Jamaica Carnival: The official fete review
It took us a while but our thoughts are officially collected. Here is our comprehensive review of the fetes we attended for Jamaica Carnival 2018.
**Note - prices and locations are subject to change from year to year**
Candy Coated’s ‘One Love’ Cruise
Day: Carnival Friday, 11am – 3pm
Type: Drinks and food inclusive cruise
Price: $91 USD (Eventbrite)
Location : Treasure Queen, Kingston Mall, Kingston
What to wear: Beachwear/swimwear and a cover up or shorts
Overall: Candy Coated Cruise is a party that has been exported from the biggest carnival island – Trinidad. They throw two big boat-themed fetes in Jamaica. Sadly we were only in Kingston long enough to take in one of them – the sold-out ‘One Love’ cruise that happened on the Friday before the road parade. The ship was supposed to start boarding at 10 and depart at 11. Knowing the ins and outs of ‘island time’ we arrived 11 to find a slow moving line.
The ship was a three storied vessel called the Treasure Queen with plenty of open air areas. We entered on the ground-floor level and were given bright yellow color-change cocktail cups. Signature Candy Coated shirts and hats were available for sale as usual. Both of us have purchased Candy Coated hats and shirts at other parties but we resisted the urge to buy this time. The second level was a balcony area that looked down upon the dance floor. The third level was an open-air deck, allowing for beautiful ocean views. Each level had at least one bar, but the food and ‘love punch’ (rum punch) were all on the top deck, along with several areas around the edge of the boat to sit and take in the sea air. We were lucky to have gorgeous weather and blue skies.
Omnivores seemed to eat well with a menu that included rasta pasta, barbequed chicken and rice. Once the offerings on one set of trays ran out, the servers reupped the food table with a different set of dishes. There was a variety of food available throughout the party.
The music was in the theme of Jamaican carnival which meant it was soca and dancehall. Dancehall fans will find that the party leans more towards soca, although all the biggest dancehall hits are on the DJ’s playlist. The crowd is mostly feters in their 20s and 30s, all in their stylish best with swimwear and bright cover-ups. Candy Coated was a good warm up for our Jamaica adventure.
● Bar Service. The bar was adequately stocked with a good selection of rum, whisky, vodka and the only-available-in-the-Caribbean Henny White. Drinks were easy to get with little wait.
● Scenic views. If you have read any of our previous fete reviews you know we love a boat cruise, and Jamaica offers gorgeous ocean views.
● Music. The DJs and the hypemen were pros and bringing the energy levels up for those partiers who truly want to fete.
● Boarding Process. Like several events in JA carnival we found they were running with a skeleton crew which made for a long wait to get on the ship.
● Vegetarian food. The options were rather limited for a vegan – festival and root vegetables. We never expect for parties to cater to us so this wasn't a big deal, but Candy Coated if you are listening some vegan options would be awesome!
● Mellow vibes. Wild partying wasn’t the goal for the bulk of this crowd, as most people were content to drink their drinks and dance gently. If your aim is to fete until the boat tips over you will find a few kindred spirits but somehow it wasn't a crowd of bacchanalists.
● Buy tickets early. This party sells out early and re-sale tickets are always sold with a significant upcharge.
● Make a pre-cruise plan. You will most certainly be waiting for some period of time before boarding, so plan accordingly. We suggest you bring a water bottle or flask to stay "hydrated" while waiting for the cruise.
Soca Brainwash Jamrock
Day: Carnival Friday, 12noon – 6pm
Type: Drinks and food inclusive day party
Price: $95 USD (Early bird)
Location : Mona Hockey Field, Kingston
What to wear: Festival wear – jean shorts, t-shirt/crop top, romper, **flag
Overall: If you plan to hit the biggest parties, Jamaica carnival can seem like a sprint. We went almost directly from the Candy Coated Cruise to Soca Brainwash, another export from Trinidad. The party is the brainchild of DJ Private Ryan, who markets himself as the biggest soca DJ in the world. It isn’t an exaggeration since many carnival chasers await the release of DJ Private Ryan’s mixes to find out the hottest music for each carnival season. Getting a ticket to the TnT edition of Soca Brainwash advanced planning, and often several hours of sitting in online ques. It sells out on the first day, usually within the first couple hours. Since starting Soca Brainwash 5 years ago in Trinidad, he has taken the party to Barbados, New York City, Miami and Toronto.
