Image: Krewe du Vieux Mardi Gras parade
Lee Celano  /  Reuters
Participants satirizing money laundering march during the Krewe du Vieux Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, Louisiana on Jan. 19. The parade was the first of the Mardi Gras season, which ends on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 5.
By
updated 1/23/2008 4:55:40 PM ET 2008-01-23T21:55:40

In a town known for its music clubs, all-night bars and liberal public-drinking policy, Mardi Gras is the party that tops them all. As New Orleans continues to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, its spirited residents and visiting revelers find ample reason to celebrate—proving that even one of America's worst natural disasters couldn't spoil the fun.

Watching the parades
Around 60 parades are held during Carnival season, each one hosted by a private organization, or "krewe." Most parades take place in the final 10 days leading up to Fat Tuesday, "Mardi Gras" in French. The big day always falls in February or early March, on the eve of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the fasting season of Lent for many Christians. Minor parade schedule changes are common; go to mardigras.com for the latest info.

Warning: Do not flash body parts in the hopes of encouraging float riders to throw beads, stuffed animals, or other treats. Police zealously crack down on risqué behavior along parade routes. (The exception is the French Quarter. While flashing is still illegal there, it rarely draws even a verbal warning from cops.) A poster saying your hometown LOVES NOLA should do the trick in getting the attention of the folks throwing beads.

There are a few must-see parades. Endymion is a large parade with the most "throws," as well as Mardi Gras's longest float, the blocks-long Captain Eddie's S.S. Endymion (Saturday before Fat Tuesday, 4:15 p.m.). At Bacchus, a major celebrity serves as monarch—in 2007, it was James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini (Sunday before Fat Tuesday, 5:15 p.m.).

Krewe of Orpheus is a music-based parade founded by Harry Connick Jr. One of the signature floats is Leviathan, a smoke-breathing dragon lit with fiber optics (Monday before Fat Tuesday, 6 p.m.). The most prized of all throws are the painted coconuts at Zulu, a century-old African-American celebration that began as a parody of elite white krewes (Fat Tuesday, 8 a.m.). Named for the King of Carnival, Rex includes the reading of the official Carnival proclamation and floats like Boeuf Gras, a huge white bull surrounded by chefs (Fat Tuesday, 10 a.m.).

There are also smaller parades worth seeking out. Muses is an all-female affair at which participants toss pumps and teddy bear beads (Thursday before Fat Tuesday, 7 p.m.). At Barkus, thousands of dogs march in themed costumes, while a family-oriented block party rages in Louis Armstrong Park before, during and after the parade (second Sunday before Fat Tuesday, 2 p.m.). Krewe du Vieux is an over-the-top spectacle with satirical, often raunchy floats; genitalia and sex are common themes (third Saturday before Fat Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.).

Party guide
It's legal to stroll the streets of New Orleans while drinking alcohol, and bars often have sidewalk-service windows. Glass containers aren't allowed outside, however; if you want to leave a bar with your drink, request a plastic "go-cup." The Hurricane, New Orleans's signature drink, packs a wallop with four shots of high-octane rum. Bars charge about $6, though prices go as high as $11 for a 32-ounce concoction in a souvenir jug. Side-street grocery and convenience stores sell liquor, beer, and other beverages. Some Mardi Gras vets carry small coolers or jugs as they wander the Quarter.

Image: Mardi Gras parade
Sean Gardner  /  Reuters
Members of the Krewe of Rex parade down St. Charles Avenue Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans.
Many bars have balconies over Bourbon Street. Expect to pay $5 to $20 to perch on one, with time limits at the lower prices.

G-rated fun?
Families can—and do—attend Mardi Gras. One of the parade-watching areas where kids are plentiful and bawdy behavior is frowned upon is a wide grassy area on St. Charles Avenue, under oak trees in the upper Garden District. Views of the night parades, with their lighted floats, are beautifully framed by the huge arching trees.

Where to stay
Hotels on or near Canal Street are within easy reach of popular parade routes and the French Quarter. Try the Doubletree Hotel New Orleans (300 Canal, 504/581-1300, double rooms from $184 in low season) or, for a room on a quiet courtyard, the Dauphine Orleans (415 Dauphine, 504/586-1800, double rooms from $99 in low season). Book at least three months in advance, earlier if you hope to snag a balcony. One caveat: room rates can be twice as high, or more, during the Mardi Gras season.

Copyright © 2012 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.

Photos: Big Easy returns

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  1. Katrina's mess

    A junked car lies near empty houses in the Lakeview neighborhood near the site of the levee breach on the 17th Street Canal, August 29, 2005. More than five months after caused by Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was little progress in some areas of New Orleans. Today, tours are offered to visitors to have a better understanding of events pre and post Katrina. (David Rae Morris / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Big Easy blues

    Costumed revelers dressed as blue roof tarps pose at the annual MOMs Ball, thrown each year by the Krewe of Misfits, Orphans and Mystics in New Orleans. Many of this years Mardi Gras floats and costumes reference the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city after Hurricane Katrina. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soul sounds

    Jen Pearl (L) and Michelle Loughnane stand under an umbrella with a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 2006. Jazz Fest '07 will be held on April 27-29 and May 4-6. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dancing in the streets

    A member of the Young Olympia Aide and New Look Social Aid and Pleasure Club dances in a second line parade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jeweled celebration

    Members of the Krewe of Thoth throw beads as they travel down St. Charles Avenue where thousands of revelers showed up to enjoy 2006 Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is the day before Ash Wednesday, and a celebration of the last the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Mardi Gras 2007 will be observed on Feb. 20. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Eye candy

    Revelers ogle a woman exposing herself on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Closing time

    Orleans Parish mounted Police Officers march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter announcing the official end of Mardi Gras 2006. (Sean Gardner / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A shout for freedom

    "Big Chief" Victor Armstrong wears an elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costume. The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras pays homage to the relationship between Native Americans and escaped African slaves of the 1700s. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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