Caribbean nightlife has long been an oxymoron where tourists are concerned. Sundowners don’t count. Dancing to antique reggae while inhaling Banana Boat fumes doesn’t count. Long walks on the beach followed by high-thread count sex are great – and also don’t count. But (more often than not) the limitations of island life aren’t real, just the result of concerned, conservative concierges trying to keep foreign money on site. Vacationers don’t know where to go.
There’s the Caribbean of beach bars and boat drinks, to be sure. And the all-inclusive crowd (“Where are you from?” “Wisconsin!”) is all over that. But there’s much more than that if you’re willing to venture out beyond the novelty margaritas and mix it up. The Caribbean is way more exciting and considerably more welcoming than most Americans expect.
Here’s where to have a nocturnal adventure on your trip southward and sunward.
For the green tourist, there’s the Jamaica of cheap weed and poolside cocktails cradled in the plastic-bracelet clad hands of the all-inclusive crowds in Montego Bay. But for legendary nightlife, Kingston is where it’s at. “Kingston is the birthplace of Jamaica’s music scene; it’s where all the major recording artists and bands are based,” says Lily Girma, a travel writer and photographer who left an attorney job in DC to live on the island. “You can’t go to Kingston and not step out at night, whether it’s live music or clubs or a street dance.” She recommends New Kingston’s upscale clubs, including Club Privilege, which attracts the likes of Usain Bolt and Sean Paul. And get an eyeful of “bending ova” moves from the gorgeous girls dancing to live dancehall music at the weekly Mojito Mondays street dance at Susie’s downtown.
Canadians have been clued in about Haiti as a tourism destination since the seventies, when desperate Nova Scotians started hitting Hispaniola’s hottest shores. And the influx of aid workers here in recent years has had an interesting effect: Port-au-Prince has some of the hottest and most international nightlife in this hemisphere. “The nightlife in Port-au-Prince and its cosmopolitan suburb, Petion-ville, is the best I’ve encountered in the Caribbean in recent years,” says Steve Bennett, who knows from island parties. “[Parties] draw an interesting mix of young, sexy men and women from all over the world, owing to the large UN and NGO presence in the country, plus well-to-do locals.” Bennett points to Wednesday happy hour at the Best Western Premier Petion-Ville (seriously) as a good kick-off point, followed on Thursday nights by live vodou rock from the house band RAM during weekly parties at Hotel Oloffson.
Just as French as St. Barth’s but far wilder and a lot lower maintenance, Martinique’s nightlife centers around the capital city of Fort-de-France. Aperitifs always kick off with Ti Punch, a classic French Antillean rum drink that packs a punch with a sneak-up delivery of cane sugar syrup and lime. Downtown bar Garage Popular (best for getting things started, says Bennett. “It’s a great dive bar for beers, rum, sports and meeting locals,” he says, “The crowd spills out into the street that fronts the place.” A smooth start to set you up for epic nights to follow at Le Paparazzi nightclub, where pounding bass and lots of champagne encourage a young, sexy crowd of island beauties and transplanted Parisians to stay lively till dawn.
Think South Florida-style nightlife – very small dresses - but edgier and without the ridiculous cover charges. There are tourist-y salsa clubs in Old San Juan that target the married couples trying to get their groove back, but locals mix with tourists in a more urban and international setting at the luxeEl San Juan Hotel and Casino in Isla Verde, where burlesque shows bring in crowds and scantily clad “professionals” cruise the casino floor. Spanish traditions still run deep in San Juan, too. At spots like Club Gallistico, where you can catch a cockfight with a passionate crowd.
A West Indian Mecca for serious partiers, Antigua’s nightlife mixes yachties, tourists and welcoming islanders. The bass booms and rum flows at Mad Mongoose in Falmouth, good for an opener or an easy finish to the night. And the winter months bring the best party scene at Nelson’s Dockyard, where classy drinks and calypso predictably devolves into debauchery as the night wears on. If you hear the locals saying they’re “going to Wendy’s to eat some chicken,” they’re not talking about the fast food chain. St. John’s, the capital, has a brothel by that name – and many more. The Caribbean can be as wild as you want it to be.
Photos by Daniel Morel