I have something in common with 40 per cent of the UK's adult population; I'm single. Around 15 million of us are floating about. When it comes to holidays, what to do? Not everyone is qualified for the 18-30 singles scene. In my case, apart from being fiftysomething, I don't like lager or taking my shirt off in bars.
That leaves going away with or visiting friends (not always possible), or taking a trip by oneself (not always desirable). Call me a fuddy-duddy old traditionalist if you like, but I've always felt an essential ingredient of the holiday experience is lounging around and eating and drinking too much in convivial company.
A third option, though, is a specialist singles holiday. Unsurprisingly, given the burgeoning number of unattached bodies, this is a growth area. Gone are the days when, for most tour operators, all that single travellers meant was singles supplements. Now some companies welcome the single holidaymaker, don't charge supplements, and make an effort to put together parties of people who have a chance of getting on without fighting.
One of the longest-established firms in this market is Solo's Holidays. More than 20,000 singles travelled with Solo's last year, which seems to indicate it might be doing something right, so I decided to try its seven-day Corfu multi-activity holiday.
Owing to my finely honed ability to mess up any travel arrangement going, I failed to meet my companions for the week in the airport departure lounge as suggested, but on the plane another Soloist spotted the Solo's swing-tag dangling from my hand luggage and introduced himself. Jamie, who I guess was around 40, told me he was a serial Soloist; this was his sixth holiday with the firm.
One or two people I mentioned my holiday plans to had lifted an eyebrow, implying that it was a slightly Johnny No-Mates thing to do, but Jamie wasn't having any of it. "They've got it all wrong," he said. "This way, you get to do stuff you want to do with people who've got the same interests. Look, I've been on Solo's golf holidays, dancing holidays, walking holidays; a lot of my mates aren't interested in any of those things, but you know the people you'll meet there are, otherwise they wouldn't have come along."
Trying out strong new cocktails is one of my favourite holiday activities; this wasn't mentioned in the brochure, but I was not to be disappointed. First, though, came the coach ride to the hotel, and a chance to assess my companions. Solo's tries hard to get an even split between the sexes; I don't know how they manage it, but they'd done well here; in fact, short of cutting someone in half and performing complicated surgery, they couldn't have done better: 11 men and 10 women were en route to the Elea Beach Hotel at Dassia, 13km north of Corfu Town.
Solo's offers different age-range options for different holidays - you can choose between 25-45, 28-55, 45-plus, or all ages combined. While officially 28-55ers, we did have a 26-year-old aboard, the strikingly named and strikingly lively Atlanta, a children's nanny. "I liked the look of the activities on offer and I like the company of older people [bless her], so Solo's agreed to make an exception for me," she said. And a jolly good thing, too; if ever the phrase "life and soul of the party" was invented for anyone, it was Atlanta. Her dancefloor rendition of Tom Jones's "Sex Bomb" will live long in my memory.
Meanwhile, at the top end of the range were several, like me, pushing at the outer limits, but the majority seemed to be mid-thirties to late forties.
Having arrived on Monday, we spent Tuesday on an off-road mountain-biking expedition across the centre of the island. Wednesday was snorkelling day, Thurs-day was a coastal footpath walk. The pace slackened a touch on Friday, with optional horseriding and water sports (at extra cost) before we zipped off by speedboat to dinner in Corfu Town.
Saturday was for culture, with another bracing walk which took in the Castello Gallery, the Corfiot annex of Greece's National Gallery. And Sunday's grand finale was a dizzyingly enjoyable ride in a convoy of 4x4s to the ancient monastery on top of Mount Pantokrator, at over 1,000 metres, Corfu's highest mountain.
Although on the surface we were a pretty mixed bunch - jobs ranged from probation officer to council gardener, Methodist minister to MoD official - as the week unwound, the group visibly bonded. In the evenings, we all met up for a pre-dinner snifter, and after dinner, those of us who didn't know when to stop hit the local bars.
So thank you, Atlanta, for turning me on to Blue Hawaiis (1 measure blue curacao, 1 measure white rum, 1 measure dark rum, 1 measure pineapple juice, 1 splash sour mix; shake over ice, pour into chilled glass); it may look like brake fluid, but it tastes divine. Only shaded, in fact, by our rep Jeanette's tipple, the Caipirinha (mash up four lime wedges, add good whack of cachaca - Brazilian sugar-cane brandy - two teaspoonfuls of sugar syrup, then do the ice-and-glass thing as above).
Like getting smashed on cocktails, romance did not feature on the published itinerary, but that didn't deter some in the group. In fairness to Solo's, I must point out that in no way does the company aim to be a lonely hearts agency. "Solo's is not a dating service, nor is it an 18-30s-style holiday provider," says Gill Harvey, the managing director, firmly. Right, I've got that. But it's not forbidden, either; by the end of the week, we had three definite couples. Of those, I reckon at least two will turn into long-lasting relationships. And I'll probably find out, too, because such was our esprit de corps that we all exchanged email addresses.
Solo's has picked up on this idea and launched a website, solosreunited.co.uk, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. Groups can keep in touch, and another useful function of the site is that you can ask for information and opinions about specific holidays from people who've already tried them.
Solo's offers so many options it can be hard to make up your mind. Visions of Vietnam? Indian Tigers and Temples? Hill Walking in Andorra? But for me, next time round it's got to be Cuban Cocktail, featuring several nights in the capital. Because I've heard that El Floridita, the Havana bar that gave the world the Frozen Daiquiri (look up the recipe yourself), still does a pretty good job of making them. Perhaps Atlanta and Jeanette might like to join me; I feel an email coming on.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Simon Redfern travelled to Corfu with Solo's Holidays (08704 998 800, www.solosholidays.co.uk) from Gatwick. Prices for the Corfu multi-activity seven-night holiday start from pounds 649, including return flights, transfers, single-room and half-board at the Elea Beach Hotel in Dassia, plus one taverna dinner and three lunches. The cost of all scheduled activities is included. Flights are available from Manchester for a pounds 59 supplement.
Further information Apart from an extensive range of foreign holidays, Solo's also offers black-tie balls, weekend events and holidays in the United Kingdom. Other companies specialising in the singles market include Kindred Spirits (020 8731 1388, www.kindredspiritstravel. com), which provides escorted trips to diverse destinations. It guarantees group sizes of no more than 20 and supplies double rooms for sole occupancy in luxury hotels. Travel One (0870 757 2488, www.travelone. co.uk), has no upper age limit, though its customers are largely between the mid-30s and mid- 60s. Travel One offers holidays in family-run hotels around Europe and in Tunisia.