If you know anything about Richard Branson, you know he’s all about the unusual and extraordinary! When he decided to start a new cruise line a few years ago under the Virgin banner, he definitely applied these principles. The original launch of the first Virgin Voyages ship, the Scarlet Lady, was supposed to happen in April 2020, but we all know what was going on at that time. Fortunately, after a year and a half of considerable patience and anticipation, I was able to finally take a 4-night cruise on this unbelievable ship. Out of the two dozen cruises I’ve been on, this has far and away been my favorite! Please read below for all the details.
About Virgin Voyages and the Scarlet Lady
Scarlet Lady is the debut cruise ship for Richard Branson’s Virgin Voyages cruise line. Construction was completed in February 2020, and due to the Covid pandemic, her inaugural cruise was delayed from March until October 2020. She is considered a medium-sized cruise ship with a capacity of 2,770 passengers and 1,160 crew. She is based out of Port Miami for 5-night and 4-night round-trip itineraries that stop in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; Costa Maya, Mexico; Key West, Florida; and Virgin’s private Beach Club at Bimini in the Bahamas.
But those are just the technical details. What you really need to know is that Virgin Voyages cruises are like nothing you’ve ever experienced before when it comes to cruising. First and foremost, you must be 18 or older to sail. It’s not a party ship per se; people were definitely drinking and having a great time, but it was just a really happy, laid-back atmosphere of everyone having adult fun. Passengers were pretty diverse, and ages ranged from early 20s to late 50s.
The crew were so incredibly friendly, relaxed, engaging, and seemed to be having just as much fun as the guests. Virgin doesn’t place the same appearance and behavior restrictions on their crew that other cruise lines do. Crew members appeared to be encouraged to let their fabulous personalities shine through, which meant colored hair, piercings, tattoos, and smiles galore! It might be because my sailing was only at 30% capacity, but everyone seemed to genuinely take an interest in how I was doing, and ensured I was having a good and relaxed time.
The food is fantastic, some of the best I’ve ever had at sea. The entertainment was incredible, offbeat, and definitely adults only later at night! Honestly, I thought this was one of the best parts. Scarlet Lady also has the only tattoo parlor at sea, and I have the ink on my left wrist to prove it! As for the wheelchair accessibility, it’s some of the best I’ve seen on any cruise line. Bottom line, it’s going to be one of those cruise experiences that you either absolutely love and will tell everyone you know about, or really hate. Read more below!
Boarding and Disembarking
Checking in and boarding for me were a different experience than you would have now simply because Covid measures were more stringent when I sailed in November 2021. You are still required to be vaccinated in order to sail on Scarlet Lady. However, as of July 24, 2022, there is no longer a requirement to take a COVID-19 test before sailing. Virgin Voyages is still requiring 90% of sailors to be vaccinated (you can upload your vaccination information to the VV phone app), and all crew are still fully vaccinated.
The terminal at Port Miami is very wheelchair accessible, and I had no trouble checking in, although the wait in line was rather long. Instead of getting issued a key, you’re issued a wristband with a thin wraparound cord and a plastic piece that serves as your room key and charge card. I have limited capability with my hands, so I needed help from one of my fellow passengers to get it on my wrist. I’m sure there were many passengers who lost that wristband at least once. You should note that embarkation doesn’t even begin until 2 PM, and the departure is usually around 7 PM.
When it came time to prepare for disembarkation on the last night of the cruise, I was a little concerned. There was no information on the VV phone app about the procedure, and since they don’t leave any paper flyers or daily schedules in your cabin, I had no idea what to do the next morning. They also didn’t leave any tags for your luggage if you’re the type of person to have somebody come collect it the night before and have it waiting for you in the terminal. I was able to call down to guest services and find out that you can just leave the ship whenever you want as long as it’s before 11 AM. Score!
Scarlet Lady has 30 accessible cabins divided between interior and balcony/terrace categories. For my cruise, I stayed in a wheelchair accessible Seaview Terrace state room (12-154 Z). The mattress on the bed is thinner than other cruise ships I’ve been on, but was extremely comfortable. It rests on a metal frame, with tons of space underneath to accommodate a hoist. Please note that the queen size bed cannot be separated into two twin beds like on other cruise ships. There are USB Ports and electrical outlets on either side of the bed, as well as light switches. This comes in very handy if you have to charge a mobility device or medical equipment. The bed height was approximately 22 inches from the floor to the top of the mattress.
The bathroom was phenomenal for accessibility. The electrical pocket door has hands-free sensor access. The roll-in shower is small, but there’s easy access to the shampoo and soap dispensers, the water controls, and the shower head. There are grab bars around the toilet, and the sink was easy to roll under. The bathroom doorway width is 33.5 inches and the toilet seat height is 17.7 inches.
There is plenty of space around the bed and in the cabin in general for a power wheelchair or a larger scooter to maneuver. Storage space is at a minimum, but there are some drawers and plenty of low rails to store clothes in the curtained closet area. The cabin has a desk with a mini refrigerator, the TV, and two complementary carafes of water. Above the desk you’ll find one of the room’s best features – a tablet, from which you can control the television, room lighting, and the thermostat.
I didn’t explore the balcony because the door was too heavy for me to open by myself. But there is a ramp to help you easily roll over the threshold onto the balcony. The entrance to the stateroom is 33.4 inches wide. My only disappointment with the cabin was that there was no automatic door opener for the cabin itself, which was odd considering how automated everything else was.
