Imagine being asked if you want to spend six days on the MerMaiden launch of the Virgin Valiant Lady from Miami, traveling to Honduras, Mexico, and the Bahamas, while wearing extravagant Halloween costumes with the legendary British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson onboard. It took me about three seconds to say, “Hell yes!”
Oh, and did I mention Virgin Voyages is adults only! If I repeat that several more times, it’s not a typo. Having experienced countless cruises in the past, this is my first adult only experience and I’m just so excited! Don’t get me wrong, I love children in real life, but maybe not so much on vacation.
The ship’s dress code is casual, comfortable, or whatever you want it to be. I didn’t need my usual motion sickness patch due to the unique stabilization design of the massively wide hull of the ship. I was rocking, but not due to the generally steady Lady. The Valiant Lady spent the summer bouncing around Europe from Ibiza and Italy, to the French Rivera. The ship was built and designed for passenger comfort, specialty dining experiences, with no interior cabins (you read that correctly), while being energy and environmentally efficient.
Cheeky Rockstar Suites, (if you’re lucky enough to reserve one before they’re all booked), come with a twenty-four hour a day ‘Rockstar Agent’ to be at the sailor’s beck and call, a fully stocked mini fridge, with the first drink on the house, a turntable with a variety of vinyl records, and access to Richard’s Rooftop, the private forward deck bar and exclusive outdoor relaxation area.
The Muster Station was even fun in my assigned location: the casino. Instead of having to wait for the entire group, a very friendly crew member did a demonstration to about a dozen people at a time, so that I completed the task in a few minutes and could leave to enjoy my new cruise adventure. Finding my way around the ship was super easy after I figured out that the three main sections and elevators were color-coded in either blue, purple or red. Even the stripe-colored carpet provided a steady pathway to my onboard destinations.
Shortly after finding my luxury tenth-floor balcony suite, I was greeted by our cabin host named ‘Yoga’ (his real name) from Bali. I asked how he liked working on Virgin Voyages versus all the other cruise lines he’s been with, and his instant reply was, “I can be myself here. I can wear my hair long, or my ears pierced, or my tattoos showing, and it is wonderful.”
The same sentiment was expressed by nearly every crew member I encountered. Virgin crew members are happy campers from the top down. Consummate hospitality professionals – euphoric, competent, experienced, well-trained, and helpful crew members certainly added much to the trip’s enjoyment. Yoga, our constantly smiling, crackerjack cabin agent, showed my wife and I how to use all the gadgets in the room. Everything is controlled by a small tablet: from the air temperature, and color of lighting, to the dining reservations and room service.
It was a very modern, spacious, and fresh-looking cabin, with attention to detail, a huge bathroom shower (two-person capacity) and every high-tech amenity imaginable, including interior drapes that automatically open and close when exiting or entering the room to maintain temperature consistency and help with energy conservation.
“Social responsibility and sustainability are what we (Virgin) do,” said Anders Karlsson, Vice President of Hotel Operations. He added, “Even our toilet paper is treeless. It’s made from sugarcane residue…They even give us a monthly environmental impact report,” said Karlsson.
There were no plastic water bottles onboard to pollute the seas, just carafes of freshwater which kept us hydrated. Absolutely nothing is mundane or typical on this Virgin Lady ship. The overall interior design is unmatched. Every detail has been planned by cruise industry experts with extreme precision and forethought. From the moment you enter the ship, the difference is literally palpable.
Embarking through the double glass doors, the fresh surroundings can be felt immediately. The massive lobby circular ceiling light fixture is designed to be a compass flashing different colors, except for a steady beam of red, pointing north. A live DJ plays Virgin vinyl record vibes to your left, (your favorite vinyls are for sale), and to your right is the Lick Me Till Ice Cream, with a dozen exotically delicious homemade flavors.
There are no massive dining rooms onboard with fixed early or late times for buffet or banquet-style eating, as with traditional cruise lines. Generally, there is no waiting for a Michelin-inspired meal any time of day in one of the six specialty cuisine restaurants with distinctive cuisines developed by several previous Michelin-awarded chefs, including Razzle Dazzle (Veggie-Forward); The Wake (Steak and Seafood); Extra Virgin (Italian); Pink Agave (Mexican); Gunbae (Korean BBQ); and Test Kitchen (Experimental).
