Here is your Essential Guide to Martinique Carnival
Martinique is home to one of the best carnival celebrations in the world! This French Caribbean Island has a months-long celebration that is full of charm. Find out everything you need to know about the events, dates, parades and more!
When is the Martinique Carnival 2023?
Martinique Carnival is a pre-Lenten carnival that takes place in the 4 days before Lent! Unofficially, carnival season kicks off in January with parties and parades taking place in villages all over the island, every weekend until the main carnival begins.
When is the 2023 Martinique Carnival? The 2023 Martinique Carnival will take place on Thursday 16 February 2023 and finish on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent which is the 22 February, 2023.
What is Carnival in Martinique?
Martinique Carnival is an exciting pre-Lenten carnival that showcases Martinique culture and traditions. Martinique Carnival is the ultimate celebration of life. It spreads joy across the island and showcases the local culture, food, music and pageantry. Carnival in Martinique is the biggest event of the year and one of the island’s main attractions!
Martinique Carnival is very special to the locals and an important part of their culture and heritage. Everyone on the island takes part in the celebrations both young and old. Every village prepares their costumes, floats and parade performances for months in advance.
Where is the Martinique Carnival?
Martinique is a small island located in the eastern Caribbean Sea. It belongs to the Lesser Antilles Island chain and is an overseas territory of France, an archipelago in the West Indies. Its closest neighbors are Saint Lucia which is 16m (26km) to the south and Dominica which is 22 miles (35km) in the northwest.
Carnival is celebrated all over the island of Martinique, with each district and village having their own traditions and Carnival Queen. However, the main celebrations take place in the city center of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique.
Martinique is often called the “Isle of Flowers”, because this Caribbean Island is known for its vibrant flowers that bloom all across its botanical gardens and hilly parks. Martinique has a unique mix of French and Antillean influences. The official language spoken on the island is French and they use the Euro.
How is Carnival celebrated in Martinique?
The Martinique Carnival motto is “Rejoice Today, Repent Tomorrow!” That is because Carnival in Martinique is the time of the year when everyone can forget about their worries and let their hair down for a few days.
Carnival season in Martinique begins in January after the Epiphany, and sees 2 months of celebrating in the lead up to carnival. The festive spirit begins to engulf towns and villages all over the Island, with events growing bigger and bigger for every weekend that draws closer to carnival.
On the weekends there are street parades, parties, live music and themed events. Starting the Monday in the week prior to carnival, you will start to see children parading with their schools. Most young people don’t get much sleep during this time as they party all night and parade during the day.
When it comes to carnival week, this sleepy Island comes alive! Daily life is put on hold, shops shut down, offices close and the whole Island is filled with non-stop parties, parades and music. The parades are filled with amazing costumes, dances and music that have seen months of preparation.
Carnival lets you enjoy and soak up the Martinique spirit through local traditions, dances, songs, costumes, gastronomy and live entertainment. The celebration finally ends on Ash Wednesday, and the island enters the period of Lent that leads up to Easter.
Preparations begin months in advance with each village creating new costumes and dances that are shrouded in secrecy until they are unveiled at the Carnival Parade. The brilliant musical groups perform across the island both in the parades and between them, filling the villages with music all day long, to accompany their carnival celebrations.
Martinique Carnival Schedule
What is the 2023 Martinique Carnival schedule? The Martinique Carnival program is pretty much the same every year for the main events.
Here is the Martinique Carnival Schedule:
- Samedi Gras – Carnival Saturday
- Junior and Adult Carnival Queens
- Dimanche Gras – Carnival Sunday
- Jou Ouvé” Big parade in pajamas
- The Great Carnival of Martinique – coming out of the King
- Lundi Gras – Shrove Monday
- Children’s Parade
- Burlesque Wedding Parade
- Parade du Sud
- Mardi Gras – Shrove Tuesday
- Red Devil Parade
- Ash Wednesday
- Funeral of the Majesty Vaval
Elections of the Carnival Queen
Every village elects a Carnival Queen, Carnival Queen Mother and Junior Carnival Queen who has the honor of being carried during the Grand Parade. The chosen Carnival Queen will get to sit next to the Carnival King, (a giant puppet) who leads the parades.
