What to wear on a cruise: The discerning traveler’s guide to packing & dressing well

formal night portrait
Yes, there are still formal nights on most cruise lines – a gown and a tux will always be right.

There are two questions potential cruisers ask us about their on-board wardrobe:

  1. What should I wear?
  2. How should I pack?

It comes down to three fundamental issues: the cruise line you’re traveling on, where you’re going on the cruise (and of course the time of year goes along with this), and how much luggage you plan to take. Of course, underlying all of this is the discerning travel assumption that you want to dress well: dressing well meaning that you are comfortable, appropriate for your destination, and looking good. Let’s begin with cruise lines.

Cruise lines have dress codes. These dress codes (and their interpretations) vary widely and are largely, but not entirely, dependent upon the “category” of the cruise line you choose – and how cruise lines are categorized varies as well. For example, the cruise blog “All Things Cruise” classifies them into the following categories: contemporary (others call this group “mainstream”, upscale contemporary, premium, ultra-premium and ultra-luxury. [See their complete listing HERE.]. If we were to use their approach to categorization, we travel exclusively on ultra- premium and ultra-luxury cruise lines (Silversea, Regent and Seabourn fall into the ultra-luxury category, Oceania into ultra-premium for example) – but of course there’s also Cunard which transcends the norms because it has the usual dress codes in addition to three classes of service.

There are also those confusing dress code labels: formal, informal, casual, smart casual, country club casual and the list goes on. The cruise lines do provide descriptions even if they are occasionally a bit opaque. And don’t get us started on the extent to which the cruise lines fail to observe their own rules by not turning away inappropriately dressed cruisers from dining venues (there’s always a place to dine if you insist on wearing your baseball cap to dinner – just not in the dining room).

We have noticed that although over the years dress codes have generally become more informal, on some of the cruise lines you can expect people to dress well all the time. In fact, we recently read of cruisers new to Silversea who felt decidedly out of place in their “casual” wear even on casual evenings. Casual to the average Silversea cruiser is a step or two up from the norm. You won’t find T-shirts or ball caps on Silversea casual nights – although it can happen and these are the guests who tend to feel very out of place (and they do get the stink-eye from many fellow guests!).

Coco Chanel once said that being well-dressed is a “beautiful form of politeness” and that suits our personal approach to life. We have our own interpretation of the dress codes, and it has never made us feel the least bit out of place. Our general mantra is: dress up a bit. On a casual evening, go smart casual. On informal evenings, go cocktail. On formal – well, go all out. So, here’s how we do it and some of the travel-friendly clothing brands we love (strictly our own unbiased opinions – we get no freebies from anyone).

First, let’s consider the difference between what we might wear on a Caribbean cruise where every day is in a casual, tropical port, and a Mediterranean cruise where you might well be in a big city every day. For tropical weather, you need casual tropical clothes: the Caribbean is casual and laid-back, but the evening on your cruise ship might be more dressed up.

In European cities, you need to be mindful of the weather at the time of year you cruise, and be prepared to walk long distances among people who are generally dressed for their usual work day whatever that might entail. In some senses, dressing simply amounts to common sense. Be respectful of your surroundings and the people who live there; be respectful of yourself by dressing in a thoughtful and comfortable way. And no big sneakers and fanny packs! But that’s just us. But then, how do you pack for all of these eventualities. [Art in Sienna, Italy on excursion and Patty on board a Regent ship in Europe a few years back…]

For us, that means selecting types of clothing and brands that travel especially well, and taking pieces that can do double duty. Here are some examples from our recent trip to South America…

Art took three or four Columbia shirts with him and an Orvis (below – top right shirt). Believe it or not, each of these shirts is easily hand-washable and over-night dry-able. They look like real clothes rather than “travel wear.” Columbia is well-priced and easily packable – and looks good!

But not to be outdone, Columbia makes some terrific choices for women as well…

But those Columbia shirts Art wears aren’t just for day-time touring. The right one with a jacket in the evening takes him to dinner on a casual night (remember, casual on a Silversea ship is this kind of dressing)…

In addition to Columbia, Art likes Tilley shirts. They’re more expensive than Columbia, but they last for years…

…and unless we’re headed to the Caribbean or the South Pacific, we don’t leave home without a packable jacket — Cole Haan is a favourite…

…then there are the evenings. Finding packable evening wear isn’t as challenging as it might appear. There are several approaches. First, Art has a wonderful new tuxedo which, since it’s Italian wool, actually packs well. But how can he make a tux do double duty? The wonderful sales associate at “Tom’s Place” in Toronto where he bought the new tux last fall, suggested that this shawl-collared jacket would be terrific as a dinner jacket on a more informal night. So, that’s what it became…

 

formaltux

dinner jacket

But what about cocktail dresses and formal gowns? Patty has found that Joseph Ribkoff and Frank Lyman are probably the best for “packability.” And now she has added a Lisa Drader-Murphy (all Canadian designers) to her list.

