Cruise Comparison: Celebrity Solstice and Virgin Scarlet Lady
Judy & Glenn Tudor
Food & Wine
In September 2023, Glenn and I went on back-to-back cruises with a five-day cruise on Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady and an nine-day cruise on the Celebrity Solstice. We loved both cruises for different reasons and are sharing all the details with you.
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I have been on over 20 cruises with family and friends. Our first cruise was a Disney cruise when our daughters were five and six years old and is still one of my favorite vacation memories.
Cruising was a very affordable and accessible way for us to travel. We have been on most of the mainstream cruise lines - Disney, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Carnival. We have been to the Caribbean, Mexico (Caribbean and Pacific sides), Alaska and Europe. I often refer to cruises as the gateway drug for traveling because it allowed us to see a lot of places and determine where we wanted to go back to for longer trips to explore more. It had been a while since we had been on a cruise, but after a surprise 50th birthday cruise on the brand-new Disney Wish, we decided to go with a group of friends on the Celebrity Solstice leaving out of Fort Lauderdale. Then we started hearing a lot of positive feedback about the new Virgin Voyage cruise line, and after starting to get some travel requests for Virgin, we decided to add Virgin Voyages on the Scarlet Lady out of Miami to our plans and see if all the hype is true.
Before we get started, I want to preface this review by saying that cruising is a lot like matchmaking. We have booked a lot of cruises for people (even before we were travel advisors), and I truly believe there is no one cruise line that is perfect for everyone. Depending on where you want to go, what you enjoy doing and who you are going with can make all the difference in choosing the right cruise for you. So while we are comparing these two cruise lines, I think it’s important to know that both are great options, depending on what you are wanting to get out of your vacation.
Embarkation and disembarkation have improved significantly, with the process being really streamlined. We always check in online (highly recommended) before we get on the ship, so for both cruises, they just confirmed that our information was correct and took our pictures. On Virgin Voyages you receive a bracelet at check in and this bracelet is used to open your cabin door, any purchases on the ship, and to gain entry into shows, etc. On Celebrity, the process was very similar, except they used key cards, which are left on the door of your cabin when you arrive. Disembarkation was also very easy as both cruises just pull up your picture, verify your identity, and then you are free to go. Even passport control was super easy, with both Miami and Fort Lauderdale just requiring a visual identification and no longer needing your actual passport to get through US Customs.
Design of the ships
Virgin Voyages is a more minimalist and modern design. I loved The Dock on the back of the ship, it had a very casual, hip vibe where you could hang out with friends and grab a snack and drink. The Social Club area, also near the back of the ship, was also a fun area. Because Virgin is an adults-only cruise, they are able to create spaces for adults to have fun and play board games. The overall vibe of the ship is very casual, even down to the dress codes. Celebrity also has a modern design but feels more higher-end with elegant touches, while also feeling a bit more formal. The solarium area on Celebrity is always a wonderful place to relax on the ship, and we still really enjoy the grassy lawn at the top of the ship as well. Both ships have small pool areas that fill up quickly, so if spending some time in the pool on the ship is important to you, plan your time accordingly. There seemed to be enough loungers available around the pools, but peak times will require some effort to find them.
Accessibility Tip: Virgin Voyages seemed a bit easier to get around, probably because it is a newer ship so there were not a lot of steep inclines and most surfaces were pretty flat. It’s also a smaller ship, which obviously makes it easier to get to spots quickly.
Size of the ships
The Celebrity Solstice is 122,000 tonnage and has the capacity for over 2,800 guests, while the Virgin Scarlet Lady (all of the Virgin cruise ships are the same size) is 110,000 tonnage and also has the capacity for 2,800 guests. Although it is easier to get to places on a smaller ship like the Scarlet Lady, I think overall we prefer larger ships. Glenn can get motion sickness and could feel the ship move more on the smaller Scarlet Lady than he did on the Celebrity Solstice. However, the smaller Scarlet Lady did allow for more intimate entertainment settings with lots of cool hang-out spaces.
The Celebrity Solstice had a little bit of an advantage in this area because we were in the AquaClass Veranda, which provides nicer toiletries, robes, and linens. The bed on the Celebrity Solstice did seem a bit more comfortable. However, the Scarlet Lady had the hammock on the balcony and IT IS EVERYTHING. The perfect place to hang out on a sea day is swaddled in your hammock, rocking back and forth with the waves. I thought the hammock was kind of gimmicky, but I was very wrong. It was definitely a highlight for me. The Scarlet Lady also has a rain shower head in the showers in addition to the handheld shower, which was also a nice touch.
Accessibility Tip: The Celebrity ship has power cabin doors, which can be very helpful when leaving or returning to your cabin. The Scarlet Lady has no power entry door but did have a power-sliding bathroom door.