This was the second year for Soca Brainwash Jamrock and this year’s theme was Live Love Soca: The Diary of a Soca Addict. DJ Private Ryan released an early set of discounted tickets that sold out within minutes, but regular party tickets remained available online until the day of the party with limited tickets also available at the door. The party started at 1pm but we didn’t arrive until well after 4. There was no line at that time so we walked right in. Mona Hockey Field is a large grassy area. We heard reports that it poured during Soca Brainwash 2017, and saw amazing footage of the crowd dancing in the rain. We were lucky to have clear skies.
In the spirit of being in Jamaica, there were yellow, green and red cups available as you entered the party. You then walk by an entrance to a food pavilion that had various food stands serving casual street food like pizza, fried chicken, fries and the traditional Trinidadian food, doubles. The food stands are located around the outside of the food area and a seating area is located in the center.
Just outside of the food zone was one long large bar serving basic alcoholic selections. Bar service was quick and efficient. This is one of the few parties that offered bottle service as an option for those who wanted line bypass and an area to sit. Who orders bottles at a drinks-inclusive party? No clue, but it is an option.
The DJs are set up concert-style on a large stage several meters away from the bar. The hypemen brought energy to the party and worked the stage. There was plenty of room to move around and the music was a mix of soca with a touch of dancehall. Private Ryan is always the last DJ to come on, and this year he brought fan favorite Walshy Fire from Major Lazer along. He reminisced about being at the very first Brainwash party ever 5 years ago. DJ Private Ryan’s set is always well thought out and full of vibes.
The crowd is largely in their 20s and 30s, and they were enjoying themselves without breaking too much of a sweat initially, but they warmed up as the sun set. We genna bounced and flung shoulders on command. Without fail, once the party reaches a certain height there is always some courageous exhibitionist who starts climbing to the height of the risers, wanting to whine above the crowds. And it is always the hypemen who gently coax the amateur spider men and women to come down from their perch.
Although the listed end time was 6pm, we shut the party down around 8:30pm. Another solid effort by Mr. Private Ryan.
● Long party. The party runs later than the listed time, which is good for people who want to attend the boat parties that occur earlier in the day (MEDZ, Candy Coated One Love)
● Diversity. Soca Brainwash is a party that celebrates its diversity, and people usually walk with their flags. We were sad to have left ours in NYC, but others remembered, as we heard shout outs to places as disparate as Dubai, Australia and Panama.
● Wicked DJs. DJ Private Ryan lives up to the hype. He and his line-up of DJs weave music together in the most creative ways
● The grass. The party is set at Mona Hockey Field, which is a large grassy area that resembles a large park. The grass is only a ‘con’ if it rains. For this reason it is also important to consider to footwear and dress/skirt length because carnival is in the rainy season in Jamaica. One downpour can turn a sunny party in to a mud fete.
● Light attendance. The fete was well-attended but not packed. Friday is a very popular night for parties, and Soca Brainwash goes head-to-head with Scorch’s _uckwork party, who’s headliner was Soca King Machel Montano. This might be why the party did not sell out, but Soca Brainwash is still in its early years and will likely continue to gain in popularity.
● Mellow vibes. It could have been that folks were tired from the morning boat rides/dock parties but the energy didn’t reach bashment levels.
● Don’t forget your flag!
● Wear flats or wedges because the ground will be uneven
● Don’t be that guy/girl who climbs the risers. It ain’t cute
Day : The wee hours of Carnival Saturday, 2am – 8am
Type: Drinks and food inclusive j’ouvert party
Price: $95 USD (via committee member approval)
Location : Secret
What to wear: Provided t-shirt + swim suit bottoms/shorts
Overall: Ambush JA was a movie y’all. AM Bush replicates a jouvert party, which is a staple event in Caribbean carnival culture. If you want more detail on j’ouvert, see our explanation here. The Ambush concept has been widely successful, so what was originally a party in Trinidad has been exported to carnivals in Barbados and Jamaica. We suspect it will show up at other Caribbean carnivals soon as well.
