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Solo Cruisers, No Double Required

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 1:52 PM

One used to be the loneliest number on a cruise ship. During mealtimes, One would be relegated to the misfits' corner of the dining room or seated with families who aired their most intimate details between bites. On shore excursions, One was an outlier, a solitary snorkel in an ocean of multiples. In the top-deck pool, One swam alone. Worst of all, One was forced to pay for Two, despite One's singular status.

But a few months ago, One's fortunes substantially improved. The reason: the launch of Norwegian Cruise Line's new ship Epic, which pays some long-overdue attention to solo travelers. Unprecedented in the cruising world, the 4,100-passenger boat carved out 128 studios with single-occupancy rates and created an exclusive lounge for soloists, eliminating the creepy factor of cozying up to unsuspecting strangers.

"The industry needs this," said Sharon Kenner, a travel agent who sailed on Epic earlier this month with friends and family. "Solo travelers can now cruise and enjoy the experience without having to be punished for being single. The singles are being celebrated."

Rejoice, indeed. Wave that solitary flag proudly, but don't forget that, in the right circumstances, One can add up to Many.

No matter how outgoing your personality and independent your spirit, solo cruising is challenging. You often feel like the dateless guest at a wedding or the party crasher one mini-quiche away from being tossed out. And then there's the added insult of having to pay up to twice as much for the same experience as those boarding as Noah's pairs. (The economic theory behind the supplement: Since you are taking up room for two, you must spend like two.) At least cargo gets a free ride.

"Before this, cruising was too expensive, unless there was a one-day sale or a repositioning cruise," said Pete Balmain, a Texan who sailed aboard Epic's inaugural Eastern Caribbean voyage in July and returned for the seven-night western itinerary less than two months later. As for socializing, he said, "I'd go hang out at dinnertime just to be with people."

You're not alone, Pete. On the three cruises I'd previously sailed solo, I made some acquaintances - a honeymooning couple from Atlanta, a pair of boozy guys from Florida - but the bonds were short-lived, dissolving after a day at the pool and a few beers in the bar. Meals were especially trying. At one dinner, I sat with a mother and daughter from Miami whose conversation revolved around the daughter's unplanned pregnancy and the cad who hadn't stuck around. I felt like an extra in a "Real World: At Sea" episode.

But on the Epic, the discomfort of traveling alone receded as quickly as the Miami shoreline. Shortly after setting sail, I already had an engagement, the Solo Traveler Gathering in the Living Room. Potential travel companions awaited. All I had to do was locate the 11th-floor lounge on the second-largest cruise ship in the world. Note to newcomers: Give yourself a head start.

"Just because you're single doesn't mean you have to be alone," said Natalie, one of the crew members who facilitated the daily social hour. "You can meet someone and maybe join them for dinner or a show."

On the first night, I met a small assembly of passengers who rattled off their names for what must have been the 20th time. Hello, Lynn, Bob, Mike, Mike and Kevin. Nice to meet you, Cathy, Claire, Cheryl, Brian. Slowly the names shaped into individuals, as we shared the details that made us unique and memorable. Claire, librarian, lives in Arlington, first-time cruiser, in desperate need of beach; Kevin, hails from New Jersey, experienced cruiser, thought he was sailing solo until Mike, a friend from home, decided to tag along; Mike, quick with the impish grin.

For the scheduled hour, we sat around a long white table shaped like an elongated Z, teetering on tall chairs arranged dangerously close to a wall covered in oversize grommets. Our host, Aisha, passed around glasses of champagne, which helped release the conversational floodwaters. In the corner, a scrawled message on a large pad of paper invited solo travelers and singles to make themselves at home in the Living Room and warned children to find another fort. As I noticed throughout the week, however, the message was largely ignored: Interlopers including families and ship contractors tethered to their computer cords treated the space as if it were their own romper room and Internet cafe. To reclaim the space for the solos, management planned to install locks operable only by studio card keys.

