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Le Carnaval!


Add extra joie de vivre to your fete this season by playing mas in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Martin. Sarah Wood gives the lowdown on Carnival, French Caribbean style

Nothing can prepare a first-timer for Carnival in the French Caribbean.

After I arrived in Guadeloupe, my taxi driver Laurent urged me to sleep for 72 hours beforehand. François recommended stamina-boosting vitamins as he handed me a crêpe in the L’îlet Douceur café. Further advice was doled out from every quarter: I was offered dancing tips, warned against a raging thirst and other heat-related ailments, told to prepare for melon-sized blisters, scolded for my costume choice (far too modest) and told a zillion times that “at Carnival time, anything goes”. A Carnival veteran friend expressed real concern that I’d not upped my cardio work beforehand: “You’ll be gasping for air, weak legged, fried to a crisp and hallucinating,” she told me. “It is super-intense. Like running a marathon in spike heels in summer, only with neat rum to rehydrate.”

All of these things came to pass. For the entire week I spent in Guadeloupe at Carnival time, I barely slept, instead summoning Herculean levels of energy to dance the streets from morning to night. Back and forth I swayed to the syncopated pounding of snare drums. I was twirled by strangers wearing little more than a feather or two. I was showered in a rainbow of confetti as the music morphed from acoustic to soca. A troupe of oiled-up dudes in lurex span me around in a blur. I got tangled in a near-naked conga and I gasped for breath as the air filled with glitter dust and sparkles. My toes wept, my calf muscles burned, the zillion-watt pulse of a boom-boom-boom bassline supercharged my chest, and my tendons tightened to snapping point in my vertigo-inducing heels. I’d never wiggled or jiggled so much in my life: every inch of my body was in constant movement, from my ankles to the tip of my head. But the undulating bodies all around me showed no sign of flagging.

At one point I stopped to survey the spectacle: it was a glorious collision of unashamed sexiness and family entertainment. Several bystanders were weeping tears of joy. I, too, felt a bubble of emotion, so with arms outstretched I sounded my whistle, clicked my heels and pirouetted with a smile as broad as an over-stretched hammock. Physically, I was high on the collective exuberance of Guadeloupe’s crowds: the joyful chants, the vibrant costumes and the hip-shimmying exhilaration. Spiritually, I felt empowered, as if fuelled by Guadeloupe’s phenomenal life-force. That’s why, while shaking my booty in a froth of neon-pink feathers, I promised myself I’d do it all again…

USP: Carnival taken to the next level!
It is barely January when the Carnival buzz starts in Martinique, building in momentum over the course of several wild weeks, with the island’s west coast capital, Fort-de-France, the centre of the celebrations. The explosion of excitement requires some stamina to maintain. Once partying claims priority, it seems impossible to imagine a time when the streets weren’t filled with dancers and marching bands (groupes à pied). A blasting horn urges everyone out by the bayside en masse‚ dressed in neon wigs, feather boas, fishnet capes, bright ballerina tutus and jewel-encrusted G-strings, transforming the street into a kaleidoscopic river of madcap movement.

Each year’s incarnation of Vaval‚ the enormous effigy that is Martinique’s Carnival King‚ is kept a closely guarded secret until the opening event (usually the Saturday before Epiphany). This giant satirical puppet formed of papier-mâché might take any form – everything is fair game for comic effect, from a bright-orange Donald Trump to former government ministers or local politicians, though in recent years Vaval has also dressed in exaggerated Viking garb as a descendant of the Gauls. However he appears, he is booed like a pantomime villain.

Similarly garish are the brightly painted cars (known as bradjacks) modified especially for Carnival. Typically, French Renaults and Citroëns clog the highways, but now these crazy-coloured Caribbean jalopies fill the streets, revving loudly.

At Carnival time, the Martinican French side is amplified. Placards proffer a dismissive Gallic shrug to the European Union, Coco Chanel and the merest mention of frogs legs, yet the populace remain, in many respects, more French than the French. For instance, champagne consumption is higher here than in any mainland department. Naughty lyrics ridicule the French hierarchy, so expect lots of scandalous songs about big noses and snobbery. Costumes poke fun, too, mimicking bouffant-haired Parisian ladies right down to their poodles.

Every citizen, every age, in every community celebrates in their own way: from those who gently sway and shuffle, to flame-throwing calypso dancers on stilts. Towers of monster speakers blast throbbing basslines into Fort-de-France’s backstreets. Musicality and rhythm is endemic here – nobody misses a single beat.

On the final day, Martinicans flit and flutter like moths to a lantern as the music ramps up and the dancing gains even more fervour. Rhythms overlap in a heady mishmash of zouk, biguine, samba and reggae and, while singing in French under tricolour flags, crowds unify in a surge of national identity.

Carnival is a most magnificent ode to the joy of living. Every evening, candlelit prayers are recited in thanks. During these moments of quiet reflection, you can still feel the drum beat in your bones as choreographed limbs continue dancing non-stop in an effervescent multi-mile loop.

Before long, time is up for Vaval. Once funeral rites are given, a very public cremation is held on Ash Wednesday, as penance for the Carnival’s wild behaviours. Faux tears of mourning accompany the Martinican sunset as the giant Vaval effigy turns to dust – and Carnival draws to a close. Street cleaners gather up rum bottles and feathers, and persuade lingering revellers to head home to bed. No need to feel too bad for Vaval, though: he’ll emerge in another guise next year.

