I’m on a gigantic boat in open water, watching 200 people do the Macarena. A ten-foot inflatable octopus looks on with the wide eyes of a wrongfully convicted prisoner. It is late, and cold, so people are wrapped in red blankets, which look like cloaks and so give the proceedings a cultish air.
This experience, you may be surprised to learn, is not part of a hallucinogenic trip. Instead, I’m at something called “Scarlet Night”, the social centrepiece of a Virgin Voyages cruise aboard the biggest star in its constellation of new cruise ships, the Scarlet Lady.
In some ways, the Macarena is a good analogue for cruises in general: ostensibly fun and ultimately low-effort, as you’re whisked away to sea on a massive floating hotel and fed like the prize calf. But in my mind, they always seemed like kind of an old-fashioned way to travel, conjuring images of compulsory dinner-dances soundtracked by string instruments.
Virgin Voyages, however, hope that their offering – frightening octopus and all – will change that. The Scarlet Lady is one of four new ships with which the company is attempting the impossible: making millennials want to go on cruises. Could it work? Well, I took on the very difficult responsibility of heading out on the high seas – otherwise known as the English Channel – for a weekend of overconsumption, to find out
As a 27-year-old who rents hopelessly in London and eats dinner in bed more often than not, I have, of course, never really considered cruises to be “for me.” My main source of information about them are my grandparents, who, in their golden retirement years, were a pair of Cruise Ultras, returning now and then from two weeks sailing the Med with stories from their travels and armfuls of framed professional photos of the two of them dressed for a fancy dinner, which reminded me of prom pics but for old people. Don’t get me wrong: they always sounded like they had fun, but my idea of a holiday is bottomless frozen margaritas while lying on my front for two weeks, not “meeting a lovely couple from Donegal” over salmon en croute served en masse.
As such, when I received an email inviting me onto the Scarlet Lady, I was a bit apprehensive. My PR contact promised that the ship was shaking up received notions of the cruise holiday, but I did find myself sceptical about how possible it actually is to Mia-Wallace-adrenalin-shot.gif this particular flavour of vacation, which is all but synonymous with “being 65 and over”.
Virgin Voyages is confident that it’s achievable. The company is a new wing of the ever-expanding Virgin brand (one of the onboard activities was a talk about the history of the company, which I unfortunately missed as I was busy drinking a cocktail with a glacé cherry in it), and will see its first four ships launch between now and 2023.
The Scarlet Lady is the elder stateswoman of the group, and her stats are thus: a bruiser of a ship, she houses 1,440 cabins, 78 “RockStar Suites” (XXL cabins with private hot tubs, standalone baths and guitars on the wall, all of which are things most of us would accept if offered, let’s face it), over 2,700 passengers and 1,150 crew members. She’ll be sailing mostly from Miami to the Caribbean, while her sister ship, Valiant Lady, will be cruising the Mediterranean from Portsmouth, to destinations like Barcelona and Lisbon. Prices for a “cruisecation” that leaves from Portsmouth with no stops begin at £499.
These ships aren’t regular ships, Virgin insist. They’re cool ships. And so: gone are the beige buffet halls of the traditional cruise imaginary. In their place are 20 different restaurants. About half of these are set up food court style on one of the ship’s upper decks, and the other half are scattered around the vessel, each with their own unique, Instagrammable aesthetics (Virgin have cottoned onto the fact that such eminently postable interiors – designed by creative agencies like Concrete Amsterdam, Tom Dixon Design Studio and Roman and Williams – are the bread and butter of appealing to a younger crowd), serving everything from fresh takeaway pizza to experimental menus designed by Michelin star chefs.
Between all of these eateries, every possible culinary whim is catered for. You want a burrito? They have that, in two different places. You want the Impossible Burger, the world’s most convincing fake meat patty, not yet available in the UK? They’ve got that too. And should your heart and stomach desire Eggs Benedict served 1920s Manhattan style – well, just try The Wake, a restaurant that looks like it was stolen from the set of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and somehow installed on a boat, all flawless ivory linen, coffee in silver pots and vanilla crullers served before your actual breakfast arrives, as you look blinkingly on, like the “for me?” meme with a napkin stuffed down its front.
Beyond the limitless food – I didn’t even get to the ice cream stand you can just visit continuously, free of charge and judgment – the Scarlet Lady also hosts other trappings of the experience economy. Onboard are two gyms (a weights room and a cardio room; a spin studio that is nicer than the nice spin studios in London (trust me – I have, regretfully, spent the money); a spa; a number of swimming pools; three private karaoke booths; a casino; a tattoo parlour where I saw a middle-aged woman getting a glass of champagne permanently etched on her hip (paging @loveofhuns); a shopping centre; loads of bars; and an outdoor running track. There’s even a purpose-built nightclub – though in said club I did observe both a conga and a woman grinding on the leg of a man in jeans and sheux, which suggests that it is perhaps not the next The Cause just yet.
Essentially, the boat is an all-inclusive resort on water. Most food is included in the fare, as are most non-alcoholic drinks. Those that aren’t are paid for with a wristband connected to your bank card (or pre-loaded with cash) via the ship’s app, so you barely think about it as you run up an extortionate bar tab: the height of luxury.
