I’ve always loved to get to know places around the world through its most significant cultural festivals – think Chinese New Year in Beijing, St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Oktoberfest in Munich, etc. – but to be honest, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been one that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
I was familiar with the fact that, just like other Carnival celebrations around the world, Mardi Gras had its origins in Christianity, representing the final period of consumption and indulgence prior to a month of sacrifice and penance during the 40-day Lent period (which would itself culminate with Easter).
But it appeared to me that the annual celebrations in New Orleans had certainly developed a life of its own by now, gaining worldwide attention for its parades and parties and remaining only loosely tied to its Christian and French-colonial origins.
T.J.’s stories and anecdotes from his previous Mardi Gras visits would only serve to heighten my curiosity, so when we floated the idea of a quick three-day getaway spanning Shrove Tuesday (the final and most rambunctious night of celebrations), I was instantly swayed.
After a few sleepy narrowbody flights en route to New Orleans via Toronto, I found myself instantly perked up when we stopped for a New Orleans Original Daiquiri on our way to the hotel.
According to T.J., a litre-sized daiquiri makes for the ideal introduction to the city, especially if you stop by this particular location just around the corner of the airport road, and I was in no position to disagree as we arrived at the JW Marriott with the first makings of an ice-cold buzz.
After settling in, I was inclined to get started on our goal of indulging in as many of New Orleans’s gastronomic delights as possible, as soon as possible. With daiquiris in hand, T.J. and I headed to Killer PoBoys on Dauphine St in the French Quarter to kickstart the journey.
Poboys in Louisiana is simply one of those quintessential food experiences around the world that you live for as a traveller. For my first try of the famous traditional sandwich, I opted for the spicy chorizo variety, dressed in some of that tangy Crystal hot sauce that I’d come to know and love over the next few days. So, so good.
We then took a brief walk around town, circling the French Quarter and swinging back along the Mississippi River, to get the lay of the land as a first-time visitor.
New Orleans isn’t exactly known for its affluence, and was hit particularly hard by the devastating Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and that continues to be reflected in the city’s infrastructure and outward appearance.
However, you can tell that the locals have always kept their heads held high despite their recent struggles, and they take massive pride in showing everyone a good time, especially around this time of the year. Indeed, even outside of the French Quarter, the more debaucherous elements were already making their presence known, setting the tone for the celebrations later that evening.
After briefly getting some work done in the afternoon and then hitting up Willie’s Chicken Shack for a mean serving for Southern fried chicken (all while replenishing our daiquiri supply as well), it was time to immerse ourselves in the chaos of Bourbon Street.
You could easily spend hours trudging along the jam-packed main drag, pausing every few steps to reach up high in the air to catch the beads thrown from the balconies. If you’re feeling boisterous, feel free to lift up your shirt to tempt the bead-throwers in your direction (and yes, as you can imagine, it’s a practice that’s encouraged among both ladies and gentlemen).
Otherwise, if you’d rather channel the French-colonial origins of Mardi Gras and participate in the festivities in a more aristocratic style, feel free to hole up in one of the bars and secure a spot on the second-floor balconies to do some bead-throwing of your own.
It was a sea of purple, green, and yellow (and let’s be honest, probably plenty of reddish-brownish hues in there as well). Whether it was a crowd competing to catch specialty beads or an impromptu dance party on the street, people were having a good time everywhere you looked, and I got the sense that that was exactly what drew the crowds back to Mardi Gras year after year.
(Hilariously, every few blocks you’d stumble upon a congregation of religious fanatics who were simply there to condemn everyone for their debauchery, all while scantily-clad men and women danced in their faces. There must be a balance in all things, I suppose.)
After a suitably late night on the town, Day 2 was more of the same: gorging on New Orleans’s fine foods in the daytime, followed by the Fat Tuesday celebrations in the evening.
Lunch took the form of a quartet of Southern treats on a streetside patio: jambalaya, gumbo, rice and beans, and shrimp étouffée.
After stopping by to watch some of the parades go by in the afternoon, that was followed by some more fried chicken, several delicious rounds of oysters at Felix’s (both raw and charbroiled, dressed in plenty of cocktail sauce and even more banter from the oyster-shucking staff), and a visit to the famous Cafe du Monde just after sundown for some of their delightfully sweet beignets.
That rush of sugar would give us the energy needed to last the night on Bourbon Street. After paying a visit to the classic Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone (a slowly rotating bar, which certainly left me wondering why the concept hasn’t taken hold around the world), we equipped ourselves with equal amounts of daiquiris and beers and ventured forth into Bourbon Street once again.
My favourite part of both evenings? The massive outdoor dance party that swelled on the street outside of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.
Maybe it was the light raindrops in the air on Fat Tuesday, or perhaps the fact that the dancing crowd would inevitably surround every passing car and make it impossible for them to move forward, but I was starkly reminded of why I love attending celebrations like Mardi Gras so much: there’s no sense of joy quite like having a good time with people from all over the world, and we could all do with more of that our lives.
We’d wrap up our New Orleans trip with another morning of gastronomic endeavour. Thanks to T.J.’s experience from his previous visits, we tracked down a helping of fresh crawfish boil from the local Rouses Market, followed by another poboy – this time with crispy shrimp as the filling and another dollop of Crystal hot sauce.
