March 19, 2013 at 8:49 AM ET
Amy Luna Manderino didn't expect to attend the Singles Travel Company's annual Cougar Cruise in December 2010--let alone meet someone. But having attended a cougar event on a lark and ended up winning the title Miss Cougar San Francisco, she received a free trip on Royal Caribbean International's Mariner of the Seas.
And after meeting a young man onboard, she later received a marriage proposal.
Manderino is part of a growing group of cougars, older women attracted to younger men, who seek "cubs," younger men who are attracted to older women.
While an average cruise often skews female, the Cougar Cruise draws slightly more men than women, said Rich Gosse, who runs CougarEvents.com and whose group The Society of Single Professionals sponsors the Cougar Cruise. "We try as much as possible to get as close to 50/50 as we can, but we never succeed in getting enough cougars for everybody," said Gosse.
The Singles Travel Company debuted the Cougar Cruise in 2009. According to the company's director Ann Thomas, the most recent cruise garnered about 30 men and 25 women. The men ranged from 25-35 years old and the women were mostly in their mid-40's and up, said Thomas, with "a few in their sixties and early seventies, too."
The Cougar Cruise arranges for the group to get together every night before dinner, followed by dancing. Gosse said there is also an "obligatory" annual hot tub party.
Above all, the Cougar Cruise is an ageism-free zone. Manderino said, "The guy I ended up meeting--the one who asked me to marry him later on--I was saying to him, 'Wow, it's so great to have a safe place where you can really express yourself, because you hear all this hype about...older women being desperate.' He said, 'What are you talking about? Among me and my guy friends, [we believe that] if you can be with an older woman, you've hit the jackpot!'"
So who's onboard the Cougar Cruise? Manderino said, "There were definitely the boozy and Botoxed cougars on the cruise, for sure. But there were definitely absolutely normal, empowered, confident women that were not aggressive--that were classy." As for the men, Manderino described them as "old souls. They're very talented, they're very educated, and they don't relate to a lot of women their age."
One fellow female passenger, she said, kept in touch with a man she met onboard. But as for long-term love connections, Gosse said he's not aware of any; Singles Travel Company doesn't follow up with Cougar Cruise participants.
Manderino ended up declining the young man's post-cruise marriage proposal. But she continued to participate in cougar events. In 2011, she was named the first Miss Cougar International.
Even if single, older women don't want to self-identify as, cougars let alone go on the Cougar Cruise, Gosse encourages them to seek out younger men. "Go for the young stuff," he said. "There are more men to choose from, and they're of higher quality than dating an older man."
And Manderino, too, advocates for cougar/cub love whether on land or at sea--though she prefers the phrase "intergenerational relationships."
"When I saw The Graduate, I was 20 years old. And I identified with the daughter because she had choices," she mused. "I don't identify with Mrs. Robinson; I identify with Miss Robinson. And so does my generation."
The upcoming December 2013 Cougar Cruise departs Miami, Florida and visits Coco Cay and Nassau in the Bahamas. Prices start at $339 for a 5-night trip, which includes meals and entertainment. Currently, only Singles Travel Company offers cougar-specific cruises. Bookings: 888-286-8687 or singlestravelcompany.com.