Picture of sign The first stop on our Mardi Gras trip was Lafayette, Louisiana. Lafayette is the self-proclaimed capitol of 'Acadiana' or Cajun Country. It is the largest city in the region and the center of Cajun culture and we thought it would be a nice warm-up non-commercialized version of Mardi Gras to start with. Lafayette also still has a courir (French for 'to run') in which a group of people run through various neighborhoods collecting ingredients with which to make gumbo.
Picture of bp_float The evening we stayed in Lafayette was the evening of the Krewe of Bonaparte parade. Mardi Gras parades are organized by Krewes which are fairly exclusive groups of people. Each Krewe has its own entrance requirements, traditions and internal culture. From what we learned, most of the more traditional Mardi Gras Krewes are not really that bad, you'll notice not everyone on this float is even masked. New Orleans seems to be the only place where the secrecy and exclusiveness are particularly extreme.
Picture of bp_float2 We honestly did not know what to expect in Lafayette and after the parade was over we had no basis for comparison. In retrospect, after New Orleans, it's a truly crucial part of the Mardi Gras experience. Not necessarily Lafayette but some city other than New Orleans. We parked downtown and sat on the curb in front of our car waiting for the parade. It was very laid-back, everyone stayed behind the barricades and it was never more than one person deep along the street. When the floats came, they threw almost exclusively beads more or less randomly. If you could make eye contact with a Krewe member, they generally threw you some beads.
Picture of bp_beads Except for a few beads caught by trees, every strand was snapped up by someone, usually kids running along the sidewalks. We were glad the car was right there because we caught so many we had to divest a few times. This picture is of our loot after the parade. One cup and about 150 strands of beads. The highlights were probably the hearts (upper left) and the iridescent brown-purple string (center but hard to see). It was all very friendly and orderly and great fun really. The parade lasted almost two hours and had probably 20 floats with marching bands from local schools in between them.
Picture of gator_1 We stashed our beads at the hotel and went across town for a fine bit of Cajun nightlife at Randol's which actually broadcasts its own dance show on local TV. A combination bar/restaurant/dance club we had some good local beer (Abita Springs Purple Haze is a must if you like raspberry) and some darn spicy food. Everyone eating at the restaurant, drinking at the bar and dancing wore beads. In fact, for the entire four days we were in southern Louisiana practically every person we saw was wearing beads.
Picture of gator_2 The next morning we took the scenic route to New Orleans through more of Acadiana. All the wildlife and swamp scenery pictures on this page were taken at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. Avery Island is actually a dome-shaped clump of land that rises out of the surrounding swamp. The foundation of the island is salt and these so-called salt domes are common in southern Louisiana. Most of Avery Island is off-limits to tourists.
Picture of reptiles There are two attractions on Avery Island. The first is the Tabasco plant. We didn't visit it but we can tell you that all the Tabasco there is comes from Avery Island. 'Tabasco' actually refers to the type of pepper used in the sauce which was first given as a gift to the McIlhenny family. In theory, there are other tabasco sauces (lower-case 't') but only one Tabasco (upper-case 'T'). The other attraction on the island is Jungle Gardens which grew out of the home and estate of the McIlhenny family.
Picture of bird_city It contains a nice driving loop, hordes of small alligators as you've probably noticed by now, an egret nesting area known as 'bird city' and quite a lot of flower gardens featuring camellias, azaleas, wisteria, and irises among others. There are also nutria in the park, described to us as 'rats the size of otters'. They are part of the rodent family, live in the lagoons, and we never managed to see one. The park also contains a Buddha statue dating to 1000 A.D. which was another gift to the McIlhennys.
Picture of jungle After Avery Island we continued on to New Orleans. In Des Allemands, a small town near Houma, we came across another Mardi Gras parade. It appeared that nearly the entire community was somehow involved in the parade leaving only a few people to catch beads and so forth. You can't really grasp the festive community nature of Mardi Gras from the million-people New Orleans parades, so we really can't stress enough that if you plan to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, make plans to attend a parade in any other nearby city, there are certainly enough of them. We also passed evidence of parades going on in Morgan City and New Iberia, and the local papers have entire pages devoted to the day's events during the week leading up to Mardi Gras.
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