Summer splash

There’s lots to do in the Caribbean on those lazy, hazy days of summer. Simon Lee samples some of the best fun of the long school holidays

Barbados Crop Over. Photograph by Chris HuxleyCoco Point Beach, Barbuda. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue Mango

School’s out, it’s high summer, and you find yourself in the Caribbean. But then, it’s always summer in the Caribbean (although July actually falls early in the wet season in many islands, not that the rain interferes much with the temperature), and some of us can squeeze in the high part with a bar full of cocktails whose names cannot be printed in a family oriented magazine like ours.

Or simply by heading to the British Virgin Islands. Which is what I did a few years back for July’s exhilarating HIHO Windsurfing Competition. This week-long wave-fest takes competitors and spectators island-hopping through some of the most beautiful waters this side of Paradise. Don’t worry if you’ve never touched a windsurf board, you’ll still be able to Hook In (as in HI) to the bar and Hold On (as in HO) to whatever takes your fancy, as there are lunchtime beach parties and nightly shindigs from Tortola all the way to Anegeda. (Believe me, I never got so much as to touch a board but I had a high old time as congaline and party cheerleader.)

This is not to say I was a windsurfing virgin. Far from it, as Brian “Irie Man” Talma, Barbados’s internationally acclaimed windsurfer, will confirm. He actually got me to stand up on a board for a few seconds once, but that was purely professional: I was writing an article on windsurfing and felt honour-bound to try it, and he was being his usual charming self. Some of us Caribbean writers take our work very seriously and will leave no coconut unturned, nor beach uncombed, in our quest for excellence.

Take me and scuba diving, for instance. Last year I was called upon to write extensively on the world below the waters, rather than my usual brief, which is the magic above. I knew I’d have to don mask, flippers and tank and drop off into the deep to get my story, so before you could sing “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of . . .”, there was I at the stern of a boat, climbing into a wetsuit. This was going to be easy, possibly even fun, I thought, for a few minutes. Staggering first, then plummeting oxygen-tank-laden below the boat moments later, I changed my mind. Despite all the dry-land instructions, panic swallowed me faster than Jonah. Spluttering in the heavy swell I gave a thumbs-down sign to my instructor which would’ve done Nero proud, or sent Russell Crowe to the lions.

Back on terra firma, I soon forgot my own terror when I joined the wedding procession meandering through the Tobago hilltop village of Moriah. This re-enactment of a 19th-century village wedding is one of the high spots of Tobago’s Heritage Festival. Maybe it’s not quite as exciting as riding a giant manta ray underwater, but it’s a wonderful insight into folkways, and plenty fun and food, too.

If you really want to enter the spirit of the occasion you could get into costume: black stove-pipe hats and tailcoats for men, wedding gowns, white gloves for women and a large umbrella to fend off the sun.

After the service, the whole wedding party weaves its way along the narrow road, gathering people en route, moving to the stirring music of a tambrin band: fiddle, shallow goatskin tambrin drums held shoulder high, and tintinnabulistic triangles. Frequent stops are made while impromptu jigs and reels are performed roadside and the bridal party rest their head loads: wedding cake wrapped in gauze; trousseau trunk topped with snowy white sheets, a breadfruit for fertility and a tray of sugarcanes “to add sweetness to the marriage”.

After the procession comes the reception held in a field where, fortified with some succulent Tobagonian cuisine, you can enjoy the speechifying, some sketches of village life and join the celebrations by dancing the heel-and-toe.

Talking of celebrations, Emancipation is celebrated throughout much of the English Caribbean on 1 August, commemorating the long-overdue abolition of slavery in 1834. This is one of the many occasions you’ll hear the heartbeat of the region: African drums, which have been providing the rhythms we’ve been dancing to for the last 500 years.

Talking about dancing, I must mention that summer is also the time for carnivals — from Barbados’s Crop Over to the smaller, but no less lively celebrations in Grenada, St Vincent and St Lucia.

For rhythms of a slightly different kind, check out the Dominican Republic’s Merengue Festival or Guadeloupe’s Gwo Ka Festival, both held in July, or Curaçao’s Salsa Festival, held in August. And why stop here when you can learn to move like a Carib at Trinidad’s Santa Rosa de Arima Festival held on 25 August by descendants of the region’s indigenous people? As an honorary Carib I’ll be there in spirit, but that’s another story, so keep reading this column . . .