In return for the ticket price you receive a wristband, themed t-shirt, bandanna, the signature gold Caesar’s army temporary tattoo and your all-important covered drinking cup. The wristband and the shirt are mandatory, likely so AM Bush security and crew can identify those who paid from any revelers who might be trying to crash the party. But don’t feel like you’ll be a faceless feter with your matching shirt - - this is actually your chance to be creative. No one wears their shirts as-is. Instead people slice and dice the shirts and stitch and tie them back together in unrecognizable ways. Our crew ordered large shirts knowing we would turn them into high cut monokinis, but in past years we’ve created a variety of tanks and crop tops. At one time Caesar’s army used to provide boy shorts in the packages, but now you are expected to provide your own bottoms. Men usually wear comfortable sport shorts while women wear bikini bottoms or full swimsuits. If you need ideas check out the AM Bush Facebook album or the Caesar’s Army Instagram page.
The crowds were already thick when we arrived, but no one really minded waiting in line for the shuttles that took us into the bush. Caesar’s Army was prepared, having a group of live drummers entertain the waiting crowds. There were shooter girls decorated with tribal face paint ready to pour flavored liqueur for anyone brave enough to try it. The shuttles were large and efficient, moving the masses with ease.
When we arrived at the party people were already jamming between the massive music and drink trucks. JA had 3 or 4 music trucks as well as mobile bars and one final truck with port-a-potties (a nice touch, although most Ambush attendees choose to relieve themselves in the bush). They had already given out all of the paint so we didn’t get the chance to pelt strangers with liquid color, but were kept occupied running from other fêters who were determined to see us looking dirty. People perched on the music trucks were also throwing paint so be ready to get dutty. When the sun came up they began to give out packs of powder.
The paint and powder part of the party ends where the shuttles originally dropped off. There was food available (wraps, doubles, chicken etc) as well as a large water truck with a steady stream water from a huge hose. If you’re smart you’ll wash off in there before jumping into your ride home. Although the road mas ends the party continues at the food spot with DJs and a surprise performance by crowd favorite, the Viking himself, Bunji Garlin. Although some people had more bacchanal left in them, this is around this time you’ll see folks wilting in the morning sun, which signals time to go home (by going home, we mean stopping off at home to get pretty before heading to Sunrise Breakfast fete)
● AMBush JA was *VIBES*. This is our fourth AMbush, and it is easily one of the best parties of carnival. We can’t believe we are writing this, but AM Bush JA was actually BETTER than AM Bush in Trinidad this year.
● The crowd is suuuuper friendly. Of course you should always keep your wits about you but people here genuinely seemed to be just looking for fun. Both of us wandered away from our friend group multiple times and happily partied solo until we found our group again.
● The paint. A few friends found the paint was too watery, but we honestly didn’t mind! It made clean up easier!
● Slow bar service. Bars were understaffed 3 so the bartenders couldn’t dream of being able to quickly serve the huge number of revelers. All annoyances were forgotten once the drinks were in hand but no one wants to spend precious party time waiting for a rum punch.
● Get a reliable driver to meet pick you up from AM Bush at a prearranged time. The party schedule in Jamaica is packed, so if you leave one party too late you will miss a lot of the other. We were hoping to dash from Ambush to Sunrise Breakfast fete, but our driver showed up over an hour late. Also, Ambush is one of those parties where it is easy to go overboard. By the time the sun comes up you or a member of your crew might be a bit more drunk, wet and tired than expected. There is nothing worse than having to wait an hour for a driver while trying to keep a sick friend upright or being sick yourself. In short, wasting precious time waiting for a ride is an annoyance no one needs. Make sure that driver is reliable!
