15 Island Festivals
Local groups in Kalibo on Panay Island compete to see who can create the most over-the-top costumes for a grand procession that’s every bit as loud and flashy as Rio’s Carnival parades. Participate in snake dancing—a boisterous Filipino version of a conga line—and enjoy tribal drumming and dancing into the evening; kalibo.gov.ph.
While you’re here: Hop over to nearby Boracay Island for the white-sand strands that many veteran beachcombers consider among the best in Asia.
Where to stay: The President’s Inn in Roxas City is named after the country’s first president, who was born just a block a way. Rates start at $23 per person; roxaspresidentsinn.com.
Singapore: Dragon Boat Festival
Teams from around the globe converge on this Southeast Asian island nation to see who can paddle a dragon boat the fastest. Staged at Marina Bay, the festival’s carnival-like vibe includes music and local foods like the ma chang (rice dumplings) that are ubiquitous at dragon boat races around Asia. But the main event is rowing to the beat of Chinese drums and team chants as thousands cheer on their favorite boats; yoursingapore.com.
While you’re here: Take in a show at the futuristic Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, a waterfront arts complex that resembles a giant fly’s eyes.
Where to stay: The epitome of the British Colonial hotel, Raffles was founded in 1887 and has hosted many celebrated authors over the years, including Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward. The hotel is within walking distance of many of Singapore’s main attractions. Rates start at $466; raffles.com/en_ra/property/rhs.
The saints may go marching in at other carnival locales, but on this island in the French West Indies, the boisterous pre-Lent event revolves around the devil. Festivities kick off with a traditional carnival parade on Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday) but the carnival really heats up on the Day of the Devil, when everyone wears red and dresses in demonic costumes. The climax comes on Ash Wednesday evening at the waterfront La Savane park in Fort-de-France, with a salacious dance of the devils and a bonfire to burn a giant papier-mâché effigy of Vaval that symbolizes the end of the festival and the start of Lent; martinique.org.
While you’re here: Venture up the west coast to the seaside ruins of Saint-Pierre and trek to the top of still-active Mount Pelée.
Where to stay: The chic La Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa has 50 seaside suites boasting Asia-inspired decor with bamboo, touches of hemp, and private plunge pools. Rates start at $552; capest.com.
Montserrat: St. Patrick's Day
Here’s one for Trivial Pursuit lovers: What’s the only other country besides Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is an official national holiday? The tiny Caribbean isle of Montserrat, where March 17 commemorates both the patron saint of the 17th-century Irish Catholics who settled the volcanic landfall as a way to escape English persecution, and a 1768 slave revolt that took place on this date. The 5,140 islanders celebrate with a slew of Irish and Afro-Caribbean traditions that range from green garb and Guinness to goat’s head soap and a junior calypso competition; visitmontserrat.com.
While you’re here: Hire a birding guide through the Montserrat National Trust, and strike off down a jungle trail to see species like the rare Montserrat oriole and the purple-throated Carib.
Where to stay: Perched high above the northwest coast, Gingerbread Hill is the best of the island’s numerous guesthouses, with four different lodging options including the aptly named Heavenly Suite, which has 360-degree views. Rates start at $45; volcano-island.com.
Antigua: Sailing Week
Fun in the sun and serious sailing make Antigua’s annual Sailing Week one of the globe’s premier watersports events. By day, skilled crews complete in more than a dozen different categories broken down by size and shape. By night, everyone parties like crazy in the island’s beachfront resorts and dockside pubs; sailingweek.com.
While you’re here: Visit Nelson’s Dockyard, the British Royal Navy’s major base in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the one-time home of the distinguished admiral. Meticulously restored, the waterfront buildings are now part of the national park.
Where to stay: The über-chic Curtain Bluff resort spills down a Caribbean clifftop into a coconut grove beside the golden beach on the island’s south shore. Rates start at $715; curtainbluff.com.
Jamaica: Calabash International Literacy Festival
The Caribbean’s top literary fest brings together authors, poets, and songwriters to recite or sing their works in open-air tents pitched on a goat pasture that overlooks Treasure Beach on the island’s secluded south shore. Among past highlights were readings by Nobel Laureates such as Wole Soyinka, and musical tributes to the lyrics of Bob Marley; calabashfestival.org.
While you’re here: Cruise the nearby Black River Lower Morass on the lookout for the rare American crocodile, and cool off by the seven cascades of YS Falls.
Where to stay: Jakes Hotel, Villas & Spa personifies laid-back Jamaica with shabby-chic seaside villas (all of them individually decorated) and jungle bungalows near the festival. Rates start at $95; jakeshotel.com.
North Carolina: Ocracoke Alive
Despite the island’s tiny size, Ocracoke has a rich heritage of homegrown crooners and musicians who perform with a distinctive style that blends the lively elements of bluegrass, blues, and folk. Tunes aside, the festival mixes aspects of the island’s long and often quirky history (Blackbeard the pirate was killed here), and fresh-off-the-boat seafood, and local crafts (pottery, weaving, jewelry). Many of the concerts and events take place among the village’s nearly 250 historic structures; ocracokealive.org.
While you’re here: Ride the 40-minute ferry between Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, beach hopping up the coast to Kill Devil Hills for tacos at Bad Bean Baja Grill & Cantina and a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Where to stay: Near the center of the Village, Thurston House Inn occupies a 1920s clapboard manse built by a celebrated local sea captain. Nowadays the 10-room inn is a place where you can get a slice of local history and marvelous Ocracoke fig cake. Rates start at $95; thurstonhouseinn.com.
