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Event-o-Rama: 12 Must-Dos in April

29 Mar

On Queen's Day, Amsterdam residents are allowed to sell wares on the street without a permit, transforming the city into a vrijmarkt (free market). (Photograph by Ferry Peys, My Shot)

There are some amazing events on tap all over the world, all the time. Here’s a taste of what you can see and do in April:

  • If you still haven’t been to the Big Easy, spring is the time to go. Come for the French Quarter Festival (April 11-14), the “largest free music festival in the South,” but stay for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 26-May 5), a bucket-list worthy celebration of Louisiana music and culture that’s been going strong since 1970.
  • Calling all foodies! Report to Singapore for the World Gourmet Summit (April 16-26). Described as a “gastronomic extravaganza,” the upscale event promises 10 days of eating, drinking, chef demonstrations, and classes. The experience will require some dough though, and we don’t mean the edible kind.
  • With a name like Queen’s Day (April 30), you might expect something regal and refined. Instead the Dutch holiday transforms Amsterdam into a citywide party and a sea of orange, with revelers sporting the national color flooding the streets and forming flotillas in the canals.  This year’s spectacle is also the official day of Queen Beatrix’s abdication (next year the holiday will be called Koningsdag – King’s Day — and held in honor of soon-to-be-King Willem-Alexander).
    The Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians take center stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  (Photograph by Derek Bridges, Flickr)

    The Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians take center stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Photograph by Derek Bridges, Flickr)

  • Woombye, Australia’s Big Pineapple Music Festival may celebrate homegrown artists from Oz and neighboring New Zealand, but the concert, which takes place on a plantation that practices fair trade and organic growing, is an occasion worthy of an international crowd. Join the fun on April 20.
  • Best known for its aquarium, Monterey, California will soon turn its attention to terra firma for the Sea Otter Classic (April 18-21). What has been billed as the world’s biggest bike festival boasts races, expositions, beer, barbecue, and excursions – enough to satisfy the most fanatical cyclers.
  • Preeminent tea makes a brief bow to its caffeinated counterpart during The London Coffee Festival (April 25-28). Hosted by the hip Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, the four-day fete celebrates all that is coffee and more, with tastings, barista demonstrations, gourmet food stalls, and live music.
    Tea makes way for its caffeinated counterpart at the London Coffee Festival. (Photograph by David Clare, Flickr)

    Tea makes way for its caffeinated counterpart at the London Coffee Festival. (Photograph by David Clare, Flickr)

  • Bangkok may be Thailand’s superstar city, but Chiang Mai still has it beat when it comes to celebrating the traditional Thai New Year. In addition to a massive parade, street performers and street food pervade the nation’s northernmost city during its Songkran festival (April 12-15). But the festival’s final day makes a real splash, with locals and tourists taking to the streets for a massive water fight. Though the tradition stems from a cleansing ritual, it has a practical purpose: April is Thailand’s hottest time of year.
  • Grenada may have been marred by political conflict in the past, but the island nation is moving forward fast. See for yourself at the Carriacou Maroon and String Band Music Festival (April 26-28), a triumphant display of authentic Caribbean food, music, and dance.
  • No wicked witches here, just modern-day Hansels and Gretels looking to celebrate. Two centuries after the Brothers Grimm published their first volume, Kassel, Germany honors the hometown heroes at Expedition Grimm (starting April 27). In addition to seeing the storytellers’ manuscripts and personal effects on display, visitors can take in walking tours, festivals, and special performances.
    Celebrants splash water on each other to mark the traditional Thai new year.  (Photograph by Charlie Tray, My Shot)

    Celebrants splash water on each other to mark the traditional Thai new year. (Photograph by Charlie Tray, My Shot)

  • It’s that time again in Hampyeong, South Korea when the canola flowers start to bloom and boatloads of butterflies flock to the meadows in a glorious display. Celebrate the arrival of spring and an ecological spectacle at the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival (April 26-May 8) with countless exhibits and experiences dedicated to these delicate insects.
  • Get a head start on your summer reading…in good company. The 39th annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair (April 25-May 13) expects to draw more than a million attendees from all over the world this year, and features 400 exhibitors, a comprehensive series of conferences, readings, and workshops.
  • If you’re looking to put some pep in your step, head to Memphis, Tennessee (one of Traveler‘s Best Trips for 2013). Today, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music occupies the space where the “Soulsville U.S.A.” recording studio once sat, but the beat goes on at Stax to the Max (April 27), a free and family-friendly festival that celebrates soul legends like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes — as well as the modern-day musicians that are keeping their legacies alive.

What would you add to the list? Let us know what we’re missing by leaving a comment.

