New Orleans Prepares For ‘Super Gras’ 2013

girl preparing for mardi gras in new orleans 2013Visiting 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.
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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.


Laura MartoneFor some, Mardi Gras is synonymous with debauchery – beads, flashing and binge drinking, among other things. Has all of that been going on for decades?

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.

woman flashing her breasts at mardi gras new orleansThe 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.

mardi gras beads new orleansWhat other tips do you have for first-time visitors?

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.

[Photo credits: Laura Martone, Infrogmation, Toast to Life, Mark Gstohl, Derek Bridges, and Tulane Public Relations on Flickr]

New Orleans Roadfood Festival rolls in March 24-25

new orleans foodThat New Orleans is a food town is no secret. What I just discovered, however, is that it’s host to a food festival spawned by one of my favorite pastimes ever: road food (and no, I’m not referring to this kind). Way back in the day, when I was a wee college student, I discovered the late, great Gourmet magazine, and became obsessed with “Roadfood,” a column (now a website) written by the road-trippin’, big-eatin’ couple Jane and Michael Stern.

In every issue, the Sterns would choose a micro-region of the U.S. and a local specialty on which to focus their column. Each month, I read about chicken and dumplings in Indiana, pasties from Montana, green chile from El Rito, New Mexico, or barbecue from Owensboro, Kentucky. Then I’d wipe the drool off of the pages and stash each article away in a manila folder to be saved for future road trips, both real and imagined.

Apparently, nearly half a decade ago, while I was lost in some “best roadside diner biscuit” reverie, the Sterns helped create the New Orleans Roadfood Festival. The 4th annual food fiesta will be held March 24-25 in the city’s historic French Market. It will provide a showcase for over 30 restaurants across the country, which will serve the dishes that made them famous. Attendees will be able to street-feast upon Texas and Memphis barbecue, Tucson’s best tamales, custard from upstate New York, Cajun and Creole delicacies from across Louisiana, and many other regional culinary specialties. There will also be cooking demos, live music, a beignet-eating contest for the N.O. Fire Department, and a kickoff party featuring the Sterns, local chefs, and noted cookbook author Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

And get this: admission to the festival is free. You’ll still have to pay for those good eats, but a portion of the proceeds will benefit Cafe Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant that uses innovative strategies to provide life skills and job training to youth from at-risk communities in area. Just in case you need a guilt-free reason to indulge. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

How to Fight a Food Coma and Treat Indigestion

[Photo credit: Flickr user Adam Melancon]

5 tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras

While New Orleans seems to celebrate Mardi Gras all year round, it is at this time of the year–the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday (in French: Mardi Gras) and the beginning of Lent–that the city earns its hard partying reputation.

It happens every year. And all kinds of people take the time to lose track of time in this city of soul and spook. Fascinated by the stories and legends of Mardi Gras and its raucous joy, I visited New Orleans in February 2009 and 2010 and I absorbed all that I could of Carnival culture.

My initial distaste for Mardi Gras had been a product of misleading media stories and drunken lore. Without much interest in forcing myself into remembering the only year of college I spent on campus, I eschewed the city’s famous annual ongoing party, genuinely disinterested in what I thought it was. But a friend I made while touring through Alabama, a true Southern Belle with a killer taste for rock ‘n’ roll, tempted me with attractive tales of Mardi Gras–an event she made sure to attend every year she could.

Through her I learned that Mardi Gras isn’t all breast-flashing belligerence and so-forced-it’s-sickening salaciousness. Through her I learned that Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the city, by different people with different backgrounds and different views on How to Party Hard. And when she decided to move to New Orleans a few months before the weeks of Mardi Gras 2009, I ignored my doubts, bought a plane ticket, and tried out Mardi Gras with a local as my guide.
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Admittedly, she was new to living in the city, but her relatives there were hardened New Orleans veterans who quickly passed on their torch of insight.

Girlfriend, first of all, you gotta stay away from Bourbon Street“, she instructed me.

She’d learned the ins and outs of Mardi Gras enjoyment during the years prior, the years she spent making the 2-3 hour commute from Mobile in order to do it up with her family and friends in the city. I was privileged enough to do it up with them.

And, as I blearily boarded my departure plane that sunny Wednesday following my first real Fat Tuesday, I wasn’t looking forward to arriving back home in it’s-still-winter New York. I wanted to stay forever in warm, colorful, indulgent New Orleans.

