Saturday, March 8, 2014

Carnival Time in New Orleans by Margot Justes

Chicago’s winter this year has been brutal, and I was lucky enough to be able to escape it for a brief respite. A seven day cruise to the Bahamas first took me to New Orleans.

I thought Mardi Gras was only celebrated on the designated day-not so-the Carnival season starts the weekend before and carries on for a full week, ending the following Sunday. This year it started on the 21st of February.

I never thought I’d be anywhere near a place that celebrated Mardi Gras, not a big fan of crowds, but I couldn’t escape the beginning of the Carnival season in New Orleans.  I was there the first day of the festivities. That meant the first two parades that passed right on Canal Street, literally outside the main entrance to the hotel. How could I not participate and see the floats-after all-they’re legendary.

I joined the crowd on the street, young and old alike piled against the barricades along the street and waited for the fun to start. For me it started much earlier.  I walked on Canal, Bourbon, Royal and Decatur streets in the early afternoon, and the party was already in full swing.  Alcohol was freely flowing, as were the masks and various holiday accoutrements, from feathers, too-toos, beads and face paint. 

The parade started at about eight thirty in the evening, streets were closed making access difficult, if you were unlucky enough to want to go anywhere near the parade route. Carnival is big business in New Orleans. The floats are amazing, simply stunning, as are the costumes. The floats were colorful, garish and over the top, just perfect for the Carnival excesses. Marching bands, and of course the required political cars streamed along the street, one after the other. They were still going strong at midnight. I however was not. 

I’d never go out of my way to go anywhere during Carnival time, but this was an unplanned opportunity to see a bit of it, before it got really crazy on the actual day.  I was told Mardi Gras is absolutely nuts, but by that time, I was already on board ship. That being said, it was a wonderful opportunity to see a bit of the famed festival.

This was not my first trip to New Orleans, and I had fond memories of Café du Monde, so of course I stopped for coffee and beignets. The beignets were as I remembered them, absolutely delicious, the coffee I thought lacked strength and depth.  I remembered it as being more flavorful. Maybe my palate has changed, or maybe they’ve adapted the coffee to suit everyone. I do love my coffee on the strong side, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  There is something to be said for going back, and still take pleasure from the experience.

This was a first time I tried the colorful King Cake, and I loved it. Purple, gold and green colors decorate the top, sprinkled liberally with coarse sugar. Filled with a light cream center, the yeast dough is moist, and every bite is truly heavenly. I was told there are many versions, but I only sampled the one the hotel had to offer. Between the beignets, the King Cake, a huge lunch at the Court of Two Sisters, a Muffalata sandwich at the French Market, and the Shrimp Po-Boy, I can say the food is yummy.

Surprising to see were the many art galleries that lined the streets. Everywhere you turned that was a gallery, or local art was sold in a souvenir shop. Since my time was limited, I took the On and Off Bus, it’s a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of the city.

The French Quarter has not changed, it is alive and well. Effects of Katrina are still evident in many places, but the tourist trade is doing well, and that helps the area recover. The spirit of the locals is amazing and gracious.

Visit Paris from your armchair, A Hotel in Paris, is on sale for only 99. through Sunday.

Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
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