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It's a party at the lake

In southwest Louisiana, Mardi Gras cooks with a different flavor.
By JOHN HANDLEY

Mardi Gras — that super-festive multi-day celebration of colorful parades, elaborate floats, glittering costumes, flying strings of beads, fancy balls, and delicious king cake — is always a blast in New Orleans.

Mardi gras

Above: The vibrant colors of Mardi Gras adorn parade watchers in Lake Charles. John Handley

Below: Steaming pots of rich gumbo are enjoyed at the championship gumbo cook-off in Lake Charles. This year’s event will be Feb. 25. Visit Lake Charles

Gumbo

But a different Mardi Gras can be enjoyed 206 miles west of the Big Easy in the city of Lake Charles.

Lake Charles showcases all the usual spectacle of Mardi Gras, including a special children’s parade and a dog parade. But there’s also a night parade of lighted boats on the lake, as well as the chance to view costumes of Mardi Gras royalty in a museum.

Lake Charles takes pride in its family-friendly Mardi Gras that resounds with a strong Cajun/Creole heritage. That means toe-tapping Cajun and Zydeco music and traditional Cajun/Creole cuisine.

So, laissez les bons temps rouler — let the good times roll.

WEEKEND OF EVENTS

In Lake Charles, this year’s Mardi Gras extended weekend runs Feb. 24–28 (Friday to Tuesday). But the festivities begin, like other Carnival celebrations around the world, on Jan. 6 (Twelfth Night). All the parades and special events culminate with the biggest party on Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.

Krewes run the show. These social clubs plan Mardi Gras festivities, hold balls, stage parades, ride in the floats, and throw beads and coins to cheering crowds. Lake Charles claims to hold the state’s second largest Mardi Gras because of the large number of krewes participating.

Cajun flavors spice up a Mardi Gras event on Feb. 25 in Lake Charles. The World Famous Cajun Extravaganza Gumbo Cook-Off heats up from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. when 60 krewe cooks try to create gumbo just like mama used to make –– or better. Attendees are welcome to taste every pot, and prizes are awarded to the winners. Gumbo originated in southern Louisiana in the 18th century.

“Mardi Gras has a totally different atmosphere in Lake Charles compared to New Orleans,” says Anne Monlezun, who is known as the “mother of Mardi Gras” in Lake Charles. “Each krewe in New Orleans plans its own parade, while all 60 krewes in Lake Charles combine for one big production — the Krewe of Krewes Parade —with 150 floats and a crowd of 150,000 on Fat Tuesday.”

She organized the first Krewe of Krewes Parade in 1979. This year, the evening parade rolls on Feb. 28. Get ready to catch an armful of colorful strings of beads.

In preparation, those who want to immerse themselves in the Mardi Gras spirit can shop at downtown stores for masks, fancy hats, noisemakers, and beads.

CHASE THE CHICKEN

A traditional and totally different event on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 28) takes in the rural town of Iowa, about a 20-minute drive from Lake Charles. Participants in the Iowa Chicken Run ride in floats in search of ingredients to make gumbo. At every stop, the captain blows a whistle and releases a chicken he has been holding as children rush to chase the speedy bird.

After it is captured, a Zydeco band starts playing and dancing begins. This is an audience participation activity. The ritual continues at each stop made through town, until it ends with a gumbo feast and more dancing. And the chicken? It survives all the excitement.

CROWN THIS CAKE KING

Don’t leave town without tasting the delicious specialty of Mardi Gras — the king cake. Round in the shape of a crown, it is covered with sweet icing in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (meaning justice), green (faith), and gold (power). It also may be decorated with masks and beads. And somewhere in the cake is a surprise — a tiny plastic baby.

What else is cooking in southwest Louisiana? Be sure to taste boudin. Considered the signature food of southwest Louisiana, boudin is Cajun finger food — sausage made of meat, rice, and seasonings. The recipe arrived with the French Cajuns. Sample all the types of boudin on the Boudin Trail in the region.

While the Mardi Gras season lures many visitors, the Lake Charles area offers many attractions year-round.

If you miss Mardi Gras, you can still discover its spirit at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, 809 Kirby St. Though tucked away on the second floor of the Central School Arts & Humanities Center in Lake Charles, it houses more than 300 Mardi Gras costumes. The museum, founded by Anne Monlezun, is open from 1–5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

CREOLE NATURE TRAIL

If you want a break from the festivities, south of town is a region known as “Louisiana’s Outback,” and the best way to explore this area is by driving the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. The 180-mile road winds through bayous, marshes, and along 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches.

A bounty of natural wonders are protected in three national wildlife refuges and a state wildlife refuge. Sightings of more than 400 bird species have been recorded in the area, including the very colorful roseate spoonbill.

A good place to start is at the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point, a free attraction that tells the best places to spot alligators and migrating birds. The hands-on information center, located in Sulphur, La., also has a music display where you can play along with Cajun and Zydeco bands.

Just off the trail is 50,000-acre Grosse Savanne where eco-tours are launched for viewing birds and alligators from boats. In addition, photographers can shoot from blinds strategically located in bird rookeries.

Signs warning not to feed alligators are spotted in waterways near the trail. Take these seriously. Alligators may seem slow but can jump with a burst of speed and can range up to 14 feet long.

GAME OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Those looking for indoor recreation should know it is possible to play every day of the year in southwest Louisiana’s casinos.

The Golden Nugget sits on the shores of Lake Charles with Las Vegas-style gaming, an 18-hole golf course, a pool with a lazy river and private cabanas, and a marina and private beach. A new 300-room tower will bring its room count to 1,040 and is tentatively scheduled to open in June.

Nearby on the lake is L’Auberge Casino Resort with 1,000 guest rooms, 147 suites, a heated pool and lazy river, and an 18-hole golf course. Also in easy driving distance is the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel in Westlake, La., and Delta Downs Racetrack Casino & Hotel in Vinton, La.

Other accommodations are available at 64 hotels and motels in southwest Louisiana.

Mardi Gras in Lake Charles is like no other, but once the last string of beads is thrown, visitors can experience the unique Cajun/Creole culture and noteworthy natural beauty found in southwest Louisiana all year long.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

January/February 2017 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact the Lake Charles Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau at visitlakecharles.org or
(800) 456-7952.

To visit Lake Charles, La., first stop by your AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.

Read our Fork in the Road feature that looks at boudin in Louisiana, and order free information about Louisiana from our advertisers found online.

 

 


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