Heading for 8 Days in New Orleans At Mardi Gras
New Orleans for Mardi Gras was one of the “Carnival Trips” that was on our travel wish list – along with Rio and Venice. It had been a busy 2015 travel year and we were slow in planning for 2016 travel. With no other travel plans solid yet and with a little internet research, we quickly decided we could hop down for 8 Days in New Orleans revelry.
Starting our day at 3am, it quickly became evident that the travel gods were not shining on us. Our scheduled Delta flight was cancelled late the night before we were scheduled to fly. An email and a text was how we found out that we had been moved to a new flight even earlier than the original 6:30am departure. We managed to make it through checkin to get our new tickets (since somehow we could not check-in online for the new flight), get through the U.S. mostly self service U.S. pre-clearance and then through security in time to get to our gate and find them late boarding. We were not surprised when the flight lifted off over 45 minutes late. But at least the plane left. After doing the long trek in Atlanta between D wing and B wing, we waited for the incoming plane. But that plane did not survive the rain and lightening around Atlanta and a lightening hit grounded the plane for at least 6 hours while operations checked on the plane’s condition. The pilot began immediately scrambling to find another plane. With the beginning of the big Mardi Gras celebration weekend coming up, they certainly did not want to be backing up passengers in Atlanta waiting to go to New Orleans. David headed off to see if there was a way to move us to another flight while the pilot began his plane search. Just as David got us an option for a plane leaving in about 6 hours, the pilot announced he had found us a plane. We would soon be on the final leg of our journey to begin our 8 days in New Orleans.
Even booking relatively late for Mardi Gras (about 3 weeks before), we had found a number of hotel options still available, if not cheap! We debated choosing a hotel right in the middle of the Mardi Gras madness or a bit out of the zone. We finally decided that we would prefer a quieter spot and chose the magnificent old manor house Melrose Mansion on Esplanade right between the French Quarter and the Marigny district. The airport cab was a beat up old van driven by an older woman who had no idea where the hotel was. After we clarified the address several times and tried to show her on a map, she finally declared that she knew where she was going. People wonder why Uber is taking off in so many cities!
Arriving at Melrose Mansion before checkin time, we dropped our bags and headed out to explore. It was surprisingly hard to get a recommendation for a good coffee shop. Apparently New Orleans is much more a bar culture than a coffee culture. But we headed into the French Quarter to CeCe’s for the first of our many coffee and rest breaks during our 8 days in New Orleans.
As we walked into the French Quarter, it was soon very apparent that it was Mardi Gras season. We found houses and businesses all draped with Mardi Gras colours, beads and masks.
We stopped in one shop that sold brightly coloured wigs and another upscale mask shop to browse. We finally found some costume accessories that would give us some colour but not break the bank.
Dragging ourselves back to the hotel, we enjoyed the afternoon wine and cheese break while we debated our plans for the evening. Our 3am wake time finally started to kick in and we decided it would be a quick dinner at a nearby bar where we had our first taste of New Orleans cuisine with Gator Balls. It was relatively early night to allow us to recover. Further exploration of New Orleans and Mardi Gras would come through our 8 days in New Orleans.
Our First Mardi Gras Parade
We were excited for our first Mardi Gras celebration event! Since Mardi Gras is linked to Easter and Lent, it was was early this year (first week of February) and we needed to make sure to layer on a lot of clothes. From our hotel, we grabbed the bus to get us close to the Canal Street parade zone. We briefly debated setting up for the parade at the corner of Canal and St. Charles where the parades make their final turn, but decided to wander down St. Charles to look at the other options for our spot for the night. There were several sections of seating benches, all reserved for paying guests. We had reserved seats for the big parade on Fat Tuesday but not for any other night. Most people had brought folding chairs, warm blankets and coolers. We felt very unprepared. Our list of Mardi Gras tips was started that night!
It was about 5:15pm and there were some other early birds like us settling in but the crowds would not show up for hours. The first parade was heading out at 5:45pm from the relatively nearby section of the Garden District (e.g. not way out where many parades started). We had planned our arrival thinking that this parade would be at our zone in maybe an hour but when we asked more knowledgeable locals, we were told not to expect the parade in this zone before 7:30 or 8:00pm. It would be a long wait!
It was a very cold night (almost at freezing with the wind chill) so we tried to tuck into a somewhat sheltered spot. But with no chairs we ended up standing and freezing for hours. While I managed to duck into the hotel close to where we were settled in search of coffee, it was a long cold night.
Police cars and walking patrols come along the parade route periodically to keep the crowd back behind the lines. Your first sign that the parade is coming is when the Hydro truck comes along the path checking to make sure there are no low hanging wires that will catch on the floats.
We saw two back to back parades that first night (Babylon and Chaos). The parades were a mixture of: marching bands with cheerleaders, mascots on horse back, walkers carrying lit torches that often looked dangerously like they would set the walkers on fire, a few cars and a wide selection of themed floats.
