By Lon Winters
I grew up in Colorado. We’re known for big mountains, great skiing, a certain beverage that comes in a can affectionately dubbed the “Silver Bullet,” and the elevation of our capital city. Festivals, on the other hand, are not our strong suit. Sure, we have a handful, and generally speaking they are a good time, but it’s not like we’re approaching Mardi Gras-levels of revelry or anything like that.
So, as a kid living in a medium-sized town an hour or so north of Denver, when I heard it was carnival time, I knew that a few flatbeds, buses, and 18-wheelers would soon be rolling in, and that the next morning a traveling amusement park would rise like a phoenix from the dirt parking lot at the county fairgrounds.
Unfortunately, the promise was always much better than the payoff, which is why most of my life, whenever the word “carnival” was uttered, the only images I could conjure were those of a few rickety rides, a number of tossa-bean-bag games, and funnel cake (nothing wrong with funnel cake, of course).
That is, until I spent some time in the Caribbean, where places such as Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Aruba, and virtually every other island at some time during the year host an extravagant celebration that has nothing to do with winning stuffed animals or riding a tilt-a-whirl, but everything to do with commemorating the culture, folklore, and traditions of the people who inhabit those particular destinations.
[member]The costumes are colorful, flamboyant, and ornate; the festivities are lively, raucous even, and it’s all known simply as carnival. Yet, it’s not a simplistic affair. In addition to celebrating the people, many of the rituals are meant to appease various spirits and cast a shroud of good fortune over the island for the coming year. Planning and preparation begins months in advance so that when the fête does finally arrive, it not only lives up to the locals’ expectations, but also surpasses the onlookers’ wildest imaginations.
And it does just that, which is why, at least once in your life, you should make a point to travel to the Caribbean for carnival. To stand and watch as a group of women in garments made of seemingly nothing but blue and pink and yellow sequins – with peacockstyle headdresses of feathers in the same exact shades – strut past. To marvel at the men marching through the streets, dressed carefully in their majestic regalia or proudly outfitted in the attire of an ancient warrior. Or to feel the rhythm of the ubiquitous music and to join in on the dancing, to become part of carnival yourself. Because perhaps the most beautiful thing about carnival is that everybody’s welcome. It’s a time when locals and tourists can join together to have a shared experience.
It’s also relatively easy to find a celebration that fits into your travel schedule since so many islands participate and the timing of the festivals is spread throughout the year. Collected here are brief descriptions and details of some of the most popular and unique Caribbean carnivals. The list, however, is certainly not comprehensive. Still, look for your favorite island destination – or choose a new one – and then pack your party clothes (something in sequins if you have it).
April 29 to May 3, 2010
Besides its otherworldly scuba diving, Grand Cayman is known for its extensive banking community. Indeed, it’s one of the more conservative islands in the Caribbean. But at the end of every April, for a few days, spreadsheets are tucked away in the filing cabinets and interest rates are ignored while the residents celebrate Batabano. The festival is a showcase for local bands and drama productions as well as a chance for artisans to showcase their goods. The highlight, however, is the assembly of masquerading bands that often address current events and social issues with both their costumes and music.
February 5 to April 11, 2010
Yep, you read those dates correctly. Unlike Grand Cayman, Jamaica is everything but conservative, and their carnival, fittingly known as Bacchanal, lives up to the island’s reputation by carrying on for more than two months. In total, it’s a continuous party with some 28 riotous events stretched out over about 10 weeks. There’s a soca’cise jamboree every Monday and Wednesday night, Bacchanal Fridays each week, a mammoth block party, various beach bashes, and more all culminating with an impressive road march.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
April 15 to May 3, 2010
Even though St. Maarten/St. Martin is rather small when it comes to landmass – it’s only about 37 square miles, in fact – it boasts a multicultural spirit that’s almost beyond compare. The island is home to both the Netherlands Antilles (St. Maarten) and France (St. Martin), and it’s estimated that some 70 nationalities make up the local population, which means that carnival here is about as diverse as it gets. Obviously, there is plenty of music and dancing, but the food might be the true standout. Countless booths serve everything from Johnnycakes to seafood dishes to spicy curry plates.
January 9 to February 14, 2010
By the time you’re reading this, the celebration in Aruba most likely will be winding down. Which only means that you should probably start making plans for 2011. Simply put, Aruba’s carnival is arguably the biggest affair in all the Caribbean. Queens are elected to reign over the festivities, original calypso music is written to challenge the establishment, choreographed road marches mesmerize spectators, and specially designed costumes with integrated miniature lights twinkle during a nighttime parade. Speaking of which, the celebrations are so immense that two Grand Parades are required, one in Oranjestad and one in San Nicolas.
May 30 to July 20, 2010
Don’t be fooled by the event dates. If you want to visit St. Lucia during carnival time, you want to be there for the final five days: Friday through Tuesday. Everything else is just the build up, a time during which costumes are constructed and bands perfect their rhythms. The St. Lucia carnival is all about the music, and those last five days are when local participants vie for the title of King and Queen of the Band, and actual musical groups parade tirelessly in front of the judges while playing their distinct brand of soca and calypso melodies in the hopes of being awarded the coveted title of Band of the Year.
Further Fun Facts About These Already Awfully Fun Festivals
By definition, “carnival” is fun. Add to the mix that these celebrations are taking place in the Caribbean and you’ve got a can’t-miss recipe for a good time. Here are a fewtidbits that add just a little extra spice to these exuberant events.
1. The weekend before the adult festivities of Batabano commence in Grand Cayaman, the Junior Carnival Batabano takes place. It’s an occasion specifically for the kids, during which they can take part in a song competition, march in their own parade, and more. Besides the family-oriented fun, it serves to promote cultural education and ensures that the spirit of carnival will live on for generations to come.
2. Toward the end of Jamaica’s carnival, local merchants begin to discount their various spa treatments and health and beauty services. Everything from deep tissue massages and mud wraps to allover waxes and manicures and pedicures may be offered. It’s known as “Bacchanal Beauty Week” and is presumably the perfect way to look and feel your best as the festivities reach their climax. The best part, however, may be that Beauty Week actually extends beyond the close of carnival so you can take advantage of those massages as a way to recover from all the carousing.
3. While partygoers are sure to have a good time during St. Maarten’s carnival, King Momo does not fare so well. Each year a straw figure of Momo, who is believed to be the embodiment of carnival itself, is burned at the climax of the final night of celebrations. According to legend, as the smoke fades away into the night air, so to do the sins of the villages, making way for good fortune to follow.
4. The Grand Parades in Aruba are so popular that spectators park trailers along the routes so that they are assured optimal viewing opportunities. How do you get the best parking space? Over the years, officials have had to invoke a lottery system to be sure everybody has a fair chance at the most prized spots.
5. If rest and relaxation are what you’re after, skip the Caribbean carnivals. There just isn’t any time for catching extra z’s. For example, the biggest party of the St. Lucian carnival kicks off at approximately 4:00 a.m. on the final Monday of the event. Don’t worry about locals missing work, though. Both Monday and Tuesday are official holidays.[/member]