Tahiti: Heiva I Tahiti
Heiva simply means “community assembly” in Tahitian. But when the locals get together in Papeete, on the big island of Tahiti, it means song, dance, sporting events, and lots of traditional food. The first Heiva was held in 1881 to coincide with Bastille Day (July 14). And these days, it’s the largest and longest festival in French Polynesia. The celebration includes beauty pageants, competitive stone lifting, and outrigger canoe races; tahiti-tourisme.com.
While you’re here: Spend an afternoon touring the home of expat American author James Norman Hall, who co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty. His seaside bungalow in Aure is now a small but unique museum.
Where to stay: With its serene lagoon and private beach, over-water bungalows, luxurious spa, and sunset views across the water to Moorea, the InterContinental Resort Tahiti wows. Rates start at $191; ichotelsgroup.com.
Barbados: Crop Over Festival
For more than 200 years, Bajans have celebrated the end of the sugar-cane harvest with a boisterous bash that washes over Bridgetown and many local beaches. It helps to know the lingo: “Kadooments” are carnival parades; a “dooflicky” is a special event that might include arts and crafts, or an indigenous game called road tennis; and “liming” is chilling with friends on a beach or in a local tavern; barbadoscropoverfestival.com.
While you’re here: Spend a day on the island’s east coast, exploring the grounds of 18th century Codrington College (one of the finest examples of British Colonial architecture in the Caribbean), and enjoying flying fish at The Cove restaurant.
Where to stay: The 1887 Crane Hotel has been resurrected as a chic beach retreat. Stay in the historic residences, decorated with antiques, hardwood floors, and original coral stone walls, or in the new garden or sea-view suites. Rates start at $196; thecrane.com.
Scotland: Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Offbeat and obscure comedy, music, dance, and drama step into the limelight. The scale is enormous: more than 40,000 performances attended by nearly 2 million people, including numerous events in Edinburgh’s seaside suburbs of Musselburgh, Leith, and Granton; edfringe.com.
While you’re here: Visit the Royal Yacht Brittania, now permanently docked at Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal. Launched in 1953, the steamer was the royal family’s floating palace on 968 voyages over 44 years.
Where to stay: The Malmaison Edinburgh is a habor-view boutique hotel that blends a bygone vibe with 21st-century comfort and style. Rates start at $127; malmaison.com.
British Virgin Islands: August Festival
This island fest commemorates the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British Empire. One of the 14 British over-seas territories, BVI celebrates with beachfront reggae, soca, and calypso concerts, plus donkey and horse racing. There’s also a freedom march and grand cultural parade through Road Town, the capital and main seaport; bvitourism.com.
While you’re here: Get out on the water with a guided day trip to uninhabited Norman Island, where the real-life version of Treasure Island played out.
Where to stay: To enjoy the festival to its fullest, stay at the upscale Sugar Mill Hotel on the main island of Tortola. Located on the secluded north shore, the resort is more old-school than über-hip, a throwback to the 1950s, when sublime relaxation (rather than adrenaline-pumping recreation) was the trump card of the best Caribbean hotels. Rates start at $240; sugarmillhotel.com.
Oahu: Slack Key Guitar Festival
Hawaii’s homegrown acoustic guitar fest is a moveable musical feast that makes its second stop on the island of Oahu. Festivalgoers gather in Kapiolani Park to listen to Grammy-winning guitarists strum “slacked key” (loose-string) instruments and sing; slackkeyfestival.com.
While you’re here: Duck into the Bishop Museum for a glimpse of old Hawaii, including kahili (feather standards) once carried like scepters by Hawaiian royalty.
Where to stay: Base your stay at the chic little Hotel Renew, a block off the beach and a five-minute walk from Kapiolani Park. Rates start at $148; hotelrenew.com.
Prince Edward Island, Canada: Shellfish Festival
How many different ways can you serve lobster? Find out at PEI’s annual seafood extravaganza, where the bright red (after they’re boiled, of course) crustaceans are served in burgers, bisques, pot pies, and paella. Other shellfish are not neglected—the festival also features clam chowder-making and oyster-shucking contest; peishellfish.com.
While you’re here: Hike or bike the Confederation Trail, a 170-mile-long backcountry pathway that stretches from one end of the island to the other along an old railroad right of way.
Where to stay: The Great George occupies an 1846 hotel with vintage Romantic Hideaway Suites and luxury condo options. Rates start at $179; thegreatgeorge.com.
Ireland: Match-Making Festival
August 31-October 7
County Clare’s official matchmaker plays cupid for thousands of singles in a festival that blends copious amounts of Irish music with dance, food, and drink. Located in the tiny coastal village of Lisdoonvarna, the month-long love-in was created as a means for local farmers to meet potential wives via formal match-making sessions or at nightly musical events. The festival now attracts singles (and lovers of Irish culture) from all around Europe and North America; matchmakerireland.com.
While you’re here: Take the 90-minute ferry over to the Aran Islands, and then head out to hear traditional Irish music in the water-front pubs of Doolin.
Where to stay: Perched beside the sea, Ballinalacken combines the ruins of a 15th-century castle and an 1840 manor house into a romantic hotel. Rates start at $89; ballinalackencastle.com.
Nantucket: Christmas Stroll
The ghost of yuletides past is very much alive during the annual Christmas Stroll. Main Street and much of the rest of the village time travels back to the Victorian era for an old-fashioned winter fest that includes music, crafts, and fair food. Festivities kick off with a Tree Lighting Ceremony and continue with the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus via boat at the main wharf.
While you're here: Trek the rolling dunes and while seascapes of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, which wraps around the island's north end.
Where to stay: The waterfront White Elephant has spacious guest rooms in the main building. Rates start at $195; whiteelephanthotel.com.