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USA travel

Move over New Orleans, Lake Charles is our new favourite destination for Mardi Gras

It may not have the French architectural charm of Nola, but Lake Charles’s vibrant celebrations have a certain je ne sais quoi, finds Rashmi Narayan

Thursday 22 February 2024 09:32 GMT
Mardi Gras celebrations in Lake Charles, Louisiana
Mardi Gras celebrations in Lake Charles, Louisiana (Kathryn Shea Duncan)

Located on the Interstate 10 freeway connecting Louisiana and Texas, Lake Charles was once a popular hangout for cowboys and even pirates. Today, it attracts many Houston residents, who spend the weekend here – either in one of the casinos or outdoors on the Creole Nature Trail.

This industrial town has witnessed many destructive storms over the decades, but its residents are a resilient bunch and haven’t forgotten how to have a good time. And given that this is Louisiana, that includes, of course, celebrating Mardi Gras with their respective parade krewes and dancing away to zydeco music over Sunday brunches.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a pulsating energy, a combination of street party and wild carnival that has to be seen to be believed. But ask any local across the Pelican State and they’ll proudly tell you about the real Mardi Gras celebrations taking place beyond the capital.

Celebrations in Lake Charles are a lot more personal, with a family feel. Lake Charles-based historian Adley Cormier believes that in the rural areas, the chaos of Mardi Gras is more controlled: “Following a Mardi Gras run by car, which many people do, allows the viewer to engage in what is being witnessed, as opposed to being one single face in a crowd of masked folk having various degrees of fun.”

Participants in the Lake Charles Mardi Gras jeep parade (Kathryn Shea Duncan)

Over the years, Mardi Gras in Louisiana was adopted and modified by protestant American culture, which valued the social aspects of the season. “It is a fresh opportunity for a party after Christmas and well before spring, at a time when, frankly, there was very little to do in the drab and humid late winter,” Cormier explains. “Mardis Gras is the original day of masked madness prior to Lent, expanded into an entire season of levity, exploration and indulgence, albeit one that forced a deadline mandated by the Church.”

In New Orleans, after partying and being pelted with beads and other paraphernalia, you’re likely to enjoy an array of delicacies at eateries in the French Quarter. In Lake Charles and its neighbouring parishes, the party is still very much a communal affair between neighbourhoods, where you’ll find numerous free activities to get involved in, including chicken runs, mask making, gumbo-cooking fundraisers, king cake decoration parties and illuminated riverboat parades.

Feel like dancing for a chicken? Traditionally known as courir de Mardi Gras, the chicken run is one of the rituals celebrated throughout central and southwest Louisiana on Fat Tuesday.

A krewe member at the main Lake Charles Mardi Gras parade (Kathryn Shea Duncan)

“While many of the customs of Mardi Gras in Louisiana are similar – parades, masks, king cake, debutante balls, etc – the primary difference between New Orleans Mardi Gras and that of the western prairie communities is ‘glossiness’,” says Cormier. “One might say that New Orleans has made Mardi Gras an industry, and that the prairie communities like Lake Charles still offer a personal or even a ‘handmade’ quality.”

In many rural communities in this area, for example, the Creole and Cajun cowboy tradition of the Mardi Gras run takes place with masked men and women “dancing” for their chicken, sausage and other ingredients that will become part of a community meal.

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In addition to the chicken runs, you'll see colourful costumes, listen to traditional Mardi Gras songs, and taste authentic Cajun cooking, as you’re bound to come across a communal gumbo or jambalaya.

New Orleans may be famous for its Zulu Ball, but you’ll arguably get a better understanding of Black Mardi Gras traditions by hanging out with the krewes in Lake Charles. Leo Colquitt, who heads the all-Black krewe of Omega, says: “We’ve been celebrating our Mardi Gras for 57 years here in Lake Charles. It actually started as a part of a Black history event, which eventually merged into Mardi Gras celebrations. Our fraternity brothers have kept it going over the years.”

The krewe of Omega parade, Lake Charles, 2023 (Kathryn Shea Duncan)

Colquitt and his krewe “bring the festivities to the children and families who don’t have the access to Mardi Gras across town”, he goes on. “Mardi Gras is a staple for our Black community here and we’re all just happy-go-lucky people.”

Colquitt is hoping that Black parades will get bigger over the years and is welcoming people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in Black Mardi Gras celebrations. You can also head to excellent spots like the Black Heritage Gallery in the city centre to learn more about Black history and speak to local artists, too.

One thing is clear in Lake Charles: the good times roll every day – during Mardi Gras and beyond. When it comes to the soundtrack to the party, though, you can leave the jazz in New Orleans – here in Lake Charles the main genre is zydeco, an underrated form that incorporates elements of jazz, blues and country, with the addition of the frottoir, a percussion instrument similar to a washboard that creates rhythms just made for dancing.

A performance at a Mardi Gras block party, Lake Charles, Louisiana, 2023 (Kathryn Shea Duncan)

Head down to Panorama Music House to find Lake Charles locals dancing away to talented bands playing zydeco and other styles. Why not treat yourself to an indulgent brunch while you’re at it? Who needs New Orleans when you’ve got all the ingredients for a marvellous Mardi Gras right here?

Travel essentials

How to get there

British Airways flies to Houston, Texas, from London Heathrow, with return flights starting at £700 per person. From there, Lake Charles is just over two hours by car.

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