Published: February 2014 BoatU.S. Magazine
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
After a hard day sailing against the Mississippi River’s current in 1699, the French explorers Iberville and Bienville located a bank of high ground and anchored. While walking the river’s shore 60 miles south of what would become New Orleans, 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 annual 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, it should come as no surprise that Mardi Gras is easily accessible by cruisers and in many towns – the ideal way to experience it.
Initially celebrated in Mobile, AL and then New Orleans, the Mardi Gras traditions of masked balls and parades have run for over 200 years and have percolated throughout the Northern Gulf Coast. Often portrayed by the national media as bawdy, the reality is quite different. These are well loved and respected celebrations, with each town having its own personality and flavor to their traditions. From the large and colorful single parade in Pensacola to the two-week long spectacle in New Orleans where a single float in a Super-Krewe can cost $1M.
Mardi Gras translates to “Fat Tuesday” and has come to signify 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 respectful period of Lent which leads up to Easter. Mardi Gras starts quietly and builds to a crescendo as it nears Fat Tuesday which falls on March 4th of this year.
With over a million people on the streets of New Orleans alone, hotels are booked a year in advance and homes are filled with house guests, yet in many cases on the coast, only a few blocks from the parade routes are marinas with empty transient slips. In several towns, the primary parades are boat parades which allow transient cruisers to costume, decorate their boats and participate as a water-borne float with the crew tossing beads and other “throws” to revelers lining the piers.
With the week leading up to Fat Tuesday the primary schedule for the majority of the events, it is 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 for your interests and expectations.
Biloxi is the hand’s down largest and most extravagant Mardi Gras celebration on the Mississippi Coast with events taking place primarily on Fat Tuesday. Biloxi is located on the shores of the Mississippi Sound with direct access to the intracoastal waterway and the Gulf of Mexico and has become home to a large concentration of casinos. With three primary marinas, the ideal location for transient slips with access to the parades is the Small Craft Harbor on the Mississippi Sound. Holding 124 slips and servicing boats between 25-50 feet, it is 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, although slightly further from the action.
Fat Tuesday is not to be missed in Biloxi with their two largest Krewe’s rolling on March 4th. Since 1908, the Gulf Coast Carnival Association’s parade comprised of over 100 floats, marching bands and dance troupes rolls through downtown Biloxi and along Beach Blvd. starting at 1:00pm. Followed immediately afterwards by the Krewe of Neptune rolling at 3:00pm.
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
On the Eastern shores of the Mississippi Coast the towns of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Gulfport all hold revered Mardi Gras celebrations and parades. All three are served by full service marinas located either on the parade routes or mere blocks from their downtown events. Located on the intracoastal waterway and the Mississippi Sound, Gulfport is served by the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor, Pass Christian by the large Pass Christian Marina and Bay St. Louis’ marina is nearing completion and will likely be open by February of next year.
Gulfport holds two well attended parades which roll through downtown only two blocks from the marina. The Krewe of Gemini rolls on March 1st and then again on March 4th. 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 2nd and this will be their 84th annual parade.
A hallmark of the majority of the events on the Mississippi Coast is that these parades are well revered thrown by neighbors for the enjoyment of their neighbors and are great family fun.
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 multiple parades throughout its downtown. Mobile is located on the western edge of Mobile Bay with direct access to the intracoastal waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. The bay is fairly shallow with an average depth of ten feet and has clearly marked shipping channels leading to the city of Mobile. The majority of the marinas that serve the city are located due south at the entrance to the Dog River, including the nearby Mobile Yacht Club.
Holding 22 parades through the season, including 14 between February 26th and March 4th with most in downtown Mobile. There are multiple parade 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 does not have any recreational marinas within walking or biking distance to downtown and the ideal location for Mardi Gras access is the Dog River Marina 10 miles south of the city. Capable of docking vessels 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 large wait times for this option.
Mobile enjoys a heritage of ties to the old world with Krewes and secret societies that reach back to before the Civil War. It is also worth noting that there are parades held in Fairhope, Orange Beach and on Dauphin Island which are also accessible via marinas.
MADISONVILLE & SLIDELL
Located on Lake Pontchartrain, two large Mardi Gras boat parades roll and are open to transient cruisers. Madisonville is a quaint, idyllic town located at the mouth of the deepwater Tchefuncte River on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. On February 23rd, the Krewe of Tchefuncte comprised of 30 boats in full decorations and with costumed crews roll along the piers and homes of the Tchefuncte River lined with hundreds of spectators. Transient slips are available at the Marina del Ray in this entirely walkable town.
In Slidell, closer to the Rigolets Pass which opens Lake Pontchartrain onto the Gulf of Mexico, the Krewe of Bilges is one of the earliest parades and rolls on February 15th. Comprised of between 20-25 private boats in full costumed regalia, many boats drop anchor along the Oak Harbor marina and canals of Eden Isles to spectate. Transient slips are also available at Oak Harbor and the parade does allow transients to participate after registration and a member of the Krewe is assigned to the vessel for safety.
For two weeks the City of New Orleans puts on what is known as “The Greatest Free Show on Earth” with 53 parades rolling over 20 days with her only peer in scope the Carnivale in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The city is easily accessible from the Gulf of Mexico or the intracoastal waterway via the Rigolets Pass into Lake Pontchartrain. At a near universal depth of 12 feet, the lake can accommodate virtually any 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 club’s as well as fuel docks and chandleries, West End is the recreational boating heart for the city.
The primary parade route stretches over six miles from the oak canopied and mansion lined St. Charles Ave. to the outskirts of the French Quarter and is the course for the Super-Krewes. The ideal time to visit is anywhere between February 26 and March 4th with 21 parades rolling during that time period alone. On Fat Tuesday the first parade rolls at 8am and they continue well into in the afternoon. For the uninitiated, the Krewe’s of Muses, d’Etat, Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus, Zulu and Rex are not to be missed.
Located approximately 8 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. The ideal method to get around is bicycles or scooters. City buses do run from just outside of West End although they are on adjusted routes, and cabs are available, but wait times are likely excessive.
The beauty of the parades and the excitement in the streets of New Orleans is unmatched, and contrary to popular belief is a magical wonderland for children. The parade routes in Mid-City and along St. Charles Ave. are lined with Mardi Gras ladders filled with excited children catching throws. Bourbon St. 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.
*Note: The first annual running of a boat parade at New Orleans’ West End is set for 2014 – the Krewe of West End – and is scheduled to run on February 23rd. The organization will allow transients to participate after registration.
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 intercoastal waterway and the Gulf of Mexico, there are multiple transient friendly marina options available with the ideal location the Palafox Pier & Yacht Harbour marina. Only blocks from the parade route, the Palafox marina holds 88 slips, with many available for transients.
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 1st holds the largest of the parades and energy with the Grand Mardi Gras parade rolling downtown on March 1st and the Krewe of Wrecks rolling along Pensacola Beach on March 2nd.
It should also be noted that Perdido Bay has a well attended Mardi Gras boat parade rolling along the bay on February 22nd and a mardi Gras festival on March 1st.