"It's not a swinging club and it's not a Match.com," said Klaus Lugmaier, the cruise line's fleet hotel director. "It's like a ship within a ship for solo travelers."

True to the freestyle form of cruising touted by NCL, the meetings were informal affairs, some of us arriving with feet dusted with sand and our hair salted from the ocean. The number of socialites shrank or expanded depending on the boat's whereabouts. During ports of call in Costa Maya, Cozumel and Roatan, Honduras, attendance understandably slipped.

A core group, however, never skipped out. For us, the hour wasn't a time-filler but a central event. Typically, we'd start off by sharing our earlier adventures, replaying our shore outings (ATVs and jungle in Costa Maya, dolphin swim in Roatan, ruins in Cozumel) and even showing photos (Exhibit A: Mike and Kevin dressed in aprons, cooking Mexican cuisine in Cozumel). Though the conversation hardly waned, Aisha occasionally organized games to keep us further amused. We played Trivia (if you suffer from isopterophobia, you are afraid of . . . termites), Battle of the Sexes (the Hims and Hers tied) and Flip Cup (flashback to college days). For our efforts, Aisha awarded us each a thick plastic tote inscribed with the boat's name. I believe it was the same prize given to bingo players.

Before parting ways for dinner or a show, we would exchange future plans, extending an invitation to anyone interested in being a plus-one or two. The system worked: For Blue Man Group, three of us changed our reservations so that we could accompany Claire and Pete to the earlier show. At the last minute, we noticed Brett, a Canadian correctional officer, in the crowd and dragged him down to our second-row seats. When a Blue Man pulled Kevin out of the crowd to yuk it up with a camera and a graphic video of tonsils, we emanated a sense of pride. One of our own had been chosen.

"It's like summer camp. You always make summer camp friends," said Pete. "It's the same no matter how old you are."

In fact, during the entire week, I attended only one show by myself. On a whim, I decided to check out the late show of Second City. Unfortunately, I didn't know anyone's cabin or phone number. We were close, but not that close.

Sometimes, I just wanted to be solo.

For a semi-private retreat, I would duck into the Bridge Viewing area on the 13th deck. The room was rarely populated, except for the crewmen in charge of sailing the ship. But they were separated by a large glass panel and too busy maneuvering the 155,873-ton vessel to swap pleasantries. From this vantage, I could scan the clear blue horizon for ships and land, my eyes once bumping hard into Cuba.

For a deeper cave, I would withdraw into my dwelling on the 12th floor. The 100-square-foot space feels like the private lounge of a Scandinavian DJ, with padded white walls, an inside porthole glowing purple, and mood lighting that bathed the room in soft reds, blues and whites. Care to dance with myself?

Some guests had complained about the tightness, wondering whether the staff could remove one half of the full-size bed. "I have hips," said Cheryl, a studio occupant, "and they need to fit between the bed and the dresser. Just give me nine more inches." But I enjoyed the snugness that hugged me just tight enough.

The port of calls also tested my will to be alone or in a group. I have never been a proponent of the cruise's shore excursions, too skeptical of their pricing. (A snorkeling trip in Cozumel really costs $60? Do the fish sing and dance for the guests?) To satisfy both my fraternizing and my solitary selves, I devised a trip tailor-made for each personality trait - I would take Miss Social to Honduras and Miss Solo to Cozumel. (Okay, I favored Miss Social, who also scored an excursion to the Chacchoben Mayan ruins and the beach of Costa Maya, Mexico.)

To craft a plan, I attended the ship's free seminars on the destinations. Amid the historical background, heavily skewed toward pirates and Europeans, and subtle hints to "find more information at the shore excursions desk," I gleaned what I needed. Roatan features the second-largest reef in the world. Cabs cost $20 per person. Now, I needed an aide-de-camp. I found one in the Living Room.

Pete was a veteran Epic cruiser, but more important, he was low-maintenance and laid-back. Not quite knowing what to expect, we walked through a gantlet of kiosks until we found a cab dispatcher. Our driver would not be paid until our return to the ship, so we had no fears of abandonment when he dropped us at the Roatan Museum, promising to pick us up later to take us to snorkeling in the West End. Plus, this was an island; our cabbie couldn't go far.

