Whether it’s celebrating the excitement of Mardi Gras, dancing to the dynamic beat of that fabulous Cajun/Zydeco music, or chowing down on some crawfish etouffe, think about changing your focus from the big city buzz of New Orleans and check out Lake Charles for fun. Located 200 miles west of the more well-known city, we found Lake Charles, Louisiana, to be one of the truly great gems of this great Southern state.
The two of us chose to experience Mardi Gras here, having done the same once before years ago in New Orleans. We quickly found that we much preferred the less raucous, more family-oriented celebration – in truth, a whole different atmosphere – more like an old-time, mid-Western Fourth of July celebration. It’s an exciting event that runs like clockwork – and the folks there have had decades to learn how to make it all happen.
Lake Charles, named for one of its founders, Charles Sallier, has a friendly, community spirit — the kind that’s hard to achieve in the bigger cities.
As for Mardi Gras, it’s been said that you can ask any group of people what the event means, and you’ll get answers such as:
* A wild and crazy party
* A religious holiday
* Something to do with Lent
* Masks and gorgeous costumes
* Fabulous parades and courtly pageants
* Tossing (and catching) colorful beads from lavish floats
* Lavish balls and “royalty” events
The correct answer, of course, is all of the above.
By definition, Mardi Gras (MAR-dee-graw) is French for “Fat Tuesday” and refers to the Roman Catholic tradition of eating of rich, fatty foods prior to the ritual fasting of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. The event is held in other parts of the U.S., and the term Mardi Gras encompasses not just a single day, but many related festivities. The colorful and crazy Mardi Gras celebration in Lake Charles is complete with an annual, formal ball and many parades featuring the 60 or more krewes active in the city. Once launched, the revelry seems endless.
Krewes are the mainstay of Mardi Gras – krewe being an old English spelling of CREW and pronounced the same). They are organizations or clubs formed for various reasons, such as civic causes, business and professional development and activities, and purely social get togethers. And one of the many reasons the krewes exist is the annual opportunity to show off their fabulous costumes and floats.
Examples of just a few of the many krewes in Lake Charles are the Krewe of Contraband (organized for business and professional men); the Krewe of Mystique (a ladies krewe organized in 1973); the Krewe of Omega (oldest black krewe in Lake Charles); Krewe des Amis (“a group of friends”); the Krewe de les Cajuns (promoting French music of the traditional Mardi Gras); the Krewe of Illusions (known for its theatrical productions); and the Krewe des Lunatiques (often called the “crazy” krewe). There are many more. Each krewe has its own king and queen elected annually, and each group produces its own fabulous, feather-plumed costumes as well as its own float for the big, final parade. Here all kinds of trucks, mostly huge, 18-wheelers tow and showcase the floats of the individual krewes on their four-mile trek.
The head “king or queen” over Mardi Gras is the Duke or Duchess of Misrule, and this person alternates between a man and woman each year and is a person who has made significant contributions to Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana. Other “royalty” from the various krewes pay homage to that individual in the Monday evening gala event which climaxes with the big Tuesday parade. Other events, such as the delightful children’s parade, are held prior to the final day of festivities. On all of the parades, literally hundreds of thousands of beads and trinkets are tossed from those on the floats. Lining the streets for dozens of blocks, kids and adults of all ages vie for the treasures, bouncing up and down and calling out the traditional phrase of many years: “Hey, mister, throw me something.”
The participants on the floats do just that — tossing endless numbers of colorful beads, Mardi Gras plastic cups, and fake doubloons (Spanish coins of bygone days). No one knows how many items are tossed from the floats, but it’s said there are over 10,000 gross of these items. Most are easily accessible, located on hooks on the inside walls of the various floats ready for tossing. There’s even a museum in the city called the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. This venue features hundreds of the gorgeous parade costumes – each worn only for one season – and some valued as high as $5000. It is the largest museum of its kind anywhere.