I went back the following February and I’m making plans to return again in a few weeks. But my returning is for the sake of the Mardi Gras I know. Here are five tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras–without all of its famous obnoxiousness.

1. Move beyond Bourbon Street.
I’m not going to advise you to ignore Bourbon Street completely. Like Times Square, this tourist destination has its place. You’ll find some good bars on Bourbon Street–hell, one of my lady friends tends bar at Molly’s on Toulouse. But by and large, you’ll experience the Mardi Gras I fell in love with outside of Bourbon Street. Spend some time in the East Quarter, for instance. Everyone there is also celebrating, costumed, and singin’ and dancin’, but you’ll find more locals in the East Quarter than on Bourbon Street. Tip: Look for a sublet or rental in this neighborhood with the help of Airbnb. If you have your own spot to call home in a good area where you can actually get some sleep when you need it, your entire experience will be better.

2. Perfect your costume.
There’s a true art to assembling the perfect Mardi Gras costume. Be creative and spend time getting your costume just right. Part of the Mardi Gras allure is the bold and beautiful color displayed emphatically by those reveling and relishing in the season. Tip: Masks and feathers are tried and true standards, but anything goes. When in doubt, wear a blonde wig and no pants for a quick-fix Lady Gaga. You might get thrown some beads with this get-up, but here’s another tip: don’t take off your clothes for beads. Firstly… because they’re just beads. Secondly because people are probably going to throw them to you no matter what.

3. Drink responsibly.
I say this not to reiterate the words of your nagging, oppressive mother, but rather because Mardi Gras is an experience worth remembering. Instead of joining in on the parade of puking drunks stinking up the streets, be mindful of how much you drink and take home some memories you’ll have for the rest of your life. By all means, drink. Drink and be merry–but leave it at that. Solicitous strangers might come to your rescue if you need to be scooped up off the street and sent home in a taxi, but don’t count on it. Tip: It’s a good idea to carry water with you at all times. It’s just not a good idea to mix cheap tequila, 600-calorie pina coladas, box wine, and all that fried food with dehydration.

4. Hang with locals.
You might not know any local New Orleans residents when you arrive, but making small talk is easy in a town as lively as this one. Chat up locals and pick their brains for recommendations of where to spend your time. Their spots will most likely trump tourist spots. (Not every time). And hey, if you’re lucky you might make some friends. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a good ol’ fashioned Mardi Gras house party over frat boys doing body shots at a bar with a $10 cover any night. Tip: Don’t be shy. Diffidence won’t yield for you the trip of a lifetime and besides, most people can respect a traveler who wants to avoid tourist traps.

5. Eat well.
When I say ‘eat well’ during a story about New Orleans, I mean two things: 1. Eat delicious Cajun food and savor every last bit of it. 2. Counteract the rich meals with simple, wholesome foods every chance you get. Believe me, New Orleans’ citywide buffet of fried food is worth digging your paws into. But if you don’t balance all of this heavy stuff out with some healthy options here and there, you’ll be sabotaging the quality of your vacation. Tip: You’ll probably be out for large chunks of time every time you’re out, so throw an apple, granola bar, or any other simple and healthy snack in your bag to make healthy eating automatic.

Have your own tips that will help Mardi Gras attendees enjoy the festival? Share and discuss with us in the comments.

Welcome back to New Orleans

This isn’t a New Orleans story about disaster. It’s a story about rebirth. Despite all that has happened to New Orleans in the last five years – the damage, the loss of life, the oil spills – the fact remains: New Orleans is still one of the most musically rich, culturally vibrant and historically important cities in the world. This is not a city that gives up easily. In fact, we’re here to tell you that despite all you hear on the news, New Orleans is as good as ever, and it’s about time you came down to pay it a visit.

New Orleans is also much more than just throwing beads at Mardi Gras – there’s plenty to discover and celebrate about this amazing city year-round. From the genteel colonnade-lined mansions of the Garden District, the wide avenues shielded by shady canopies of old-growth trees, to the raucous nocturnal playground of Frenchmen Street, where funky brass bands and “go cups” of Abita Amber flow freely, to sinful culinary delights like Beignets and Muffuletta sandwiches, New Orleans is jam-packed with enough one-of-a-kind pleasures to please even the most jaded of travelers.

