Lyndsay Russell joins the fun at a house party in Tuscany and offers tips to other solo travellers
Eric, 68, from Scotland, says: "I've been on a twosome, and a foursome - but this is the first time I've been on a twenty-six-some. It's been grand." He raises a farewell glass to the ladies sitting around the courtyard table. A week ago, none of the people staying in the Tuscan farmhouse "Villa Chiassaia" knew a soul. Now, they were bonding tighter than the survivors of The Poseidon Adventure.

Not surprising, really. A blind date is enough to give most of us a sinking feeling, never mind the ordeal of sailing through a singles holiday.

But Sovereign Small World, who hold what they describe as "private house parties", choose the style of accommodation and location with care.

Offering an alternative to the anonymity of big hotel vacations, it is a clever formula that works well for solo travellers.

"I stayed in an ordinary hotel the holiday before this one, and it was a nightmare," says Caroline, 33, a library assistant. "I felt like Shirley Valentine. When there's two of you, you can make a dinner last four hours. On your own, fifteen minutes. And that includes dragging the hotel manager into conversation."

By contrast, she finds Sovereign house hostess Tess Vella, 28, a non- stop party animal. Mother Hen, little sister and outrageous girlfriend all rolled into one.

"Right, you lot!" interrupts Tess, cracking a whip (a symbolic present from a past tripper). "The coach leaves at 10am for the airport, sharp." Everyone groans. With the choice of staying one or two weeks, for many guests tonight is the last night. And tomorrow, a new busload of nervous novices are due to arrive, most of them female.

"The ratio is almost always uneven. One week we had 16 women, and one very happy man," sighs Tess. "Tell the men back home we need them out here."

Is that because there's a surplus of available females in their forties? "No, I think it's because it's easier for a single male to go off travelling alone. Surprisingly, the women don't seem to mind too much about the imbalance. We offer them a sanctuary. A place to lick wounds and not be hounded by a bunch of drunken, horny guys."

Beaten by the sheer numbers into respecting the genteel code, male Sovereign Small World guests usually find themselves highly prized objects of desire, or honorary girls.

This week, four of the nine men were amused to receive Dip GTs. "Diploma in Girls' Talk," chuckles Caroline. "Phil failed on PMT, but gets his Masters in Female Bitchy Asides". Any steamy romances? "Yep," she says. "Almost every week someone hits it off with somebody."

On the other hand, try to get the guests to confess they've chosen a singles holiday in the hunt for lurve, and you'll be hit with an outraged cacophony of: "I've come here to paint," "I adore hiking," and so on.

Regardless, tip-toeing between bedrooms does go on. The air was agog with gossip because a certain cad had been involved with one lady last week, and a different one this week. A guest had just taken a call for him from another woman in England. Only that was no lady, that was his wife.

Sitting under the moon on the hillside terrace, such outrageous scandal became a delicious morsel for hysterical conversation, washed down with copious quantities of local chianti.

Sadly, it was a different scene the following night. The new arrivals sat along the dining room benches like patients in a doctor's waiting room. Conversation was so stilted, even the pregnant pauses took nine months to deliver. Tess had seen this all before. "Changeover night is always the worst. For the old guests staying an extra week, it's like having to make new schoolfriends all over again."

She picked up the whip and gave it a crack. The new guests jumped like startled deer.

Tess gave the newcomers a beaming smile, and they visibly relaxed.

"Now, who'd like to help me finish off this full flagon of wine on the terrace?" Silence. It was going to be a tough night.

Still, the casual house party lifestyle set amid the cultural truffles of Tuscany means that if you really prefer to stay a social hermit, you don't have to mix with anyone at all. You can also pay the extra, and have a double room to yourself.

There are no set places at the table, and unlike Club Med, no agenda of activities. "Who fancies a trip to Florence?" is about as organised as it gets.

Solo's offer another specialist alternative. With equal-sex age groups divided into 30-50 and 50-plus, the romance rate is naturally higher. The brochure displays an array of worldwide tours and cruises, but no pictures of their guests at play. So if you're hoping to suss out the fanciable level from photographs, forget it.

On the other hand, they do offer toe-dipper weekend breaks around Britain (from £99), and one friend of mine says their holidays are so good "it's worth killing your partner for".

Meanwhile, for those of you who'd rather book a suite in a Tibetan monastery than face a singles holiday, here are some solo travelling tips.

Avoid school holidays and big hotels; they attract the ultimate enemies: children and couples.

Get involved in group activities - especially ones that involve a degree of risk. There's nothing like discovering that your diving tank is out of air for a bit of buddy-bonding.

If with a tour group, make a big effort on the first night. It may be comforting to find one person and stick together like wet limpets, but now's the time when you should be mixing with the other members of the group to find out who is really on your wavelength.

Finally, choose a location that you're keen to discover anyway. And bring a good book. If you don't find ways to stimulate the body there's always the mind.

Sovereign Small World brochures from travel agents or ring 01293 588232.

Solo's Holidays, 41 Watford Way, London NW4 3JH (0181-202 0855/1922).