MIAMI—The night before the Carnival Imagination was to set sail from here on a four-day Labor Day cruise to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, the 233 people who had signed up for the organized “singles cruise,” part of the general 2,000-passenger cruise population, were invited to a pre-sail cocktail party at the Blue Martini lounge in the Brickell neighborhood.
I walked in alone, as did many of the singles, feeling like a nervous freshman on the first day of school, except that the crowd ranged in age from the 20s to the 70s and was in full schmooze mode. A loud “whoo!” erupted as a group of 50-somethings with Southern accents did shots at the bar.
The name beads, I soon discovered, are the singles cruiser's most important accessory. They are an automatic friend finder, a green light that it is safe to approach. And if you think people get tired of the “Hey buddy, my eyes are up here” joke, you would be wrong.
Angela, who that day was celebrating her 55th birthday, told me she was divorced and booked the singles cruise to be around “positive people.”
“If you're not having fun, you haven't tried,” she hollered over the thumping music.
We worked the room together, meeting the universally friendly folks with whom we would spend the next four days gliding across the Caribbean in an 855-foot-long party boat. One of them was a trim and dapper 68-year-old gentleman, twice my age.
“I'm here to have fun; if I get lucky, it's a bonus,” he said with a wink, expressing a mantra I would hear pretty much everyone repeat.
The dapper gentleman turned out to be an excellent salsa dancer. As the dance floor got crowded, he asked if I was rooming alone. When I said I was, he complimented my foresight and breathed into my ear: “When was the last time you slept in a man's arms?”
That was probably the creepiest moment I encountered during the fascinating anthropological experiment that is a singles cruise, where people from all walks of life meet for nonstop speed dating in a hotel you can't escape.
That, I realize, sounds horrifying. But, somehow, it was fun. Cruise goggles make everyone seem more attractive after a couple of days. And for many singles tired of being the extra wheel among their married friends, Singlescruise.com's very fitting motto — “Travel single, never alone!” — can be a vacation savior.
“I just wanted to go away and dance with someone single if I want and not eat alone,” explained David, a 54-year-old champion bodybuilder from Fort Lauderdale who wore a muscle tank top most of the trip. After an eight-year relationship ended, he booked the cruise because, he said, “I didn't know what to do with myself.”
Once the Imagination had set sail, the singles gathered for an orientation mixer in the Xanadu Lounge. The Cupid Shuffle line dance got the party started. Karaoke followed. There were, thankfully, free cocktails.
A patchwork of characters soon emerged: divorcees letting loose; shy guys awkwardly vying for attention; marriage-ready women on the prowl; a group of eight party-hardy 30-something friends from Texas who were, I think it's fair to say, never sober.
Gathering for dinner each night at the designated singles-cruise tables in the Spirit dining room, people whose paths otherwise never would cross made small talk about their jobs and kids and how they heard about the cruise (many saw a promotion on Match.com). Occasionally a Filipino crew member dressed as a pirate would go around the table and put a plastic knife to each person's throat, snarling while someone took a photo.
A guy pulled me aside to whisper a room number where some singles-cruise veterans were gathering for a private party. When I arrived, most of the women had mini sex toys hanging from necklaces around their necks, a gift from the host, Daniel, a 40-something Toronto man who owns an adult toy business.
Daniel has been on more than 10 singles cruises over eight years. His brother met his wife on a singles cruise. He has seen lifelong friendships form at sea.
“It's an easier environment for people to break out of their shell,” he said.
It's no surprise that booze plays a starring role on a singles cruise, yet its prominence is striking. The organized excursion in sweat-soaked Key West was a five-bar pub crawl, starting at 9:30 a.m., following a guide who blew a conch shell when it was time for the next bar. In Cozumel, snorkeling and a tour of the botanical gardens were some of the activities at the Chankanaab National Park, but mostly people did shots at the pool's swim-up bar and then squeezed into a hut for a raucous tequila tasting poured by a man in a sombrero. (Perhaps that's why, at a port restaurant that evening, a 40-something singles cruiser who back home works as a home aide for dementia patients climbed atop a table in a thong and danced for the strangers who happened to be there.)