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Ship Mates

An independent traveler walks up the cruise ship gangplank to find herself part of a floating community.

The meet-and-greet for solo cruise passengers, on my first evening aboard the Seabourn Quest, was not a roaring success. I was the only one there. On the other hand, the Quest’s social hostess, Rebecca, seemed thrilled. “Normally I never get anyone,” she confided.

Indeed, cruising is not the most obvious holiday for a single female in her early 30s; certainly not one like me, who likes to feel in control of her travel plans, has a horror of “organized fun,” and isn’t particularly keen on being surrounded by water. But I do like meeting new people, and I do like drinking champagne cocktails, and a travel agent friend had told me that on a cruise I could do plenty of both.

My other inspiration was my grandmother. Her first holiday after being widowed—and her first-ever solo trip—was a voyage across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth II. The friends she made on that trip eventually felt like part of our family. Was it the sea that had brought them together? The buffets? The nightly variety acts? I had no idea, but I had flown from London to Italy to find out for myself.

I boarded the Quest in Rome, in the midst of lashing rain. The tail of a tropical storm was whipping toward the Bay of Naples, and a liveried member of the crew offered me his arm and his umbrella as he walked me up the gangplank. A flute of punch and a medical questionnaire were placed in my hands simultaneously. “Have you, in the past 24 hours, experienced diarrhea (loose stools, etc.)?” I sipped delicately at my drink, confirmed the firmness of my stools, and headed in to lunch.

On first inspection, the Quest conformed to my idea of a cruise ship—a sort of floating love-palace-cum-retirement-village—and everyone I met seemed to be a veteran at this game. (My own cruising virginity would be met with many a sigh and “Oh, I remember my first time….”) This mix of Americans, Brits, and Australians was also unfailingly friendly. At lunch that first day, I met Ian and Pauline, an Australian couple who had sold their company and were now celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary; it was the first of several anniversaries I would toast and hip-hurrah during my trip. We whispered conspiratorially about how each member of staff seemed to know our names on first meeting, and when a waiter arrived and addressed me as “my lady,” Ian had to slap my back to stop me from choking.

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After spending the afternoon settling into my cabin, and having cocktails by myself at the deserted meet-and-greet for solo travelers, I headed to dinner. There I met Bob, a dapper 60-year-old whose luxurious hair and pocket square were explained by his role as a regional newscaster in the UK. Seated beside Bob’s wife, Diane, was a costume designer named Mark who had worked on every major musical in London’s West End and turned out to be pleasingly indiscreet. Between Bob’s exposé of the broadcast industry and Mark’s tales of ego-crazed child actors, I had no need for the evening’s programmed entertainment.

By the next morning, the storm had passed, and the poolside, with its immaculate rows of sunbeds, neatly rolled towels, and extremely attentive bar staff, became the most popular spot on board. Normally I would rather die than strike up conversations with strangers while in my bikini, but the pool deck seemed the most sociable place to be.

It would turn out to be my favorite hangout for the remaining four days of my trip. Ian and Pauline were often there, as was Mark, whose hand was rarely empty of a glass of champagne. To be fair, he was not the only one. Ian told us that there were almost as many staff members on board as there were passengers, which explained how, in one glorious half hour, I was offered a frozen margarita, a champagne sorbet, and a pistachio milkshake by three equally eager young men.

With my apathy toward sea views and my low boredom threshold, I had imagined before the trip that I would be desperate to get to land at every opportunity. Instead, I quickly warmed to the luxurious indolence of the ship. Leaving came to seem like a chore. At our second port-of-call, Sorrento, shore trips were organized to the Roman ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum. “Oh, you must see Pompeii,” Mark told me from his sunbed on my third morning. “It’s huge. Takes a bloody age to walk around. I don’t think Herculaneum’s one-tenth the size.”

I chose Herculaneum.

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My usual traveling policy is to insist on walking every inch of a new place while attempting, simultaneously, to take in its unabridged history: a sort of trial by guidebook. At Herculaneum, however, I trailed our guide Francesca, an archaeologist with a big plastic paddle and confusing syntax, and let her words wash past my ears.

“In 79 after Christ, the Vesuvius was higher than today…. Here you can see the olive trees, which local peoples are using for the oil of vee-er-gin….”

“Did she just say Viagra?” asked the Aussie with a sunbeaten face seated next to me. His name was George, he was in his 70s, and he was accompanied by Hildegard, who sported a glamorous russet bob and fabulously oversize sunglasses. They were cruise experts—their honeymoon, 30 years ago, was a sea voyage—and they were happy to let me in on some secrets. “You should know,” said George, “that you can have champagne and caviar delivered to your room any time you like.”

Francesca drew our attention to a small room at the entrance to one of the reconstructed Roman houses. “Here was the kitchen, and it was also the bathroom,” she explained. Someone in the group (OK, it was me) said, “Yuck.” “Don’t be giving me a look of disgust,” Francesca said. “It is not my house.”

Back on board, the Quest had started to feel like our house. The impeccable courtesy of the staff seemed to foster an atmosphere of gallantry among the passengers. George and Hildegaard appointed me to their trivia team, and every night I received a new invitation for drinks or dinner. The one time a waitress tried to seat me by myself, she was stymied by a pair of Canadians who quickly swept me under their wings.

People describe cruise ships as floating hotels, but they’re actually floating communities. Faces become familiar: Brad and Linda, from North Carolina, and their 25-year-old daughter Kelly; Elizabeth, a gorgeous Brazilian who had determined Kelly would marry her son back home (Brad and Linda seemed fine with this); Brian, an Australian who, in a cruise-induced haze, had forgotten his wedding anniversary and rushed from the dinner table to return with a soap from his cabin, gift-wrapped in tissues for his exasperated wife.

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Even the evening variety shows led to new friends. If it hadn’t been for the cheesy stage banter of the violin duo on the third evening, I wouldn’t have found myself giggling with Jan and her daughter Alice, a resident physician whom Jan was treating to a break from night-shift hell. It was Jan who came up with the perfect metaphor for how we were engaging with the Italian coast: “You just kiss the country, don’t you?”

Jan and Alice had been seeking out culinary adventures in each port. Inspired by their tales, I took the opportunity on the penultimate day of my cruise to visit the fish market in the Sicilian city of Catania. I drank café freddo and ate oysters while two nearby traders initiated a highly expressive argument, an experience heightened by the fact that both had immediate access to boning knives and cleavers. I also got deeply lost on my walk back and spent a fraught half hour navigating my way to the Quest using only the tips of its funnels as a guide. When I finally made it to the ship, Jan and Alice were already by the pool. They listened to my story sympathetically, and I was comforted to hear that they’d had an accident of their own, having gone halfway up the aisle of a church before realizing they, in their brightly patterned sundresses, were at a funeral.

But now we were back in our little floating community, among friends, comforted by—well, pretty much whatever we could conceive of to comfort us. “You should know,” I said to Jan, “you can have champagne and caviar delivered to your room any time you like.” A

The 10-Day Mediterranean Isles cruise aboard the Seabourn Quest departs June 18, August 17, and September 16. From $5,499. (866) 755-5619, seabourn.comPhotos by Emma John. This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue. See Emma’s Wanderlist of her favorite cruise experiences