Travel: A singular togetherness : The singles holiday is shedding its seedy image. Andrew Eames looks at new deals for the lone traveller

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IT IS the curse of the single traveller to be devilishly active or so the holiday companies have ordained. There are few opportunities to be purely hedonistic in the company of others: usually, holidays targetted at single travellers involve participating in a full-blown menu of cultural duties or sporting activities. Another curse is the punitive single-room supplement; the wiser holiday companies do their best to absorb some of this cost, which can often make a sensitive solo feel very unwanted and unfairly treated. A recent report in Holiday Which? carried a sheaf of complaints from readers. The industry doesn't pay enough attention to the singles market other than to the young windsurfing, drinking and possibly bed-hopping crowd. According to an English Tourist Board discussion paper, holidays specifically designed for singles have an image problem, being often associated with 'leering or nudging atmospheres,lonely hearts and boring watercolour weekends'.

It is thus no surprise that the Board's research shows that some 84 per cent of people who take a holiday alone within the UK, spend it by staying with relatives or friends. But there are specialists, albeit small and often not members of ABTA, who look after this substantial share (22 per cent) of the market. The holidays listed below all provide opportunities to make new friendships and, if desired, new relationships, but they are primarily intended to allow single travellers to experience the world in company with others in a similar situation.

SPECIALIST OPERATORS

Solo's Holidays Limited (tel: 081-202 0855) is perhaps the most comprehensive tour operator in the singles market, with long-haul and short-haul, adventure and sporting holidays as well as pure tourism in the company of other singles. Solo's 'holidays for the independent traveller' come in two programmes, one for 30-plus and one for 50-plus. Its marketing includes advertising in Dateline Magazine, a monthly publication from Britain's largest dating agency, though this does not mean it is actively in the pairing-off game, as the magazine is the only advertising outlet directed at the singles market. The company rather coyly describes sociability as a key factor: 'We do not promote relationships as such. We do however make a conscious effort towards a reasonable balance of numbers between ladies and men.' If you're not quite sure whether this sounds right for you, try one of the company's weekend breaks first.

Solo's programmes cover the world, from the US to the Far East, Brighton to Peru, and range from two nights in a four-star hotel in Chester with dinner, wine and dancing for pounds 159, to 18 days in Ecuador with a visit to the Galapagos Islands for pounds 2,775. The company has a policy of booking single rooms, thus avoiding that nasty 'single room supplement'.

Solo's has a newsletter and regular clientele as does the the small but vigorous Longstaff Leisure (tel: 0756 760246), who are also advertisers in Dateline Magazine. Longstaff Leisure admits with refreshing honesty to catering to the 'post orgy/pre-bus pass' market and claims to have been responsible for 32 marriages and three babies since 1983 although it also admits to a shortage of men among the customers. The company runs house-party holidays on an extended family basis (maximum of 19 people) based around a Victorian property in the Yorkshire Dales. Activities make the most of Herriot country and visits to local sights. The company gives out telephone numbers of previous holiday-makers for nervous potential customers to ring before they go. Long weekends from pounds 140, weeks at around pounds 280, on a room-sharing basis for which Sylvia Longstaff has a very plausible justification: 'Sharing a room provides an instant bond and instant confidence. If we had 19 single rooms we'd never get anyone coming down to dinner.'

A similar concept but in the sun is offered by Small World Holidays (tel: 0293 599966). Its 'sociable holidays for the single traveller' are divided into Gourmet House Parties, singles' sailing, and a selection of resort hotels which don't charge a single room supplement. The Gourmet House Parties are a rare example of purely hedonistic single holiday-making; the Victorian house parties of the 1990s, or perhaps rather the ski-chalet concept moved to the sun. Groups of up to 25 (almost exclusively singles, in their thirties and forties) are flown out to upmarket properties in popular Mediterranean resorts, where they are looked after by a host. The accommodation is on a half-board basis, with a gourmet meal in the evening to compensate for the year-round bachelor diet of root vegetables and takeaways, but otherwise 'action is not compulsory'. If this is the time of year you use to catch up with back issues of the FT by the pool, then do so. Small World Holidays does not see itself as a kind of dating agency in the sun: 'Our customers are professional people who like good company and good food and would quite simply rather not go on holiday by themselves and sit alone in restaurants feeling conspicuous.' Customers can get a brief description of the other members of their party before departure, if they so wish. Prices are based on two people sharing a twin room, and are usually about pounds 370 for a week (half-board).

