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Code Purple: Party Imminent
But There's Still Time to Catch Mardi Gras in New Orleans

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Steve Smith is bracing for a storm.

"We're shutting down," says Smith, business manager of the Hermann-Grima House, a restored Federal mansion in the center of New Orleans's French Quarter. As the tourists file by on St. Louis Street, Smith details his plans for a complete four-day evacuation of the museum. "Not only are we closing, we'll shut our iron gates and then put plywood over the gates. Basically, it's the same preparations we take for a hurricane."

All over this city, hatches are being battened, inhibitions stashed safely away and livers put on high alert. It's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans.

The day itself, Fat Tuesday, isn't until next week, March 4. But the purple, green and gold clouds of Carnival have been gathering here for weeks. The air is already warm and sultry. And by last Friday, with the first major Mardi Gras parades scheduled to roll in the evening, the Bourbon Street balconies were packed with revelers tossing taunts and baubles to the unsteady masses below. The portable daiquiri stands were up along Canal Street. The line for the Acme Oyster House was a block long on Iberville (don't worry, you can have your cocktail in line). And even the most buttoned-down conference tourist -- he of the neat blue blazer and the oversized name tag -- walked about with at least one string of plastic beads around his neck.

Of course, every Friday is a party in the Crescent City. But not every Friday sees such towering feathered headdresses and quite so many outrageous masks. By nightfall, the sudden whoops echoing along the old brick facades are clearly the unmistakable thunder of New Orleans's biggest blowout. And those sudden lightning flashes of bare breasts -- to relentless wheedling chants from the balconies -- can mean only one thing.

"Oh, this is Mardi Gras, Bra," shouts Ryan, a beaming doorman fighting against the tidal surge of partiers to keep his station outside Pat O'Brien's bar. "It's always hopping on Bourbon Street, but there ain't nothing like Mardi Gras. And next week will be twice as crowded."

At the Hermann-Grima House, an enclave of 19th-century antiques and architecture just blocks from the go-cup mayhem of the strip, Smith is fighting a rising tempest. The day before, in the museum courtyard, he had shooed away a couple of after-hours partiers who were taking a cigarette break under an ancient magnolia tree. "It turns out they weren't cigarettes," Smith says with a grin. (Here, even the management shows affection for Carnival misbehavior.)

And after they protectively shutter the museum, will Smith cower in the storm cellar? "Oh no," he says. "From Friday to Tuesday night it will be solid Mardi Gras for me, as much as I can stand."

A lot of tourist businesses close for Mardi Gras, including the mule carriage tours out of Jackson Square and -- outside the French Quarter at least -- a good number of bars and restaurants. "It's the year's major holiday for us," says native Claudette Breve, a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton. "My favorite is Lundi Gras [the Monday before Mardi Gras]. I take the day off and dress up in a costume and spend the day on Bourbon Street." Last year she was a Naughty Catholic Schoolgirl.

Breve has some tips for neophytes: First, decide whether you want to spend your day among the costumed bead-chuckers on Bourbon Street or the spectacular grand parades that occur each day along St. Charles Avenue and other Uptown streets. Trying to alternate too much between both, Breve advises, can be hernia-inducing. She also recommends taking a taxi up St. Charles ("Get out at one of the numbered streets, 1, 2, 3 or 4") and walking with the parades back toward the Quarter, about two miles.

Finally, check in with your hotel concierge or a knowledgeable local for the latest intelligence on such mundane necessities as where to find bathrooms. (Most bars won't let you into their facilities unless you pay the cover or buy a drink, and the streets become pretty ripe).

"Mardi Gras is absolutely the best time to visit New Orleans," she says. "But for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. The sheer volume of people can be frightening if you're not ready for it."

This year, there are signs the crowds may be down a bit. Although the city expects a bounce back from 2002 (in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks), the bookings so far are soft and some hotels have begun to relax their minimum-stay requirements. "I think this year might be a good one for last-minute plans," says Breve.

A few hundred yards across the Mississippi River, Blaine Kern is clearly no less busy than usual for the eve of the big show. "Everybody's working overtime, everybody's rushing," he says, standing in front of a fiberglass alligator the size of a boxcar. A few yards away, a forklift beeps slowly along, cradling a huge orange griffin.

