Alex Brandon  /  AP
The street lamps are decorated with a purple green and gold bow in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Mardi Gras festivities start on Feb. 16 with the grand celebration on Feb. 20.
updated 1/29/2007 12:24:16 PM ET 2007-01-29T17:24:16

Roger Evans knows there are local residents who plan to leave town during Mardi Gras. But he does just the opposite. He stays in town and takes vacation time to be sure he doesn't miss a minute of the big party.

"I like to see everybody walk the street and having a good time. We've been going to the same spot on the parade route for 44 years. Even if I don't see someone the rest of the year, they know where they can find us on Mardi Gras day," he said.

For Evans, Fat Tuesday, the final day of Carnival before Lent, is a combination of party, reunion and tradition. The date this year will be Feb. 20.

"I watch for Zulu, then go to my friends' house, eat a little grub, have a little drink, and head out to find the Indians," Evans said, referring to two of the traditional parades.

For others, it's a day spent camped out along a parade route, catching gaudy beads thrown from maskers on floats. The meal of the day varies from hamburgers and hot dogs to red beans and crawfish. And, oh yes, beer, lots of beer.

Although the raucous party in the French Quarter, with revelers trading flashes of flesh for strings of beads, has become well known, it is only one of the many faces of Mardi Gras.

Families show up early along St. Charles Avenue, staking out choice viewing spots on the streetcar tracks. Many bring tents, cots, chairs, coolers and grills. By the time the Krewe of Zulu parade rolls on the morning of Fat Tuesday, revelers are elbow to elbow.

Last year the city staged a scaled-back Mardi Gras, stirring controversy about the propriety of holding the party after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and killed 1,698 people.

The reduced celebration was supposed to show that New Orleans was on its way back. Certainly Mardi Gras is.

"I think this year things will be very close to normal, pre-Katrina status," said Arthur Hardy, publisher of the definitive guide to the season, the "Mardi Gras Guide."

In New Orleans that means parades must have a minimum of 14 floats and seven bands.

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Parading begins more than a month before Mardi Gras. There are also boat parades, children's parades and even a parade for dogs - the Krewe of Barkus - and their owners in costume.

The less public side of Carnival is the masked balls, at which the city's elite and elite-for-an-evening reign as figurative monarchs over the society debut of young men and women.

Though a couple of parading organizations, known as krewes, have canceled parades this year, another 53 are scheduled in New Orleans and its neighboring parishes before the party comes to an end at midnight on Feb. 20.

American Idol winner Taylor Hicks will reign as the Krewe of Endymion's grand marshal for the 2007 Carnival season. Endymion will move down historic St. Charles Avenue on Feb. 17, one of 18 parades scheduled to roll in New Orleans between Feb. 16 and 20.

That's also when the revelry in the French Quarter gears up with people staking out balconies along Bourbon Street and clubs running 24 hours a day.

"I'd advise people to give some thought to what kind of Mardi Gras they're interested in," Hardy said. "If they're bringing the family they should go to St. Charles Avenue or out to Jefferson Parish. Those are both going to have family atmospheres."

In the French Quarter the atmosphere is risque and after dark can be downright raunchy.

On Fat Tuesday, it's worth a trip to the Quarter to see the costumes, which range from elaborate to almost nonexistent. The Forty-third Annual Bourbon Street Awards Show, billed as the ultimate costume contest, will be held on Mardi Gras Day at noon at the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon streets. The costumes are eye-popping, both for their workmanship and for the gender-bending involved.

Costuming has been declining for years, but true Mardi Gras buffs still show up along the parade routes on Fat Tuesday in costume. The outfits don't have to be intricate. Simple costumes adorn whole families or groups, making both an attention-grabbing display and an easy way to spot members who wander off.

This year there are more flights coming into New Orleans, although the airport is still not at full capacity.

Hotel rooms are up to 30,000, still less than the 38,000 available before Katrina, but up from the 24,000 last year.

"We are off to a moderately good start for reservations," Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater Hotel and Lodging Association, said. "But typically things pick up quickly. That final weekend really closes out fast."

Hotels are expecting to be over 90 percent full, Sawyers said.

Restaurants open and even extend their hours during Carnival, according to Wendy Waren, director of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

"Some offer special menus," Waren said.

Reservations fill fast, she said. Some restaurants along the parade route, as well as restaurants and bars in the French Quarter, offer deals that allow patrons to have unlimited access to the facility, food, drink and, just as important - a bathroom.

This year's Zagat Survey of New Orleans - the first of the city since Katrina - includes reviews of leading hotels, night clubs, bars and other attractions. It includes 390 restaurants, down from the last survey two years ago, which had more than 500 restaurants.

Businesses that have reopened since Katrina primarily are in the French Quarter, downtown and the Garden District - all parts of New Orleans tourists know and love, Zagat said.

In addition to Mardi Gras on the street, there is a multimedia exhibit, "Carnival," at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Louisiana Children's Museum explores carnival traditions throughout the world.

The Mardi Grass Indians, black carnival groups that make extravagant costumes and stage mock battles throughout the city on Fat Tuesday, can be difficult to find. Their parade routes are apt to change quickly. But the Wild Magnolia Indians will give a free outdoor concert at the Presbytere in Jackson Square on Saturday, Feb. 17.

The Monday before Mardi Gras, once a day to rest up for the big event, had now become a daylong celebration. There is a full range of activities at the Riverwalk near the French Quarter. A day of live music and food is capped at 6 p.m. when a Coast Guard Cutter delivers Rex, King of Carnival to take over the city.

"Mardi Gras is uplifting for me," celebrity chef Leah Chase said. She's been watching parades in New Orleans since the 1930s. "I don't care how depressed you are, it will get you out of it. Then the next day we go to church and pray."

St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square will offer Ash Wednesday Mass. Many of those attending are still draped with beads.

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