I’ve been excited about the Norwegian Epic since I first heard about its 120 staterooms for solo travelers (with no single supplement!). In 2010, I managed to get invited to join a 2 night press trip aboard the ship out of New York City. But it wasn’t until this past May that I was able to go on a real cruise aboard the ship, for a week in the Mediterranean. So how did it go? Not exactly as I expected.
On the surface, the Epic is the solo traveler’s dream ship. In addition to the rooms and prices, there is a solo traveler meet-and-greet in the Studio Lounge (which is exclusive to those staying in the Studio Staterooms) every day at 6pm. There is even a crew member assigned to the Lounge to cover the needs of Studio guests. But don’t think this means you don’t even have to try if you want to have a social life aboard the ship.
Epic‘s Mediterranean itinerary has two embarkation ports: Barcelona, Spain on Sundays and Civitavecchia, Italy (near Rome) on Wednesdays. I chose to board in Civitavecchia so I could have more time in Rome before and after my cruise. As it turns out, I was in the minority. Only 600 of us boarded in Italy; more than 3,000 boarded in Spain. This made a difference. For example, those boarding in Barcelona got tours of the ship on their first day; we didn’t. And it made a big difference to me as a solo traveler as well.
During my first three days aboard the ship, despite my efforts to meet people in the Lounge, it became clear that I was at a disadvantage for having boarded in Rome. Most of the solo travelers there had boarded in Barcelona and had three days to get to know each other before I arrived. I felt like the new kid in school.
That’s not to say they weren’t polite–and one man was very friendly and kept inviting me to join them–but for some reason, I felt awkward and shy around them. So while I would stop and chat for short periods, I pretty much went my own way for meals and shows. The crew member assigned to the lounge made no attempt to help integrate those of us who joined in Civitavecchia with the larger Barcelona group.
That wasn’t the way I expected things to go. But I blame myself. I later met two other solos who also boarded when I did—a man who had the same lack of success integrating with the Barcelona group, and a young woman who had successfully joined them. I never had an opportunity to ask for her secret to success, but I suspect she said yes when anyone asked her to join the group for activities. Pretty simple, eh?
But don’t think I’d been crying in my beer all this time. I’d met people in other ways. I joined the roll call for my cruise at CruiseCritic.com and arranged for a shared shuttle to port with a great group of people (Jody and Jeff, Jim and Corinne, Margie and Sue) that I kept running into off and on throughout the cruise. I went to a CruiseCritic meet-and-greet on the first night, where I met some more folks. On Thursday, at a restaurant in Florence, I happened to sit next to Candice and Teri, a mother and daughter duo from California who were also sailing on the Epic. We hit it off and later spent time together aboard ship at dinner, at the jazz club, and in the casino. I was having a good time.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up on the solo traveler group. What kind of solo travel blogger would I be if I came home from my cruise having only spent time with duos? On Sunday, when a new batch of solos boarded in Barcelona, I was ready. Even though I was feeling seasick that day, I attended the 6:00 mixer in the Lounge. This was my chance to meet people before they had time to form cliques.
What a different experience!
People were friendly, and we all mingled naturally until the Norwegian crew member assigned to the lounge blew into the room like a fresh breeze. This was a completely different young woman from the previous one. Her name was Vianna, I believe, but she said we could call her V. She was a strikingly pretty girl from Mexico, and she was fantastic at her job.
Right away, she gathered us all around like baby chicks and had us introduce ourselves and say where we were from: Joy, Luis, Cubby, Ursula and Indira (friends from Johannesburg), Paula, Marsha, Colin, Jim, Chris, Robert, Vivian, Tracy, and David. There were others, but I’m afraid I don’t remember their names. There was a foursome from Germany who were chess fanatics and spent their entire time during the cruise playing chess.
V had us play a game of charades to get everyone to guess what we do for a living. Colin, a farmer, mimed milking cows. The rest of us didn’t have it quite so easy. It became hilarious trying to guess everyone’s occupations, let alone those who were retired. V set up group dinners for the next two nights for any of us who wanted to dine together. From that night on, I had as much company as I wanted at all times.
One night, V pulled together a group to go to the Svedka Ice Bar. On another night, she ushered us to Bliss Ultralounge for “The Dating Game”–something I probably wouldn’t have gone to on my own. Three members of our group—Colin, Ursula, and David–were recruited to be contestants. It was fun cheering them on. One morning I had breakfast with Marsha, Colin and Chris, all of whom I met up with by chance in O’Sheehans. On my last night of the cruise, I was able to sit and chat in the Lounge with Jim and Cubby for awhile. I have to credit V with really turning things around for me in terms of meeting other solo travelers to spend time with during the cruise.
Before I left on this trip, I worried that I might not have enough “alone time” on the ship. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I had just the right amount of solitary time and social time. I am an introvert, so I took advantage of the solitary time to recharge my batteries and process everything I was seeing and experiencing in the ports (which was a bit overwhelming, to be honest).
But my biggest takeaway from this cruise was to be more persistent. In the past, I’ve often given up quickly if things didn’t come easily to me in a social setting. And I started to fall into that pattern here, too. If I had given up on my fellow solo travelers after my first couple of less-than-successful nights in the lounge, my overall cruise experience might have been lonelier than it wound up being. Instead, I had a terrific time and met some really interesting and fun people, both in and out of the solo lounge.
I hate to sound like a cliche, but it’s true. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That goes for solo travel, too.
Note: I suck at remembering to get photos with new friends I’ve met on my travels, so I have no “people pictures” from this cruise. #BloggerFail.