6 Things That Surprised Me About Virgin Voyages

When I boarded Virgin Voyages, I was apprehensive. I arrived with a whole set of preconceptions and concerns based on all I had heard, seen and read. But once on board, those were soon forgotten and replaced by a series of totally unexpected things that no-one had spoken about.

So, I want to share those as I think you need to know about them, especially if you are wondering if cruising with Virgin Voyages is something you should consider, as I don’t think they have been spoken about enough.

By the way, I was invited by Virgin Voyages to go on this cruise, to see what they’re all about. And so importantly, I’m also going to answer if I will be back as a paying passenger based on all of this.

Before I get into the two biggest things that threw me, let’s get the ship out of the way!

SURPRISE ONE

Their ships divide opinion as they look so different. The shape, the grey colour, the swimming pool and the beds we all hear about, and the in-your-face design. However, having cruised I found a much more dramatic issue that I think you need to know about, that has been overlooked.

These are pretty big ships, holding 2,770 passengers (or sailors as they like to call us), but instead of the usual big showpiece atriums, grand theatres and mega lounges, Virgin Voyages ships are filled with lots of small venues and with many little nooks and crannies inside and all around the decks.

As you walk around the ship, or out on the decks, you move from small venue to small venue. Unlike other ships of a similar size, I have been on recently, it was such a drastic change.
The venues in size were more like being on some of the smaller ship lines I love. A kind of “small ship venues on a big ship” experience.

There is no grand and dramatic multi-deck atrium packed with bars, restaurants, casino, shops and lounges opening onto it and acting as the central focal point of the ship.

The closest is the two deck “Roundabout” with a little bit of seating, the Chart Room help desk, Vinyl record store and on lower level the “On The Rocks” bar.

Instead, a multitude of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, lounges, guest services, retail shops, Tattoo Palour, ice cream venue and so on are dotted across Deck 6 and 7. And they are smaller than on ships of a similar size. They are high on themes too, so you constantly drift into different experiences and vibes.

This is also true out on the decks. There is a wide full promenade on deck 7 full of small defined spaces to sit, including the Dock at the rear, which was a favourite of mine.

Up on Deck 15 and 16, the same is true. Compared to similar sized ships, there is no vast pool deck, but instead a series of smaller venues to laze about in are dotted around, rather than having most passengers around the pool.

The “Aquatic Club” area has two pools, one (which has been much discussed) is more plunge, pose and cool off pool than usual cruise pool to swim in, and then there is a round pool for lolling about in, which I saw was popular for socializing.

Instead of a vast pool deck as the focal point for sunbathing, there are many other themed places to sun, such as the “Athletic Club” at the rear on deck (with the infamous “Net” to lie on) and then various smaller spaces, some with covered seats, dotted around the decks. Those in suites also have Richard’s Rooftop for sunning themselves.

It feels very different, and I had not appreciated this as think all the buzz got caught up on the look and design aspects. I did wonder if these have been created for a world where our attention spans are getting shorter. The variety makes this ship very “Instagrammable” as there’s so many different venues and as you walk about, you’re constantly entering new zones and areas.

Probably the biggest venue you ever go to is The Red Room, which is the theatre. And then that’s not particularly massive and the layout changes based on the show. The Manor, the nightclub, is also surprisingly cosy considering the numbers. Again, because there are so many alternatives of places to go.

I found this refreshing and unexpected. It did remind me that many lines use the same ships and alter the décor by brand. The two cruises I did before Virgin Voyages were on two sister lines and were the same ship structure and layout, so this ship was different and personally I liked that as felt it brought some of the intimacy I like on smaller ships to a bigger ship.

It’s not for everyone. Some people I spoke to, who were less keen on the ship, missed a more classic cruise ship layout, and mostly the big central atrium as they felt there was no big focal central buzz and energy.

Then some missed having the larger pool to do more of a swim in. So, certainly if those are something that are important to you, something to consider.

The next thing that surprised me about Virgin Voyages was the biggest one of all and threw me somewhat.

Virgin Voyages

SURPRISE TWO

I knew that Virgin Voyages had scrapped the main dining room, and instead have 9 dining venues where you book a time to eat on the App and can only visit each one once for dinner.

I knew they argued they had scrapped the buffet, although I’ll talk a little bit about that as that’s not strictly true

I knew that all food was included, so no charges for any of the restaurants, unlike other ships with specialty dining charges. There was one surprise aberration to that rule though: Afternoon Tea cost me $19. As an addict of afternoon tea that was disappointing.

