Cruising To Carnival

By Troy Gilbert

Forget what you've heard, Mardi Gras is fun for the whole family. Especially by boat.

Photo of a clown float in Mardi Gras paradeClown float in New Orleans. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

After a hard day sailing against the Mississippi River's current in 1699, the French explorers Iberville and Bienville located a bank on high ground and anchored. While walking the river's shore, 60 miles south of what would become New Orleans, Louisiana, the crew reminded their captains of the date, and that evening it was entered into the logbooks that the high ground was named Pointe du Mardi Gras. This was the first mention of the pre-Lenten festival in the New World, and 315 years later Mardi Gras has become a unique cornerstone to the culture of the northern Gulf Coast. Celebrated throughout the coastal cities of the old French and Spanish colonies, Mardi Gras festivals are easily accessible by recreational boat, and in many towns, that's the ideal way to experience it.

Initially celebrated in Mobile, Alabama, and then New Orleans, the masked balls and parades of Mardi Gras have been running for over 200 years, put together and often paid for by "Krewes" of private citizens, and the party has spread throughout the Northern Gulf Coast. Often portrayed by the national media as bawdy, once you leave New Orleans' tourist-heavy Bourbon Street, the reality is quite different. These are well-loved and respected family celebrations, with each town adding its own personality and flavor to their traditions. From the large and colorful single parade in Pensacola, Florida, to the two-week-long spectacle in New Orleans, where a single float in a "Super-Krewe" can cost $1 million.

Photo of decorated boat in Krewe of Bilge paradeKrewe of Bilge takes to the sea. (Photo: Krewe of Bilge)

Mardi Gras, which falls on March 4 this year, translates from French to "Fat Tuesday," and has been stretched to fill the entire Catholic season between Twelfth Night (Epiphany) and the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is, and was historically, a time for people to enjoy themselves with food and drink before the somber and reflective period of Lent that leads up to Easter. The celebration starts quietly and builds to a crescendo as it nears Fat Tuesday. As a native New Orleanian, I can tell you the city all but shuts down at carnival time, so no one has to miss the parades.

With over a million people on the streets of New Orleans alone, hotels are booked a year in advance and homes are filled with houseguests. Yet in many places along the coast, there are marinas a few blocks from the parade routes with empty transient slips. And in several towns, the primary parades are boat parades that welcome transient cruisers to put on costumes, decorate their boats, and participate as water-borne floats for the revelers lining the piers.

With all the major events scheduled for the week leading up to Fat Tuesday, it's impossible to tour the coast and catch all of them; however, with careful planning it is possible to enjoy several. Mardi Gras along the coast holds a real magic not found anywhere else in North America, and the experience can be tailored to your interests and expectations. Luckily, weather offshore in the Gulf this time of year usually cooperates, too.

Biloxi, Mississippi

Biloxi is, hands down, the largest and most extravagant Mardi Gras celebration on the Mississippi Coast, with events taking place primarily on Fat Tuesday. Located on the shores of the Mississippi Sound, with direct access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and the Gulf of Mexico, Biloxi has become home to a large concentration of casinos. The ideal location for transient slips with access to the parades is the Small Craft Harbor on the Mississippi Sound. With 124 slips servicing boats between 25 and 50 feet, it's located directly across the street from the parade route and only a few blocks from the Biloxi Yacht Club. Nearby Point Cadet Marina and the private Biloxi Boardwalk Marina are good second options, only slightly further from the action.

Photo of Viking-themed boat in Mardi Gras parade

Fat Tuesday in Biloxi is not to be missed, with the two largest Krewes rolling on March 4. Since 1908, the Gulf Coast Carnival Association's parade, comprised of over 100 floats, marching bands, and dance troupes, rolls through downtown Biloxi along Beach Boulevard starting at 1:00 p.m., followed immediately afterward by the Krewe of Neptune at 3:00 p.m. Very family oriented, Biloxi's celebration is the largest on the Mississippi coast and draws in friends and family from all of South Mississippi.

Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, & Pass Christian, Mississippi

On the western shores of the Mississippi coast, the towns of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Gulfport all hold Mardi Gras celebrations and parades. Two of the three are served by full-service marinas on or near the parade routes. Located on the ICW and the Mississippi Sound, Gulfport is served by the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor, Pass Christian by the large Pass Christian Marina. Bay St. Louis' marina is nearing completion but will not be open until May of this year. Gulfport holds two well-attended parades that roll through downtown only two blocks from the marina. The Krewe of Gemini rolls on March 1 and then again on March 4. The primary event in Bay St. Louis' quaint downtown is the Krewe of Diamonds parade, which rolls on Mardi Gras day. The large Pass Christian Mardi Gras parade rolls on March 2 and this will be their 84th annual parade. A hallmark of most of the events on the Mississippi Coast is that they're organized by neighbors for the enjoyment of locals, so they make for great family fun.

