Katie McGonagle heads to Trinidad to experience the best carnival in the Caribbean
I’d seen the colourful costumes, heard the calypso beats and was ready to dance ‘til dawn, but nothing could prepare me for the biggest street party on earth, when Trinidad is taken over by carnival fever and you can’t help but get swept along for the ride.
But would you know how to put together a package for a carnival-loving client? We travelled to Trinidad to find out what the festival really involves, how to book it and how your clients can make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
ALL THE FUN OF THE FETE
Make sure your clients fly in early enough to enjoy the build-up, with dozens of pre-carnival parties or ‘fetes’, plus free events in the city centre. We got into the groove straightaway with the Soca Monarch finals, a contest to crown the best singer of soca music.
The calypso-influenced style is designed to get you on your feet, and even though the songs were unfamiliar at first, it wasn’t long before we were dancing along with the crowds.
Saturday morning sees the traditional Kiddies’ Carnival, a mini street parade finishing at a specially-constructed stage in Queen’s Park Savannah, home to many carnival events.
They get into the spirit early here – some were barely three years old – but the costumes are just as elaborate and the music just as loud. It’s a real feast for the eyes yet it’s just a taster of what’s to come.
That evening, we headed back to the Savannah for another highlight – the steel pan competition, Panorama. They’d been having heats for weeks so only the crème de la crème are left by this stage – and it shows.
It’s as much of a treat for the eyes as the ears, watching the steel pan players jump from one drum to the other in unison and throw themselves into the performance body and soul.
The night before carnival is Dimanche Gras, where contestants vie to be crowned king and queen of Carnival in an extravagant visual spectacle.
The elaborately-constructed costumes are more like feats of engineering than outfits – some reach more than 20ft high and weigh up to 14 stone – yet the solo performers wearing them still managed to dance across the stage!
Get out in the capital to sample the party atmosphere as well. The best known fetes include cricketer Brian Lara’s all-inclusive party in his Trinidadian home ($200 this year), the Beach House Carnival and events held by the carnival bands. Dates are published by the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago, ncctt.org.
The main carnival days kick off with J’ouvert early on Monday morning. This ritual dates back to the early days of carnival, when slaves were banned from official masquerade balls so held their own pre-dawn parties.
These days, it’s a massive mud fest, where revellers take to the streets from 3.30am and smear each other with mud, chocolate and paint as they make their way through the city. The sun hadn’t risen yet but the drink was already flowing, and any thoughts of sleep disappeared as we danced to the blaring music – pure fun and frivolity.
Monday afternoon is a relaxed affair with most party-goers wearing only part of their costume, but it’s a great way to get a taste of the fun you can expect the next day. On Tuesday the time came for us to put on the full costume – sequin-studded bikinis and bright pink and white feather headdresses for the girls, and shorts with sparkly belts for the boys.
Any initial feelings of self-consciousness disappeared when we got to the hotel lobby and realised everyone was wearing equally outlandish outfits – and seeing the locals strut their stuff adorned with stick-on jewels and false eyelashes helps you feel part of the fun.
Once we got out on the streets, the explosion of colour was unbelievable, from barely-there bikinis in vibrant jade, gold and orange to the most elaborate headdresses imaginable – the more feathers, the better. It doesn’t stop there – party-goers accessorised with sparkly gold knee-high boots and Nike trainers customised with turquoise sequins.
I could have marvelled all day just at the costumes in our own band, Spice – and there are dozens more taking part – but before I knew it the music started pumping and we were on the move.
Despite first hearing them just days earlier, we recognised all the soca songs as we danced along the streets. The party atmosphere is incredible, as the whole city comes to a standstill and all eyes are on the parade.
We eventually hobbled back to the hotel when our feet couldn’t carry us any further, but the fun doesn’t have to end there – the seriously dedicated can head along to one of many parties celebrating the biggest event of the year.
Once you’ve partied the night away, it’s time to kick back Caribbean-style. Trinidad’s beaches are by no means the best in the Caribbean, but if you just want sunshine overhead and sand between your toes, head to Maracas Beach.
It’s a beautiful drive through lush green hills from the capital, with amazing views from the lookout. Sample the local delicacy bake ‘n shark, bread split open and filled with fried fish then topped with the tastiest of condiments.
Alternatively, many tourists hop over to Tobago for some relaxation; Caribbean Air runs several flights a day or there’s a regular ferry service.
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