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Mardi On!

Nothing warms up the wintertime like a party, and in the Southern states along the Gulf Coast, there is no party like Mardi Gras.

What started in Europe as a Catholic celebration before the beginning of the Lenten season has become one of the South’s greatest cultural traditions. Mardi Gras parades, parties and balls liven up February for Gulf Coast locals, and make it a great time for groups to visit.

So if you’re looking to take your group on a trip away from the midwinter doldrums, consider joining in these Mardi Gras celebrations.

Mobile, Ala.

Locals in Mobile have been celebrating Mardi Gras since 1703, making it the oldest carnival celebration in the United States. Today’s festivities entail a series of about 85 events that begin around Thanksgiving and culminate in the two weekends before Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Like many destinations, Mobile’s celebration features parades, balls and other events. Most are sponsored by about 80 “mystic societies” — the equivalent of “krewes” in other cities — which bring an air of secrecy and mystery to the party.

“The mystic societies are part of our culture here,” said David Cooper, chairman of the Mobile Carnival Association. “The reason they’ve been kept secret for so many years is that sometimes, a professional or a judge may not be able to enjoy himself much in the public eye, but on that evening, he can put on a mask and have as much fun as the law will allow.”

Shreveport-Bossier, La.

Two krewes in the northwest Louisiana cities of Shreveport and Bossier host a pair of big Mardi

Groups can get a behind-the-scenes look at Shreveport, La.’s Mardi Gras parade floats at float loading parties.
Courtesy Shrevport-Bossier CVB

Gras parades and balls that each attract about 400,000 visitors on the two weekends leading up to Fat Tuesday.

For groups, the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau offers special entrance into its Big Bash Tent, which is set up along the parade route during both weekends.

“It’s a package deal for groups that come here,” said Tarah Holland, public relations manager for the bureau. “It includes a live band, T-shirts and some traditional Louisiana food, like crawfish etouffee. Then you can go outside with your chairs and watch the parade go by.”

For a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into a Mardi Gras parade, groups can attend float-loading parties, which are hosted by the krewes on the night before their parade.

Lafayette, La.

Lafayette is in the heart of Cajun country, where food, music and culture  all reflect  the influence of the French Acadians. During Mardi Gras, this influence is on display as part of “courier de Mardi Gras.”

Lafayette, La., has a charmingly different version of the pre-Lent celebration with courier de Mardi Gras. 
Courtesy Lafayette CVBC

“It’s a traditional rural Mardi Gras that only takes place in our part of the world,” said Gerald Breau, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. “Horseback masked riders go from house to house collecting ingredients to make a giant community gumbo. Then, that night, they have a big party in the middle of town.”

The courier de Mardi Gras takes place on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday in the towns surrounding Lafayette. Eight parades also take place over the course of the week, as well as a gala bash on Tuesday night that is free and open to the public.

Galveston, Texas

In spite of the pounding that it took from Hurricane Ike last September, Galveston celebrated a full-scale Mardi Gras this year, continuing a tradition that has taken place on the island for 98 years.

Galveston’s celebrations include 11 parades and more than 50 galas and krewe parties, such as the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux pet parade, and the Krewe de Vroom motorcycle parade. A highlight of the Galveston Mardi Gras is the performance of the Philadelphia Mummers, a one-of-a-kind band from the East that has been coming to Galveston for 25 years.

“They’re a swing band that comes out in these incredible, huge costumes,” said RoShelle Gaskins, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re kind of like Aztec Indian costumes but with very flamboyant colors and huge headdresses.”

Pensacola, Fla.

Groups can watch Mardi Gras parades from the beach in Pensacola, where temperatures average around 65 degrees Fahrenheit during Mardi Gras season. The city’s 100 krewes participate in a trio of big parades that take place over the weekend before Fat Tuesday.

A masked reveler takes part in a Mardi Gras parade through downtown Pensacola, Fla.  Courtesy Pensacola Bay Area CVB

“On Friday night, there’s an evening parade where all of the floats look like ships,” said Laura Lee, media and public relations manager at the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They look like the Spanish conquistadors that came here 450 years ago.”

During parades on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the krewes show up on floats decorated to reflect each group’s personality. Visitors will see scuba divers, Indians, African kings, go-go dancers and other characters parading down the beach.

On Fat Tuesday itself, the krewes hold a processional through downtown that visitors can join. The event ends at Seville Quarter with a large community party.

New Orleans

There is no more iconic place to celebrate Mardi Gras than the Big Easy, and with some help from local experts, groups can enjoy a New Orleans carnival in a safe, comfortable environment.

Lisa Holland, tourism sales manager for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, suggests that groups come for “pre-Mardi Gras,” when room rates are lower and crowds are easy to manage.

“There is some grandstand seating for the parades that the city makes complimentary,” she said. “There are also some restaurants and hotels that offer grandstand seating packages with meals and entertainment. You get a designated spot, a good view and a location in a very family-friendly environment.”

Some groups spend pre-Mardi Gras in New Orleans, then travel to nearby destinations for Mardi Gras weekend. Spending the big weekend in New Orleans has its rewards, though: three megakrewes throw parades and parties from Friday to Sunday, with extravagance that is unmatched anywhere else on the Gulf Coast.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.