TIP: Join the first parade at daybreak – pyjamas are de rigueur. Pack something black or white for Vaval’s funeral on Ash Wednesday.
IT’S UNIQUE: Instead of steel drums, Martinicans play a kind of deconstructed drum set, with chachas (sand-filled bamboo shakers) to make a ‘shooooka shooooka shooooka’ sound.

USP: Super High-octane full-on fun

Guadeloupe’s Carnival fever is infectious, interrupting the daily grind to preoccupy an entire island for two long weeks. Jobs are left half finished and factory lines are static so that the mundane can’t interfere with the partying. There is much excited anticipation in the months, weeks and days that lead up to the main event. During this time, processions take place every Sunday island-wide, as each village elects a Queen and Junior Queen. Then it’s time for the island to erupt with increasing intensity. Teams of rabble-rousers encourage people to let their hair down and armies of ‘Party Police’ threaten anyone resting with handcuffs and a night in the cells.

Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday) heralds the official start of festivities. Guadeloupe’s parade-goers start congregating hours ahead of the first procession, called by the conch to gather by elaborately decorated floats, food vans and growing crowds of dancers. The open-bed pick-up trucks start testing their speakers before 2am and, long before it’s light, the crowds make way for guys draped in cow-hides, cracking whips against the pavement and beating tin cans loud enough to raise the dead. Pummelling goatskin drums and plastic barrels is a ritual that will drive away evil spirits.

Guadeloupe’s Carnival features a comical interpretation of the ‘burlesque wedding’: a Monday parade that depicts role-reversal marriages. Men wear wigs, heels, gowns and make-up to dress as brides, while women don tuxedos. Each year this procession has become increasingly daring and politically motivated. It has also slammed domestic violence and poked fun at the one-sided union of France and its islands.

Tuesday is the Red Devil’s Parade, which is a byword for mischief and naughtiness as scarlet-clad revellers rampage through the crowds. Tales vary across the French Caribbean, but Guadeloupe’s devil and similarly frightening characters serve as a jokey warning not to upset Catholic Church elders.

African ancestors and French colonial forefathers are targets for honour or mockery, too. The dancers smeared in red clay, the nègs gwo-sirop (revellers covered in sugar and charcoal) and the mariann lapo fig clad in banana leaves – all represent stories of slave oppression, rebellion and emancipation. Then there are the Moko-zombi, a tambourine-slamming troupe of bare-chested ghosts on stilts who pass around a jug of super-strength rum.

TIP: Prepare for some serious partying – you’ll have a more enjoyable time if you put in the training beforehand.
IT’S UNIQUE: Burlesque marriage on such a scale – each year, the procession has become more risqué, to highlight issues of gender and LGBT rights.

Saint Martin
USP: A friendly, less-frantic party, with families at its heart

Locals plan all year for the Saint Martin Carnival, painting masks, mending costumes, stitching sequins and ensuring each event retains its own pizzazz. Parades start in January before the Mardi Gras, and run for weeks, including pageants for the crowning of Miss Pitchounette (Little Miss Carnival). Children as young as two take part in parties, parades and promenades, learning early that it is a true test of stamina – especially the Jouve Jump Up, which starts at 4am.

In Carnival circles, Saint Martin’s intimate celebrations are much-loved for their family focus: there is less liquor-drenched boisterousness here. Instead, celebrations pay homage to the island’s rich history, drawing close-knit communities to Marigot’s beautiful bay-front.

With thinner crowds and fewer all-night hedonist bangers, most parades start at a godly hour (lunchtime is préféré). Even the music truck and speaker towers enjoy some daily down time. There is also plenty of time to eat – really eat, not just soak up the rum – thanks to Saint Martin’s well-stocked French larder. For sustenance when exhaustion sets in, order a plate of salt cod fritters and grilled lobster washed down with a carafe of rum punch – so exquisite that it sends gastronomes from Toulouse into a spin. You’ll find bottles of sancerre, beaujolais and muscadet wines throughout Marigot, plus enough French cheeses to satisfy pre-Lenten gluttony. Street chefs in Marigot cook without the gastronomic pretentiousness of the motherland, with matoutou de crabe (herby seasoned crab) a particular Carnival favourite – c’est délicieux!

Water stations and puppet shows keep young children comfortable. Parties have a friendly vibe, with dancing that strikes a subtle tone – sure, it’s high-energy sexy, but not downright dirty, with only a few songs that will make the clergy blush. Costumes are elaborate, crafted to perfection with shimmering tulles, feathers and sequins. Only the engulfing flames of King Moumou are brighter, heralding the end of Carnival to the sound of screeching fireworks and a few final pounding soca rhythms.

TIP: Suss out where the cooling stations are for access to iced water and snow cones.
IT’S UNIQUE: Crabs are collected for weeks beforehand in order to make Carnival delicacy matoutou de crabe; the crabs are even fed spices and seasoned vegetables so that the dish is extra tasty!

Tips for Carnival

Go with the flow of the crowd – parades will take as long as they take, so don’t try to rush

Dress up! Better make it sparkly, glitzy and outlandish

Prepare for a long day – hydrate, eat, and pack emergency flat shoes and sticking plasters for blisters

Pace your drinking – the rum starts flowing at daybreak

Forget personal space – Carnival is up-close and very personal!

Nap like a newborn – grabbing 30 minutes here and there is better than no sleep at all

Pack earplugs – the parade music is insanely loud.

Follow the lead of the locals – Carnival is a time to let loose without judgement.

Finally: enjoy!