It’s Carnival, baby! That’s the cheerful cry you’ll hear and the festive vibe you’ll feel at Carnival fetes in the U.S. Virgin Islands Carnival. These multi-day merriments, first held in the territory in 1912, feature a great melting pot of revelry. European celebrations akin to Mardi Gras with parades, costumes, and cakes combine with African ceremonial traditions such as mask-wearing, drums-beating, and stilt walkers.
These performances are no song, and dance acts staged just for visitors. Instead, Carnival is a real-time and authentic cultural experience. Best of all, the musical events, food fairs, and parades are all open to the public. As such, visitors and residents can immerse themselves in some of the strongest heartbeats in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ annual calendar of events.
St. Thomas hosts its Carnival in the spring, from mid-April to early May. All events happen in Charlotte Amalie, and the Fort Christian parking lot, walking distance from IGY’s Yacht Haven Grande St Thomas marina, transforms into a Carnival Village.
There are the bright lights of a stage at one end for nightly live music. A bevy of small booths outlines the village’s perimeter with food and drink for sale. Nearest the fort rides like a merry-go-round, spinning teacups, and a Ferris wheel keep kids and families amused. Steps away, Emancipation Garden is the venue for the one-day Food Fair. A pre-dawn jump-up called J’ouvert sees crowds tramp down Waterfront Drive while Main Street is the route for two days of parades.
The St. John Carnival, also called St. John Festival, is a smaller, more intimate affair staged in Cruz Bay. Its dates include Emancipation Day, July 3, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Food Fair kicks off on the last Sunday in June. The village, with food booths, a stage, and pageantry, transforms the parking lot near the customs office. On July 4, the finale parade starts at Mongoose Junction en route to the ferry dock area.
St. Croix’s Carnival, known as the Crucian Christmas Festival, takes place from mid-December through the Saturday nearest Three Kings Holiday on January 6.
There’s double the fun because of the added festivities of Christmas and New Year’s. Plus, akin to the island’s Twin City nickname, there are events in both Christiansted and Frederiksted.
Music, food, and parades are the three big happenings common to each U.S. Virgin Island Carnival celebration.
Calypso competitions, think ‘The Voice’ meets witty social commentary, draw big crowds. Audience members toe-tap and head bob to the sing-song rhythms. Enthusiastic clapping signals the best entertainers destinated to reign as that year’s Calypso Monarch.
Junior Calypsonians, both boys and girls, compete too. The changing cultural makeup of the Virgin Islands means Latin music nights are a staple. The sounds of the Caribbean’s music also echo throughout the pomp of Carnival Queen and Prince and Princess contests.
Local bands tricked out with massive sound systems on truck-backs set the tone for J’ouvert. Throngs of revelers dance along behind. The favorite tune is dubbed the year’s winning ‘road march.’
Spicy baked chicken legs. Palm-sized rounds of fried johnny cakes. A thick spinach-and-seafood stew called kallaloo. Bullfoot soup. Stewed conch in butter sauce. Red peas soup with dumplings. Curried chicken-filled roti bread. Ground beef, conch, and even tofu stuffed filled fried triangles of dough called pates.
Mauby drink. Sea moss drink. Hibiscus Ade. These are a few West Indian cuisine delicacies sold in Carnival Village food booths, by Food Fair vendors, and along the parade routes.
St. Thomas and St. Croix host two parades: one for children and the other for adults. All ages strut their stuff in St. John’s parade. In common to all are steel-pan bands, floats, and troupes. Steel-pan bands, set up on double-decker open-air trailers pulled by trucks, are the pulse of the parades.
Elaborate floats, decorated to reflect the year’s Carnival theme, are eye candy for spectators. Troupes of friends in costume, some exquisite hand sewn from fabrics bought as far away as New York, and stilt-walking Mocko Jumbies, create a non-stop stream of entertainment.
Since the US Virgin Islands Carnival events span a week or longer, it’s possible to participate before, during, or after a U.S. Virgin Islands charter. For example, fly into the territory on a Thursday and fete on Friday and Saturday before casting off on a Sunday.
Or, talk with your crew in advance about making a stop mid-week to enjoy a night’s music performance and graze the village booths for dinner. Or, plan to stay a few days after a charter to soak up Carnival fun. Either way, it’s a great way to make even more vacation memories.
Most of the Caribbean countries celebrate Carnival. Each celebration is unique, and all have music, parades, great food, parties, and drinks.
The British Virgin Islands celebrates the last week of July and the first week of August.