Festivals. I’ve never understood them. Standing knee-deep in the mud in a field in the rain, trapped in the middle of nowhere and being trampled by drunk and unwashed teenagers in tie-dye t-shirts, while squinting through binoculars at the tiny stage in the distance as you try to enjoy your overpriced wrap despite the inescapable stench coming from the portaloos. But wait. It doesn’t have to be this way. Forget Glastonbury. Forget Latitude, Wilderness, Womad and Bestival. If there’s one festival to tick off your bucket list, it’s the Barbados Crop Over. A week-long festival of parties on a beautiful Caribbean island – from brunch parties, dusk till dawn parties and live music concerts, catamaran cruises and even an all-night dancing parade – with not a tent in sight. And it’ll probably cost you the same as a ‘VIP’ Glastonbury ticket.
This summer I finally lost my festival virginity, and was relieved to find that Crop Over was a whole other kettle of fish. From joining the all-night dancing and paint-throwing Foreday parade (quite the workout) to having the option to join the likes of Rihanna and Jordan Dunn in a sequinned bikini and feather boa at the Kadooment Day parade, Crop Over is not the sort of festival you can watch from the sidelines. There’s no other way to experience it than to get fully stuck in, and that I did – with the promise of a proper room and shower to home to afterwards.
The centuries-old Crop Over festival (formerly called ‘Harvest Home’) started when slaves celebrated the end of the sugar-cane harvest in the 1780’s – a time when Barbados was the world’s largest producer of sugar. Modern-day Crop Over commemorates this legacy, and has since evolved into the largest summer carnival in the Caribbean. Beginning in June, the five week festival kicks off with the Opening Gala and Ceremonial Delivery of the Last Canes and the crowning of the King and Queen of the Festival – traditionally they were the most productive male and female cane cutters of the season. The following five weeks are filled with music, dancing and rum, until the first Monday in August when it culminates in a rapturous climax with a fest of feathers on Grand Kadooment — better known as Mega Monday — when revellers shed their inhibitions (and most of their clothing) and parade the streets in thongs,nipple tassels, feather headdresses and elaborate costumes, gyrating their hips to Soca and Calypso music.
I landed in Barbados in time to experience the final week – and grand finale – of the island’s party season. To prepare for a jam-packed itinerary of parties and events, I had a couple of days to enjoy our Sandals resort first.
From experiencing that first hit of hot salty air on stepping out of the plane to being chauffeured in the hotel’s air-conditioned van to the lobby where our suitcases were smoothly exchanged for punch blue cocktails, I couldn’t manage to wipe the grin from my face. I felt a wave of relief and excitement wash over me as I pulled my hotel room door shut behind me and flopped backwards onto the enormous four poster bed. The hotel room was lovely and had it’s own private balcony overlooking the pool and sea, and a stunning marble bathrooms with a large walk-in shower, his and hers sinks and a generous selection of products – including full-sized shampoo, conditioner and body wash – no miniatures here! The shower also had a glass window through which you could look beyond the bedroom out at the open sea.
Everything about the all-inclusive resort felt generous. The breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets were jaw dropping, as was the impressive selection of 11 gourmet restaurants on site, including Indian, Japanese, seafood, English pub, regional Italian, pizza, French pâtisserie, and a New York–style steakhouse. There was even an ice cream parlour where you could swing by any time of day and help yourself to ice cream. Unlike in most all-inclusives there is no extra charge to eat in any of the restaurants, and no restriction on how often you can eat in particular ones. Dotted around the property are also seven bars. Then there are three outdoor freshwater swimming pools (the largest has a swim-up bar), an outdoor tennis court and a fitness centre, and then there are all the activities; unlimited scuba diving, windsurfing, Hobie Cat sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, boogie boarding… Oh, and everything is included.
Also unlike other all-inclusives was the hotel design; from one-of-a-kind driftwood chairs and chandeliers made of sea shells to waterfalls and poolside fire pits, mattresses in giant pods and swinging love seats, a swimmable network of waterways weaving under bridges and around corners to swim-up rooms, elegant, candy-striped cabanas, lush, green gardens and bougainvillea and hibiscus at every turn all helped steer away from the typical hotel feel.
The hotel surrounds a gorgeous lagoon — the longest and largest in Barbados – framed by a white sand beach. As an experienced sailor I was given permission to take the catamarans out on my own, which I did almost every day during my stay. On one of my adventures a wild sea turtle swam up to the surface and swam alongside me before diving back down into the blue depths.
But my favourite moments and memories happened during the excursions that the hotel helped organise. One afternoon we took an ‘Island Safari’ where we got buckled in the back of an open topped 4×4 (with a cool box filled with rum punch and snacks) and were taken on a bumpy tour of the island – our favourite playlist on full volume. Pretty streets lined with candy coloured houses soon merged into dirt roads and rugged coastal paths, the wilder bumpier route only adding to the fun and having us all in hysterics. Another afternoon we were picked up from the boatyard by the Jammin’ Catamaran Cruise and spent the afternoon familiarising ourselves with the Soca and Calypso music, breeze in our hair and rum punch in hand. At first I didn’t know quite what to make of it – the Bajan dance moves make pornos look tame – but by sunset everyone was dancing wildly and singing along. We also experienced a steel pan drumming lesson (by the end of which we actually managed a whole song), and tried a few of the island’s restaurants.
Over the next few days we took part in various Crop Over events, each one getting us more and more into the dancing, music and general free-spiritedness. Things kicked off with the ‘Lifted Cooler Party’ at Bushy Park; a late-night live music concert with various food and drink stands, which somewhat prepared us for the following evening; Foreday Morning. The Foreday Morning parade didn’t start until 3am, by which point we had already been listening to the SoCa music with our ‘band’ (a large group of people that you walk with) for two hours.
Once the parade started moving, paint was pelted and wildness was welcomed as we marched and danced and confidently sang along to the songs we’d only heard for the first time the day before. Frenetic SoCa blared from colossal speakers on moving trucks, and (fuelled by free-flowing Mount Gay rum) we survived till sunrise. Just about.
The festival continued with an Island Mas all-day breakfast party where steel-pan bands played, drinks flowed and food was served, then on to the 1Love Concert until the early hours. By the time Kadooment Day came around, I knew every word to every SoCa song, but was relieved to be – for once – watching from the sidelines.
Costume designers competed for the coveted Designer of the Year prize as masqueraders made their way through the streets in a kaleidoscope of colour. It was a grand end to a grand festival. I can definitely attest to the fact that there is no party quite like it on Earth.