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Parties in Paradise: the Caribbean's top 10 festivals

Parties in Paradise: the Caribbean's top 10 festivals

Where better for a party than in the Caribbean? With tropical temperatures, amazing outdoor venues, free-flowing rum and a penchant for carnivals, it's hard to think of a more appealing place for a festival.

A fusion of colourful cultures has sparked creative magic in the region that's found its greatest expression in fiery fiestas and gyrating carnivals, while the Caribbean's reputation as an international jetset destination has given rise to mouth-watering foodie fetes and regal regattas.

In fact, the Caribbean holds countless jamborees all-year round, and timing a trip to coincide with them can turn a battery-recharging beach holiday into a truly invigorating experience. Here's a rundown of the region's most sizzling shindigs and musical celebrations that you won't want to miss.

Top Caribbean Festivals

  1. Bahamas Junkanoo

    Bahamas Junkanoo

    The sleepy streets of the Bahamas' capital Nassau effervesce with dancers dressed in outrageously elaborate costumes and musicians creating a cacophony of island sounds during the traditional Junkanoo celebrations, usually held on Boxing Day and New Years' Day. The start of Junkanoo is heralded before the first cock's crow on Boxing Day morning, as a parade made up of community groups sets out to breathe new life into the city.

    Expect an invigorating mix of parades, elaborate floats and bedazzled dancers moving to local goombay music with a local percussive edge that includes horns, conch shells and cow bells, showcasing island culture at its most colourful and exuberant. With prizes for the best crews, some groups spend months fashioning incredibly detailed costumes. For the first time ever, the islands also held a summer Junkanoo in May this year that's set to become an annual event.

  2. Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica

    Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica

    This major open-air festival has a uniquely Caribbean flavour with Jamaica's home-spun music showcased in the sunshine, by the sea and under the stars over an entire week every July. Sumfest has a proud legacy as the offspring of Reggae Sunsplash– the renowned festival of the 70s and 80s that saw performances from Bob Marley among other music stars and raised reggae's profile worldwide. You can see the cream of the dancehall and reggae scene take to the stage during the festival, along with international talent like US rapper Common, pop songstress Jennifer Hudson and ragga star Beenie Man who all performed in 2015.

    Reggae Sumfest centres on the island's famous Montego Bay, and features major nightly concerts held in Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex, as well as beach party at Aquasol Theme Park on the first Sunday of the festival with live music from the late afternoon into the dark hours.

  3. British Virgin Islands Food Fete

    British Virgin Islands Food Fete

    As a welcome addition to the region's festival calendar, the north-eastern Caribbean's British Virgin Islands (BVI) hosted its first ever annual food extravaganza last November, celebrating island cuisine in all its forms – from gourmet lobster dishes to finger-licking street food. The BVI Food Fete's highlights include the Anegada Lobster Festival, the Barefoot Gourmet Soiree, Restaurant Week and a range of street barbecues and parties showcasing local fare. There are free food tastings, live celebrity chef cook-offs and demonstrations, and discounted menus across the islands' restaurants.

    Visitors can expect to indulge in gastronomic specialities on the archipelago's three largest islands of Tortola, Anegada and Virgin Gorda. Classic BVI fare includes BBQ ribs and chicken, mahi mahi, roti, peas soup and the renowned Anegada lobster, reputed to be the best in the Caribbean. To get everyone in the party spirit, there are also rum tastings, happy hours and bar crawls, while more sophisticated travellers can try wine tastings and culinary classes.

  4. Moonsplash Festival, Anguilla

    Moonsplash Festival, Anguilla

    This little low-key independent music festival held each March on the weekend of the full moon is abit of a hidden gem, with appearances from international stars like John Mayer and a comparatively intimate atmosphere of around 500 revellers. A celebration of live jazz, reggae and world music, it has been steadily growing for more than 25 years, along with its venue – Bankie Banx's Dune Preserve – a bar house made of salvaged boats that has gradually increased its capacity to make room for more festival-goers each year.

    The setting is magnificent, looking out over the palm-tufted dunes of Rendezvous Bay, where two open-air stages – a large main stage behind the bar and a smaller one on the beach – are the focal point for two nights of music under the moon and a Sunday beach party. Though there's always a carefree, cool and friendly vibe, with Bankie Banx treating festivities like a party in his backyard, you can expect to see big Reggae names such as Gregory Isaacs and Inner Circle and perhaps a few surprises – Q-tip and Nas apparently showed up one year.

  5. Antigua and Barbuda Sailing Week

    Antigua and Barbuda Sailing Week

    Dubbed the 'Sailing Capital of the Caribbean', Antigua hosts the region's largest and most prestigious regatta every year between the end of April and the beginning of May. With a reputation as something of a millionaire's playground, the island's sapphire waters are filled with some of the world's finest yachts during Antigua Sailing Week ranging from megayachts to elegant wooden sailboats. The festival includes five days of competitive racing around the rugged south coast, plus an optional day of racing around the whole island.

