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Virgin Voyages Might be for You
If you prefer molecular gastronomy to buffets book a cruise on the Scarlet Lady
Richard Branson once hypnotized me and stole my watch. Well, actually he did a sleight-of-hand trick during an interview a few years ago in which he asked me to close my eyes. When he asked me to open them, the billionaire had managed to take off my Gucci watch. Branson then rolled up his crisp white shirt to reveal my watch on his wrist. He did so with the most delightful and joyous giggle I’ve heard coming from any grown man. I’ve been a super fan ever since.
Branson puts that same joie de vivre into all his Virgin brands, including his Virgin Voyages cruise line.
A month ago, I booked a four-night cruise on the Scarlet Lady, which sails from Port of Miami. I was burnt out and needed a mini break. A short, adults-only cruise where I could sit on deck with a cocktail was the vacay I needed.
The ship is not a mega cruise ship equipped with water slides, go-karts, and two-story dining rooms. There is no shopping mall in the middle of the ship, nor are there art auctions, people hawking cheap watches, or photographers taking pictures of you embarking the vessel in front of a backdrop of palm trees.
Sailors (that’s what passengers are called) can get a permanent souvenir at the tattoo parlor (I got a large hot pink octopus etched onto my arm), enjoy a drag show, play retro video games, and dance to a house DJ.
And, instead of giant dining rooms and buffets, there are actual restaurants. This is the main attraction of the ship — and it doesn’t disappoint.
In fact, the entire cruise seems to cater to foodies, with an at-sea bar crawl, tequila tasting, and classes on how to photograph your food for the ‘Gram.
The Scarlet Lady, which sails out of Port of Miami, offers several sit-down restaurants from an Italian bistro (Extra Virgin) to a classic steakhouse (the Wake) to a Korean barbecue complete with drinking games (Gunbae). There’s also a Mexican restaurant (Pink Agave), a Mediterranean eatery (the Dock), a vegan-friendly spot (Razzle-Dazzle), a cheeky little ice cream parlor called Lick Me Till Ice Cream, and a food hall complete with a 24-hour diner, a ramen stand, sushi, a pastry shop, and more. The ship also offers individual pizzas, served until the wee hours of the morning, and premium coffee drinks (not included in the voyage price).
Virgin also operates a molecular gastronomy restaurant on the ship called Test Kitchen. Here, your server takes you through a multiple-course tasting menu a la Alinea at no additional charge (there are upcharges for optional wine, beer, or cocktail pairings).
Frank Weber, senior vice president of fleet operations for Virgin Voyages says the ship is, indeed, designed for people who want to experiment. “The Test Kitchen, for example, is a way to experience a tasting menu that most people wouldn’t take the risk to spend several hundred dollars on. If you don’t like it, go get a pizza. That’s fine too. We’re really tapping into creating experiences.”
Weber adds that this spirit of adventure is what the ship is about. “It’s really about something that you take back with you. I might try something new and put myself in the hands of the chef. These experiences transform our sailors and it transforms our crew. It’s what we call a sea change.”
The ship’s bar program, designed in part by Miami-based heavy hitters, Bar Lab and Cocktail Cartel (and including a red ale specially brewed for the ship by Wynwood Brewing Co.) is also exceptional. The froze was one of the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot of froze in my life).
So how did the fare at sea rate? Like any series of restaurants, there are some hits and some misses. The riskiest of all the ventures, Test Kitchen, was a home run. A specifically vague menu lists courses as “corn,” “beetroot,” and “salmon,” as prompts for the server to walk you through the thought process behind each plate. Some of the courses were divisive — my friend, for instance, was not fond of the asparagus sorbet that I loved — but we both agreed that the strawberries with white chocolate and wasabi mousse were to die for.
Pink Agave was also a fine experience, serving more traditional Mexican fare like roasted duck with mole and cochinita pibil instead of quesadillas and burritos. The Wake steakhouse also has some of the best clam chowder I’ve had in a long time, and Extra Virgin’s antipasti was a delight.
Razzle Dazzle, on the other hand, seemed like it was designed purely for Instagram. French toast with rainbow sprinkles might look great, but it was flavorless, as was the chicken sandwich on a charcoal bun.
The food hall served its purpose for some quick eats — a veggie burger, a bagel and lox, a quick pastry to sate a sweet tooth. A nice touch was the charging stations at the communal bar-height tables. Expect lines for the late-night pizza (which wasn’t the best pizza, but served its purpose at 1 a.m.). The ship also offers room service, which we took advantage of each morning (there is a $5 service fee, but it’s worth it to have coffee each morning on the red hammock swing on the balcony).
More than anything, however, the people working on the ship were friendly — and happy. One bartender, who sported blue dreadlocks, mentioned how when he worked on a different cruise line, he had to cut his hair. “Virgin lets me be who I am,” he said. I heard similar stories from many other crew members, who were seen laughing with guests and clearly felt valued for their unique talents.
In all, a four-night voyage cost a bit under $2,000 for two people in a balcony cabin (not including drinks and the octopus tattoo). If you find yourself looking for a place to unwind, breathe in some sea air, and eat yourself silly, Virgin Voyages might be for you.