Mardi Gras in New Orleans is called the greatest free show on earth, and while attending may not be free, it can certainly be cheap.
Mardi Gras, which translates as Fat Tuesday, closes out the Carnival season on Feb. 24 this year, just before Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent. There are 10 parades in the greater New Orleans area on that day alone, more than 50 in the week leading up to it. www.mardigras.com/.
On Mardi Gras, you can watch sumptuous floats roll by, catch bags full of plastic beads, stuffed animals, and other "throws," that riders toss from the floats. You see a much more ribald celebration in the French Quarter. Or you can also see the Mardi Gras Indians in their fantastic costumes of bright feathers and intricate bead work. www.mardigras.com/.
WHAT TO DO AND WHERE TO DO IT
There are several types of Mardi Gras celebrations. Uptown and in midcity, there is a family atmosphere, although college students also stake out spots along the various routes.
The streetcar stops rolling down St. Charles Avenue at midnight as Monday gives way to Tuesday, and people begin grabbing their places along the route. Beginning with Zulu, the traditional black Carnival club, continuing through Rex and the hours-long truck parade, there will be nonstop throws from about 9 a.m. until dusk.
People bring tents, screen rooms, chairs, coolers, grills and just about everything else needed for comfort for the day. Many families and groups of friends have been meeting in the same spots for years. Kids whoop it up along the street while waiting for parades, popping firecrackers, shooting people with silly string, and begging for goodies from the roving vendors. Groups are friendly, ready to share and to help novices collect plenty of Carnival throws, mardigrasday.com/mardigras/.
Watch for ladders. People set them up, sometimes three or four deep along the routes. They traditionally provide seats for small children through a special box that is attached to the top rung.
But they can also block people from getting close enough to catch throws, www.momsminivan.com/extras/ladderseat.html.
In the French Quarter, the celebration is a lot rowdier. The crowd is heavy, frequently skimpily dressed and constantly exposing more flesh than most parents would like their children to see.
As the day goes on, the drinking begins to take a toll, and things can become even more X-rated.
Balconies are prime spots, which means expensive spots. People rent them for the day, some bars open them to customers, but at a high fee. People on the balconies drop beads to those below, usually as a reward for a great costume, or a glimpse of flesh.
If the French Quarter is your choice for the day, be sure and see the 45th annual Bourbon Street Awards Show. The ultimate costume contest — with elaborately costumed drag queens — will be held at noon on Mardi Gras on the corner of St. Ann at 800 Bourbon St. www.gaymardigras.com/bbb.htm.
NOT EVERYTHING GOES
People find plenty of opportunity to lose their inhibitions during Mardi Gras, and New Orleans police are famous for their tolerance during the celebration. There are limits, however.
Drinking is common, and you can carry your drink with you in New Orleans, where "go-cups" are used year-round. You may not have a glass container on the streets, however.
A degree of drunkenness is tolerated, police say, as long as you do not infringe on the rights of others, or cause a danger to yourself.
Although women showing their breasts is not out of the ordinary on Bourbon Street, if done along the family-friendly St. Charles parade route, it can get you a trip to Central Lockup. The same is true for men dropping their trousers anywhere.
A necessity for Mardi Gras is finding a proper bathroom. Do not ask to use the bathrooms in businesses or restaurants where you are not spending money. The city puts portable toilets out in the French Quarter and some schools and other businesses allow their use for small fees. It is very important to use them or some other facility. Urinating in the streets is one of the main reasons for arrests during Mardi Gras.
Finally, if a police officer asks you to do something, do it.
MARDI GRAS BASICS
GETTING AROUND: Bus and streetcar fare is $1.25 — and correct change is required. A visiTOUR card is offered with unlimited rides on streetcars and buses at $5 for the day or $12 for a three-day pass. Note that all routes may be disrupted by parades, so be prepared to walk.
WHAT TO WEAR: A costume is the best choice. They run from the very simple to the very elaborate, and are the perfect way to get into the festivities. Costumes allow people to live out a fantasy, make a satirical comment or just have fun. www.icorp.net/CARNIVAL/features/2007/. Also, be aware of the temperature. New Orleans is much warmer than much of the country on Feb. 24, but it can still be very cold.
WHERE TO STAY: Most people who live in New Orleans are happy to fill up extra bedrooms, couches and floors with friends and relatives for Mardi Gras. If you don't have someone to stay with, you need to be creative. Hotels fill up fast for Mardi Gras, and although some offer discounts for booking early, most are expensive. But New Orleans has at least a half dozen hostels, searchable on the HostelWorld.com Web site, and if you have transportation, the suburbs offer better deals on hotels.
WHERE TO EAT: Some restaurants close on Mardi Gras, choosing not to deal with the rowdy crowds. Others offer special deals that include food, drink and a viewing stand or balcony, but those deals are usually costly. Many people buy drinks, bread and sandwich fixings from stores and dine picnic style. There are also stands scattered along parade routes that sell sandwiches and other goodies relatively cheaply. On Canal Street, where all parades wind up, and next to the French Quarter, there are several fast food restaurants.
WHEN TO LEAVE: At midnight the police roll down Bourbon Street announcing that Mardi Gras is over. To back the claim up, they have cops on horseback, walking and in cars. There are also street-sweepers behind them. Then the call comes, leave, or at least stay in a bar or on the sidewalk. Remember, police have been working 12-hour shifts. They are tired, and by that time, revelers aren't nearly as cute, funny or interesting as they think they are.