‘The Dock’ eatery (indoors and outdoors) was my favorite place for snacking in between meals. Located at the front of the ship, The Dock provided wide-ranging top shelf liquor selections, healthy juices, large-size couches for lounging, scrumptious Mediterranean bites, and live music.
Food options in virtually every venue on the ship were not only appetizing and healthy, but also works of art. It was comical looking around at every meal watching the sailors (passengers) pull out their phones for a foodie snapshot as is standard protocol before indulging in each delectable dish. On Virgin Voyages, I do not have to pay extra for specialty boutique cuisine restaurants, it’s standard and included. When it comes to fine dining, extravagance and elegance are the Virgin norm.
Are you ready for this?
Using the Virgin App on my iPhone, I absolutely loved that I could shake in it in my hand three times to order a bottle of champagne delivered directly to me anywhere on the ship using GPS technology. I was never without access to a bottle of Moët (always under $100.00) and popcorn for snacking. The app even made a cork popping sound when ordering and shaking my phone. Cheers to technology!
Every restaurant has such a different look and feel, each with their own specialty menu created by award winning chefs. Wide-ranging quality is delivered in the dining establishments at every meal. Virgin Voyages’ Valiant Lady is where chefs and foodies go to play. In addition, somebody else’s “cute” baby is never going to start screaming at the table right next to me, while I enjoy devouring the most divine antipasto romaine and Friese salad (white anchovies, crotons, six-minute egg), grilled Mediterranean sea bass (with lemon, roasted fennel and Yukon gold potato) and potato gnocchi (hen of the woods mushrooms, spinach, truffle butter sauce), that I have ever tasted at the Extra Virgin restaurant (Italian cuisine).
My server, Andriea, wheeled tableside a goodie cart full of homemade gelatos and condiments to craft the most heavenly and flavorful Affogato to ever touch my lips, adding meringue bits, espresso, pine nuts and vanilla gelato.
On the very first night, I had the pleasure of dining with a group of fellow writers when suddenly Sir Richard Branson sat down at the table right next to me and joined us at the dimly lit, elegant and super-cool authentic Mexican restaurant, Pink Agave.
I was trying to keep my composure while our incredible server, Gustavo, kept bringing an onslaught of appetizers and exotic libations for the table to share. He began spontaneously laughing aloud, announcing each unique and delicious dish. His laughter was contagious and spread like a wildfire amongst the small group.
During a pause in the excitement over our surprise guest, I asked Sir Richard about his debate situation in Singapore regarding the death penalty, his short stint on the acclaimed television series Shark Tank, and why he decided to pursue the competitive cruise industry with Virgin?
He said without hesitation, “I felt it was clear that there had to be a better way for me and my family to enjoy a cruise experience than what the traditional cruise lines offered.”
Having experienced firsthand the ultimate pleasure of being on the Valiant Lady’s Virgin Miami launch, I couldn’t agree more. Strolling around this ship at night felt very cool, neat, and happening all at the same time.
The light show and live dancers in the ‘Red Room’ were entertaining a large crowd, a gentle-sounding flutist was charming the ‘On the Rocks’ bar patrons, while my late-night cravings were satisfied at ‘The Pizza Place’, which only serves individual size personal pizzas, not by the slice, to maintain the perfectly oven-baked flavor and texture of the crust.
The Valiant Lady has so many comfortable and colorful nooks and crannies to hideaway for some quiet time to read a book or share a bottle of bubbly with a special person. My favorite: the Sip Lounge. One day at sea, I tried a romantic rendezvous at the afternoon high tea in the Sip Lounge. At the reasonable price of twenty dollars per person, or thirty-five dollars if you want to add a flute of bubbly, the server brought us an assortment of delectable finger sandwiches and pastries. I am not a big tea drinker, but I must admit I got lost in the moment. I even felt like a better person after trying the mint green tea.
The menu has a historical narrative in the footnote describing the development of different teas and cultures throughout the centuries. In typical Virgin fashion, the emphasis is on selecting sourcing partners that do not use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to grow the teas. Virgin looks for partners in the supply chain that maximize the ecosystem by ensuring that tea bushes are planted adequately apart in some of the most pristine areas of the world. It is comforting to know all that, while enjoying the buzz and sweets.
