The culture of the Caribbean

We explore the music, art and crafts that make these spectacular islands so special

By Siobhan Grogan

On every Caribbean island, creativity is as fundamental to life as the sea and sunshine. The islands buzz with originality at every turn, inspired by their unique landscapes. Making the most of all it has to offer allows us the opportunity to understand exactly what makes each island and its people so special, ensuring the memories – and inspiration – of this holiday of a lifetime will stay with you long after your tan has faded. Here we look at the art and artists creating the culture of the Caribbean...

Where art thou

From its expanses of tropical rainforest to its vivid coral reefs, the Caribbean is alive with sun-drenched colour at every turn, plus an abundance of natural wonders to inspire artists. Soaring mountains, vast palm trees and mesmerising sunsets all feature strongly in local Caribbean art, often characterised by its bright colours and light sense of humour. Much of the most striking artwork to emerge from the islands is also influenced by the region’s complicated origins, reflecting African roots, European colonialism and Asian heritage alongside the long history of the Caribbean’s indigenous people. Using painting, photography and sculpture, Caribbean artists provide a captivating insight into the area’s political, social and cultural landscape while forging their own unique style from the melting pot of influences they have been raised with.

Emiel Molenaar/Unsplash

One of the most flourishing art scenes in all the Caribbean can today be found in Curaçao. Forty miles off Venezuela, Curaçao is home to more than 50 nationalities, so its artwork often reflects its colourful history, stunning coral reefs and dramatic volcanic coastline. Known for mystical hidden caves, dramatic salt marshes and distinctive pink flamingos, Curaçao has also built a reputation for its art scene thanks to its many galleries, astonishing street art and well-regarded contemporary creatives such as Nena Sanchez who captured the island’s tropical colours in her works.

Art lovers should tear themselves away from the island’s astonishing, and often deserted, beaches to visit capital Willemstaad (above), which appears like an open-air gallery with pastel colonial buildings, charming grandeur and vivid coloured floating market. The island owes its photogenic appearance in part to Governor Albert Kickert who complained in 1918 that the then all-white city gave him a terrible headache and ordered all buildings to be repainted in different colours. It later transpired the governor also owned the only paint factory on the island – so perhaps his decision reflected his finances more than his migraine.

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Today, beyond the colours of the city’s architecture, the streets of the Scharloo district are also home to Curaçao’s renowned street murals with their vibrant rainbow colours. Walk down Bitterstraat to see the best, including the awe-inspiring Three O’Clock Romance by Francis Sling, which adorns a whole building at the Van Raderstraat – expect punchy yellow tropical flowers against an arresting blue painted Caribbean sky.

Sounds of the sea

From reggae to Rihanna, the sound of the Caribbean is loud, proud and the best way to get a party started. A joyful product of the islands’ multicultural influences and long sunny days, music is as intrinsic as the sound of waves lapping the shore. Capturing the laid-back attitude and zest for life, it features upbeat rhythms, African-inspired percussion, simple melodies and heavy bass.

Of course, the Caribbean is world famous as the home of reggae and no trip to Jamaica is complete without enjoying some tunes in the very place they were created. On the popular Princess Cruises’ shore excursion to Reggae Hill on the northern tip of the island, guests can chill out to the sounds of a live reggae and dancehall band or DJ while they swim in the cool river, seek shade under 100-year-old trees, enjoy performances from local dancers and tuck into a lunch of Jamaican dishes washed down with strawberry guava rum punch and mojitos. This is definitely the way reggae was intended to be heard.

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However, for the ultimate reggae pilgrimage, head to Kingston to visit the Bob Marley Museum and see the Jamaican icon’s personal recording studio, clothes, awards and bedroom of his former home. For the ultimate taste of Jamaica, fans can even visit the museum’s One Love Café, which serves recipes inspired by the star’s Rastafarian lifestyle. Afterwards, make a beeline to Negril, where Marley went to be inspired to write lyrics and now local bands play open-air stages at bars on the water’s edge. Relax with a cocktail and sand between your toes at Alfred’s or enjoy the party atmosphere, tangerine sunsets and foolhardy cliff-divers at Rick’s Café, Jamaica’s best-known live music venue.

The other islands all have their own distinctive sound, too. Trinidad pulsates to soca, Martinique and Guadeloupe gyrate to zouk, Puerto Rico parties to salsa and the Dominican Republic moves to merengue. Wherever you visit, the music of the Caribbean truly comes alive at carnival time, or in spirited weekly street parties where locals and tourists alike come out to tuck into street food, enjoy live music and celebrate glorious balmy evenings. One of the best is the legendary Jump Up at Gros Islet in St. Lucia, where roads are closed and crowds tuck into barbecued fish and grilled chicken to booming Caribbean beats blasted from giant loudspeakers as the sun sets.

If you’re not in town on the right day or just can’t decide if you’d rather hear salsa or soca, try them all onboard with the Rhythm of the Caribbean programme. Promising authentic tropical dishes, exhilarating themed parties and lively musical performances from across the Caribbean, this is the ultimate opportunity to dance under the stars to the very best music the islands have inspired, without leaving the ship.

Handy work

For the ultimate souvenir of Caribbean creativity, turn to the islands’ talented craftspeople, who capture the natural beauty of the region in their work, often using methods handed down through generations. Inspired by the beaches, forests and mountains, they use local materials to create pottery, jewellery and carvings as unique to each island as the landscape itself. A world-renowned paradise of glittering white sands and shipwreck-filled waters, Grand Cayman offers a treasure trove of inspiration for the island’s creative minds.

For crafts you can pack in your case, look to the Cayman Craft Market on the Flavours of the Cayman Islands tour. After a lunch and rum tasting, the excursion heads to the busy market in George Town where shoppers will be in seventh heaven wandering the arts and crafts stalls, from conch shells, palm thatch and the unique local rock, Caymanite. Pick up jewellery made of the stones, one-off wood carvings, woven thatch bags and products fashioned from materials such as seeds and polished coconuts, alongside local spices, pickles and snacks so you can bring a real flavour of the Caymans home with you.

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About the Author

Siobhan Grogan

Siobhan Grogan

Siobhan is a travel, music and lifestyle journalist who has written for publications including NME, Harper’s Bazaar, British Airway’s High Life, Grazia, City AM and the Evening Standard. She is constantly searching out new destinations to explore, but loves returning to Sydney, New York and Italy.

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