An Up-Close Look at Virgin Voyages’ Valiant Lady
If anyone in the cruise industry was going to get Jennifer Lopez on the payroll, it surely fell to Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. That’s right: J. Lo — international film and music superstar and global style icon — has landed a job at Virgin Voyages.
The fleet-wide partnership between Lopez, Branson, and his cruise line Virgin Voyages was revealed in a tongue-in-cheek video ahead of the launch of Valiant Lady, the brand’s newest vessel, at the London port of Tilbury on March 11. It captured a luminous Jennifer (it’s the J. Lo glow up) chatting to Branson on FaceTime. “J. Lo called. We Answered,” was Virgin’s top line.
“We searched for someone very special to join us on this voyage,” said Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages. “Jennifer is a trailblazer and embodies the spirit of Virgin Voyages and its people.”
Year of the Virgin
This year, two new ships, plus homeports in Miami, Barcelona, and Athens, will extend the line’s presence. In May, the 2,700-passenger Valiant Lady heads to her summer homeport in Barcelona for a season of sun-soaked Mediterranean sailings. In August, Resilient Lady, the third “Lady ship” in Virgin’s fleet of four, will begin sailing from Athens.
In what feels like a lifetime ago, in February 2019, Virgin Voyages experienced one of the toughest cruising debuts a line has seen. A brief sailing window last summer garnered plaudits and saw the brand gain a foothold in extremely challenging times. After a few months in the water, Virgin’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, was named “Best New Cruise Ship for 2021” by Cruise Critic and garnered accolades for the best suites at sea. A 70 percent uptick in bookings since December bodes well for the line’s first full Mediterranean season.
President of Virgin Voyages Nirmal Saverimuttu says 2022 is all about itineraries and wooing the new-to-cruise. “This is what clients were asking for: new destinations and more exciting itineraries.”
While Scarlet sails 4- and 5-night itineraries, Valiant Lady will offer 7-night voyages with late-night departures and overnight stays in Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca or Mykonos in Greece.
In addition to late-night and overnight stops, “sailors” can expect culturally-led excursions including flamenco dancing in Málaga and chocolate pairing and wine tastings in Marseille.
New Kind of Cruise
Branson has built an empire on upending tradition and that maverick spirit is written into Virgin Voyages’ DNA. You can get inked at sea. The modular bed can be re-jigged. There’s drag queen karaoke and ‘peek-a-boo’ showers, glamorous Rockstar suites and four electric guitars in the Massive Suite. The day at sea is heaven sent for those with abs to tone and social channels to feed, city-break types, those who tend portfolio careers in cafes over Prana Chai tea or anyone with a penchant for vadouvan tahini at 2 a.m.
Like her predecessor, Valiant Lady channels a playful, cheeky and relaxed, adult-only vibe. Millennials will feel at home. Menus are QR-able, the cabin’s brain is a tablet, take-out cup lids are recyclable, and the Virgin Voyages app is your “wallet” and guide to ship, shore, and more. Infinitely photogenic, the true Instagram star is Valiant Lady herself (although J. Lovers may disagree).
With several indoor and outdoor fitness spaces, a “shake for Champagne” app (geo-tag tech brings the bubbles to you) and food delivered anytime, anywhere, Valiant Lady caters as much to the “breakfast-at-2pm” crowd as she does to the “do-everything” type. New for Valiant Lady is the beautifully choreographed Ships in the Night (shown at The Red Room theatre) and the music-video-meets-club-scene UNTITLED DANCESHOW PARTYTHING, produced by Tony Award nominated director Sam Pinkleton and Ani Taj (at The Manor nightclub).
Minor tweaks aside, Valiant is a blueprint of Scarlet. Public-space artwork reflects the European destinations in which Valiant sails, and British artist Hillary Wilson has emblazoned the bow with a black mermaid. Called Valiance, she flies a billowing, liveried red flag.
“Why change something that works so well?” said Saverimuttu. “The response to the product was overwhelming and Scarlet met with astonishing reviews. People like the relaxed vibe, the made-to-order cuisine and the ‘rock star’ service. We’ve had first-time cruisers telling us they’ll never go back to land-based holidays.”