Mardi Gras colors by the way, are seen all over the city and are represented by purple for royalty and justice, gold for purity and power, and green for friendship and the earth. King cakes are also part of the celebration. Originating in 1870, the three major ingredients in these luscious, cream-filled and beautifully decorated cakes were meant to represent the gifts the Three Wise Men brought to the Baby Jesus. Thousands of the cakes are made and sold locally, as well as being shipped world-wide. http://www.kingcakes.com
All “tolled,” Mardi Gras has a 19 million dollar impact on Lake Charles and its Calcasieu Parish-wide population of 120,000 (a parish being the same as a county in most other states). Lake Charles itself claims 70-75,000 of that figure. The region’s Creole Nature Trail All-American Road draws visitors from around the world, as does the city’s historical architecture. The Nature Trail is famous for its wide array of birds and waterfowl, as well as the alligators that we saw sunning themselves on the banks along the roadside. Some grow to 15 feet in length. Step on guides, like our own Captain Sammie, provide an outstanding learning experience while traveling through Louisiana’s “Outback.”
The Cameron Prairie Visitors Center, located along the trail, features some informative, lifelike and animated talking dioramas. http://www.CreoleNatureTrail.org. On our visit, we stayed at the colorful Isle of Capri Resort Casino with its brilliantly decorated hallways and spacious rooms — and where live Cajun/Zydeco bands are featured non-stop for three days in the Caribbean Cove entertainment/dancing area.
Our favorite was Chris Miller and his Bayou Roots Cajun Band. Wow! What a beat, and what a guy Chris is – warm, and friendly and so much in love with the music he provides — as well as with his beautiful, blonde bride of over 20 years. He even dances a few steps with her onstage — wrapping his arms around her and playing his accordion behind her back — as the band plays on. Talk about fun!
Unlike the others in our group, we couldn’t resist dancing till “curtain call” at 1 a.m. Then, falling into bed, Dean said, “I’m so tired, I forget how to ache.” While in the city, we enjoyed a relaxing J and R Carriage ride through the eclectic cluster of lovely Victorian homes and mansions. We also toured the Imperial Calcasieu Museum which hosts many outstanding exhibits throughout the year. On the museum property is a 300-year-old, massive oak tree (and we mean massive) that’s worth seeing in and of itself.
Food? Yea, man!
Cajun/Creole dishes – some easier to eat than pronounce – are unique to this part of the United States. They include boudin (boo-DAN), a sausage cousin composed of pork, rice, onions, celery and spices made into links or balls and eaten at any time of the day, particularly at breakfast. Boudin can be as hot as the proverbial “pepper sprout” or as mild as a plain, old burger. Other popular items on a menu can include Etouffee (AY-too-fay), Pistollette (Pisto-LET), and Andouille (ahn-doo-EE), as well as Po-Boys, Jambalaya, and Roux. Then there’s the colorful, orange-red crawfish served by the hundreds on huge platters. Just getting the meat from these little critters is an art in itself. Be prepared to spend some time shucking.
It’s been said that Louisiana’s food can be as hot and steamy as its languishing summers, and it’s also said that “Louisiana has a way of making gumbo out of anything.” That’s really what makes it so much fun – and it’s not just the food, of course. There’s so much more to be experienced in this city known as the “Festival Capital of Louisiana.”
Eateries that we especially enjoyed were the Pujo St. Café, Steamboat Bills on the Lake, 121 Artisan Bistro, the upscale Ember Grille, and Otis and Henry’s, located onsite at the Isle of Capri Resort – all featuring some outstanding Southern service.
Lake Charles was founded on the lucrative lumber industry in the 1700s, followed later by oil production and benefitting all the while from having the 11th largest port in the U.S.
Tourism now is a mainstay of this delightful city, and we can easily see why.
A highly accommodating Convention and Visitors Bureau welcomes guests and provides any and all assistance needed. Visitors Bureau: http://www.VisitLakeCharles.org .
For fun and frolic at Mardi Gras time — or anytime year-round — it’s hard to beat the beckoning lure of Louisiana’s lovely Lake Charles — a special place we’d like to return to again — and again.