A guide to celebrating Mardi Gras in New Or­leans

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - KEVIN MCGILL

NEW OR­LEANS — Revel in the bawdy French Quar­ter or catch a pa­rade? Which pa­rade?

Do you plan to wear a cos­tume on the big day? Po­lit­i­cally themed? His­toric? Risque? All of the above?

New Or­leans is en­ter­ing the height of its an­nual pre-Len­ten Car­ni­val sea­son, cul­mi­nat­ing on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tues­day, which falls on Feb. 28 this year. Trav­ellers to the city face an abun­dance of choices on how, when and where to take it all in.

Among the things to do:

Watch a pa­rade

This isn’t as sim­ple as it sounds. De­cid­ing where, when and how to catch any of the dozens of New Or­leans area pa­rades — and which ones to watch — in­volves plan­ning.

New Or­leans’ ma­jor pa­rades, the ones with march­ing bands and masked rid­ers who throw beads and other trin­kets from elab­o­rate floats, be­gin this year on Feb. 17. Most fol­low a route along his­toric St. Charles Av­enue onto Canal Street, the broad down­town boule­vard at the edge of the French Quar­ter — al­though the gi­ant floats of Endymion, the celebrity-stud­ded pro­ces­sion set for Feb. 25, lum­ber through the Mid-City neigh­bour­hood.

You can join the throngs on the route. They show up with lawn chairs, ice chests, trays of bar­be­cue, buck­ets of fried chicken and step lad­ders with lit­tle seats bolted to the top to give the kids a bet­ter van­tage point.

You can pay big bucks at one of the fine­din­ing restau­rants that erect bleach­ers out front so you can catch the pro­ces­sions while sip­ping your Saz­erac cock­tail.

Of­ten over­looked are smaller pro­ces­sions. For in­stance, Krewe du Vieux’s satirical and raunchy pa­rade with smaller, hand-drawn floats rolls through the French Quar­ter and neigh­bour­ing ar­eas on Feb. 11. A week later, sci-fi, fan­tasy and hor­ror fans don cos­tumes evok­ing any of a va­ri­ety of pop cul­ture icons from Ewoks to zom­bies for the In­ter­ga­lac­tic Krewe of Chew­bac­chus stroll through the Marigny neigh­bour­hood.

Be in a pa­rade

Get­ting a spot in a Car­ni­val pa­rade is the ul­ti­mate par­tic­i­pa­tory Mardi Gras ex­pe­ri­ence.

Some of the old-line pa­rade “krewes” are fa­mous for their ex­clu­siv­ity (some so ex­clu­sive that they stopped parad­ing years ago rather than com­ply with a city non-dis­crim­i­na­tion or­di­nance). But oth­ers are open to any­one who can af­ford it, al­though spots are lim­ited and some­times have to be re­served well in ad­vance.

Costs in­clud­ing mem­ber­ship fees, cos­tumes and “throws” (beads, lit­tle stuffed toys, etc.) can be hefty for the ma­jor pa­rades. Some travel agency and ho­tel pack­ages in­clude a four-night stay with a spot in Harry Con­nick Jr.’s Feb. 27 Krewe of Or­pheus pa­rade for more than $4,000. On the other end of the cost scale are the walk­ing clubs, like Chew­bac­chus, which has an­nual dues of $42.

See the cos­tumes

Mardi Gras is a day­long cos­tume party in the French Quar­ter and along the pa­rade routes.

Some­times the cos­tumes are sim­ple: mul­ti­col­ored wigs, glit­tery masks, over­sized hats.

Some­times they are elab­o­rate: shim­mer­ing body­suits with huge feather head­dresses fan­ning out from the wear­ers’ heads and shoul­ders like peacock tails.

Some of the most in­tri­cate, elab­o­rate and, some­times, out­ra­geous are on dis­play at the an­nual Bour­bon Street awards at the in­ter­sec­tion of Bour­bon and St. Ann, where prize cat­e­gories in­clude best drag and best leather.

Wear a cos­tume

Feath­ered masks, funny hats and boas are avail­able at sou­venir shops in the Quar­ter and from ven­dors who wheel their goods up and down the main pa­rade route.

Many vis­i­tors fash­ion their own, some­times top­i­cal getups. Cov­er­alls splotched with black were among the 2011 cos­tumes lam­poon­ing BP after the Gulf of Mex­ico oil spill.

Some go for pro­fes­sion­ally made store­bought or rented re­galia.

“Busi­ness re­ally starts pick­ing up two weeks be­fore Mardi Gras,” says Den­nis Vil­ladeleon, a cos­tume de­signer at New Or­leans’ South­ern Cos­tume Com­pany, which rents and sells cos­tumes.

“It’s hard,” he said when asked if he’s no­ticed any trends or themes in any given year. “Some years, the guys re­ally want to be pi­rates. There seems to be a pi­rate con­tin­gent here in New Or­leans.”

Be­have your­self

Yes, it’s of­ten touted as the world’s big­gest free party and it takes place in a city fa­mous for all-night bars and drink­ing in the streets. But there are lim­its. More than 170 state troop­ers are com­ing to sup­ple­ment the nearly 1,200-mem­ber po­lice force. And ar­rests are made: 334 ar­rests were re­ported last year in the 10 days lead­ing up to Mardi Gras along the pa­rade route and in the po­lice dis­trict that en­com­passes the French Quar­ter.

GER­ALD HER­BERT, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rex, the King of Car­ni­val rides in the Krewe of Rex at Canal Street on Mardi Gras in New Or­leans.

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