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Mardi Gras is a tradition in many places around the World, but nowhere does it like New Orleans

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a New Orleans tradition that stretches back to a time in the area before New Orleans existed as a city in 1718. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today.

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras “Carnival” appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras.

In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras “throws.” 1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade.

Mardi Gras is about music, parades, picnics, floats and excitement. It’s one big holiday in New Orleans!

Revellers know to wear costumes or at least dress in purple, green, and gold, and adorn themselves with long beads caught from the floats of previous parades. You’ll see a lot of crazy costumes, kids with their families are everywhere, and both locals and visitors having a great time. Parade-goers will sit on the ground, throw balls, play music, eat great food and watch the crowds walk by between parades. On Mardi Gras day, the majority of non-essential businesses are shut down because of the celebration.

Mardi Gras World is located in the Port of New Orleans near to the Convention Centre. You can drive there but the parking costs around $20. It is also possible to walk but it will probably take 30 minutes or more and in the humidity of New Orleans this could be a hot and sweaty trip. Luckily, the folks of Mardi Gras World provide free shuttle buses that call at many stips in the downtown area of the city.

There is no self-guided tour of the Mardi Gras World. The only option is to join a tour which runs every hour. This is a working factory, with people actively working on building the floats for Mardi Gras – hence the need to be guided. At the end of the tour, having been introduced to the areas of the factory you are welcomed to go back to any parts of the factory again.

The tour starts with a 15-minute film that introduces the history of the Mardi Gras and the Kern Factory – which is one of several factories that make floats for the Mardi Gras. Although the main focus is on Fat Tuesday the parade season starts a few weeks beforehand to accommodate everyone who wants to participate and these parades happen all around the city.

Some fun facts about Mardi Gras.

  • The official colours of the Mardi Gras are purple, gold and green
  • There are around 70 parades in the city of New Orleans in the Mardi Gras parade season.
  • Masks are required by law for the float riders
  • Parades are planned by Krewes – a sort of club – that pay for and own the floats. Dues for these Krewes range from $20 to thousands. Krewe members have to pay for their own costumes, beads, security and clean-up. There are over 50 registered Krewes in South Louisiana and 3 super-Krewes.

To start our tour we headed to the department where the characters and objects that adorn the floats are created. These are collectively known as props. Whilst the floats themselves are owned by the krewes the props are owned by the companies that create them. Most of the props are cut and created from sheets of styrofoam (polystyrene to my British brethren) that are stuck together and moulded. I have a real issue with the feel and particularly the sound of styrofoam being cut (it is the squeaky sound) so there is no way I could work here! Anyway, after the props have been cut to shape, they are covered with paper mache to provide a smooth surface for painting.

The room where the models are sculpted
The leftover remains from the sculpted blocks

Our journey continued through the factory, where there are many more figures to be seen of every shape and size. There are also some of the final 2019 floats, complete with their props attached, awaiting remodelling for the 2020 Mardi Gras season. Each year the krewes decide on a new theme and work with the designers at places like Kerns to execute these concepts. The props are recycled often, with bits being hewn off or stuck on. We also got to see some floats in a stripped-down form undoing a major remodel.

Pirates of the Caribbean float at Mardi Gras World
Floral float with a bit a devil in it
The floats are made from a basic frame and build up with hardboard

There is one large room with a robotic arm, lovingly called Pixie, after a former much-loved worker who died of cancer. Whilst much of the work on creating the props is done by people, Pixie enables some work to be done at a greater rate.

The robotic sculpting machine at work

As you walk around the factory you see an amazing range of characters sculpted for the Mardi Gras, but the factory also does work for other parades such as Halloween and Christmas parades that take place in New Orleans and commission work for businesses – like casinos.

A tribute to the rock band Kiss
Superman and Friends
Pirates and sports heros

In Summary…

A visit to Mardi Gras World is well worth it, especially if you have kids with you. But it is also great to go as an adult. I enjoyed not only seeing the final production work of the factory but I also learned a lot about the history and traditions of Mardi Gras and the creation of the amazing floats that garnish the annual parades. Definitely worth checking out when you are in town.

Planning your visit to Mardi Gras World

Address:1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70130
Website:www.mardigrasworld.com
Hours:7 days a week 9:00 am to 5:30 pm – the first tour at 9:30 am and last at 4:30 pm
Admission:Adults $22; Seniors 65+ $17; Students with college ID $17; Children 2-11 $14

 

Getting around New Orleans

The best ways to get around New Orleans are on foot and by public transportation. The city’s neighbourhoods are very compact, making them perfect for strolling sightseers. If you don’t feel like walking, hop on one of the famous streetcars. Another option is cycling. Since New Orleans is flat, it’s easy to get around by bike. You can rent a bike from several companies. To get into the city from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) – located about 15 miles west of downtown New Orleans – you can take the Airport Shuttle for $24 per person one-way or $44 per person round-trip. The shuttle services the downtown and uptown districts as well as the French Quarter. Taxis are also available, but you can expect to pay $36 to get from the airport into the Central Business District and the French Quarter. Uber and Lyft are also widely available.

