In “I’ve Been to Almost Every Caribbean Carnival — Here Are My Favorite Celebrations,” Kristin Braswell (Travel and Leisure) explains how Carnival is celebrated across the Caribbean, from Trinidad to Barbados. Here are excerpts; See additional sections on “Where to Stay,” “While You’re There,” and “What to Know” at Travel and Leisure.
Every year around this time, I get a feeling of slow and steady anticipation — an excitement so tangible, I can close my eyes and instantly be transported to electric moments in Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Anguilla, and all the way over the pond to Notting Hill. Covered in paint, powder, sweat, and splashes of rum, I’ve gotten the closest I’ll ever get to completely letting go (no small feat for an adult) at Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. I’ve looked into crowds in the thousands and seen that I’m not the only one experiencing this infinitude of joy, buoyed by music, dancing, and chants — and I’ve learned this sense of freedom is deliberate, having been passed on and preserved for nearly 200 years.
Carnival in the Caribbean is a longstanding tradition rooted in Black rebellion. In 18th-century Trinidad, enslaved Africans who were not allowed to participate in the pre-Lenten traditions of masquerade balls by European colonizers created their own celebrations of defiance. Centuries later, my hope is that the importance of these traditions is not lost in the rising commercialization of Carnival. Caribbean people have always proudly crafted costumes, attended lively music and color-filled costume competitions, and produced the sounds of soca — the soundtrack of Carnival derived from calypso that combines East Indian and African instrumentation.
I’ve been lucky enough to be immersed in these commanding traditions for more than a decade now. The spellbinding glow of the Jab Jab’s painted Black skin in Grenada; the symphony of feathers crisscrossing down Port of Spain in Trinidad on Carnival Tuesday; the crowning of the Pic-O-De-Crop Monarch in Barbados, a competition showcasing the island’s best calypso musicians. These diasporic connective fibers have brought me back to the Caribbean to “get on bad” (simply be free) and honor the legacy of a people whose ingenuity has sparked Carnival celebrations in countries as far as Japan and Sweden.
This year, I’ll be heading to one of my favorite Caribbean islands, Dominica, to experience Mas Domnik for the first time. One of the great things about Carnival is that you not only get to attend so many events, but you also get to admire the beauty of the location. Weaving through Dominica — aptly called Nature Island thanks to its teeming marine life, cloaked rain forests, bubbling hot springs, and black-sand beaches — will be no exception. I’ll play “mas” (a shortened expression for masquerade groups) with the popular band Amnesia, set my alarm clock early for J’ouvert celebrations with Lumi-Nation and Triple Kay International, a group that brings the sounds of Dominica’s bouyon music to the world. I’ll have dinner in the quaint courtyard of Lacou, where a passion fruit marlin ceviche and rum punch offer the perfect pairing. And I’ll check into the newly renovated Fort Young Hotel and celebrated cliffside retreat, Secret Bay, voted by Travel + Leisure readers as their favorite Caribbean hotel in the 2023 World’s Best Awards.
There are a handful of other Carnivals I still have to experience, like St. Lucia and its up-tempo Dennery segment soca, as well as Martinique’s celebration, which features some of the strongest and longest-standing folklore and costumes in the Caribbean, including a giant puppet called Sa Majesté Vaval (the King of Carnival) that leads revelers down the road. And while I’m always ready to enjoy a new Carnival, here are a few that remain among the best I’ve attended to date.
Grenada: I’ve been to Grenada’s Spicemas Carnival three times, and hope to make it four this year. What draws me back — in addition to those mesmerizing sunsets over St. George’s, the inky sand of Black Bay Beach, and world-class spices and chocolate — is the power of the Jab Jab. Hours before the sun rises, deep in the countryside parishes of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, a sound of a conch shell blares, signaling that it’s time to congregate. Covered in black oil, mud, or grease, revelers reenact a tradition inspired by enslaved Africans who were determined to claim their freedom. The sight of glistening Black bodies, the sound of cow horns, and the chants of rebellion that flood into the streets of St. George’s on J’ouvert morning in Grenada has always left me in awe. To join the crowds and gently spread black oil on a stranger’s cheek — these moments of communion are the ethos of Carnival. Be sure not to miss the power of Jab Jab in Grenada or Soca Monarch, a highly anticipated soca music competition held on Carnival Friday. [. . .]
Barbados: Barbados’ Crop Over will always hold a special place for me as it’s the first Carnival I attended. It’s where I got my first taste of a Caesar’s Army celebration, watching the sunrise in the middle of a wide-open field and seeing people covered in paint and powder chant soca songs from Bajan artist Lil Rick. “Could we always feel this free?” I asked myself as I looked around. Crop Over’s summer fete is tied to when enslaved people celebrated the end of sugarcane season or the crop was over. Soca and calypso competitions, street fairs, and booming fetes on both land and sea culminate at Grand Kadooment Day, where nearly 20,000 revelers take over the streets of St. Michael each year. [. . .]
Trinidad: Considered the birthplace of Carnival, Trinidad draws travelers from around the world to its hillsides, coastlines, and bustling downtown streets to lime (party), wine (dance), and test the limits of endurance. Over the years, I’ve learned to pace myself in Trinidad because there is quite literally a fete every hour. You won’t want to miss anything Caesar’s Army is throwing, but especially not their A.M.Bush party, which features live DJs, food trucks, and even a waterslide. After the explosion of feathers in Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday, there’s nothing I love more than cooling down on Maracas Beach with a sandwich from Richard’s Bake & Shark or some piping hot doubles from any street vendor. The latter — handheld snacks made with curried chickpeas between two fried pieces of flatbread — has been my lifeline between celebrations more times than I can count. [. . .]
U.S. Virgin Islands: Carnival in the U.S. Virgin Islands includes celebrations across St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix — all great primers for newbies seeking comparatively fewer crowds. I attended the festivities on St. Thomas for the first time last year and appreciated not having to navigate overcrowded spaces. Soca concerts were full of eager fans, and hearing soca artist Bunji Garlin perform his hit “Hard Fete” was unforgettable. There’s also a Carnival village, similar to a mini amusement park, with food and games to enjoy into the early hours of the morning. [. . .]
Cayman Islands: Though Carnival in the Cayman Islands first launched in 1983 as a celebration of the destination’s turtling heritage and the tracks left by sea turtles, called Batabano, the events here still reflect the same ancient African traditions — from masking to folklore. Quite an international affair, I’ve partied with people from all over the world who call Cayman home. Last year, designer Marika-Ella Ames partnered with Grand Cayman hotel Palm Heights to design innovative costumes for the road. The neon-colored wigs, foraged palm leaf tops, and ballooned skirts on display symbolized new and refreshing ways to interpret Carnival costumes, and I’m excited to see what’s next. [. . .]
For full article, see https://www.travelandleisure.com/carnival-caribbean-festival-8575334[Photo above by Mario Gilbert.]