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Krewe of Illusion at the Lake Charles Royal Gala for Mardi Gras.

Krewe of Illusion at the Lake Charles Royal Gala for Mardi Gras.

While Mardi Gras celebrations take center stage in cities from Rio de Janeiro to the Cayman Islands to Quebec City, none are more celebrated around the world than in Louisiana. And New Orleans, of course, the city that parties the entire period from Twelfth Night (the last night of Christmas which begins Epiphany) to Ash Wednesday, is the top Mardi Gras destination for everyone from millennials to baby boomers.

Mardi Gras Dates

Mardi Gras begins on Twelfth Night, which is Thursday, January 5 in 2017. New Orleans’ celebrations begin the next day, with two Krewes holding parades on Friday, January 6. Click here for the full parade schedule for New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday, the most important day for parades and celebrations, is Tuesday, February 28, in 2017.

Mardi Gras Dates to 2027

Click here for the New Orleans Official Guide list of Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday) dates to 2027.

 

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The city of New Orleans, also known as The Big Easy, for its laid-back lifestyle, stands out as a key stop on any itinerary in Louisiana. Since we flew into New Orleans and rented a car there, it was both our first and last stops.

Hotels fill up fast in Mardi Gras City (another nickname for New Orleans), so you should book early if you have specific preferences.

Personally, we like to be in the middle of the action! So, I booked into the Pelham Hotel in the heart of the city, which put us in the downtown within walking distance of the French Quarter and the Garden District. The downtown parade routes on Canal Street, and Decatur, took just the proverbial blink of an eye to reach.

Mardi Gras parade.

Mardi Gras parade. Used from Pixabay with a CC license.

The Pelham Hotel possessed lots of Southern charm and history, as well as being on a side street that made it relatively quiet when the wee hours hit, even with the hoopla from the parades.

In addition to watching parades, we spent our nights swept along by the throngs of party-goers in the French Quarter, wandering from establishment to establishment. Music fills the streets and the bars, along with mimes, jesters, dancers, people in costumes and every type of party-goer you can imagine. Hawkers call out their specials, from 2 for the price of 1 beers to free cover charges to see the best dancers at gentlemen’s clubs.

French Quarters in New Orleans.

French Quarters in New Orleans.

And of course, after that, what happens at Mardi Gras stays in New Orleans!

There’s more to New Orleans than the nights though, even at Mardi Gras. We booked an evening ghost tour, but the daytime tours also do a great job of compressing the city’s history with entertaining stories. Check out our experience at Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop.

The Audubon Nature Institute and Audubon Insectarium were great attractions to get some background on Louisiana before setting off to explore other areas of the state. Of course, there’s always shopping to fit in, and the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk was just a few blocks from the Pelham. When you stop to rest your feet, make sure to sample New Orleans’ famous café au lait and beignets while you’re there too!

River Road: The Drive to Baton Rouge

Our itinerary for Louisiana meant a hectic pace, so we headed our rental car to Baton Rouge after two nights of Mardi Gras parades and French Quarter fun in New Orleans. An hour-and-a-half drive away, Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s capital.

You can’t visit Louisiana without experiencing the swamp, at least in my humble opinion. Nothing could be more different than the prairies of home than the spongy feel of wetlands, iconic fallen cypress trees hung with Spanish Moss, thick growths of ferns and reeds, and the sweet smell of water hyacinth — to say nothing of the alligators that float, like sticks, in the murky swamp water.

Alligator on Cajun Pride Swamp Tour

Alligator on Cajun Pride Swamp Tour

We toured the Manchac Swamp with Captain Allan on the Cajun Pride pontoon boat. If you’re visiting through Mardi Gras or the cool winter months, the Manchac Swamp is perfect for a few reasons:

  • Close to New Orleans
  • Offers tours with pick up in New Orleans
  • Private swamp, so it’s not packed with other boats
  • Best opportunity to see alligators (we saw half a dozen here, while other winter tours I’ve taken haven’t been able to find any alligators moving around)
"Cajun Condo" in the Manchac Swamp

“Cajun Condo” in the Manchac Swamp

You can read about our swamp tour experience (and some great places to eat alligator!) by clicking on this article.