For holidays with a spirit of adventure, The Imaginative Traveller (tel: 071-792 8494) takes its mainly single groups of 15 to 20 people on 'soft adventures' to destinations that are not included on the usual package tour, mixing types of travel and accommodation. Nearly half of the company's customers come from mainland Europe and Canada, with English the common language. Regular film nights on its destinations allow potential travellers to have a look at each other. A typical three-week Turkey Explorer package costs pounds 335 (no single supplement, flight extra), half-board, both camping and in modest hotels.

Working on very similar lines, Explore Worldwide's (tel: 0252 319448) small group of exploratory holidays cover an impressive range of destinations and are divided into eight useful categories, such as 'ethnic encounters' or 'wilderness experience'. The age range is 25 to 45, of whom 50 per cent are likely to be single. Explore's 15-day Winter Morocco tour includes a five-day walk in the Atlas mountains, staying in Berber villages. Prices start at pounds 395.

Exodus (tel: 081-675 5550) attracts a similar client base to a wider range of destinations, with a slightly harder edge to its adventures. Trips go to both unusual areas of civilised countries and extremely remote areas of the undeveloped world. A 17-day Gorilla Safari in Tanzania and Rwanda will cost from pounds 1,480, a 17-day trek around Nepal's Annapurna mountains from pounds 990, flights included and no single supplement on the assumption that rooms and tents are shared. Weekends in the UK allow potential travellers to preview the organisation.

ACTIVITY HOLIDAYS

Sailing attracts a high proportion of single travellers. The strong wind can be a hard taskmaster, however, and real friendships can be both made and broken over the tiller. On significant journeys, a crew member who doesn't pull his or her weight in difficult conditions may be ostracised by the rest. On the other hand, the shared experience of hardship and foul weather can cement the best friendships.

SAILING, SUN AND SURF: Ideal sailing times for singles are spring and late summer when families are otherwise engaged. For those seeking warmth and wine with their wind, Sunsail (tel: 0705 210345), with 600 yachts worldwide, organises flotilla sailing in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Thailand. The company organises special weeks for singles, and a get-together at the Boat Show at Earl's Court in January, complete with wine and cheese (and an entry fee of pounds 5). A typical week on a singles' cruise from Turkey in May would cost pounds 570, inclusive of flights.

Sailing conditions in the Mediterranean are usually considerably less exacting than those in the English Channel, which is one of the most awkward, lumpish pieces of water on this earth. To test these and calmer waters, try UK-based sailing breaks from the Island Cruising Club (tel: 0548 843481), based in an old Mersey ferry anchored in the estuary in Salcombe in Devon. Boats of all shapes and sizes are berthed around the ferry, and the sailing master arranges sailing partners. Accommodation (adequate but not luxurious) and social life are on board the old ferry, with evening parties and a member of staff who ensures that the apres-sail goes well. A large proportion of the clientele is single, especially if you avoid the school holidays. If you are not a fan of new-fangled plastic boats you'll like the club's 72ft gaff schooner, 49ft Bermudan yawl and 70ft Brixham sailing trawler, which usually take cruises down the Brittany coast (age groups tend to be 35 to 40). A typical weekend would cost from pounds 110 and a week from pounds 270, with cruises from around pounds 300.

