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Originally published Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Studio cabins beckon solo travelers aboard new cruise ship

One used to be the loneliest number on a cruise ship. During mealtimes, a single traveler would be relegated to the misfits' corner of the...

The Washington Post

If You Go

A solo cruise

Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic offers 128 studios for solo travelers. A studio cabin starts at about $839 per person for a weeklong Caribbean sailing (plus taxes and fees but no single supplement). Through early spring, the ship departs from Miami and alternates between two seven-night itineraries in the Caribbean: western (Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Roatan, Honduras) and eastern (St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Nassau in the Bahamas). In May, the ship leaves for Europe and spends the summer sailing around the Western Mediterranean.

For more information, contact a travel agent or see www.epic.ncl.com.

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One used to be the loneliest number on a cruise ship. During mealtimes, a single traveler 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, a single passenger was an outlier, a solitary snorkeler in an ocean of multiples. In the top-deck pool, one swam alone. Worst of all, a solo passenger was forced to pay a single supplement.

But single travelers' fortunes substantially improved with the launch of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)'s ship Epic in June. Unprecedented in the cruising world, the 4,100-passenger ship includes 128 studios with single-occupancy rates and an exclusive lounge for solo travelers, eliminating the creepy factor of cozying up to unsuspecting strangers.

"The industry needs this," said Sharon Kenner, a travel agent who sailed in the fall 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. Yet no matter how outgoing your personality and independent your spirit, solo cruising still is challenging. You often feel like the dateless guest at a wedding or the party crasher one mini-quiche away from being tossed out.

Then there's the added insult of the single supplement on most cruise lines, making you 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 a room that could fit two, you must pay like two.)

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 find the 11th-floor lounge on one of the biggest cruise ships in the world. Note to newcomers: Give yourself a head start to find the lounge.

"Just because you're single doesn't mean you have to be alone," said Natalie, one of the crew members who helped with 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. 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 suburban Washington, D.C., first-time cruiser, in desperate need of a 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.

"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, 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 in aprons, cooking Mexican foods in Cozumel).

Though the conversation hardly waned, host 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).

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.

"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, though, I just wanted to be solo during the cruise.

For a semiprivate 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.

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.

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 9 more inches."

But I enjoyed the snugness that hugged me just tight enough.

Repeat trip?

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 Epic sailing were considering the Barcelona voyage coming up 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 spring 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. ...

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