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Photo by Troy Gilbert
Photo by Troy Gilbert

Mardi Gras Cruising

Initially celebrated in Mobile, Alabama and then New Orleans, the Mardi Gras traditions of masked balls and parades have run for over 200 years, percolating throughout the Northern Gulf Coast and becoming a unique cornerstone of the region’s culture. It should come as no surprise that Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the coastal cities of the old French and Spanish colonies, are easily accessible to cruisers.

With over a million people on the streets of New Orleans alone, hotels are booked a year in advance and homes are filled with guests. Yet in many places, only a few blocks from the parade routes are marinas with empty transient slips although in several towns, boat parades are primary, allowing transient cruisers to costume, decorate their boats and participate. From water-borne floats, crews toss beads and other “throws” to Mardi Gras revelers lining the piers.

THE MISSISSIPPI COAST
Biloxi has the largest and most extravagant Mardi Gras celebration on the Mississippi Coast with events taking place primarily on Fat Tuesday – Feb. 17. On the shores of the Mississippi Sound with direct access to the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico, Biloxi has three primary marinas. The ideal location for transient slips with access to the parades is the Small Craft Harbor on the Sound. Holding 124 slips and servicing boats between 25-50 feet, it is directly across the street from the parade route and not far from the Biloxi Yacht Club.

Fat Tuesday is not to be missed in Biloxi. 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 p.m. Following immediately afterward is the Krewe of Neptune moving out at 3 p.m. Other celebrations with waterfront access include Mardi Gras in Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, Long Beach and Pass Christian.

MOBILE
Mobile, home to the second largest Mardi Gras celebration on the Gulf Coast, is intensely proud to claim the first known historical celebration, in 1703. Like New Orleans, Mobile holds formal masked balls and presents multiple parades throughout its downtown. On the western edge of Mobile Bay, the city offers direct access to the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. The majority of the marinas serving Mobile are due south at the entrance to the Dog River, including the nearby Mobile Yacht Club.

The city holds 14 of its 22 Mardi Gras parades February 11 and February 17, most in downtown Mobile. There are multiple parade routes throughout the downtown area. In order to reduce congestion, the parades run on a staggered timetable. The entire experience is very walkable and family friendly.

NEW ORLEANS
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. Only the Carnivale in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil can match the New Orleans’ scope. The city is easily accessible from the Gulf of Mexico or the Intracoastal Waterway via Rigolets Pass into Lake Pontchartrain. At a near universal depth of 12 feet, the lake can accommodate virtually any vessel. Among multiple public and private marinas, the ideal location for transient slips is the Orleans Marina at West End. Home to two yacht clubs as well as fuel docks and chandleries, West End is the recreational boating heart of the city.

The primary six mile parade route stretches from the oak canopied, mansion lined St. Charles Ave. to the outskirts of the French Quarter and is the course for the Super-Krewes. From February 11 – 17, the city offers 21 parades. Fat Tuesday starts its first parade at 8 a.m. and parades continue well into the afternoon.

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 methods to get around are bicycles or scooters. City buses do run from just outside of West End on adjusted routes, and cabs are available, but wait times may be excessive.

The beauty of the parades and the excitement in the streets of New Orleans are  unmatched, and 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.

PENSACOLA
Beautiful Pensacola on the western shores of Pensacola Bay fully embraces the waterfront with fine dining, entertainment and several downtown marinas. A relative newcomer to Mardi Gras, the city’s first Krewe formed in 1874. Easily accessible via the Intercoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico are multiple transient-friendly marina options. Palafox Pier & Yacht Harbour Marina is an ideal location only blocks from the parade route. It holds 88 slips, many available for transients.

Both weekends prior to Mardi Gras Day boast parades, however during the second weekend, the Grand Mardi Gras parade rolls downtown Saturday, Feb. 14 and the Krewe of Wrecks takes the party along Pensacola Beach Sunday, Feb. 15.

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