But the bigger surprise than having to pay for afternoon tea, is just how good the food is. That I hadn’t really expected at all. I thought the food was very good, and more should be made of this. I think that is what word of mouth will be saying.

There are five dining venues out of the 9 that were my big favourites. The first was The Wake, which is the seafood and steak restaurant at the rear of the ship. I felt that was probably the most upmarket.

I really liked the Mexican restaurant, which is called Pink Agave, were I first came across an issue that some passengers had about Virgin Voyages dining that I will come on to shortly

Thirdly, I liked the Italian, Extra Virgin. Exceptional and a real favourite with everyone I spoke to.

Fourthly, was Razzle Dazzle which is the (mostly) vegetarian restaurant. Though I did have many of their non-vegetarian options.

Fifthly, I really loved The Galley, both from an area to eat in but also food options. The Galley is their reinvented buffet. It’s more like a food hall concept that has become trendy in cities. There are stations and small almost concessions offering things like Mexican, Noodles, Sushi, Burgers, Paninis and so on. It’s close to a traditional cruise ship buffet I guess, but just done differently. I liked it, and I don’t think I ever said I loved a buffet on any other ship.

There was a couple of other restaurants like the Test Kitchen 6-Course tasting menu concept and Gunbae Korean BBQ which are very popular, but more experiential and so best visited if travelling as a couple or with friends. As a solo traveller I preferred the others.

Overall, the dining on Virgin is a bit like going specialty dining every single night on a cruise, but it’s included in your fare, so you don’t have the on-costs. It worked for me as I hardly ever use the Main Dining Room on most cruises.

However, for some people I spoke to, they were less keen on it. The reason, which I hadn’t thought about, is for those who like simple and plain foods.

They told me they missed the main dining room, where they can more easily and consistently find more of the basics and classics, rather than Italian, Mexican and so on and navigating a different venue’s menu each night.

Some also said they still prefer having a set dining time and importantly the same serving staff every evening. So, again if these are important to you then something to consider.

The biggest surprise of everything on Virgin Voyages for me was the quality of the food. I had not even thought about it, nor expected that to be one of the things the line would do well.

I guess I, like many, were so focused on what quirky things they are doing different to others – I didn’t consider how they may be focused on getting one of the basics done well.

Which leads me to my next surprise, again a core activity that had not crossed my mind as all lines I have been on have pretty much the same approach, and I guess I expected that to be the same here too.

SURPRISE THREE

Everyone I spoke to spontaneously, mentioned this one by the way. And that is around the crew.

What was interesting on Virgin Voyages, which was visibly different, is that the crew appears to be quite distinct to that on other cruise lines. They’ve recruited what appears to be a younger, trendier and more diverse crew, and allow more individualism and personality. You will see visible tattoos and even piercings that would have to be hidden on other lines for example on some crew.

There’s a lot of Eastern Europeans, Europeans, South Americans, British, South Africa and Americans. And, of course, still representation from Asia, including crew from Philippines, Indonesians and so on. But it was a younger, hipper, trendier crew.

And it was impossible to tell rank, and everyone wears the same casual uniform, even the senior officers

The service was very good. It was quite remarkable. I found crew were prepared to go out of their way and across the ship remembered my likes and preferences, even in venues like The Galley, barmaid in the Manor that I only went to occasionally remembered I don’t drink alcohol and would produce a fruit punch before I even ordered, through to Ravi on the help desk that sorted out an issue with my App on boarding who would come up to me around the shop to check all was working okay and give me tips on things to do.

I felt it was closer to what I have had on smaller luxury ships than premium large ships that Virgin Voyages operates in.

I just hadn’t expected service to be of that level. And as I said, everyone I spoke to, both people I didn’t know and people that I knew from the channel, this was the one thing that they commented on too.

The next area that surprised me was one that I should have expected, but once I was on board, I just didn’t appreciate the degree that Virgin have committed to this whole area.

SURPRISE FOUR

And that was in the area of fitness and wellness. If you are a big fitness and wellness fan, then Virgin will cater for you massively.

Many areas around the ship are taken up with fitness and wellness, and lots of the daily program is taken up with it too.

On an average day, there was between 10 and 12 fitness classes including yoga, spin classes and high-impact training classes. They also ran Retro work out classes on deck and in The Manor.

There was between four to six seminars around wellness every day. And that was everything from posture to nutrition to massage to skin.