The floats were colourful and generally well populated. The first parade from the Knights of Babylon had a fun set of floats. The second parade from Chaos had a large number of floats targeted with specific political messages – whether it was commentary on Bruce Jenner’s transformation, to parodies of the current Presidential candidates to worrisome messages about cyber security or the right to bear arms.
As the floats went by, the “throws” would be tossed to the crowds. While most of the throws were beads of all colours and sizes, some of the floats would periodically toss out more unique items. The people close to me caught bags, stuffed animals and a cool jester hat. On the first night, we came home with several dozen strings of beads, a half dozen doubloons, several plastic cups, a neon flashing ring and some stick on tattoos. Over the course of 8 days in New Orleans we would add t-shirts, a lighted sabre, multiple footballs and frisbees – and about 30 pounds of beads!
Be prepared for the crowd to go quite crazy when the floats went past. Despite the fact that the throws were largely cheap trinkets, everyone was jumping and shouting for the throws to come their way. There were a couple of people in the crowd who were quite energetic harvesters of throws that landed on the ground unclaimed. Since we had front row spots, we did quite well at catching the throws and I made sure to share my stash of beads with the older couple behind us who were not jumping or shouting.
We had really wanted to see the third Muses parade but when it hit 10:00pm and the parade was not even in sight, we decided that 5 hours of standing in the freezing temperatures was more than we could bear. We followed the 2nd parade as it travelled down St Charles until we broke off at Canal in search of our bus home. Our first parade had been exciting but we would come much better prepared for the next one.
But Don’t See Just One Parade
When we had first looked at the Mardi Gras Parade schedule during our 8 days in New Orleans and did some research on the celebration of Mardi Gras, we compiled a list of maybe 10 parades that we wanted to attend. It would not take us long before we knew how over-ambitious that plan might be. The parades took far longer than we had expected. If you did not book seating or have portable seats with you, it became a long time on your feet. We soon became less interested in adding to the growing mountain that was our bead collection although we were interested in the wide variety of things that did get thrown from the floats. But you should certainly experience a variety of different parades for different themes, different locations and day/night options.
Our second parade was the 50th anniversary of Endymion. It started out in mid-city so we decided to take the bus and see the parade closer to the start of the route. While we arrived 1.5 hours before the parade was set to begin, the crowds were all well set up along the parade route. We managed to find a spot with a good view but no place to sit. While I was prepared and would be warmer for this parade, we stood in that one spot for over 5 hours! There were parties going on all around us, at the houses that lined the route and in the parkette that ran along Orleans Street. With a 4:30pm start, families had set up spots with the children high in the chairs on the tops of ladders.
The police cleared all people off of the parade route and for about 15 minutes the road was clear and waiting. But once the floats arrived, they kept on coming! We saw the hand maidens of Endymion followed by the Queen and then the King.
The floats towered two stories above us and some floats had as many as 5 sections joined together. One float was so big it just barely made the turn. I was not sure how it would do on the smaller streets as it neared downtown! The warm afternoon turned to a cool, dark evening and the parade kept coming. The marching bands and cheer leaders were fresh at this early point in the parade, bopping to the band music and sometimes to the music blasting from the party in the Orleans parkette.
We had made the strategic mistake of being on the far side of Orleans so there was no way to cross the parade until the last float had passed. When the barricades came down, you could see the litter that gets left behind as hundreds of bags of trinkets and beads are opened.
We came home with a large bag full of beads and trinkets. But our haul was nowhere close to the 5 bags that the guy beside us from Texas managed to amass. After the first bag, his son was less interested in what was being collected but this did not deter his dad from screaming to every float and reaching his very long arms in front of several people on either side of him to scoop up everything that came even close to him.
We had planned to walk back to the bus stop. While we were told the buses would continue to run, it was a very long wait for a bus. We tried to call an Uber but even with surge pricing at 6.9 times the regular rate, I guess nobody wanted the relatively short run we were looking for. Even the bus that picked us up was doing a short run bypassing downtown so we ended up walking the last third of the distance. It had been a fun parade but my legs would pay for it the next day. We never anticipated how much we would be on our feet during our 8 days in New Orleans.
The Zulu and Rex parades were on the “must do” list and we were so glad we splurged and bought tickets for our final parades on Fat Tuesday. If you use the online site you can order your seat tickets in advance and pick them up at the “Will Call” desk. David had thought strategically about where he wanted to be to get the best tickets and ordered us tickets on St. Charles Street. We picked seats high in the bleachers behind a barricade that helped when the wind was whipping down the street. It was a great spot for pictures but the spot stayed in the shade and was very cold for most of 2 parades. Luckily we came prepared with multiple layers and a cushion for the hard metal benches.
It was a great spot to watch over 5 hours of parades roll past. We were across the street from the Q93.3 radio balcony so we got a great narrated overview as the different floats and dignitaries went past.
We enjoyed our last view of the marching bands, admired the parade floats and only half heartedly screamed and waved our hands for more beads. With over 20 pounds of beads from the previous parades, we would not possibly be going home with all those beads. Before we left New Orleans we would be looking for a recycling option for the beads!
It was a great way to ring out our Mardi Gras experience!
