Utter the phrase “I’m going to Mardi Gras,” and the first responses you receive will likely involve comments about the debauchery and alcohol involved. It’s unfortunate the celebration has such a risqué reputation. The truth is, Mardi Gras is family friendly for the communities that celebrate it the traditional way. I was delighted to discover that at the Lake Charles Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana!
From the moment we landed we were greeted with sounds of Southwest Louisiana’s rallying cry “Laissez les bon temps rouler” which means, “Let the good times roll.” Accented with an endless soundtrack of zydeco and smiling faces, Lake Charles does not disappoint, especially during Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins for Catholics, and the end of a season of revelry. Mardi Gras celebrations typically fill the weeks between Epiphany/Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras itself. The weekend leading up to Fat Tuesday is generally the most boisterous. From balls and pageants, gumbo cook-offs and crawfish boils, music and parades, Lake Charles plays host to an array of festive activities for all ages to enjoy.
The Lake Charles Civic Center is the heart of all the action. Located on Lakeshore Drive, between the historical city center and Lake Charles itself, the Civic Center grounds are home to an endless festival. On Saturday, the Gumbo Cook-off showcases more than 50 krewe’s (the parades and balls organizing bodies) cherished gumbo recipes. These recipes are divided into 3 categories: chicken and sausage, fish and shrimp, or wild game. For a nominal entry fee ($5 in 2017, free for kids), attendees can sample their fill of each variety and offer their take on who should win the illustrious Spirit Stick.
In the afternoon, tails start wagging at the Royal Krewe of Barkus parade! This delightful display is a pup parade of the region’s finest tail wagging friends. These four-legged friends saunter along the waterfront park at the Lake Charles Harbor and Civic Center. Upwards of 100 participants vie for the position of “Top Dog.” Costumes ranging from the traditional accouterments to fully decorated carts and pups. Smiles and laughs are sure to be had as some friendly pups ask for a lick or two as they pass. The parade route passes Millennium Park, a huge playground built after Hurricane Rita in 2005. The amazing park is filled with forts, castles, boats, fountains and sprays. Children shriek with delight as they climb, splash, and laugh throughout the afternoon.
We suggest you start Sunday’s festivities well rested and with an appetite. Southern hospitality being what it is, the Blue Dog Cafe Live Jazz Brunch is a great place to begin. The café is named after the iconic subject of George Rodriguez’s artwork gracing the walls. The yellow eyed, blue furred pup oversees all three dining rooms with an intense gaze. The brunch is like no other. Three stations offer the brunch staples: an omelet and carving station, salads, fruits and deserts. The menu features Crab Benedict with crab in lieu of an English muffin and topped with CANADIAN BACON! The plate includes gouda grits, creamed spinach, and boudin (I need to find a napkin…that was delicious). Feet tappin’ to the jazz band while sipping bottomless mimosas, no wonder the line is out the door!
When you’re ready for the next activity, head back down to the Civic Center for the Children’s parade. The parade officially starts at 3pm, but participants start assembling well before that. More than 50 floats participate in the parade. Some of the floats resemble elaborate pirate ships, while others are simply spruced up trucking rigs; all are full of beads and throws, ready to take on the 5-mile route. The parade is led by a police motorcade and slowly winds its way through downtown Lake Charles. Participants shower spectators with traditional beads, coins and special “throws” such as stuffed animals, plastic cups and beach balls.
Children dance and shout for attention, arms outstretched: “Throw me something, Mister!” they cry with delight as they catch colorful beads and toys. As the parade finishes and Sunday draws to a close, it’s time to rest: more fun is yet to come!
Monday begins with a slower pace, which presents the perfect time to explore the region at the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society. Located at the Central School in the heart of the Charpentier District, the Preservation Society offers local tours and regional information. A tour of the area homes reveals the history of the region. From pirates and buccaneers plying trade across the Gulf and Caribbean, to Victorian-era barons of industry taking advantage of the cypress and pine forests to contemporary oil and gas tycoons, the area has been a draw for generations.
The Charpentier District is named for the northern lumber magnates, who came to the southern edge of the prairie for a different atmosphere, and made a fortune. Their stately homes still line the neighborhood. Each appears like a catalog of offerings from their lumber mills, showcasing shingles, trims, and Victorian details to all who’d pass by. The new Charpentier Historic District app features all the details you need for a self-guided walking tour, with 30 or 60-minute options and a ghost tour.
The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu
The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, also housed in the Central School, offers an amazing display of the local history of Mardi Gras. The museum features the gowns, costumes and headdresses worn by the Krewes throughout the years. Every year each individual Krewe establishes a theme. The King and Queen of the Krewe wear elaborately sequined, beaded and feathered costumes celebrating the chosen theme.
The costumes are worn at the Krewe’s Twelfth Night ball announcing the King and Queen, and at the Gala the night before Mardis Gras. They also wear the costumes following the Twelfth Night ball. This event kicks off the new Mardi Gras season and ushers in the next King and Queen. So, what do you do with a ten-foot-tall snake bedecked in ostrich feathers? Donate it to the Mardi Gras Museum!
