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An Expert Explains the Magic of Mardi Gras

As AFAR Experiences looks forward to its trip to New Orleans in March 2019, we turned to New Orleans native Arthur Hardy for some insights on the city’s most famous celebration

An Expert Explains the Magic of Mardi Gras

Even before the conversation started, his introduction captured some of the spirit of New Orleans: “Hey. I’m Arthur Hardy from New Orleans, where if you die of old age, it’s your own damn fault.”

Espousing the philosophy that life should be a celebration, Hardy, whose family has lived in the Crescent City since 1830, has enjoyed Mardi Gras since childhood. His first memory, in fact, is attending a parade in a costume as Robin Hood—and he’s got the photo to prove it. Later, at age 12, he marched as a trumpeter. He hasn’t missed a Mardi Gras yet. His comprehensive opus on the event, a guide to all the parades, was first published in 1977. More popular every year, Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide is recognized by nearly everyone as the essential program for the festivities. We asked him to share some thoughts on his home and the party that attracts revelers from around the world.

What makes New Orleans different from other cities?
New Orleans is like being in a foreign country—but cheaper and more fun. I have not lived elsewhere, but I have heard many people declare that New Orleans is not really a US city. The people make it different. Though the “gumbo” analogy used to describe us is rather tired, it is true that our diversity is our strength. We each bring something to the dance. And, then, there’s our Mardi Gras.

What is Mardi Gras exactly?
It’s actually a series of events which best represents our need to celebrate. This was never more evident than six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and we still decided to stage Mardi Gras—for ourselves and also to show the world that we were alive and kicking. Though the media called us foolish for partying amid the devastation, they didn’t understand that we needed to celebrate for our own sanity and show the world that our comeback had begun. The phrase Mardi Gras translates to Fat Tuesday, referring to one day. But we have an entire season of merriment, which includes private balls, public parades (which I call “theaters on wheels”), costumes, revelry, and more.

Arthur Hardy, publisher of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide and an expert on New Orleans

Arthur Hardy, publisher of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide and an expert on New Orleans

What does Mardi Gras mean to the city’s residents?
It defines our city and its people. It represents our traditions, culture, and diversity. Along with the city’s food (try King Cake, muffulettas, beignets, shrimp and grits for starters), libations (hurricanes, Ramos Gin Fizzes, Dixie beer, café au lait), architecture, and music, Mardi Gras defines the heart and soul of our people. It is a spirit—an immortal one. It represents man’s ability to escape into dreams, to play, to laugh, and to have fun. Mardi Gras is masks, costumes, raucous fun, Cinderella balls, gluttony, love, inclusion, artistic expression, history, tradition, and new horizons.

What should people expect to see? And why would travelers want to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras?
A bit of everything. I believe that Mardi Gras brings people together in a unique way. Our diverse community converges in an organic way, as if Mardi Gras is encoded in our DNA. There is little thought to it. This is what we do. If a visitor embraces the celebration, they will be carried away by it. The people are remarkably hospitable; you might find them offering you food, drink, and even letting you use their bathroom!

What do you enjoy the most about it?
The people—always the people—the wonder in the eyes of kids; the amazement of visitors who have never seen anything like it; the wise looks on the faces of the elderly who have seen it so many times before yet they still keep returning.

What exactly is a krewe?
“Krewe” is the term for all groups that stage balls and/or parades. They come is all shapes and sizes but all are non-profit groups funded by their membership. More than 100 exist in New Orleans—gay, straight, single gender and co-ed ones—there’s something for everyone. Some are classical, others naughty (with biting satire).

Harry Connick, Jr. started the Krewe of Orpheus. Can you tell us about this one?
Harry’s parade has perhaps the most diverse membership and is one of the few where visitors have an opportunity to participate as float riders. It is also one of the most beautiful, consistently winning “Best Parade” awards.

Are you ready to join the celebration? While the AFAR Experiences trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, from March 2 to 4, has sold out, it is still possible to add your name to our wait list. If a space opens up, we will alert you so you can join us and enjoy insider access to the best of this magical city. The highlight of the trip will be the chance to ride on the Krewe of Orpheus’s float, a once in a lifetime opportunity.