But the Manchac Swamp was just one stop on our drive to Baton Rouge.

Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana

If you’re a Gone with the Wind lover like me, the drive between the two cities may take awhile on the scenic route, The River Road or Plantation Alley. These grand homes, built prior to the Civil War, dot the riverbanks of the Mississippi, transporting you back to a time when sugar was king. Nowadays, many are open for viewing and we’d arranged for tours at Oak Alley.

Oak Alley Plantation, once a Creole plantation, has been open to the public since the 1970s, after it became a non-profit foundation. Read more about our experience here.

Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge is a major thoroughfare for both highway traffic on Interstate 10, and river traffic through the Port of Greater Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. Historically, it was a strategic location due to the Istrouma Bluff, the first natural bluff upriver from the Mississippi River Delta.

Mardi Gras float

Mardi Gras float used under a CC licence from Pixabay.

The city itself is a vastly different experience than The Big Easy. Settled by various groups in the past centuries, it’s very culturally diverse. This blending has led to Baton Rouge’s reputation as the best “foodie” city in the south.

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Executive Center, Baton Rouge. While the location didn’t put us on the parade route, or in walking distance of events, the hotel had a great deal of southern charm along with an amazing Friday night seafood buffet.

Mardi Gras celebrations in Baton Rouge start a few weeks prior to Mardi Gras day, with the biggest celebration on the Saturday before. The all-day family event draws everyone out — in fact, every foot of available parking space near the North Boulevard Town Square seemed to serve as a parking spot!

From parades and outdoor music to face painting and “taste of Louisiana” meal tickets, you’ll find Mardi Gras Saturday in Baton Rouge a great time to mingle with the locals!

Captain Buck, docent on the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge.

Captain Buck, docent on the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge.

With so much happening both Friday and Saturday night in Baton Rouge, it was hard to fit in other attractions. However, the USS Kidd, a destroyer that launched in 1943, led our must-see list, so we slotted in a two-hour tour as soon as the Veteran’s Museum where it’s docked on the Mississippi, opened Saturday morning.

The destroyer, nicknamed Pirate of the Pacific, is a must-see for history lovers, as its fascinating stories include everything from surviving a Japanese Komikaze pilot to flying the Jolly Roger.

Mardi Gras in Houma

While I’d originally planned to leave an open “road trip” day after leaving Baton Rouge, that changed when I connected with Charlie Hammond at Hammond’s Cajun Air Tours, just outside Houma. While a swamp tour from above is an amazing experience, visiting with Charlie proved to be even more amazing.

Bayou viewed from Charlie Hammond's Swamp Tour plane.

Bayou viewed from Charlie Hammond’s Swamp Tour plane.

Hammond has 50+ years flying experience. You could even say he was destined to fly as his full name is Charles Lindy Hammonds, after Charles A. Lindbergh’s Lucky Lady that circumnavigated the globe in 1927. If you want to know anything about the bayou, or its ever-changing face, Charlie’s the man to see.

Charlie flew us over Houma, the bayou wetlands, alligator farms, oil rigs, the Intracoastal Waterway, even an eagle nest on top of a tree, and more, in a neat little four-seater Skyhawk plane. If it’s in the Bayou, Charlie can show it to you and tell you about it!

After the plane ride we did take that road trip though, heading south right to Grand Isle and the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a local saying that if you get your feet wet in the Gulf waters that you’ll come back — I know I certainly have.

Shrimp boat on the road trip to Grand Isle, LA.

Shrimp boat on the road trip to Grand Isle, LA.