Virgin Voyages Experiences
Menus are creative and food is as healthy as you make it. At The Social Club I grazed on spicy shrimp and tacos with beetroot hummus served from dim-sum style trolleys. At Floats and Shakes I ordered a Berry Me At Sea (bubbles, berry sorbet, vanilla and Red Bull; $9). I snacked at Bento Bay Japanese and dined at the experimental Test Kitchen and the vegetarian-forward Razzle Dazzle which, for my money, offers the best breakfast menu at sea. Bar a technical hiccup at Test Kitchen (a lost Wi-Fi signal meant a stack of orders didn’t reach the kitchen) service was excellent.
Those craving a “scene” will find it in Richard’s Rooftop Lounge — exclusive for those in Rockstar Quarters — around the pre-bookable on-deck cabanas; in the Champagne bar, Sip; and, in the wee hours, at The Manor. At our overnight showcase, Diplo was guest DJ and my head was turned by a man dressed as a cat and another who owned the dance floor in metallic-silver briefs and a glittery fishnet cape. “That wasn’t part of the entertainment,” said one of the crew at breakfast. “He just rocked up.”
Generation Y might be tempted. Hard-done-by 45-plusses can make up for lost time. I went to the Grounds coffee bar for an espresso ($3) and came away with a Black Cat Fizz — espresso, tonic and orange poured over ice ($6). I went to yoga (free) and slurped tonkotsu ramen at 11 a.m. I purred over limited-edition vinyl at the Record Store and played Korean drinking games with an influencer at Gunbae. I squeezed in a deep-tissue massage at the Redemption Spa ($189 for 50 minutes) and had my “crunchy knots” kneaded by Kimmie, whose petite frame masked the hands of Hercules.
A Virgin cruise is a bit like going on holiday with the most liberal parents imaginable. It’s hard to rebel when the rules are already broken.
And what of those “people” CEO Tom McAlpin references above? I’ve come across ships where the majority of guest-facing crew are warm and friendly but I’ve yet to find a team as diverse (a cabin host from Montenegro, a barista from Brazil, a mixologist from Bali and a spa therapist from South Africa…), as confident, or as “in their skin” as the individuals on Scarlet or Valiant Lady. On Virgin Voyages personality counts.
More Than a Godmother
By partnering with Lopez, Branson is — yet again — turning the traditional ceremonial godmother role on its head.
The Branson J. Lo FaceTime conversation is centered on finding a title more befitting of a 21st-century, multitasking, A1 celebrity.
“Jenny from the dock?” quips Branson. “Mermaid in Manhattan?”
Hours before Valiant Lady’s London showcase, Lopez’s full job title was finally given as Investor and Chief Entertainment & Lifestyle Officer. “My artistic and social mission is to empower, inspire and entertain,” says Lopez. “Any opportunity I get to combine these attributes into a partnership and collaboration is exciting.”
With a pivotal year ahead, investor and fleet guardian Lopez has quite the remit. There are sailor experiences to develop, entertainment and well-being schedules to plan, and products to sell. Kicking things off in style, Virgin Voyages will be introducing J. Lo Beauty as part of the onboard offering.
With that J. Lo glow, all sailors, even the 45-plus ones, will be camera ready. ***
BOX 1: Valiant Lady At A Glance Passengers: 2,700
Crew: 1,150 crew
Total suites and cabins: 1,408 Rockstar Quarters: 78
Sea Terrace (balcony cabin): 1,208 Sea Views: 95
Inside cabins: 105
BOX 2: A Growing Fleet — Key Dates
March 18-21, 2022: Valiant Lady sets sail on her maiden voyage
May 15, 2022: Following her Barcelona launch and maiden voyage (May 15-22), she sails 7-night Mediterranean itineraries from Barcelona
Valiant Lady joins her sister ship, Scarlet Lady, in the Caribbean for the winter 2022/23 season August 14, 2022: Resilient Lady launches in Athens (maiden voyage August 14-21).