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Cruise: Caribbean

'I Want to Be Alone'

In a Garbo mood, a woman sails solo

September 14, 1997|MARIA GALLAGHER | Gallagher is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia

ON BOARD THE NORWAY — Who was that mysterious woman who chose to dine alone during the seven-night Caribbean cruise? Who strolled the decks contentedly among 2,200 fellow passengers on the Norway; who looked too young to be widowed, too plain to be a gold digger, too cheerful to be fleeing misfortune, too relaxed to be a CEO, too under-jeweled and too un-thin to be one of the idle rich?

For one week last November, that was me. Temporarily spouseless and childless. Coming and going as I pleased, looking quite at home and yet peculiar on a sold-out ship teeming with couples and families.

I'd seen this type of lady on cruise ships before. Her age, like her personal history, is a matter of speculation. Sometimes she'll fill in the blanks if you strike up a conversation. Sometimes she won't.

I'll never forget the eccentric grande dame from New Jersey who brought not one but two fur stoles on a Royal Viking transatlantic trip. Impossible to please, she sent her dinner back to the kitchen every night. She'd give the evil eye to the ship's "gentlemen hosts"--the guys hired by cruise lines to dance with the single women, for those who didn't see the recent Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau movie "Out to Sea"--if they allowed her to sit out even one dance. Since she was one of the talkative ones, I learned that she had never married, but was sufficiently well-fixed to take two cruises a year.


Another memorable matron--French-speaking, aloof and impeccably dressed--was an elegant presence on a Wind Star crossing. She had a Gallic Duchess-of-Windsor quality about her. Not once did I see her speak to another passenger. We never learned a scrap of detail about her, but Wind Star treated her like a VIP: A different ship's officer joined her for dinner every night.

Perhaps the most legendary single supplement of all was the wealthy widow who actually lived aboard the Royal Viking Sun. She'd been around the world so many times that she never bothered to disembark in port any more.

And now I was one--without the furs or the je ne sais quoi. Wearing jewelry from only one husband, who was still very much alive.

The husband in question had less vacation time than I did. Our kids, now in their 20s and working, were unable to join me when Norwegian Cruise Line cut prices on certain Norway sailings from $1,499 per person to $599 for its cheapest (read: smallest and dreariest) inside cabins. I ended up paying more, $1,010, because I was going alone. But that was still a better deal than the $2,248 I would have paid if I'd gone alone at the brochure rate.

The infamous "single supplement" may be one reason why there aren't more solo travelers on cruise ships. Such passengers typically pay 150% of the per-person price if they insist on rooming alone. Many cruise lines will match you with a same-sex roommate and thus save you the surcharge, but to me, privacy took precedence over price.

Now I was poised to become one of those enigmatic unescorted ladies. I envisioned a week of being gossiped about by fellow passengers and feted at the captain's table, while fending off gigolos after my assets.

To really work the mystique thing, I should have chosen a transatlantic crossing--the better to have my sheer head scarf flutter horizontally in the stiff ocean breeze, Grace Kelly-style. The Norway, built in 1962 as the oceangoing steamship France for the French Line, has the proper sleek profile for such a pose on the promenade deck.

Instead, I chose an Eastern Caribbean cruise that turned out to be one of NCL's popular sports-theme cruises--this one devoted to baseball. I also discovered that the Norway's promenade deck is now a "sports deck" used by joggers. Pose at your own risk: You may be bowled over by someone doing his Gold's Gym routine at sea.

The baseball cruise featured 17 active and retired major leaguers, a manager (Bill Russell of the Los Angeles Dodgers), a National League umpire (Eric Gregg), an announcer (former Yankees broadcaster Dave Cohen) and a mascot (Billy the Marlin). We sailed a Miami-to-Miami loop with stops at St. Martin/St. Maarten, St. John/St. Thomas, and NCL's private island, Great Stirrup Cay. (For dates and costs of similar cruises this year, see "Guidebook," L16.) A word to any young women who may be thinking a sports-theme cruise is the way to meet Mr. Right (or Mr. Lefty): Several players brought wives or girlfriends along. Only a few sailed solo.

But passengers had plenty of chances to mingle with the stars during the week, either informally or at scheduled activities. There were clinics led by the players, pitching contests, trivia tournaments, daily Q&A forums, lectures on memorabilia collecting, baseball-themed movies and one afternoon-long autograph-signing session.

The personable Eric Gregg was a great hit with passengers as he described his recent 90-pound weight loss: "Now I can get a shoeshine and not have to take the guy's word for it."

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