Time to plan for Mardi Gras: It's early this year, Feb. 9
NEW ORLEANS - Seems like we've barely recovered from Christmas and New Year's, but it's already Carnival time, with Mardi Gras falling early this year, on Feb. 9.
Carnival, from the Latin, means "farewell to the flesh." Mardi Gras - which literally translates as Fat Tuesday - is the deadline for finishing off all the goodies in the house before the beginning of Lent, a period of austerity leading up to Easter.
So in practical terms, Carnival season is an almost immediate challenge to any New Year's resolutions to eat wisely. One tempting Carnival tradition: the sweet baked rings called king cakes.
For those heading to New Orleans, here's a guide to routes, traditions, attractions and more.
HOTELS AND PARKING
As with any big event, hotel rooms are going fast. What's left can run into hundreds of dollars per night. Parking is also tight along parade routes. French Quarter residents and hotel guests get parking passes, but the Quarter is closed to outside vehicles the entire weekend.
Bring chairs, towels or blankets. Come early for front-row spots and several hours early for huge night parades and Mardi Gras weekend extravaganzas. Some locals show up at dawn. But floats rise well above eye level, so even from the back you'll have a view. Grandstand seating gets expensive.
THROW ME SOMETHING, MISTER!
The 37,000 float-riders throw gew-gaws to the crowd. Plastic beads, cups and aluminum "doubloons" - colorful disks named after a centuries-old Spanish gold coin - are ubiquitous. But depending on the parade, you might catch pecans, bracelets, fedoras, plush toys, selfie sticks, hand-decorated shoes, purses or coconuts. Bring a bag to carry whatever you can't wear.
LOADING AND UNLOADING
Food is available from trucks, carts, restaurants and even schools and churches along parade routes. Some restaurants offer fine dining with a quiet view of screaming parade-goers. You can walk around with beer or booze in a can or plastic cup - nothing breakable.
Public urination and public drunkenness are two common reasons for arrests on Mardi Gras. Some churches, schools and restaurants sell passes to use their portable toilets. The city sets up about 700 free toilets in high-traffic areas but lines can be long. Bars, restaurants and stores also sell potty passes or allow use if you buy something.
The city police force is about 73 percent of what officials consider optimum strength, but, as usual at Mardi Gras, 12-hour shifts, state police and sheriff's deputies from the area will supplement the force.
Twenty-nine parades roll this year along the popular St. Charles Avenue route. The suburbs, from nearby Metairie and St. Bernard Parish to cities across the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, host 20 parades. There are no parades in the French Quarter, but there are lots of costumes, a good few of them scanty. The quarter's narrow streets are sometimes so jammed that it's all but impossible to walk against the crowd.
The season's first parade took place Jan. 10 in Slidell, north of Lake Pontchartrain. The next is in Metairie, next door to New Orleans, Jan. 24. The weekend of Jan. 29-31 sees 18 parades in the city and suburbs with daily parades starting Feb. 3.
The Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail and green corridor linking the French Quarter's Armstrong Park to City Park in mid-city, opened in November. (Stay on the asphalt, please, to coddle turf and other plantings that are late taking hold because of rain.)
The Orpheum Theater, closed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, recently reopened. The Aquarium of the Americas has redone its walk-through tank as "The Great Maya Reef" (for $250, you can snorkel or scuba dive in it). The World War II Museum recently opened a permanent exhibit about the war in the Pacific.
Hipster neighborhoods include the Warehouse District, Bywater and the Marigny.
MARDI GRAS EXHIBITS
The Presbytere, one of three state museums on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, has a permanent exhibit about the festival's origins and history, with costumes and other memorabilia. Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, is where hundreds of floats are built for parades here and elsewhere. The Backstreet Cultural Museum, 1116 St. Claude Ave., in the Treme neighborhood, has the city's largest collection of feathered and beaded Mardi Gras Indian costumes, each created by the African-American who wore it.
Check out the Louisiana Children's Museum; New Orleans Museum of Art; or the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Metairie Cemetery, just outside city limits, has mausoleums both fanciful and historic, many incorporating stained glass. You need to be part of a tour group to get into St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, near the French Quarter, where tombs include one believed to be that of 19th century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. There also are good tours of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.
For information about parades in Baton Rouge, visit WBRZ's Mardi Gras 2016 page at: http://www.wbrz.com/mardi-gras-2016.