MIAMI -- The night before the Carnival Imagination was to set sail from here on a four-day Labor Day cruise to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, the 233 people who had signed up for the organized "singles cruise," part of the general 2,000-passenger ship population, were invited to a cocktail party at the Blue Martini lounge in the Brickell neighborhood.
I walked in alone, as did many of the singles, feeling like a nervous freshman on the first day of school, except that the crowd ranged in age from the 20s to the 70s and was in full schmooze mode.
"Where are your beads?" asked a gregarious woman with a mojito and a thick New Jersey accent. A beaded necklace that spelled "Angela" rested in her cleavage.
The name beads, I soon discovered, are the singles cruiser's most important accessory. They are an automatic friend finder, a green light that it is safe to approach.
Angela, who that day was celebrating her 55th birthday, told me she was divorced and booked the singles cruise to be around "positive people."
"If you're not having fun, you haven't tried," she hollered over thumping music.
We worked the room together, meeting the universally friendly folks with whom we would spend the next four days gliding across the Caribbean in an 855-foot-long party boat. One of them was a trim and dapper 68-year-old gentleman, twice my age.
The dapper gentleman turned out to be an excellent salsa dancer. As the dance floor got crowded, he asked if I was rooming alone. When I said I was, he complimented my foresight and breathed into my ear: "When was the last time you slept in a man's arms?"
Speed dating in a cocoon
That was probably the creepiest moment I encountered during the fascinating anthropological experiment that is a singles cruise, where people from all walks of life meet for nonstop speed dating in a hotel you can't escape.
That, I realize, sounds horrifying. But, somehow, it was fun. Cruise goggles make everyone more attractive after a couple of days. And for many singles tired of being the extra wheel among married friends, Singlescruise.com's fitting motto -- "Travel single, never alone!" -- is a vacation savior.
"I just wanted to go away and dance with someone single if I want and not eat alone," said David, a 54-year-old champion bodybuilder from Fort Lauderdale who wore a muscle tank top most of the trip. After an eight-year relationship ended, he booked the cruise because, he said, "I didn't know what to do with myself."
Once the Imagination set sail, the singles gathered for an orientation mixer in the Xanadu Lounge. The Cupid Shuffle line dance got the party started. Karaoke followed. There were, thankfully, free cocktails.
A patchwork of characters soon emerged: divorcees letting loose; shy guys awkwardly vying for attention; marriage-ready women on the prowl; a group of eight party-hearty 30-something friends from Texas who were, I think it's fair to say, never sober.
Gathering for dinner each night at the designated singles-cruise tables in the Spirit dining room, people whose paths otherwise never would cross made small talk about their jobs and kids and how they heard about the cruise (many saw a promotion on Match.com).
A guy pulled me aside to whisper a room number where some singles-cruise veterans were gathering for a private party. When I arrived, most of the women had mini sex toys hanging from necklaces around their necks, a gift from the host, Daniel, a 40-something Toronto man who owns an adult toy business.
Daniel has been on more than 10 singles cruises over eight years. "It's an easier environment for people to break out of their shell," he said.
Cocktails and shots
It's no surprise that booze plays a starring role on a singles cruise. The organized excursion in Key West was a five-bar pub crawl, starting at 9:30 a.m., following a guide who blew a conch shell when it was time for the next bar. In Cozumel, snorkeling and a tour of the botanical gardens were offered, but mostly people did shots at the pool's swim-up bar and then squeezed into a hut for a raucous tequila tasting poured by a man in a sombrero.
Every night after dinner the bulk of the group headed to the Dream Bar for drinking and dancing to a live band. The night owls eventually drifted into the Illusions nightclub where DJs spun hip-hop. Twerking happened.
Between Battle of the Sexes trivia and crammed hot tubs on the adults-only Serenity Deck, the rare romance began to bud. Some got serious fast.
Ron, a 41-year-old firefighter from Indianapolis, and Kaye, a 40-year-old nurse from Connecticut, first locked eyes at Miami International Airport the day the ship departed. Less than 24 hours later, they were inseparable hand-holders and looked like a long-term couple.
"I was pretty much done the moment I saw her," said Ron, who approached Kaye at the orientation mixer and barely left her side thereafter. "It was a true chemical, physical reaction."
Others were less monogamous, like the attractive guy in his late 30s whom I spotted at Illusions canoodling with a different woman every night.
Love blossoms ...
Courtship in a floating cocoon can be bizarrely accelerated. A pleasant chat poolside can lead to a daylong frolic, then dinner, then dancing, then a midnight kiss at the ship's bow, then a heart-to-heart about whether he wants more kids and whether she'll travel to visit, all 12 hours in.
The bubble often bursts when reality hits. But sometimes the safety of the bubble opens your mind.
A 33-year-old Miami interior designer who had no interest in anyone at the start of the cruise was surprised to see her feelings evolve for a 59-year-old research pharmacist and Liam Neeson doppelganger who lives in Washington, D.C. The close quarters allowed them to focus on getting to know each other without "real life" distractions, and she put aside her concern about the age gap.
Three months later, they still were dating long distance.
"No one has ever treated me the way this man has," she told me.
Cruise director Shelby Bergeron said that over the last seven years, she has been notified of at least a dozen marriages and two babies that have resulted from Singlescruise.com's events. Less officially, another of the cruise directors gave me this breakdown from his observations: about 85 percent of cruisers meet someone they connect with; 35 percent become romantic; 18 percent promise to keep in touch; 7 percent actually see each other again on land.
For the vast majority of cruisers who don't make a love connection, the real fun was in the unlikely friendships.
"I really didn't think we would have such a bonding experience," said Mike, 56, a civil engineer and city planner from Oxford, Miss.
... and love dies
As some relationships formed via cruise, others were laid to rest.
On "elegant night" -- yes, they mean it, and some people wear tuxedos and evening gowns -- a 36-year-old Georgia woman named Christy wore her strapless white wedding dress. As dinner wound down, she invited her single peers to help her defile it with canisters of spray paint and splatters of mustard and chocolate sauce. "It was so cathartic," said Christy, who said she had been divorced for a year, longer than she was married.
On "tropical night" the following evening, a 46-year-old Los Angeles lighting designer named Steve showed up at the Dream Bar wearing a coconut bra and straw skirt, which wasn't all that out of character.
A widower for 22 years and recently out of a "poisoned" relationship, Steve was on the cruise because his brother suggested it as a way to move on. Steve had adopted the motto "I will not be afraid" and was, truly, letting it all hang out. "This is my first singles cruise, but it will not be my last," Steve said. And the poisonous ex?
"I can't even remember her name at this point."