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Geographer Pierce Lewis once described New Orleans as an “inevitable city on an impossible site.” Its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River made Nouvelle-Orléans one of the most vital ports in North America—and one of the most vulnerable. Built on a dry patch of swamp between the river and Lake Pontchartrain, the Crescent City survived floods and disasters from its earliest days. The first recorded hurricane struck in 1772...
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Traditionally labeled the “City that Care Forgot,” New Orleans pursues its fun with an enthusiasm rarely found elsewhere. In part this is probably why there are so many parades. At one time or another nearly everyone—from the small, old-time funeral bands to the largest convention group—marches down Canal Street, and others watch with unjaded pleasure.

Sugar Bowl activities kick off New Orleans' events season with a series of major contests in basketball, sailing, soccer, tennis and track; the grand finale is the Sugar Bowl football game played in early January in the Louisiana Superdome.

The one event that is synonymous with the city and into which it pours its whole soul is Mardi Gras. Meaning “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent. Mardi Gras also refers to the 2 weeks before Ash Wednesday. This period is only about the last third of the entire Carnival season, which begins January 6. In a sense Mardi Gras lasts all year, as planning for next year's fete begins as soon as the last one fades.

The Carnival season starts with a series of glittering private balls. During the last 2 weeks the tempo increases, and parades presented throughout the city are staged by Carnival organizations called krewes. The first organized parade, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, entered the scene in 1857. The King of Carnival, Rex made his first appearance in 1872 when the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited. Rex was the first daytime parade and introduced the official Mardi Gras colors of green, purple and gold. In 1909 the first black krewe, Zulu, was introduced. Iris, the first woman's krewe, was founded in 1917.

Today more than 60 parades are featured with themed floats bearing costumed krewe royalty. Maskers toss “throws” from moving floats to the shouting, pleading crowd. Throws can include anything from beads and doubloons to stuffed animals and plastic cups. Of all the throws tossed from the floats, the Zulu coconut or “Golden Nugget” is the most sought after.

The weekend before Mardi Gras features two of the largest and most elaborate parades, the Krewe of Endymion on Saturday night and Bacchus on Sunday night. The affair culminates on Fat Tuesday. Through narrow streets surge masses of laughing, pranking, drinking, dancing people, most costumed. On Lundi Gras, Fat Monday, the night before Mardi Gras, the city hosts a big bash at Spanish Plaza complete with entertainment, fireworks and the arrival of Rex by riverboat; a mask is required for admission.

The two Mardi Gras Day parades—Rex, King of Carnival and Monarch of Merriment, in the morning and Comus, God of Revelry, by torchlight that evening—wend through the crush. So long as there is no threat to safety almost anything goes on this maddest, most intoxicating of all Tuesdays.

A large parade is staged by the Krewe of Argus in suburban Metairie, where the holiday also is celebrated with costuming and merriment. Neighborhood parades also are held during the Carnival season. In retrospect, Mardi Gras is believable only because it happens every year.

Just how this citywide party manages to evade commercialism and still thrive can be traced to the fact that New Orleanians stage it for their own enjoyment and out of their own pockets. Some say that even if not one tourist dime from Mardi Gras clinked into the city's strongbox, the celebration would continue unchanged. It is this genuineness that helps to make Mardi Gras one of the nation's great attractions.

Spring Fiesta, in early March, features ladies in antebellum gowns as well as two weekends of pageants, plays, art shows and concerts. Of interest are the tours, which include visits to French Quarter homes and patios, Garden District mansions and plantation homes. For more information contact the Spring Fiesta Headquarters, 529 St. Ann St., New Orleans, LA 70116; phone (504) 581-1367.

In mid-April the French Quarter Festival brings the more boisterous segment back to the city. Music and games are naturally part of the merrymaking, but the big draw is the more than 50 food booths set up by local restaurants in Jackson Square.

The Jazz and Heritage Festival, with concerts, food and craft booths, is the last weekend in April through the first weekend in May. Internationally known musicians perform on 10 stages at the Fair Grounds Race Course daily from 11-7; additional performances are given citywide. Tickets can be purchased from Ticketmaster; phone (504) 522-5555.

Celebration in the Oaks transforms City Park into a festive holiday wonderland from the Friday after Thanksgiving through the first Sunday in January. A 2-mile driving tour allows visitors to thoroughly enjoy more than a million lights and displays decorating the park. Other sightseeing options include horse-drawn carriage rides, tour buses that depart from area hotels and a self-guiding walking tour encompassing several of the park's most popular areas. A New Orleans Christmas, in December, offers historic house tours.

On New Year's Eve Jackson Square is the place to be when a huge, glittering ball begins to descend the pole atop Jackson Brewery 10 seconds before midnight.