A few years ago, as another winter dragged on and the leaves continued to sky dive from the trees, I clung on tenaciously dreaming of sunshine and getting fresh air about my nether regions.
If we Brits holiday at home however, we have more need for an ark than shorts or bikinis so I decided to migrate south on a Caribbean cruise.
I took the bold step of holidaying alone and immediately encountered 2 things as a result of committing to a solo trip of this magnitude…
The rip off that is the ‘single person supplement’ – OK, I’m single, rub it in why don’t you and charge me twice as much as the partnered people !
Being socially unacceptable to fellow holidaymakers who did find a travelling companion (do we ‘singles’ remind them of unhappier times on their own?)
Sure I would have preferred to have gone with a friend but I still saw a lot of grim faced spouses looking as if they’d happily shove their other half overboard if they knew they could get away with it.
Romantic thoughts of meeting someone special on board were immediately dashed at Fort Lauderdale docks and finding myself surrounded by coach groups of elderly ladies and retired couples looking lost. It was like a touring version of ‘Cocoon’. Pleasant though it was for there to still be a room where I was the youngest, as I don’t play canasta and still have my own hips, I felt I wouldn’t have much common ground with my fellow sea farers.
‘Who are you travelling with?’ the insensitive check in clerk loudly enquired. This was a question I was asked a lot during the trip. It began with the stern immigration officer I encountered while dashing through Newark airport trying (and failing) to catch my connection to Florida. He couldn’t grasp the concept of a guy taking a cruise alone and he clearly thought I must be up to no good.
Hwever, the worst solo stigma presented itself as I walked up the gantry – the ‘souvenir photograph’. This happened throughout the cruise, always against my will and always resulting in shots of me looking awkward and vulnerable. The results were displayed along Deck 6 for all to gawp at – an ingenious ploy as you felt compelled to purchase the wretched pictures just to remove them from the gallery.
As we set off we had a compulsory life jacket demonstration – captured by our happy snapper of course. The sight of a bunch of hapless people putting toggles through holes they weren’t meant to go through was hilarious…though if the ship did hit the rocks, we really were sunk.
I was shocked to realise I was in the ‘I’m screwed’ category when it comes to evacuation protocol. The countless women on board would get their bony fingered grasp on all the best lifeboats and single people would be way down the pecking order – presumably because they thought there was no one to miss us! My only hope was that my life jacket light and whistle – obvious ’must have’ accessories in any emergency – had the ability to transform into a speedboat.
The motion of the ocean during the night took a bit of adjusting to. Sleeping in a windowless room with the sounds and movement of the ship pushed my imagination into overdrive. Had we cruised into a tropical storm? Were dozens of pensioners fumbling with their life jackets at this very moment, none bothering to let me know because they forgot I was there? I quickly got used to the vibrations though several others never managed to.
The gorgeous weather raised all our spirits and the ocean views were spectacular but couples everywhere did remind me of my solo status. They were rubbing lotion on each other’s tricky to reach areas, watching each other’s stuff while they went for a swim and could use the double umbrella sunbeds. I tried one on my own but it went all lop-sided so I gave up!
It’s amazing how obsessed people are about digitally capturing everything on holiday – they’re so busy recording the moment they never seem to actually look up and be IN the moment. Most of them experienced the trip through their view finder.
I decided to treat myself a massage. ‘Who are you travelling with?‘ my extremely young Balinese masseuse asked as I stripped off to reveal my brilliant white skin (I’m Scots – we’re blue). I didn’t bother to answer and just collapsed onto the bed to let her get on with it. I nodded off and half an hour later woke up to find an old woman kneading away at my shoulders – how long had I been asleep for? My aches and pains had been too tall an order for the girl and they’d brought in reinforcements to tackle the job. It must have been a change for her to have a young-ish model on the table though as pummelling the older guests must have been like massaging a xylophone.
On-board entertainments were a treat for the ears and eyes and included a tuneless lounge singer regularly murdering ‘Chanson D’Amour’ and ‘You Are The Sunshine of My Life’. There was also a wonderfully cheesy, multi-lingual theatre show featuring a 7 strong dance troupe who wouldn’t know the meaning of ‘syncopation’ whatever dialect you said it in. Hats off to the juggling team though as they only managed to concuss half the front row when their routine went belly up as we hit choppier waters. Thank God there wasn’t a knife throwing act.