    Known for its nightly shindigs, thousands of visitors descend on English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour to enjoy the open-air bars, laid-back rum parties and music shows that accompany sailing week. The most fashionable and lively events are held at some of the island's most scenic venues – Antigua Yacht Club, Shirley Heights and Nelson's Dockyard – where the champagne flows into the early hours.

  6. Fiesta del Fuego, Cuba

    Fiesta del Fuego, Cuba

    The birthplace of Afro-Cuban song and dance, the southern city of Santiago de Cuba turns up the heat every July when the Fiesta del Fuego (Festival of Fire) paints the town red. A living, dancing exhibition of the region's colourful culture and traditions, it's a warm and joyous occasion that deserves total immersion. It not only celebrates Afro-Cuban culture, but the diversity of Caribbean culture in general and encompasses unique forms of dance, music, art and religion in an entertainment extravaganza that draws visitors en masse.

    The fiesta has its roots in local theatre and opens with a fiery procession of glowing floats and acrobats twirling torches that snakes through Santiago's sloping colonial streets and squares and is repeated for every night of the carnival. In the city centre several large stages showcase regional music, dance, theatre, storytelling and poetry, with bands playing day and night, and a steady flow of rum from the many bamboo bars that line the streets.

  7. St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival

    St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival

    Jazz fans can swop stuffy clubs and pubs for a Caribbean paradise when the island of St Lucia hosts its internationally acclaimed jazz festival for two weeks every April-May. Celebrating its 25th year in 2016, the St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival is one of the region's premier music events and the next one is likely to be even bigger and better than the last, which saw global pop sensation Robin Thicke, US rapper Flo Rida and Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff diversify the musical offering.

    It would be tough to find a more idyllic venue for a simmering jazz fest than Pigeon Island National Park, which has become the festival's main home – a little hump-backed islet of tropical forests and grasslands indented with sandy beaches. In this sultry setting, some of the world's most accomplished jazz musicians take to the stage, while across St Lucia local venues light up with performances from the region's best talent.

    Trad jazz lovers should head to Gaiety on Rodney Bay, for straight up classics in an intimate indoor/ outdoor venue overlooking the bay, while the Fond D'Or Jazz satellite festival held on a rustic plantation in the east of the island showcases local fusion folk jazz sounds. There's also a wonderful festive atmosphere at the lunchtime jazz concerts held in Derek Walcott Square in the pretty city of Castries. A series of free cultural and artistic events – exhibitions, shows and artisan markets – take place throughout the festival.

  8. Carnival, Trinidad

    Carnival, Trinidad

    The queen of Caribbean carnivals kicks off after Christmas and the celebrations reach their pinnacle just before lent, on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Two heady days of raucous celebrations in the Trinidadian capital of the Port of Spain cap off more than a month of huge outdoor parties and contests that include launch parties where mas bands reveal their group costumes, street fetes overflowing with food and drink, and panyards showcasing the classic Caribbean steel pan bands, which were originally invented in Trinidad.

    Calypso, soca and other infectious regional rhythms are ever-present throughout festivities with live music and dance tents dotted about the city. To really get into the spirit and ‘play mas', you can buy your own costume online to join a mas band. It's a national holiday that the entire island gets behind, and in a nation famed for partying, you can expect a booty-shaking blow-out to rival all others.

  9. Barbados Crop Over

    Barbados Crop Over

    Hot on the heels of Trinidad's exuberant carnival, Barbados' Crop Over festival is rightly considered one of the region's best. Nightlife turns up a notch when festival fever sweeps the island from June until August. Street markets and vibrant parties, live music and dance competitions such as the ‘Pic-O-De Crop' calypso contest gradually build momentum to the main event in August, known as the Grand Kadooment. As well as carnival parades, heritage tours and visual arts exhibitions during the day, by night you'll find lively calypso contests, live soca shows, rum-drinking and street parties across the island accompanied by huge sound systems, steel pan, tasty food and a sea of smiles. On the last weekend of the festival, join in with paint and mud-covered revellers at the night-time Foreday Morning Jam that parades through the streets between Bridgetown and Spring Garden from 1am until sunrise.

    Glamorous bejewelled and feathered carnival girls in tall headdresses and mocko jumbies (costumed men on stilts) keep the ‘crop over' parades and parties swinging – a far cry from the days when the festival signified the end of the sugar cane harvest and a chance for everyone to let their hair down after weeks of hard toil in the fields. But remnants of the original tradition do still remain – the festival kicks off with the last delivery of the sugar harvest and the crowning of the king and queen of crop-over, a ceremony that once honoured the most productive cane-cutters of the season. These days, though, it takes place in the National Stadium at the end of a riotous parade and is followed by a rum-soaked all-nighter.

  10. Jump Up parties

    Informal street parties reawaken the carnival spirit across the Caribbean almost every weekend, so if you don't manage to visit during one of the main events, you can still experience steel pan, sonic sound systems, locals throwing great shapes, sizzling food and drink stalls and a lively friendly atmosphere. The little town of Gros Islet in St Lucia is taken over by an animated Jump Up for locals and tourists every Friday night that's not-to-be-missed if you are visiting the island.

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