● Think about how you’re going to cut your shirt creatively beforehand. You can find plenty of Pinterest boards and images of ways to slice up a simple t-shirt. You may want to pack some sharp scissors and/or a sewing kit in your checked luggage for this purpose.
● Cover yourself in baby oil before you get to the party. This will make it much easier to scrub the paint and powder from your skin after the jam. We’ve had the best luck with baby oil gel. This oil is dual purpose since we also use it to add some shine to our bodies before other carnival parties and for mas.
● Don’t forget your cup. There are plastic cups at the bar for all who forget their true drink ware, but if you drink from an un-lidded cup be prepared to be drinking paint, powder and whatever other substances are flying through the air when the party gets into full swing.
● If you don’t want to get too dirty avoid the powder at all costs. It stains much more than the paint.
Sunrise Breakfast Fete
Day : Carnival Saturday , 5:00am - 12noon
Type: All-inclusive breakfast fete
Price: $105 USD (early bird) $120 USD (standard) $160 USD (Late bird)
Location : Constant Spring Golf Course, Kingston
What to wear: Stylish summer dress, fancy romper, bright colors, polo shirts
Overall: From the moment we decided to attend JA carnival, carnival veterans told us there was one party we absolutely could not miss – Sunnation’s Sunrise Breakfast Party on Carnival Saturday. We were glad we took their advice because this was the best party of them all.
Sunrise is held on the grounds of a golf course in Kingston. The party happens right after AMBush, so we had to hustle back to the hotel, scrub ourselves clean and put on our Saturday best. Of all of the JA carnival parties Sunrise is a fashion show, and the attire is creative to say the least. The massive crowd was largely in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, full of energy and ready to fete. Our advice– wear the least amount of clothes possible. Since the setting is a golf course there is little to no naturally occurring shade, and the sun is blazing. The event promoters must be well aware of the heat since they gave out fans at the door.
If you arrive early Sunrise will seem like a very long party. The official start time is 5am, but we didn’t arrive until around noon. The party hadn’t yet reached its height and people were still streaming in. We joined a long but fast-moving line. There is a decorated wall as you enter and we waited in line to take ‘gram-able’ photos in front of it.
The dedicated food section of the party had selections separated by nationality. The Jamaican selections included patties, traditional Jamaican breakfast with ackee and saltfish, fries, waffles, doubles, made-to-order omelette and more. The vegan selections were the Trini breakfast items (doubles, callaloo dumplings), vegetable Jamaican patties and some very bland fries. We dined like kings on vegetable patties, doubles, fried rice and fries, which doesn’t quite sound like the breakfast of champions but we felt satisfied. The restaurateurs seemed to be prepared for the crowds since the food was still plentiful when we arrived. The bars in the food area had a very limited selection of chasers that were mostly juice.
The larger bars were found on the opposite side of the party, and many of these areas were either air conditioned or had fans. Like Soca Brainwash, bottle service was available for those who wanted cabanas and dedicated hostesses. The DJ lineup was also impressive, and as the party reaches its final hours they bring out a lineup of surprise artists.
This year’s surprises included 3 time Trinidadian Soca Monarch Voice, dancehall king Aidonna and the king of soca himself, Machel Montano. Party goers were hype to begin with so the arrival of surprise artists added fuel to an already electric crowd. The energy level was the highest of any party we attended in Jamaica. Bess fete!
● Food. Sunrise is marketed as a breakfast party, and the promoters make food a priority. Vegans and vegetarians will find large quantities and the best options here. Omnivores have even more selection with a variety of meat patties (shrimp, beef, jerk chicken), made-to-order omelettes, chicken and waffles, and much much more.
● Performances. Sunnation doesn’t advertise a single performer but managed to pull major acts like Voice, Aidonna and Machel Montano. Well played Sunnation!
● People watching. This party is a dream for ‘street style’ photographers. We were so impressed by the creativity most party-goers displayed. Come in your Saturday best!
● The Heat🔥 You. Will. Sweat. Sunrise has several tented areas set up and some of the bar areas have fans/air conditioning, but be warned. There is very little natural shade to be found.