…and a Lauren Ralph Lauren jersey gown never goes astray…

formal lauren gown

…with the SJP (Sara Jessica Parker) sparkly shoes, anything can look dressed up! Patty has owned a strapless Joseph Ribkoff gown for about ten years. Paired with a variety of little jackets, it looks like a completely different dress each time she wears it on a cruise.

formal ribkoff gown

Let’s finish off with a family portrait from the Queen Mary a few years back when our son joined us. Formal nights on Cunard are true formal nights. Love it!

DSC05092

Now it’s time to decide what to pack for the upcoming Asian cruise!

Return to San Juan: Vintage jewelry shopping

The view from our room at the La Concha Renaissance in San Juan, Puerto Rico

It’s been a very long time since we bought anything that could be remotely associated with the term  “souvenir” when we’re traveling.  In the early years we’d bring home the odd T-shirt, or even a mug.  We usually eschewed all those bits of knick-knacks that are always on offer no matter where you’re traveling.  Even in cities like New York, look hard enough and you’ll find city memorabilia.  Just take a walk down Yonge Street in Toronto and you’ll be assailed with all manner of flags, sweatshirts and crystal reproductions of the CN Tower.

But not for us.  Travel shopping has taken on a whole new meaning.

The pleasures of consignment shopping on vacation are legion.  And although we’re not vintage people (the only antiques you’ll find in our home are a gramophone Art inherited from his parents and an antique organ left to our son Ian by his grand-father that we’re housing until he puts down permanent roots or we sell it: whichever comes first).  We like to be surrounded by new.  But that doesn’t necessarily extend to everything in our lives.  Case in point: our recent trip to Puerto Rico.

Ramón López – the unassuming store front

It all started two years ago when we spent a few days in San Juan en route to a southern Caribbean cruise.  We had been in San Juan only once before – and only for one day.  We had not been impressed.  This time, however, we decided to give it a try.  We discovered a city and an island that has the best of the old and the new.  With miles of pristine beaches to walk, rain forests to explore and shops to discover, we were in heaven.  On our last day in old San Juan as we wandered among the cobble-stoned streets lined with restored 400-year-old Spanish style buildings, we stumbled upon a small shop whose windows were filled with the most extraordinary jewelry we’d ever seen.  Although we had already done our requisite vacation shopping (and had reached our customs limit which we will never exceed since we value our Nexus cards), we knew that we were window shopping only.  We entered.

We chatted with the proprietor who knew that we were not buying, but that didn’t matter to him.  He was delighted to show us anything and everything.  Every necklace he put around Patty’s neck, every pair of shirt studs he showed Art all had a story.  And these were stories we vowed we would return to hear more about.  So, last month we were true to our word, and the shop was our first stop in old San Juan.

Patty examines the pieces with proprietor, Ramón López

With an unassuming exterior, Ramón López’s shop on calle Fortaleza is a treasure trove of history and beauty.  And the proprietor himself, who next year will celebrate 50 years in business in this exact location, is a true gentleman, proud of his work and clearly possessed of an extraordinary eye for quality pieces.

Sr. López is a well-known figure in the vintage jewelry business, having been featured in magazine articles over the course of his storied career.  His pieces are acquired mostly from direct purchases from Puerto Rican estates.  As we tried on piece after piece, we were swept back to a time in San Juan’s history when the grand ladies would alight from carriages and make their way to the Teatro Tapia, built in 1832, now one of the oldest theaters in the western hemisphere.  Their ball gowns would be exquisitely complemented by the necklaces adorning their throats and the bracelets dripping from their wrists.  And now those pieces are in the cases at Ramón López Vintage and Estate Jeweler.

As Sr. López offered piece after piece of jewelry for us to try, Art commented that he had remarkable sales skills.

The display cases were filled with thousands of pieces of jewelry from Puerto Rican estates.

“No,” he said shaking his head, “There is no need when you have the merchandise.”  With that he clasped another bracelet onto Patty’s wrist.  So right he is!

Before we left, he shared with us several photos of his children – one a lawyer, the other a medical student – and introduced us to his wife, a lawyer, who looks after the business end of things now.  We waved good-bye as we assured him we’d be back – then we emerged back into the brilliant sunshine of old San Juan.

Oh, did we buy anything?  But of course!

Ramón López featured several years ago in a magazine spread

Ramón López is located in old San Juan at 256 Fortaleza.