New Orleans is back, baby. Are you ready to take a whirlwind tour? Keep reading below to discover all this great city has to offer…Getting Around
Most New Orleans visitors arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport, located about 15 minutes from downtown. The most convenient way into town is by taxi, which costs $33 for 1 or 2 passengers and $14/person for 3 or more. Many hotels in the French Quarter also offer their guests free shuttle service. If you’re doing New Orleans on the super cheap, the Jefferson Transit Airport Express is only $2.

Once you arrive in New Orleans, getting around by foot or public transport is relatively easy. Unless you need to get out of town, don’t bother with renting a car. Many of New Orleans’ attractions are either in the French Quarter or within walking distance. The city’s vintage street cars also offer connections to visitors hoping to get away from the French Quarter madness, all for just $1.25 per ride.

City Layout
The cultural heart of New Orleans lies along a series of bends in the Mississippi River, earning the town the nickname of “Crescent City.” The beating tourist heart of New Orleans is clearly the French Quarter, which has lots to do even if you don’t want to be drinking hand grenades all day on Bourbon Street. To the Northeast of the French Quarter is Faubourg Marigny, an up-and-coming neighborhood with a killer nightlife and live music scene. To the South and West of the French Quarter is the skyscraper-filled Central Business District (also home to a growing arts scene) and the southern-mansion-lined streets of the Garden District.

What to Do
You’ll never run out of activities in New Orleans. Simply walking the atmospheric streets, stumbling upon street musicians and the city’s beautiful architecture, is a joy in and of itself. Make sure to leave plenty of time to simply wander and take it all in. Here’s a few of our favorite highlights:

  • The food – if you haven’t eaten proper New Orleans cuisine, you simply haven’t visited New Orleans. Wondering where to start your Big Easy culinary tour? Try Central Grocery for a spicy Italian Muffuletta, Johnny’s or Mother’s for a Po’ Boy sandwich and Jacques-imo’s for Creole and Cajun specialties. And don’t forget a beignet and Cafe au Lait at Cafe du Monde (preferably late at night when it’s less crowded).
  • Garden District tour – spend an afternoon getting a dose of old-school Southern charm by hopping on a street car to this historic New Orleans district of stately mansions and intriguing shopping. Grab a green line street car from the French Quarter and sit back as you’re transported back in time, past enormous Antebellum-style mansions fringed by gardens of lush greenery. Take a break on Magazine Street to find top-notch shopping.
  • French Quarter Wandering – most New Orleans visitors are already familiar with this quintessential neighborhood. But there’s much more to the French Quarter than Bourbon Street. Start your French Quarter wander with brunch at Stanley, where you can dig into Bananas Foster French Toast. Just across the street is the picturesque Jackson Square – make sure to check out the statue of U.S. President and commander of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson and take a peek at St. Louis Cathedral. From there it’s time to get lost, admiring the intricate wrought iron balconies, numerous thrift stores, record shops and art galleries that dot this historic neighborhood.
  • The music – New Orleans music is unrivaled in its influence, diversity and quality. For a burst of musical energy head to Frenchmen Street, where you’ll find concert venues like Snug Harbor and d.b.a. as well as streets packed with revelers bouncing along to street corner brass bands, banjo players and cellists. The music is just as good outside as it is inside. Make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for Second Lines, brass band street parades that unexpectedly fill the air with music and joyous dancing.
  • Volunteering – though “tourist New Orleans” is in great shape, many parts of the city outside the tourist areas are still in recovery mode. Looking to do your part to help rebuild? Check out the “voluntourism” page on the Official Tourism site of New Orleans

Where to Sleep
Staying in New Orleans can get downright expensive. Before you spring for a hotel, consider one of the city’s numerous private apartment options on sites like VRBO. You’ll not only save money, you’ll also get a more authentic neighborhood feel during your visit. If you simply must stay in a hotel, consider spots like the Iberville Suites, the Queen & Crescent or The Chines Bed & Breakfast as starting points.

[Photos courtesy Mike Lee and Jonathan Rodrigues]

The best places in the world to smoke a cigar

Smoking a cigar the correct way demands a critical mix of solitude, contemplation, and most important, awareness of surroundings. All other things become subservient to the act of observing and evaluating. With this game plan in play, the smoker’s post-ignition environs take on as much importance as the flavor, taste, and draw of the tobacco. Here is one man’s list of the top ten places in the world to smoke a cigar.