Whatever your preferred spirit may be, it was fully stocked and available at the Sip Lounge. The Cellar Selection includes champagne (magnums and sparkling), cognacs, beer, wine, and specialty cocktails at very reasonable prices. My favorite cocktail was the Double Agent (Aviation gin, Benedictine, yuzu liqueur, chamomile, thyme). It goes down smooth with a complement of Caviar Dreams, the Siberian Osetra Caviar on a Buckwheat Blini (Meyer lemon, saffron fluid gel).
The seemingly magical all-purpose Virgin Voyages waterproof wristband not only unlocks my cabin front door, serves as my sailor identification for disembarking and embarking the ship at ports of call, but it is also a very convenient charging mechanism for any extras ordered and shop purchases onboard throughout the cruise.
The mandatory safety video when boarding has been choreographed with music and Robert Palmer-style female dancers (Addicted to Love video) donning identical red miniskirts and thigh-high leather boots singing catchy lyrics to explain the safety maritime rules. I danced along while watching my mandatory maritime safety video in my cabin. A first!
Any sailors that failed to watch the required safety video were reminded over the ship’s intercom not to be “naughty” and to do so. One scene shows a gorgeous singer getting a tattoo, likely from the onboard tattoo shop cleverly named: ‘Squid Ink’. The Squid Ink is a unique addition to the Virgin experience, as advertised, “making (and marking) memories.”
Bigger is most certainly not always better in the cruise industry. The newly constructed mid-sized Valiant Lady has capacity for about 2,770 passengers and 1,160 crew members. A perfect vacation fit for my comfort and pleasure. Unlike many of the giant cruise line floating cities, I never felt crowded onboard the (VV) Lady waiting in lines for food, pool chairs or a show seat.
Oh, and did I mention all Virgin Voyages are kid-free? Hysterical!
Perhaps the idea behind an adult only cruise is for some of us the ability to be a kid again ourselves in the ‘Social Club’. The game room was filled with lots of grown-ups painting, sewing, playing pinball games, air hockey, eating specialty grilled hotdogs and drinking soda pop, putting together jigsaw puzzles, or challenging new friends to foosball.
The Virgin Voyages’ shore excursions are aptly named “Shore Things” in Roatán (Honduras), Costa Maya (Mexico) and Bimini (Bahamas). Something for everyone and hassle-free, fully refundable, (if canceled at least twenty-four hours in advance of the start). Look for the Shore Thing operators that have third-party certification based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria, like the Adrenaline Zip-Line Adventure in Roatán.
Sometimes when I book a cruise at the last minute, like I did this time, I miss out on some of my preferred Shore Excursions that are already fully booked. As an experienced traveler, I maneuvered my way at the Roatán port, through the jitney barkers vying for attention. I found a local cabbie driver that spoke some English and had an air-conditioned taxi.
My taxi driver Angel asked for a sixty-dollar fare in advance that I was happy to pay. I expressed in broken Spanish and botched English that I wanted him to take me not so much to the common tourist spots, but rather the local places that gave him prideful feelings of his hometown, Roatán.
He smiled joyfully and showed me his young daughter’s picture in her First Communion white dress sitting on his dashboard. He said, “Her name is Angelina,” as his face beamed with pride. I immediately bonded with Angel as we embarked on an incredible adventure, starting with a quick stop and sugar high at the local chocolate factory.
We then took an endlessly narrow and winding road, twisting and turning up the mountains, viewing rustic buildings, wild dogs roaming the streets, and scenes only familiar to less developed but proud areas, lining each side of the dirt road.
Learning about the real culture, countryside and lifestyle is what makes me happy on a trip. After arriving at the highest mountain top, we took several selfies overlooking an utterly breathtaking panoramic view of the island’s jungles and coastline.
Then Angel drove me through his neighborhood to see the local school, his church, and the place where his family buys their groceries. He was excited to narrate his connection with the buildings and places that were his life.
In just a matter of minutes he had me back in the thick woods and headed into a private monkey sanctuary called Eden. I began my walking tour up and down the hills, following a path, and greeting various native animals, explaining the flora and fauna and different butterfly species. I played around with a host of friendly spider monkeys, a wild piglet roaming the woods for food, and let a brightly feathered toucan sit on my shoulders. I then encountered a large sloth on the ground. He let me pick him up in my arms, cuddling him like a baby, and gave me the sweetest hug. He was a darling, gentle, slow-moving sloth that the locals named, Eduardo.
