Crazy Carnival

New Orleans throws its annual Mardi Gras party, mixing old and new
attractions with a host of parades and other amusements.
By Fred W. Wright Jr.

There’s no place on the planet that knows parties better than New Orleans. As the Crescent City gears up for Mardi Gras 2009–that annual celebration of excess–residents and visitors will enjoy old haunts, as well as additions to favorite attractions.

float

Above: Most New Orleans neighborhoods will stage a Mardi Gras parade and toss “throws” from the floats.

Below: The Mardi Gras Indian tribes, wearing elaborate costumes, parade in March. Some of the costumes can weigh more than 100 pounds. New Orleans CVB photos

Indian

Those coming to New Orleans this February will see familiar sights, like the famous streetcars, and artists creating and selling their work in Jackson Square. Mid City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl, a symbol of New Orleans’ durability since 1941, still offers live music and dancing five nights a week. Cafés still serve decadently delicious beignets and cups of dark coffee blended with chicory. Eating is a big part of Mardi Gras, and city officials brag that there are about 150 more restaurants open in post-Katrina New Orleans. Drinking is another part of Mardi Gras celebrations, and rest assured that Bourbon Street bars are open and the French Quarter is as wonderfully raucous as ever.

But there are new things to see here as well. Developments in New Orleans include the expansion of the National World War II Museum on Andrew Higgins Drive, which will quadruple the existing space, and open in phases. The Victory Theater and Stage Door Canteen open later this year. The Audubon Nature Institute’s new Insectarium is in the old U.S. Customs House on Canal Street, and the new Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB) is at the tourist-friendly Riverwalk Marketplace. New hotels are being built, while existing properties continue to reopen.

All of this comes together for a great time in one of America’s greatest cities.

Party on

Mardi Gras celebrations are not limited to New Orleans. Towns throughout Louisiana offer parades with floats, music and “throws,” the trinkets tossed from floats and balconies. A throw might be a string of beads, a cup, doubloons or stuffed animals. There are even Mardi Gras festivities in neighboring states (see related story).

But in New Orleans alone, it’s estimated that Mardi Gras celebrations last year drew close to 800,000 visitors (down nearly 200,000 since pre-Katrina days but growing each year) and brought in at least a billion dollars.

Remarkably, the parades, balls and parties of Mardi Gras are privately funded and privately run by krewes (private membership organizations) that have evolved over generations. Krewes are funded by their members through dues and fund-raising efforts. Krewes are generally named for Greek, Roman or Egyptian gods or for the neighborhoods where members live.

The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was on Feb. 24, 1857. Given by the Krewe of Comus, this event started the tradition of parades with floats followed by a ball for krewe members and their guests.

From Jan. 6 to Feb. 24 this year, there are parades in most New Orleans neighborhoods. These are offered free to the public and nearly all are family friendly. Parades along Charles Avenue are particularly popular with families. Locals can be seen staking out spots on lawns and sidewalks early on, often with picnic baskets and blankets.

Many say that the weekend before Fat Tuesday offers the best parades. This is the weekend when large krewes stage their parades and fill the downtown streets and sidewalks. On Feb. 23, Lundi Gras includes the Orpheus nighttime parade. The Fat Tuesday (Feb. 24) final party in the French Quarter, however, gets an R rating for the more bacchanalian antics. However, there are other parades on this day, starting with the Zulu event at 8 a.m. uptown.

Locals also know that the weather can be fickle in February, sometimes warm, sometimes cold. And they know that public toilets are few and far between in some parade areas, so they often make friends with a nearby business or bar, sometimes paying a fee to use the facilities.

Visitors often book hotels along the parade routes.

Another key parade is on March 22 this year, the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). During this day parade, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, comprised of black community members, gather in creative and detailed handmade costumes that sport feathers and beads. A chief’s suit can weigh 150 pounds. The parade usually begins around noon at Bayou St. John and Orleans Avenue.

Marks of the storm

It would be wrong to say that Hurricane Katrina didn’t leave a lasting mark on New Orleans and its people. Drive from the core tourist areas into the lower ward to see foundations without houses, houses without roofs and homes leaning precariously on foundations. There are Katrina tours and “voluntourism” packages for tourists who want to visit and help the city rebuild.

Yet most Mardi Gras visitors won’t see that part of the city. They will come for the parades, throws, costumes, music, food and drink–and that’s fine. New Orleans, a city that knows how to throw a party, needs each tourist now. And there’s plenty of fun–and plenty of beignets–for everyone.

