The big green gator in front of me sways with surprising agility. At 7 feet tall and 2 feet wide, Gumbeaux the Mardi Gras gator is an impressive sight as he dances to the beat of “Funky Town.”
We’re on a sparkly parade float, moving slowly down the streets of Lake Charles, Louisiana. It’s Mardi Gras, and the popular gator mascot is leading the children’s parade. Hundreds and hundreds of young children and their families line the streets, dancing and jumping to catch strands of beads that are thrown from the floats.
As an official bead thrower, I’m up to the job. Dodging the dancing gator, I load my arms with dozens of necklaces and take careful aim, hoping to reach the arms of a little one.
Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana is a family-friendly affair. The annual Children’s Day is filled with hands-on art activities, as well as food, music, and dancing. It’s a fun way to pass on the community’s local culture and treasured traditions.
Truth be told, being from out West, many Mardi Gras traditions are a mystery to me. But with their easy Southern hospitality and joie de vivre, the locals here have made me feel welcome and part of the fun.
My introduction to Mardi Gras started at the tiny but filled-to-the-gills Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. With a large collection of Mardi Gras costumes, its six rooms share the history and traditions of Mardi Gras in Louisiana, including the story of the king cake.
The king cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870. The cake is decorated in purple, green, and gold, which represent justice, faith, and power, respectively. A tiny plastic baby, symbolizing baby Jesus, is baked into the sweet pastry. Whoever finds the baby must either host the next party or bring the next king cake.
The tradition is just one of many celebrated during the weeks-long Carnival festivities that begin on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany and end on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. Mardi Gras is a huge holiday in Louisiana, and everyone is off from school and work on Fat Tuesday.
With that introduction under my belt, I want to learn more about southwest Louisiana. So, my friends and I visit the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point, a free hands-on experience that teaches about local wildlife, nature, and Louisiana’s unique culture. We get to try out musical instruments in a Cajun and Zydeco band, learn about local dishes (we can even “smell” the wonderful aromas of Creole and Cajun cooking), and hear the songs of migrating birds.
From the center, you can drive all or part of the 180-mile-long Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, which passes along the prairies and marshes of Louisiana’s Outback. A free app provides a guided tour along the way.
Next, we head to Gator Chateau in nearby Jeff Davis Parish, which is home to rescued, orphan baby alligators. The alligator docent introduces us to several of the little gators, while educating us on how they grow and develop.
Each year, southwest Louisiana puts on its finest at the annual Royal Gala at the Lake Charles Civic Center. During this popular Mardi Gras event, the royal courts of more than 60 krewes parade for the public in full regalia. (A krewe is a social organization that puts on a ball or parade during Mardi Gras.)
The costumes and regalia are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Men and women in dazzling 12-foot-tall costumes glide across the floor in a stunning display of finery. The Mardi Gras royalty includes tiny princesses and princes, royal debutantes, and Miss Mardi Gras of Southwest Louisiana herself.
The mood is festive, and it’s easy to feel part of the community. Tickets are $7 in advance, $8 at the door, and it’s well worth the money.
Iowa Chicken Run
One of my favorite Mardi Gras activities turns out to be the Iowa Chicken Run. This family-friendly rural parade starts off in the small town of Iowa, Louisiana. Everyone is in their Mardi Gras finest as we load up the parade floats. Then the music starts, and we head into the countryside, dancing and waving at farmers and locals along the way.
Periodically, we stop at participating homes. Everyone gets off, and when the “captain” blows his whistle, the zydeco band plays the accordion and scrub board, and everyone dances. A chicken is let free to run, and the child who retrieves it receives a $5 reward.
Every home we stop at donates an ingredient to make gumbo. At the end of the parade, the ingredients are used to make gumbo for the community, which is served at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Krewe of Krewes Parade
The grand finale is the Krewe of Krewes Parade, an evening extravaganza of parade floats, music, costumes, and plenty of beads. Held on Fat Tuesday, it’s the biggest event of the season.
A zydeco band entertains before the parade begins, and couples get up to dance with excellent rhythm and style. I even try a few Zydeco dance steps of my own, although the result is not so impressive.
The crowds grow quickly, and everyone waits with anticipation. Then the music starts up and the beads start flying. It’s a family-friendly parade, with lots of candy and beads for the younger ones.
By the end of the evening, I’ve laughed so much that I’ve lost my voice. My neck is loaded down with beads, and a green and purple Mardi Gras crown has found its way atop my head.
At any other time, I might feel silly. But here in southwest Louisiana, I feel right at home in the festivities.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 55 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.
The author was a guest of the Southwest Louisiana CVB.