Then I walked across a steep and rickety wooden suspension bridge that crossed about a quarter mile above the thick island jungle. A mystical and somewhat scary jungle experience that I’ll treasure. Strangely, I felt as though Johnnie Weissmuller, (the original Tarzan) one of my childhood heroes, was watching out for me in the island jungle.
After my self-made Shore Excursion, Angel opened my car door, as the handle was broken from the inside, and I handed him a generous gratuity. He hugged me and then asked if he could take a selfie with me in front of his taxicab. I said, “Of course!”
Back on the ship I lounged at Richard’s Rooftop private deck area and bar, soaked in the spa, suntanned with a glass of Chardonnay and meandered to The Dock eatery and lounge to enjoy the warm sea breeze, a bottle of Moët and chilled out listening to a live 70’s music and song performance.
After a fun pick-up game with a couple friendly sailors of ‘Scoop There It Is’ in the always-casual Social Club, I snacked on a delicious marshmallow and cheese hotdog with a designer drink called ‘Skinny Pie’ made with Vodka, key lime pie, limoncello and wafer. Yum and yummy!
For sailors and mermaids who seek a more tranquil and cultural adventure, be sure to try the certified Trifecta Tour of Roatán. A five hour, three stop expedition around the island that includes a traditional dory boat in Oak Ride through the peaceful mangrove tunnels.
Every Shore Thing adventure in Roatán provides indescribable selfie opportunities for posts on your favorite social media sites that will make your closest friends green with envy.
The ship captain just announced a change in direction was happening tomorrow for safety reasons due to the unexpected path of a tropical storm. We had to turn off course and skip Costa Maya to dock in Cozumel, Mexico instead. Everyone onboard was busy having too much fun to notice or care.
The planned Shore Things for Costa Maya were automatically cancelled on my Virgin app, and a whole new set of exciting excursions were immediately posted for the new destination.
People on board, including staff and guests alike, were beaming with happiness that only comes from hobnobbing on a truly luxurious and hospitable fantasy getaway. Everyone I met on the ship was so authentically friendly. For example, Sudi, a server at the ‘On The Rocks’ cocktail bar that served drinks to over eight hundred sailors today. When I went back the following evening, Sudi remembered what I had ordered from him the night before. It was like a magic trick. An astonishing example of personal service and premier hospitality.
It’s always so much fun when I bond with a group of strangers at the blackjack table, with varying degrees of inebriation, fist-bumping and high-fiving, who are all in the same zone and mindset, and as a bonus, celebrating loudly with everyone’s winning hands.
Some nights naturally ended at ‘The Pizza Place’ to savor a scrumptious, scientifically tested fresh pizza crust, of either oven baked ‘White Truffle and Egg’ (mozzarella, cracked black pepper, tomato sauce), ‘Pepperoni,’ or a ‘Pretty Fly for a White Pie’ (mozzarella, ricotta parmesan, roasted garlic, oregano), and then head back to the cabin with a sugar cone filled with scoops of Malted Strawberry Milk Shake and Raspberry Beet ice cream.
Midway through the cruise there suddenly appeared brightly colored sea creatures and giant octopus tentacles hung all throughout the vessel. I heard it was to celebrate Virgin’s signature Scarlet Night. Everyone was asked to wear something red. I had no idea what Scarlet Night meant, except perhaps another reason to get dressed up in something sexy and dance the night away in ‘The Manor’, a high energy disco venue. It felt festive and different, perhaps Virgin’s version of a formal night.
I was fortunate enough to sit down for an in-person interview with both Sir Richard Branson (entrepreneur and business magnate who controls over 400 companies in various areas), and Tom McAlpin, CEO and President of Virgin Voyages (Florida State University Alumni and former CEO of The World, a privately owned residential ship and former President of Disney Cruises).
I asked, “What’s the end game for Virgin Voyages? Is there a Mission and how would you describe the Fleet Branding?” Sir Richard was quick to point out that, “The intention was never to build something that was right for everyone, but rather to build a cruise line that provided the best of everything for those targeted individuals who seek this kind of personal service and special luxury.”
His goal in general, I gathered, is always to make sure the world is somehow deriving benefits from his companies, directly or indirectly, whether helping the people of Ukraine, climate change, Earth conservation, or promoting clean energy.
