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A Cruise of One’s Own

One writer explores the highs and lows of traveling solo on the Java Sea

Let me begin by saying that my idea of a good time does not usually involve barreling through magnificent vistas on a tour bus, battling stomach-churning waves in the middle of the ocean, or braving the masses at midnight buffets. I much prefer doing things my own way, on my own schedule…on land.

So you can understand my confusion when I found myself aboard the Crystal Symphony, on a 12-day cruise around Indonesia, Borneo and Singapore. It was exactly the kind of pre-fab vacation I would never have signed up for, except—oops!—I did. Not only that: I left my boyfriend at home, which meant I’d voluntarily subjected myself to a week and a half of wallflower-dom. The Love Boat notwithstanding, cruise ships are not known for being especially fun for solo travelers; passenger lists seem handed down directly from Noah himself. Everyone is in some kind of pair.

But not me. Nope, I was all by myself—by design. In general, I’m averse to weather with the word “vortex” in its description, and the New York winter was killing me. I also had wagonloads of work to do. What better way to conduct my very own writer’s retreat than on an all-inclusive jaunt on the Java Sea? I’d have a veranda, a refrigerator full of Diet Coke, and access to a gym, spa, pool, free food and drink and a butler to organize it all for me. Most important: Temperatures would be in the 80s.

Bring it on, baby.

The Crystal Symphony from Crystal Cruises

The Crystal Symphony cruise ship

Except after boarding, I worried. Would it be unbearably depressing? I enjoy being alone—I think of myself as an extroverted introvert—but 288 hours on the ocean is rather lengthy. (Unless, perhaps, one has a gaggle of children back home and needs major alone time.) And, well, would the median age be 75?

The nice lady in reservations assured me I’d be fine. Between five to 25 percent of Crystal’s guests travel solo, and not all were born during the FDR administration. To ease the pain of arriving unaccompanied to the dance, the ship offers “Ambassador Hosts” whose responsibility is to waltz, rumba, and entertain single travelers (the cruise line has recently hired “Ambassador Hostesses” to cater to male guests). They also have communal dining tables in certain restaurants. Anyway, I’d be busy with origami classes! And needlepoint! And shuffleboard! And lectures! And, of course, writing. Who’d have time to be lonely?

In the end, I wasn’t. The trip proved surprisingly full: I signed up for exercise sessions with Andrew, an earnest personal trainer from Saskatchewan. I watched semi-obscure films like Good Ol’ Freda, a documentary on the Beatles’ longtime secretary (for obvious reasons, I avoided Captain Phillips). I hit the spa for massages. I wrote five stories, and read, and took notes for the book I’m working on. The water was shockingly calm; I usually get seasick on boats, but I didn’t at all.

The Seahorse pool on the Symphony

The pool on the Symphony

And I joined two group excursions, something I would normally never do. The first was a “strenuous” trek around Mt. Kinabalu, in Malaysia, which turned out to be a leisurely stroll in a nature preserve. (Lesson learned: One person’s strenuous is another person’s Early Bird Special.) The second was a half-day outing in Brunei, the tribute-cum-island to the eponymous Sultan. We visited a water village, mosque, museum created in the Sultan’s honor…and I loved it. The rest of the days I ventured out on my own, which was admittedly challenging in cities where English speakers were in limited supply. But then, that was part of the adventure.

I even made friends—or, more accurately, I had smart, funny conversations with smart, funny people, among them artist Jerry Meyer, who was on holiday with his wife, Roz. Yes, the bulk of the guests remember WWII air raid drills, but they were sweet. It’s inspiring to see long-married couples who still seem to like each other. And the staff made sure I was well taken care of, especially when I came down with a vicious case of strep throat. All I had to do was press a button and Victor, my butler, would magically appear with a fruit plate, or soothing cup of hot tea…or even a tube of toothpaste (mine ran out)!

A girl could get used to this.

A girl did.

So, would I cruise by myself again? Sure—presuming I had my own thing to do and wasn’t relying on the kindness of strangers to amuse me. There’s clearly a reason why so many people vacation on ships. It’s a great way to get a snapshot view of the world, and let’s face it: it’s nice to be coddled. We all devote so much energy to being Individuals, but on the rare occasion it’s good to be part of the crowd.

Just don’t try to fight them at the midnight buffet. You’ll lose.