Think you're unable handle the boisterous, extravagant excesses of Mardi Gras in New Orleans? Family-oriented Lake Charles provides a deeper look into Mardi Gras and reveals what the event means to a community.
How are travel writers — one a dour ex-Scot brought up on frugality and the other from thrifty Middle America — going to handle the boisterous, extravagant excesses of Mardi Gras?
Perhaps by looking deeper into the events, by finding what it means to a community, by seeing it as a cultural reinforcement of who those families are — and by choosing Southwest Louisiana for their focus: family-oriented Lake Charles rather than the more lavish, adult fun-based New Orleans.
It’s not that Lake Charles’ Mardi Gras isn’t lavish, we think, as we look at all the young Queens enthroned to receive their guests on Lundi Gras, the Cinderella night before Fat Tuesday’s Parade.
“This parade is a lavish promenade of the royalty of more than 60 krewes in extravagant, glittering costumes before thousands of residents and visitors in the second largest Mardi Gras in Louisiana,” says Kaylen Fletcher, the public relations manager of the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau.
And boy! How do they parade in this Royal Gala! Here they come: the kings, queens, dukes and duchesses, captains, courtesans and jesters in full costume. Some are gracious and wave their hands with the dainty flexion of the fingers the Brits seemingly adore in Queen Elizabeth II. Others strut as if they are truly blessed — or cursed — with blue blood. They are certainly cursed by the weight of the costumes, some as much as 60 pounds.
Other krewes skip past self-mockingly and grin at the crowd. On they come like characters in the 1948 movie Easter Parade as if they’re even hearing Irving Berlin’s music in their own minds. This is surely the family of Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey strolling in for dinner. All this parade lacks are a few Elvis impersonators or perhaps Liberace himself.
It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Mardi Gras allows krewe members to let off steam, even act crazy. There is indeed a Krewe des Lunatiques that, founded in 1988, contrasts with the Krewe de Charlie Sioux which was formed in 1996 by businessmen from a sister city in Sioux Falls, Iowa.
When the Krewe of Mystique parades past an elderly man tells us, “This krewe was formed about 40 years ago by women. Hence the name — because who understands the ladies? They do invite a local gentleman, one who has particularly helped the community to be king every year!”
All those people are having fun and providing fun for others. Furthermore, Lake Charles is the only place in the state where the public can see all the royal courts parade in their full regalia. And Lake Charles is the only Mardi Gras institution that has not one, but two krewe balls open to the public.
One open ball is held by the Krewe of Cosmos; it was founded in 1951 “to provide entertainment and merriment for the public as well as its members.” It is the oldest krewe in Calcasieu Parish.
The other, the Krewe of Illusions, formed in 1989 and now known for “its theatrical annual presentations and show-stopping costumes,” has an interesting mission statement also.
“Our members through the years have included men, women, children, married, single, divorced, committed, rich, poor, middle-class, black, white, native American, Latino, Asian, straight, gay, bi, transgendered, young, old, middle-aged, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, agnostics, and atheists. In short, we are a microcosm of American society and proud of it.”
And in case anyone misses the point, it summarizes all that with “We are a high-energy, positive-outlook, open-minded, very tolerant group of people that love to create and have fun! “
The Childrens’ Parade is the highlight for the younger spectators. If it rains they’re not bothered. They can just reverse their umbrellas, which makes it easier to catch “throws” of beads and folded T-shirts from the floats.
There seem to be parades all the time during Mardi Gras. The Merchant’s Parade kicks off the festivities on the Friday night that starts the weekend.
Visitors who join in to experience this excitement find endless belts of beads hanging in the floats, all to be hurled carefully at the spectators. Those visitors also find their arm aching the next morning from the unaccustomed exertion.
The Tuesday night Krewe of Krewes Parade ends the fun. Each krewe drives past, fast, following the others, seemingly more generous with its throws at us than we were throwing at others. It is hard to focus in the dark on the moving targets especially when rolls of beads are bouncing off our cameras.
More than a hundred floats make their way past us as, this time, we are the ones shouting out the classic cry “Throw us something, Mister!”
And now perhaps we can wander this warm and hospitable city of about 73,000 souls and see what else it offers its visitors.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.