To be elected the Martinique Carnival Queen, the candidates compete in a costume competition, presenting themselves in an outfit that has been made by hand from recovered elements. This is done in front of a jury who will then select the most original candidate with the best presence. A mini-Queen is also selected for the Children’s Carnival, picking a kid under the age of 12.
There is even a competition for Carnival Queen Mother, with women around 60 competing, dressed in their best traditional costumes. The Three generations of Queen will take part in the parades.
Samedi Gras (Carnival Saturday)
Samedi Gras is the Saturday that precedes Shrove Tuesday. On this day the elected Carnival Queens, Queens Mother and Mini-Queens are presented to the public and will parade through Fort-de-France showing off their beautiful themed costumes to crowds.
Dimanche Gras – Shrove Sunday
Dimanche Gras is the first official day of Martinique Carnival. It is when the first big parade (défilé) takes place, and more importantly, this is the day when the Carnival King – King Vaval Is presented to the public.
King Vaval is a giant puppet that represents a satirical caricature of an event or concept that marked the previous year. King Vaval will lead a massive musical procession, followed by the Carnival Queens, the carnival groups on foot and the first Bwadjacks. This parade will feature many of the typical Martinique Carnival characters you can expect to see Neg Gwo Siwo, Mariyan Lapofig and the bwa bwas. The nègres-gros-sirop will also be there and break through the crowds trying to frighten people.
Lundi Gras – Shrove Monday
By this time all the offices and shops have shut down for carnival. Lunis Gras, also known as Shrove or Rose Monday, is the Burlesque Wedding Day. Today you will see some cross-dressing with the gender roles reversed. Women dress up as men and men as women.
Mock weddings and burlesque parodies are played out in the streets, you will see the women dressed up as reluctant grooms and men dressed as brides. You will see mock wedding ceremonies taking place all night. There are also elaborate masquerade balls taking place on the island where you must attend in drag.
Today will also see the Parade du Sud (South Parade) which is the biggest parade outside Fort-de-France. This parade features all the South town Carnival Queens and the major South Island carnival bands.
This is a hugely popular parade that is attended by most of the South Island’s population. You will also have the chance to see the Clay men and meet the Neg Gwo Siwo.
Mardi Gras – Shrove Tuesday
Mardi Gras also known as Shrove or Fat Tuesday is the last day before the start of Lent. Today is the wildest day of carnival. The celebrations begin early with Pyjama lévé, a Pajama Parade that everyone is welcome to join. Parading begins at 4:30 am and you have to wear your pajamas. The drinks start flowing early and after the parade you can either go home and get some sleep for the afternoon celebrations, or continue partying.
Mardi Gras in the Martinique Carnival is also known as the ‘Day of the Devil’, because in the afternoon you have the Red Devils Parade. In the afternoon everyone dresses up as a devil, or in a red or black costume. You will see amazing red devil costumes with homemade tridents, scary masks, horns and red outfits decorated in mirrors, glitter or bells.
The Red Devils Parade kicks off in the afternoon and goes well into the sundown. After the parade finishes, the celebrations continue with wild parties that go well into the night.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and the last day of carnival. Today is the funeral of King Vaval, who always dies at the end of carnival, symbolizing the end of carnival celebrations. Don’t worry he gets resurrected again the next year).
Today everyone dresses up in either black or white which are the colors of mourning in Martinique. Around 5pm, people start lining up along the Malecon, to watch the funeral and burning of King Valval, marking the official end of carnival.
Around 30,000 ‘mourners’ attend this event. You will see many of his widows – the Guiablesses, weeping and pretending to mourn the King’s death. The King’s funeral flames light up the sky and the crowd chants “Vaval, pa kité nou,” which translates to “Carnival, don’t leave us”.
