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I’m currently on my way to New Orleans for the peak weekend of the Mardi Gras season. I am lucky to be able to Mardi Gras like a local now. I realized immediately that things were much different that way when I first experienced it. From knowing what a krewe is to experiencing a parade properly, there is much to learn from an expert.
If you can Mardi Gras like a local, you will experience New Orleans in a new way.
To help you do that, I’ve brought back Rachel (formerly of The Princess Diaries) as a guest blogger again. Some of you may remember her guest post about flying Cathay Pacific for the first time as a Star Alliance loyalist. As a native of New Orleans, she’s my expert on what the locals do. I’ll be hanging with her all weekend as I once again enjoy the climax of the Carnival season.
Today in Part I, Rachel will give you a rundown of what Mardi Gras. You’ll learn what it is all about (history, how to get there, and the lingo you need to know).
A Brief History
Mardi Gras is a season which begins on King’s Day (also known as 12th Night or Epiphany) That day is where the “12 days of Christmas” comes from. The last day of the Christmas season ends on Kings Day, when it is believed that the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. This day, also known as Epiphany on the Christian calendar, is always on January 6th. The Carnival “season” begins on this day and runs until the beginning of the Lenten season (or Ash Wednesday).
In New Orleans, the Carnival season is referred to collectively as Mardi Gras. The season can be longer or shorter depending on when Easter is on the Christian calendar. Lent is always the 46 days before Easter.
Mardi Gras actually means “Fat Tuesday” in French. It is the day before Ash Wednesday. That day marks the culmination of partying and debauchery before Lent.
When and how to get there
Now that you know that it isn’t just a day, you need to plan your visit.
If you have never been, you may want to come on one of the earlier weekends. The crowds are much smaller and you won’t be quite so overwhelmed.
Hotels are also easier to book during the earlier weeks. The peak is the Saturday/Sunday just prior to Mardi Gras. This is also known as Bacchus/Endymion weekend. Most downtown hotels will typically require a four-night minimum during that final weekend. They do sell out! This is a great time to make use of points. Hotels are usually priced at rack rates (over $400 per night).
The main commercial airport is Louis Armstrong International Airport (airport code MSY). It is located about 20 miles from downtown but easily accessible. The airport is serviced by a multitude of airlines. Some airlines may only have a few flights a day. You may want to look at connections. Southwest, United and Delta all seem to have frequent service to their hubs.
Taxis are plentiful both in the city and from the airport. There is no need to pre-book transportation. You will see lots of taxis in various states of repair/disrepair. They may have interesting names like “Billy Bob’s Taxi” or “Little Kim’s Cab Service”. They are licensed by the city nonetheless.
A ride to downtown is a flat rate for two persons of $33 or $14 per person if 3 or more. All taxis should be equipped to take credit. In my experience may be loathe to accept it since they are independent operators. Many cab drivers will place a baseball cap over the machine. Some will even say it is broken. They will try every trick in the book to get you to pay cash! Moral of the story? Be prepared to pay cash.
I can’t personally vouch for shared ride or shuttle service. I would rather make a friend in line and split the $33 rather than be squashed on shuttle with several other people heading in the general vicinity of my destination. Shuttles often make multiple stops so they aren’t much of a bargain at $20 one way. It’s easy to see that it is cheaper (even with a tip) for two or more people to just take a taxi.
Rental cars are available on site at the airport, but unless you know exactly where you are going and have scouted parking location then this is not the time to rent a car. The streets are already confusing on any given day. They get even more confusing during Mardi Gras. There are numerous street closures for parades that will redirect or completely halt traffic. Parking is also a major issue as the police are out in full force. They will ticket/tow illegally parked cars. If you decide to drive, be careful where you park! Even if your hotel has parking it is likely to be expensive and also inaccessible at times.
There are also parades in the suburbs, with the majority following the Metairie parade route. The Metairie pretty much cuts over the entrance of the city so don’t be surprised by traffic standstills on certain evenings.
If you are arriving on a parade weekend or during the last few days of the season in the evening, you should plan on a taxi. Taxi drivers will know the back roads. They can get you close to your downtown hotel with the least amount of aggravation. Your best bet is to arrive in the morning or very early in the afternoon before the street closures begin. If you must arrive in the evening be prepared for lots of traffic. You have the potential of being dropped several blocks from your hotel. Your taxi driver isn’t being unreasonable if he points and says “its three blocks that way on the right”. Some streets are practically inaccessible by car.
