ALL IN GOOD FUN
Virgin Voyages’ adults-only cruises bring out the kid in everyone. Written by Bridget Williams
Not even a hand-written note signed by his five grandchildren was enough to persuade Sir Richard Branson to change course from the adults-only policy aboard his Virgin Voyages cruise line. This endearing anecdote came to light on a balmy evening this past May during a champagne toast with the affable entrepreneur as the Valiant Lady pulled out of the harbor in Barcelona for the ship's maiden voyage in the Mediterranean.
The 72-year-old billionaire, fresh from the fitness studio and still in his workout gear, possesses a natural gift of gab and effortlessly worked the crowd of media and VIPs assembled for an al fresco reception at The Dock lounge before sitting down to recount the story of how Virgin Voyages came to be. Branson said he was planning on spending a few days on board before jetting off to South Africa for a meeting of a group initially brought together by Nelson Mandela called The Elders. The independent global leaders works together on peacekeeping and human rights issues.
After the pandemic pushed back Virgin Voyages’ initial launch multiple times, Branson, who says he'd never been interested in a cruise vacation until he designed his own line from start-to-finish using insight gleaned from creating Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Active, Virgin America, and even Virgin Galactic, is buoyed by the early enthusiastic response and numbers of fellow first-time cruisers.
My twenty-two-year-old daughter, a cruising newbie, accompanied me on my first big ship sail since 1996. The memories of that budget experience had set the bar low in my mind, and I'd even warned my daughter about a cramped cabin, mediocre food, and long lines - all of which were quickly disproven as soon as we entered the cruise terminal. We breezed through check-in, received bracelets that served as our room key and credit card, and were swiftly escorted to our room, where our bags were already waiting for us. En route, we admired the chic, sometimes cheeky interiors conceived by a global team, a sizeable number of those chosen because they'd never worked on a ship before. The design directive from the top was to create forward-thinking premium spaces that are both glamorous and fun.
Our central sea terrace room felt much roomier than its reported 225 square feet, with boutique-hotel-inspired design elements; a Seabed, the first-ever transformational cabin bed at sea, specially engineered and handcrafted by Walter Knoll in Germany; tablet-adjustable mood lighting; and a roomy rain shower. I am not one for sitting still, but I spent quite a great deal of time in the early mornings soaking up the sea scenery in our terrace's signature red woven hammock. Created by artisans from Yellow Leaf, the social enterprise fosters women's empowerment and community transformation in rural Thailand. Eighty-six percent of Virgin Voyages' cabins feature a balcony.
Each ship features 78 suites on board. These RockStar Quarters sailors get backstage access at every corner, including first dibs on reservations for dining, entertainment, and shore excursions. At the top of the food chain is the Massive suite (2,17 square feet), which includes its own music room, complete with guitars and an amplifier, as well as a private hot tub, an outdoor dining area for six, and a marble-clad bathroom. Boxing area at Training Camp.
My daughter and I are like two peas in a pod, but we definitely have different agendas when it comes to travel. The cruise format allowed us to have a personalized holiday experience together. So, while I was an early riser who relished gym time and partaking of complimentary classes ranging from boxing to bungee, she could sleep in and meet me for brunch at The Galley. In this expansive food hall, she indulged her love of sushi, and I went old school with bacon and eggs at the 24-hour retro-styled Diner & Dash.
The ship is a haven for wellness enthusiasts, with a secluded yoga sundeck with 360-degree views, a running track, an outdoor training area complete with a boxing ring, and massive fitness studios with separate spaces for cardio and strength training. Pampering is provided by the Redemption Spa, where there's a hydrotherapy pool, mud room, salt room, cold plunge pools, and quartz beds. In addition, the spa is host to evening soirees where a DJ transforms the thermal suite into a mermaid hideaway extravaganza.
At the launch cocktail reception, Tom McAlpin, President & CEO of Virgin Voyages, said that in the initial planning stages, it became evident that people weren't overly enthusiastic about the beige buffets synonymous with mass-market cruising. So instead, they opted for a made-to-order format for each ship's 20 dining outlets, with menus created in collaboration with Michelin-starred chefs. This improves quality and reduces waste as part of a larger initiative to "green" the cruise industry.
