St. Maarten is a popular tourist destination known for its annual St Maarten Carnival festivities, where the drinks flow freely, the costumes sparkle and the dancing last all night long, literally!
The vibrant 37 square mile island, governed by two separate nations is made up of the Saint Martin French side, and the Sint Maarten Dutch side. This gives it a European-influenced vibe with the vibrant Caribbean flair one would expect.
Hurricane Irma struck the island in 2017, but it has bounced back and is once again luring Caribbean island lovers to its shores. And its widely popular St. Maarten Carnival festivities!
About St. Maarten Carnival
A central part of the island’s vibrant culture, the St. Maarten Carnival festivities spans over two weeks and is a whirlwind of jump-ups, parades, music competitions, Calypso, Reggae and Soca bands, traditional food and drinks, and elaborate feathered, glittery costumes.
St. Maarten Carnival is a celebration that pays homage to the island’s rich history, where thousands come to reconnect with friends, family and others come to experience a new culture.
It’s worth noting that the French and Dutch sides hold their respective Carnivals: St. Martin (French side) in February, and St. Maarten (Dutch side) in late April to early May. The Carnival held on the Dutch side of the “Friendly Island,” is by far the island’s most popular annual event.
St. Maarten Carnival Festivities – A Local’s Take
I was fortunate to experience St. Maarten’s 50th Anniversary Carnival festivities with the help of a local. The passion, energy, and sense of community I witnessed during St. Maarten Carnival just blew me away. So what better way to present this celebration of life, tradition, and history, than from someone who has the first-hand view into the culture.
To help us understand St. Maarten, and, more specifically, its Carnival culture, I asked my Carnival host, Sharina, a native of St. Maarten who has been celebrating for many years, to share her insight.
Here she talks about what to expect as a visitor, what you absolutely can’t miss, how to join one of the Carnival parade troupes and what this celebration means to the people of St. Maarten.
What does St. Maarten Carnival mean to you?
Carnival is a freeing experience and has always been a part of my culture. The entire island is abuzz for months leading up to the St. Maarten Carnival festivities.
As the motto goes, “Come, Experience Life!” You know you’re not going to sleep during Carnival, visiting loved ones, attending events, and spending most evenings at the Carnival Festival Village.
What follows is two full weeks of Calypso competitions, music, dancing, parades and more. It is two weeks, of fun, culture, mixing and mingling – a time to gather with friends and family.
It’s such a big deal that people plan trips a whole year in advance! As you grow older, even if you’re no longer living on the island (as is my case), Carnival is a time many come back home to enjoy the festivities and reconnect with old acquaintances, friends, and family.
What is your first memory of the St. Maarten Carnival?
My first participation in the Carnival Grand Parade was 25 years ago when I was just a little eight-year-old girl. Putting on my first costume was something I’ll never forget!
My mom loves to collect photographs. I remember looking at photos of my parents and I watching the parades.
I also remember as a kid attending the parades with my parents every year, often sitting on my dad’s shoulders high above the crowds to get a better view. It was exciting, and as kids, we didn’t want the Carnival parades to end.
What is the St. Maarten Carnival Village?
All festivities lead to the circle-shaped St. Maarten Carnival Village, or the Village, for a large island-style party. Located in the center of Philipsburg, it is the main hosting and gathering spot for the concerts and major events during St. Maarten Carnival—most are with a ticketed cost. It serves as the Carnival staging ground, where everyone hangs out, and all the action is.
Here you’ll also find vendor booths with traditional food from around the Caribbean. Vendors set up shop selling local favorites from barbecue ribs and chicken, shrimp and conch sates and johnny cakes. Many get very creative with unique food items and crazy mixed drinks.
How can tourists or those living abroad participate in the St. Maarten Carnival festivities and parades?
People from all over the world are welcome to suit up in costumes and participate in all the St. Maarten Carnival festivities, including the Grand Parade. Event organizers typically release the new Carnival schedule a few months before the next year’s Carnival.
Visitors can join in the fun and take part in the Carnival festivities by connecting with local resources on the St. Maarten Carnival official website or the group’s Facebook Page. Carnival related updates are available on those resources.
There are even Carnival travel packages sold by agencies like Maduro Travel catering to those wanting the full Carnival experience.
The different packages typically include accommodations, airport transfers, and a Carnival season pass with access to all concerts and daily shuttle service to the Carnival Festival Village.
How can foreigners/visitors join a troupe and order costumes for the St. Maarten Grand Carnival Parade?
