Bright, colourful, and full of energy, Caribbean festivals have to be on everyone’s list when they’re holidaying in this gloriously sunny and vibrant part of the world. Diverse, dynamic and seeming to operate in a time-zone that has little to do with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the Caribbean is a stunning holiday destination. There are over 50 islands to choose from, each with their own distinct character, but with the accent on laidback living.
You’ll find some of the world’s most beautiful beaches among the islands, fringed by palm trees, dusted with white sands and lapped by azure waters. The wildlife is equally stunning, with turtles and dolphins regular visitors to the shores. However, it’s not all rum punch and hammocks; the locals love nothing better than an excuse for a party and there are some outstanding Caribbean festivals to enjoy. Here’s our pick of some of the best.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Of all the festivals in the Caribbean the biggest, brightest and best is the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the carnival is a chance to let your hair down before the fasting of Lent gets underway. It was founded in the 18th century and continues to be a spectacular event to this day. Expect colourful costumes, Soca and Calypso music, delicious street food and more rum than you might find in a pirate galleon. Hailed as ‘the biggest street party in the world’ it attracts thousands of people, wearing masks and disguises and multi-coloured outfits. It’s led by the carnival King and Queen and features a roster of regular characters such as the Dragon, the Moko Jumbies and the Jab Molassie. Stay up for the fireworks!
Head to the island of St Vincent and the surrounding Grenadines during early summer and you could find yourself caught up in the heady whirl of the second largest of the Caribbean festivals. Rather than a single parade, Vincy Mas is more like a collection of celebrations that seem to intermingle and overlap. While many of the locals like to dress up in bright costumes you’ll find equal numbers who prefer to use their bodies as canvases, painting themselves with gaudily-coloured paints and oils to create incredible and eye-catching designs.
Beauty pageants are a regular feature and the streets are alive with the sound of steel bands and traditional dancing. As with most of the festivals in the Caribbean you can expect to sample delicious dishes al fresco, such as jerk chicken, roti and traditional patties. Vincy Mas takes place between May and July, giving you plenty of opportunity to join in the fun. For those travelling with youngsters there are lots of events aimed solely at children.
St Kitts Music Festival
Not all the festivals in the Caribbean have their roots in the 18th century; some are much younger. The St Kitts Music Festival is barely 20 years old but has become a firm favourite with locals and tourists alike. Founded in 1996, to give local musicians and artists a platform from which to share their work, it has grown to become an international event, attracting big names from across the globe.
Over four nights you can expect to see international acts rubbing shoulders with home-grown performers, showing off the best of Soca, Calypso, Jazz, R&B, Reggae and Gospel music. With an electric atmosphere, this is a Caribbean festival for true music-lovers!
Calabash Literary Festival
While most of the Caribbean festivals tend to be explosive celebrations of music, food and drink, there are some that will appeal to the quieter crowd. Held on Treasure Beach in sun-splashed Jamaica, the Calabash Literary Festival is the ideal word-fest for book lovers of every sort. Founded in 2001 it takes place over three days in June and attracts almost 4,000 fans of the written word.
Jamaica’s answer to the Hay Book Festival, it’s less about marquees and church halls and more about sitting on the sand and listening to world-famous authors and up-and-coming scribes discussing all things literary. Previous speakers have included the likes of Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Michael Ondaatje. Entry is free and each evening closes with a spectacular musical event. One not to miss.
Crop Over is one of the oldest festivals in the Caribbean and has been held annually for over 200 years to mark the end of the sugar cane season. It’s held over six weeks between July and August, with parties that start as the sun comes up and don’t finish until it starts to slip over the horizon. By day you’ll find arts and crafts markets selling local handmade goods, and food fairs, where you can sample everything from simple yet delicious street-food to upmarket dishes cooked by celebrated chefs.
The sizzle of meat and fish on the grill is complemented by live music which makes each day feel like a party. The end of the festival is marked with an outstanding parade accompanied by the famous Masquerade Bands. Expect more sequins than you’d see in a whole series of Strictly, and colourful floats, featuring feather-clad dancers. Because Crop Over takes place over an extended period of time it’s one of the best Caribbean festivals for dipping in and out of.
Cayman Food and Wine Festival
Food is an essential accompaniment to all the Caribbean festivals but at the Cayman Food and Wine Festival it takes the spotlight. Head to Camana Bay in the Grand Caymans in January and you’ll be presented with a tastebud-tingling array of dishes to sample. Over 45 restaurants set up their stalls along the bay, each hoping to walk home as the winner of the festival. Sample the food on offer and vote for your favourites with wooden tokens. You’ll find everything from luxury ice-creams and expertly-mixed cocktails, to traditional rustic dishes and upmarket, gourmet meals.
As with most of the festivals in the Caribbean the proceedings are elevated with live music. However, the Cayman Food and Wine Festival tends to lean towards jazz and blues rather than traditional island music. With more than 5,000 locals and visitors coming to see what’s cooking it can be a busy festival, but one that foodies will enjoy from start to finish.