I went to New Orleans in February, the weekend before Mardi Gras. I lived in New Orleans for eight years, working as as reporter at the Times-Picayune. Right before I left, I joined the Krewe of Muses. This year marked my fourth ride, and the first time that my husband had come to Mardi Gras with me. My sister and her boyfriend were also with us (continuing the Sin Week theme).
We flew to New Orleans from LAS via a connection in DFW. We did not rent a car and instead took cabs everywhere because of the blocked roads from the Mardi Gras parades.
Westin at Canal Place. We stayed here because my sister, a frequent business traveler, had enough Starwood points for two rooms. Ours were adjacent, on a high floor with river views. I knew the location would be fantastic for us – close enough to the French Quarter to walk, and also convenient for the parades and events that we had planned in the Warehouse District. We really liked the location, the view and the room size (after our hotel in Las Vegas, it seemed a little boring though!)
It’s what New Orleans is all about, right? Yeah you rite!
Café du Monde. I used to live in NOLA, but that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to the charms of coffee and beignets! We stopped here nearly every day.
Cochon. I ate here with members of my krewe, all of us dressed in full parade regalia. I had heard a lot about this place, which opened after I left New Orleans. It definitely lived up to its reputation! Even months later, I still think about the bacon and oyster sandwich that I had here. Bill, including two drinks, an entrée and a starter, was about $50. I liked it so much that I went back for dinner on Friday with my husband. My entrée, the rabbit and dumplings, wasn’t as good as the sandwich I had the day before. Still, very tasty. Dinner for 2 was about $100.
Casamentos. I love Casamentos, which is only open certain months of the year. It really is a NOLA jewel. I met my girlfriends here and had a small oyster stew and half of an oyster loaf. About $15 total.
Restaurant August. This is John Besh’s original New Orleans place and we chose it for our big celebratory meal (my sister’s birthday). It’s a lovely restaurant, in a restored townhouse, with smaller rooms. We were seated in a room with a large party, which made things a little loud. Three of us ordered the tasting menu with paired wines for $105 each. Among the courses, a few standouts: a luxurious spaghetti carbonara, pork belly and banana rum cake with creole cream cheese icing. The dinner did seem a bit more rushed than similar tasting menus I’ve had, but it was all tasty. I mentioned I was with the media at the end, and they whisked us inside to meet the chef (they did this with some other customers as well). He was a young guy, and he got the whole kitchen to say hello. It was a nice touch.
So, you’ve seen the parades – and now you want to know what it’s like to ride! It’s even more fun than it looks. Parade preparation starts months in advance, with dues being paid in June and September the year before. For Muses, it costs about $750 to ride, then another $500-$800 in beads and throws. Anyway, if you buy a package, the beads are loaded on the float for you. My friends who live in New Orleans usually go down to the den a day or two early to load the float with more beads and set up their stations.
For the past few years, Muses has held their “ball” the night before the ride. Basically, it’s a big party in the warehouse behind the Center for Contemporary Arts. The food came courtesy of Jacques Imos, and the drinks flowed freely. Our band this year was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings - who were joined onstage by a New Orleans stalwart, the Rolling Elvi.
The next day, the small group of us from the Times-Picayune (both current reporters and alums) who were riding gathered at the Westin around noon to start getting ready. Every year, Muses has an elaborate headdress contest, and usually it takes a while to get those set up. We also put on makeup that matched our theme. We headed out to Cochon in our costumes to have lunch. (New Orleans is the type of place where costumes rarely raise eyebrows).
After lunch, we headed back to the CAC for the pre-parade warmup. This is the time to fill water bottles with Muse punch, get your face glittered and check out the headdresses worn by the other floats (there’s also a contest – alas, this year we didn’t win). We sing our Muses parade song (to the tune of “I will survive.”) Finally, it’s time to board the floats and ride to the route.
Of course, things don’t always run like clockwork. This year, for example, we had a long delay before we rolled, as some floats in the parade before us suffered breakdowns. So we did have to sit on the float for at least an hour, sucking down wine and eating sandwiches delivered by one of the Elvi (married to a woman on our float). That part can get tedious.
But when the parade starts to roll…..ah, that’s a great feeling. It’s the closest you can be to feeling like a rock star, as the crowds scream and beg for your throws. The ultimate prize is a Muses glitter shoe – and you wouldn’t believe how insane people can get in order to score one. The route flies by as you unload your booty – and before you know it, your float is turning onto Canal Street. At the end, you are exhausted yet exhilerated – and you can’t wait until the next time to do it all over again.
We spent most of our time going to parades, meeting up with friends and walking around the French Quarter. I’m biased, of course, so I’ll say Muses is the best one, We also saw Krewe d’Etat, and Tucks on Sunday. For those who worry that Mardi Gras might be too out of control for them, my advice is to skip the craziness of the French Quarter – many locals do. In New Orleans, Carnival is actually a family friendly event, jam-packed with parade parties, crawfish boils and tons of kids on ladders, ready to scoop up the best throws.
And of course, it’s not New Orleans without listening some music and hitting the bars. The French Quarter can be insane during Mardi Gras, but we stuck to the off-the-beaten track beloved places and had a great time.
Napoleon House. Always a classic and a respite from the crazy Quarter crowds.
Donna’s. I’ve always loved this place. We took time out to go see Delfeayo Marsalis. A small crowd, but worth it.
Balcony Music Club. On Esplanade, just before the Marigny. When I lived here, this used to be called the El Matador. Young crowd, listening to good bands,
Interested in other quirky Southern towns? Read my Key West report here.