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My Packing List: Uncommon Caribbean Essentials… For Ladies

Any time I spot a “packing column” in a travel magazine, I’m all over it. Scouring the photographs, sussing out new brands, ideas, packing techniques.

Needless to say, I was very excited to see Patrick’s brilliant packing list for Uncommon Caribbean a few weeks ago. Only one problem: his 10 items would work way better for my husband Zickie than for me!

So, here’s my ladies’ version, or “How to Travel the Tropics Without Your Entire Closet.”

1. Bikinis. Let’s face it, finding a comfortable and flattering bathing suit makes the quest for the Holy Grail look darned easy. My current favorite is a striped, stylish Trina Turk bandeau top and two coordinating Body Glove bottoms. The elastic edges on the bottoms stay put without squeezing your curves in an unflattering vice grip. For longer trips I might also throw in a black one-piece for variety, but on the beach in St. Croix or Martinique, why not show a little skin?

2. A cover up. Showing skin is all well and good on the sand and in the sea, but something effortless, cool, and discrete is essential away from the shore in keeping with local moral standards across the islands. An airy tunic does the job admirably. Mine hails from Calypso St. Barth, known for their island-bohemian vibe. I love how this one doesn’t cling to my skin, no matter how warm or humid it is.

3. Sunscreen. No girl wants to look like a lobster on vacation, not to mention increase her risk for skin cancer. Right now, for face and neck, I’m using paraben-free Elta M.D. UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50, with zinc oxide and water resistance. Even slathered on, it doesn’t cause my skin to break out. For the rest of my body, it’s one of those stick sunscreens, such as Neutrogena Beach Defense with SPF 50. I love how stick sunscreens are so easy to apply, and don’t spill in the suitcase.

4. A trifecta of shoes. For me, flip flops, exercise shoes, and sandals seem to cover all bases. In terms of flip flops, Havaianas remain my go-to brand. Yes, they’re not exactly an original choice, but they nonetheless feel comfortable, weigh almost nothing, and rinse off quickly when covered with sand. What’s more, they’re pretty cute.

While my preferred method of exercising in the Caribbean consists of long walks on the beach, experience has also taught me to bring supportive, sturdy exercise shoes. Sometimes I’ll pack tennis shoes if I know a court’s nearby, but waterproof running kicks will keep you prepared for almost anything, from rainforest hikes to horse back riding in the hills.

Finally, well-made, nice looking sandals can take you from the craft market onto dinner at a tropical-chic restaurant (when you definitely want to ditch the rubber flip flops for something nicer). My leather Donald J. Pliners last for years and add a bit of flare to simple outfits.

5. Small handbag. The last thing you want to be lugging around on a Caribbean getaway is a bulky leather purse. So I’ve discovered these nifty little bags by Dakine, which can be worn cross-body or over one shoulder. It’s also helpful to bring a smaller wallet, so you’re not schlepping around every single piece of plastic you carry back home.

6. Sunglasses. Since the Caribbean sun can be intense, decent shades are a must. You can never go wrong with a big, black Jackie O pair, like the classic Pradas I scored on sale. (A little touch of glamour is always a good thing!) On a more practical note, I also stash inexpensive, polarized sunglasses from a dive shop, with glare-reduction that comes in very handy when boating.

7. Reading material. Sometimes my island destination doesn’t have magazines in English, or if they do, they’re long out of date. (I discovered this after mistakenly buying a two-month old copy of the Economist – for $13. Ouch!) Now I make sure to stock up at my airport before departure. And, since there are times I’d rather not worry about damaging an expensive tablet when I’m dripping with seawater, I bring at least one old school, actual paperback.

8. Shorts and t-shirts. I’ve become a big fan of board shorts for tropical stays, because they wash and dry quickly. You can throw a pair over your bathing suit for a little more coverage at the beach bar. Plus, the best-designed pairs will complement your, ahem, assets. Mine also do double duty as jogging shorts. Personally, Billabong’s cut seems to suit me best. I team these with plain black tanks and t-shirts, like the ones from Gap Body that are light, stretchy, and super soft. Besides, black hides dirt (and a little errant hot sauce).

9. Sundresses. As Patrick noted in his packing post, you will not find most West Indians going out to dinner in shorts and flip flops. That’s generally a no-no! Fortunately, for women, we can solve this dining-out dilemma with one single item: a sundress. Slipping smoothly over your head, cool in the tropical heat, and easily fancied up with jewelry, sundresses are a Godsend. I’m addicted to the wash-and-wear frocks from Shore, a groovy surf shop in Sarasota, Florida, and the chain Anthropologie. Just roll them up like a yoga mat so they don’t wrinkle.

10. Beauty products. The tropics are blissful, except for what the humidity can inflict on your hair. (Insane frizz, anyone?) Come forearmed with some product. To tame my impossible locks, I apply Super Skinny Serum by Paul Mitchell to my hair when wet, slick it back in a ponytail, and let dry. Presto–change-o, no more wrestling with a flat iron.

In terms of make-up, do you usually wear foundation? That may just melt off in the heat. It’s wise to streamline the cosmetics for the trip. I stick to a little lipstick for day, then maybe add concealer, blush, and eyeliner for night. You’ll already be glowing from vacation, so let your natural beauty shine through. Wedge a pink hibiscus behind your ear, then you’re good to go.

There are a few things I’ve omitted from this list (like my toothbrush and a hat), but basically, that covers it. My philosophy: maximize your enjoyment of the Caribbean, minimize the fuss. Keep cool, travel light!

Guidebook author Laura Albritton runs the travel blog Island Runaways with her husband Zickie.

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