NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Call it Mardi Gras, call it Carnival. If you're spending it in New Orleans or Rio, you're just calling it in. Oh, we're sorry, did that sour your incredibly original choices of fruity drinks, beads and samba? Well no offense to New Orleans' Mardi Gras, but its party stretches back to the 18th century, brings in scores of visitors and more than $320 million in revenue and accounts for 1.6% of the city's GDP. Carnival in Rio de Janerio, meanwhile, has been packing the streets since the early 1700s and squeezes tourists for more than $500 million each year. In short, they're not exactly hidden gems. Going to New Orleans or Rio for Mardis Gras or Carnival is like rooting for the New York Yankees, Manchester United or Apple. It's rarely a disappointment, loads of fun along the way and will usually result in fans getting exactly what they're looking for. It'll also result in a lot of sighs from folks on the receiving end of those stories once the fun is over. Yes, Derek Jeter always does that little hop when throwing over to first. No, we're not surprised that Wayne Rooney scored two goals and spiked an opponent in the shins during the same match. There's an app for that? Really? We hadn't heard. Stories about girls lifting up their shirts for beads, strategically placed sequins and feathers on samba dancers and the sheer amount of alcohol at either of these parties yield similar patronizing answers. Of course that tune could change a bit if the vacation storyteller visited one of the dozens of other cities with rich pre-Lent traditions of their own. The parties may be similar, but the location and back story can turn a traveler's tales from a booze-soaked post-collegiate screed into a cosmopolitan cultural exchange. To that end, we offer the following 10 Mardi Gras and Carnival destinations for globetrotters who want their travel tale to sound more like a hidden gem from a well-written guide than an outtake from a Girls Gone Wild DVD:
There's a whole lot to be said for being first, and Mobile takes great pride in hosting the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. Started in 1703 when Mobile was the capital of what was then French Louisiana, Mobile's Mardi Gras season starts with mystic society parties in November, continues through those societies' New Year's Eve balls and reaches its peak with a parade each day for roughly two weeks heading into Mardi Gras. Yes, the krewes at those parades toss beads, but they also throw doubloons, candy, toys, cups, flying discs and Moon Pies into the crowd as they wind their way through Mobile. They don't go taking a year off, either. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mobile went ahead and hosted nearly a million people for the biggest Mardi Gras in its history in 2006. The crowd has hovered around 900,000 since and has struck a balance between the family fun of children trying to find the small plastic king in a King Cake and the raucous revelry of boozy masquerade balls. There's a lot of overlap in this history of Mobile's Mardi Gras and New Orleans' big event, but the Big Easy still doesn't have the Sunday parades and parties of Joe Cain Day -- named for the man who prodded Mobile back into the party mood by restarting the Mardi Gras celebrations in 1867 after a Civil War hiatus -- the Moon Pies or the understated appeal of mobile's big moment. Mobile's Mardi Gras is more about the city's pride than the nation's party planning and the krewes seem content to keep it that way.
Still think Mobile's Mardi Gras is a bit much? Need more sponsors in your celebration? This is where Pensacola comes in. The city's Mardi Gras celebration dates back to 1874 and has the Moon Pies, beads and coins of Mobile's parades, yet doesn't think much of all of New Orleans' and Mobile's more boisterous parties. While the Carnival krewes in Pensacola hold members-only balls and parties throughout much of February, the larger festivities tend to be a whole lot more family friendly than those of their neighbors on the Gulf. There are walks, runs, scavenger hunts and only two to three parades each year, including an illuminated night parade on the Friday before Mardi Gras, the Grand Parade on Saturday and, in some years, a beach parade on Sunday. Don't get us wrong, the bars still hold bikini contests and the taps don't stop flowing. MillerCoors and Skyy vodka are still sponsors, after all. It's just that Pensacola's Mardi Gras is a bit more laid back in its scope. The streets close on Fat Tuesday, but there aren't any parades. There are plenty of krewes around town, but not wall-to-wall parties. It's a great Mardi Gras for harried parents or partiers who can pace themselves. Some years, that's all you need.
