“Will you dress up and have dinner with the captain in the evenings?” my mother asked inquisitively when I mentioned that I was going on a cruise.
“I don’t think it’s that kind of cruise, mum”, I responded.
I have often been skeptical about cruises in the past, with the assumption that they were catered towards more “matured crowds”, and the fear of suffering from cabin fever, stranded in the middle of the ocean, being one not quite confident in open waters. Not that I would consider myself particularly “young” now, and I suppose the chances of me falling overboard are pretty slim … but I digress.
But of course the cruise industry has evolved throughout the years, and this summer I had the privilege of partnering with Virgin Voyages to embark on my first voyage on board Valiant Lady, their second ship that launched this summer.
We set sail from their Mediterranean homeport of Port de Barcelona, an easy 15 minute taxi ride from the airport. The boarding process was smooth and within minutes we had our bands securely strapped onto our wrists – a sleek wearable technology made from recycled ocean plastic which registered our individual identities, giving access to our cabins and served as a handy, wallet-free method of payment on board. Fancy.
Central Sea Terrace
Our cabin was centrally located on the ship on Deck 10, designed to take in sweeping views of the horizon, that almost all of their Sea Terraces offer. The room which measures at 225 sq feet, although small compared to a standard hotel room, was considered spacious for a ship cabin, optimized to create a cosy yet efficient living space. Centred around their configurable Seabed and high-tech mood lighting, it can be transformed from sleep sanctuary to a more sociable lounge arrangement. The room has sufficient storage space for clothes and essentials, unless of course you decide to pack three different outfits for each day like ourselves, in which case you can always request for extra hangers! The bathroom was compact but functional, and I was particularly keen on the rainshower – I do love my showers.
With so much to explore around the ship and on shore during the duration of our voyage, we really only retired to our room to freshen up and to get a good night’s sleep at the end of the day, dozing off halfway through watching Mulan & Grease on the large flat-screen HDTV. We did however enjoy a cheeky room service breakfast one morning on our terrace, conveniently ordered via the Sailor app which arrived well-packaged in sturdy zipped-up “sacks”. The food and “basic bevvies” from the menu are free, and you only need to pay a fixed fee of $5.50 per delivery.
Eat & Drink (Well)
With more than 20 speciality eateries on board, we were certainly spoilt for choice. Food was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the voyage for me; constantly thinking about our next main meal, and how many snack breaks I could squeeze in in between. We started off strong on our first evening at Mexican restaurant Pink Agave, the signature lighting design of British designer Tom Dixon apparent from the moment you enter through the brightly lit tunnel. We liked this place so much in terms of food and aesthetics that we booked it again on our final night. I also treated myself to the Pescado Zarandeado, which was a decadent platter of achiote halibut, lobster, grilled prawn, and bay scallop – a seafood lover’s dream. And don’t forget to indulge in their extensive cocktail menu to fully immerse yourself in the moment.
Another close contender was The Test Kitchen, a laboratory-like eatery inspired by Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine, which is ideal for those who are partial towards an experiential dining experience. The setting is veered towards a more sociable sharing table/counter dining seating, where guests can observe the chefs meticulously preparing the different dishes for service. We visited for dinner twice and the menu was different on each occasion, although I did prefer the menu that we tried on our first visit there – the mushroom pate, smoked egg yolk with peas, and the venison were my standout dishes from the menu.
Our dinner at Gunbae was memorable for all the right reasons, another sociable dining concept, where you share tables with fellow sailors around a Korean BBQ – although with whom depends on your luck! We had the pleasure of being grouped together with an enthusiastic trio from the US who made the experience even more enjoyable. Make sure that your vocal chords are in tip-top shape and be prepared for all the meat sweats! We missed out on dessert on our first visit to rush off to Bingo with the Diva, but made it back on our final night for some late night kimchi soup, soju and soft serve ice cream. Pure bliss.
A grand staircase at the end of Deck 7 leads down towards The Wake, an elegant restaurant which will satisfy the cravings of both seafood and meat lovers alike. I very much enjoyed the razor clam chowder and the New Zealand lamb chops which were cooked medium rare, just as I like it. The Wake also does an excellent brunch which we had also pre-booked for the day after. Some of the dishes are similar to the dinner menu, and as much as I was tempted to reorder the chowder, I instead opted for the prawns, followed by a delicious serving of breakfast muffins topped with soft shell crab and perfectly poached eggs.
For a taste of Italy, Extra Virgin is the place to be. We feasted on a sumptuous selection of antipasti and carb-loaded on pasta before finishing off on a sweet note with affogato, prepared tableside, followed by a glass (or two) of amaretto.
We just about made it to Razzle Dazzle for a quick early morning breakfast. Much more exciting than my usual breakfast at home, I treated myself to the mushroom tartare, a vegetable hash topped with eggs, and a unicorn brioche toast with rainbow sprinkles – because why not? I would have loved to return to try more of their creative dishes which all sounded intriguing, but alas we ran out of time – so much to eat, so little time …
Reservations for the aforementioned eateries can be made on the Sailor App prior to sailing, and although walk-ins are available for most restaurants, I would highly recommend making reservations in advance for those prime-time dinner slots. I made reservations about a month before sailing, and even then many of the bookings between 6.30pm-8.00pm were already filled.
