By Jesse Bratter By Jesse Bratter | February 8, 2023 | Home & Real Estate HBCM Travel
Equal parts high design, vitamin sea and rock ’n’ roll, Virgin Voyages concocts an unconventional cruise cocktail as it teams with top-tier designers to reimagine interiors out on the ocean.
Virgin Voyages’ Pink Agave bistro draws inspiration from the works of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.
They called the Valiant Lady’s first sail out of Miami its MerMaiden Voyage. That’s because the mermaid is Virgin Voyages’ enchanting mascot, a spirit guide to lead the ship into the waters that lie ahead. As we glided out of PortMiami, watching the downtown skyline disappear through a collection of dichroic glass partitions and sunken conversation pits from the VIP rooftop deck, it became clear that the mythical creature was a mere prelude to the whimsy waiting to be found along this journey.
The Dock restaurant feels more like a private yacht.
That night, en route to Honduras, Mexico and the Bahamas, I made my way down a galactic tunnel illuminated by LEDs from 100-plus molten Melt wall sconces by Tom Dixon and into Pink Agave, the ship’s elevated Mexican restaurant designed in collaboration with Dixon’s Design Research Studio. I zigzagged through a series of intimate seating areas formed from curvy cobalt blue chairs and banquettes, rose-pink bar stools and terra-cotta leather loungers anchoring the moody mezcal bar and bistro. If not for the portholes lining the perimeter, I might have forgotten I ever left land and instead simply showed up for my reservation at the newest hot spot.
As we savored craft cocktails (the menu offers mezcal by Montelobos, a company with sustainable farming practices, paired with Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, citrus and, well, crickets), Sir Richard Branson himself rounded the corner to join us for a Champagne toast. I’d come to learn that when he decided to expand Virgin into the cruising industry, he set out to create the kind of cruise ship he’d want to experience. The catch? He had never been on one before.
And so, Virgin Voyages’ first fleet—Valiant Lady, Scarlet Lady, and the upcoming Resilient Lady and Brilliant Lady—stands out among a sea of ships. You won’t find kids on this adults-only cruise, for one thing. Th ere are no waterslides, no set dining times, no dress code, and they’ve skirted the typical 1,000-passenger banquet-style dining hall in favor of more than 20 intimate eateries including six restaurants featuring made-to-order menus created by a Michelin-starred chef collective. This cuts down on food waste and is an example of the ship’s sustainability efforts under the brand’s Epic Sea Change For All initiative. Banning single-use plastics on board is another. As is the LEED Gold-certified terminal at PortMiami.
The Massive Suite and music room designed by Tom Dixon
Anders Karlsson, vice president of hotel operations at Virgin Voyages, walked us through the ship and shared its secrets. (Softroom designed the central roundabout featuring a red light that simply seems like a nod to Virgin’s signature scarlet branding but actually serves as a compass.) “You can only push the culinary boundaries so far when you have huge dining rooms,” he says, a notion that came up as the team started planning their dining concepts and led to this revelation: “What if we just… do restaurants?” To continue the pattern of expecting the unexpected, Dee Cooper, Virgin Voyages’ senior vice president of design and customer experience, tapped a collective of creative minds that had never designed for a cruise ship to help reimagine their interiors. And Tom Dixon was just the beginning.
Roman and Williams’ Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer lent their theatrical hand to Th e Wake—a dramatic two-story scene that conjures a mid-20th century chophouse with walls and booths wrapped in creamy leather, rose gold and brass detailing, and lustrous spheres suspended from the ceiling like those classic pin art games you can push down with your hand to make metal molds. And Amsterdam-based concrete formulated Th e Test Kitchen, which might as well be the laboratory of a mad scientist, complete with a curious tasting menu, a periodic table of ingredients, stainless steel surfaces and mint-hued resin countertops that double as chef’s tables. The staff even wears lab coats. “Everything we do is about creating differentiation,” says Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages.
One morning, we anchored at the island of Roatán and I disembarked for my first Shore Thing excursion: horseback riding through the jungle with a dip in the Caribbean Sea. We arrived at a private beach and a father-son touring group introduced us to our horses—all rescues and some, they would discover, pregnant. One baby colt had even been born that very day. We walked through forested trails beneath lush tree canopies as the young ponies trotted alongside us until we ended up back on the beach and slinked into the ocean, and I was overcome by a powerful spiritual energy I’m not sure I’ve experienced anywhere else.
While Virgin wants the ship to feel like a boutique hotel, it isn’t necessarily a hotel. And it’s not an airplane, or a spaceflight, or a vinyl record like the other entities under the Virgin Group might produce. It’s somehow all of these things rolled into one. For what has all the potential to be considered the tour bus party after a rock concert (imagine immersive theater, aerialists and acrobatics, pop-up performances throughout the ship and a record store with some of Branson’s first signings), this was one of the most relaxing trips I’ve ever been on. In part thanks to the handcrafted hammock on my cabin’s sea terrace by Yellow Leaf Hammocks, a certified B Corporation. And partially due to the hot stone massage and Himalayan salt scrub pedicure I received after a morning in the Redemption Spa’s thermal suite with its sauna, steam room, mud room, hydrotherapy and plunge pools, heated quartz slabs and salt room.
Perhaps a fellow sailor said it best as we passed by one another en route to the next unexpected destination: “Welcome to Virgin, where everything is odd in the best way possible. If you want traditional, go somewhere else.”
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF VIRGIN VOYAGES