Tom McAlpin added, “We’re creating something special. This inaugural launch from Miami of the Valiant Lady is only our second ship. In May 2023, we plan to launch the Resilient Lady (a perfect name as she was built during the pandemic), and a fourth ship christened the Brilliant Lady will hit the seas by the end of 2023. Eventually, we imagine ten to fifteen ships in the Virgin fleet.”
These midsize ships are designed for personal comfort and to meet the demands of sailors seeking a distinct extraordinary experience.
“The brand purpose of Virgin is always to change business for the good. It’s part of the DNA for every Virgin business. Creating the right culture with a brand purpose, which is an epic sea change for all,” said McAlpin. He added, “A perfect example is the dining experience on Virgin that is like no other.”
Talk about unique design engineering concepts, (for us nerds) I enjoyed learning about the ‘Red Room’, where many of the entertainment performances took place, some interactive with the audience. With comfortable stair seating (fully retractable from both sides) of the alley in the middle, depending on the type of shows, the intimate stage can be quickly transformed into a completely new looking venue.
The entire performance facility can be reconfigured within twenty minutes to accommodate all types of entertainment, from a wild nightclub dance party to a Magician, or acrobatics, plays and live music performances. The room transformation is super cool to watch.
One evening I entered the Red Room to enjoy a breathtaking performance called ‘Dual Reality’. Twelve gorgeous looking buff acrobats combined Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Las Vegas’ style Cirque de Solei, with juggling, gymnastics, song, and dance to express the true meaning of love.
Three standing ovations from the audience were well deserved. I must take another cruise just to see that performance again. Amazing creativity and charm!
The marquee restaurant for me is ‘The Wake’, located in the rear of the ship. My table for both brunch and dinner provided a bird’s eye view perch just over the engine’s wake in the ocean. I was hypnotically mesmerized gazing into the wake, a kind of a trace on the water’s surface, as I dined on a five-star quality meal.
I started brunch with a cinnamon glazed raisin pastry, then steak and eggs (potato rosti, braised swiss chard, topped with bordelaise sauce), and crêpe cake (pistachio crumble, strawberry and rhubarb compote).
Later at dinner, I salivated on the clam chowder (Yukon gold potato, bacon, chive batons), wedge salad (smoked bacon, baby gem lettuce, blue cheese), ‘The Wake’ dish (crispy pork belly, sautéed spinach, bone marrow bollandaise), with a side of twice-baked potato and caramelized onions, and for dessert, Meyer lemon cheesecake (blueberry compote and cinnamon cookie crumble).
The full-flavored hits just keep on coming at The Wake.
Not only did the itinerary call for the ship’s first ever Sirens and Sailors Halloween Costume Ball, but a Shore Thing (excursion) was planned in Bimini, Bahamas, at Virgin’s Voyages exclusive Beach Club to break the Guinness Book World Record for the largest number of Merfolk (mermaids and mermen) at one place. Most certainly, a monumental milestone worth striving to achieve!
Yes, they did officially break the world mermaid record with 457 merfolk all cheering in one place! Luckily, there was an official Guinness Book representative and a documentary video crew on sight to record history in the making. I had not witnessed anything this meaningful for humanity since Commander Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. Okay, maybe it didn’t arise to the level of footprints on the moon, but it sure was a blast and sight to behold!
Sitting in my private Beach Club poolside cabana, listening to the live DJ, watching blue skies, cotton clouds, and pretty people dancing around a street block-long lagoon-sized pool, I wondered to myself, could the day get any better than this?
There are literally hundreds of Virgin sailors and crew dancing in the sunny beach front pool lagoon surrounded by exquisite natural beauty. I must assume this is the real paradise island.
There seems to be a whole team of thong-clad crew members dancing and gyrating to Donna Summer and Pit Bull. They’re all spinning to the music with bubble makers aimed towards the pool, squirt cannons, and throwing dozens of large multi-colored different shaped floats into the pool.
My goodness, where do I apply for these crew jobs?
It was a fairytale ending to an exciting, fun-filled vacation. I’ll find it difficult to go on another cruise line again after having been spoiled by the Virgin Voyages Valiant Lady of the sea.
McAlpin, President and CEO, told me that 30% of Virgin Voyages sailors are first time cruise passengers, while 40% book another Virgin cruise onboard before they leave the ship. It speaks volumes to the Virgin experience.
This is what a cruise is supposed to be like. I have been cruising for decades and Virgin Voyages took me to a whole new level of vacation enjoyment.