Is New Orleans a must-see destination for you? For millions of people in the world, it is. The number of tourists who visit this storied city in Louisiana has grown steadily since 2010, and that number is projected to reach more than 11 million per year by 2019. Visitors are lured by music festivals, a famed food scene, friendly people and, of course, Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras parties and parades are held in the weeks leading up to Lent, the 40-day period observed by many Christians before Easter. The term Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday,” describes the merrymaking on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras is on February 28.
Social organizations, known as krewes, sponsor and ride in parade floats, tossing trinkets to spectators. Some krewes throw trademarked items, such as the elaborately decorated shoes (left) tossed into the crowd by the krewe of Muses or the hand-painted coconuts handed out by the krewe of Zulu.
“Superkrewes” have the most impressive parade floats. The krewes of Endymion and Bacchus accounted for a combined total of 67 floats and featured 60 marching bands in their parades in 2016. For those who get to ride on the imaginative floats, it’s a hard-earned privilege they won’t forget.
When Mardi Gras started more than 200 years ago, masks were an “equalizer,” said Ann Guccione, who runs a mask shop in New Orleans. The carnival was a day when social classes mixed without fear of judgment. While such social strictures don’t exist today, masks remain crucial to revelers’ costumes.
Guccione recalls a man who bought an elaborate leather mask accented with real bull horns and taxidermy eyes from her shop for Mardi Gras. The next day, the man called Guccione to tell her what a hit the mask was. “He got invited to every VIP party,” Guccione said. “The mystery behind a mask changes everything.”
Wendy Chatelain, a New Orleans native and marketing director for the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S., Antoine’s Restaurant, names Creole gumbo and red beans and rice as the most iconic New Orleans dishes.
The preparation of red beans and rice traditionally would start on Monday, “the day you would do laundry, so you could walk away and let the beans cook,” Chatelain said. On Tuesday, rice would be served alongside the long-simmered beans, resulting in a New Orleanian favorite.
Visiting New Orleans also means hearing great music. Only the best musicians are capable of playing jazz well, according to Jason Patterson, music director at the Snug Harbor jazz club in New Orleans. Jazz is a unique form of popular music because of its highly improvised nature. Patterson encourages jazz enthusiasts to visit Frenchmen Street, where jazz was born and where today many venues still showcase traditional jazz. At dance halls along the street, people can dance to the music as they did back in the 1930s.
(All photos © AP Images)