No ta-tas? No problem. Mardi Gras can also be a family affair. Photo: City of New Orleans

By Nina Kokotas Hahn

Every month I’m sharing a destination from my overflowing travel bucket list. This February, it’s all about New Orleans—not just because the Baltimore Ravens just won the 2013 Super Bowl, but because Mardi Gras is now in full swing through Fat Tuesday on February 12.

One of my fondest childhood memories are the many New Orleans vacations we took to visit family and celebrate Mardi Gras. A kid from Chicago, I had never seen parades manned by carnival “krewes” or grownups as excited as me about the colorful, tacky loot flying off the floats. I had also never been so proud of the many beads around my neck or in my colorful go-cup, vying year after year for the number one catcher of swag against my expert bead-snagging cousins. The jazz music was brassy and bold, the king cakes a sugary sweet relief from the impossible heat of Aunt Bev’s shrimp creole, the purple-gold-green color of everything so gaudy and grand. It was spectacular.

Today, I’d love to share that same Mardi Gras experience with my own children. Now, I know you’re likely thinking drunken revelry and hoo-hahs flashed for beads is hardly a place for children. And, yep, that happens, especially in the French Quarter, which is absolutely, drop-down bananas during Mardi Gras. But radiate out from there to countless other family-friendly carnival parades for the chance to show your family what Mardi Gras is all about.

If you do make it New Orleans with the kids for Mardi Gras, here are my tips for the full-press family party:

  • Avoid the French Quarter. The scene is ridiculously crowded, even for the adults who want to be there. Instead, head to nearby Uptown and Metarie or even to the other side of Lake Ponchartrain for Mandeville, Covingtion and Chalmette.
  • Get familiar with Mardi Gras history in advance. Did you know that Mardi Gras has been in existence in NOLA since 1857 and that the date changes yearly in connection with Ash Wednesday? Read up and share with the kids or stop by Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World for behind-the-scenes tours of float making and more.
  • For the love of NOLA, eat king cake. Bakeries all over the city sell this Mardi Gras staple, including Sucre, Cake Café, Randazzo’s Bakery and even Tastee Donut!
  • Download the Mardi Gras parade app. The new Experience Mardi Gras app lets you track a parade a day in real time. Trust me, you want this info so you can avoid traffic and get where you need to be earlier enough for a good spot (some folks come out hours in advance).
  • Know the value of parade treasure. Small, singular-colored strands aren’t nearly as cool or sought-after as more elaborate metallic and multi-colored beads with objects at the end. Krewe-specific, limited-edition beads and plush toys as well as glass beads and fiber optic beads are among the hottest finds. Have fun bartering and trading with each other afterward.
  • Eat up. New Orleans has always felt like another country to me and mostly because of its Cajun Creole food. Encourage everyone to try something new—red beans and rice, a muffaletta, beignets, crawfish, etc.—and never, ever think of dieting while there.

Nina Kokotas Hahn is a travel writer and Chicago journalist whose work appears in Chicago magazine, HuffPost Travel and Condé Nast’s HotelChatter. Globetrotting since infancy, she’s the daughter of a travel agent and considers thrill seeking part of the DNA.

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Tagged: The Bucket List


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