By KEVIN McGILL
Revel in the bawdy French Quarter or catch a parade? Which parade?
Do you plan to wear a costume on the big day? Politically themed? Historic? Risque? All of the above?
New Orleans is entering the height of its annual pre-Lenten Carnival season, culminating on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls on Feb. 28 this year. Travelers to the city face an abundance of choices on how, when and where to take it all in.
Among the things to do:
WATCH A PARADE
This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Deciding where, when and how to catch any of the dozens of New Orleans area parades – and which ones to watch – involves planning.
New Orleans’ major parades, the ones with marching bands and masked riders who throw beads and other trinkets from elaborate floats, began Friday this year. Most follow a route along historic St. Charles Avenue onto Canal Street, the broad downtown boulevard at the edge of the French Quarter – although the giant floats of Endymion, the celebrity-studded procession set for Saturday, lumber through the Mid-City neighborhood.
You can join the throngs on the route. They show up with lawn chairs, ice chests, trays of barbecue, buckets of fried chicken and step ladders with little seats bolted to the top to give the kids a better vantage point.
You can pay big bucks at one of the fine-dining restaurants that erect bleachers out front so you can catch the processions while sipping your Sazerac cocktail.
BE IN A PARADE
Getting a spot in a Carnival parade is the ultimate participatory Mardi Gras experience.
Some of the old-line parade “krewes” are famous for their exclusivity (some so exclusive that they stopped parading years ago rather than comply with a city nondiscrimination ordinance). But others are open to anyone who can afford it, although spots are limited and sometimes have to be reserved well in advance.
Costs including membership fees, costumes and “throws” (beads, little stuffed toys, etc.) can be hefty for the major parades. Some travel agency and hotel packages include a four-night stay with a spot in Harry Connick Jr.’s Feb. 27 Krewe of Orpheus parade for more than $4,000. On the other end of the cost scale are the walking clubs, such as Chewbacchus, which has annual dues of $42.
SEE THE COSTUMES
Mardi Gras is a day-long costume party in the French Quarter and along the parade routes.
Sometimes the costumes are simple: multicolored wigs, glittery masks, oversized hats.
Sometimes they are elaborate: shimmering bodysuits with huge feather headdresses fanning out from the wearers’ heads and shoulders like peacock tails.
Some of the most intricate, elaborate and, sometimes, outrageous are on display at the annual Bourbon Street awards at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann, where prize categories include best drag and best leather.
WEAR A COSTUME
Feathered masks, funny hats and boas are available at souvenir shops in the Quarter and from vendors who wheel their goods up and down the main parade route.
Many visitors fashion their own, sometimes topical get-ups. Coveralls splotched with black were among the 2011 costumes lampooning BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Some go for professionally made store-bought or rented regalia.
“Business really starts picking up two weeks before Mardi Gras,” says Dennis Villadeleon, a costume designer at New Orleans’ Southern Costume Company, which rents and sells costumes.
“It’s hard,” he said when asked if he’s noticed any trends or themes in any given year. “Some years, the guys really want to be pirates. There seems to be a pirate contingent here in New Orleans.”
Yes, it’s often touted as the world’s biggest free party and it takes place in a city famous for all-night bars and drinking in the streets. But there are limits. More than 170 state troopers are coming to supplement the nearly 1,200-member police force. And arrests are made: 334 arrests were reported last year in the 10 days leading up to Mardi Gras along the parade route and in the police district that encompasses the French Quarter.