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The joyous spirit of the Caribbean is in full bloom when the islands celebrates Carnival. The festive holiday’s events usually include colorful costumes, celebrants dancing in the streets, rhythmic music and lots of food and drink.
Historically, Carnival takes place just prior to the Lenten season, on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. While many Carnival celebrations still follow the Lenten Calendar, some islands have chosen to schedule Carnival-type celebrations in different seasons in order to decrease competition.
Additionally, Carnival — which is similar to the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro as well as to Mardi Gras in New Orleans — can be bawdy. In response to this, some destinations have fashioned more family-friendly Carnival celebrations.
Cayman IslandsBatabano, which is held on the Cayman Islands’ Grand Cayman island, is a good example of a family-friendly carnival. The event is usually scheduled in early May, after Ash Wednesday has long come and gone.
The word batabano has a colorful origin, as it represents the tracks left in the sand made by nesting sea turtles and refers to the “tracks” made by costumed dancers as they wend their way down the island’s streets.
Batabano includes a float parade as well as soca and calypso music, and it culminates in a street party and food festival on Harbour Drive. A Junior Batabano is held during the week leading up to the main event; here, kids get a chance to don costumes and parade on their own.
St. LuciaSt. Lucia is one of the islands that has shifted its Carnival dates in order to maximize attendance: The destination’s festival is held in July. The island has also broadened the length of its Carnival, which spans three weeks. There are plenty of festivities leading up to a two-day parade in Castries, the island’s capital.
St. KittsSt. Kitts’ Sugar Mas kicks off during the Christmas season and continues until Jan. 2. The Afro-Caribbean-influenced Sugar Mas is similar to Trinidad’s Carnival celebration; it encourages tourists to join one of the costumed groups and dance and march alongside locals.
The BahamasThe Bahamas is famous for its Junkanoo celebration. While Junkanoo has the trappings of Carnival — costumed marchers and street parades — rather than the religious aspects of Carnival, most attribute the inception of Junkanoo to the days of slavery, when slaves were given three days off during Christmas to celebrate.
Junkanoo is powered by “pile-driving music,” which is supplied by brass horns, drums and cowbells. Junkanoo begins on Dec. 26, and the party doesn’t stop until New Year’s Day.
ArubaAruba is another island with an extensive Carnival season, which begins right after New Year’s and keeps going strong until Ash Wednesday. Aruba’s parties are called “jump ups,” and there are lots of these during the Carnival period. A unique aspect of the family-friendly Aruba Carnival is the Lighting Parade, in which participants don costumes festooned with tiny lights.
JamaicaJamaica celebrates Bacchanal, which is another extensive calendar of parties, from February all the way into May. Bacchanal welcomes tourists, but its main drive comes from local Jamaicans, with lots of the action taking place in Kingston. Montego Bay is also the site of a variety of Bacchanal celebrations, which include concerts and theme parties.
Pre-Lenten Carnival CelebrationsRounding out the Carnival celebrations are more traditionally scheduled Carnivals pegged to the shifting Pre-Lenten season, on the Monday and Tuesday (often called Fat Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday.
Trinidad’s Carnival is truly over the top and is considered the “big daddy” of Caribbean Carnivals. This festival would be a good recommendation for clients who enjoy Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Bonaire’s Carnival is of the family-friendly variety, and a highlight is the children’s parade. One offbeat element is the final phase of the celebration, where the town turns out for the traditional burning in effigy of King Momo, the Carnival King.
Little Dominica celebrates Carnival with calypso contests, street parties and lots of steel band music. The capstone event is the crowning of the Miss Dominica Carnival Queen.
The Dominican Republic (D.R.) has its own slant on Carnival, with demonic-masked dancers called El Diablo Cojuelo. The penultimate event is the Grand National Carnival Parade, which takes place in the D.R.’s capital city of Santo Domingo.
Puerto Rico has its weeklong, family-friendly Carnival party in the historic colonial city of Ponce, on the island’s south coast. The main event is a Grand Parade, and there’s also the Entierro de la Sardina, a mock Burial of the Sardine (a Spanish ceremony that celebrates the end of Carnival). Both events take place on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.