People take boats and dinghies out onto the water and watch the celebrations. Some parties continue on in night clubs for those that have the stamina. The next day is Thursday and possibly one of the quietest days of the year in the entire Island, everyone is home recovering from the wild celebrations.
Mi-Carême – Mid-Lent
Carnival is so beloved on this island that the celebratory spirit of carnival is revived only three weeks later with a mini bonus round of carnival known as Mi-Carême, or mid-Lent. While King Vaval remains dead and buried, towns and villages across the island come back to life with rum, parades, parties and colorful costumes creating a mini-Mardi Gras.
Martinique Carnival Characters
Before you visit Martinique Carnival, you should familiarize yourself with the carnival characters that make carnival so colorful and captivating. These characters have a long history in the traditions of Martinique. Many have connections to Africa and some to the various European colonial powers.
Here are some of the most common carnival characters. Look out for them when you attend Martinique Carnival!
- King Vaval (Sa Majesté Vaval): This character is the Martinique Carnival King, who is represented by a giant puppet. He is the master of ceremony and leads the parades. Each year he is resurrected for carnival and represents a character, national news story or a social/political issue. Months of preparation go into his creation and his first appearance is on Shrove Sunday. He is then burned on Ash Wednesday, symbolizing the end of carnival.
- La Guiablesse: This character is the widow of King Vaval and makes her first appearance on Ash Wednesday at the King’s funeral to mourn his passing.
- The Touloulou: This character represents the bourgeois women of the colonial period. They are dressed head to toe, and wear a mask to replicate the carnival costumes seen at Venice Carnival.
- Les Nèg Gwo Siwo: These characters symbolize the slaves. They cover themselves head to toe in charcoal and cane syrup. Their role at carnival is to bring order and try to playfully frighten the crowds.
- Clay men: These characters represent the Pottery workers of Trois-llets, one of the oldest and still active companies in Martinique. Men and women cover themselves with clay and stand in statuesque poses to create living pictures.
- Maryan Lapo fig: This character stems from a 19th Century urban legend. There was a circus in the city of Saint-Pierre which had a bear escape. Because they didn’t want to disappoint the crowd, a woman covered herself in fig leaves and pretended to be a bear. Maryan Lapo fig represents that woman, mimicking a bear and is usually accompanied by a puppeteer and musician.
- Red Devil (Diable Rouge) – This character comes directly from ancient Africa. The costume features bovine horns and only reveals eyes. A mask is then created from recycled objects like mirrors, inspired by harvest masks from Casamnace, a region of Southern Senegal. They are honored on Mardi Gras which is often referred to as Red Devils Day.
- The Cane Cutter (Coupeur de canne) – This is character that dates back to 1849, the year after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Former slaves would reenact their enslavement and ridicule their former cane cutting jobs.
- Karolyn zyé Kokli: This is a character of a woman who has to carry her alcoholic husband on her back every night.
- Bwa Bwa – These are puppets that are seen in the parades, done up in fantastic costumes.
What to Wear to Martinique Carnival?
Wondering what Martinique Carnival costumes to wear, then look no further! Martinique Carnival has different themes every day and it’s best to dress accordingly. While costumes are not mandatory, they are fun, and you will feel left out if you don’t have one.
The Saturday and Sunday of carnival is a free day where you can wear whatever you want. Be as original or creative as you want. You will see lots of bright colors and all sorts of costumes on these days.
On Shrove Monday people wear funny, eccentric, extravagant, and humorous costumes. Monday’s theme is the burlesque wedding, so most people will cross dress, with men dressed as brides and women dressed as groomsmen.
On Shrove Tuesday, if you attend the pajama parade you have to wear either pajamas or a nightgown. In the afternoon everyone dresses in either red or black costumes, or as a red devil. The dress code for Ash Wednesday is either white or black to represent mourning.
How to Get to Martinique Carnival?
