BRIDGETOWN, Barbados -- From kayak races to wine tastings, golf tournaments to triathlons and fish fries to race regattas, the Caribbean is big on festivals.

Festivals and special events help plug the gaps during the low season for tourism and boost occupancy in peak season.

Patron saints, national heroes, star athletes, literary figures, religious holidays, art auctions, spring breaks, autumn harvests and even yams and jerk chicken are fodder for closing shops, schools and banks and taking to the streets to parade, sing, dance and celebrate.

Festivals fuel the Caribbean in terms of attracting visitors, increasing each destinations visibility and pumping revenue into a countrys coffers. And festival creators are getting even more creative, judging by the imaginative themes of some of the events. 

Of course, traditional Carnival celebrations occupy their own unique spheres on every island. Colorful, indigenous masks are worn in many of the Carnival celebrations on Montserrat.Traditionally viewed as the last opportunity to party before the somber 40 days of Lent that lead up to Easter, todays secular Carnival celebrations feature street parties, colorful costumes, music, food and drink.

And nowadays, the dates of Carnival season vary from island to island. Curacao, for example, opened its 2006 Carnival season on Jan. 6 and it will run through Feb. 28.

But St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, hosts its Carnival celebration in July, while the Dominican Republic blocks out February and March for its festivities.

Jamaicas 2006 Carnival season lasts 10 weeks -- from Feb. 17 to April 23 -- with 30 events planned, including numerous street parades that are expected to draw thousands as they have in past years.

Carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago, meanwhile, begins immediately after Christmas, with many parties and daily practice sessions in the pan yards, birthplace of the steel pan drum.

Visitors are welcome in the pan yards to watch steelbands practice for the Panorama competition each January.

The party really gets rolling on Feb. 27, two days before Ash Wednesday.

At JOuvert, the daybreak celebration on Carnival Monday, costumed mas (masquerade) bands take to the streets, chipping in a rhythmic strut to the beat of pan, calypso and soca. Men and women wearing devil suits smear each other in mud and oil.

Anyone can march in the parades, and visitors can buy a costume from one of the Carnival bands.

Guadeloupe hosts a nationwide pajama party on Feb. 28, the night before the grandest of its Carnival parades, when thousands of people dressed as wolves and devils march to the Place de la Victoire to burn giant effigies called the Carnival Kings.

Dominica pulls out the stops in its celebrations, which run from Jan. 9 to March 1. Awards are given to the Carnival king, queen, princesses and calypso singers. The final event on March 1 is called Vaval and is a ceremonious burying of the spirit of Carnival and the beginning of Lent.

Beyond Carnival

But there is also life before and after all the Caribbean Carnival festivals.

Aruba celebrates 22 years of drag racing on the island with what tourism officials bill as the Garage Central Extravaganza Drag Race on April 28 and 29.

Bermuda will host its first-ever International Love Festival from Feb. 16 to 20. Events include musical performances, couples massages, ballroom dance and salsa lessons, a gospel brunch and a love commitment ceremony.

The activities were selected by Ewart Brown, minister of tourism and transport, and his wife, Wanda Henton-Brown.

Belize will host its ninth annual La Ruta Maya River Challenge, billed as the longest canoe race in Central America, March 3 to 6. The competition attracts hundreds of extreme canoeists from around the globe, including teams from the U.S., Canada, England, Mexico and Japan.

More than 90 teams of canoeists are expected to participate. The race route runs west to east along the Macal and Belize rivers, once the only link between San Ignacio, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and the port of Belize City.

In addition to being hailed as Belizes most competitive sporting event, La Ruta Maya River Challenge also is one of its largest collaborative conservation efforts.

Originally organized in 1998 to protect the Belize River valley, the race still upholds the spirit of preserving, restoring and revitalizing this waterway, according to an event director. Proceeds go to local environmental groups to help sustain and keep the river clean.

The Emerald Isle -- that would be Montserrat, not Ireland, in this instance -- celebrates St. Patricks Day, traditionally March 17, for an entire week, from March 12 to 18, this year. The first European settlers in Montserrat were Irish, and St. Paddys Day is still celebrated here to commemorate the motherlands patron saint.

March 17 also is notable in Montserrat as the day on which the islands slaves staged a revolt and marched on Government House in 1768.

Celebrations take place throughout the island, highlighted by performances and musical concerts such as the Many Happy Returns II gala, staged at Geralds Park.

The highlight of the week is March 13, when a Freedom Walk and Run starts in the village of Cudjoe Head.

A slave village will be set up at Festival Village in Little Bay with individually decorated huts. Slave feasts will be cooked and served from the huts.

Calypso, soca and iron band music, street parades, colorful costumes, the wearing of green and the use of the shamrock as an emblem are part and parcel of St. Patricks Day on Montserrat. 

Bonaire will host its Dive Into Adventure Bonaire 2006 event from June 17 to 24.

The festival, formerly known as the Bonaire Dive Festival and now in its eighth year, will continue to focus on diving and marine conservation but will add some adventure elements this time around.

Daily diving will be supplemented by kayaking, windsurfing, kiteboarding, mountain biking, digital photo workshops and underwater videography.

Information, event schedules, contact numbers and links are at www.onecaribbean.org.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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