● No cups! Everyone is supposed to receive a gorgeous plastic lidded cup upon entry, but there were no more left when we arrived. We did arrive about 6 hours after the party started, but we still wanted cups dammit!
● If you plan to attend AMBush and Sunrise make sure to pace yourself. It is possible to do both parties as long as you keep some energy left for the breakfast party. You will regret missing Sunrise.
● Arrive early if you want to ensure you get a cup.
● Prepare for the heat! Wear sunscreen. Bring a hat. We even saw some creative party attendees with motorized fans attached to their cell phones. Find a way to stay cool.
Day: Carnival Saturday, 5pm – 11pm
Type: Carnival chic High quality food and drink inclusive, concert
Location : Cherry Gardens, Kingston
What to wear: cocktail dresses, fancy rompers, stylish slacks, dress shorts and a blouse
Overall: This party was held on the grounds of a mansion in a residential area outside of Kingston called Cherry Gardens. Frenchmen is Jamaica-based party promotion crew with a reputation for providing lavish service to their patrons. They host several pre-carnival events and even sponsor a few VIP sections in the mas band Bacchanal Jamaica. Bazodee is their last and most premium carnival event. Save your fancy outfit for this one.
You enter through a tented area decorated tastefully with art and antique-looking chairs. There are several areas here with the ideal lighting for Instagram-worthy photos, and there is an official event photographer taking pictures for all who want to pose for them. When you get inside you can either go left or right.
To the right there is a selection of high quality food and a seating area. as shown below. The vegetarian options were the samosas, doubles, spring rolls, mango chutney, vegetarian fried rice and buss up shot roti. The meat-fee items must have been quite popular because the food was done by 9pm. Given that we arrived at 8:30, we didn’t get to sample as many of these options as we would have wanted. They also have Häagen-Dazs ice cream and gourmet donuts available for dessert. There is one small bar in the food area, but the majority of the alcohol is on the other side of the party
To the left of the entrance was one smaller themed vodka bar and another large bar serving all types of alcohol. The bars were probably better stocked than at most parties but since we tend to stick to rum we didn’t take advantage of the more premium brands. There is a large area for dancing in front of the impressive stage.
The age of the partiers ranged from 30s to likely 60s, with most of the patrons on the older side of the spectrum. The Caribbean is different from most places in that the celebration of carnival is enjoyed by people of all ages, and the opulence of Bazodee caters to the older crowd. When we arrived the party was still in the early stages, and an all-star cast of DJs helped to warm the party up. The list included DJ Private Ryan, DJ Back to Basics, DJ Smoke and DJ Lantern.
At around 10:30 there was a performance by Alison Hinds. If she warmed the party up, Kes came on and shut the party down. Frenchmen likely have a rotating cast of performers, but if you happen to be able to attend during a year when Kes is invited, don’t miss it. He did have some pyrotechnics but the energy largely came from his charm, and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It also helps that Kes has a huge catalog of amazing soca hits which he ran though seamlessly, peppering his set with a few dancehall tunes. He even brought out Sekon Sta.
The party didn’t stop after the performance as the DJ returned to the stage for a wicked dancehall set. Bazodee didn’t disappoint.
● Food quality. This is a main draw for many people. The Frenchmen crew release a menu beforehand as a teaser and it is lavish, with fish and bake, curry goat, saltfish fritters, jerk pork and more.
● One word: Kes. He is an *incredible* live artists who brings energy to the stage without having a single backup dancer.
● The floor. Unlike every other fete, the ground was not grass. It was some sort of wooden platform. Having solid ground makes it much easier in the event of rain, and it also makes wearing heels easier.
● The bathrooms. Y’all know how much we fear public restrooms, particularly those at outdoor fetes. However the port-a-potties at Bazodee are top notch. They are kept in great condition by a worker who cleaned the stall after each use.
● Food quantity. The vegetarian/vegan selections sold out relatively early. By 9pm we were subsisting on white rice.
● If you want to take advantage of all of the luxurious food, make sure you arrive before 8pm.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the fetes in Jamaica. Post reviews in the comments! Happy feting!