If you’re heading to New Orleans within the next few weeks, there are plenty of ways find Carnival-themed fun.* Gambit’s Best of New Orleans website is a great place to start your research, and if you like the printed word, every Walgreens in town has copies of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide.
I’ve also cobbled together a few Carnival pointers of my own, which should give you a sense of what to expect during your visit.
But beyond the basics, there are other Carnival rules to consider. Well, maybe not “rules” per se — more like “tips” that will make your trip much more pleasant.
Here are nine of my tips for having a successful Carnival. There are plenty more where these came from, so if you still have burning questions when you reach the bottom of the page, feel free to drop me a line.
1. Find sensible shoes. If you’re going out to a parade, you’re going to be standing most of the time. (Unless you’re taking a lawn chair to one of those family-oriented parades in Jefferson Parish or on the Northshore, in which case, why the hell are you here?) Heels may look great, but can you stand on them for four or five hours at a stretch? Exactly.
The same goes for Fat Tuesday. Sure, your shoes should be fierce and costume-appropriate, but platforms look just as cute as run-of-the-mill pumps, and they’re way more comfortable. Your feet and legs and traveling companions will thank me later.
2. Find a home base. For parades, ideally you want to park your behind at or near a friend’s house. If you’re friendless, there are some smaller bars on the parade routes that offer day and night passes. They’re usually not that much — $10 or $20 per person — and they limit the number of people in the place, so you can get a drink faster and, more importantly, pee faster. You’re on vacation: spend some extra dough to make yourself happy.
On Fat Tuesday, do the same. If you don’t have a hotel room in/near the Quarter, find a good bar. Skip Bourbon Street and aim for Decatur, Chartres, or Royal Streets, below Jackson Square. That’s where the locals tend to hang, and the bars are a bit less crowded — possibly cleaner, too. Once you’ve set up camp, you can roam the streets and see the sights, and even if your party gets separated (which will happen, obvs), you’ll know where to find one another.
3. Half-masks are way better than full masks. Half-masks start at the nose and go up to the eyebrows or farther. The advantage is that they leave your mouth unobstructed, which is important because you’re going to be drinking. Probably a lot. Nothing sucks more than having to lift your mask every time you take a swig. It’s a pain, and it shatters the illusion of your undoubtedly beautiful costume.
4. Remember: you have to pee. You can dress as Louis XIV or the abominable snowman or a Louis XIV snowman (winner!), but for goddess’ sake, remember to put a fly in your costume. You’re going to be drinking all day, and unless you’ve made a catheter part of the ensemble, all that booze eventually has to come out. (Hopefully, not the way it came in.)
5. Take it easy on the beads. Beads are everywhere during Carnival. You don’t have to accept every pair that comes your way. At parades, catch all you want, but give most of your haul to the kids nearby. On Fat Tuesday, be discriminating. Don’t turn up your nose when someone offers you beads — they’re a means of social interaction. But you don’t need to wear them if they don’t match your outfit.
6. Bring an emergency kit on Fat Tuesday. Before you walk out the door, stash the following somewhere on your person. I don’t care where:
- Photo ID (in case you’re found unconscious in a gutter or in someone’s bathtub)
- ATM card (because obviously you’ll need it)
- Safety pins (either you or a friend will have a costume emergency that requires many of these)
- A bottle opener (even though glass isn’t allowed on the streets, you may be offered a bottle of beer for a go-cup)
- Band-Aids (for minor cuts, and especially blisters on your heel caused by that new pair of shoes)
- A hemostat (if you don’t know what this is for, forget I said anything)
7. Eat. Before you leave the house, shove something in your mouth. Something edible. King cake is okay, though it can wreak havoc on your blood sugar. Bagels are good, too. So are burgers. Just remember that you’re going to be out on the streets, drinking for many hours to come. Food offers energy and slows down the booze-to-bloodstream process.
8. Spend Lundi Gras cooking. If you’re staying with friends or in a place with a kitchen, do some cooking on the day before Fat Tuesday (which we call Lundi Gras). If you’re at a hotel, buy something you can stash in the mini-fridge. The idea is to have grub on hand when you come home after a full day of Tuesday revels. Believe you me, there is nothing like sinking onto the sofa with a hot plate of lasagna after you’ve been hooching it up all day.
9. On Mardi Gras, be home by sundown or have a second costume on hand. Fat Tuesday is a very, very long party. It starts early in the morning (the first parade rolls at 8am), and it doesn’t end until the police come riding down Bourbon Street at midnight, bringing Carnival to an abrupt halt. Personally, I’m able to cram in plenty of excitement between dawn and dusk, after which I drag my ass home to watch Peggy Scott Laborde and Henri Schindler narrate the Rex Ball (which, as spectacles go, is a better sleep aid than melatonin).
If you insist on partying until the bitter, bitter end, I suggest a costume change. Your daytime outfit is likely to get a little droopy as time wears on, and at night, most of the action moves indoors, where large costumes can be inconvenient. Dash back to your boudoir for something simple and saucy — but remember, your fellow party-hounds have been going at it for over 12 hours, so don’t wear anything too nice, since it may come home with a few stains. Quite a few. As the night wears on, things can get very sloppy, indeed.
Bottoms up, tops down, y’all.
* New Orleans is also hosting something called the “Super Bowl” in a couple of weeks. If that’s why you’re coming to town, though, and you’re looking for football-themed fun, you’re on your own. IMHO, “football” and “fun” don’t even belong in the same sentence. Except for the one I just wrote.