Event-o-Rama: 12 Must-Dos in April amsterdam , Argentina , Australia , Big Pineapple Music Festival , Brothers Grimm , Buenos Aires International Book Fair , California , Caribbean , Carriacou Festival , Chiang Mai , French Quarter Festival , germany , Grenada , Hampyeong , Kassel , Kirani James , louisiana , Memphis , Monterrey , netherlands , new orleans , Queen Beatrix , queens day , Sea Otter Classic , Singapore , Songkran , South Korea , Stax to the Max , thailand , The London Coffee Festival , Woombye , World Gourmet Summit , World’s Largest Jazz Brunch

Lundi Gras: Riding on a Super Krewe

7 Mar

Two seasoned Orpheus float riders taking in the scene. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

For New Orleans natives, it’s a hard-won honor to ride in a Carnival parade. Many people pay annual dues to be a member of a krewe, or parade group, and some krewe clubs are exclusive and difficult to infiltrate.

So when I was offered the chance to ride with the Krewe of Orpheus this year, it was kind of like a childhood dream coming true. Especially because Orpheus is a super krewe.

Carnival is a multi-week celebration that starts on Epiphany (the 12th Day of Christmas) and culminates on Mardi Gras (the day before Lent officially begins), so the momentum builds in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Fittingly, the groups that roll in the final days of Carnival are known as super krewes. Orpheus rolls on Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday, when the excitement has reached fever pitch.

The float we rode on.  (Photograph by Emily Slack)

The float we rode on. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

New Orleanian crooner Harry Connick, Jr., his father, and a friend named Sonny Borey founded Orpheus in 1993 because they wanted to see a parade that had music as its focus. The super krewe, still going strong 20 years later, is one of the most popular parades of the season.

When I arrived with my friend and photographer, Emily Slack, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where all the floats were parked, we may as well have been entering Oz. Multi-colored floats the size of 18-wheelers were lined up row after row, creating a papier-mâché-and-spangle forest.

As we stood there gawking, we spotted “Mr. Mardi Gras” himself. Master float builder Blaine Kern, Sr. has been applying his genius to these gigantic, roving masterpieces for decades.

Kern was every bit the gregarious New Orleanian I imagined he’d be, cracking jokes and telling me he knew “a little bit about this stuff.”

He pointed out some of his favorite floats, including a 140-foot sea monster dubbed the Leviathan that debuted in 1998 and has since become a parade staple and a multi-unit float called ”Smokey Mary,” which pays homage to the Pontchartrain Railroad, a pioneering track west of the Alleghenies that eventually transported people to New Orleans as the city gained acclaim as an entertainment district.

“It’s a year-round operation,” Kern said, adding that he and his crew were already working on Mardi Gras 2014.

It was time to receive our costumes: black silk pants, a red-and-white silk top adorned with sequins and an Orpheus sash, and, of course, a mask to be worn under a red hood. According to city ordinances, all riders must stay masked to preserve the history and integrity of Carnival.

While riders don what we playfully refer to as silk pajamas, krewe royalty wear the plumed, sequined gowns and king and jester-esque garb that’s come to be associated with Mardi Gras parades.

We boarded our float and began planning our bead-throwing strategy before our float rolled out of the warehouse and onto the streets. We quickly realized that we were well out of our league.

“Mr. Mardi Gras,” Blaine Kern, Sr., has been a master float maker for decades. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

The riders around us had serious loot. In addition to an array of “light-up” accessories — beads, rings, headbands, and roses — one of our krewe compatriots, Joel, was a veritable Mardi Gras Santa Claus, with bags of stuffed animals, footballs, and toys.

It was go time. We could hear the not-too-far-off crowd begin to roar as the first floats passed. I aped the veterans around me, slinging beads over my left arm and preparing to throw them with my right as we rounded the corner and encountered our first parade goers cheering wildly just inches from the float.

Orpheus began in Uptown, a residential area where families stake out parade perches in front of their homes — which makes bead-throwing easy. But the neighborhood kids were more interested in the goodies Joel had to offer. When I threw beads to one little girl, she asked “That’s it?”

I had to laugh.

Anyone below the age of 10 is a prime target for “throws,” and can get a bit spoiled. After that, if you’re a woman, don’t expect to get much attention again until well after puberty. For guys, childhood is about as good as it gets — unless, that is, you happen to be holding a baby.

(That being said, I couldn’t resist throwing to the adorable, elderly gentlemen that lined the sidewalks.)

As the parade snaked down Canal Street into the French Quarter, the crowds inched toward colossal. Police barricades meant that people couldn’t get close to the floats anymore, and the shoulder-to-shoulder bystanders were grateful to catch anything.

Now in the final stretch, we headed back to the Convention Center, where the Orpheuscapade was being held. The ball was a black tie affair — with Mardi Gras flair. We saw people in tuxedos and glittering gowns stride in wearing beads or masks, and toting coolers filled with beer.