We spent about an hour exploring the modest museum, which displayed the customary decorated bowls, pottery shards and expressive figurines. The placards were bilingual, and the underlying bitterness toward early colonist control was not lost in translation. By happenstance (looking for the bathrooms), we stumbled upon a room full of shellacked marine life, iridescent fish perfectly at ease out of water.

On the way out, we noticed two men kneeling on a floating dock, their attention directed to a pair of noses pushing up through the water's surface. We watched the men slip food to the dolphins and the graceful creatures reciprocate by leaping high into the air and hopping like aquatic bunnies on their tail fins.

From the top of the street, I could easily see the bottom of West End, a short dusty road creating a median between a few shops and restaurants and a crescent of soft white sand. We rented snorkel gear for $10 each and walked into the warm water. Through my mask, I saw grass, a few gray fish and a disappointed expression on Pete's face. This was not the reef; this was an underwater weed garden. But as every snorkeler knows, look for the charter boats and you will find the reef. (The breaking waves confirmed our hypothesis.)

I floated over a city of coral, an extensive construct of caves and bridges, some featuring a maze-like pattern that would disorient a mouse. Fish painted in nail-polish hues played hide and seek in the crevices; without warning, a pair of waving antennae appeared from a dark hole followed by the body of a large crustacean. I didn't stick around to see its tail.

Because of strong winds and waves, the captain fiddled with the itinerary. Roatan was on its scheduled day (Tuesday) but now Cozumel fell on Wednesday, replacing an at-sea day and eliminating an extra day of planning. But since I had only myself to plan and care for, I was unfazed.

The port of Cozumel is a madhouse mall that fits every cliche of Mexico, down to the donkey and sombreros. In a tiny, sweaty office on the second floor of the shopping complex, Alamo rents cars, and for $35, I drove off in a standard two-door Chevy with a smudged interior and a missing radio.

The Mayan ruins sit in the center of the island, insulated from the chaos of town. For no fee, only a gratuity, an official guide named Ignacio ("call me Nacho") agreed to show me around. He explained how the temple honored the goddess of fertility, Ixchel, who resembled a Grimm's hag but had the power of oysters, champagne and Barry White combined.

"They were coming on their honeymoon to get pregnant," said Nacho, referring to the Mayans who trekked here seeking the goddess's blessing. Not much different from the pilgrimage made by modern newlyweds.

As we veered toward the Central Plaza, another mound of limestone rubble, Nacho picked up a piece of clay tile and handed it to me. But the gift came with a stern warning: "You can take it, but if something happens to you at home, you have to come back here with it," he said mysteriously.

What might happen, I asked?

"Bad dreams, or you might see people. If you are alone, you might hear your name being called," he answered. "In bed, they might shake you." Sorry, but angry spirits are not welcome in my bedroom.

On the final leg of the tour, I stood before an altar as Nacho described the human sacrifices that took place in the name of Ixchel. He referred me to Mel Gibson's movie "Apocalypto" for additional information.

I'm not sure when the idea was first floated, but I know who released it.

Pete, over dinner or maybe on the beach, had told me that some folks from the first Epic sailing were considering the Barcelona voyage in the spring. Once out there, the concept of a solo cruise reunion took shape.

After visiting the Ice Bar, a frozen watering hole where the dress code is loaner insulated ponchos and black gloves, Claire brought up the 2011 trip. On our last evening, during a stroke-of-midnight game of bowling, it arose again. En route to Bliss nightclub, I ran into a solo traveler from Connecticut who confessed that he had already put down a deposit for one of the studios.

As the distance closed between ocean and landfall, I tried to picture us sailing together under blue Mediterranean skies, friends embarking on a great adventure, even if we never learned each others' last names.

It could work, I reasoned, as long as we signed up as solo cruisers, traveled as a group and left our phantom doubles at home.

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