Virgin was a very clear winner in this category with 5 different main restaurants. Each restaurant has their own chef and kitchen, making for a more unique menu at each one. This may not seem like a big deal, but it means that each restaurant is truly special and the food is easier to access for the servers, making for hot dishes and custom orders. You can dine whenever you want each night and there are no set seating times. We made reservations ahead of time to make sure we hit all the restaurants at times we wanted, but it is a flexible system that accommodates people who are not planners. Did I mention all the restaurants are included in the price of the cruise? Basically like eating at specialty restaurants on other cruises but without the added surcharges. There is also no buffet on Virgin, but instead, they have The Galley. The Galley reminds us of a food truck set-up, with different spots dedicated to certain foods. You have the option of finding your own table and having a server deliver your food that you ordered from a QR code menu on the table, or you can go directly to the counter and order your food. They also have one venue in The Galley that offers breakfast all day and two of the main restaurants offer brunch. So if you like sleeping in but still want breakfast, they have you completely covered. A couple other standouts are the coffee by Intelligentsia (delicious but there is an extra charge) and the pizza. At The Pizza Place, they will make you your own personalized pizza or you can order off their menu, with different specialty pizzas every day.
On the Celebrity Solstice, we were assigned to eat at Blu due to being in an AquaClass cabin. We were really looking forward to having our own specialty dining every night, but the food was just average, slightly better than main dining on most mainstream cruise lines. Similarly, the buffet was also just average and difficult to find seating. The buffet did have some very tasty strawberry and vanilla soft serve swirl and the Café al Bacio had some yummy specialty coffees that we enjoyed.
Although Virgin exceeded our expectations overall with the variety and quality of food, Murano (french cuisine) on the Celebrity Solstice was by far the best overall restaurant between both cruises. It was absolutely an exceptional fine dining experience. The chateaubriand was some of the best steak we have ever had and the service was coordinated to perfection. We also enjoyed Tuscan Grille (Italian cuisine) on the Solstice. For Virgin, our favorite restaurant ended up being Pink Agave (Mexican cuisine). The menu was very upscale Mexican food and everything we ate was amazing. The guacamole and esquites corn was so good that we almost ordered another portion. Glenn had a steak covered in Quesillo cheese that he really enjoyed. We did not get to try the Gunbae (Korean barbecue) or Razzle Dazzle (modern American) for dinner, probably because we ate too much pizza and gelato throughout the cruise.
Virgin again exceeded our expectations for entertainment. They did not have your typical big theater song and dance show. Their entertainment venues are smaller and more intimate, making you much more engaged in the entertainment. The highlight was the Duel Reality show, similar to a Cirque du Soleil type production, that is performed so close to you that it feels a little dangerous. We also really enjoyed the magic show, which we were not expecting but it was a comedy/magic show that was absolutely delightful. The Scarlet Night Party is several different events in the evening that build up to a pool deck party at the end. We thought they did a great job of really building up the story (I won’t spoil it for you) and energy to culminate into the open-air nightclub atmosphere. The entertainment on the Solstice was your typical theater productions in the large theater, and they were very average for a mainstream cruise line. Some of the singing seemed off and the themes of the shows did not translate very well. However, what I did enjoy was the silent disco. This was way more fun than I thought it would be, and it was done twice on Celebrity. Celebrity also had a white party, but it just did not compare to the scarlet night on the Scarlet Lady, both in energy and entertainment.
The Celebrity spa is massive. Again, the Solstice has the advantage because we had the AquaClass cabin that gave you complimentary access to the spa thermal suite. The thermal suite has warm tile beds that I love to lay on. Your tension melts away as you relax in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. The spa offers many different treatments, and all the treatments I had were great. The Scarlet Lady also has an extensive list of treatments in their spa, and I enjoyed all of my treatments on Virgin as well, but the spa was definitely smaller. The area you wait in for your treatment is small with many people through to the Virgin version of a thermal suite, which in fairness, I did not get to experience to compare directly to the Celebrity thermal suite.
This was a hard one to rate because on both ships, the staff was wonderful. Virgin edged out Celebrity based on their overall approach to cruising. On Virgin, all food, WiFi, and gratuities are covered in the cruise fare. Virgin also has a bar tab instead of a beverage package, and we really experienced a direct comparison of the differences in these approaches. The way the bar tab works is that you put as much money as you want on your bar tab (with Virgin many times adding additional bar tab matching funds). Our cruise came with a $400 bar tab, so when we wanted an alcoholic drink, specialty coffee or smoothie, the server scanned our bracelet and that was it. They never brought us a receipt to sign that had the additional tip option or anything. It was a very easy and simple system. We asked some of the staff on the ship how they felt about no gratuities, thinking they may not really like that system. Consistently, staff told us that they get paid a higher rate than staff on other cruise ships, so they do not miss the tips. They also shared that Virgin also gives them free WiFi and pays for their plane ticket to get to the ship, which apparently does not happen on other cruise lines. Virgin also does not have formal nights and there is a minimal dress code for restaurants that essentially just limits people from coming in their bathing suits.
On our Celebrity cruise, we got their all-included package, which came with free WiFi, the classic beverage package, and gratuities. After we got onboard, we ended up having to upgrade our WiFi package because we could not make phone calls or access certain sites with the limited internet package we had. We also discovered that most of the alcoholic drinks were not covered in our package, and every time we ordered a drink that was more than $10, they would bring us a receipt for the difference that also added a service charge. After experiencing the ease of how the Virgin system worked, this was just annoying and felt disingenuous. Having said all that, we thoroughly enjoyed the customer service on both ships.
Need to Know
If you are considering cruising, the Celebrity Solstice and the Virgin Scarlet Lady are great choices to consider. They were both great cruises and we have already booked cruises for next year on both. There are so many great cruises to choose from with great destinations and accommodations. Contact us to help you plan the perfect cruise vacation by river or ocean, to the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, Asia or Europe.
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