Why the World’s Biggest Party Shows Both the Worst of Humanity – and the Best

After lunch, we caught the political satire floats, which poked fun at everyone from Donald Trump in the “Mar-a-Lago Swamp” to Greta Thunberg on a battleship called “How Dare You!” From each float, costumed people tossed goodies for the crowd, including costume hats, plastic bead necklaces, sunglasses and mini bottles of Fireball whiskey. A local man approached us and told us that he was going to live in New Orleans “until it drowned”. Whether it was because of the wine or the rising sea level, I wasn’t sure.

We rode through more floats and impromptu dance floors to the beating heart of the city: Bourbon Street, a long row of colonial terraces and wrought-iron balconies. Beads flew overhead, sometimes chopping off the heads of unsuspecting passers-by, alcohol was carried freely from bar to bar, live music poured through sticky doors and Christian protesters held up signs saying “Jesus or hell fire”.

“In some ways, he’s the worst in humanity – and a lot of people would hate him,” Dani said. “Take for example the volume of plastic thrown by Greta Thunberg’s float. Or people who get drunk blindly. Women show off their breasts for pearls. It’s anti-#MeToo, anti-environment, anti-all things that a lot of people who hang out there would say they support. But it also shows the best in people. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. It’s a massive party and celebration.

Monday meant Shrove Monday, when Rex and Zulu, the Carnival Kings, arrived in town. It’s normally a quieter day, with locals saving up for the 24-hour party on Tuesday. We chose to start with a lazy ride down the Mississippi on Steamboat Natchez. The 44-year-old riverboat passed St. Louis Cathedral (the oldest in the United States, founded in 1720) and the 110-year-old Domino Sugar factory. Jazz concerts were played in the dining hall and a guide pointed out the Lower Ninth Ward, where homes were flooded after Hurricane Katrina.

Dinner that night was at Le Cochon, a Cajun restaurant known for its barbecued pork and farmhouse chic. We started with nutmeg cocktails and warm brioche buns with whipped butter. The special was a sumptuous pork belly with mustard and blood orange sauce. Accompanied by mac and cheese, charred on top, it was a naughty treat.

And then Tuesday: Mardi Gras, the main event. Resplendent in sequined accessories, we brought pastries and coffee to the Zulu and Rex fashion shows, then headed to a private party on the balcony of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. (It’s traditional for bars and hotels on Bourbon Street to open their street-facing rooms to people who want to party with a view.)

Here, there was a bar mixing Hurricane cocktails, a New Orleans classic and a buffet of mini burgers and sushi. Makeup artist Jami painted our faces and told us how she was brought back to New Orleans after 20 years away. “Elsewhere, I always felt like the cops were on my back,” Jami said, paintbrush in hand. “For jaywalking, drinking out… Nobody knows how to party like New Orleans.” His next canvas was the face of “Deuce” McAllister, a former New Orleans Saints football star.

The three-day extravaganza ended with a final toss of pearls into the waiting arms below, and we headed down to Frenchmen Street. Here, things have a classier and more authentic side. Cocktails are served in glass goblets rather than take-out plastic, and musicians play jazz. We went from the cozy Spotted Cat Music Club to a street pop-up where people danced to the sounds of a roving DJ as the evening’s festivities finally wrapped up.

Within weeks, Mardi Gras would qualify as a superspreader event and virus cases would rise in New Orleans. The events that followed meant that our to-do list ended almost where it started. My 30th birthday was during a circuit breaker lockdown and Dani had Covid for his. Today, we can trust New Orleans to get the party going again — despite the mask mandate in effect for indoor venues.

Will people get back to it properly? I hope so. If I went back, I know I would.


Budget or crush?

Three great stays in New Orleans

£: Aloft New Orleans Downtown

This hip brand for budget-conscious millennials has opened in the Central Business District, bringing a new generation of tech-savvy shoppers to the neighborhood. You’ll find an urban design without too many frills, and while the hotel tries to make the lobby the social space with its pool table and WXYZ bar hosting live music and DJs, it’s the pool on the roof which is the biggest draw.

Doubles from £84 (00 1 504 581 9225; marriot.com)

££: Royal Sonesta New Orleans

This grand dame of Bourbon Street, right, is home to quality wealth
New Orleans experiences, from a much-loved fine dining restaurant and one of the best oyster bars in town (try some Creole classics, such as po’ boys) to exciting musical showcases in the jazz lounge of the hotel. Art Deco sofas and colorful flower arrangements are combined with a 6,000-piece art collection, and there’s even a heated outdoor pool.

Doubles from £118 (001 504 586 0300; sonesta.com)

£££: Windsor Court Hotel

A useful two-block distance from the French Quarter means that tranquility is achievable in the heart of downtown. Here you will find a surprising blend of English sophistication and traditional surroundings. Expect a bevy of colorful hats and sartorial whimsy at the distinguished afternoon tea service in the lobby bar, while the suites and rooftop heated saltwater pool offer beautiful views of the the river and the city. A £16million refurbishment has elevated Windsor Court’s already high standards of elegance; the lobby and corridors are filled with an impressive collection of original paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Double from £277 (001 504 523 6000; windsorcourthotel.com)


Essential

Getting There

British Airways (ba.com) is the only airline operating direct flights between Heathrow and New Orleans. Other operators offer flights with connections in the United States

Covid rules

Fully vaccinated adults from the UK can enter the US, although anyone aged two and over will need to pass a test to enter, no earlier than the calendar day before boarding their flight. A PCR or lateral flow test will be accepted. All adults must complete an attestation form prior to arrival. You cannot enter the United States if you are not fully vaccinated, unless you fall under its category of exceptions for non-citizens. New Orleans requires masks in all indoor public spaces. Proof of full vaccination for anyone aged five and over, or a negative test within 72 hours, is required at most indoor venues, including restaurants and entertainment, and at outdoor events where more than 500 people are present.

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