of 50 to 65 percent. (The cruise line will cap passenger numbers through at least January.) I chose an XL Sea Terrace cabin, a few notches below my original digs but hardly a root cellar: The stateroom had a convertible bed, a generous closet and a spacious balcony strung with a red hammock woven by female artisans from Thailand’s Mlabri tribe. The one oddity: no bathroom door.

A few weeks before my departure, the reminders started to roll into my inbox. To make dinner reservations. To check in. To bid on an upgrade. To bid on an upgrade. To bid on an upgrade. I uploaded my health and travel information on the app, selected an arrival time and booked dinner at the Test Kitchen, a multicourse feast orchestrated by mad scientists in toques. With more than 20 eateries, I figured I could wing the remainder of my meals. Standing in line at the terminal, I started to question the wisdom of my laissez-faire approach.

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“The one thing we learned from our last cruise was that you need to book your restaurants as soon as possible,” a repeat Virgin cruiser advised me. I asked the Florida couple to name their favorite dining spot. “The Wake,” the husband answered, referring to the seafood and steakhouse. “But it books up fast.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t act fast. My phone was preoccupied with the check-in process, which included scanning a QR code for a rapid test. After I received my negative result (on my phone, of course), I presented my wrist to a crew member. He fastened a bracelet made of yarn and recycled ocean plastic around it. For the next five days, the Band would open my cabin door and buy me drinks.

Before settling in, I set off on a reconnaissance tour of the Scarlet Lady. Decks 6 and 15 looked promising. The lower deck contained several restaurants, including the Wake, Test Kitchen and Extra Virgin, an Italian trattoria; High Street, a collection of high-end boutiques and sundry shops; the Red Room and the Manor, entertainment venues; the casino; On the Rocks, a martini bar with live music; and Squid Ink, a tattoo parlor that was busier than its neighbor, a duty-free liquor store. Deck 15, meanwhile, would take care of my swimming, sweating and salon needs. It was also home to the Galley, the closest approximation of a buffet I could find on the ship.

The Galley resembled an international food hall with wittily named stations, such as Let’s Taco Bout It, Well Bread and Hot off the Press. At Diner & Dash, I approached a chef overseeing the made-to-order omelets and asked whether he could assemble a plate of mushroom toast for me. He said I would need to find a seat and a waiter would take my order. I knew that passengers could no longer serve themselves (for safety reasons), but I had never heard of a “buffet” with table service.

I sat by Noodle Around, and eventually a waiter appeared. He directed me to a QR code on the table, but I explained my off-menu request. He checked off the ingredients on his gadget, and I wished him Godspeed. Meanwhile, my friend returned from his foraging expedition with a stack of boxes filled with sushi from Bento Baby, one of the few grab-and-go options. I envied him as I waited. Finally, the waiter resurfaced with my special. On the way out, I thanked the chef and, succumbing to old buffet habits, asked for one more piece of bread. He slipped me a slice.

For much of the cruise, the Galley slung a hash of bewilderment and frustration. On the first morning, a cruiser from Virginia ordered scrambled eggs and ham, but the meaty half of the combo was missing. Another passenger requested Cheerios and received cornflakes. Nearby, a couple cleared space on their table for a procession of dishes caused by a technical glitch. “We are having Internet problems, and the ticketing system is down,” said a crew member, explaining the multitude of plates. “Then they got four orders.”

I later learned that the Galley’s unconventional arrangement was intended to cut down on food waste. For some passengers, it worked beyond expectations; for others, it failed miserably.

Before the ship pushed off from Miami, it was filled by the captain’s voice. Over the PA system, he introduced himself — Captain Marco Carsjens of the Netherlands — and told us that we were on the most relaxed and casual cruise line. Also, we should expect minimal interruptions. This meant no barrage of announcements informing us that bingo cards were going on sale, or that the posture workshop was about start, or that we needed to be back on the ship at a certain time or risk getting left in Cozumel or Bimini.

“It’s the Virgin way,” he said, for the first and last time we would hear from him.

