Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Experiencing Mardi Gras Like a Local

Go beyond the deadly cocktails and beads of Bourbon Street, and dig deep into the culturally-rich New Orleans tradition.

New Orleans Mardi Gras
New Orleans Mardi Gras
New Orleans Mardi Gras

There are many places around the globe where you can celebrate Carnival, from Rio de Janeiro to Venice, but there’s a reason that Mardi Gras in New Orleans is listed among the most famous of these debaucherous and outlandish traditions-it is just a rollicking good time.

Steeped in tradition and hosted in one of the most hospitable and interesting places in the world, Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, even if it wasn’t the first place in the United States where it was celebrated. (Many believe that honor belongs to Mobile, Alabama, but it’s still fair to say New Orleans perfected it.) That reputation is a double-edged sword. Many believe that the holiday is all about women baring their chests for cheap plastic trinkets and everyone downing sickly-sweet and deadly-strong cocktails on Bourbon Street.

The trouble is, all of that is true. But to limit New Orleans to that tiny, tawdry sliver of understanding is to deeply degrade and dismiss the cultural value and texture of a complicated but glorious city-wide celebration that’s as much of a good time for tourists as it is for the locals who teach their children to carry on the traditions.

But this is your year to dive in head-first, to truly understand and experience this unique New Orleans custom. Here’s your guide on how to go all out and soak in Mardi Gras like a local.

What is Mardi Gras, and why does New Orleans celebrate it?

Time to crack open the history books, kids. Back in the decades before the United States was formalized, New Orleans was founded by the French, planting Catholic roots deep in the swampy soil. Mardi Gras itself is a blend of Pagan and Christian traditions, amplifying overindulgence before the strictures of Lent kick in on Ash Wednesday. Over the years, the tradition evolved with begging and debutante rituals, and it came to include street parades, costumes, formal balls, and bead-tossing. Today’s version in New Orleans still incorporates much of that, with dozens of street parades, high society debutante presentations, beads and trinkets thrown from floats drawn by mules and tractors, marching bands and dance teams, and general revelry overflowing the streets.

When is Mardi Gras?

Carnival officially begins on the Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day), which always falls on January 6. Mardi Gras formally ends on Ash Wednesday, which is also tied directly to the Catholic calendar, 46 days before Easter. That means the date of Mardi Gras and, thus, the length of the season, shifts every year. The biggest weeks are the final two weekends before Mardi Gras Day, which is February 21, 2023.

Learn the lingo of the holiday

Not to get semantic here, but locals and visitors alike refer to the entire season colloquially as both Carnival and Mardi Gras. Don’t worry too much about it, except to know that you can enjoy parades and revelry throughout the season. Krewes are the organizations that host the parades and celebratory balls. Throws are the trinkets, beads, stuffed animals, and light-up toys that are tossed from the floats.

Where to stay during Mardi Gras

When you travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, there is perhaps no bigger decision than where you’ll stay. Most parades travel the same route from Napoleon Avenue, down St. Charles Avenue, and into the CBD. Depending on how much work you have to put into getting around, and what kind of party might be outside your door, will determine where you want to stay. Want to unleash your inner party goblin? Look for hotels in the French Quarter or Central Business District, which will put you within walking-distance of major crowds, Bourbon Street, and dozens of restaurant options. Hoping for midweek jazz shows or something a touch more cultural than Hand Grenade cocktails? Opt for boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, or Airbnbs in the Marigny. If you’ve got family in tow, or you’re hoping to maximize your parade time, stay at a boutique hotel, or Airbnb along (or close to) St. Charles Avenue.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

How to dress the part

Costumes and outlandish attire are always encouraged, but on Mardi Gras Day, they’re practically gospel. But think less Halloween, where you’re dressing as something or someone, and more like avant garde art class. If it sounds a little weird, that’s because it is. Unless you’ve got a clever idea that cheekily nods to local culture, politics or circumstances, you’re better off dressing in, say, head-to-toe monochrome sequins or as a bouquet of flowers than Peppa Pig.

Couvant New Orleans
Couvant New Orleans
Couvant New Orleans

Savor the City

New Orleans’ world class bars and restaurants are at their best during Carnival, when tourists (and their tips) can fill the room nightly. We’ve got a ton of recommendations for what and where to eat in New Orleans, but there are three rules to know. First, if you want a reservation during the height of Carnival season, call now-like, right now-and you may get lucky with a table. Second, drinking on the streets is A-Okay, as long as you’re doing it out of plastic or aluminum.Lastly, be patient and tip well.

Don’t get arrested

The hinges on the doors of the local NOPD offices get some real exercise during Mardi Gras, often because of tourists who can’t handle their business. Locals knows how not to get in trouble during this season, when the concept of legality feels a little flexible, and that means 1) follow directions, especially if it’s a doorman or a uniformed cop giving them to you, 2) pee in bathrooms, not on the street and 3) don’t hit a police horse. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc.
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc.
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc.

How to Rule Like a King (or Queen) for a Day

If you’re going to do Mardi Gras, you can easily travel to the city, pack lunches for the parades, and be in bed by 10 pm every night without missing a beat. Or you can plan multiple costume changes, get tickets for public balls and concerts, and power yourself on Popeyes Chicken, cafe au laits, and 20 ounce margaritas from Superior Grill. Here are a few ways to really level up your Mardi Gras:

Rent a balcony: Why be part of the crowd when you can be above it? Call hotels along the parade route or on Bourbon Street and ask for balcony bookings, which perch you above the mayhem and give you a great view to either toss beads to shouting crowds below, or get a great view of the parades as they pass.

Extend your stay: Coined a few years ago by Dominique Lejeune, “Deep Gras” refers to the final Wednesday to Ash Wednesday of Mardi Gras, and a stay through this week gives you ultimate immersion, from the opportunities to see hyper-local krewes with unplanned routes roaming the French Quarter to the multi-million dollar parades like Endymion or Bacchus that light up the night and anchor the final weekend.

Ballin’: While many krewes restrict attendance to their membership rosters and high society notables, some krewes offer ball tickets to the public, which mean tuxedos, ball gowns, and headliner-worthy performing acts. Look for tickets to balls thrown by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Krewe of Orpheus or those thrown by marching krewes, like the Pussyfooters’ Blush Ball.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, who formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist. Follow her on Twitter @cabrasted to find out how actually cool she is.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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