In sports, when a season is a wash, the coaches will inevitably say that it was “a building season.” The travel industry has its building seasons, too. First there was 9/11, and we certainly had a few building seasons after that. Four years later, New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast suffered the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly 2006 was their building season — both figuratively and literally.
I have always said that the most telling indicator for the long-term survival of New Orleans would be the 2007 Carnival season, the two-week period leading up to Mardi Gras and the start of Lent. If it was weak, as in 2006, the city would be in trouble; if it was strong, the city would ultimately be fine. After spending a week in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, I am thrilled to say that Carnival was a resounding success, and the road back to victory is becoming a bit clearer.
Getting there. Of course, getting to New Orleans is not as easy as it once was. Currently, the airport is operating at only 64 percent capacity. AirTran is one airline that still believes in the Big Easy; it offers five daily flights in and out of the city. With connections in Atlanta, getting there is a breeze. If you haven’t flown AirTran, you ought to. This is a carrier that gets it. AirTran offers affordable fares, a newer fleet (my plane happened to be four days old and still had the “new plane” smell to it), and a business class that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. While other carriers are playing around with “Economy Plus” seating and selling upgrades at prices in excess of $100, AirTran’s program is simple — if there’s a spot, you can buy it, usually for less than $80. The flight attendants are on the ball and friendly, the planes have a good on-time record, the domestic route system is extensive, and every seat is equipped with XM Satellite Radio. It seemed as if I had not even left my car!
Staying there. Mardi Gras brought me back to my favorite hotel in town, the Maison Dupuy. Certainly not the least expensive hotel in the city, nor the most opulent, but its fantastic location, wonderful service and friendly staff make it a “must stay” in my book. When I checked in, the front desk agent slapped a wristband on me to identify me as a guest of the hotel. Many hotels do this during Mardi Gras to prevent the party from coming in off the street. (I was disappointed. I was hoping it was for unlimited drinks.)
The parades. Carnival is a two-week celebration that centers on a series of opulent parades. But “parades” doesn’t do Carnival justice. It’s more like your hometown Fourth of July parade, the Philadelphia Mummers Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all wrapped into one. In fact, this year’s Carnival reminded me more of a lavish tailgating party than a parade. All along the route (St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street), folks were grilling their meals, children were playing games, and friends were reconnecting after a few very trying years. During my week in town, there were 15 parades to be seen — all sponsored by “krewes,” as the social clubs are called. In addition to these parades, the krewes also sponsor private balls throughout the season, which tend to be the social events of the year. The parades run from simple to extravagant and feature floats, music and “throws,” such as beads and other souvenirs, which are thrown into the onlooking crowd. Three parades stood out for me.
* The Krewe of Iris, a 90-year-old organization made up solely of women, put on a parade of floats with the theme “Under the Big Top.” Nine hundred riders and 18 bands provided beads, throws and doubloons for the crowd that stood five-deep. For Iris, the traditional parade plea “Throw me sometin’, mister” is replaced with “Throw me sometin’, lady.”
* A bit later the same evening, the Krewe of Endymion rolled down the Avenue with 2,300 riders and 30 bands. Endymion is a 40-year-old krewe and one of the most popular and extravagant. Its theme this year was “Endangered Species,” which highlighted the plight of animals like the polar bear, the gorilla and the lamented dodo bird. The highlight of this parade was its grand marshal: “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks. Personally, I was more enthralled with the bands Journey and Styx, which were also riding along — I guess I really am getting old!
* A smaller parade was mounted by the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. This krewe was originally an entirely black krewe. Today, the parade does have some white riders but, bowing to tradition, everyone is in blackface. The highlight of this parade is its coveted throw, the Zulu “Golden Nugget,” an ornately decorated coconut that is thrown in very limited quantities. The Zulus also sponsored a festival appropriately called the “Zulu Lundi Gras Festival” (held on Monday, or lundi in French) in Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River.
The party. Mardi Gras is often billed as the world’s largest free party, and that’s the truth. Nary a minute goes by without the sounds of live music filling your ears. One of the highlights for me was the performance of Amanda Shaw at the Zulu festival. Look for some great things in the future from this 15-year-old fiddler, who just signed with Rounder Records. Download some of her songs from iTunes — she’s amazing.
At night, the bars and clubs were in full swing as people flowed in and out with their “go cups.” Women were flashing for beads, the Naked Cowboy was strumming his guitar, and the sounds of zydeco and Cajun music filled the air 24 hours a day.
Bourbon Street seemed to be back to “normal.” Johnny Gordon was still tickling the ivories at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shoppe, and the karaoke was going strong at the Cats Meow. On Mardi Gras (Tuesday, and a holiday in the region with most stores closed), the French Quarter filled with thousands of people in costumes, including several versions of FEMA “Red Tape.” Impromptu parades formed, marched for a few blocks and then dissipated. There were female impersonators, flamboyant headdresses and thousands of smiles and wishes of “Happy Mardi Gras,” never more heartfelt.
Oh, and I forgot, the highlight of my trip: an encounter with Paris Hilton! Well, OK, so it was just a cardboard effigy, but hey, it worked for me!
The food. I learned something new in New Orleans this time, thanks to a Mardi Gras partner in crime, Brittanie: The French Market Restaurant and Bar (1001 Decatur Street) makes absolutely the best Hurricanes in town. Clayton, the chef, serves some fantastic dishes, and Michael, the bartender, is the ultimate mixologist. My visit would not be complete without a breakfast at The Coffee Pot on St. Peter (next to Preservation Hall) and a reassuring hug from my favorite waitress in town, Wilhelmina. To the dismay of Brittanie, I even made a stop at the Hard Rock Cafe. Hey, they have a decent burger, so cut me a break!
The crowds. One simple word: fantastic. But controlled. Police were all over, and they were supplemented by 120 state troopers. There were cops on foot, on horses, on motorcycles, on bikes, in cars, in trucks, on scooters, in helicopters and atop portable watchtowers on the street. I even saw an unmarked police car that was a brand-new convertible BMW. Even when you did not see them, the police were there, and they were very effective at crowd control. I saw only one fight, and a quick slap of a baton took care of it.On another occasion, a kid decided an alleyway was a better place to pee than the portable toilet; he soon discovered that the facilities in the city jail are even worse. Note to revelers: Public urination is a huge no-no in New Orleans. Flash, puke, stumble, get drunk — just don’t pee in public!
The sanitation crews were great, too. Between parades, they cleaned the streets of beads and trinkets, and every morning they had the city ready for the next round of revelry. When the party finally ended, and it did when midnight ushered in Ash Wednesday, a final parade of police and sanitation workers closed down Bourbon Street. They were greeted with 16 blocks of rousing applause from thousands of the soon-to-be-hung-over. I can’t say enough about the police and the sanitation crews. They made everyone feel safe and clean in a city where nearly a million people came to party.
Mardi Gras is an experience. It is refreshing to escape the realities of the world and to see nearly a million people with smiles on their faces — and not a grump in the bunch. It’s an experience that should not be missed. If you want a peek, take a look at my photos.
And my personal message to New Orleans: Welcome back!