For sun and surf, Mark Warner (tel: 071-938 1851) and Club Mediterranee (tel: 071-581 1161) are beach club specialists with group activities. In high season they are family-based, but in the autumn the singles take over; some locations have a no-children policy during these periods. You don't have to participate, but the emphasis is on water sports. Such organisations arrange room-sharing so you're bound to meet at least one other person] This is not perhaps the holiday for shy flowers: 'We may sometimes play blind date as evening entertainment,' says a spokesperson for Mark Warner. Warner tends to attract more single women, particularly in their late twenties and early thirties. Prices begin at around pounds 450 for a week, all inclusive (which includes free wine). Club Med has 80 different resorts in 30 different countries and although the emphasis is also on activity, it is activity with indulgence, with lunchtime buffet tables as long as airport runways. All-inclusive prices are from around pounds 550 per week, with a whopping 50 per cent supplement if you really must have your own room.

SKIING: The best way to meet others on a skiing holiday is in a club chalet; operators such as Mark Warner (tel: 071-938 1851), Bladon Lines (tel: 081-785 3131) and Ski West (0225 444516) all have large shared chalets for those who don't already have their own groups. The larger chalets allow more choice of breakfast-table and partners for the ski-slope. If you are not quite as young as you used to be, Over the Hill (tel: 0371 856214) caters specifically to skiers over the age of 35; the company has negotiated special weeks with reduced or no single room supplement. This, understandably, attracts a high proportion of single skiers for those particular parties. Odyssey International (tel: 0223 861079) is organising a singles ski holiday to the Italian Dolomites, 20-27 December, for pounds 361 per person.

CYCLING: More and more people are going on cycling holidays. The Bicycle Association (tel: 0203 553838) has an excellent leaflet identifying bicycle-holiday companies ranged by destination, from the far-flung Thailand, Kenya, Japan to one-day tours in Wales or East Anglia. One of the biggest operators is Bike Events (tel: 0225 480130), the organiser of the annual London to Brighton ride, whose holiday programme varies from seven days bed-and-breakfasting in Ireland (pounds 240) to tours of New England, China, Tuscany and a two-week ride, camping on the way, through three eastern European countries (pounds 485, exclusive of air fare). Bike Events' groups (numbering up to 120 on the popular annual rides such as Bordeaux to Barcelona) can be all ages, but the average is 32 years old. The usual mix is one-third women, two-thirds men, most of whom are single. Although gear, calf muscles and the brand of your machine will be all-important on some of their holidays (off-road Sierra Safaris in the Pyrenees, for example), Bike Events is keen to emphasise that you don't have to be bike mad or super-fit to participate. 'We try to discourage talk about clobber and get people into the pub as quickly as possible.'

Most tours have a truck to take baggage on ahead and supply a nurse and a mechanic, and sometimes even the bike as well. Accommodation is in campsites or adequate hotels, and the atmosphere is congenial but not sophisticated.

WALKING: There is nothing quite like walking for bonding: moreover, you don't need to display cocktail-bar social skills as you puff and pant your way through fine landscapes, and lulls in conversation need not be awkward. Ramblers Holidays (tel: 0707 331133) offers a range of destinations, difficulties and durations, from 20 days in the Hindu Kush (pounds 1,420, plus pounds 134 single supplement) or 19 days in North Borneo (pounds 1,600, plus pounds 91 single supplement), to a week looking at birds and flowers on Minorca (pounds 320, single supplement pounds 18), all meals included.

The average age (45 to 50) and proportion of singles (up to 60 per cent) within the groups varies according to the difficulty of the walk and the destination; more difficult walks attract more singles. Ramblers' group leaders have the reputation of being invigorating people, not at all the usual tour company reps, but this is not the sort of holiday for organised social activities in the evenings.

ALTERNATIVE HOLIDAYS

WWOOF, Working Weekends on Organic Farms (for details write to 19 Bradford Road, Lewes, Sussex BN7 1RB) as plain as its name attracts individuals, and is free. By its very nature, organic farming is labour-intensive and weekend visitors are expected to do their bit in return for their food and lodging; the company will be good and conversation interesting. On payment of an pounds 8 membership fee, you will be sent a list of possible farm locations. Select your location from the description, phone to check, and you're WWOOFing. The number of people you meet will depend on the size and nature of the farm you choose: some attract up to 15 at weekends. From the brief descriptions it is possible to judge how idealist the organic farmers are. Some so-called 'organic' farms are not alternative at all, but are simply farms that have never really got to grips with new-fangled things such as machinery, pesticides and fertilisers or even hot water and soap.

