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The Captain’s Table

One of the things that makes cruising a unique vacation experience is the enclosed nature of shipboard society. During your time at sea you will probably get to know several of your fellow cruisers quite well, and you will certainly have very many opportunities to get to know a few of them better.

One of the most common features of modern cruises is the formal ball or dinner. These special events, open to all passengers on the cruise ship, have their origins back in the days when sea travel was divided into classes. While the poor third class passengers sweated in the steerage compartment, the rich men and women in first class would often be invited to dine at the Captain’s table – this involved a high degree of formality.

Modern formal events on board cruise ships take many of the ‘Captain’s table’ traditions and update them for a more modern clientele. But a problem remains: in our increasingly informal world, very few of us ever ‘dress for dinner’ or attend a formal ball. What are the dos and don’ts of such occasions? How do you carry yourself off with calm and savoir faire?

Well, the first piece of advice is this: don’t panic. Nearly everyone attending will be in the same situation as you. Formal events on board ship these days are really just intended as fun – a kind of novelty fancy dress party for adults. Even so, if you’re going to contribute to a great atmosphere, there are a few things you will need to know….

  • Formal dress is a lot easier for men than women. ‘Formal’ for men means one thing: a tux. If you don’t have one – or you can’t be bothered to drag yours along on your cruise – you will find that nearly all cruise lines hire them out once you’re underway. One piece of advice though, gentlemen: don’t ever kid yourself into thinking that a novelty bow tie is either funny or stylish. The only acceptable color for a gentleman’s bow tie is black – and make sure you know how to tie one properly, too. You don’t want to embarrass yourself at the end of the night when everyone is loosening their ties by revealing that yours is held on by elastic. It’s a very simple knot, essentially the same as the one you use to tie your shoelaces. A top tip: it’s much easier to tie a bow tie on someone else than on yourself. So why not rope in a friend to help?
  • Ladies: a formal shipboard dinner usually requires a cocktails dress rather than a ballgown. However, you would be well advised to take advice on this before you depart. It’s more likely that you will bring your own formal clothes. If you don’t want your delicate cocktail dress to get all mussed up in your cabin or stateroom, enquire whether the shipboard laundry facility will look after it for you.
  • It’s a good idea to revise a few central ideas of dining etiquette. If you’re baffled by the huge array of ironmongery laid out in front of you as you sit down, remember the simple rule: start on the outside with the first course and work inwards. The weird thing that looks like a sharpened spoon is a fishknife. Remember that if you have two wine glasses in front of you the larger is probably for the ‘main’ wine and the smaller for a sweet, dessert wine.
  • Formal dinners are great fun, but they can be quite long. If the ship operates a wine waiter system you will probably find your glass getting filled up as soon as it is empty. It’s crucially important, therefore, to drink in small sips rather than quaffing the stuff away in huge mouthfuls. The combination of too much wine (red especially), followed by dessert wine followed by that most fatal of all drinks, port, will leave you with the very worst hangover you’ve ever experienced. Pace yourself.
  • On the subject of port: you pass it to the left. If you really want to impress everyone with your knowledge of dining etiquette, do not fill your own glass. Your fill the glass of the person on your right, and pass the port to the person on your left – who then fills your glass.

The secret of enjoying yourself at an event like this is to be sufficiently ‘into’ the atmosphere to help the occasion go with a swing and sufficiently relaxed that you’re not taking it all too seriously. Remember that the essence of etiquette and good grace is consideration for other. Whatever minor errors of protocol you might make, if you remember this you won’t go far wrong.

Bon Appetit!

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