I’m a New Orleans native. Spent most of my life there and lived there until a late ‘80s recession knocked the chair out from under me, leaving me dangling. I left to start a new life.
So why did I go back to New Orleans (or as the locals prefer, “N’Awlins”) to play tourist and revel in the madness of Mardi Gras? I love that town! And so do many of the millions of visitors who experience it every year. My wife, Monique, and I found a way to make it happen, with unbelievable opportunities to soak up its uniqueness.
In mid-February, we set our course from California toward the fabled Bayou Country of South Louisiana, pulling our travel trailer across the vastness of the southwestern deserts. We arrived at Bayou Segnette State Park directly across the Mississippi River from New Orleans suburbs and nestled into a spot just a few steps from an egret habitat on a genuine bayou.
A day later, we were no longer on our own. We were part of the 45-rig Mardi Gras Rally sponsored by Adventure Caravans, the same company that had led us to Alaska and back on an RV caravan two years earlier.
Creole and Cajun food, parades, history, entertainment—we were immersed in it, day after day, for 10 days. New Orleans, unlike just about every other metropolitan area in America, is a culture rather than a city. Until a new arrival has been there for a few days or longer that may not be apparent, but once the aura of N’Awlins works its way into your soul, it’s a feeling you won’t forget.
Mardi Gras parades are not like any others you’ve experienced. There is the splendor, of course. Masses of folks line the streets, but that’s where the first difference shows up. Where else do you see children in homemade seats atop folding ladders? Where else do you see so many parade-watchers wearing silly hats? When the parade arrives, all heck breaks loose. At no other parade venue do sensible, sedentary, normal-type citizens jump out of their chairs to vie for the cherished beads or the aluminum coinage known as “doubloons” thrown from the floats.
(Despite rumors to the contrary, Mardi Gras is not dangerous. For those who don’t like crowds, there are miles of uncrowded places, not to mention parades in the suburbs and small towns throughout the Cajun Country of South Louisiana. Mardi Gras is a family attraction, a mecca for small children and great-grandmothers. A million people join in the fun—or madness—every year, and every year, a million return.)
New Orleans is where trumpets blared out the first notes of jazz, and the regions in and around the French Quarter continue to spawn many of the world’s favorite musicians. The New Orleans sound in pop music is unmistakable. The Big Easy is undoubtedly one of the most sports-crazy metropolises in the world. “Who-Dat” Saints fans are as raucous as they come.
The historic city had come under French, Spanish, English and American rule, and probably never without conflict, which has added to its rich history…like seafood and andouille in gumbo. We had some gumbo at Oak Alley Plantation, plus crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, bread pudding with rum sauce—and that was a day after our rally group got a true taste of New Orleans at a lavish buffet in the French Quarter’s Court of Two Sisters.
Nine days before Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras), the participants in our RV rally were bused to “The Avenue,” which refers to oak-tree-shaded St. Charles Avenue, one of the most stately, mansion-lined streets in America. Here, in this heart of town, we put down folding chairs and got ready for the King of Carrollton’s float and were not disappointed when it rolled toward us minutes later.
Every day leading up to Mardi Gras, there are parades. Each parade is manned by a “krewe,” the local name for carnival organizations. Krewe members are mostly masked and wear costumes that carry out the theme of the float, which helps carry out the theme of the entire parade.
Some of the parades are lavish, some whimsical, and all are fun. Our group spent at least a dozen hours awaiting and participating in parades, and that doesn’t include Friday’s encounter with a ragtag parade of hundreds of immaculately dressed business and professional people escorted by a jazzy high school band. Following their traditional luncheon at several of the French Quarter’s finest restaurants, this krewe dressed to the nines wended its way through narrow streets lined with enthusiastic spectators toward the assembling area, where they would board massive floats for their ride down the Avenue and into the Central Business District.
The French Quarter, which is usually filled with gawking tourists year-round, came alive with a crowd of thousands begging the gentlemen for beads and other items of questionable value.
Mardi Gras Day was perfect. The weather was warm, mostly sunny, and revelers in the downtown area and French Quarter were in good spirits (some drinking those spirits) with no evidence of rowdiness during our eight hours in the crowd.
Monique was relieved. She, like many who have never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, feared the crush of people would be suffocating, despite the assurances by frequent carnival-goers. We walked down legendary Bourbon Street in the Quarter, looking at costumes and catching beads thrown from classic wrought–iron-framed balconies. When the easy flow of costumed bodies began to get thicker, we veered off and found a corner restaurant that provided us with an excellent muffaleta (a New Orleans specialty—one sandwich is enough for a couple), a tasty Bloody Mary, reasonable prices, and a table along the sidewalk where we could continue to ogle the passing parade of costumes.
My return to my hometown couldn’t have been better. In addition to the merriness of Mardi Gras, our rally group toured the French Quarter, plantation homes, one of the huge float-building studios, famous aboveground historic cemeteries, an entertaining cooking school and much more. It was a perfect time for gulf seafood, all cooked to New Orleans’ high standards.
We also visited the spectacular World War II museum. This can be a destination in itself, especially with the stunning new 4-D movie narrated by Tom Hanks. I don’t know if I’ve ever learned to appreciate the cost of our freedom in the lives and anguish of those involved as I did watching that stirring film.
We are always at home on the road in our RV, but never more than when we were back in New Orleans—the home that first nurtured me.
Barry Zander, who lives in Idyllwild, California, is a writer and photographer with a background as a newspaper reporter and editor. He grew up in New Orleans, where his family had a coffee importing business for many years.