Mobile, Alabama

Mobile is home to the second largest Mardi Gras on the Gulf Coast and is intensely proud to hold claim to the first known historical celebration in 1703. Like New Orleans, it holds formal masked balls and has several parades through its downtown. Mobile is located on the western edge of Mobile Bay with direct access to the ICW and the Gulf of Mexico. The bay is fairly shallow with an average depth of 10 feet, and has clearly marked shipping channels leading to the city of Mobile. The majority of the marinas that serve the city are located about 10 miles due south of the city at the entrance to the Dog River, including the nearby Mobile Yacht Club. The city doesn't have any recreational marinas within walking or biking distance to downtown. Capable of docking boats of up to 150 feet and with dockside depths of up to 17 feet, they can handle virtually any vessel. Scooters would be an ideal way to access the parades, and Mobile does not have a large cab fleet, so expect long wait times if you decide to take a taxi.

Mobile holds 22 parades throughout the season, including 14 between February 26 and March 4. They take different routes, coursing through downtown Mobile in order to reduce congestion, and the parades run on a staggered timetable. Once downtown, the entire experience is very walkable and family friendly. Mobile enjoys a heritage of ties to the old world with Krewes and secret societies that reach back to before the Civil War. It's worth noting that there are also parades held in nearby Fairhope, Orange Beach, and on Dauphin Island — all of which have accessible marinas.

Madisonville & Slidell, Louisiana

Madisonville is a quaint, idyllic town located at the mouth of the deep water Tchefuncte River on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The lake hosts two large Mardi Gras boat parades, and both are open to transient cruisers. On February 23, the Krewe of Tchefuncte, comprised of 30 boats in full decorations and with costumed crews, rolls along the piers and homes of the Tchefuncte River to the delight of hundreds of spectators ashore. Transient slips are available at the Marina del Rey in this entirely walkable town.

Photo of Gilligan's Island-themed boatGilligan's Island rolls into Slidell. (Photo: Krewe of Bilge)

In Slidell, closer to Pass Rigolets, which opens Lake Pontchartrain onto the Gulf of Mexico, the Krewe of Bilge on February 15 is one of the season's earliest parades. Between 20 and 25 private boats, in full costumed regalia, parade along the Oak Harbor marina and canals of Eden Isles. Transient slips are also available at Oak Harbor and the organizers allow transients to participate after registration. A member of the Krewe is assigned to ride along on each vessel for safety.

New Orleans, Louisiana

For two weeks the City of New Orleans puts on the greatest free show on Earth, with 53 parades rolling over 20 days. Its only peer in scope is the Carnivale, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The city is easily accessible from the Gulf of Mexico or the ICW via Pass Rigolets into Lake Pontchartrain. At a near constant depth of 12 feet, the lake can accommodate virtually any recreational vessel. There are multiple public and private marinas to consider, but the ideal location for transient slips is at the Orleans Marina at West End. Home to two yacht clubs — as well as fuel docks and chandleries — West End is the recreational boating heart of the city. The first annual running of a boat parade at New Orleans' West End is set for 2014 — called the Krewe of West End — and scheduled to run on February 23. The organization will allow transients to participate after registration.

Photo of decorated boat in Mardi Gras parade

The primary parade route stretches over six miles from the oak-canopied and mansion-lined St. Charles Avenue to the outskirts of the French Quarter, and it's the course for the Super-Krewes — the most massive and extravagant of the parades. The ideal time to visit is anywhere between February 26 and March 4, with 21 parades rolling during that time period alone. With so many parades to decide between, the uninitiated should not miss the Krewes of Muses, d'Etat, Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus, Zulu, and Rex. On Fat Tuesday, the first parade starts at 8:00 a.m. and they continue well into the afternoon.

Located approximately eight miles from the French Quarter or the uptown parade routes, West End is not within walking distance, and vehicular traffic is a nightmare anywhere near the parade routes. City buses do run from just outside West End although they're on adjusted routes; cabs are available, but wait times are likely excessive. Bicycles or scooters are another option to get to and from the parade route.

Photo of childern dressed for Mardi Gras

The beauty of the parades, and the excitement in the streets of New Orleans, is unmatched, and contrary to popular belief, it's a magical wonderland for children. The parade routes in mid-city and along St. Charles Avenue are lined with Mardi Gras ladders topped with excited children catching the throws of beads and stuffed animals. Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is where most of the notorious behavior tends to be centered, and as all locals will tell you, those are mostly the people from out of town.

Pensacola, Florida

Located along the western shores of Pensacola Bay, Pensacola is a beautiful town that has fully embraced their waterfront with fine dining, entertainment, and several marinas located downtown. The city is a relative newcomer to Mardi Gras, with their first Krewe formed in 1874. Easily accessible via the ICW and Gulf of Mexico, there are multiple transient-friendly marina options available, and the ideal location is the Palafox Pier & Yacht Harbour marina. Only blocks from the parade route, the Palafox marina has 88 slips, with many available for transients.

Photo of the Krewe of LafitteThe Krewe of Lafitte.

Parades are held on both weekends prior to Mardi Gras Day with the Krewe of Lafitte starting things off and rolling on February 28. The weekend of March 1 offers the largest of the parades, with the Grand Mardi Gras parade rolling downtown on Saturday and the Krewe of Wrecks rolling along Pensacola Beach on Sunday. Perdido Bay, just to the west of Pensacola, also has a well-attended Mardi Gras boat parade along the bay on February 22, and a Mardi Gras festival on March 1. 

Troy Gilbert is a journalist and author based in New Orleans working on a documentary about sailing on the Gulf Coast.

— Published: February/March 2014


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