The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu holds the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the world. The museum features historical facts and visuals on how the costumes are made. There is even an opportunity to try on some headdresses and collars for yourself! The sheer size of the costumes is amazing and the fact that they were worn in procession is staggering!
Parent Tip: The halls of the museum are rather small and tight; therefore it might not serve as the ideal place to take small children, especially if they are looking for a place to run around.
Spot Alligators with Grosse Savanne EcoTours
When in bayou country, a trip to southwest Louisiana wouldn’t be complete without some alligator spotting. I highly recommend Grosse Savanne EcoTours, just a 30 minute drive from Lake Charles. Grosse Savanne reveals the quiet beauty of the marshland, which serves to protect the mainland from the Gulf of Mexico. Grosse Savanne is one of the top 10 birding destinations in the U.S. It consists of more than 50,000 acres of natural marshland, hosting more than 400 species of migrating birds annually. In late February, which fell just before migration and laying season, we delighted in the quiet landscape shimmering with flocks of white ibis, grey heron, while small alligators lurked in the reeds.
The landscapes’ soft blues, greens and greys provide a visual respite from the electrifying green, gold and purples of Mardi Gras. After enjoying the scenic drive back to town, fill up on some bayou culinary delights. Then head back to the Civic Center to experience the unique Royal Gala.
Royal Gala and The Lake Charles Gala
By tradition, each Krewe elects its court secretly. Selections are revealed to the court earlier in the season, but not publicly until the Royal Gala itself, when they parade before all the Krewes. The Lake Charles Gala is the only public access Gala in the U.S. Anyone can see the spectacle for reasonable 5-dollar ticket. More than 60 Krewes are introduced and parade about the center, paying homage to the young Mardi Gras Queens. The Gala finishes at around 10:30pm and serves as a subdued precursor to the main event: Tuesday, Mardi Gras!
Tuesday dawns with palpable excitement in the air, people are smiling and the city is buzzing. The breakfast spots are hopping and a Bloody Mary or mimosa needs no excuse. A solid (and delicious) base of bagels, eggs and bacon provides enough energy for the day’s adventures. First up is the truly unique Chicken Run, a tradition started centuries ago and held in the rural communities around Lake Charles. The Chicken Run stems from a communal gumbo potluck and has since evolved into a local tradition celebrated amongst neighbors. Check out our post Iowa Chicken Run for more details on this one of a kind festival.
Read more about the Iowa Chicken Run
“Krewe of Krewe Parade”
Head back to town for lunch and a short rest before the “Krewe of Krewe Parade.” Lake Charles’ blow out parade featuring all of the Krewe floats and winds starts from the Civic Center and goes up Kingston Street. Pick a spot and park for a few hours. The parade kicks off at 5pm and can take up to 3 hours to pass. More than 60 floats participate in the parade. Some are decorated as pirate schooners with buccaneers hanging from the masts while other big rigs blast laser lights and horns (a mobile dance party blaring along at 5 miles an hour). Colorful beads, plastic cups, stuffed animals and toys fly off the trucks. Stay alert, because honestly, some folks seem to tally points for whacking spectators!
As the parade wraps along with our visit, we shared smiles, hugs, and the promise of “even MORE fun next year.” Southern hospitality has a way of making you feel like family, and the Lake Charles family will always welcome you back.
Laissez les bon temp rouler, indeed!
Pro Tips For Your Visit:
Lake Charles Hotels: Base your visit at the gorgeous L’Auberge Lake Charles: a luxury casino resort a few miles south of downtown Lake Charles. The pools, spa, gaming facilities, restaurants and shopping opportunities offer an array of activities and relaxation for all ages on site. The luxurious rooms serve as a relaxing retreat from the Mardi Gras adventures, and the L’Bar in the lounge is the perfect place for a sip and a snack while rallying onto the next adventure. Read more about it here.
Lake Charles Restaurants: Grab a hearty variety thanks to the ubiquitous seafood shacks and a surprisingly rich Lebanese population serving delicious hummus and other Mediterranean delights. Crawfish are in season from early February through the summer. No visit to the bayou is complete without some alligator and fried shrimp. Read more about dining in Lake Charles here.
Lake Charles Information: Stop by the Lake Charles Visitor’s Center at the shores of Lake Charles. Kids crafts, dioramas, costumes, photo ops and a small gator enclosure guarantee a little festive spirit! It’s also a great place to learn about the region. Talk with the super friendly staff about special interests and upcoming events.
Lake Charles Events: In addition to the parades and Mardi Gras related events happening all weekend, Lake Charles also has a Kids Museum and a robust art district. Receive more information at the Lake Charles Visitors Center
Lake Charles Mardi Gras Shopping: Gather your festive gear at the Lake Charles Mardi Gras, a pop-up shop that’s been running for more than a decade. You’ll find all the beads, masks, and, inexplicably, poop emoji hats you never knew you needed. Anything goes: purple wigs, glitter face makeup, sequins and sparkles are as welcome as jeans and a t-shirt.