Fred. W. Wright Jr. is a contributor from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Mardi Gras madness,Southern style
Compiled by AAA

Mardi Gras in the South. It’s all about the parades, music, throws, food, drink, neighbors–just letting yourself go.

Here are a few celebrations to consider in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

Louisiana

In Baton Rouge, family-friendly parades are plentiful, running from Feb. 7–21. The oldest parading krewe, the Krewe Mystique de la Capitale, presents its downtown parade at 2 p.m. on Feb. 14. See www.krewemystique.com for information. Click on www.visitbatonrouge.com for more Mardi Gras information.

The Ark-La-Tex area in northern Louisiana celebrates the season with seven parades in two weekends, beginning on Jan. 10 with the Krewe of Sobek parade at 1 p.m. in Shreveport, Fairgrounds Field. A parade that’s gone to the dogs–and cats–the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux steps off at 3 p.m. on Feb. 15 from RiverView Park in Shreveport.

And while visiting the area, stop by the Ark-La-Tex Mardi Gras Museum on East Texas Street in Bossier City. It offers a large collection of Mardi Gras costumes, floats and other interesting laginappe. Admission is $5 for adults. Call (318) 741-3019.

Southwest Louisiana’s Lake Charles area claims to host the state’s second-largest Mardi Gras celebration. With 45 krewes, there will be plenty of parades, costume balls and other events to enjoy.

Welcome the 2009 courts at the annual 12th Night event, Jan. 6 at Lake Charles Civic Center. In contrast to the cool elegance of this affair, grab a spoon and cold drink and head to the Cajun Extravaganza/Gumbo Cook-off on Feb. 21 at the civic center. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., taste all the hot and spicey gumbo you can stand, then dance to Southern and Cajun music. Admission is $5. For details on these and other Mardi Gras events in southwest Louisiana, click on www.visitlakecharles.org.

A country Mardi Gras looks different than a city celebration, and those differences are examined in an exhibit of costumes and traditions Jan. 5–Feb. 25 at Vermilionville–a folklife and heritage park–in Lafayette. The city of Lafayette will stage its first parade of the season at 6:30 on Feb. 14, when “cupid” (a local citizen) leads the Brazillian-themed event from downtown to Cajun Field. For information on the Mardi Gras events in town, check out www.lafayettetravel.com.

In Cajun Country, Mardi Gras on the prairie is called a “courir,” or run, and the area’s biggest Courir de Mardi Gras is Feb. 20–24 in Eunice. On Feb. 20 at 8 a.m., participants gather at the Northwest Community Center and proceed to points here and there as the traditional begging for gumbo ingredients is re-enacted. There’s food, music and dancing, masks, costumes and horses at the courir, which makes for a fun family outing. For information on Cajun Country events, see the St. Landry CVB Web site, www.cajuntravel.com.

Mississippi and Alabama

• Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and its communities also offer a full slate of Mardi Gras fun. The season traditionally kicks off with the Ocean Springs Elks parade at 1 p.m. on Feb. 7 this year. See www.gulfcoast.org for full details.

• The first American Mardi Gras celebration in 1703 happened in–Mobile. Dozens of parades can be enjoyed from Jan. 24–Feb. 24; see www.mobile.org for details. While visiting, check out the newer Mobile Carnival Museum (355 Government St.) to get a history of this spectacle.

Texas

The coastal town of Port Arthur, 90 miles east of Houston, is home to Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas, a weekend of family fun planned for Feb. 19–22 this year. In addition to a half dozen parades, there’s a carnival and children’s activities, music, food, crafts and more. For information, click on http://mardigras.portarthur.com.

And in Galveston, a bit of east coast culture comes to the Texas coast when Philadelphia Mummers return for the 98th annual Mardi Gras, Feb. 13–24. Mummers are elaborately costumed entertainers that welcome the New Year. The practice dates to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but mummery came in the late 17th century to Philadelphia and by 1870, the city had a New Year’s parade that’s grown into four distinct brigades of comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades.

In addition to parades, Galveston’s Mardi Gras will feature music, food, galas and more within the Historic Strand District. For details, visit www.mardigrasgalveston.com.

Jan/Feb 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 672-6124 or click on www.neworleanscvb.com.

To visit New Orleans during Carnival/Mardi Gras, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you.

Order free information about Louisiana through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.

 


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