The Virgin way is protean: It shifts shapes to fit each cruiser. If your level of activity is sloth, then you will be perfectly content soaking in a hot tub within ordering distance of the bar or lounging at the private Beach Club on Bimini in the Bahamas flipping over only to cook your other side. If you are more like a hummingbird, as I am, then you will need to make nice with the app, the main keeper of the daily schedule. Unfortunately, the app didn’t always reciprocate.

On the night of the starlit pajama dance party, I ducked out early and repaired to a hammock with my phone. I hit two main obstacles: The app was squirrelly, and many of the activities were booked, including yoga, bungee classes, spinning, barre and “Never Sleep Alone” a sex therapy show with audience participation. However, I persisted and snapped up three shows, “Duel Reality,” “Ships in the Night” and “UNTITLED DANCESHOWPARTYTHING” (the latter two were canceled because of lighting issues); dinner at Razzle Dazzle, a veg-friendly restaurant, and Gunbae, a Korean barbecue joint; and an eye makeup demo at the Mac store. The app finally staged a protest when I tried to reserve the snorkel-with-the-sharks adventure in Bimini. I would need a human to help me wrestle the technology into submission.

For the remainder of my free time, I let spontaneity be my guiding light. I dropped into live music performances by the Free Label, an R&B and pop music band from Toronto, and blues maestro Slam Allen. I shot hoops in the basketball court. Channeled post-Vietnam era Jane Fonda at an ‘80s-themed fitness class. Played three failing rounds of bingo. Lost $20 of my friend’s money in the slot machines. Paid that same amount to have my toes painted “Virgin” red for Scarlet Night, a fete with giant inflatable creatures and splash dancing in the pool. Humored my enfant terrible by inquiring about a tattoo. The studio was fully booked (oh well), but one of the artists said he could squeeze me in after hours. My prim alter ego politely declined.

Cruise ships typically push you out on the final morning. Virgin didn’t seem to care whether I lingered a while. I (finally) attended a yoga class. The instructor led us in a mantra: We repeated “om sham namah” three times, which, according to a class handout, means “I honor the abundance of life.” Afterward, I joined my friend in the Galley. The waiter swiftly delivered my breakfast — no errors, no waste. I eventually had to leave, because I had somewhere else to be. While waiting for a ride to the airport, I glanced over at the “ahoy” sign. “Yoha” was nowhere to be seen.

Addendum: A few weeks after my cruise, I spoke with Nirmal Saverimuttu, chief commercial and experience officer at Virgin Voyages, about the issues I had encountered. “It’s a complicated IT system. We are looking to fix it every day,” he said of the glitches affected the app and the waitstaff’s devices. “The technology should be in place by the first quarter of next year.” He also said some passengers have expressed a wish to disconnect from their phones. To accommodate these folks, the ship will add more digital screens in public areas and add staff members who can assist with in-person bookings. To help diners with restaurant reservations, he said the company plans to improve table availability. However, for the near future, the dining rooms will continue to limit capacity. As for the canceled shows, he said engineers have repaired the LED panels in the Red Room, and both performances have returned to the stage. And the booked-up fitness classes? That one was on me. “They fill up fast.” I should have pounced when I had the chance.

If you go

Virgin Voyages

954-488-2955

virginvoyages.com

The Scarlet Lady sails from PortMiami and will depart from the new Terminal V this spring. The ship follows a number of four- and five-night Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries, such as the Riviera Maya, which visits Cozumel and Bimini in the Bahamas; Dominican Daze, to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic and Bimini; and Fire and Sunset Soirées, to Nassau and Bimini. Prices vary by date, cabin and itinerary. For example, the Riviera Maya cruise in late February starts at $1,950 per person double, plus taxes, for an inside cabin and from $2,450 for a stateroom with a terrace. Price includes all restaurants, fitness classes, shows, basic beverages, basic WiFi, tram ride to the Beach Club at Bimini and gratuities. All passengers must be fully vaccinated. The cruise line’s second ship, Valiant Lady, will start offering Mediterranean cruises in March from Portsmouth, England, and later from its home port in Barcelona.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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