And with that, we checked out of the hotel and caught our ride back to the airport. At the time, I looked back on the city hoping to return very soon in May for the TravelCon conference, which has now been postponed until April 2021.
Indeed, T.J. and I certainly wouldn’t have taken the trip if we knew what we know now about Mardi Gras being a likely mass-transmission event for COVID-19 in Louisiana, and we count ourselves lucky that we managed to have a good time and leave (relatively) unscathed.
I wish the amazing people of New Orleans all the best during these tough times, and hope to return for another visit to the Big Easy as soon as the pandemic will allow.
This was my third trip to New Orleans, and coincidentally, my third Mardi Gras. While there are so many places in Canada, the United States, and around the world that I’d like to visit, I can’t think of a reason to not come to New Orleans whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Ricky and I had floated the idea around for a while, before we settled on a quick trip away while our significant others were busy with schoolwork.
Fearful that I would get another SSSS on a tight morning connection, I decided to fly to Toronto the night before and met Ricky in the transborder Maple Leaf Lounge close to our gate. Excitement was in the air as we boarded the CRJ900 for a quick three-hour flight to The Big Easy.
New Orleans is an iconic city of indulgence, and Mardi Gras is when the indulgence gets turned up to 15 on a scale of 1-10. To help us get right into the Mardi Gras spirit, our wonderful Lyft driver was very happy to let us pop into the closest daiquiri shop to the airport. For a whopping $6, we each walked out with 1 litre of frozen liquid delight to enjoy as we headed to the JW Marriott New Orleans.
The French Quarter is a melting pot of humanity. A stroll down Bourbon Street and its environs showcases the best and worst of human behaviour. A glance to the left, you’ll see some scantily clad revellers being rewarded with some premium beads thrown from the balconies above. A glance to the right, you’ll notice religious protesters spewing hate and getting hit in the face with errant beads from those who would beg to differ with their opinions.
A few seconds later, you’ve walked past people crying, throwing up, pretty much procreating, laughing, dancing, and maybe even fighting. For the most part, everybody is happy to celebrate something, even if they don’t really know exactly what that something is (especially after a few daiquiris).
And that’s what I like most about Mardi Gras – it’s a time to celebrate anything. You do you, as the saying goes, and you’re bound to find hordes of other people doing the same.
If you want to parade through the streets more or less naked, go right ahead. If you want to get caught up in the hype of catching beads and collecting painted coconuts from the floats, be my guest. If you want to get lost in the countless parades (both official and unofficial), and maybe partake in a random streetwide dance party or two, you’re in exactly the right place. If you want to be a fly on the wall and try to make sense of what is happening around you, that’s okay too.
As fascinating as Bourbon Street is, there is so much more to enjoy in New Orleans than plastic beads, 3-for-1 cocktails, and the never-ending bass lines coming from restaurants. Indeed, many people come to New Orleans exclusively to eat, and I am happy to report (once again) that everything I had was outstandingly delicious.
Over the course of our three-day excursion, we had many items to tick off of the must-eat list. There were several poboys, including an outstanding (and affordable) stop at Killer PoBoys in the French Quarter. I have many fond memories of eating poboys at Da De O on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, and likewise, Killer PoBoys has become my favourite place to grab a bite whenever I find myself stumbling through the French Quarter in search of non-daiquiri sustenance.
Next on the list were red beans and rice, gumbo, jambalaya, grits, shrimp étouffée, fried chicken, fried everything, and a crawfish boil. When we weren’t walking around, daiquiri in hand, we were likely sitting down to stuff our faces with anything, knowing that it was bound to be delicious.
Perhaps the most hauntingly delicious foodstuff from this trip were the oysters that we had at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter. This was my first time here after passing it countless times before, and as our first choice, the Acme Oyster House (recommended by a wonderful reader), was closed for a private event, we decided to give Felix’s a shot.
As we approached the front of the line, a host asked us how many were in our party and kindly informed us that outside food and beverages were not permitted inside. After struggling to gulp down a fresh daiquiri, we were seated at the oyster bar and enjoyed some excellent banter with the chefs.
As is typical of the hospitality in this part of the world, we were treated to several freshly shucked Gulf oysters with cocktail sauce soon after being seated (and some more when our order was taking a bit longer than usual). We ordered some more fresh oysters, some chargrilled oysters, and left the rest of the order up to the chef.
If you’ve never had a chargrilled oyster before, I would strongly encourage you to have one at your earliest convenience. The mixture of flavours from the oyster, butter, parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and whatever else is added on will be something you’ll crave for years to come. Ricky and I smiled and agreed that chargrilled oysters alone are worth a trip back to New Orleans.
I’ve been keen to come back to New Orleans for some of its other festivals throughout the year. I’ve heard great things about the Jazz Festival, and as I’ve been training to run another marathon, I can think of no better way to reward myself for running 42 kilometres than indulging in some of New Orleans’ finest foods.
Our short time in New Orleans was time very well spent. I was very happy to hear Ricky say how he would be sure to attend TravelCon in New Orleans next year. It was also a pleasure to see Ricky in his element, and I must say that it’s inspiring to see how dedicated he is to travelling and his blog.
I already have some ExpertFlyer alerts for Mardi Gras 2021, as it happens to fall on a Canadian long weekend. And maybe, just maybe, the entire Prince of Travel team will descend on New Orleans for some team-building along the banks of the Mississippi 😊