10. Right before the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Kailua Kona is usually a sleepy tourist town on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii. But once a year, in late October, the best athletes in the world gather for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. The 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile marathon takes most competitors most of the day, so the gun goes off at 7 a.m. sharp as upwards of 2,000 swimmers turn “Dig Me” Beach into a feeding-frenzy of arms, legs, and splashes. Light up early, puff and marvel; let your cigar tell the crowd, “I’d rather die young that try something like this.”

9. Seated in the square before the Piazza Duomo in Florence, Italy.
Brunelleschi’s Duomo (1296) in so beautiful, so massive, so spiritual, that a visitor has to sit and puff and wonder: Could this masterwork actually have been created by man? Have a demitasse from one of the square’s little bistros, enjoy the soundtrack provided by the voices of passing Italians, and let your cigar smoke rise up and mix with the angels flying above the Dome.
8. Atop the Smoking Platform in Colchester, Vermont.
In the dooryard of an old farmhouse in northern Vermont stands a twenty foot granite cliff. Atop that cliff sits a chair and a small table holding an ashtray, a pack of wood matches, and bug spray. The owner of the house climbs the cliff once a week to enjoy a solitary smoke. “You’re such a child,” the smoker’s wife tells him, “You’ve built a fort up there, just like a little kid would.” “Rather,” he informs her, “it is a Gentleman’s Smoking Platform.”

7. At the gaming tables in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It might be changing, but the casinos have remained one of the few public places in America where cigar smoking is not only permitted, but encouraged. Try apologizing for your smoke as you lean over the Caribbean Stud table, and the lovely lady at your right might actually tell you she’s been enjoying the aroma. Plus: Cigar smokers always look like winners, even when they’re not.

6. On the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Katrina delivered a near-deadly body blow to the city, but its soul survived and is reinvigorated. Smell the Cajun cooking and listen to the muted jazz lifting up from the street. The still air and pressing humidity combine to make blowing smoke rings as effortless as breathing.

5. At the rail of Saratoga Racetrack, Saratoga, New York.
The oldest continually operating track in the country, and still one of the stateliest. Faux southern belles mix with true-life losers. Dixieland bands and picnic tables. Three bucks to get in. Everyone has a system and everyone has just won big. Continue the tradition started by Red Aurebach of the Boston Celtics-after one of your “wins,” light up a victory cigar to celebrate, and to let the crowd know that you know how to pick ’em.

4. Halfway up Pioneer Peek, outside of Anchorage, Alaska.
The city is closeted by the Chugach Mountains, with so many massive peaks that some don’t even have names. Drive just a few miles up the highway towards Fairbanks, pull off and park, and start hiking/climbing up a peak that maybe nobody has ever climbed before. Before too long eagles will be flying by at eye level; airplanes will actually be lower than you. Sit. Marvel. Ignite.

3. After sundown in the early springtime of Phoenix, Arizona.
How many tourist destinations can list March as one of its best months to visit? The dessert really does cool down after dark. Step out among the Saguaro Cactus and light up. Pretend you’re a daredevil and the flame at the end of your cigar is warding off the coyotes and the rattlers.

2. On the street of Duck Alley, New York (or in whatever town you grew up).
There, you can use the cigar as your time machine, transporting you back to your first smoke, your oldest pal, your first love.

1. In the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn/Manhattan, New York.
The verdict is in: The Brooklyn Bridge is the most beautiful edifice ever created by man. When the Roeblings, father and son, designed and built the bridge in the 1870’s and 80’s, it was roughly equivalent to someone building a bridge to the moon. The Bridge’s combination of engineering and artistry has never been equaled. Walk the foot path halfway across the East River, sit on a bench and gaze at the cathedral-like towers. Iron cables will cut squares and trapezoids above your head in the sky. Smoke there, and think about what man has wrought. Look over your shoulder at the Twin Towers site only if you want to be reminded that the work of man isn’t always this magnificent.

Jim DeFilippi is a crime novelist and cigar maker living in northern Vermont. His recent novels include The Family Farm and Duck Alley. Read his blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | alexbrn; Monica Arellano-Ongpin; bobistraveling; valentinapowers]