Streetcars, run by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, have been a staple attraction ever since Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and they are a fun way to navigate the city. While many of them were replaced by less romantic buses, they have since made a comeback and are once again running in central New Orleans. The bus – although less charming than the streetcar – features more extensive routes. Operating hours for both streetcars and the buses vary by line. Consult the RTA website for more information. Nearly all of the city’s top attractions, such as the Garden District, City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art, can be reached via streetcar or bus.

For more information about the public transport options check out the Regional Transport Authority website: https://www.norta.com/

Best time to visit New Orleans

The best time to visit New Orleans is from February to May when the weather is comfortably cool and the celebrations are in full swing. If you’re not interested in Mardi Gras mania, plan to visit in December or January, when the city is calm and you don’t have to worry about making hotel reservations a year in advance.

Vegan dining in New Orleans

1. SWEET SOULFOOD

Sweet Soulfood, has a modest storefront, so you could easily miss it. Like the exterior, the inside is modestly decorated, definitely more cafeteria than home comfort, with plain wooden tables and not too comfortable chairs. I went there at the end of the day, so it was very quiet, but I understand it is often packed with people.

The food is buffet style, with a dozen or so options from entrees to veggie sides. The good thing is that this place is 100% vegan so you don’t have to think a lot about what you choose. You pay by the number of dishes you choose to have on your plate – I was definitely feeling peckish so I ended up with four different selections including an eggplant lasagne, a curry and a couple of veggie sides – including some delicious portabello mushrooms in gravy. The menu changes daily.

2. CARMO

From the descriptions and reviews, I had read of the CarmoI was really looking forward to trying this place out

“From Southeast Asia to West Africa, the Caribbean, South America & beyond, experience the world’s tropical foodways infused with flavorful local ingredients & narrative.”

Well, that sounded fun and reading on I discovered they have a strong commitment to sustainability. I didn’t need to hear any more so off I trotted to grab some lunch.

Immediately as I walked in I was impressed by how warm and friendly the staff were. Their greetings were totally effervescent. I also like places that have an open kitchen – for some reason, it comforts me to be able to see where the food is prepared (or not if it looks bad!).

I also fell in love with the layout of the place. There were cosy areas if you want a quiet place to chat with friends or big wide open spaces if you desire more air. They have also adorned their walls with some interesting and eclectic works of art.

Address: 527 Julia Street, New Orleans, LA, 70130

Telephone: (504)-875-4132

3. VEGAN WIT’ A TWIST

Three barbers decided to try their hands at running a vegan restaurant and the result was Vegan Wit’ A Twist.

This is fast food. Vegan With a Twist takes your favorite comfort foods and transforms them into delicious vegan dishes. Cauliflower tacos and wings, “hot sausage” burgers, wraps and more can be found at Vegan With a Twist. Just along St. Bernard Avenue, this is the perfect pre or post Jazz Fest spot to indulge in without the added guilt. 

 

Address: 514 South Rampart Street, New Orleans, LA

Where to stay in New Orleans

1. INN AT THE OLD JAIL

Lock yourself up at the Inn at the Old Jail for a unique vacation getaway. Originally built as a New Orleans police jail and patrol station in 1902, the striking Queen Anne-style Inn combines historic preservation with modern amenities.

Wanting to pay homage to the NOPD, the innkeepers restored the rooms and public spaces to salute the city’s brave men and women in blue. Its nine bedrooms are rich with architectural details and antiques, including original police memorabilia. Even the Inn’s Yvonne Bechet Library is named after the highest-ranking female officer in NOPD history, who served at the Old Jail stationhouse for 22 years.

If you’re curious about history, it’s the perfect place for you, but don’t forget to also enjoy the wonderful city of New Orleans. Stop by the Uptown New Orleans Historic District, drink your way through Bourbon Street or visit the infamous French Quarter.

2. OLIVER HOUSE HOTEL

Located in the heart of the French Quarter and just one-minute away from lively Bourbon Street, Olivier House Hotel is a charming two-and-a-half-pearl, boutique-style property with 42 guest rooms. This old courtyard mansion has oodles of Old World charm. Guest rooms are arranged around two delightful inner courtyards filled with plants and trees; while the balconies provide views of the greenery and swimming pool below. Rooms and suites are decorated in an old-fashioned style with antique furniture, fireplaces, and oil paintings. Downsides include noise and lack of a restaurant or breakfast service. A similar historic property in the French Quarter worth considering as an alternative is the mid-range Hotel Provincial. 

3. LA BELLE ESPLANADE

The most interesting place to stay in America’s most interesting city. Visit New Orleans like you belong here. Located in a picturesque neighborhood that is close to everything but off the usual tourist radar, La Belle Esplanade will surprise and delight with it’s quirky authentic details, locally sourced breakfasts, and lively intelligent conversation. You have at least two friends in New Orleans.

 

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