The parades are just as colorful, the costumes just as lavish, and the music and food are just as non-stop. But Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, Louisiana is more civilized (and more suitable for all-ages fun) than the bigger and more famous one in New Orleans, just 90 minutes away. Here are the highlights of the celebration, plus the multitude of things to do, eat, and drink beyond the festivities.
One big Mardi Gras highlight in Lake Charles is the annual Chicken Run on Fat Tuesday (this year on February 17), rumored to have started generations ago by a housewife asking neighbors for a missing ingredient for her gumbo pot. Today, locals gather spices, potatoes, shrimp, chicken, sausages, and okra for a gumbo that's big enough to serve the entire town after a traditional Mardi Gras parade. The party, held in the town's park, includes live Cajun and Zydeco music with plenty of dancing.
Of course, there are also parties and events sponsored by various Mardi Gras "krewes," or clubs. While these are often invite-only in NOLA, it's usually open attendance in Lake Charles. And you'll find dedicated parades for a few specific groups: Kids get their own, as do hot rods, classic cars, and motorcycles (in a parade called Motor Gras). There's even a stunning water parade on the lake, featuring a line-up of illuminated boats.
Seafood fans get their fill at Steamboat Bill’s, where heaping platters of shrimp, crab, and crawfish cover rows of red Formica tables stocked with rolls of paper towels. Lines can get long during Lent (which follows Mardi Gras), when the observant avoid meat, so plan ahead. If you're not observing, we suggest ordering an appetizer portion of very local gator bites: fried dough, the size of golf balls, filled with ground bits of farm-raised local alligator. For a more formal meal, anything on the extensive menu at Pat’s of Henderson can be topped with shrimp or crab etouffee. Crawfish or shrimp can be ordered as bisque, stew, gumbo, stuffed, au gratin, or fried.
The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, in a former schoolhouse downtown, boasts a glittering collection of fanciful and bejeweled costumes. They're far more beautiful to look at than they are comfortable to wear, of course -- some weigh as much as 80 pounds. You'll also discover engineering marvels like the underpinnings that hold a feathered and beaded headdress, as large as six-feet-wide and nearly as tall.
The city’s Charpentier District is a gem of buildings dating as far back as the Civil War. The wealthy sawmill owners who lived here turned their Victorian homes into advertisements, rich with gingerbread trim and unusual octagon cupolas.
The 1911 City Hall is now the local museum, reportedly inhabited by the ghost of the only woman ever electrocuted in Louisiana, when the building also served as a court and jail. Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angels in America” grew up here. His father was the maestro of the local symphony, and his family worshiped at the solid brick Temple Sinai across from the old Post Office.
Sugar cane continues to be an important crop around Lake Charles, and now some of it is being diverted from the dessert table to the distillery. Since Bayou Rum opened in 2013, it has won more than 50 awards and is the best-selling rum brand in the state. The distillery offers tours and tastings.
Two huge Vegas-style casino resorts dominate the skyline. Golden Nugget opened in 2014 with 740 rooms, each with a private balcony, and a sand beach. L’Auberge has 1,000 rooms. While each has its own full-service spa, outdoor pools, and numerous restaurants, they share a Tom Fazio golf course. A free trolley links the two properties, but it’s just a five-minute walk between the two -- even if you are loaded down with Mardi Gras beads. ($129-$429 and $119-$389 in mid-February, respectively.)