While the big parades are all on the master parade schedule but sometimes you hear music out your window and the parade comes to you! One day we heard jazz music wafting in from the street and looked out to find a mini parade stopped in front of our hotel. It was fun to roam around the colourfully costumed locals and listen to the music.
The fireworks show happens the night before Fat Tuesday. The winds were gusting to over 35 mph and we were not sure if the fireworks would even happen. But being good optimists we bundled up for the brisk walk to the water. We were surprised to find so many of the streetlights out as we walked to the river heading towards the Riverwalk. Having just sat down on a bench to debate whether the show would happen, we heard the first crack of gunpowder and the show went on. It was a great fireworks show – if a sad reminder that we were coming close to the end of the Mardi Gras celebrations.
More Than Just Mardi Gras
When you visit New Orleans at Mardi Gras, much of your time will be filled with Mardi Gras activities. Even if you do not want to do Mardi Gras activities, many parts of the city grind to a halt during the parade times so you need to plan your non-Mardi Gras activities carefully! If you visit New Orleans outside of Mardi Gras, there is lots to see and do!
Our hotel for the 8 days in New Orleans was located on the border between the French Quarter and the Marigny district. While most of the time we would head into the French Quarter, we made sure to walk around the Marigny district. Washington Square is one of the many parks located in the downtown area. This park in the Marigny district offered lots of grassy area, a kids playground and even had palm trees! We found a local joint (Horns) for breakfast one morning and well fortified we wandered down Frenchman Street. This area was a zone of restaurants and jazz clubs that while quiet at noon, would be hopping after dark.
During our 8 days in New Orleans, we made sure at least one night to take a stroll down the infamous Bourbon Street. The streets were packed but with a strong police presence we felt safe to wander along. Partiers were in the balconies screaming for women to bare their breasts to get beads thrown down. Every few blocks we would see the crowd split to move around religious groups that had set up to protest what they felt was the immorality on display.
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a visit to the French Market. Located down close to the Mississippi River, you can wander through the stalls where unique local crafts vie for attention with the mass produced tourist souvenirs. The market includes a food hall with a wide variety of local treats.
The streets around the French Market provide more shopping options and lots of spots to eat and drink. One of those spots that is on most “do do” lists is to visit the Cafe du Monde for traditional white sugar covered beignets! While we never did get out for a romantic dinner when we were in New Orleans, we did manage to eat a good selection of local foods.
One of the things that was on our list for our 8 days in New Orleans was to visit the Number One Cemetery. We booked our tour through Save Our Cemeteries. Our elderly guide Ginger provided us with an interesting tour of the grave site accompanied by a great glimpse into New Orleans history and the interesting people buried in this cemetery.
One day we got a daily bus pass and bundled up warm, we headed to the New Orleans Museum of Art to walk the outdoor sculpture garden. The sculpture garden offered an interesting variety of sculptures, from more stark metal and stone sculptures to fun colourful art. After enjoying the sculpture garden we headed into the museum to the Cafe NOMA for a break.
Once the big Mardi Gras parades were over on Fat Tuesday, the city of New Orleans began to get back to normal. We could take the Canal Street streetcar to pick up the St. Charles streetcar. Riding the St. Charles line out to uptown gives you an opportunity to just look around and see the stately old mansions lining each side of the street.
Taking the St. Charles streetcar to Oak Street, we got out to wander around this transitional neighbourhood. Many of the businesses were still closed but we found a great coffee bar (Z’otz Cafe) and stopped for a brief rest. Heading back out we wandered back along Carrolton Street to the corner of St. Charles to stop at Le Madeline Cafe for lunch. We successfully bypassed the selection of French pastries in the dessert counter to get ourselves salad and a sandwich. Refreshed we wandered up to the levee but were not able to walk right to the water.
On the streetcar headed back to town we decided to take a brief break at the Audubon Park. We wandered about the park, sat on the benches to watch the fountains and chased the ducks to see them all fly away. It is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.
The flight home after our 8 days in New Orleans was late in the day so we got a bonus last day to wander around the French Quarter. The Riverfront Streetcar took us from the bottom of Esplanade over towards Canal Street. We got off and spent some time wandering around Jackson Square and the Plaza D’Armas. Of course now that we were leaving, the warm temperatures had returned and we could sit and soak up some heat in the park.
The airline demons were taking pity on us for our trip home. The first flight left on time and even though we had to transit through Atlanta across 5 terminal wings, our final segment left without a hitch. There was virtually nobody when we hit Customs so we hit the baggage claim in good time to pick up bags. Little did we know that we would have to wait for over an hour before the baggage door on the frozen plane could be pried open.
It had been a crazy 8 days in New Orleans. We fully immersed ourselves in Mardi Gras festivities but we also enjoyed a lot of what New Orleans had to offer! We knew we would be back – maybe for JazzFest or maybe for the Seafood Festival. There was still so much left on our list than we got to do on this quick trip!
What else do you think we should have fit into our 8 days in New Orleans? Are there other great times of year to visit New Orleans? What is top of your list to see in Louisiana outside of New Orleans?