From steel pan and jump-ups to pageants and parades, carnivals in the Caribbean are the greatest parties under the tropical sun. With a storied past, the tradition started centuries ago when Italian Catholics hosted costumed balls before the first day of Lent. As meat eating was not allowed during the holiday, they called the festival ‘carnevale’, which translates to ‘put away the meat’.
Catching on with parishioners across Europe, the tradition made its way to the Americas where wealthy plantation owners hosted grand carnivals in their homes while their slaves held smaller ones in the backyard. After slavery was abolished, carnival took to the streets to honour the African tradition of parading through villages sporting bone, bead and shell decorated costumes and masks fashioned from feathers and fabric. Aimed not only at bringing good fortune to the revelers, these flashy fetes also appeased angry relatives who had passed into the next world. The rest is carnival history and today, virtually every country in the Caribbean hosts a cultural kaleidoscope of high-octane dance, raucous street jams and fantastical pageantry.
“Whether they have a religious or historical significance, whether they end at the onset of Lent or the middle of summer, whether they are called Junkanoo or Crop Over, carnivals have one thing in common; they’re fun,” says Hugh Riley, secretary-general, Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). “Be warned that Caribbean music is highly infectious and can lead your body, and other people’s, to move muscles one wouldn’t normally use in daily life. Expect to be lured into a music-infused costumed-covered trance that is addictive and hard to resist.”
Kicking off on New Years Day and continuing through March 8, Carnival is the biggest blow-out of the year in Aruba. Homes are transformed into elaborate sewing factories as lovelies of all ages primp for Carnival Queen Competitions. “Jump-ups” keep the mojo in high gear, road marchers shout out catchy melodies and the Lighting Parade on February 26 is carnival magic as the tiny lights that are sewn into costumes illuminate the night time sky.
March 1 is Tourist Night at Paseo Herencia with a roster of steel bands; Grand Parade in Oranjestad on March 6 is the longest and the largest with enthusiastic islanders in sequined regalia following mega-decibel music machines on wheels. The Old Mask Parade on March 8 celebrates the Dutch Caribbean tradition of burning the effigy of King Momo to signal the start of a new year. Visit www.carnavalaruba.net
St Maarten Tourist BureauCuracao Celebrates
Carnival are the liveliest two months of the year in Curacao with the African-Caribbean musical mélange called Tumba showcased from January 31 to February 4, Horse Parade on February 20, Children’s Parade on February 27 and Teen Parade on March 4. On March 6, non-stop shimmying is the signature of the Grand Carnival or “Gran Marcha” and on March 8, the Farewell Parade delights with a fireworks-stuffed King Momo that ignites after dark.
“Carnival is about the whole island coming together to celebrate the year with lots of jumping, dancing and singing,” smiles Andre Rojer, North American marketing manager, Curaçao Tourist Board. “Since Carnival is such a celebratory time in Curaçao, we like to say that babies born in November are Carnival babies.” Visit www.Curacaocarnival.info
Jammin’ In Jamaica
Starting on February 18 and continuing through May 1, Bacchanal heats up Jamaica with road marches through the streets of Kingston and on the Hip Strip in Montego Bay. Mostly a local affair, tourists are welcome for all events like Bacchanal Fridays, Beach J’ouvert on April 23, Soca at De Sandbar on April 27 and Bacchanal J’ouvert on April 29. Visit www.bacchanaljamaica.com
M ReffesParty Hearty In Trinidad
Heralded as the best party on earth, Trinidad Carnival is the granddaddy of them all attracting hard core fans from across the globe who book air tickets and hotel rooms six months in advance. Mas, or masquerade steel pan concerts, flamboyantly risqué costumes that can reach nine metres high and take months to create and revelers slathered in everything from oil and grease to chocolate and mud are the sacred hallmarks of Carnival Monday and Tuesday (March 7 and 8).
For diehard carnival-philes, joining a band for the annual eruption of sun and rum is more fun than hanging on the sidelines. A fee – lowest is $500 – buys a costume, food and libations for two full days of reckless abandon. Selecting a band with a theme that suits your style is paramount with options that include ‘Way of the Warrior’ for the Tribe band, which is the largest with more than 4,000 people signing up each year (www.carnivaltribe.com) and the ‘Planet Rock’ theme for the Harts band (www.hartscarnival.com). Visit www.goTrinidadandTobago.com
M ReffesPlan Ahead
• April 25 to May 2: St. Maarten. Grand Parade and Festival Village are the big draws. Visit www.VacationStMaarten.com
• April 29 to 30: St. Thomas, USVI. The largest of the USVI carnivals heat up Charlotte Amalie and the Lionel Roberts Stadium. Visit www.usvitourism.vi
• End of April to early May: Cayman Islands. Inspired by the sea, Batabano Carnival refers to the tracks left in the sand by the turtles as they drag themselves onto the beach to nest. Visit www.caymanislands.ky
• May 24: Bermuda. A Heritage Day Parade celebrates the birthday of Queen Victoria with cycle races, traditional pipe and drum bands and plenty of island food and cold beer. Visit www.bermudatourism.com
• May 30 to July 30: St. Lucia. Carnival season is a month-long affair. Visit http://luciancarnival.com
• Early June to July 4: St. John, USVI. This month-long celebration called the St. John Festival comes to life at Cruz Bay where most of the events take place from boat and bike races to pageants and variety shows. The party jumps into high gear with beach parties, food fairs and fireworks two weeks before the parade held on July 4 in the National Park where glittery costumes and pulsating music reign supreme. Visit www.vicarnival.com
• Antigua: July 24 to August 3 This summer marks the 53rd anniversary of Carnival. Visit www.antiguacarnival.com
• Nevis: Culturama delights with parades and roadside barbecues. Visit www.nevisculturama.net
• St. Vincent & the Grenadines: Vincy Mas is celebrated throughout the island chain. Visit http://discoversvg.com
• Grenada: Spice Mas is the Spice Island’s version of Carnival. Visit www.grenadagrenadines.com
• Barbados: CropOver is the harvest festival in August. Visit www.grenadagrenadines.com
• Anguilla: The Summer Festival is chockablock with fireworks, boat races and calypso concerts. Visit www.axasummerfestival.com
Carnival Survival Kit
- sneakers or comfortable walking shoes
- ear plugs
- tickets for popular events
- water bottles
- small amount of cash ( keep valuables in the hotel safe)
- camera and batteries ( many stores close during carnival)
- backpack to carry the above
- unlimited stamina and staying power