When I told my UK friends that I was heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras they responded with the customary ‘oh, how lovely, I wish I was going’ that you would expect from anyone staying behind. My US friends, however, mentioned the phrase ‘baptism of fire’ far too often for me to ignore! What was I letting myself in for?
Once upon a time, I knew how to party. Yes, in my younger days I would stay up all night with a drink in one hand and my dancing shoes in the other, but not anymore. These days I’m switching off the light at 10pm just as my three kids are heading out the door to begin their night. How was I ever going to survive the biggest party in history?
New Orleans, or NOLA as it is affectionately known, is the ultimate venue hosting over 130 festivals throughout the year from music to film and theatre, and LGBT, food and drink, to good causes. There’s a festival for everyone.
Mardi Gras is the final blow out before Lent and the last day of a month-long carnival season. The city, decorated in purple, gold, and green is buzzing with excitement, music, and noise. Thousands of people flood the streets day and night exploring every inch of this incredible place, partaking in the local cuisine, and supping the famous cocktails.
As a tee-total traveller, I had to turn down the Sazerac (Redemption Rye Whiskey, Raw Simple Syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Absinthe Rinse, and Lemon Twist) and opt for the virgin Mojito instead. Mardi Gras gets a bad rap for drink and debauchery, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there were plenty of people partaking in a Sazerac or three, but this festival is a family event.
We arrived on Monday just in time for Lundi Gras, where we were greeted with a colourful parade right outside our hotel window. The floats were incredible, and the inhabitants took great joy in hurling treasure out into the crowd. I found myself dodging the flying doubloons, light-up toys, masks, and footballs! Following the floats were the marching bands and dancers from high schools across Louisiana – these guys were having fun!
The streets were busy, and the atmosphere crackled as we stood in the light drizzle on Canal Street watching the revellers, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
Waking up in New Orleans on Mardi Gras has a similar feel to it as Christmas day did when you were a kid. Everyone is smiling and singing, all the hotels, cafes, and houses are covered in multi-coloured beads, flags, and bunting. Our hotel had a fabulous Mardi Gras tree dressed in purple, green, and gold, and the staff wore colourful headbands with feathers and bling. The roads are closed to traffic as they fill with hundreds of thousands of people. According to our bus driver, before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mardi Gras attracted 3 million tourists, these days it’s only 1 million. I can’t even begin to imagine where the extra 2 million people would fit!
We spent the day in the French Quarter winding through the crowds, dancing and watching the smaller parades on foot. The traditional Mardi Gras krewes are too large to navigate the small streets and so stick to the main parade routes in other parts of New Orleans. All the balconies in the French Quarter are full of people escaping from the swell of the crowds. From their elevated platform, they toss coloured beads down to the people below. After chatting to a resident, we discovered that the Bourbon Street balconies are booked out up to five years in advance for companies, and regular customers.
Every door is open, and guests spill out of one bar or café to then enter another. Music is playing on every corner and crowds congregate to take photos with new friends. 90 per-cent of people dress up in the most amazing costumes, and it appears the older you are, the more eccentric you can be!
We stumbled into one bar playing the very best in party anthems (YMCA anyone!) and joined a group of partygoers in the best daytime disco I’ve ever been to! You can’t help but smile and get swept up in the energy of the event.
I spent the majority of the day watching everyone else and checking out the costumes. Families, friends, groups, clubs, and couples intermingled with one another sharing a song, exchanging beads and feathers, or commenting on their outfits. It was mesmerising.
We were breaking from the crowds and made our way to the Mississippi waterfront for a late lunch where I got to taste Gumbo, Jambalaya, and Red Beans and Rice at Gumbo Ya-Ya. I couldn’t decide which local dish to try so our lovely waitress recommended a bit of each – it was a brilliant choice!
Worn out from the many miles we’d walked (and the dancing) we retired to our hotel early evening after checking out a few of the bars and cafes on the way back. The people of NOLA are lovely, friendly, and funny, and although we left the French Quarter behind there was still plenty of action in our hotel lounge from the guys who had been part of the bigger parades. I even got some doubloons off a horse rider in a black and silver cape (he was minus his horse in the hotel just in case you were wondering!).
By the time I fell into bed, my head was spinning with everything I’d seen, and my jaw was aching from grinning all day long. If you’re looking for an exceptional trip with music, laughter, and plenty of flair, then I’d highly recommend NOLA.
Who says a tee-total lightweight can’t survive Mardi Gras!