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Tips for Visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras
Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans is arguably something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives. Mardi Gras beads (photo courtesy of morgueFile.com)From the parades to the spirited culture and the zesty Creole food, there’s truly something for everyone who visits New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
Louisiana native Allison Gouaux manages public relations for Southern Comfort in the New Orleans area and has a number of tips and recommendations to share with travelers regarding the Mardi Gras celebration.
Q. Where is the best place to stay? What part of the city?
A. Allison Gouaux - Although there are parades happening all over New Orleans, the French Quarter has an abundance of world-class hotels that put you at a great location to experience the French Quarter festivities while also being close to the Uptown and Mid-City parades. Some hotels that come to mind are the Royal Sonesta (located on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter), the Intercontinental and the W (both located on Poydras in the Central Business District), and the Astor Crowne Plaza and the Marriot located on Canal (these are walking distance to the French Quarter too.) Also, because there are several Uptown parades it may be fun to stay at an Uptown bed and breakfast or rent a local’s apartment who is out of town during Carnival. You will already be in the neighborhood, and can easily walk to parades or any restaurants/bars after the parades are over.
Q. Which restaurants or food hot spots can't be missed?
A. Allison Gouaux - New Orleans food experience is unlike any other. The below listings are local favorites – some dives and some more upscale.
Parasol’s – Local bar with the best roast beef po’boys in the city.
Central Grocery – Fantastic muffalettas! You can also buy your own olive spread to take home with you.
Cooter Browns – Local uptown bar that is known for their freshly shucked oysters and an enormous selection of domestic and imported beers
Café Reconcile – Great spot for lunch during the week
Upperline – An upscale fine dining restaurant known for it’s great food and local character
Commander’s Palace – Known as the grand dame of restaurants in the lower garden district that is a great place to go to brunch
Gautreauxs – Their chef just got recognized by Food and Wine as “Best Chef in 2007”
Dante’s Kitchen – Classic Creole restaurant located in the River Bend uptown with great food
Read the full interview I conducted with Louisiana Native, Allison Gouaux - "Visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras – Tips and Recommendations from a Louisiana Native"
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Krewe of Muses Parade - DO NOT MISS!
On the Thursday before Mardi Gras, along the Uptown parade route, you will find one of my FAVORITE Krewes - MUSES! Muses is an all-female krewe, having some of the most unique throws of any krewe, and the members are known for their generosity. The most coveted throw is the decorated shoe - a' la Zulu's coconuts, the members decorate women's shoes with glitter and glue and sparklies galore. Shoes are their fetish if you will; on the floats, on the throws... This year (2009) I caught two rubber shoe ornaments, a fantastic shoe bracelet, a giant "diamond" ring that lights up, logo beads with a Rubic's Cube...
Also look for the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi - men on various motorized transportation, all dressed as Elvis (Elvi being the plural of Elvis, as everyone knows). They ride during the Muses parade, and if they stop in front of you, give them a kiss on the cheek and they will give you an Elvi scarf... :-)
- Arts and Culture
Costuming on Mardi Gras Day
Certainly NOT a requirement, but definitely adds to the fun of the day! Haul out your Halloween costume (hey, get your money's worth!) or create one especially - trust me, you won't be alone! One year we dressed as bees, and took photos with the other "swarms" and "queen bees" we encountered - too much fun!
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The Yin and Yang of Mardi Gras
Most first-time Mardi Gras revelers come to New Orleans to experience the debauchery and madness of the Mardi Gras they've seen on TV - that is to say, the "Girls Gone Wild". You will see and experience all of that - and more - in the French Quarter, specifically on Bourbon Street. Definitely NOT for the faint of heart, or for families. I'm always shocked to see a couple pushing a stroller down Bourbon the weekend before Mardi Gras, and I have to wonder... But if you are of age, and don't border on the prudish, the French Quarter may be your idea of fun. There are people packed on the balconies, tossing beads down. DO NOT feel like you must expose body parts to get them - if the request is made and you prefer to NOT, just walk down to the next balcony - trust me, you will get as many beads as you want. I should note here that flashing is NOT legal; it is also not prosecuted unless you are causing some other kind of disturbance, or are obnoxiously drunk as well.
But Mardi Gras is also for the locals, and for families. The Uptown parades come up St. Charles Avenue, and that is where you will find them - sections of the neutral ground blanketed or barricaded to reserve the space, but lots of space is available on the “street side”. Bring your folding chair, or your cooler, or something to sit on and make friends with those around you. If you are on St. Charles Ave., DO NOT FLASH – you WILL be ostracized by the parents around you and possibly arrested. Also, please remember that people LIVE here and be respectful – do not urinate (or worse) in the gutters or driveways, do not throw your trash over the fences into someone’s yard. There are port-o-lets on the streets, and in the restaurants and bars (they will probably require a purchase), and take your trash with you or find a trash can. Mardi Gras is fun for all, and as they say "The Greatest Free Show on Earth!"
- Family Travel
Part of the Mardi Gras float throws (beads, cups, toys) doubloons are aluminum coins tossed towards the parade-goers. These intricately designed treasures bear the insignia of the respective krewe. Highly treasured, organizations have been formed to trade these throws. www.mardigrasdigest.com says:
"Doubloons have been around in American almost since the beginning of our history. One of the most famous is the Basher Doubloons, of which there are a very precious few. At the last auction held in 1978, for a 1787 Basher, the coin fetched around $ 625,000 dollars. These coins weren't throws, but they were the first coins minted in America
There were some coins, that are known as pre-doubloon coins. These were introduced by Rex in 1884, and honored the Cotton Centennial Expo at Audubon Park held that year. However in 1960, Rex introduced the present series of doubloons as a carnival throw, in the New Orleans Mardi Gras."