Cruising however, is basically about one thing – food. 3 hour breakfasts, 2 hour lunches, 7 course dinners – not forgetting afternoon junk food on tap, tea and cakes at four, plus midnight snacks. What’s curious is that your appetite starts to increase accordingly and before too long if you saw anything on a plate, you ate it. It’s a curious concept – you start off on a ship and end up becoming the size of one.
I signed up for an excursion to the rain forest at Puerto Rico. Once up in the mountains and the soaking wet conditions I realised that I hadn’t thought this through. I come from the home of rain so what on earth was I doing spending part of my sunshine holiday in a rain forest? Compared to the monsoon summers we’ve had in Scotland, it just felt a bit damp. It’s also surreal to see the usual tourist rubbish sold even in places of such natural beauty. Same crap, different island !
A second excursion in St.Marteen was just bizarre. I’m not saying they padded the trip out a bit but the guide’s commentary included informing us that the Dutch and French parts of the island have different electricity voltages – hold the front page! The driver also wanted us to participate in that age old crowd pleaser ‘if you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet’. Hadn’t he studied his audience? These were people whose feet could barely manage decent circulation, let alone stamp.
Some fellow holiday makers did have genuine insights into life on board though. One woman felt that we were all sailing away from something we wanted to forget for a while – heartache, bills, ailments (it was amazing how my aches and pains seemed to disperse as the trip progressed). She was one of several travellers who never even got off the boat and didn’t care where we were. So long as it was sunny and there was luxury on board that was all that mattered !
In St Lucia I paired up with another couple who haggled with a very patient taxi driver who took us everywhere for just a few dollars. I was amazed at how lost in our own little worlds Brits can be. We drove past a little shanty bar where three pig carcuses were being prepared for barbeque. Not a pretty sight but still my taxi share couple’s viewfinders were itching to take a picture – until the bar owner started waving his machete at them. Like me, he didn’t appreciate having his picture taken against his will. Did the couple get the message and return to the taxi? Nope, they just kept snapping merrily away, oblivious to the situation. What part of a man waving a giant knife at them didn’t they understand? It’s pretty self explanatory in any language.
The shanty towns in this area were very poor with everyone trying to make a dime. One toothless old guy (not quite on the planet) came up to my side of the cab and waved a bag at me. As we sped past I asked our driver what he’d been doing. ‘He wanted you to pay to see the snake he had in his sack’. A line that could get you in a lot of trouble back home but anything to make a living I guess.
Soon, the ship became like a second home. A routine was dutifully followed – early breakfast, morning trip around whatever island we’d arrived at (Antigua and Tortolla were especially beautiful), back on board for lunch, off again for another wander then setting sail by late afternoon ready for another 7 course dinner – plus cheesy snacks – and another even cheesier show.
There is also something incredibly liberating about looking out on deck and seeing nothing but blue all around you – sea, sky, passengers’ varicose veins. It soon felt like we’d always lived together on this boat and as we passed the halfway point of the trip it seemed impossible to contemplate living any other way! Quite a contrast to how I felt at the start.
The liner company had also managed to rent out a small island that we were ferried to on small boats for the day. Beach bars plied us with boozy cocktails in coconut shells, people flung beachballs about and scuba dived beneath the blue – it was like a private piece of paradise for a few hours.
I also fullfilled a long held ambition to swim with a dolphin. Neptuno was a fickle character who delighted in my life long inability to float let alone swim and although his Flipper-esque cackle reminded me of my old PE teacher mocking my pitiful attempts to master the breast stroke, I felt me and my aquatic chum bonded. In fact it was the nearest to flirting I’d had all trip…although the fickle beast hasn’t kept in touch.
Inevitably, the cruise drew to a close. Bags were packed with tacky souvenirs that had been haggled over and we were efficiently disembarked. They had another boatful of travellers coming on board in an hour and I would’ve happily been one of them, glad to have had another chance to appreciate other cultures.
Now where did I put that authentic, hand crafted, bouncing lobster fridge magnet from San Juan..?