And, for those who relish in bounteous buffets, fear not, as a wide variety of high-quality dining options (akin to what you'd find on dry land) are available around the clock. While reservations are often a must outside The Galley, Gunbae, a lively Korean- style barbeque, is the only restaurant where your party is seated with strangers. The arrangement presented no problem as the cheerleader-like servers had us playing a soju drinking game like we were old friends in no time.
An amuse-bouche for the eyes, the unique interior design of each dining venue is perfectly in-step with the cuisine. At The Wake, a surf and turf spot leaning towards the refined side, descending a grand staircase reveals a large window at the ship's aft. Euro-centric styling with touches of mid-century mod complements the elevated Italian fare served at Extra Virgin. Mirroring its "naughty or nice" menu is a bold graphic black and white theme at Razzle Dazzle Restaurant. The uniquely illuminated entrances at the sleek Tom Dixon-designed Pink Agave restaurant and The Manor nightclub are Instagram gold.
Each of the seven bars and lounges on board has a similarly unique flair. I loved how you could go directly from beer, air hockey, and arcade games at the Loose Cannon pub to a refined afternoon of high tea in the elegant environs at Sip Lounge.
The aforementioned The Manor is inspired by Branson's history in the music industry and his first-ever Virgin music studio of the same name. It's the site of everything from a 1980s-inspired workout class, complete with Shakeweights, to Never Sleep Alone, a participatory show starring Dr. A, a funny and straight-talking relationship therapist. Richard's Rooftop, an exclusive outdoor lounge reserved for the ship's suite guests, was our daily go-to for an afternoon glass of bubbly.
Nearly every night, we went to The Red Room, the first transformational multi-form theatre for a dance party or a jaw- dropping cirque-style performance. Then, inspired by Voyage Vinyl, the onboard record shop, we booked a private room at The Groupie and sang karaoke to our heart's content, happy knowing that no one but us could hear. The diversity of the enthusiastic staff, dedicated to the principle of providing "RockStar" service, is reflective of the clientele. For example, Virgin Voyages proudly proclaims that each ship's 1,160 crew members are permitted to have visible tattoos.
"We encourage our Crew to express their individuality and 'come as you are,'" said McAlpin. After my daughter and I took first place (and a complimentary cocktail) in a dodgeball tournament held on the ship's basketball court, we talked with the event hostess. She affirmed McAlpin's sentiment and expressed how much she enjoyed her time working aboard. This heterogeneity is highlighted during Scarlet Night, a ship-wide party full of as much debauchery as you'd like it to be. It culminated in a pool party where octogenarians danced alongside buff twenty-somethings clad only in teenie weenie sequined bikini bottoms.
And, speaking of tattoos, a cruise ship is the last place I’d think of to get inked for the first time. However, following a casual peek inside Squid Ink—the first tattoo studio at sea operated in partnership with the world-renowned artisans of Tattoo Ink—my daughter convinced me to sign us up to get matching “points in common” on the inside of our wrists. Though I felt we were insulting the artistic skills of the tattooists with our simplistic scheme, they made the experience fun and memorable.
While many of our fellow sailors seemed content lounging poolside and enjoying the fantastic soundtrack presented by a rotating lineup of DJs every day, there was a full schedule of programming covering topics such as acupuncture to anti-aging workshops. Ports of call also offered scores of creative shore excursions. While we were sad to miss the tour of Sienna behind the wheel of a vintage Fiat, we enjoyed an e-bike tour and tasting at a French winery with a visit to a medieval castle, visiting a honey "farm," and checking out the "hippie market" during a two-day stop in Ibiza. However, at most ports, we enjoyed a lot of DIY wandering.
Disembarking to stroll the streets of old Ibiza at sunrise presented us with a curious parade. The trudge of glitter-covered revelers with smeary eye makeup who felt immortal just a few hours ago contrasted with the brisk pace of early bird exercisers chasing immortality in an entirely different fashion. Yachts lined the harbor like bikes in a rack outside a vinyl shop on record day. Phones make it nearly impossible to truly get lost these days. So, at each ancient Mediterranean port of call, it was fun to pocket it for a bit to get temporarily turned about in a maze of alleyways and staircases where the likes of Napoleon once tread and then return to the ship in time for a king's feast of a dinner. sl
Valiant Lady sails seven-night Mediterranean itineraries out of Barcelona, Spain. These sailings include three feature itineraries: "French Daze & Ibiza Nights," " Irresistible Med," and "Spanish Obsession." For more information visit virginvoyages.com.