There are of course plenty of other eateries around the ship that are open at various times where you can pop over to at your leisure. The Galley in particular is open throughout the day for dining in or takeaway boxes, with certain food stations that change over their menu, depending on the time of day. Service generally starts at 7am, just in time to catch the sunrise in the distance – the open-air space at the end of the deck serves as the perfect Instagram spot for that sunrise breakfast shot. For my sweet-tooth fix, I regularly popped over to The Sweet Side which houses a lovely array of pastries in the morning and desserts later on – got to keep those sugar levels up for all our high-energy activities! Lounging in the sunshine can be very exhausting after all.
The Dock House was one of my regular haunts for those in-between-meal cravings. The setting is more laidback with a rustic-chic resort vibe, serving small Mediterranean plates, fresh from the grill, as well as a roving Mezze-cart with fresh dips and salads. I certainly had my fair share of grilled prawns and octopus.
There is a bar located in each speciality spot, including their curated Champagne lounge, Sip, which also serves afternoon tea, with a reasonable supplementary fee of $19 per person.
With an exciting line-up of events and activities each day, there was never a dull moment on board Valiant Lady. We made the rookie mistake of forgetting to pre-book some of the more exclusive shows which sold-out rather quickly, but there were thankfully still plenty of non-ticketed shows to keep us entertained. Some of the fun highlights included Around the World with the Diva, Bingo with the Diva (twice, because we couldn’t get enough of the Diva, clearly), Untitled Danceshow, and the talented Fluteloops, who may have given me some butterflies in my stomach. I was pretty sure that I had outgrown that phase – that was until he whipped out his flute. No sexual innuendos intended. I purchased his CD which he was kind enough to sign for me, although I have yet to find a CD player at home to actually play it on. A sweet momento nonetheless!
On Scarlet Night, sailors were encouraged to wear red, for which we had undoubtedly come prepared for; my red skirt which had been hanging idly in my wardrobe excited to finally make its debut. Spaces were decked out with giant octopus tentacles, with live music and entertainment running throughout the evening, which ended with the pool party finale at the top deck.
Being built for warmer climates, Valiant Lady has plenty of outdoor space to explore, whether it be getting your heart-rate going on their red running track, sweating it out at the outdoor gym, or something more low-key, like lounging by the pool. I was fortunate enough to be given access to Richard’s Rooftop where I spent many an afternoon soaking up the sunshine with a glass of Champagne or Frosé in hand.
We also spent an afternoon at their Thermal Suite for some self-care time on one of their port days, which included a 3-hour slot to make use of facilities such the salt room, steam room, plunge pools, and heated marble hammam benches. For those bad-hair days, fret not, as there is the Dry Dock where you can get your mermaid locks back into shape – I popped in after a day at the beach to get a blowout and walked out feeling refreshed and ready for one of many pre-dinner drinks on the rooftop.
Having set sail from Barcelona for our weeklong voyage of The Irresistible Med, we had the opportunity to go ashore at each cruise port; Toulon, Marina di Carrara, Ajaccio, Cagliari, with a finale overnight in Ibiza before returning to the homeport in Barcelona. For those who enjoy the convenience of organised tours, Virgin Voyages offers a variety of excursions at each stop, or “Shore Things” as they call it. The prices vary depending on the type of activity, from the cheaper walking tours to the more extravagant private yacht tours.
We spent the first couple of days exploring on our own, starting with the charming French town of Toulon. To get a quick overview of the town, we hopped onto “Le Petit Train” which was conveniently located in front of the pier; a 45 minute journey in total with two stopovers, allowing us to hop off at the beach and the town centre after. Our second stop was Italy’s coastal town, Marina di Carrara, where we chose to stay local instead of venturing out further by train to Florence or Pisa. It is worth taking note that this is a small coastal town where the ticket machines for buses only take coins – something that we only realized at the last minute, but we were thankfully saved by a fellow Sailor who happened to have some spare change on him! In just about 20 minutes we arrived in Carrara, which has been known as the marble city, set against a mountainous backdrop, notable for the white marble quarries.
For our stop at Ajaccio, the capital of the French Island of Corsica, we booked onto the Local Trio Tour, where we were picked up by coach from the pier. Guided by local expert, Suzanne, we made our first stop at a small winery for some wine tasting, followed by honey tasting at a honey farm and a visit to a family-run essential oils factory. We opted for a laidback day exploring Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia, passing through some local attractions such as the Botanical Garden of Cagliari, Anfiteatro Romano, San Pancrazio and Elefante towers, and Saint Remy Rampart which offers the best view of the city from the Umberto I terrace.
Whilst Ibiza may be famous for its beach parties and lively nightlife, we decided to go down the calmer route and booked ourselves onto the jeep excursion, one of the Shore Things that we onboard via the Sailor app. Taking us on a scenic journey along the south west coast, the trip included three stops, the final stop being the gorgeous Cala Conta where we had some free time to ourselves, windswept and ready to hit the beach in our swimsuits. We walked up further to the smaller cove, Cala Escondida, stopping at a small chiringuito for some cold beers before enjoying a dip in the beautiful turquoise waters – it also happens to be popular amongst nudists, so don’t be afraid to go au naturale …
A word of thanks to Virgin Voyages for a fabulous, whirlwind experience onboard the majestic Valiant Lady. I have definitely become a cruise convert and am itching to get back out to sea again in the near future.
- My voyage was complimentary as part of a partnership with Virgin Voyages – views and photos are my own.