A popular thing to do in the workplace or at a series of Mardi Gras parties is to have a King Cake. To the casual observer it might seem a strangely formalized, if not downright quaint, spectacle. But at its heart is a ritual that is key to understanding how a sticky, coffee cake-type pastry—king cake—evolved into one of the most recognizable, and hungered for, symbols of New Orleans and Mardi Gras.
Someone will pick up a cake at the bakery on the way downtown and leave it out for everyone to grab a piece, or mom will send one to school on a Friday for the kids to share. You an always tell the locals from the transfers in any given office because the local knows what to do when he or she gets the baby. The foreigner just drops it on the counter or some such, and possibly might not even bring the next cake. Sacrilege."
Among many other claims to fame, New Orleans is world renowned for its lavish and decadent Mardi Gras celebration. It just happens that our recent visit to New Orleans coincided with this annual event.
Neither Karen nor I enjoy crowds and we are not party animals so we weren't too disappointed that our short visit did not allow us to take part in many of the festivities. One of the traditions of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is women flashing their breasts - which I probably would have enjoyed more than Karen. We missed the bare breasts - however we did see signs of Mardi Gras everywhere - including this tomb which was all decked out for the celebration.
The Common People Ride Too (2006)!
The last parade permitted this Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday 2006) was the Crescent City Truck Parade. Since they have to form a continuous line and it is quite long, they always muster around the corner from our home (above the parade route) on S. Claiborne Ave. These are flat-beds, home decorated , costumed (and built?). These giant rigs are done by ordinary people (mostly of color) who form social clubs and this is a cenral activity so that they can share their joy with others. In "normal times" this parade had grown to 90 floats (and had a competition theme with judges and prizes), but today we counted only 14 puny but spirited vehicles. Along with our neighbors (of varying skin color) who like us were not severely flooded, we wished them off with a "Happy Mardi Gras".(I never was moved to yell that before!) This parade is a long way from the million dollar extravaganzas pulled by heavy tractors featured on television and populated by the gentry and celebrities
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Many go to Mardi Gras, but few actually become masters of the art of negotiation. Here, as you can see by the photographers behind her, this Mardi Gras goer has done an excellent job of negotiations with the gentlemen surrounding her.
Her exchange? Was it witty banter, willingness to discuss world peace? Or was it simply the acquisition of the ever elusive bead.
We may never know!
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Have a designated designator
It's almost that time of year again...The 'real' parades begin Fri, Jan 28 and Mardi Gras day is on Tue, Feb 8 for 2005. Find out all you need to know on www.nola.com - entertainment- mardi gras - schedules.
Be sure to have a box of popeye's and an icechest of your favorite beer, but make sure to have a 'group leader' who knows where everyone is going and can look after the crew--especially if you are a tourist.
Mardi Gras Terminology: Zulu
Until recently, the black citizens of New Orleans could not mix in with white krewes (recently = late 1980s) so, they created their own special parade and many people fondly think of it as their favorite parade of all.
Originally contrived as a parody of the Fat Tuesday Rex parade, the costumes are colorful and elaborate, reminiscent of the fierce African warrior tribe namesake - and the bands that play are loud, boisterous, and especially fun (or especially painful, if you're coming down from a hard night's drinking).
One of the items the Krewe of Zulu used to throw off their floats was a coconut sprayed in gold and covered with glitter - usually with a face painted on it. Serious parade watchers proudly display their Zulu coconuts back home, proof that they braved the early morning crowds of Fat Tuesday and scored themselves a prized coconut. When I was actually living in New Orleans, this practice was outlawed but it's since been re-instated.
If you can get up early enough - this parade starts at 8:00 am on FAT TUESDAY, the culmination of all debauchery - then you're in for a treat.
Of the many Mardi Gras I've participated in over the years, I was only ever able to rouse myself early enough to catch this one, ONCE (well, maybe twice). How sad is that?!
Mardi Gras Terminology: Throw Me Somethin Mistah!
This is the traditional Mardi Gras war-cry you'll hear all around you as you suffer claustrophobia in the midst of a tightly packed crowd jockying for the best position to grab the spoils - you'll even find yourself yelling it out as you're drawn into the crescendo of high flying emotions.
Word of warning: watch out for the nuns. They'll stomp on your hands to grab that bead or doubloon that fell onto the street.
And, if you're feeling magnanimous, catch a bead or doubloon and then turn around and actually give it to a nearby child or even an older person. It's a real rush!!!
Mardi Gras Terminology: Kingcake
A "Kingcake" is a large cake-like donut (coffee cake) decorated with sugar or icing in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green.
The idea is to put a plastic baby (locals call it "doll") in the cake so that whoever gets the slice with the baby, is the person who must buy the next cake or host the next Kingcake party.
These types of festivities go on during Mardi Gras season, which basically starts from Three Kings Day (first week of January) and lasts until Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras)...or whenever people get sick of eating Kingcake.
Watch out for the baby!
Mardi Gras Terminology: Parade Seats
If you're a serious parade watcher with children in tow (and you're a local), you'll have paid in advance for your reserved seat box. It's the best way to catch beads, doubloons and other parade spoils along the route.
Mardi Gras Terminology: Parades
Mardi Gras commissions spend the entire year leading up to this event, creating award winning floats (think Rio and the Escola de Sambas). The floats are often quite elaborate and they're always shrouded in secrecy until the day of the actual parade.
If you can't make a Mardi Gras but you're interested in this phenomenon and want to see past floats and props, head to the West Bank (Algiers) where they're on display at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World.
See website for more info, below.
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