By Mary Alice Kellogg
“Whenever I find myself growing grim around the mouth, whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul… then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Whoever said that had a point: sometimes you just need to get out of Dodge. It had indeed been a drizzly November in my soul after a year of major life changes, not all of them pleasant. But now it was summer and I was ready to enjoy life anew. The solution was to get on a ship, stat!
Happily, Dodge for me is New York City, where the year-old Norwegian Breakaway calls its year-round home. Happier still, it sails every week to Bermuda, one of my longtime favorite destinations. Greater happiness came knowing that I didn’t have to schlepp to an airport, show my tiny bottles of shampoo/moisturizer to strangers at security ,or take off most of my outer garments and shoes. My sailaway outfit – one must always have one to make an impression whilst boarding – would be intact, my treasure trove of sunscreen and moisturizer unlimited. With no overhead bin to fight for, I could overpack. Bliss!
I love ships — as long as they have cocktail lounges, a dance floor and dining options – but resisted sailing solo before because of the dreaded Single Supplement. (Cruise fares are given per-person, double occupancy as a rule. To score even the most discounted cabin, a single traveller has to pay the per- person fare plus an onerous supplement of, usually, half the difference of the other fare. Boo! )
Norwegian Cruise Lines has been a pioneer in recent years, realizing that many would like to take to sea without someone else. On their newer ships, like NCL’S Epic, Getaway and Breakaway, Studio cabins, small but sleekly designed interior spaces for one (replete with a private coffee/tv lounge) are offered for a decent price (In my case, $800 for the week). Surprise: the Studios are among the first to sell out for any cruise, and NCL is planning even more of them on future newbuilds.
I snagged a Studio and boarded with no agenda, save to enjoy and not have to answer to anyone. Why had I waited so long to sail alone? Perhaps because of the stigma of dreaded “singles” gatherings and activities all ships have to welcome solo travelers. Seeing announcements of same in the ship’s daily program in past cruises and crossings, I only felt pity. “Singles” meeting at sea conjured up images of truly unattractive, desperate people who have something wrong with them. Sad people. People who don’t dress for dinner and whose most interesting quality is their ceramic figurine collection. People who live in depressing apartments filled with stacks of old newspapers and yowling cats. You know: those people.
Wait a minute: I live alone with a (non-yowling) cat in a tidy apartment. Maybe I was being too harsh? Nonetheless, I resisted the “Solo Travellers Meet” entreaty in the daily Breakaway program, appreciating the absence of the word “singles” and enjoying dining alone, finding favorite places on the ship, relaxing on deck, reading and going to bed early in my chic Studio cocoon. Used to outside cabins with balconies, I was happy to be in a snug, club-like interior one; if I wanted to see the sea all I had to do was turn on Channel 22 on the flat-screen tv that dominated one wall and check out the silent 24-7 bow camera.
An advantage of sailing solo is to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. But on the second day, I was intrigued by a whiteboard in the Studio Lounge – a private two-tier space with coffee, water, juice, breakfast pastries and afternoon cookies/cake, which always seemed empty. The board was filled with gloriously misspelled, spirited notes by someone named Jovan: “Dance party at 10 tonight! Let’s rock ‘n rol!” “Ice crem at 4!” “No wories!” And signup sheets with actual names on them. I signed up for a Solos dinner table for Night Three.
We met at the appointed hour in the Lounge. We were eight, the group was a revelation to me. All ages– two men and six women – and all beautifully dressed. Two women were sailing pros whose husbands hated the sea; they always took a solo sail vacation. Two others had never been on a ship before. There was a mother and daughter, each with separate single cabins, for a final sail before the daughter went to college. Gratefully nobody talked about what they did for a living and nobody networked. Instead, there was instant easy conversation about the ship, what people did/were going to do …
And then there was Jovan. A member of the Cruise Staff, this twentysomething Serbian dynamo was our Solos Shepard, with an appropriately dazzling, laissez-faire personality. He was fun, slightly crazy, suggesting without pressure things solos might want to do together each day. He didn’t always accompany the group to things but became a touchstone for all of us. That night’s dinner was filled with good conversation and a birthday celebration for our new friend Annie, then all dispersed to do whatever they wanted to do individually or collectively.
As the cruise went on, meeting in the Lounge – even if not joining the group for anything – became a ritual for me. What did you do today? What shore excursion are you going to take? How was the disco last night? Easy and fun talk, fueled by our dedicated daily bartender Mario from Peru. (We also developed a paternal/maternal streak, advising Jovan about how to achieve his goal in life: to own a floating disco in Belgrade.) The ship’s jazz and blues nightclub, Fat Cat’s, became a favorite of mine. I went solo several nights in a row, enjoying the music of an outstanding New Orleans band. At the Lounge I encouraged everyone to go, in a group or not.
Then, Bermuda. I know Bermuda well, having written about it since 1975 (!), so eschewed shore excursions (save a Gosling’s Rum Sunset Cruise) to spend three days solo. Watching the bow cam at the crack of dawn, I knew that arriving by sea is the best way to see this pastel British outpost, rumored to be the inspiration for the island in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The beauty, the manners, the graciousness of the place never fails to embrace me, and I hopped the ferry from the pier every day to explore my favorite shops and haunts.
I still wonder what is it about Bermuda that compels me to buy linen tea towels – thank God the Irish Linen Shop is still in business – but I did. Wandering solo, I sailed on ferries, lunched in Hamilton, bought my Bermuda honey, sherry peppers and even went to a pink sand beach, eschewing the crowded SouthShore beaches to go to the more intimate, homey Daniel’s Point. (Gastronomic note: the lunch stand there has the most fabulous fresh rainbow runner fish sandwich I’ve ever had, cooked to order and worth waiting for.) I also managed to crash the welcome party at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club on the first day, as the biennial Newport-Bermuda yacht race concluded and more than 100 festooned sailing sloops arrived. As Jovan would write, “No wories.”
On this cruise, I didn’t go to the gym, watch a show, learn origami, play bingo, haunt the casino or disco, things I might normally do if travelling with a friend or a group. I didn’t go to any of the late-night theme parties. I love to dance, and did that: during an early set one night at Fat Cat’s I was invited to the stage with five other audience members – all of them in their twenties. They all danced individually to great applause, but when the band struck up “Mustang Sally” for my 30 seconds of fame, I unleashed Boomer moves that had the audience screaming for more. Yes, screaming. For days, total strangers on the ship would stop me and say that I was the best dancer, ever. She said modestly.
I did dine well, managing to maintain, if not lose, weight by strolling several times a day through the quarter-mile-long decks with shops, restaurants and bars, often seeing other Solos, stopping to chat, and fielding compliments on my dance moves from other passengers. She said modestly. The last night 12 Solos gathered for a gala dinner in the main dining room organized by Jovan, with many photographs taken and much laughter. (Jovan didn’t join us, needing to rehearse his “Like A Virgin” number, dressed as Madonna, for a future Crew Talent Show.) While I had happily dined alone for breakfast, lunch and several dinners, I knew this would be a special sendoff and was grateful for good company.
Sailing back into New York harbor, I was (sensibly) sunned, relaxed and reacharged. I didn’t want to leave the ship, actually, having been well-served, welcomed and revitalized, by doing whatever it was I wanted to do. Sailing solo wasn’t selfish, it was necessary. More important, by sailing solo I vanquished my “singles at sea” prejudice. Would that other cruise lines banish the Singles Supplement, because I’m there — along with countless others with money to spend. NCL had me at Studio; I hope other lines will follow their lead.
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com