‘Drink water and mind your business’: A novice’s guide to carnival in St. Thomas, USVI

Carnival returned to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in full force this spring, and we’ve got tips for festival season newbies.

Carnival in St. Thomas is a beautiful manifestation of Black joy. 

The cultural tradition, which takes place all over the Caribbean (and in various cities throughout the U.S. and Canada) from February through August each year, is a thrilling and joyous experience. In St. Thomas, Carnival takes place in the last week of April, but it is also a monthlong celebration —with historic African roots — that dates back to 1912.

Imagine Black people singing and dancing together — “wining” their waists up — without a single care in the world. It is liberating, especially for a novice to the festivities. Everyone, especially those of the African diaspora, should experience Carnival at least once. 

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The author at St. Thomas Carnival, April 2023. (Photo by Trini Jungle Juice)

My first carnival experience was one that I will always remember, but there were certainly things I did forget during my adventure. For those attending Carnival for the first time, here are some tips you should know ahead of your journey. Thank me later. 

Familiarize yourself with the carnival lingo. At Carnival, you will attend fêtes (parties), play mas (join a band, dress in costume, and participate in the carnival parade), jump (dance in the streets) on deh road (the carnival route), and wake up at “can’t see” in the morning for J’ouvert (the official carnival opening festival taking place in the wee hours of the morning). If you don’t know what any of these terms mean, then you’ll be out of luck. So here’s a cheat sheet: check out this blog for more Carnival-specific terms. 

If you are playing mas, try on your costume before the carnival. Wardrobe malfunctions absolutely do happen. Do your part to prevent a malfunction on the big day — try on your costume when you pick it up. This might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t assume a “medium” bikini bottom will fit the same universally. 

Drink water. Mind your business. These words, quite wisely sung by soca singer Patrice Roberts, became a mantra for my Carnival experience. But seriously: drink water. Lots of it. The carnival parade gets hot, and costumes can be heavy. Don’t risk passing out during Carnival — grab yourself some water. Often.  

If you are a light sleeper, bring earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to ensure a good night’s rest. Soca is the soundtrack of Carnival. During the season, visitors should expect to hear soca music from sunrise to sunset, literally. Soca will be blaring at fêtes, from cars, in restaurants — the rhythms will move you. And you most certainly will hear said rhythms across the island, even in hotels. That said, if you actually want to sleep at any point, try plugging your ears to block the music. Then again, who sleeps during Carnival, anyway? 

Keep hand sanitizer with you at all times. I am admittedly germaphobe-adjacent. While the CDC has announced the end of the COVID-19 federal emergency, I’m still not messing with y’all’s germs. You’ll be using porta-potties during Carnival and the various fêtes. Drinks and food will be in abundance; people will be embracing and wining — so at the very least, keep those hands clean. While you’re at it, pack Emergen-C or a few doses of a multivitamin to take each day — in short, keep your immunity boosted.

Don’t waste precious luggage space packing heels. Bring flats only. But that doesn’t mean skimping on the shoes; for a functional and fun celebration, I see Carnival-goers needing five pairs for the entire trip. Hear me out: You’ll need a pair of old or worn sneakers you don’t care much about for J’ouvert; with paint, powder, and water flying about, this celebration gets messy. You might want to throw away these sneakers immediately after, or perhaps you will recycle them for your next J’ouvert during carnival season, but either way, bring a pair of shoes you don’t care much for. 

Pack a different pair of bedazzled or colorful sneakers for the carnival; you’ll want footwear to complement your beautiful (and expensive) costume. While you can certainly get a pair of bedazzled sneakers from Amazon, I suggest good-quality kicks (you’ll be dancing for hours during Carnival). Comfort over style, without question. Also, bring flip-flops or other slides that can be worn casually (and cutely) around the island, and possibly another pair for the beach or pool. Finally, bring one or two other pairs of flats you can wear for a nice dinner or even a night on the town. 

Don’t forget your shades. You don’t necessarily need to bring your best designer shades to Carnival. In fact, it might be better not to bring anything high-end, just in case you lose them during some crazy intense fête. But anticipate spending a ton of time in the sun, and bring something to protect your eyes. Extra points if your shades match your carnival costume!

Pay extra to check a bag. Period. Don’t cut corners by bringing just a carry-on bag to a weeklong fête. Anticipate a need for several different outfits, shoes, bathing suits, hair products, skincare, makeup (if that’s your thing), and other miscellaneous items. And if you do play mas, then you might want to take pieces of the costume (and your backpack) home. 

The author at St. Thomas Carnival, April 2023. (Photo by Trini Jungle Juice)

Take advantage of the free festivities. Regardless of the island on which you celebrate, Carnival is not cheap. Assuming you are not a resident of the specific island, one should expect to pay for airfare, lodging, food, a costume (if you are playing mas), and fêtes, amongst other expenses. But on the island of St. Thomas, some festivities are free. There are free concerts every night in St. Thomas’ festival village; this year’s performers included soca artists Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, and Shenseea. Did I mention that the shows were free?

(Photo by Felice León)

For my natural girlies, don’t forget your hair tools, or hair products. Real talk: I left my curly-girl detangling brush in New York, went to a beauty supply store on St. Thomas for a replacement, and found that the same detangling brush was three times the price I had paid stateside. The sales associate in the store chuckled and said, “Welcome to the island.”

Wear sunblock. I’d estimate that approximately 80% of your time during Carnival will be spent outdoors. This should go without saying, but bring sunblock and wear it, even if it’s slightly overcast. For as much time as is spent dancing in the sun, you might look up and find yourself with a sunburn. Don’t let it happen to you. 

If you are vegan or vegetarian, patronize your local Rasta truck for a quick and tasty meal. The Rasta trucks will load you up with a good veggie platter (typically consisting of a grain, cooked vegetable, beans, plant-based protein, and pasta), for under $20. If you have time, go to Frenchtown’s Oceana Restaurant and try their cauliflower steak and tofu meal; 10/10, I do recommend. You will not regret it. I can still taste the seasoned tofu now!

The cauliflower steak and tofu meal at Frenchtown’s Oceana Restaurant. (Photo by Felice León)

Let the vibes move you. Regardless of whether you are a soca dancing queen or have two left feet, the music will move you. Let it. Joy is reflected through dance — your light and joy will attract people. As the refrain goes, dance like nobody’s watching! 

Leave judgments at home. There is neither time nor space for Judgmental Judys at Carnival. Who cares what another festivalgoer is wearing (or not), how they’re dancing, or who they are dancing with? Positivity of body, mind, and spirit is the name of the game. Carnival is quite liberating in that way. 

Find a party hosted by DJ Avalanche, and attend it. DJ Avalanche is one of the hottest DJs in the Caribbean — and he is a St. Thomas native, no less. Since the DJ is a bit of a USVI celebrity, he will undoubtedly bring the crowds. Party people plus the right tunes make for an epic experience. 

Be flexible. Remember, you are on island time. This year, most of the carnival troupes encountered delays, which resulted in the adults’ parade ending well after sunset (typically, this is a daytime event). While this is not ideal, you’ve gotta roll with it. Stay flexible and focus on all the good times to be had on deh road! 

Felice León is an award-winning multimedia journalist who recently completed the Nieman Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University. Prior to Harvard, León worked as a video producer and host, focusing on stories at the intersections of race, ethnicity, and popular culture. Her on-air commentary has appeared on MSNBC, ABC, NPR, BET and WNYC, among other media outlets.

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