So you’ve traveled the world. Taken in some Marrakesh souks, planked on the beaches of Thailand, climbed Machu Pichu, and let’s not forget that epic leap in the air in the deserts of Dubai. But you’ve got an itch. It’s deep. It can’t be scratched by a ski weekend posted on the ‘gram.
What can soothe this itch you’re suffering from? A soulful search of the Himalayas? A journey to the rain forests of Brazil? Or do you want to envelope yourself in the culture without being cognisant of your tourist status? I have your prescription…
Based on the Christian calendar, parties begin in twin nation of Trinidad and Tobago on Boxing Day, or the day after Christmas and culminate in a two day street fete on the Monday and Tuesday in the streets of Port-of-Spain Trinidad. Carnival season is at its shortest 46 days and longest 72 days. This can be overwhelming for those who live in Trini, slang for the lush twin islands as there are guaranteed to be at a minimum of 4 parties per weekend to choose from. These are not your average Thirsty Thursdays or First Fridays, they are feats of coordination that often times include all you can eat and drink, live entertainment and decorative venues you expect on New Year’s Eve. As the calendar draws closer to Ash Wednesday, there can be as many as ten events in one weekend leaving visitors spoiled for choice and all lack sleep.
Carnival is a global traditional practiced in New Orleans and Brazil, brought to the new world by the Europeans. Some historians believe the word means farewell to meat hinting as Carnival parades are elaborate street parties held on the Monday and Tuesday before the forty days of Lent before Catholics and other Christians abstain from meat and other excesses life. The key element of Carnival is to masquerade, Europeans in Victorian times did so in elaborate costumes and masks to mock the ruling class. When they took these traditions to the Americas and West Indies, these practices were evolved to include the traditions of the countries’ inhabitants as well as the local climate. In Trinidad, the Carnival was influenced heavily by Africans, Indians, Chinese, and the aborigine people of the land. The costumes became smaller and the music of the land was included. The masquerade became mas, the parades became inclusive, and Carnival was pulse of the nation. Unlike carnivals around the world, Trinidad distinguishes itself by making Carnival it’s economic engine – centering a great deal of hospitality and industry around this festival, Carnival attracts lifetime friends – I have met 40% of my closest friends in Trinidad, this is not a spectator sport- unlike Brazil, this is a participatory event.
Carnival virgins (common term that is used) are encouraged to plan well ahead! This isn’t a trip for you Last Minute Larrys. Many people who go to Trinidad book travel a month after returning from Carnival. The arrival airport is Piarco Airport, airport code is POS. Those of you who live in the US, can find flights on American Airlines (AA) with layovers via Miami and Puerto Rico; Caribbean Airlines (CA) which is Trinidad’s national airline with layovers in Miami, NY and Tobago; United Airlines with a layover in Houston. JetBlue with layovers in JFK or Fort Lauderdale. I like to conserve my time so I fly to Trinidad Thursday before Ash Wednesday – Thursday after Ash Wednesday.
Once you are there, there are airport taxis that have regulated fares to hotels.
Note: I have never used one of these taxi services. I would recommend having your hotel/accommodation arrange airport transfer as Carnival time is an opportunity for the less than honest people in the world to take advantage.
Where to Stay
Trinidad is quite large in comparison to other countries in the region. Keep this in mind when visiting especially at Carnival time. I don’t want you staying “behind God’s back” and having to incur great expense to attend parties or to see sights. There are also very few hotels and guest houses to choose from. I prefer hotels and reserve a year, 12 MONTHS IN ADVANCE, of Carnival. My preferred properties are The Hilton, The Carlton Savannah and The Kapok. These hotels are within walking distance of the Queen’s Park Savannah – the main stage where costumed revelers parade their ‘mas’. They are also within short taxi rides of fast food restaurants; Maraval area has a grocery store, Movietown has several restaurants, movie theatre as suggested. Each of these hotels also has restaurants and room service which comes in handy when one comes in drained from a party or 15 hours of jumping on the road and need a bite to eat. During the Trinidad Carnival season, The Hilton serves local Trini fare such as bake n’ shark and doubles. They also have a large pool and host a number of great parties which reduces a night of taxi fare. The Kapok has absolutely great food!! And taxis run like water. Other hotels are The Hyatt Regency (great spa), The Ambassador (fairly old but convenient location), The Courtyard Marriott (located at Movie Towne). Guest houses are also another great option, I recommend looking in the Maraval area, Woodbrook (this is Carnival central where costumes are made and often distributed. There are also bars.) and the furthest I would look would be Diamond Vale which is a suburb with regular minibus service.
