The first Virgin Voyages cruise ship with paying passengers on board set sail Friday August 6, after Covid-induced delays pushed back the launch of the Richard Branson-owned cruise line by over a year.
The swanky Scarlet Lady vessel departed Portsmouth, England at 7pm local time for a three-day inaugural sailing around the UK.
It’s the first of Scarlet Lady’s scheduled six summer UK “staycation” voyages, available only to fully vaccinated UK residents over 18. The majority of crew on board will also be fully vaccinated – 100% of Virgin crew have received at least one vaccine dose.
The ship is sailing at reduced capacity. Virgin hasn’t confirmed exact numbers, but said none of its UK summer sailings will exceed 65% capacity.
On paper it seems like a tough time to launch a cruise line – much of the world’s cruise fleet has been grounded for the better part of the last year in the wake of Covid-19, with most vessels only recently recommencing sailing in the US and Europe.
“Covid came at a bad time, when we were right in the middle of launch, but we’ve weathered through it, we’ve got great investors behind us – and now we believe is an opportune time, because now we’re starting to see things pick up, there’s going to be a travel boom,” Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages, tells CNN Travel.
Virgin Voyages’ inaugural sailing comes only a couple weeks after Richard Branson’s trip to suborbital space.
McAplin, who was at the space launch, says Branson’s flight and Scarlet Lady’s launch are both linked by their emphasis on innovation.
“Every Virgin business is about innovating and finding new ways of doing things,” he says.
The 277-meter-long Scarlet Lady vessel is said to be “superyacht-inspired,” offering what Virgin says is a fresh take on cruise ship design.
There are 1,408 passenger cabins – 93% of which have ocean views – and 813 crew cabins.
Passenger’s beds can be turned into a couch during the day, for example, and each guest room is fitted with Virgin’s trademark mood lighting.
“We wanted to create a sophisticated yet relaxed adults-only experience on these beautifully designed ships that are yacht-inspired,” Nirmal Saverimuttu, Virgin Voyages’ chief commercial officer, tells CNN Travel, adding that the cruise line deliberately employed designers who’d never worked on cruise ships before.
British cruise blogger Emma Le Teace, who runs the blog Emma Cruises, toured Scarlet Lady in early 2020, and says she had mixed feelings about the ship design.
“I was excited about the new cruise line and loved some concepts like the all-inclusive dining and included WiFi but felt that Virgin missed the mark on a number of basic cruising design elements,” Le Teace tells CNN Travel. Le Teace wasn’t sure about the small pool. She also wasn’t convinced by the converting beds, which she felt wouldn’t work well if you were sharing with a friend.
That said, it was Virgin’s commitment to going against the grain that prompted Le Teace to book a spot on one of the UK summer sailings.
“I’m excited to try a new cruise line and am looking forward to the Virgin Voyages entertainment and food on board. I don’t suspect that this cruise will be like any cruise I’ve been on before and although I think the cruise line will divide opinions, that’s what Virgin Voyages has always wanted,” she says.
“Virgin has made a conscious effort to be different to other cruise lines and I’m interested to see which cruising traditions they have changed.”
Le Teace was also initially concerned about a high price point, which has since been brought down. Rates for the UK sailings start at £499 ($691) for three-night voyages and £599 ($830) for four.
Virgin hopes British travelers will be comfortable on board the staycation sailings, not just because of the design elements, but because of the vaccination policy and other Covid-19 safety measures.
“We are requiring vaccinations for all of our sailors – and our aspiration is for all of our crew to be vaccinated as well,” says McAlpin, adding that pre-boarding testing is also a key part of the experience.
Virgin Voyages will be providing free antigen testing at the terminal. Travelers also have to complete a health-check form pre-sail.
McAlpin says the ship will effectively be its own “bubble” and the “controlled environment” makes it “the safest possible way to travel.”
Travelers must wear masks at the pre-boarding test site, at the port terminal and on shuttle services. On board the UK sailings, Virgin Voyages recommends travelers wear a mask while walking around the ship, or when they’re not able to social distance.
Crew will wear face coverings “for the foreseeable future,” confirms McAlpin.
The events of spring and summer 2020 confirmed that working on a cruise ship can be a tough job. Stuck on board in the midst of the pandemic, many crew members struggled with their mental health.
Crew well-being is a priority for Virgin, says Saverimuttu, citing free access to on-board WiFi and hot beverages as essential.
“We really want to take care of them because they are the foundation of our experience.”
In the early days of the pandemic, many Covid-hit vessels were turned away from ports, and struggled to disembark passengers and crew.
In June 2021, Royal Caribbean and Carnival told CNN Travel that they had agreements with ports to act as disembarkation centers if need be.
McAlpin echoes this.
“The world has accepted the fact that Covid is a reality” that needs to be dealt with, he says, but he’s also confident that the vaccination policy will keep outbreaks at bay.
“The good news is that with the vaccines, even in the unlikely event that we have one or two cases, they’re not going to be severe cases that (require) hospitalization,” says McAlpin. “Even with that, we have ways of isolating and managing through it.”
Contactless payments, virtual lines and a reimagined buffet were already in the pipeline for Virgin Voyages pre-pandemic, but the cruise line has doubled down on those elements since Covid.
Still, recent news stories have confirmed coronavirus on cruise ships isn’t a thing of the past – in the US, Covid cases were recently detected on board both a Carnival Cruise Line ship and a Royal Caribbean ship.
Carnival responded by introducing a mask requirement for all passengers.
Virgin Voyages didn’t intend to operate its inaugural voyage out of the UK, but McAlpin says the company is pleased to do so.
“The UK, it’s the birthplace of this brand, it’s our spiritual homeland, if you will,” he says.
The UK is also a big market for Virgin, says McAlpin.
“We’re doing this to showcase what we have to offer to travel agents and to consumers.”
Virgin Voyages is one of several cruise lines operating “staycation” sailings this summer, with P&O, Disney, MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean among the other operators.
Some of the cruise lines are making port stop offs around the UK, whereas Virgin’s cruise is a round-trip to Portsmouth with no stops.
McAlpin says he’s not worried about the crowded market, saying bookings have been popular so far.
Cruise fan Le Teace has already taken two UK-based sailings this summer, one via MSC and one with Celebrity Cruises.
“Both were fantastic,” she says.
It was Virgin operating on her doorstep – with prices she felt were fair – that ultimately prompted Le Teace to book a sailing.
“I initially wasn’t planning on booking a cruise on board Scarlet Lady but when looking at summer staycations I realized that the prices of a Virgin Voyages cruise were similar to that of other mainstream cruise lines,” she says.
International cruising is now able to recommence in the UK, but Le Teace says she’s been enjoying experiencing local waters.
“It’s often the case that we don’t take the time to explore the places closest to home and the staycation season has taken me to amazing places on my doorstep. I felt incredibly safe on both cruises as many Covid safety measures were in place such as vaccine requirements, testing, social distancing, and extra cleaning. I felt much safer on board the ships than I do in my day-to-day life on land.”
Top photo: Scarlet Lady arrived into Portsmouth, England before her departure on August 6, 2021. (Photo by Strong Island Media)