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Mardi Gras can be whatever you want. The exhibitionism and drunken orgies are largely confined to Bourbon Street. If that's what you want, go there. But if you avoid Bourbon Street (or visit a few weeks before Fat Tuesday), you can have an entirely different experience.

The Season

The date of Fat Tuesday is different each year, but Carnival season always starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, when the Phunny Phorty Phellows kick off the season with a streetcar party cruise.

Over the following weeks, the city celebrates, often with King Cakes. This round, coffeecake-like confection, dusted with Mardi Gras purple-, green-, and gold-colored sugar, contains a plastic baby baked right in. Getting the piece with the baby can be a good omen or can mean you have to throw the next King Cake party. For the high-society crowd, the season brings dozens of invitation-only parties, some harking back to the traditional, 19th-century masked balls. Each krewe throws a ball, ostensibly to introduce its royalty for the year.

Two or three weeks before Mardi Gras itself, the parading (and parodying) begins. Adorable canines parade in the Mystick Krewe of Barkus, often with their humans in matching costumes, and the hilarious Krewe du Vieux outrages with un-family-friendly decadence. If you want to experience Mardi Gras but don't want to face the full force of craziness, consider coming for the weekend 10 days before Fat Tuesday (the season officially begins the Fri of this weekend). You can count on 10 to 15 small to midsize parades, and easily manageable crowds.

The following weekend there are another 15 parades. The parades are bigger, the crowds are bigger -- everything's bigger. By this point, the city has succumbed to Carnival fever. After a day of screaming for beads, you'll probably find yourself heading somewhere to get a drink or three. The French Quarter, the center of late-night revelry, will be packed. If you've traveled uptown or to Mid-City for a parade, consider staying put at a nearby joint. If you opt for more reserved revelry and a nice evening out, book well in advance, and make sure your route to the restaurant won't be impeded by the parades. The last parade each day (on both weekends) is usually scheduled to end around 9:30pm but can run way later; you might be exhausted by the time you get back to the hotel.

Lundi Gras

From 1874 to 1917, Rex's King of Carnival arrived downtown from the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday. After years of neglect, the event is a big deal once again. Festivities begin at the riverfront in the afternoon with lots of drink and live music. King Zulu arrives around 5pm, followed by the masked King of Rex. The two meet, and are greeted by the mayor, and the ceremony is followed by a huge fireworks display over the river. That night Proteus and the Krewe of Orpheus (known for their generous throws) hold their parades. Because Lent begins the following night (Tues) at midnight, a good portion of the city pulls an all-nighter on Monday.

Mardi Gras Day

The two biggest parades, Zulu and Rex, run back to back to kick things off. Zulu starts near the Central Business District at 8:30am; Rex starts uptown at 10am. Across town, the Bohemian Societé of St. Anne starts mustering around 9am near Burgundy and Peity Streets in the Bywater area. The walking club (no floats) is known for its madcap, au courant, and sometimes risqué costumes.

Throughout the early morning, in between the parades, you can see other elaborately costumed Mardi Gras walking or marching clubs, such as the Jefferson City Buzzards, the Pete Fountain Half Fast, and Mondo Kayo (identifiable by their tropical/banana theme). They walk (or stroll, or stumble), accompanied by marching. Catch the "marchers" anywhere along St. Charles Avenue between Poydras Street and Washington Avenue.

Also keep a watch out for unofficial and rogue krewes and marching clubs like the Julus, which includes members of the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and throws painted bagels, the sci-fi Krewe of Chewbacchus, or the legume-adorned Krewe of Red Beans. They're sometimes announced on WWOZ.org or in Gambit (www.bestofneworleans.com). These can be groups formed among friends, within a neighborhood, or around any random theme.

By early afternoon, Rex spills into the Central Business District. Nearby at about this time, you may be able to find some of the most elusive New Orleans figures, the Mardi Gras Indians. The "tribes" of New Orleans are small communities of African Americans and black Creoles (some of whom have Native American ancestors), mostly from the inner city. The tribes have an established hierarchy and deep-seated traditions, including enormous, elaborate beaded and feathered costumes. They're entirely made by hand, and a great source of pride, each attempting to out-outlandish the next. The men work on them all year in preparation for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day, and then turn around and start working on next year's suit.

