It’s the people who give New Orleans Soul
The real actors of Mardi Gras are its people. Ranging from centuries-old families to the most transients of visitors, New Orleans and the Cajun Bayou hosts an array of types and characters all connected by a simple maxim: “live and let live”. Its best expression happens during Mardi Gras time.
Ask most folks what Mardi Gras is all about, and they’re likely to think of debauchery and drinking, a total party atmosphere punctuated by grand parades, festive music and elegant costumes. Some of that is accurate, and some is not. At its heart, Mardi Gras is a religious celebration – the day before Ash Wednesday – and it’s regarded as a truly important day on the Cajun calendar.
This year Mardi Gras
falls on Tuesday, February 28; for those planning a bit more in advance, in 2018 it’ll be on February 13. Parades begin on February 12 and run through February 28this year.
Tips from a local: Planning
While much of Carnival happens outdoor and in public places, so not a whole lot of planning is required, however the experience is very much enhanced if you can get into a masked ball in one of the carnival krewes (private organizations who put together parades and balls). One good example is the Krewe of Orpheus ball. The old Krewes have presentation balls which are by invitation only, however one can watch their proceeding online or on TV, including the past events. Look here for an example. For more details on the history and the pageantry of Mardi Gras, the best places are the Mardi Gras exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum at Jackson Square or the famous Mardi Gras World which is also where many of the floats are constructed.
If you go…where to stay.
Unless you have friends in the city, you will need accommodations. At this point, you’ll have two options: either go for broke and get a room in or near the French Quarter, or on St Charles Avenue, or go for the suburbs and make sure you have a car. If you have the money, stay as close as possible to the French Quarter so you won’t have to drive after the partying. I assume that if you’re coming to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras you’re not a teetotaler. There will be drinking, and plenty of it.Mardi Gras is still a family affair for many locals. Here are parades outside the French Quarter
Music in the Big Easy
Music doesn’t take a back seat during Carnival season, and as always New Orleans brims with talented musicians playing great music. One good way to go about it is to check what’s playing that night, and make a choice from there, for example from the local newspaper. There’s also music areas, one of the best being Frenchmen Street, across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, which houses of a multitude of clubs, bars and watering holes, all with a band, starting with the venerable Snug Harbor and Apple Barrel Bar. To get a bit more of a young, local vibe, head out further into the Faubourg Marigny, a few blocks away, to places like Mimi’s in the Marigny or Lost Love Lounge, and take it from the locals there to find out what else goes on in that part of town.
For food, don’t leave New Orleans without having patronized one of the great Creole restaurants, like Galatoire’s or Antoine’s. They’re surprisingly not pricey for the authenticity and experience they give their patrons. On Mardi Gras day, don’t waste time looking for lunch, simply get a Muffuletta sandwich or a poboy and a drink and head out to the levee behind Jackson Square. A highlight of Mardi Gras is eating king cake. The cakes are sort of like giant cinnamon rolls decorated with icing and then topped off with sugar sprinkles in the three Mardi Gras colors – purple to represent justice, gold for power and green for faith. Be warned, though: Tucked somewhere inside each cake is a plastic baby that symbolizes good fortune for the person who finds it in his or her slice. (Unless, of course, the baby is ingested. Then it’s not very lucky at all.)
Family Friendly Parades
On St. Charles and Carrollton Avenue, children assemble with their parents, aunts and assorted family members to cheer the rolling floats and beg for beads and toys. “Throw me something, Mister” is the time-honored shout used by kids as they try to grab the sparkling “throws” tossed out by the masked riders.
On Mardi Gras day, as thousands cheer the parades descending the Avenue, more thousands yet congregate in the streets of the French Quarter to celebrate fantasy colliding with reality and winning. Many wear costumes, some elaborately put together during hours of sewing, others hastily managed at the last minute, some wearing nothing but glitter and a smile. Many are spectators, furiously clicking cameras and adding to the ambient voyeurism. On the levy, parents sit for a picnic with their young children as the Mississippi rolls its mighty flow.