When Biloxi took over for Mobile as capital of French Louisiana in 1720, a Mardi Gras party was sure to follow. It came 186 years later, but boy what a time it was. The Biloxi parades and krewes date back to 1908, but can't really be taken outside the greater context of Mississippi's Gulf Coast Mardi Gras celebrations. Biloxi still gets the honor of hosting Fat Tuesday's parade festivities itself, but nearby towns such as Gulfport. Pascagoula, Ocean Springs and Wiggins hold their own with night parades, balls, galas and other celebrations. Still, Biloxi has multiple parades leading up to Mardi Gras and two parades on Fat Tuesday itself. Thousands of people line Route 90 to get a glimpse of the costumes, the marching krewes, King d'Iberville and Queen Ixolib and double-decker floats from New Orleans. It takes a little navigation to make it to all of the Gulf Coast Mardi Gras events, and some just won't be in striking distance. If you base yourself in Biloxi, however, you'll not only be at the epicenter of all the parties, parades and plentiful spirits, but you'll basically be in the gaming capital of the Gulf Coast. The casinos that line the water tend to keep the party going long after the parade floats are packed away, so pull up a stool at the Beau Rivage or the Hard Rock and stay a while.
This isn't the oldest Carnival celebration in the U.S., but it isn't a Mardi Gras, either. Carnaval San Francisco got its start in 1979 with local musicians, artists and dancers trying to connect with their heritage. More than three decades later, the event has become the Mission District's samba-driven celebration of Brazilian, Bolivian, Caribbean, African and Latin heritage that winds through the streets in colorful, serpentine fashion. There are just a few things visitors should know before scrambling for a place on the sidelines. First, there are indeed scantily clad samba dancers similar to what travelers would see at Rio Carnival, but they're not keeping the same calendar. San Francisco Carnaval doesn't kick off until the last weekend in May. Secondly, this isn't exactly the bead-throwing, beer-swilling kind of Carnival cruise lines and theme restaurants may have led you to believe. While it's still very much a Bay Area celebration, it's also a cultural event that that's taken quite seriously by the organizers as a learning experience for area children and a respectful display of diversity. Dance teachers are on hand to teach samba, percussionists are there to help folks learn to play drums and the cooks are there to stuff you with garlic fries and teriyaki. It's a great excuse to dance with strangers, but it's all a bit too "carnival" in the traveling-street-fair sense to be much of a party. Our advice? Try to find a party with a view of the parade route or save the bar hopping until after the crowds thin out.
When your city lacks a Carnival or Mardi Gras history, sometimes you just need to throw up your hands and declare it a holiday anyway. Such is the case with St. Louis Mardi Gras, which has almost no connection to religious or cultural Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations whatsoever. City guides date St. Louis Mardi Gras back to sometime in the 1980s, when drunken bar patrons simply decided to parade from one bar in St. Louis' Soulard neighborhood to the other. The numbers grew year by year until finally reaching between 200,000 and 250,000 last year. The upside is that this has resulted in not only a dachshund wiener dog race two weeks before Mardi Gras, but huge parades on both the Saturday before Fat Tuesday and on Mardi Gras itself. The downside is made clear by the event Web site's Do's & Don'ts list, where "Do's" include "respect the police" and "don'ts" include drinking if you're under 21; urinating on streets, sidewalks, houses, cars, trees, flowers or friends; trespassing; and vandalizing property. Anheuser-Busch Inbev ( BUD) and Southern Comfort parent company Brown-Forman ( BFA) are big sponsors of the event, as is a local casino. To say that alcohol plays a role in this event is like saying jet fuel plays a role in your flight from Atlanta to Chicago. Bud Light hosts a $100-a-head party tent, Landshark Beer sponsors the concert stage and Brown-Forman stocks the corporate hospitality tents with cocktail bars full of its Jack Daniel's whiskey, Finlandia vodka and Korbel sparkling wine. If a reveler doesn't have beads in his or her hands when storming the streets after Saturday's parade, they'll likely have a beer. If they do have beads, chances are they exposed part of themselves in full view to get it. This could be great news if you always wanted to go to Mardi Gras but didn't want to put up with the centuries-old "history" and "tradition" of some of the nation's other celebrations. It could also be terrible if you're an unfortunate tourist who starts off the day looking to give the kids a lovely day at the parade and ends it with an impromptu anatomy lesson.
Want to keep the booze at Mardi Gras but maintain the calm? Just do what Galveston does: Charge a cover. Galveston's Mardi Gras tradition dates back to the late 1800s, when a Mardi Gras ball and Shakespearean performance gave way to parades and revelry that drew 250,000 people to Galveston Island last year. That hadn't been a given in recent years after Hurricane Ike slammed into the island in 2009 and forced the city to drop the admission fee it charged a year earlier just to draw revelers back to the island. Now that they're back, however, Galveston's door charge has returned. A single-day general admission ticket will set you back $15, while parking adds another $8. Want to go to one of the krewe bead-tossing balcony parties? That'll be $30 to $45 a pop, please. Granted, that gets you access to all of the parades, bars, food, live shows, carnivals and other perks that make Galveston worth the cover charge in the first place, but those costs add up pretty quickly. Not that Galveston minds. Since putting the cover charge back into effect last year, Galveston Police say Mardi Gras crime is down 50% while revelers still stream in. If that's what it takes to go to Mardi Gras, have a good time and not end up an extra on an episode of Cops, it's money well spent.