Martinique is located in the Caribbean Sea so the only way to get there is by plane or ferry, depending on where you are located.
- By Plane: You can fly to the main airport – Martinique Aimé Césaire. Non-stop flights are rare however Delta has a direct weekly flight from Atlanta, and Air France flies a few times a week from Miami, with stopovers in Guadeloupe or Haiti. Most flights from Europe will require a transfer from a neighboring island – Barbados, Puerto Rico or Antigua. Often another stop over in Guadeloupe is required.
- By Ferry: You can arrive in Martinique from Guadeloupe by catamaran. Local operator Express des Iles has a boat that carries around 500 passengers. There are around three trips a week between the two islands. There are also regular ferry services from Dominica, Les Saintes, St. Lucia and Marie Galante.
How to Get Around Martinique Carnival?
You should be warned that taxis are few and far between, especially during carnival. The best way to get around is by car. We recommend that you rent a car to get around the island which will set you back around $50 a day. There is an extensive road network around the island, with freeways passing through the cities and surrounding areas.
Take note that during carnival the capital city of Fort-de-France is closed off to vehicle traffic. There are shuttle buses that run from the surrounding suburbs to the main carnival events.
Martinique also has a train line that runs between the Banana Museum and the Rhum Museum, passing through banana plantations, sugarcane fields and a number of beautiful bridges.
Where to Stay for Martinique Carnival?
During Carnival we highly recommend that you stay in Fort-de-France which is the epicenter of carnival. During carnival Fort-de-France will be bustling with events, parties, street food and local culture that you can soak up, also it has one of the best bays in the world!
Fort-de-France has lots of great accommodation options for all levels of comfort and budget. But remember that carnival is the busiest time of the year because in addition to the influx of tourists, a lot of expats return home for carnival. So, book your accommodation in advance.
- Residence Fort Savane
- Karibea La Valmenière Hotel
- Cosy By Mélanie
- Le Patio Foyalais
- Foyal Suites
What to Do and See in Martinique?
Martinique is paradise! We recommend you spend some more time before or after carnival and get to experience the island. Martinique has many attractions and activities for visitors to explore. This stunning volcanic island is filled with diverse landscapes, a sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture, a rich history and world-class beaches.
With 28-degree water year-round, you can relax on white sand, Palm-lined beaches with the most popular beaches being Anse Mitan, Anse Dufour and Plage des Salines. Enjoy numerous water activities like swimming, snorkeling, boating, surfing, diving or kitesurfing, you can even explore some of the black-sand beaches, created by Mont Pelee at the northern end of Martinique.
One of the most popular attractions in Martinique is Mount Pelée, a volcano known for the terrible 1902 eruption that destroyed Saint Pierre. The volcano features a number of popular hiking trails. Another popular spot for hiking is the Presquî’le de la Caravelle nature reserve.
You can also visit one of the many historical sites like the 17th-century fort, Fort St-Louis, the beautiful castle – Château Dubuc or St. Louis Cathedral.
Some parts of Martinique feel like a tropical Paris and other areas feel straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Fort-de-France is the bustling hub, while other towns and villages around the island have a relatively sleepy atmosphere. Les Trois-Îlets is a great place to visit filled with all the amenities that a traveler would need and some of the island’s best beaches.
- Mangrove Guided Tour
- The White Funds Le François
- Discovery day 4×4 ride – Northern Circuit of Martinique
- Discovery day at La Baignoire de Joséphine
- North Island Tour And Martinique Best Secret
Book your Hotel and Flight for the Martinique Carnival
How Safe is Martinique?
Martinique is one of the safest Caribbean islands with an incredibly low crime rate. Most visitors pass through the island with no incidence. There is some petty crime like pickpocketing so particularly remain aware during carnival when there are big crowds. Visitors are advised to keep their valuables like passports back in their hotel safe.
What is the History of Martinique Carnival?
What are the origins of Martinique Carnival? Carnival in Martinique Carnival arrived with the French Catholic settlers who arrived on the island in the 17th Century and brought their cultural traditions to the island, carnival being one of them.
