Paint, Powder, and Bacchanal: Grenada’s Carnival Returns

One writer heads back to the island for a taste of rum, soca, and ultimate freedom.

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Playing jab is a key tradition during Grenada’s Spice Mas carnival.

Photo by Arthur Daniel

When Caribbean islands began announcing earlier this year that Carnival would finally return after a pandemic-induced hiatus, my joy knew no bounds. Memories of my annual treks for the past eight years to islands including Trinidad, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, and the Cayman Islands colored my mind with the sweetest reminders of what freedom looks and feels like.

The history of Carnival is deeply tied to this same sentiment—when enslaved Africans, banned from participating in the masquerade and Lent celebrations of plantation owners, created their own rituals of song, dress, and dance as a means of autonomy against their oppressors. The burning of sugarcane, the splashing of paint and powder on the body, the ringing of steel pans and cowbells—these symbols of revelry and defiance are still used in Carnival celebrations today. Experiencing it firsthand is addictive, and so I didn’t hesitate to plan my return—this time, to Grenada’s celebration, called Spice Mas. This was my second time joining the bacchanal on the eastern Caribbean island, often referred to as Spice Isle because of its mass production of nutmeg and other spices.

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Silversands Hotel’s infinity pool offers prime views of the beautiful Grand Anse beach.

Courtesy of Silver Sands

Resting before the back-to-back Carnival parties (called fetes) is key, so I checked into the ultra sleek Silversands Grenada for a proper respite. The luxury resort sits on one of the island’s most prized white-sand beaches, Grand Anse, but it’s the nearly 350-foot pool framing the lobby entrance and spilling into the distant ocean that’s the star of the show. Thirty-nine rooms, four suites, and nine pool residences line the property, and two restaurants—Grenadian Grill and Asiatique—serve Caribbean and Asian cuisine, respectively. Knowing that my body would soon experience very little sleep, I enjoyed a massage at Silversands quiet oasis of a spa and lounged in a shaded cabana by the pool as often as possible.

Book Now: Silversands Grenada

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Grenada’s Spice Mas carnival includes masqueraders who dance with bands like Oro.

Photo by Joel Geofroy

And then, the show began: fetes on boats and on land, all fueled by soca music and rum; linked arms with strangers jumping in unison; bodies pressed against each other in dance; smiles both large and unwavering painted on thousands of faces; a quick nap before sunrise to do it all again, gladly. If you do not believe adults can feel the joy of children, book a ticket to a Caribbean carnival.

On my second day, I woke up to participate in a Grenadian tradition both sacred and powerful in its roots: playing jab. Also known as j’ouvert, the celebration calls people to gather before the sun rises to prepare for hours of dancing, chanting, and symbolic representations of the rebellion and defiance that enslaved Africans upheld. These symbols include wearing devil horns to mock colonizers, covering the body in tar-colored paint as a celebration of Blackness, and even dragging broken chains to signify a breaking from slavery. By the time the sun was out, my entire body, alongside hundreds of others, was covered in black paint and oil.

On Tuesday, bright regalia lined the streets of the island for the final parade. This year, I played “mas” (short for masquerade) with a band (group) called Oro. Costumes bedazzled in black sequins and feathers reminiscent of Maleficent, glowing hues of yellow, and the shimmering pink of my own costume’s crown were all on full display. We spent hours on the road, connected by the sounds of soca and our longing to return to these same streets. At night, trucks still blaring music and serving rum into plastic cups parked curbside and the energy was palpable.

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Jab tradition in Grenada symbolizes defiance against oppression covering oneself in black paint and oil.

Photo by Arthur Daniel

Grenada’s carnival is small but mighty in comparison to other larger islands’ celebrations, and though I selfishly hope it remains that way, it likely won’t. Around the world, the hype and images of Carnival continue to grow, giving a glimpse into the electric colors, movement, and traditions that many Caribbean islands have been celebrating for centuries. Trinidad’s bacchanalia is often considered the greatest example of the celebration, drawing thousands of people from as far as Japan to its shores each year, but just northwest, there’s a magic happening in its own right in Grenada, untouched by commercialization and deeply tied to specific traditions like jab.

I don’t just plan to return solely for Carnival again next year because Grenada is a place I’ve considered calling home one day. My first visit to the island six years ago included a stay at Spice Island Beach Resort—the only Black-owned five-star luxury resort in the Caribbean. That introduction to the island included impeccable hospitality and an ease that drew me to Grenadian culture. Dishes of grilled kingfish, curry-filled roti, and a dangerously strong rum punch remain some of the best meals I’ve had at a hotel. The sunsets from Spice Island’s prime location on Grand Anse beach are also unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in the world. It’s hard to capture the turquoise ocean swallowing a fiery orange sun in a fuschia sky with my camera phone, as many times as I’ve tried.

In the town of St. George, pastel-colored homes mounted on hillsides glow onto the yacht-dotted ocean below. My favorite farewell to the island is at BB’s Crabback, a family-owned restaurant overlooking St. George’s Harbour that serves fresh catches of the day like mahi mahi, curried goat, and the dish that I dream of often: crabback. Fresh crab meat melds with herbs, wine, and cheese, then is stuffed into a crab shell and served alongside warm bake (deep-fried dough). This last supper was just as special as the first time I had it years ago, as was the entire experience on beautiful Spice Isle.

To learn more about travel to Grenada, visit Pure Grenada.

To keep updated on future Carnival band launches, visit Oro Carnival.

Kristin is a travel journalist and founder of Crush Global Travel. She has penned pieces for Vogue, CNN, USA Today, Essence, NPR, Architectural Digest, Ebony, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Her perfect day includes soca music, rum, and the ocean.
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