The best local transportation once you are in the city would be your own two feet. If you want to Mardi Gras like a local, pack a pair of comfy shoes and be prepared to walk wherever you go.
Mardi Gras Terminology
A krewe is a private organization that presents a parade. Contrary to popular belief, the city does not put on Mardi Gras. Each krewe has paying members who put on the entire show each evening. Some krewes have very selective or exclusive membership criteria. Some are all-female or all-male, while others are mixed membership. Krewe members are fiercely loyal to their particularly organization. Many krewes not only host events and put on parades during the season, but conduct philanthropic events throughout the year.
Most krewes host a ball at some point during the Carnival season. Some of these balls are where the city’s debutantes are presented while others are just a big party. Some are literally an indoor parade spectacle.
The most exclusive are the Rex and Comus balls. The biggest are the Endymion Extravaganza, Bacchus Bash, and Orpheus Escapade. If you have an opportunity to attend any balls, I highly recommend it.
When I was younger we “kids” had to stay and watch the parents get dressed up but now the reverse is true. The parents watch the grandkids while the “kids” go and party all night at the Endymion Extravaganza. One of my favorite pictures is my parents all dressed up in the most 90s fabulous attire (love the shoulder pads, sequins, big gold necklace and big hair!)
Next is my sister and I leaving for the same party in front of the same (much renovated) fireplace some 25 years later.
This wonderfully sweet cinnamon-type concoction is typically round and covered with icing and colored sugar.
There is heated debate over who makes the best one in town, but my personal favorite is Manny Randazzo’s king cake. Others favor Haydel’s. Both are good and if you can sink your teeth into either one then you are tasting some pretty darn good king cake.
I personally am willing to stand in a long line to get one from one of the coveted top bakeries!
There are parades practically every night (and often in the afternoons as well) on the weekends leading up to Mardi Gras. Other than a few walking krewes you will find NO parades in the French Quarter! If you haven’t seen a parade, then you’d be hard pressed to say you have actually been to Mardi Gras.
Neutral Ground Side/Sidewalk Side
If you are heading out to meet a local at a parade, the question to ask is which “side” are you standing on.
“Sidewalk side” is fairly self-explanatory, but “Neutral Ground Side” requires a history lesson. Other parts of the country might call this the median. In the 1800s, French Creoles residing in the French Quarter were in disagreement with the Americans residing on the other side of Canal Street. Neither side controlled that strip of land. Thus it was considered the “neutral ground” and hence the name.
My family is very much a neutral ground type of family. We and will pitch our parade chairs and parade ladder in the grassy strip in the middle of the street.
Parade Chair/Parade Ladder
Outside of New Orleans, chairs that collapse into a bag are usually referred to as camping chairs or soccer chairs. But most good New Orleanians knows that they are parade chairs and probably have a stash of them in the garage.
The other great item spotted all across Mardi Gras routes are parade ladders. Fifty years ago (or maybe more), industrious dads began to deck out their ladder (normally reserved for cleaning out the gutter cans) to create a much more inventive parade staple. They attached tool boxes to create little seats for children. Now they can have a bird’s eye view of the parade over the heads of adults. Some call them dangerous, but you will find them on almost every neighborhood block along the parade routes. Sometimes they are even painted and decorated.
Here is my ridiculously cute nephew enjoying the same seat that my sister and I sat in many years ago. It has been lovingly tucked away in the parents’ attic just waiting for a cute grandkid to fill it.
This is when a parade is actually starting. The news will be littered with statements like “Krewe of Hermes rolls tonight at 6 pm”. Or “We are worried that Hermes may not roll tonight” if weather conditions are bad. There are live reports going on as well, so you will hear street reporters giving updates. “Krewe of Muses is rolling and is currently at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Jackson Avenue”.
New Orleans is now high tech and has an entire app dedicated to nothing but parade tracking. There are lead cars with GPS trackers to help you determine when the parade has actually started rolling and where it is on the route.
These are the items that the krewe members toss to the crowds. They can be anything from simple beads to more elaborate items. Those can include themed bead strands (which may even light up), doubloons (coins), stuffed animals, swords, and cups. There are a few coveted throws such as a Krewe of Muses shoe and a Zulu coconut. For both of those, each rider decorates and distributes their own limited edition item. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a special throw. In my 40 years of Mardi Gras the only person to EVER catch a Zulu coconut from my family is my Mom in 2004!
Now that you know the basics down, learn more about how to Mardi Gras like a local in part two of this series.