An unlikely place to conquer your fear of cruising: aboard Virgin Voyages' 'Scarlet Lady.'
"I'm packing my own life jacket," my mom announced in the weeks leading up to her first cruise.
"I promise that won't be necessary," I responded, trying not to laugh and calmly explaining how her biggest fear — accidentally falling overboard — was unlikely to come to fruition.
My mom has always had a host of reasons not to go on a cruise, and under normal circumstances, I wouldn't bug her about them. But when the opportunity arose to sail aboard Virgin Voyages' very first vessel, Scarlet Lady, I knew it was the perfect occasion to give her a little push — not overboard, of course.
On embarkation day, her fear-filled declarations turned to nervous-yet-enthusiastic anticipation. We entered the ship through what felt like a sleek hotel lobby as staff decked out in Virgin Voyages' signature red greeted us with infectious energy. Nearby, a live DJ spun the kind of music you'd hear in a Miami day club, a fitting touch for this adults-only cruise.
"You see how high the guard rails are?" I said, pointing out the window to the safety precautions she was so worried about. But my mom wasn't paying attention. She was too busy taking in the ship's grandeur — if I looked closely enough, I could see her shoulders slowly relax.
We headed to our accommodations to check out where we'd be sleeping during our four-night sailing with stops in Nassau, Bahamas, and Virgin Voyages' private beach club in Bimini, Bahamas. Like majority of the staterooms aboard Scarlet Lady, we had a balcony with a comfy handwoven hammock, while a stylish room awaited inside with an even cozier bed that could be arranged as a double bed or two singles.
After our safety drill (something that made my mom more comfortable; nothing combats cruise phobia like knowing where the designated lifeboats are), we started our never-ending mission to discover all the nooks, crannies, and unique offerings on board.
Exploring the ship's features while we were still docked in Miami, the ship's homeport, made it almost effortless for my mom to forget that we were on a cruise ship. Scarlet Lady feels more like a boutique resort with several bars, eateries, shops, and public gathering areas — each uniquely decorated with a fun, sometimes cheeky, theme. For instance, the diner-themed Social Club with board games and carnival-inspired treats taps into everyone's inner child, but for the more adventurous, there's Squid Ink, the only tattoo parlor at sea. However, my favorite spot was the Lick Me 'Till I Scream ice cream shop. Trust me when I say the brown butter gelato on a blue-corn cone can't be missed.
For our first dinner on board, we chose Gunbae, the only Korean barbecue restaurant at sea with a specially made flameless grill. Our server/host for the night was entertaining us with Korean drinking games when we looked out the window and noticed that we were already floating away from the Miami skyline.
We were officially moving, and reality hit my mom: The ship was heading out to the open sea. Luckily, her brief moment of panic was followed by a shot of soju and a couple subsequent drinking games that put her at ease.
Further distractions came in the form of Scarlet Lady's nightly entertainment, starting with the "Untitled Danceshowpartything," a performance that you truly have to experience to understand, and "Duel Reality," which told the story of Romeo and Juliet with a modern twist that included break dancing and death-defying acrobatics. The entertainment is undeniably geared toward adults, especially with shows like "Never Sleep Alone," a participatory performance with a "relationship therapist" dishing out hilarious (albeit questionable) advice. When I got called on stage to play a game, I was more grateful than ever to have such an open-minded mom who laughed at all the sex jokes I had to tell.
Although these "distractions" were all part of the fun, I wanted my mom to truly feel like she was on a cruise ship and embrace the beauty of her surroundings. We started small with a trip to our balcony, looking out at the seemingly endless ocean before shifting our gaze down below, where the ship's lights cast a calming purplish hue on the rippling water. The rhythmic lapping of the waves put us both in an almost meditative state, and I could see her guard coming down a bit more.
Where other ships have left me feeling forced to hang out on the pool deck for some fresh air, Scarlet Lady has a variety of spaces that give you a sense of place and appreciation for the high seas. The outdoor spaces really helped my mom build her sea legs.
The Dock, a Mediterranean-style eatery and lounge, welcomed us to enjoy the views from the back of the ship with refreshing cocktails and tasty tapas. The suspended catamaran-style nets floating from deck 16 were a playful addition if you're not afraid of heights, while a spacious common area encircled deck seven. I was shocked the morning I found my health-conscious mom doing laps on the top deck's jogging track. There's even an outdoor boxing ring and a basketball court that lights up in neon colors at night. As VIP guests, we took advantage of Richard's Rooftop, an exclusive sundeck and bar that offered complimentary Champagne around sunset.
By the end of day two, my mother was thoroughly obsessed because, as she put it, everything has an oceanfront view.
When Richard Branson founded Virgin Voyages, he said it was designed for people who hate cruising. While that's certainly not me, as the veteran sailor leading the way on this trip, I could appreciate the attention to detail that went into addressing the common pain points of cruising. With Wi-Fi, gratuities, and specialty restaurants all included as part of the experience, as well as the excellent, personality-filled service, it was easy to sit back and just enjoy sailing. And for me, that was the best part — getting to see my mom take shots, try a bungee fitness class, dance the night away, eat cookies and pizza at 2 a.m. because vacation calories don't count, indulge in every area of the spa's hydrotherapy circuit, and so much more.
It was her first real vacation in two years, and she loved every minute, in part because she was able to totally relax with everything taken care of for her. Most importantly, she did it all while challenging her long-held fear of cruising and expanding her travel horizons.
When disembarkation day came, neither of us wanted to leave.
As we drove home from PortMiami, I turned to my mom and asked, "So what's your final verdict on cruising?"
"I would go again tomorrow," she said with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Same, mom. Same.