Kern is New Orleans's most celebrated float designer, the one largely responsible for the unique outsize splendor of the Mardi Gras parade. His sprawling compound of warehouses -- a tourist attraction on its own -- is a bedlam of the fantastic: Dragons and dudes, soldiers and sax players, matadors, hound dogs and gators, gators, gators.

Behind Kern is a string of colossal riverboat floats, about to be towed across the river for the enormous Endymion parade. Each boat is lined with iron stands to help brace the costumed riders -- dues-paying members of the Endymion Krewe (or Mardi Gras social club). Each rider will also bring along a self-paid supply of "throws," up to $500 worth of plastic beads, cups and doubloons to toss to the cheering crowds.

The yearning for these trinkets is fanatical (note the exhibitionist extremes to which otherwise well-behaved women will go to get them). But Mardi Gras partisans contend all the bead-throwing and flashing and drinking and whooping remains remarkably non-threatening.

"It's loud and boisterous, but it's not aggressive," says Miss Stacey, a beautiful 60-year-old tarot card reader in Jackson Square. She sits behind a purple satin tablecloth, all scarves and flowing raven hair beneath the wrought-iron rails. In a cloud of smoldering sage and frankincense, she is the embodiment of New Orleans's rich spooky side. She once saw a fatal fight at Rio's Carnival. This one, she says, is genuinely laid-back. "It's all about positive energy here. It's about political satire and expressing, loudly, who you are or who you want to be. There's a lot of drunkenness and a good bit of explicit sexual stuff, but very few fisticuffs.

"This town lives for Mardi Gras," Miss Stacey says. "You can feel it coming to life right now, can't you?"

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: You may still just be able to grab a last-minute airfare to New Orleans for less than $400. At press time, Orbitz showed a $363 round-trip flight on Northwest leaving Sunday from BWI, and Sidestep.com listed $368 on Delta out of BWI. Amtrak's Southern Crescent (about a day-long trip) starts at $312. Info: 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com.

STAYING THERE: At press time, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau's Web site (see below) showed Mardi Gras weekend rooms still available starting at $179 a night around the French Quarter (for example, the Saint Ann/Marie Antoinette Hotel on Conti), and starting at $149 a night in the Garden District and Uptown (parade central) -- for example, the Prytania Park Hotel on Prytania. The most exciting recent development in New Orleans's crowded hotel scene is the new Ritz-Carlton complex on Canal Street (Where else would you find a Ritz-Carlton across from a strip club and wig shop?). They've converted the huge Maison Blanc department store into three excellent hotels: the Ritz-Carlton (800-241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com), New Orleans's only five-diamond hotel, with its only five-diamond restaurant, Victor's; the boutique Maison Orleans (504-670-2900, www.maisonorleans.com) ; and the surprisingly affordable four-diamond Iberville Suites (504-523-2400, www.ibervillesuites.com). Internet rates for the Iberville Suites go as low as $105 from June to August and during December, or $139 for much of the rest of the year, with the exception of Mardi Gras and other big events. The properties are managed by the same staff, and all guests have access to the lush Ritz facilities, including the spa. At the Ritz's locally popular French Quarter Bar, don't miss the etouffée and trumpeter/crooner Jeremy Davenport.

EATING: If you can't find great food in New Orleans, you're too drunk to eat. Sure things in the Quarter include gumbo and superb turnip greens at the Gumbo Shop (630 St. Peter St.), jambalaya at Petunia's (817 St. Louis St.) and the fried shrimp and oyster po-boy at the Royal Cafe (700 Royal).

MARDI GRAS: Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World (800-362-8213, www.mardigrasworld.com; $13.75) is where most of the big floats are designed, built and stored. It's worth a visit any time of the year. Take the free ferry from the river end of Canal Street across to Algiers and catch the shuttle bus to the float studios. To see the floats in action, almost 50 parades are slated for today through Mardi Gras. Most of the major ones roll down St. Charles and onto Canal, but a number are held in other neighborhoods. For schedules, maps and webcam views, log onto www.mardigras.com.

INFO: New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company