Ultimately, it’s this lack of effort – the knowledge that you can have everything you want right now, and also everything that you might possibly want in an hour’s time – that makes the experience of being on the Scarlet Lady feel so opulent. And this abundance, underlined by absolutely zero decision-making, is something I could conceivably see millennials spending their money on, as they age up from “ugh, I don’t know how you do beach holidays – I love city breaks and exploring :)” to “I want my vacation to involve someone knocking me out cold for two weeks, putting me on a vodka drip and gently placing me on a sun lounger for that entire time”.
Earlier this year, Kyle Chayka wrote convincingly for the New York Times about our “obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings”, which “evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence”. But what if you could have the erasure and the overstimulation all in one go? Taking yourself at least partially off the grid (the internet’s not great at sea) while pursuing pure pleasure, and collecting images for the grid in the meantime, is, I think, increasingly something that would appeal.
This is all part of a wider pattern. “Location-based experiences” are due to become a $12 billion industry by 2023, while a US survey found that 72 percent of millennials say they’d prefer to spend their money on real-life experiences than material goods. Social media sees to it that such experiences become status symbols, in the same way as a new handbag or trainers, now that they’re shareable.
Now that “experiences” are currency – usable among both those of us who don’t really have the resources for more stable-feeling markers of progress (like having a family or owning a home) and those who do – it’s unsurprising that brands would get involved. Cruises may be slightly tainted territory, but factor in an ageing target demographic, with growing spending power (millennials are now out-earning boomers), and you begin to see the logic.
Research by Condor Ferries recently found that compared with 9 percent of Gen X, and an enormous 41 percent of boomers, 19 percent of millennials had been on or would be likely to go on a cruise. As such, some cruise companies have been attempting to tailor their product more towards younger people – for example, by moving onboard bookings to apps and embracing influencer marketing.
Virgin has clearly gone a little further. The question now is whether what the company has designed will appeal to their consumer in practice as well as in theory. On my trip, most of the Scarlet Lady’s passengers were older than the millennial target audience – but Virgin are keen to state that their cruise is as much for the “young as heart” as it is for the simply “young”. The onboard PR rep also noted that, because this was one of the ship’s first ever outings, there were probably more cruise heads – who tend to be on the older side – than there would normally be (if nothing else, I was delighted to discover the existence of cruise enthusiasts who jump at a spot on the newest vessel as if they’re queuing for a Supreme drop).
Really, though, my favourite parts of the experience were those that most adults, regardless of their age, would enjoy. The restaurant concepts are largely great and very luxe-feeling (even more so when you can just get up and leave when you’re finished, with no bill to pay); the gyms are clean, spacious and easy to use; and the large outdoor bar, with music on speakers, poolside sun beds and roving crew members taking your drinks orders, carries some fun nods to the beach clubs of the Nikki Beach variety that are currently modish in European holiday destinations.
There is one area where the compromise between the expectations of a traditional cruise and Virgin’s brave new Instagram-friendly world clash a little, however: the entertainment. In lieu of an evening cabaret, for example, sailors can opt to see a performance by a live band fronted by a mezzo soprano belter who, instead of wearing the customary sparkling gown, dons a leather jacket and sings Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, which is sadly much less fun than what Virgin is trying to replace (I found myself longing to hear the stunning “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” she clearly had inside of her).
Likewise, the onboard circus show is jaw-droppingly impressive – as is the purpose-built theatre it takes place in – but it’s mired in a weird, floppy message, vaguely concerning Unity and Love, in a clear attempt to satisfy what an executive at Virgin thinks “young people” care about. Most of us would rather just see the acrobats do their death-defying stunts, clap a little, and leave.
As with the neon signs saying things like “Live” and “Breathe” positioned on the ship for a photo-op, the whole endeavour sometimes gets millennials’ tastes slightly wrong. I do wonder how the cruise format in general – and the sheer level of consumption it involves – would sit with people in their 20s and 30s, who might be slightly more likely to think about the wider impacts of their indulgences. I also don’t think I’d be the only person my age to find the aggressive branding around the ship a bit jarring. At the same time, though, what the Scarlet Lady cruise does offer is the type of immersive, experience-led holiday that is marketable to more and more millennials. I had a good time, even while being totally aware that what are perceived as (and sometimes are) my generational tastes were being pandered to.
It was the proven crowd-pleasers which were the best parts of the cruise, as I’d imagine they are when it comes to most hotel or resort-based holidays, too. When people have paid their money, after all, they just want you to play the hits. Plus, ‘millennials’ is no longer necessarily a byword for ‘young.’ We are getting older too. Our regular lives become more stressful as we age, and what we want from holidays changes. We want the Instagrammable bits and bobs that have become part of the fabric of how we express ourselves, certainly, but we also want what we know.
And so, there’s a reason why all of those people, young and old, were out on deck on “Scarlet Night”, dancing to the familiar music as the blue of the pool reflected on their faces. Putting out one hand, then another, their bodies moved in unison, as the boat drifted along the sea, silently and smoothly, its passengers wiggling, then jumping – Macarena-ing into that good night.