Although Mary Patterson owns a travel agency and logs hundreds of miles on business each year, the idea of taking a vacation alone left her "scared silly."

"I was petrified of being by myself for seven days," admits the 41-year-old president of Minnesota's White Bear Travel. "My worst fear was of eating alone and wondering what people would think.

"When I'm on business I walk down to the dining room looking very professional, carrying a file of papers. But being on a pleasure trip and sitting by myself in a bathing suit is a whole different thing."

After trying unsuccessfully to get a friend to go along on a recent "desperately-needed" vacation, Patterson -- who is divorced -- swallowed her fear and acted on the advice she gives other single travelers.

"I recommend they go to a very small resort," she says, "where the management knows they're alone and takes special care to ensure their comfort. I reserved a room at a lovely place on Turks and Caicos (a small group of islands below the Bahamas). I must have called them five times to make sure they knew I was coming alone."

The result, says Patterson, "was fantastic. I've never come back from a vacation so refreshed. I didn't have to answer to anyone -- I ate when I wanted, went where I wanted, slept till I got up.

"One night the managers of the hotel asked to eat with me. Another night I ate with the cook -- a young guy who gave me a great recipe for orange tea. And another night an English earl who said he'd seen me around for a couple of days asked me out to dinner."

Increasing numbers of single people are traveling alone, says Patterson, "partly because there are more single people -- through separation and divorce. Also, the new 'singles movement' encourages people to feel comfortable with their singleness, and not be intimidated by a coupled society."

A common misconception about singles travel, she says, "is that it's a wild sexual orgy. That's ridiculous. You don't have to leave home for that, if that's what you're interested in. Singles travel for the same reasons couples do -- to get refreshed and revitalized."

The pattern of singles travel has changed in recent years, says Larry Frommer, owner of Frommer Travel Service in the District. "Twenty of thirty years ago," he says, "singles went to resorts where they could meet other singles.

"Then came the '60s and '70s generation who eschewed that lifestyle as ostentatious and superficial. They started searching for the meaning in the travel experience. No, with the new conservatism, many singles are moving back to a more structured kind of travel."

Singles under 40 favor "Caribbean cruises and resorts like Club Med," says Bernice Rosmarin, vice president of a New Jersey travel agency that serves a large singles population.

"These vactions are like a security blanket -- economically and socially Younger singles tend to be concerned with cost, so they like a pre-paid package where they plunk down one fee, then never have to take out their wallet again. Economically they know what they're getting into.

"And socially they know they'll have fun because they'll be with other singles. There are activities to do, a group table for meals and a tour director to make sure everything goes well."

For singles over 40, says Rosmarin, "motorcoach (bus) tours are extremely popular -- particularly among the recently divorced. You go from city to city with all hotels, sightseeing and some meals included. Generally there'll be other single people. It's nice from someone starting out on their own who may not be young and adventurous."

Not all single travelers want to socialize, note Marie Edwards and Eleanor Hoover in The Challenge of Being Single "For seasoned single travelers," they write, "choosing not to be with people is often the whole point of traveling alone."

But for those singles who do want to meet people, they contend, "a single traveler almost always attracts people. . . It is an open door to friendly human contact and adventures."

A major attraction of traveling alone, they write, "is letting your hair down. You are more likely to be at ease than you might among the folks back home. A man or a woman might flirt a little . . . and feel reasonably sure that there is no danger of embarrassment if he or she experiments a bit with a slightly different pattern of behavior."

One disadvantage in traveling alone is "pangs of loneliness," admits Dena Kaye, author of The Traveling Woman. "As much as I love traveling alone, the downside is sitting in a restaurant by yourself and seeing couples all around you holding hands . . . or you see a sunset and have no one to share it with."

Traveling alone may cost more. "My pet peeve," says Beckie Trumbo, who teaches an Open University course on traveling single, "is that it's so much more expensive to travel as a single."

Solo travelers often pay a "single's supplement," notes Trumbo -- who has traveled "all over the world" by herself. A hotel, for example, may charge a couple $50 per night for a room ($25 each), while a single is charged $40 for the same room.

To ease this financial burden, some travel agencies specialize in running trips for singles that assure them group rates. The oldest and largest of these agencies, according to travel experts, is Gramercy Travel's Singleworld, a 24-year-old New York-based company that schedules more than 500 cruises and tours a year.

"People travel with us because they want to meet other singles and save money," says agency president Dick Lowenstein. "On one of our cruises, for example, we offer people a guaranteed share rate of $900 for the same cabin that would cost them $1,350 if they were traveling alone."

For an annual fe of $15, Single-world members can pick trips designated for persons who are under 35 or over 35. "We're not a marriage bureau," notes Lowenstein, who says about 60 percent of members are female, most are in their 30s and about half travel with friends. "But we do provide a ready-made vehicle for not being alone, or for taking off by yourself if you want."

The success of groups like Single-world, has encouraged other members of the travel industry to cater to singles' special needs. Some cruise lines, like the Carnival and Commodore, make special provisions for singles -- usually by setting aside a limited number of accommodations at "guaranteed share" rates.

Some hotels, says Al Kudrle of the American Hotel-Motel Association, have started "single's tables" in their dining rooms where solo travelers are introduced to each other, done together and get separate checks. Resort hotels -- particularly those in the Catskill Mountains, he notes -- often run special single's weekends.

Despite these innovations, single travelers still face some discrimination and rough moments. To combat this, says author Dena Kaye. "Attitude is super important. Remember that traveling alone isn't better or worse than traveling with another person. . . It's just different.

"Being alone is something I associate with choice. Moments of loneliness are quite natural . . . but they're moments and pass with time. Whatever the situation, it's important to see the humor rather than the drama, to watch your own reactions and learn how to pull yourself up.

"That, too, is part of the journey."