Of course, then they have a lot of facilities. The obvious thing is the spa but then on deck 15, there are two huge fitness rooms known as the B-Complex. One is Burn and Bike, which is the cardio area, and the other is Build and Balance, which is the strength training side.

Up on deck 16 you have what’s known as the Training Club, which is where they would have things like circuit class, high-impact training.

There is a 250-metre running track, which is elevated right up above deck 16. You have a basketball court, and The Perch, overlooking the back of the ship, where you have yoga in the early mornings.

Part of the Athletic Club, has an outdoor workout area along the deck.

I just hadn’t really appreciated just how much Virgin have committed to that whole wellness thing.

The downside is people who were not into fitness and wellness did tell me they felt there was less organised activities and things to do for them across the day, especially on sea days.

There were various non-fitness and wellness activities, but fewer than on other lines, certainly on my cruise.

There were at a number of gaming sessions and a quizzes held, often in the evening in the Social Club, which also had games, games tables and a small arcade available. There was also a Foodie based quiz held in the Roundabout most days. Outside there was a Seahorse racing event held in the Athletic Club, and an adult painting a mural event.

But I think it is fair to say there was less organised non-fitness and wellness activities than on other lines. Certainly, on my cruise. So that is something to consider if that is important to you and check in with recent daily programs to see how that evolves.

There was one thing that I had expected though that did not happen to the degree I thought it would.

SURPRISE FIVE

One of my big concerns coming on board was that this was going to be a party ship and it was just going to be party, party, party, party, party everywhere. And people were going to be going crazy everywhere. And what I realised, having been on board, is if you want to party, you can party – but like with fitness – if it’s not your thing then it will not take over your cruise.

I did note that venues are open much later, and every night usually after 10 or 11 there was some sort of party, often out on the pool deck area or in The Manor. Themed ones like a Pyjama party or a retro party.

But in the earlier evenings, there would be live music in the bars, cabaret and shows. There was some great cabaret I went to, including cocktail cabaret evenings, one with Abbi The Hostess (sort of Cruise Director) and another with circus acts. They also had the sex and relationship therapist (Dr. Alex Schiller) cabaret show “Never Sleep Alone” which was a bit close to the bone, out there and not for everyone.

In the Red Room, they have the shows. These are unlike other lines revue production show style and included things like the amazing Romeo & Juliet inspired “Duel Reality” with acrobats. I was not surprised by the different approach to shows, as they have made much of this. But it was very welcome for me anyway to see different style of theatre shows.

So certainly, if you want to party, you can. But it was very specific venues, and it wasn’t that the whole ship was just one big party ship. Except on Scarlet Night, it becomes a little bit more party-like, where they have a series of themed events and pop-up events around the ship.

I did expect Virgin Voyages to be full-on, go-for-it partying. And that wasn’t the case. So, that was a good surprise for me as I am not a party animal. And headed off to bed as the parties started.

As a note, if you are not a party animal like me, I would choose a cabin that is not underneath the pool area as I do wonder if that music and sound would travel. I couldn’t hear it in my cabin, and I was on the same deck but forward.

SURPRISE SIX

The other thing that did not surprise me, but may some, was the mix of the people on board. I will cover that in another episode in more detail. But, as you will have seen through this, fellow passengers were quite diverse and of course all over 18, as this is an adult only line. But this is not just a young person line as many think or thought it is.

On my cruise, I would say the average age was likely 45 to 60, which also makes sense as this is a premium line, and these make up the bulk of kid-free or kids-left-home groups able to come cruising on an adult-only line

Now, the big question is, will I come back on Virgin Voyages? Will I cough up my own money to come and cruise on one of their ships, whether that’s Scarlet Lady, Valiant Lady, Resilient Lady, or any other ships that come? And the answer to that is as follows.

When I am going on a warm climate cruise, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, I will come on Virgin Voyages again. I think it’s a ship that is very much designed for warm climates. And I like the different interpretation of cruising. I like the food. I like the service. I like the focus on fitness. I like the approach to entertainment. And for me, it’s a line that I now have on my list.

However, this is not for everyone. The people I spoke to probably split into two camps, people who craved and wanted to go back to a more classic cruise experience and layout, and I like that too and I will keep doing those lines, and then there were those people who relished this different interpretation of cruising, much being familiar, but enough having changed.

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Gary Bembridge’s Tips For Travellers aims to help you make more of your precious travel time and money on land and when cruising the oceans or rivers of the world. To help you, in every video I draw on my first-hand tips and advice from travelling every month for over 20 years and average of 10 cruises a year.

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