Every year, the Carnaval festivities on St. Barths come to a dramatic close with one last hurrah – the Wednesday following Mardis Gras. In keeping with tradition, there is a final parade in which a straw filled effigy of Vaval, the King of Carnaval, is paraded through the streets of Gustavia, ultimately to be set aflame in a huge bonfire celebration at Shell Beach.
A crowd gathers around the bonfire at Shell Beach.
I arrived at Shell Beach early to see the bonfire being set up, and although the parade did not start until 8 PM, many people had already staked out their spot on the beach. With beach blankets and stocked coolers, there was a building energy to the scene as more and more people arrived.
The Calypso Band plays outside Le Select as the crowd grows.
As 8 O’clock drew near, I followed the sound of the steel drums and found myself at the beginning of the parade route, directly in front of Le Select. There was Vaval, ready to begin the journey to the beach. The parade itself began at the corner of Le Select and travelled past the small shops, past St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church and all the way down to the far corner of the harbor. With a Calypso Band leading the procession, and drum brigade at the back, and Vaval being carried by chanting “officiants”dressed in black and white, the crowd itself made up the majority of the parade. As we made our way down the route more and more people joined in. Most restaurants along the water front were open for dinner, so those enjoying a meal were treated to elevated local flavor. Frequent stops were made to revive Vaval, each time marked by a flourish of music and dancing. The overall feeling was not that of a funeral at all, it was certainly a celebration and thanks to Vaval for granting the pleasure of Mardis Gras and Carnaval.
Children attempt to revive Vaval, the King of Carnaval
It took us about an hour to make our way to Shell Beach, and upon arriving the huge crowd of the parade merged with a beach full of people, all gathered around the bonfire pyre. The music continued, and with a few quick lights, the straw filled Vaval was up in flames. The crowd cheered and danced under the stars, enjoying the last night of this year’s Carnaval.