If WWOOF is all about feeling the soil between one's toes, Skyros Holidays (tel: 071-267 4424) are more about getting in touch with one's deepest self. These holistic holidays with sea and sun included, 'ideal for those travelling on their own', feature two centres on the Greek island of Skyros. Atsitsa, a self-contained holiday community away from the main village, offers activities such as dance, T'ai Chi, yoga, windsurfing, meditation, massage and dreamwork, music, theatre, painting and pottery. Meals are communal, accommodation is in shared rooms and huts. Returning holidaymakers feel 'refreshed and invigorated'. Holidays are on a full-board basis (mainly vegetarian food) and cost from pounds 360 for two weeks (fares not included). The Skyros Centre, in the village of Skyros, with accommoation in local homes, focuses more intensely on personal development and self-esteem and less on holiday activities. Prices from pounds 375 for two weeks (excluding fares). Skyros has profiled its typical participants as overwhelmingly single, professional, aged over 30 and Guardian or Independent readers; approximately 75 per cent are from the UK, and two out of three are women.

CULTURAL HOLIDAYS

Martin Randall Travel (tel: 081-994 6477) spreads its net over anything to do with art, history, architecture, archaeology or music, focusing on visits to European festivals. Typical tours are a four-day circuit of the frescos of Piero della Francesco in their Italian locations (pounds 635); a four-day survey of artists and writers in 19th-century Paris (pounds 499); or even five days of viewing the art that litters the Cote d'Azur (pounds 660). The arrangements are comprehensive and include social occasions and dinners; most of their customers (a substantial proportion of singles) are in their fifties or thereabouts, and the tours feature daily lectures by expert tour leaders. There is a supplement for single occupancy which can be avoided if you ask to share.

Prospect Music & Art Tours (tel: 081-995 2151) have a similar programme; this November, for example, the company is running tours to Florence, Jordan, Istanbul, Andalucia and Milan, each of which is led by an academic expert on the destination's culture and history. Trips are usually four to nine days long, and cost from pounds 500 to pounds 1,000 (dinners are included). Groups are small and the pace likely to be gentle.

If your own passion is not listed above, then check in specialist magazines. Most carry holiday advertising steam safaris, beekeeping weekends, painting breaks, and so on, suitable for the single enthusiast. Check your coffee table for details.

In a similar category are professionally based holidays, such as those organised by Architectural Tours (081-341 1371), who take groups of 20 to 25 people, many of whom are working architects, on long weekends and occasional weeks. The days are filled with specific architectural itineraries, and in the evening the 'tourists' go out to dinner together. The destination strangely alters the mix of sexes: more single women go on tours to Italy, for example, while more men go to Germany . . . there's probably a thesis there somewhere.

TRAVEL PARTNERS

In my experience the long-distance, long-term back-packing traveller is better travelling alone; that way you can do what you want, when you want, and if you stick to the accepted routes you will bump into plenty of other single travellers. Many an established couple setting out on a long-haul expedition has had the relationship flounder on the shores of some very foreign field.

If, however, you'd rather set out with someone like-minded, then organisations such as Travel Companions (tel: 081-202 8478) or Odyssey International (tel: 0223 861079) may be able to help. For a membership fee of pounds 20, Odyssey will match your travel needs with those of the other 2,000 would-be travellers on its database and send you a club newsletter and its own, usually activity-based, holiday weekends. Most members are looking for long-haul partners, usually teaming up with others of the same sex, and Odyssey claims a 70 per cent success rate; once they've provided you with a list of suitable contacts, however, the actual arrangements are up to you. Travel Companions focuses more on short-haul and holidays for single travellers over 30, and has a membership fee of pounds 40.

SINGLE PARENTS

And finally, for lone parents who want to get away with their children, the charity Splash (tel: 0752 674067) organises a variety of breaks, typically to holiday parks in the UK and to overseas resorts with facilities for children. The prices are good and single parents will be with others in a similar position.

Andrew Eames is managing editor of Insight Guides

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