Grand Isle, a barrier island, floats in the Gulf Coast waters some 50 miles or so from New Orleans. The island resembles a zucchini, at about eight miles long and up to one-and-a-half miles wide. Long used as a getaway from the city, it’s a popular fishing spot and hosts the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo (called the oldest fishing tournament in the US) every summer.

While Grand Isle had a Sunday Mardi Gras parade, we arrived a few hours too late to see it.

For visitors who took the scenic route from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and missed the 23.83 miles of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, Grand Isle is your chance to drive the approximately 8 mile long Highway 1 toll bridge over Bayou Lafourche. Although it’s always amazing to see these architectural feats, I did miss the historic old bridge, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

David Aksomitis & Linda Aksomitis on Grand Isle, Louisiana.

David Aksomitis & Linda Aksomitis on Grand Isle, Louisiana, during their 7 days of Mardi Gras

Luckily, we even made it back to Houma in time for one of the Mardi Gras parades. With the second largest Mardi Gras festival, this Cajun community has lots of events running nearly non-stop for the 10 days leading up to Mardi Gras Day.

Our home for the night in Houma was the Quality Hotel of Houma — a very comfy little hotel with a great bar and friendly locals. If you’re looking for fun on a budget, it’s a great stop with $1.50 a glass beer and delicious baked mac and cheese for $3!

We had two stops for the next day before hitting the road again: the Greenwood Gator Farm and Regional Military Museum. Of all the gator farms I’ve been at, Greenwood was the best as it’s an actual farm raising alligators for commercial purposes instead of as a tourist attraction. Their tour provides lots of fascinating facts.

The Regional Military Museum’s admission of $5 a person was a real deal, as we found lots of neat artifacts, including one of the first Air Force One planes used by President Eisenhower.

Mardi Gras in Lake Charles

Lake Charles is about a three and a half hour drive from Houma, so there was no time to spare between checking in for a repeat visit to my favorite hotel in Lake Charles, L’Auberge Casino Resort, and making our way to the Lake Charles Civic Center (Convention/Event Center) for the annual Royal Gala event on Twelfth Night Eve.

I’d attended Mardi Gras in Lake Charles a number of years ago, and wasn’t about to skip the Gala even if time was at a premium! If you’re heading to Mardi Gras for the costumes, you absolutely must attend.

Krewe of Illusion at the Mardi Gras Royal Gala in Lake Charles., LA.

Krewe of Illusion at the Mardi Gras Royal Gala in Lake Charles., LA.

With 60 Krewes and their courts of kings, queens, and royal dukes and duchesses, captains, courtesans and jesters, the costumes are unimaginable. It’s hard to believe the tickets are just $5 per person ($6 at the door), which makes this a fun family event for locals and visitors alike.

Of course, there’s a lot more to a Lake Charles Mardi Gras, as you can see from the 2017 schedule.

Mardi Gras Day arrived bright and sunny, and soared to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, like most of the trip had been. It was a glorious day.

My highlight? Plucking a string of beads flying over my head right out of the air with my left hand while taking pictures with my right!

Mardi Gras parade and chicken run in Iowa, a small town outside Lake Charles, LA.

Mardi Gras parade and chicken run in Iowa, a small town outside Lake Charles, LA.

Rather than staying in Lake Charles for the spectator-packed events on Mardi Gras Day, we’d driven out to Iowa, a small town around 14 miles from Lake Charles off of Interstate 10. There, the floats were more like home and we didn’t need to fight the crowds to catch some beads. And, it was a chance to have some fun with a real Cajun Chicken Run (the video below is from 2012)!

The party — no matter where you are in Louisiana — takes place all day on Fat Tuesday. So, whether you decide to stay in a small community, like Iowa for the chicken run, community gumbo dinner, and local toe-tapping music, or head back to one of the bigger parties like New Orleans or Houma, I can guarantee it’s an experience you’ll always remember.

Acknowledgements

We’d like to thank the following Convention & Visitor Bureaus and businesses that helped us plan our 7 spectacular days of Mardi Gras, arranged discounts for us, or provided free admissions.

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