The mustachioed 610 Stompers perform at the Orpheuscapade.  (Photograph by Emily Slack)

The mustachioed 610 Stompers perform at the Orpheuscapade. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

Everyone who rode in Orpheus was invited to the Orpheuscapade, so I got to see some of the sights myself (you can only see so much when you’re on a float). Celebrity riders “Tillman the Skateboarding Dog” and “Norman the Scooter Dog” kicked off the party with their impressive pet tricks, followed by New Orleans’ favorite walking krewe, the 610 Stompers, who showed off their “extraordinary” mustached moves.

Then it was time for the music. Harry Connick, Jr. led off, creating a concert-like atmosphere. Later performances in the evening included Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, Trombone Shorty, and more.

I closed the night with a plate of andouille jambalaya and a slice of king cake at the ball. I had to giggle when I chose my piece because there were only two pieces left — one with the baby and one without. (Read this post if you don’t get the joke.)

I decided taking the baby without intending to buy another king cake in the next 24 hours, before Mardi Gras ended, would be bad mojo. And it had been too good a Lundi Gras to take the risk.

Lundi Gras: Riding on a Super Krewe carnival , Caroline Gerdes , louisiana , Lundi Gras , mardi gras , new orleans , Orpheus Krewe , Orpheuscapade , super krewe

Six Things You Don’t Expect at Mardi Gras

12 Feb

A woman dressed as a cupcake at a Mardi Gras parade. (Photograph by Derek Bridges, Flickr)

When it comes to Mardis Gras, tourists are usually surprised to find that traditions dictate when to party, what to wear, and how to behave. From crowded parties to wild costumes, the revelry may appear chaotic, but locals know there’s a method to the madness.

1. Costumes

Many visitors expect to see parade kings and queens in ornate costume. Donning these plumed garments as part of a krewe court (parade group) is a badge of honor for New Orleans natives.

That being said, whether you’re from near or afar, everyone is invited to wear a costume on Fat Tuesday. Revelers often wear official Mardi Gras colors — purple, green, and gold — and throw on a mask or another Carnival-themed accessory at the parade.

2. Greased Poles

New Orleans started greasing poles to keep revelers from climbing up into balconies along the parade route.  (Photograph by Philippe Leroyer, Flickr)

New Orleans started greasing poles to keep revelers from climbing up into balconies along the parade route.
(Photograph by Philippe Leroyer, Flickr)

This year marked the 43rd annual greasing of the poles. No, it’s not what you think.

Before Mardi Gras weekend festivities commence, French Quarter businesses must prepare for the crowds in one surprising way — greasing street level poles so people cannot climb up to private balconies.

The tradition started at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, where costumed women and celebrity pole greasers lather petroleum jelly on the hotel’s pillars to prevent outside interloping.

3. Ladders

Mardi Gras has earned a reputation as a raucous event, but it’s actually quite family friendly. If you have kids in tow, head Uptown, or to any number of residential neighborhoods in the city to experience an atmosphere not unlike a state fair, complete with cotton-candy vendors and face painters.

Tourists are often surprised by the funny-looking homemade stands for children. Picture a ladder with a bench attached to the top that children sit in — kind of like a big high chair with wheels on either side.

4. Scandalous Floats

Mardi Gras floats often satirize political events: this one is a comment on a recent Chick-fil-A flap.  (Photograph by Emily Slack)

Mardi Gras floats often satirize political events: this one is a comment on a recent Chick-fil-A flap. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

Floats often mock pop culture. And while many of them are outlandish and outrageous, most toe the family-friendly line. This year, for example, there is a float mocking the British Royals’ recent scandals (like nude pool games).

But be warned: There is one parade that is meant for adult eyes only. The Krewe Du Vieux is more risqué, so it runs earlier in the Carnival season — at night, and in the French Quarter. Its satirical themes and bohemian expression make it a Carnival staple…for grown ups.

5. Walking Krewes  

Not every one in a krewe rides on a float. Groups costume together and walk (or dance) in several parades. They also enjoy meandering through the city at will during Carnival. While some walking krewes are decades old, new local favorites like the 610 Stompers play on the silly spirit of Mardi Gras.

6. Endless Fun

Though Carnival spans several weeks, it comes but once a year.

Carnival starts on Epiphany (January 6 this year) and ends on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. The dates surrounding Mardi Gras change every year, just like Easter, according to the vernal equinox.

Carnival gets increasingly more exciting in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. But the party eventually does end: at midnight, when Lent begins. So while you can always have a good time in New Orleans, don’t expect Mardi Gras if you show up late to the party.

Six Things You Don’t Expect at Mardi Gras 610 Stompers , bourbon street , Caroline Gerdes , Krewe , louisiana , mardi gras , new orleans , Royal Sonesta Hotel