You’ve found a ticket and place to stay which you think are the hardest part of the journey, right? Not really. You now need to find a band!! This is the most nerve wrecking part for me, a Carnival Veteran but for you, the virgin it might actually be fun. A band is a collective or group of people who design and produce costumes based on a theme. Bands bring out themes annually and compete against other bands for band of the year. Bands vary in size with large bands having an average of 10,000 people or masqueraders. Fellas – the ratio is purported to be 10 to 1 in your favor!! In order to get a costume in a band, you must register with a band after they “launch” which is a fashion show with models displaying the bands’ costumes. Bands display their annual themes and costumes beginning in July for the next year. Here is a list of costume bands. Some bands sell out in one day and operate utilising a system based on nepotism but there are other bands that make registration seamless. If your cousin’s friend’s calls you up with a ticket and a spare bed the week before Ash Wednesday and you don’t have a costume, well here’s a link for you – a costume eBay site of sorts.
Don’t miss J’ouvert.
Early Monday morning before you wear your colorful costume many hours before the sun rises, you hear the pounding of music trucks. You go outside see blue devils, muddy people, painted head to toe jamming and almost in a trance. You’re wondering what they are doing. You didn’t see this in your research. You ask the staff in the hotel lobby what is going on. It’s J’ouvert. This is the penultimate celebration that you must throw yourself into. Also a colonial gift, but this time from the slaves. Unable to take part in the Carnival, they staged their own celebration before dawn and has it’s own set of magical characters. Many find this experience more liberating as you are dirty and free from the pretense of the pretty mas later on that Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Registration in a J’ouvert band does not require the pre-planning that Carnival bands do.
The last thing to do is find yourself inside somebody’s fete. As mentioned previously, parties are in abundance. In the West Indies, Trinis are know for feting. Many years ago during a government imposed curfew, this country had curfew parties. If Trinidad was a high school graduate, they would be voted “Most Likely to Throw a Party Even if Failed All Subjects”. No reason is too small to fete. Party prices can range from $40USD to $150USD and advanced purchases are required. There are many concierge services available to make purchases for virgins and busy professionals seamless. Before embarking on this pilgrimage, please ensure you are training to increase your energy and getting your Iron, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin D stores in optimal peaks because you will not be sleeping until you are on the plane journey home. A favourite party model is the breakfast fete, starting at about 2:00 AM and ending at 11:00 AM. Your fete-genda (more Carnivalisms) will look something like this (based on my trips)|:
- Arrive in Piarco airport, be greeted to the sound of steel drums and probably a Stag beer at the airport
- Get to hotel, bathe, change and go to Beach House All Inclusive day party
- Go back to the hotel tipsy, bathe change, go to drinks inclusive TRIBE party
- Sleep 4 hours
- Go to Soca Brunch drinks inclusive
- Go back to hotel, bathe change and go to Scorch Duck Work
- Sleep 3 hours, go to see Soca Monarch
- Go back to hotel change, go to secret party location in the bush – A.M.Bush by Caesar’s Army
- Go to hotel and sleep for 4 hours
- Go to Saturday Night Fever drinks inclusive
- On Sunday go to the beach at Maracas Bay and eat bake n shark to recover
- Get on the road at 10:00 AM in my Monday costume on Carnival Monday
- Don my Tuesday costume from 7:30 AM on Carnival Tuesday until 10:00 PM that night
- Wake up wanting to re-live the entire experience but fly to Tobago and go to Candy Coated Wine Down in the crystal clear waters of the beach
- The only musical instrument invented in the last 115 years is the steel pan and was invented in Trinidad
- The national music of Trinidad is Soca and you will LOVE it before you leave
- Machel Montano is the Michael Jackson of Trinidad and the West Indies. He is reigning Soca Monarch. He has recorded songs with Pitbull, Angela Hunte (She wrote Empire State of Mind), Lady Smith Black Mombazo and Lil’ John
- Carnival is well frequented by stars including Jay Z, Sir Richard Branson, Halle Berry, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy and others
- Dates for the next two years of Trinidad Carnival:
- Feb 27 – Feb 28 2017
- Mar 12 – Mar 13 2018
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