The big New Orleans Mardi Gras bash happens Feb. 24 this year. We have all read so much about this city’s biggest party and witnessed on TV the parades and floats and people having fun with their wild costumes, great jazz music, and parties.
The origins of Mardi Gras go back to Medieval Europe and were brought forward to New Orleans in 1718 by Jean-Baptise Le Moyne. The celebration first began not with a parade but rather with elegant society balls. The earliest reference to “carnival” appears in 1781.
By the 1830’s, New Orleans held street processions of masked marchers and celebrants in carriages and on horseback.
In 1872 a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival - Rex - to parade in the first daytime parade. It was at this time that they introduced the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold along with the Mardi Gras song, and the Mardi Gras flag.
In this earlier time, as well as today social clubs, with restrictive policies fund, plan, and promote the floats, parade events and parties. The City of New Orleans does not contribute to any expense or planning for Mardi Gras. Some call it the greatest free show on earth.
New Orleans does benefit, with more than $1 billion in revenue pouring into the Crescent City during the weeks leading up to the start of the Lenten season.
I always thought that “Carnival” and Mardi Gras were one in the same. They are not. Carnival refers to the period of feasting and fun, which always begins on Jan. 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany on the Catholic calendar. Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, the final day of revelry before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins.
The date of Mardi Gras changes every year because it’s connected to Easter, which can fall on any Sunday between March 23 and April 25. Mardi Gras is scheduled to be 47 days before Easter.
The method of selecting a “king” varies with each krewe (the social clubs referred to above). Some clubs hold random drawings and others invite a celebrity guest to be their “king”.
Rex, the King of Carnival, is chosen by the School of Design, which sponsors the Rex parade. His identity is not revealed until the day before the parade.
The big balls are private and thrown by the clubs (krewes) for their members and are in hotel ballrooms throughout the city. Some are even held in the Convention Center and Superdome. Formal dress is the order of the day at these events.
The float riders are known for throwing trinkets into crowds and these include beads, cups, doubloons and stuffed animals.
Carnival and Mardi Gras is not one parade, but several with many events and parties surrounding them all.
The biggest day this year is Feb. 24. The weekend before Fat Tuesday is the prime time to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. This is the weekend when Bacchus and Endymion, two of the biggest parades, roll down the streets. The streets will be packed all day Saturday and Fat Tuesday and are the greatest days to experience Mardi Gras. There will be several hundred thousand people on hand for the festivities. The Bacchus parade is the most innovative and will have some 33 floats, marching bands and a celebrity or two.
If you are planning to attend, bring a mask and Halloween costume to really get into the fun.
Where to see the parade? Michaul’s on St. Charles is a good place to enjoy Mardi Gras. You can get a spot right on the parade route and enjoy live Cajun music, delicious food and shout and holler as the parade passes. Space is limited in the private grandstands. Cannon’s Restaurant near the beginning of the parade route in St. Charles Ave. provides a delicious breakfast and lunch buffet and is a great location to enjoy the festivities and watch the floats roll by. Again, limited seating is available. You’ll have to book right away.
Where should you stay? My choice would be the French Quarter. Maison Dupuy is a wonderful boutique hotel only two blocks from Bourbon Street. It has a beautiful courtyard with real New Orleans atmosphere and a renowned restaurant, Dominique’s. The Saint Louis Hotel is rated the number one hotel in the French Quarter by Condé Nast and has been completely renovated. It has luxurious furnishings and the Louis the 16th Restaurant. I have stayed here in the past and can highly recommend it.
You might look into the Hotel Villa Convento, a building dating back to the 1830’s and tucked away steps from the French Market and Mississippi River in the heart of the French Quarter. It’s a cozy guest house offering guests personal service.
The luxury hotels would include the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street, the Omni Royal Orleans, and the Soniat House in the French Quarter. Other hotels are Best Western Parc St. Charles, Hotel LeCirque, Holiday Inn Express, Embassy suites and of course many more.
New Orleans is known the world over for its fantastic restaurants. Forget the diet and go for it.
Original Creole can be experienced at Tujaqu’s, the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. Antoine’s, long respected as a must, has numerous historical dining rooms and offers an unmatched dining experience in the heart of the French Quarter. Every time I visit New Orleans I make a point to drop into Antoine’s. We have already mentioned Dominique’s and Louis the 16th Restaurant and we can add the Plimsoll Club, with breathtaking views of the Mississippi River.
Broussard’s in the heart of the French Quarter offer hand pained tiles, a lush tropical courtyard and distinct cuisine. We must also mention Andrea’s, New Orleans’ world renowned gold medal winner. Chef Andrea combines Louisiana products with Northern Italian cuisine to create a memorable dining experience. This is a favorite among locals. Popular also is the Pelican Club featuring great food, décor and located on Exchange Place in the heart of the French Quarter.
After writing this I’m ready to go myself. We’ll have to make reservations quickly as New Orleans gets booked rather solidly for this great event. Choose your airline and hotel and then get ready to have the most fun of your life.
Perhaps this is the right tonic for our financial blues.
The weather during Mardi Gras varies from very cold to sometimes warm.
Since much of your time will be spent outside pack warm clothes and comfortable shoes. Bring clothes you layer and don’t forget the raincoat! Have a wonderful time!