Solo cruiser Mandy Charlton takes a four-night trip on Norwegian Epic around the Mediterranean, makes new friends and discovers the joys of travelling alone

The breathtaking view from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
The breathtaking view from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

I want you to stop what you’re doing, just for a minute. I want you to breathe in deeply and imagine that even though it isn’t quite spring, you can feel warm sunshine on your face and you are ankle deep in the warm Mediterranean sea. It feels good, doesn’t it? So good, in fact, it’s the perfect tonic to the cold, damp, dark British winter. I’ve never felt quite so lucky to be wearing short sleeves and flip-flops at this time of year, and as I sit on the golden sands of Cannes beach I really do have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not just dreaming of summer.

Going on a Mediterranean cruise on my own without kids, dogs or work stress is the biggest adventure I’ve had for years. My last foray overseas alone was at the tender age of 20 on a singles holiday, but that couldn’t be more different to the experience of travelling as a solo cruiser on the wonderful Norwegian Cruise Line ship Norwegian Epic.

For a start the accommodation is luxurious and hi-tech, including colour-changing mood lighting that can be customised to suit; there’s even a red setting with a heart, perhaps in case you bump into Cary Grant from An Affair to Remember.

A solo studio on board Norwegian Epic
A solo studio on board Norwegian Epic

The solo studios on Norwegian Epic are beautifully compact with lots of secret storage space, yet with a bed big enough to sleep in like a starfish. And the best bit is, just like my mum used to when I was a teenager, someone enters my stateroom twice a day and cleans up after me – a fabulous change from home, where it’s usually me tidying up after everyone else.

Group dining with Norwegian Cruise Line
Group dining with Norwegian Cruise Line

Everything you could possibly need is taken care of. You can mingle with other singles in the chic and private access studio bar, and every night at 6pm you can meet for an hour of drinks and chatter (if you want to – it’s very laidback, there’s no pressure). And then, if you like, you can go along to dinner with your new friends and get to know them better. Of course, if you are the kind of person who just wants to go and enjoy the solitude, there’s certainly no commitment to join in.

There’s a lively bunch of single travellers on our cruise and I make friends quickly. We go to the Ice Bar and theatre together, and they all tell me they love the social aspect of solo cruising and the fact that there isn’t a single supplement to stay in the solo studios on board Norwegian Epic.

Palma de Mallorca harbour
Palma de Mallorca harbour

Travelling on your own may sound quite indulgent, but it’s actually a relief to not have to worry about the wishes of others (no matter how lovely they are); you can go where you please, and eat and drink what you like. On board, I saw the shows Burn the Floor (a Strictly-style dance extravaganza), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (an amazing touring production of the Broadway musical) and had dinner with my new friend Kathryn from Caerphilly. I made two really lovely friends on my voyage, both single, enjoying their own company and seeing the world.

The quality of the food on Norwegian Epic is incredible, from the buffet breakfast and pastries to the complimentary restaurants and speciality dining. No matter where we ate, the food was always delicious.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Waking up in a different country every day was a revelation. Our second port of call was Livorno, where I climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As I sat at the top I actually felt happy tears of joy tumble down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe I’d done it; the place I’d read about in Geography lessons at school all those years ago, the Tower I’d seen on the news and the endless travel programmes I’d watched. I’d finally made it to the top of one of my dream destinations.

Pisa was probably my favourite city of all during the cruise. In the 12th century Camposanto Monumentale, I walked the halls admiring the frescoes painted by famous artists hundreds of years ago, revelling in the stillness. No matter where I travel during the rest of my life, my experience of Pisa will stay with me forever.

In Cannes, I sat in a pavement café, congratulating myself for remembering my schoolgirl French, and watched the sun set on the amazing Côte d’Azur.

Another highlight was our port of call in Palma de Mallorca. Wearing my flip-flops and summer dress and sauntering around Bellver Castle enjoying the warm golden light, I felt as though I’d found myself once more. Life is pretty hectic when you’re a mum of three children, two cats and an adorable beagle, so like Ferris Bueller once said (and I’m paraphrasing here); I was taking some slow time because life moves pretty fast and you do have to take time every once in a while to just be, to breathe and listen to nothing but birdsong and admire views of architecture and beaches all nestled together. In fact, I think I shall retire to Palma de Mallorca; spending just a few hours there enticed me to go back one day and stay longer.

Palma Cathedral
Palma Cathedral

My time on that island sums up the whole solo cruise experience for me: those four nights were a taster of the things I’d like to enjoy more of in the future. Four days is an ideal length of time to experience some of the highlights of Europe on your own and I returned home feeling as though I’d had a month away from squabbling teenagers and a busy work life. NCL is all about feeling free – and I’m hooked.

GETTING THERE: A three-night short break from Barcelona to Rome with Norwegian Cruise Line starts from £940pp, based on one person staying in a studio room and departing London Heathrow on 17 April 2016 (ncl.co.uk/0845 201 8900).

Mandy blogs at mandycharltonphotography.com. Photos: © Mandy Charlton.

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