Visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras has never been for the faint of heart. But with the city set to host the Super Bowl just nine days before Fat Tuesday, locals believe that this year’s “Super Gras” celebration might be the city’s biggest party ever. New Orleans has spent $1.3 billion on infrastructure improvements in the run up to the Super Bowl according to CNN, and USA Today estimates that the city will see a $1 billion spike in economic activity as a result of the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.
The pre-Lent partying culminates on Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 12 this year, but there are dozens of parades, organized by carnival krewes, balls and parties in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. We spoke to Laura Martone, a New Orleans native and author of the recently released “Moon Handbook to New Orleans,” to get a flavor of what New Orleans is like during Mardi Gras.
I’m 36 and all of that has been happening since I was a little kid. My mom tells me that it used to be more family friendly. People throw beads down to women and men who are flashing. I have never done that. My dignity is worth more than some plastic beads. But a lot of the parades are more family friendly and you don’t see much flashing at those events.
I assume 99% of the women who are flashing are tourists?
Probably. The thing that used to fascinate me as a kid was seeing the cops taking pictures of the women flashing. No one was getting ticketed for indecent exposure because the cops were too busy taking pictures.
The cops don’t still take photos of women flashing, do they?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past them.
You live in the French Quarter. Do New Orleans natives dread Mardi Gras because the city is invaded by tourists?
A lot of my friends are leaving town, and when I was growing up, my mom would take me to some of the parades but even she didn’t love it. As an adult, you kind of dread the mayhem. You get so many drunken crowds; people are here to party more than for the culture. This year is the perfect storm because we have the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras at the same time. It’s total mayhem.
But, while I know plenty of people that flee the city during one of the busiest times of the year, there are many, many more that embrace the occasion. People host Mardi Gras parties, flock to as many parades as possible, and, sometimes even spring for tickets to one of the big balls. Most New Orleanians don’t need a reason to let the good times roll.
What’s it like to live in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras? Are people vomiting and peeing in the streets?
Oh yeah, but sadly you see that here throughout the year. It’s just a bit more during Mardi Gras. Sometimes I just do not want to be on Bourbon Street. I’d rather walk on Royal Street, where you can still get the French Quarter atmosphere without being inundated by hawkers and drunks. But sometimes it is fun to walk down Bourbon Street and just feel the energy. Most people are having a really good time.
Do most of the tourists just turn up around Fat Tuesday or well before then?
The big crowds come for the last weekend because that’s when all the major super krewes run. Endymion is on Saturday night and Bacchus is Sunday night, and Monday is Orpheus. Orpheus is the one started by Harry Connick, Jr. and it has a music theme. And then on Mardi Gras Day, you have a ton of parades. The major ones are Rex, which is the king of Mardi Gras, and Zulu, that’s the African-American one that’s been around since the early 1900s. They pass out coconuts and it’s a little crazy.
When does the Mardi Gras season start?
Technically, it starts on January 6, Epiphany. But the parade season is usually the two weeks before Mardi Gras Day. The dates change every year, depending on when Easter is. Usually right after Christmas, we take down our Christmas decorations and put up our Mardi Gras decorations.
What advice do you have for first-time Mardi Gras visitors?
If they’ve never been before, coming on Mardi Gras weekend is a big deal because that’s when the super krewes roll. You get the celebrity grand marshals and the big floats and endless marching bands and that kind of stuff. But for people who just want to get a taste of the season, there are parades going on all the time. On Sunday, for example, there’s the Krewe of Barkus – it’s the dog parade and it’s really crazy.
It’s tough to get a room in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras. What other neighborhoods should people look into?
I don’t always encourage people to stay in the French Quarter. The French Quarter hotels tend to be a lot pricier and it’s harder to get rooms. The two neighborhoods on either side of the French Quarter – the Central Business District (CBD) and the Faubourg Marigny – are really good. CBD has a lot of chains so those places will be more reasonably priced. Faubourg Marigny has more intimate bed-and-breakfasts and it’s a little funkier, so it’s kind of a good New Orleans experience. It’s cheaper than the French Quarter but it’s still within walking distance.
And the Garden District?
That’s another good choice and it’s accessible via the St. Charles streetcar but because of the Super Bowl, everything is in disarray because they were repairing that line. But it’s still pretty easy to get from the Garden District to the heart of the city. Uptown is also a good choice. It has a combination of chain hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
New Orleans isn’t dangerous in the same way Rio is. But still, with the crowds and alcohol, you want to be careful. Travel in pairs. Watch out for pickpockets. People worry about the crime situation in New Orleans but just be careful where you go. The Quarter itself is relatively safe because there’s a big police presence. But right across Rampart Street, which borders one side of the quarter, you’re in Tremé, which is not very safe. Tourists wander off the beaten path when they’re drunk and that’s when they get mugged. Try to stay in places where you see plenty of people, and when in doubt about an area, just ask someone. Natives are very friendly here.
Tourists come here and they leave their inhibitions behind. People think that anything that happens here, stays here but it can be safe if you have your wits about you.
For those who want to experience Mardi Gras but are a little intimidated by the crowds and craziness in New Orleans, are there alternatives nearby?
There are parades in Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans, Slidell, which is another suburb that is much more family friendly. And beyond here, Lafayette has a big Mardi Gras celebration of its own. It’s about 2-1/2 to 3 hours away and it has a more Cajun vibe. And outside Louisiana, Mobile has a great Mardi Gras and it’s also pretty family friendly.
People do crazy things to get beads at Mardi Gras but these things are made in China. Why not just buy them?
Right, you can buy them wholesale. They are dirt-cheap, so it doesn’t make that much sense to me to expose myself to get them.