The timing is loose, but traditionally, tribes converge throughout the day, in their neighborhoods, at main intersections along the Claiborne Avenue median (underneath the interstate), and at St. Augustine's church in the Treme. Crowds of locals mill around to see the spectacle: When two tribes meet, they'll stage a mock confrontation, resettling their territory and common borders. After marching in various parades, they reconvene around mid-afternoon on Claiborne, where a party gets going. Play it cool, however -- this is not your neighborhood, nor a sideshow act put on for your benefit. It is a ritual deserving of respect. Also, Indian suits are copyrighted works of art; photos of them can't be sold without permission. Ask locals for rumors about times and intersections, and then bike, walk, or drive around (it's probably the only time a car is useful on Mardi Gras), keeping eyes and ears open for feathers and drums. You can also try to catch these confrontations during St. Joseph's Day, at parties and at Jazz Fest.

After the parades, the action picks up in the Quarter. En route, you'll see that Mardi Gras is still very much a family tradition, with whole families dressing up in similar costumes. Marvel at how an entire city has shut down so that every citizen can join in the celebrations -- on the streets, on their balconies watching the action below, or barbecuing in their courtyards. If you are lucky and seem like the right sort, you might well get invited in.

In the Quarter, the frat-party action is largely confined to Bourbon Street. The more interesting activity is in the lower Quarter and the Frenchmen section of the Faubourg Marigny (just east of the Quarter), where the artists and gay community celebrate in their elaborate, work-of-art costumes. It's boisterous and enthusiastic, but not (for the most part) obnoxious.

As you make your way through the streets, keep your eyes peeled for members of the legendary Krewe of Comus. They will be men dressed in tuxes with brooms over their shoulders, holding cowbells. Ask them if they are Comus, and they will deny it, insisting they are Cowbellians. But if they hand you a vintage Comus doubloon, the truth will be out.

If you can, try to stay until midnight when the police come through the Quarter, efficiently, officially shutting down Mardi Gras. If you can't, tune in to WYES (Channel 12) for live coverage of the Rex Ball -- it's serious pomp.

Parade Watch

A Mardi Gras parade works a spell on people. There's no other way to explain why thousands of otherwise rational men and women scream, plead, and sometimes expose themselves for no more reward than a plastic trinket. Don't worry -- nobody goes home empty-handed (even the trees end up laden with glittery goods). In your zeal to catch beads, don't forget to actually look at the amazing floats. When the nighttime floats are lit by flambeaux torch bearers, it is easy to envision a time when Mardi Gras meant mystery and magic.

These are just a few of the major parades of the last days of Carnival.

  • Muses (founded 2000): This popular all-gals krewe honors New Orleans's artistic community -- and shoes. Their glittery, decorated shoes are highly sought throws. Muses parades on the Thursday evening before Mardi Gras.
  • Krewe d'Etat (founded 1996): Social satire is the Krewe specialty, with no current event left unscathed. It parades on the Friday evening before Mardi Gras, and their hilarious float designs are often talked about all week.
  • Iris (founded 1917): This women's krewe follows traditional Carnival rules of costume and behavior. It parades on the Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras.
  • Endymion (founded 1967): This became one of the early "superkrewes" in the 1970s by featuring a glut of floats and celebrity guests such as Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Dolly Parton, John Goodman, and Kevin Costner. It runs in Mid-City Saturday evening, concluding with a big party in the Superdome.
  • Bacchus (founded 1968): The original "superkrewe," Bacchus was the first to host international celebrities, especially as grand marshals. It traditionally runs the Sunday before Mardi Gras, from Uptown to the convention center.
  • Orpheus (founded 1994): Another youngish krewe, it was founded by a group that includes Harry Connick, Jr., and tries to adhere to classic krewe traditions, and is popular for its many stunning floats and generous throws. They parade on Lundi Gras evening and follow the Bacchus route.
  • Zulu (founded 1916): Lively Zulu has float riders decked out in woolly wigs and blackface. They carry the most prized of Mardi Gras souvenirs: glittery gold-and-black hand-painted coconuts. These status symbols must be placed in your hands, not tossed, so go right up to the float and do your best begging. The parade runs on Mardi Gras morning.
  • Rex (founded 1872): Rex, the original Mardi Gras daytime parade, follows Zulu down St. Charles. It features the King of Carnival and some of the classic floats of Carnival. Various independent walking clubs often precede Rex.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.