If Mardi Gras in New Orleans sounds like too much for you no matter how low-key you keep it, consider driving out to Cajun Country, where Mardi Gras traditions are just as strong but considerably more, er, wholesome. Lafayette, the capital of French Acadiana, celebrates Carnival in a manner that reflects the Cajun heritage and spirit. The 3-day event is second in size only to New Orleans's celebration. There's one big difference, though: Their final pageant and ball are open to the general public. Don your formal wear and join right in!
The Lafayette festivities are ruled by King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline, the fictional hero and heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline, set in these locales.
Things get off to a joyous start with a Friday night parade and then kick into high gear with the Children's Krewe and Krewe of Bonaparte parades and ball, held on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, following a full day of celebration at Cajun Field. On Monday night Queen Evangeline is honored at the Queen's Parade. The King's Parade, held the following morning, honors King Gabriel and opens a full day of merriment. Lafayette's African-American community stages the Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Parade, honoring King Toussaint L'Ouverture and Queen Suzanne Simonne at about 1pm, just after the King's Parade. Then the Krewe of Lafayette invites everyone to get into the act as its Independent Parade winds through the streets. Krewe participants trot along on foot or ride in the vehicle of their choice -- some very imaginative modes of transportation turn up every year. The Mardi Gras climax, a formal ball presided over by the king and queen and their royal court, takes place that night. Everything stops promptly at midnight, as Cajuns and visitors alike depart to begin their observance of Lent.
Masked Men & a Big Gumbo -- In the Cajun countryside outside Lafayette, there's yet another celebration, the Courir de Mardi Gras, tied to the traditional rural lifestyle. Bands of masked men dressed in raggedy patchwork costumes and peaked capichon hats set off on Mardi Gras morning on horseback, led by their capitaine. They ride from farm to farm, asking at each, "Voulez-vous reçevoir le Mardi Gras?" ("Will you receive the Mardi Gras?"). "Oui," comes the invariable reply. Each farmyard then becomes a miniature festival as the revelers faire le macaque ("make monkeyshines") with song, dance, much drinking of beer, and other antics. As payment for their pageantry, they get "a fat little chicken to make a big gumbo" (or sometimes a bag of rice or other ingredients).
When each band has visited its allotted farmyards, all head back to town where everyone else has already begun cooking, dancing, game-playing, storytelling, and the like. This lasts into the wee hours, and yes, all those fat little chickens do indeed go into a gumbo gros pot to make a very big gumbo.
Get particulars on both the urban (Lafayette) and rural celebrations (Eunice and Mamou stage some of the most enjoyable ones) from the Lafayette Parish Convention and Visitors Commission (tel. 800/346-1958 in the U.S., 800/543-5340 in Canada, or 337/232-3737; www.lafayettetravel.com).
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.