Richard Branson’s cruise line, Virgin Voyages, is breathing fresh air into the travel industry, with a unique experience that will attract even the biggest cruise skeptics. Virgin Voyages is redefining the cruise experience with an upscale feel that combines the intimate moments and sophisticated design found at a boutique hotel with the luxe amenities you’d expect from a high-end ship. Ahead of its first U.S. sailing this October, Travel + Leisure sat down with Richard Branson and Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, to discuss the inspiration behind the cruise line, what guests can expect, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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For Branson, the inspiration to create a cruise line came from thinking about the kind of journey he and his family and friends would like to go on. Then, he gathered a team — including cruise veterans and people outside the industry — and got to work designing the Virgin Voyages ships. Branson says they “started working out all the things that were wrong about the cruise industry and made sure [they] addressed those issues, making [the] ship the best sailing the seas.”
“In every single little detail, I think they’ve got it right.” In fact, Branson says the early passenger reviews have shown just that — even his daughter, who “was skeptical about cruise ships,” had a blast on board with her husband and friends. “I’m looking forward to going on my first-ever cruise next month,” Branson adds. (This will be another exciting first after his trip to space aboard Virgin Galactic this summer.)
McAlpin points out that cruising is a typically strong industry: “The fundamentals of the cruise industry are strong: very high guest satisfaction, high repeat rate, great value for money.” But they knew they could enter this industry and do things differently, from the adults-only experience to the name, Virgin Voyages, to the luxe look of the ship. From its superyacht-inspired exterior to its incredible interiors designed by internationally renowned designers, artists, and architects (who had never worked on cruise ships before), Virgin Voyages doesn’t look like your standard vessel — and that’s exactly why it’s exciting. And it’s not just design that sets the Scarlet Lady apart — more than 20 restaurants, including six specialty eateries, are all included, and they rival great establishments you’d want to visit on land (with none of the formalities, like assigned tables, dining times, or massive buffets, typically found on other ships).
McAlpin continues, also noting the “immersive, fun, energetic” entertainment on board, as well as the great crew, all packaged in a more inclusive way, with gratuities, basic beverages, food, and more included for guests on board.
Plus, the beautiful, new Virgin Voyages Beach Club in Bimini will offer even more experiences on land. “Think about this as Ibiza meets Tulum,” says McAlpin. Of course, this isn’t the only stop on a Scarlet Lady sailing; this fall, cruises will depart from Miami and take guests to ports in the U.S., Bahamas, and Mexico. Branson also hopes they’ll be able to stop in Cuba in the future (as they had originally planned before the 2019 travel restrictions were announced).
So, who is the Virgin Voyages experience perfect for? “Young at heart people who want to have a good time,” says Branson. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 72 or 22.” And when you’re ready, they’re prepared with a number of COVID-19 health protocols.
Virgin Voyages’ debut was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that extra time has helped them prepare. “We’ve taken the last 18 months to really look at how we can create the safest possible way to travel,” says McAlpin. Branson adds, “If you go onto a ship, you know everybody’s vaccinated, you know everybody’s been tested before they got onto it.” Virgin Voyages has set a number of COVID-related health measures in place, from vaccination requirements for passengers and crew to air purification technology and advanced cleaning techniques to create a safe, controlled environment.
Virgin Voyages’ first U.S. sailing will hit the seas on Oct. 6, and cruises can be booked on the Virgin Voyages website.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.Internet Explorer Channel Network