At the time, Carnival was an event that only the elites were able to celebrate. It consisted of lavish masked burlesque parties celebrated in private homes, where an abundance of food and alcohol was consumed, before the onset of Lent.
The African slaves were forbidden from attending those parties and instead held their own celebrations, but would dress up in traditional African outfits and dance to traditional African drum music, that they took from their traditions back home.
After the abolition of slavery, the population would celebrate carnival together. Parades would be held publicly on the streets of Saint-Pierre and you began to see the creation of Martinique Carnival Characters. When Mount Pelee erupted in 1902, it destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre and carnival along with it. Carnival was eventually resurrected in 1906, in Fort-de-France
Over the centuries the melting pot of European, African and Caribbean cultural influences and carnival traditions would merge together and develop into something that the whole island, whatever their color, had made into its own unique carnival celebration.
Martinique Top Tips
Here are some of the top things to know before going to Martinique Carnival:
- Get dressed up! – The locals love getting dressed up for carnival. You will see people of all ages wearing crazy costumes. Each day of carnival has a different theme so make sure you dress accordingly. While it is not mandatory to dress up, you will absolutely feel out of place if you don’t!
- Watch the parades – Martinique has some of the best carnival parades in the entire world. They are the highlight of carnival and local carnival groups spend months making their costumes and practicing their routines. The best part is that you can join in many of the parades!
- Familiarize yourself with the carnival characters: Martinique Carnival has so many unique and traditional characters that feature in the parades and celebrations, it is worth learning about them so you know what to look out for.
- Plan ahead – Carnival is the most popular time of year on the island so book your accommodation early.
- Eat lots of delicious local foods – Don’t count on eating out at lots of restaurants because many shops close down during carnival, instead try the delicious authentic street food which is out in abundance during carnival.
- Soak up the local culture: Carnival is an important part of Martinique’s culture and history. There is so much incredible local culture to enjoy and take in. From the traditional dances, art work, gastronomy and fashion, you will be amazed.
- Get away from the main celebrations: Carnival is celebrated in towns and villages all over the island. Get away from Fort-de-France and explore some of the neighborhoods around the island that have their own personal parties and traditions. It will give you a more intimate look at carnival and is a great chance to spend time with the locals.
- Keep your belongings safe: Having your valuables stolen when traveling can be a nightmare. Big crowds at carnival can make you more vulnerable to pickpocketing. We recommend leaving your valuables back at your accommodation.
- Experience all days of carnival – Carnival is not a sprint, it is a marathon. So don’t go too hard on the first day and miss out on the other celebrations. Pace yourself during carnival, because every day offers something really special and you should try and experience it all.
- Drink responsibly – It probably goes without saying but carnival is a massive party but remember to drink responsibly and stay hydrated.
Martinique Carnival Dictionary
Here are some of the Martinique Carnival phrases that you will hear during carnival:
- The Bradjaks: These are old noisy cars that are decorated in an amazing way, often with bright colors and slogans that criticize current political or social issues. They often drive around carrying a dozen or so men on their roof.
- Walking groups: These are groups of carnavaliers and orchestras that provide the rhythm to the processions. Each group has its own color and identity and anyone can join them and take part in the festivities. Just pick the one you want to follow the most.
- Carnavaliers – In English this means revelers
- Vidés – The name for the groups of people who join the parade and dance behind the trucks or bands.
- Ash Wednesday – The first day of Lent, which is a Catholic tradition that sees 40 days of fasting and abstinence before Easter.
- Dimanche Gras – This means Fat Sunday in English, which is the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday.
- Mardi Gras – Also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday. This is the day before Ash Wednesday, and the last day to indulge in food and fun before the onset of Lent.
- Mercredi des Cendres – This means Ash Wednesday in English.
- Défilé – In English this means parade.
- Char – This is a truck with a sound system attached that plays music.
- Cha-chas – Handmade instruments.