Meanwhile, down on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, an alcohol- and drug-fueled, sexually charged scene is taking over. Wild women hanging from balconies lift up their shirts to the leering men below. Weaving along the crazed and mocking revelers, itinerant preachers carrying large, wooden crosses loudly warns of hell and damnation. Garbage accumulates, not to be picked up for days.
Another good idea: Think of Cajun Bayou Country for family fun and an authentic Mardi Gras
One of the best places to enjoy authentic Mardi Gras experiences is Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou, located a mere 45 minutes from New Orleans. This destination truly embraces its Cajun roots, right down to the fact that “Fat Tuesday” here centers around families and is therefore completely G-rated. The Cajuns of Lafourche Parish have a special zest for life, which they demonstrate through 17 family-friendly parades that offer locals and guests alike great vantage points from which to view floats and admire costumes – and, of course, to catch the beads, cups and other trinkets thrown into the crowd.
Parade watching with young children is a participatory sport, it’s not for the faint of heart. I mean it literally – you’re going to be lifting and carrying your children up and about, begging for toys, beads and other goodies from the masked riders. As the pile of stuff accumulates, there’s still more “throws” to be had, for it’s the chase that excites, not the loot.
Whether you’re eating or drinking, catching beads or throwing them, one thing is certain in Lafourche Parish: Here along the Bayou there’s simply no such thing as a stranger, which means guests are always welcome at these celebrations where there’s no better way to get an authentic taste of Cajun life.
For more information about Mardi Gras in Lafourche Parish, please visit www.lacajunbayou.com.
The Big Easy is a place of contrasts and differences.
New Orleans truly is an Old World transplant to the American continent. At no other times is it truer than during Carnival season.
The Old World was a place of contrasts and differences, and so is New Orleans, perhaps more so than any place in America.
Set in sub-tropical climate, the city constantly battles the elements. Mixing novelty, decay, splendor and misery, New Orleans is a strange mélange of old and modern, of the stately and the kitschy, all covered by a patina of time and tradition. Walking along cobblestoned streets constantly churned by the primeval mud below and driving on bright new elevated highways, the visitor to the Crescent City will go from mansions steeped in history to paranoiac constructions holding the tides of water and storm.
Carnival has many layers, there’s something in it for everyone. It can be meticulously planned or left to spontaneity. It can be costly or it can be “the biggest free party in the world”. Either way, it can’t really be Mardi Gras without staying for Tuesday. Many people come to New Orleans for “Mardi Gras” and leave on Sunday… There ain’t no Fat Tuesday without Tuesday.
Now a wider explanation of Carnival:
“Laissez les bons temps rouler” with the King’s Cake Party
Mardi Gras celebrations start each January 6th with the Feast of the Kings and a cake. Brought here by the French founders and now assuming a shape all its own, this round brioche sparkles garishly with the purple, green and gold colors of Mardi Gras. Nestled within its fold is a small plastic baby, turning the lucky person to find it into the Queen or King of the proceedings. Thus starts the first of many parties to come: the King’s Cake Party.
Fat Tuesday and Costume Balls
Going in crescendo from then on until Fat Tuesday itself, the City that Forgot Care is gripped by an epidemic folly of costume balls, masked parties and other masquerades. Growing in intensity and size as visitors pour into the city, they range from the sublime to the grotesque, from family affairs to debauchery, with all shades in between.
They include the lavish, elaborate set-piece balls of Carnival royalties resplendent with gold and silver as well as the bon-enfant gatherings of extended families enjoying a slice of cake while playing with the grandchildren. Friends will meet for a communal viewing of the parades and partake in food and drinks while secretive organizations muster their thousands of members to dance at extravagant costume parties in the most eclectic of locations. Gilded rooms welcome the well-heeled dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns while the humblest bar shines with a thousand plastic beads as strangers in masks greet each other with the age-old saying: “I know you Mardi Gras!”
On Bourbon Street, debauchery and drunkenness will not relent until the very last stroke of midnight on Tuesday brings the street sweepers and their escort of mounted police marching in, shooing away the last of the hardcore revelers.
By evening, as a mist descends on the city and the last parade rolls, the streets will slowly empty. Fantasy is slipping, reality sets in.