Join the krewe
French colonists brought their pre-Lenten Catholic rituals to New Orleans in the 1700s. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and was traditionally the time to let loose before Lent and the lead-up to Easter. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras blended with Afro-Caribbean festival traditions introduced by homesick slaves to produce the OTT all-out party it is today. Krewes – secret carnival clubs that organise the official Mardi Gras parades and the opulent invite-only costume balls – were once the sole domain of white supremists until Zulu, the first official all-black krewe debuted in 1909 and now one of the biggest. The Krewe of Venus was the first all-female krewe, originating in 1941, and now there are over 60 krewes.
Many of the official parades actually run over the two weekends before Mardi Gras and rather than being one big procession, the parades are held all over New Orleans with the biggest attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators along the route downtown. Music blares and ultra-flamboyant performers toss ‘throws’ (beads, trinkets and toys) from floats into the crowd. This age-old tradition includes the Mardi Gras colours of green, purple and gold, which are said to represent the Catholic symbols for faith, justice and power.
When is it?
Tips and tricks
Mardi Gras is hugely popular and coincides with peak tourist season, so make sure you book your accommodation well in advance.
The best spot to watch the parades is Canal Street and St Charles Avenue, and while the parades don’t actually go into the narrow streets of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street sees the most debaucherous action. Also, most parades start at least two hours late.
Crowds are not only on the streets to watch the parade, they’re also there for the beads and throws with the customised bedazzled coconuts from the Zulu float the most coveted souvenir.
Get your bevvy to go – it’s legal to drink on the street in New Orleans.
But there are limited public toilets and portaloos and some bars and restaurants will charge non-customers to use the facilities. Public urination is also a no-no with most arrests relating to this offence.
The most popular Mardi Gras drink is the lethal Hurricane cocktail – bring the Beroccas for the killer hangover!