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.
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.
Where to Stay: The 64-room Spice Island Beach Resort has always been my favorite place to call home during Spicemas, particularly for its prime location on Grand Anse Beach, where white sand is skirted by palm trees and lulling turquoise waves call. The hotel’s Creole Caribbean-inspired restaurant, Oliver, also has some of the best food on the island.
While You’re There: Indulge in a chocolate body wrap at Blue Haven Spa or learn about the island’s cocoa bean production at the Museum of Chocolate. For a tour of the island that includes landmarks like Annandale Waterfall and Belmont Estate, I recommend Roger Augustine of Ambassador Tours, whose love of the destination shines through with every stop. Don’t miss the island’s national dish, oil down, a hearty bowl of stewed meats and provisions that can cure any hangover. Or, head to my favorite restaurant on the island, BB’s Crabback, for a taste of crab meat baked in spices and parmesan.
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.
Where to Stay: The recently opened Wyndham Grand Barbados, Sam Lord Castle All-inclusive Resort sits in a prime location in the capital city of Bridgetown. The oceanfront escape houses 422 rooms, lagoon-style swimming pools, and more than 10 restaurants.
While You’re There: Have an alfresco lunch of jerk chicken at the oceanside bistro, La Cabane, a place I often return to for the easygoing vibes. Then, head to Cutters for one of the best rum punches on the island. Speaking of rum — Barbados is considered the birthplace of the spirit, after all — you’ll have ample opportunities to imbibe thanks to the nearly 1,500 watering holes.
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.
Where to Stay: During Carnival, the place to be is the Hyatt Regency in downtown — but you must book early. After a day of partying, there’s nothing like relaxing by the property’s rooftop pool.
While You’re There: Food is an integral part of Carnival in Trinidad, with many dishes having a story of their own. Head to the food stalls on Ariapita Avenue, and don’t miss a chance to try pholourie, a split pea fritter seasoned with Indian spices, or corn soup, filled with split peas and dumplings.
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.
Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas has 180 rooms spread across 30 acres of palm-fringed sand. The contemporary retreat is a nice change of pace from the downtown streets of Charlotte Amalie, particularly during Carnival.
While You’re There: The Skyride aerial tram is a 10-minute trip that leads to panoramic views of the island from Paradise Point. Head to Magens Bay on the north side of the island, and don’t miss a meal at the oceanfront Cutlass & Cane, especially the braised oxtails.
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.
Where to Stay: Located on the island’s famous Seven Mile Beach, the 266-room Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa stands out for its spacious spa and beachside Coccoloba restaurant.
While You’re There: Plan a trip in January or February to attend the Cayman Cookout, a top food festival in the Caribbean. Prime snorkeling spots include Eden Rock and Spotts Beach, where you just might see a few sea turtles.
What to Know
Carnival is a joyous celebration that attracts people from around the world. It’s not only safe, but also one of the most welcoming environments you’ll experience.
Most Carnival costumes sell out quickly, especially for larger celebrations on islands like Trinidad and Barbados. Tip: Follow Instagram accounts of bands to stay up-to-date on announcements. This goes for event tickets as well.
Airfare notoriously skyrockets during any Carnival, so the earlier you buy your plane tickets, the better. Prices can be cheaper if your dates are flexible. I will often fly from Los Angeles to Miami, and spend a night or two at the oceanfront, adults-only National Hotel, before continuing on a better-priced flight.