1000 Places

#TravelTuesday: Carnival Celebrations


Tuesday 28 January 2017

On This Day

Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Photo © Donald Michael Chambers

You can’t really understand Trinidad unless you come for Carnival, or mas (for masquerade), as it’s locally known. Trinidad is a melting pot of West African, East Indian, Chinese, South American, and European, which has influenced both its music and Carnival itself. The country’s West African roots gave birth to the steel pan (or steel drum, originally made from empty oil barrels), calypso music, and its more recent souped-up version, soca (“soul-calypso”), which makes this Carnival the loudest and wildest in all the Caribbean. It’s the national obsession, with Port of Spain at its heart.

Bands and masqueraders begin their preparations a year in advance. Things start to hum after Christmas, gradually building to a crescendo of rehearsals, concerts, open-air fêtes, and calypso duels. The final 2-day explosion of color, music, and unbridled excess officially kicks off at 4 a.m. on Carnival Monday with the “opening day” parade called J’Ouvert (pronounced joo-VAY). Fueled by copious amounts of beer, revelers covered in mud, grease, body paint, and chocolate form a mass of happy humanity as they follow trucks blasting soca and “chip” (dance) until sunrise.

Monday (“old mas”) continues with bands and dancers along a 6-mile parade route. The glitter and glamorous costumes of “pretty mas” are saved for Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. Tens of thousands take to the streets in costume (often sequined bikinis and feather headdresses), with groups as large as 3,000 in identical costume following flatbed trucks carrying steel bands competing for the title of “Masquerade Band of the Year.” Getups are at their most extravagant for the Kings and Queens Costume Competition—some can weigh up to 200 pounds (and are attached to wheels for mobility) and incorporate fog, fireworks, and other special effects.

“Pan” bands with as many as 100 musicians perform nonstop in a riotous celebration of King Carnival. Each band has a headquarters, or panyard, and rehearsals and preliminary playoffs are worth searching out. The pinnacle of the steel band competition, the Panorama Finals, is staged at Queen’s Park Savannah (ground zero for mas) the Saturday before the parades.

Trinidad’s two dominant cultures—West African and Indian—are evident in the array of street food, from spicy doubles (curried chickpeas and chutney between two fluffy fried flatbreads) and roti (soft flatbreads wrapped around various curries—goat and crab are favorites)—to pelau, a distinctly African dish where meat is fried in oil and sugar, then combined with pigeon peas and rice. For a more elegant dining experience, visit Veni Mange (“come and eat”) for the best lunch on the island, a quintessentially Trinidadian feast that might start with traditional callaloo-pumpkin soup (which, according to legend, when well prepared can make a man propose marriage) and end with homemade soursop ice cream or coconut mousse.

Hotels sell out well in advance for Carnival, but try for Coblentz Inn, which is charming and close to the action—with 16 rooms whimsically decorated along a cultural theme: “the Rum Shop,” “Cocoa House,” “Cricket”—and a popular restaurant whose name, Battimamzelle, means dragonfly.

Though Carnival officially ends Tuesday at midnight, everyone heads to Maracas Beach an hour north of the city for a cool-down party on Wednesday, “limin’” (hanging out) on this long idyllic stretch of sand beneath towering mountains.

Visitor info. National Carnival Commission: Tel 868-627-1357. Cost: grandstand tickets from $20 and way up. Veni Mange: Tel 868-624-4597. Cost: lunch $30. Coblentz Inn: Tel 868-621-0541. Cost: from $145 (off-peak), from $300 during Carnival; dinner $45.

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