Scarlet Lady has over 20 options for dining, and no traditional main dining room. There are six smaller specialty type restaurants, and the food there is included in the price of your fare. Those include Extra Virgin, an Italian trattoria, Pink Agave, an upscale Mexican restaurant, The Wake for steak and seafood, the Gunbae Korean barbecue restaurant, contemporary Razzle Dazzle, and the Test Kitchen. You can eat at each restaurant once during your cruise, and twice on a space available basis. You book your reservations for each restaurant using the VV phone app.
Another more casual food option is The Galley. Virgin Voyages says that there’s technically no buffet on the Scarlet Lady, but there kind of is. It’s really more like a food market/court with different international food options. I was on a 4-night cruise and I ate at Extra Virgin, The Wake (my favorite), Pink Agave, and Razzle Dazzle. All of them were very wheelchair accessible.
It should be no surprise that, given Richard Branson’s rockstar mentality, the entertainment aspect of a Scarlet Lady cruise shines the brightest. And just like everything else, guest entertainment on the ship is not traditional. It’s flashy, it’s naughty, it’s hip, and it’s visually spectacular.
Instead of a huge main theater with fixed seating, the Scarlet Lady has The Red Room, a theater space with movable seating. The shows are avant-garde, from comedy to music to dancing to acrobatics. It’s just…different. But amazing. There are cut outs in the bottom row of seating to easily accommodate wheelchair users.
The Manor is the ship’s nightclub, that also serves as a cabaret and a show venue for Never Sleep Alone, an R-rated “sexology” show. Guests get pretty personal in this (fully clothed) interactive show, and there’s a lot of sharing and laughter involved. In case there’s any question about the goal of the show, there are condoms scattered about on all the tables. The tables are packed rather tightly together, so if you want a decent view of the stage, you should plan to arrive early so you can get escorted to an accessible viewing spot.
Another unique thing about the Scarlet Lady is the pop-up entertainment that appears at random times in random places. Usually lasting no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, it can be a musician, a violin player, a mime, or just a random entertainer doing random cool things. There’s no formal night on the Scarlet Lady, but there is a Scarlet Night pool party where everybody wears red throughout the evening. The ship’s entertainment crew leads everyone in a big dance party, and eventually at least a few dozen people end up dancing in the pool fully clothed. It was too crowded for me to see anything around the pool, so I was able to get a good view from the deck above, along the railing.
Scarlet Lady has one main swimming pool, and it’s quite small. After inquiring, the crew told me they do have a mobile pool lift they can install upon request. However, the pool gets extremely crowded on full capacity ceilings, and there’s really not much space. Even within the small pool itself, there’s only a central square of water that has any depth. The rest of it is just shallow wading area. That being said, this pool is the star for parties and dancing all day and all night.
I’ve been on two dozen cruise ships across nine different cruise lines, and the Scarlet Lady is easily the most visually stunning of anything I’ve seen. The Celebrity Edge previously held at honor for me, but Virgin Voyages’ design just blows it away. Each public space has its own personality. Some people might be bothered by the lack of real flow because the transitions between spaces can be a bit jarring sometimes, but I loved how there was a space to fit almost everybody’s personality or mood. The ship really is an Instagram user’s dream.
Like a more typical cruise ship, Scarlet Lady has plenty of gathering spaces for live music, karaoke, cafés, bars, lounges, and shops. And don’t forget the tattoo parlor! If you’re looking for a quiet space to just work with no noise, like a library, you’re going to be out of luck if you’re easily distracted. There’s music piped in pretty much everywhere, and happy people coming and going in most places. Fortunately, all the public spaces were very wheelchair accessible, and there weren’t too many places where I needed to ask anybody to move something so I could get by.
Ports of Call
Scarlet Lady currently calls on the Caribbean ports of the Bimini Beach Club in the Bahamas, Key West, Puerto Plata, and Costa Maya. If there is an issue with Key West, it may divert to Nassau. Here are my accessibility reviews for most of those ports of call.
General (and Random) Observations
I think it’s fair as a disclaimer that my cruise was only at 30% capacity. It was easy to get around, it was easy to find a place to sit for shows, and I didn’t have to wait in line or fight through crowds at any of the dining venues. I’m sailing on the Valiant Lady to the western Caribbean in December, and I expect it will be at full capacity, so that experience might be very different.
A cruise with Virgin Voyages is best suited for somebody who is open minded, free spirited, and ready to have fun with something totally different. There are plenty of aspects of Scarlet Lady that harken to traditional cruising, don’t get me wrong. But if you’re a traditionalist and expect things to be done a certain way on a cruise, the Scarlet Lady might not be for you.
Passengers varied more widely and age than I expected. But people were well dressed, even casually, friendly, laid-back, and well-behaved. Everyone participated in everything, and people were enthusiastic and appreciative of the crew’s attention. It reminded me a lot of Las Vegas, where everyone’s in a good mood and nobody’s really complaining about anything. While I’m working on putting together a video of my own experience, I highly encourage you to go to Virgin Voyages’ YouTube channel to watch some of their very cheeky and amusing videos about their cruise ships so you can get an idea of what’s in store for you. Happy sailing!
Interested in learning more about accessible cruising? Then order a copy of my award-winning book, Everything You Need to Know About Wheelchair Accessible Cruising, on Amazon today!