Tale of Two Mardi Gras by Terry Zinn

Initially one always thinks of New Orleans when they hear Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.
But the Mardi Gras celebration complete with costumes, parades, ethnic foods and throws; is endemic to several towns.
On my way to Houma, Louisiana for their pre-Lenten celebration, I just had to sneak a peak at the goings on in New Orleans proper. Mardi Gras parades begin in January and depending on when Ash Wednesday falls on the calendar, can last until March. New Orleans can be daunting at times when the streets are flooded not with Lake Pontchartrain water, but with revelers: some intoxicated, some hung- over, and some first-time tourists with amazed looks on their faces.

I was under the misconception that the parades went through parts of the French Quarter, which they do not. As close as they get is Canal Street. But with that wrong assumption I sequestered a couple of nights’ lodgings at the Omni Hotel on St Louis and Royal. (www.omnihotels.com/FindAHotel/NewOrleansRoyalOrleans.aspx) This upscale establishment had the luxury, security and amenities I had remembered from previous stays. My reservations were somewhat tardy, as I had not secured them until about 6 weeks before the last week of Mardi Gras. Of course, the earlier the reservation the better selection of accommodations in all of New Orleans.
I was lucky in that I had made connections with a bevy of Chef John Besh restaraunts which included Harrah Casino’s John Besh Steakhouse, the upscale August, and the most congenial and best Mardi Gras parade location of Lukes, on St. Charles. (www.chefjohnbesh.com/restaurants.html) Each restaurant offers impeccable dining with high standards not only in culinary dishes and service but also glasses filled with delightful beverages.

A bonus at this Mardi Gras was the outdoor parade viewing stand, in front of the restaurant. This gave ease to viewing the parade floats and better access to some of the throws. Special arrangements need to be made with the restaurant for access, but this semi -VIParea made the afternoon and evening parades more enjoyable, with access to facilities and a place to sit down, without the jostling of too many revelers.

There were several empty viewing stands across the street, which was a shame. I’m sure for a fee, one could get a spot in one of the stands and enjoy the Mardi Gras experience in style and comfort. That’s something to look into when you plan your next New Orleans Mardi Gras visit, and the only way I’ll choose to experience it again. (www.mardigrasneworleans.com/mardi.html)
For a more rural Mardi Gras, I discovered 57 miles southwest of New Orleans, the second largest Mardi Gras celebration which is located in Houma, Louisiana. The floats are just as large and elaborate as its younger sister in New Orleans, and while the crowds are smaller, which is a good thing. The throws and excitement are just as contagious.
Party contagion is the magic of Mardi Gas, where everyone is eager to get their “something for nothing” by catching beads and commemorative coins. While the good times might be lubricated with beverages, Houma’s Mardi Gras is for the whole family. In fact it seemed many throws were aimed for the small children accompanied by their parents.

Houma, named after the indigenous American Indian tribe, is your home base for visiting life in the wetlands. Bayous, rivers to the gulf of Mexico, accompany you wherever you drive in Terrebonne Parish.
A remarkable individual accomplishment is the sculpture garden of Kenny Hill (www.nicholls.edu/folkartcenter), in Chauvin, deep in the vanishing wetlands next to Bayou Petit Caillou. A recluse of the Viet Nam generation, and brick layer by trade, Kenny created his own garden sculpture of wire and concrete, reflecting his own reality. In bright Cajun colors on elongated human forms, Kenny expresses, through his mystical creations, Biblical interpretations interlaced with his own personal struggles.
For an up-close-and-personal wetlands experience, an intimate flat boat ride into the swamp is a must. Cajun Man, Ron “Black” Guidry (www.cajunman.com) knows his patch of swamp, right down to where wild life of; eagles, nutrias, herons, turtles and of course gators call home. His rendition of Cajun songs is memorable when the tour pauses in the swamp and Guidy wales his Cajun songs to his heart’s content, to the pleasure of his captive audience.

A quick stop at Lapeyrouse grocery at 7243 Shoreline Drive, brings you in touch with the mandatory products of local wetland culture. Also a visit to the Southdown Plantation House (www.southdownmuseum.org) gives you a feeling of the old south as you tour the house as a cultural museum. For a traditional museum enlightenment, stop in at Houma’s Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum (www.houmaterrebonne.org/waterlife.asp) where the history and ecology of the region is exemplified in dioramas and text.
Of course, you have to sample Cajun cooking and you can at Bayou Delight, A-Bear’s Restaurant, and the popular Boudreau & Thibodeau’s Cajun Cookin’, where you’ll find a pile of steamed crawfish on your newspaper- covered table. Houma and the wetlands are filled with surprises, and while I shouldn’t have been astounded, I was when I dined in upscale style at Houma’s Café Dominique (www.cafedominique.com), where the elegant atmosphere, gourmet food and inventive beverages were over the top.
While the wetlands are diminishing, the hospitality of Terrebonne Parish, with Houma as your base, is surviving and should be sampled by all celebrating micro cultures.