Joining a troupe has been made easier over the past years. Most of the troupes have band launches as early as six months before Carnival where the different sections preview the costume themes and designs.
Once costume designs are released, the tough part comes with picking the one, which also determines the troupes you’ll be joining during the Grand Parade. Costume orders, measurements, and setting up payments are the next steps in the process.
Here are a few popular St. Maarten Carnival troupes:
For those that can’t be in St. Maarten for all two weeks, what are the Carnival events one should not miss?
It is kind of hard to say the best time within the two weeks to attend Carnival as every year the calendar of events tends to shift, but there are some events you can’t miss that will give you a better idea on when to attend.
A French word meaning the start of dawn. This is an event that starts at 4 a.m. where approximately 10 – 15 local bands set up on individual flatbed trucks and follow a route around one of our biggest Salt Ponds that spans over 10 miles long. This event is for the most daring.
Thousands of people gather behind their favorite bands dancing away for hours, enjoying the sounds and lively vibe. Many will dress in costume or revealing outfits covered in paint and powder or drenched by water while more line the streets to watch the madness. There are several videos on YouTube capturing all the J’ouvert fun that starts and ends at the Festival Village.
2. Carnival Concerts
There’s so much vibrant music to choose from, St. Maarten Carnival has different live shows on most nights with famous soca artist and bands including Reggae and Latin nights as well.
Pick at least one or two to take in. The energy, sounds, and vibe are intoxicating.
3. St. Maarten Grand Carnival Parade
This is the premier event of the festival and is a lively, colorful procession filled with music, dancing, and colorful feathered costumes. Floats, dancers, sparkles, elaborate costumes … the Grand Carnival Parade captures the spirit of the celebrations. If you can only pick one Carnival event to take part in, this should be it!
You’ll find enthusiasts and groups from all over the Caribbean, all shapes and sizes, sparkling colorful bodysuits, wind and dancing to Calypso and Soca music, while the Caribbean sun dazzles and the viewers laugh and embrace. Spectators will dance, take pictures, and even jump in to take photographers with the parade troupe participants.
If you’re up for the two whole weeks, you’re in for an incredible experience! Many people, however, come just for the Grand Parade, a few soca concerts and some time in the sun.
What is life like on the island the day of the Grand Carnival Parade?
The day of the Grand Parade, operations on the island is pretty much shut down, including most restaurants.
Getting to the parade path in downtown Phillipsburg can be daunting. Although the parade doesn’t get through the capital until mid-afternoon, many line the streets along the parade route hours in advance. Everyone wants a good viewing spot!
You’ll find people abandoning buses and taxis early – even their own cars! – to walk along the busy single lane road into town toward the parade on Front Street. It’s worth the hassle though.
Where to stay during St. Maarten Carnival?
The best area to stay is in the capital Phillipsburg, which is within walking distance of the Carnival Village Festival. And a few of the more accessible places to stay are the Holland House Beach Hotel, Sea Palace Resort or Horizon View Hotel. These are all located on Front Street right along the Grand Parade route.
Simpson Bay hotels
Simpson Bay is also an option for nightlife, but not ideal for Carnival in terms of its proximity to the Festival Village. If staying in the area, consider the Simpson Bay Resort or the Atrium Beach Resort.
Related: St. Maarten/St. Martin: A Guide For First Time Visitors
What’s your best advice for attending St. Maarten Carnival?
- Rest before arriving in St. Maarten; sleep will be lacking during Carnival!
- There tend to be lots of drinking. Pace yourself and know how to manage your alcohol consumption.
- You’ll be walking and dancing under the sun, so be sure to stay hydrated, bring proper sun protection and appropriate shoes.
Best Advice: Come open to experience the culture! There’s so much to absorb and experience here.
Sharina, many thanks for the valuable information you’ve shared about the island, culture, people, and the St. Maarten Carnival festivities. The warmth and jubilation of the St. Maarten Carnival festivities (lively music, dancing, traditional street food, and colorful costumes), will linger long afterward.
For a truly memorable celebration of Caribbean history and culture, travel to St. Maarten for their annual Carnival festivities. It’s an event worth adding to your bucket list.
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I’ve always loved the outfits from these Carnivals. So extravagant! Great post! It’s always nice seeing things from a locals perspective!
It was great having Sharina share her perspective. I love the sense of community, different costumes and seeing everyone gather in celebration of the Caribbean culture. It certainly is an energetic atmosphere.
Thanks for sharing this amazing post.
Thanks for reading! It was a joy to experience St. Maarten Carnival and a pleasure sharing.