4 APRIL 2022


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Article from BTNews 4 APRIL 2022

ON TOUR: Virgin Voyages Valiant Lady

A totally keyless ship.

Eleven nights. Portsmouth, a Coruna, Santa Cruz Tenerife, Las Palmas Gran Canaria, Lisbon, Portsmouth.  

This is the Editor-in-Chief’s third experience of Virgin Voyages, invited to the windswept inauguration party for Scarlett Lady, hosted by Sir Richard Branson 21 February 2000.  With wife he was a guest for an English Channel four-night cruise last summer, and now an 11-night crossing of the Bay of Biscay as far as the Canary Islands and back to Portsmouth on ship two, Valiant Lady, the voyage completed the last day of March 2022.

Let’s face it, the timing could have been better for the unveiling.  The World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

To put together such a complex operation as a 112,000-tonne cruise ship costing £500m and involving 1,200 crew from 63 nations is far from easy.  All involved should be complimented.  Virgin Voyages is a credit to the world’s merchant marine.  Where the investors have really succeeded is adding the name ‘Virgin’ to the product.  It needs no introduction Virgin Atlantic synonymous with a quality product.  Rather like Disney in its own sphere, Virgin means fun and excellence.  The title sells the product.  

What is the best thing on Valiant Lady?

It must seem daft if you have not cruised before, but the simple electronic wrist band with a sim is literally the ‘key’ to the whole operation.  No checking as you leave your cabin to make sure you have the re-entry means, and all on-board purchases are entered by zapping the little moulding, made from ocean plastic.  The same goes for restaurant reservations, event bookings, and boarding procedures.  It really makes life onboard very easy.  

Virgin Voyages is different to any other cruise product, but it grows on you.  The catering is outstanding, service impeccable and entertainment varied and diverse.  It will not appeal to everyone.  Your life onboard is controlled by the Virgin Voyages App ‘Your Seafaring Guide’ produced in Virgin jargon. ‘Events Line Up’ (daily calendar), ‘eateries’ (dining) , ‘shore things’ (excursions) and ‘my wallet’ (sel- explanatory).  If the App defeats you there is plenty of (young) Virgin staff ready to help.  Carry your Smart connection with you at all times.  The staff use their own App for taking food orders in all the outlets, and of course alcohol sales in the many bars (soft drinks are free 24/7, likewise tea and regular coffee).  

The facilities for disabled are first class with well thought out larger cabins available at no extra cost, the balcony access for wheelchairs particularly well conceived.

Our holiday was different, the ship chartered by Imagine Cruising as a “Rock and Retro – 80s Extravaganza Sailcation” themed trip.  The cliental reflected the promotion, with plenty of ‘sailors’ even older than us, plus a sprinkling of millennials.  But no children.  They are banned!  Imagine Cruising supplied three star acts, all well known in the eighties and still going strong.  ABC, headed by Martin Fry, a sort of Bill Nighy lookalike from the film Love Actually (complete with luminous jacket); three vintage lady rockers Toyah Willcox, Carole Decker (T'Pau) and Clare Grogan (Altered Images); and Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet) – and not to be muddled up with a centre half of the same name who played many years for Southend United when it was a Football League club.  

Other entertainment was provided similar to Scarlett Lady, with the addition, for this audience of The Performing Nerd, a unique British entertainer.  Working in The Manor, a two-tier night club, it was good clean fun, a combination of nerdy skills, memory, rapid mathematics and comedy.

When it comes to hygiene all cruise lines are meticulous, even before Covid.  Valiant Lady was not crowded with around 1,600 ‘sailors’ (passengers) but capable of carrying up to 2,800.  The crew is double vaccinated, wear masks all the time, and have very limited shore access, dependent on local regulations.  Passengers need to be double vaccinated too and are required to take a PCR test before boarding, paid for by Virgin.  At most strategic points hand sanitisers are provided, but rather mundane in appearance.  Most ‘sailors’ chose not to wear masks onboard the ship. You can be served at a glass protected counter but for the most part the staff will rush up and take your order on their App.

For this summer Valiant Lady will be based in Barcelona for a series of seven-night Mediterranean cruises whilst a brand new sister ship Resilient Lady will home port at Piraeus (Athens) with a series of Greek island visits and also into the Adriatic later in the season.  She completes the season with a transatlantic crossing and will for next winter be based at San Juan (Puerto Rica).  Valiant Lady will join Scarlet Lady at Miami for a succession of trips all of which take in the Bermuda island of Bimini and its Virgin-built beach club.  Virgin Atlantic flies to both Miami and San Juan from both Heathrow and Manchester airports.

My previous review of Scarlett Lady generally holds good, the only public upgrades cosmetic.  The wi-fi is poor and should have been sorted out for the second ship (RCCL is far better).  There is still no signage in the elevators (lifts).  You need to take a look before you get in.  And the wardrobe rails in the cabin need reviewing.  Perhaps Virgin does not realise that some ladies do wear dresses and long skirts. There are no public announcements, the incognito Captain gave a very brief ‘welcome to Valiant Lady’ announcement and wears no uniform.  Even Admiral Branson wore a cap for the inaugural.  Virgin needs to think out this one.  The staff wear uniforms.  Why not the Admiral.  He sets the standard for a smart ship.

The ship generally sticks firmly to its no paperwork policy but now has a daily printed diary called ‘A Glance at the Day’ but with no evening turndown service it is not delivered and needs to be collected at strategic points.  Large screens replicate this diary at strategic points on the main decks.  

The ports are not made welcoming, questions to ship staff dealt with by a shrug.  They know nothing about where we are and the wonderful sailing into Lisbon was made in total silence.  Surely someone could have described the Belem Tower, and Eiffel’s connection with the city. Even a volunteer!  And the explain how to get from the ship to Praça do Comércio, Lisbon’s main square.  

Ours was the maiden voyage into each port.  Clearly there was no liaison between the ship and the local tourist boards.   

There is no library on this ship.  Make sure you have a Kindle and it would take nothing from its image if Virgin Voyages offered Pressreader, the global news provider,  on its app, even for a charge.

Virgin Voyages has been described as similar to Marmite.  Either you love it or hate it.  Ours was not a typical trip according to the Virgin Voyages theme, with an older age group.  How younger people make out remains to be seen? 

“Get Lost” (See AND FINALLY), or in plain American ‘Future Sales’, always seemed busy, whilst for others it is a one-off experience.  As for the Miami programme we shall have to wait and see.  We live in an age of ‘false news’.  Don’t believe all that is written. First hand is the only way to gain a genuine experience!

For the record a ‘sailor’ had to be evacuated to hospital by helicopter 250 miles south of Lisbon, the ship arriving eight hours late, and even worse a suicide in the Bay of Biscay, not discovered until probably five hours after the incident, again the ship turning south and a full search undertaken in compliance with sea law.  We arrived at Portsmouth 12 hours late, to its credit Virgin Voyages keeping all the main dining outlets open (even the immensely popular ice cream bar) with no pressure on us to vacate the cabin.  Many people treated the delay as a extra day’s free holiday.


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