Carnival of Binche is what art school students' design roommates have nightmares about. Dating back to the 14th century, the carnival of Binche takes place each year during the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. During those days, Binche's streets fill with performers dancing, playing music and marching. Much of the city gets into costume purportedly to celebrate the occasion, but seemingly to scare the living daylights out of visitors. If travelers weren't coulrophobic before heading to Binche, there's a chance they'll have a healthy fear of clowns after coming across some of the hundreds of makeup-slathered "Gilles" cavorting in the streets. Dressed like rejected members of Anonymous in court jester garb, the Gilles' faces are obscured by Guy Fawkes-style wax masks and tanning booth glasses. They pound drums and wield sticks to ward off evil spirits, wear large hats of ostrich feathers and march through town with baskets of oranges that they whip at members of the crowd with such velocity that townspeople cover the windows around this time of year. Being a Gille is a big deal in Binche, so running away screaming or lobbing an apple in response is discouraged. Unesco has named Binche's Carnival celebration an essential part of the world's oral and intangible heritage, though, so it's worth sticking around to see what the scary men in masks will do next. Let's put it this way: If you're good with a grown man in a mascot costume launching a T-shirt at you through a pneumatic gun, you should fare just fine with the Gilles of Binche.
The glass carnival masks sold here aren't just for tourists. Venice has a long and storied Carnival history dating back to the late 13th century. Though masks could be worn from Christmas until Ash Wednesday, they were traditionally worn during Carnival to enhance the celebration by breaking down the distinctions between classes. The Lombards shut down the party during the 18th century and Carnival didn't come back into vogue in Venice until the early 1970s. Now, however, more than 3 million people cycle through the canaled city each year to see the Grand Theater in the Piazza San Marco, to watch "The Flight of the Angel" as a costumed man is lowered by wire from the Tower of San Marco and to take part in the masked costume contest. The whole event is usually capped by a candlelit water parade, but the city may have to wait and see about that part. While Venetians were able to float Carnival's giant bull mascot into the lagoon to start Carnival, the lagoon and canals were frozen for part of this winter as record cold gripped Europe.
There are worse places to be at this time of year than Carnaval Ponceno. With temperatures hovering around 90 degrees and a festive atmosphere enveloping the city, Ponce turns into one beautiful party in the Caribbean once Carnaval rolls around. Dating back to at least the mid-19th century -- though organizers say its history spans nearly two and a half centuries -- Carnaval Ponceno is an aesthetic and cultural experience far beyond anything offered on this shores. Just as Binche has its Gilles, Ponce has its colorful, costumed vejigantes dressed in spiked papier mache masks and flowing robes. The embodiment of evil or the devil, the vejigantes parade through the streets swatting bystanders with inflated cow bladders to beat away the evil spirits. The multiday Carnaval Ponceno kicks off with the vejigantes' street party in front of city hall, moves onto a parade featuring the carnival king, crowns the youth and adult carnival queens and eventually yields an enormous parade with floats, bands, beads and huge crowds. There's a traditional ball at city hall two nights before Ash Wednesday, but the can't-miss event of the whole Carnaval is Tuesday night's Entierro de las Sardinas. A mock funeral procession led by drag queens and mourners brings the whole party to a fun, fitting close.
What has your Mardi Gras done for anyone lately? Sydney Mardi Gras came about during a time when it was flat-out illegal to be gay or lesbian in Sydney. Until 1984, if you marched in the streets in protest and got arrested for it, you were basically outed in the police briefs. After one such march ended in outings and subsequent firings for a few dozen marchers during the late-'70s, large-scale marches were planned in protest during the early '80s. Those marches were eventually moved to coincide with Mardi Gras, and the umbrella expanded to allow bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex participants in on the party. The event has grown exponentially since, with 300,000 people attending the Mardi Gras parade last year. The message is still there -- more than a dozen floats lobbied for same-sex marriage last year -- but it's getting a much bigger spotlight. Past grand marshals have included Rupert Everett, Margaret Cho and Lily Tomlin, while Kylie Minogue, Boy George, Chaka Khan, George Michael, Kelly Rowland and Olivia Newton John have all performed at the post-parade party. Combined with the event's Fair Day festival, Sydney Mardi Gras generates $30 million for Sydney and its surrounding state and has become one of the world's largest Mardi Gras events. In short, it's made a difference. Shy of bed spins and bad decisions, Mardi Gras revelers in other towns aren't so quick to say the same about their events. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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