Longing for the fun and freedom from cares of Mardi Gras, but don't want your family exposed to the somewhat frenzied and adult goings on in New Orleans?
The answer is close – just a two-hour drive. Lake Charles, Louisiana, celebrates Fat Tuesday – February 6, 2016, this year – with pomp, glittery green, gold and purple parades, beads and fantastic food – but in a family-friendly way. It is a great and quick vacation that offers something for everyone.
Here's what we did and it was fantastic.
Check into the gorgeous Golden Nugget, Lake Charles' newest hotel and casino. One lucky Houstonian won more than $1 million in September on a $1 Wheel of Fortune slot machine. The hotel features 740 hotel rooms and suites; an 18-hole championship golf course; extensive retail options; an 18,000-square-foot ballroom; 30,000 square feet of meeting space; a one-of-a-kind pool; private beach front and marina; a luxurious spa and a number of Landry’s signature restaurants, including Vic and Anthony's where we had a most amazing meal. These folks not only place a fabulous steak on the table, they can create a delectable seafood tower appetizer. It is the best Louisiana tradition! And for gamblers, they have an innovative casino floor featuring 70 table games, a state-of-the-art poker room, and 1,600 slot machines.
Make your first vacation lunch stop at Steamboat Bill’s on the Lake. This hugely popular eatery dishes up huge platters of steamed crawfish, fried shrimp, gumbo, étoufée – fast, friendly and affordable. But best of all, it is a great meal. .
After you push back from the table, the perfect place to get the Mardi Gras party started is a quick visit to the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitor’s Bureau where you can see decorative Mardi Gras shoebox floats created by school groups and organizations. It is charming and free. You can pick up lots of free information, too.
Now comes the kick-off event! Head over to the Lake Charles Civic Center for the Children’s Parade. Beads will be thrown, hands will be waved and feet will be dancing to the music coming from the various floats. No grabby, pushy folks will be present – it is all family fun. Free.
The next morning, start the day off at LeBleu’s Landing – a family-owned Cajun restaurant that is also a nice educational opportunity. Watch through the large window as butchers prepare Louisiana boudin. Ingredients are a big secret but basically it is a Cajun sausage and rice creation. Yes, you eat boudin for breakfast!
One of the newest attractions of the area is the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point. This lauded facility provides just the right amount of information in a fun fashion. There are interactive displays and colorful dioramas, including exhibits on marshes, swamps, prairies, Gulf wildlife, Creole and Cajun cooking and Zydeco and Cajun music. You’ll enjoy up-close views of bayous and marshes, smell the mouthwatering aromas of Cajun cooking, and "play along"with a Zydeco band. Free!
The Adventure Point is the perfect introduction for a short outdoor exploration – the Creole Nature Trail All American Road. The trail is 180 miles long, so just plan to see a portion and experience the famous habitats of Louisiana’s Outback. A free personal tour app is also available in iTunes and Google Play (just search "creole"). Don't have a smart phone? Check out a free GPS Explorer hand-held at the Lake Charles Visitors Bureau. The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge’s Wetland Walkway, located within Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, is a 1.5 mile (round trip), fully accessible boardwalk offering walking access into and over saltwater marshes. Viewing scopes, observation decks, five rest shelters along the path and a two-story observation tower offer exceptional views. Burn off some energy and learn what makes the Pelican State so special.
Head back to town for a tasty lunch at 121 Artisan Bistro. Don’t miss the shrimp and corn bisque. The pizzas are their specialty and the salads are pretty darn great, too. Heartier appetites will happily feast on the sirloins and fresh fish dishes.
Two former schoolteachers opened The Mardi Gras Lady several years ago. Everyone in the family can find some Mardi Gras fun wear – whether it be masks, necklaces, fans or entire costumes. It's a blast just to walk the aisles and see their splendid array of choices.
Now, almost everyone knows that Mardi Gras is often celebrated with a wee bit of alcohol. You must check out the Frosty Factory. It has been in business for over 30 years and is a low key, clean venue. It's where locals come to play pool, karaoke and chill with a daiquiri. Behind the bar are several dozen mixtures of various flavors of daiquiris, all whirling around. It's hard to choose. You don't even have to go in – they have a drive through (it's Louisiana!).
In Lake Charles, as in New Orleans, krewes (social organizations dedicated to Mardi Gras) create most of the famed activities. In Lake Charles, the night before the big parade, everyone in town is invited to the Royal Gala at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Last year's, as well as this year's, kings and queens, and elegant courts of dukes, duchesses, princes and princesses, make one final promenade. There is plenty of food and beverages for sale and the whole family can watch in awe of the outstanding costumes. The Royal Gala is the only of its kind in the entire state. Nowhere else can the public see all the Mardi Gras royalty in full costume. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the Civic Center Box Office. Now off to sleep, dreaming of doubloons and king cake!
Right next door to the Golden Nugget is the L’Auberge du Lac Hotel. We walked over and enjoyed breakfast at Favorite's Southern Kitchen. Mimosas, cheese grits, crab cake Benedict, blueberry pancakes, beignets and a Louisiana seafood omelet – wow!
It takes about 30 minutes to drive to Iowa, a little tiny town about 14 miles west of Lake Charles. Be prepared for the most unusual, fun experience that is like no other. Drive up and park at the KC Hall for Iowa Chicken Run. Yes, a chicken run. You will never have an adventure like this. It's a must.
The afternoon wends into early evening. The crowds gather in downtown. Lucky attendees have reserved tables or entire restaurants to hold private parties and viewing. You can hear live music pulsing from tents set up along the way.
Everyone is anticipating the Krewe of Krewes’ Parade. More than 100 floats glide by, filled with the same folks seen the evening before at the gala. Now the beads sail high and plenty. Moms and dads, for one magical evening, become masked and costumed beings, smiling at the crowds who all beckon “Throw Me Something Mister.” Brilliant lights decorate fantastic floats. Soon your neck is covered with beads, pearl necklaces and more. The day ends with smiles and laughter.
Make your Mardi Gras vacation happen with the help of the visitors bureau. The entire staff is outstanding. Visitlakecharles.org The 2016 Mardi Gras schedule is found at .
Experience a Creole Mardi Gras at the Iowa Chicken Run
Catch a chicken at the 38th annual Mardi Gras Run on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 503 E Highway 90, in the town of Iowa. Doors open at 8 a.m., the Mardi Gras floats start lining up at 9 a.m. and the parade rolls at 10 a.m. The parade goes west on Hwy. 90 stopping at local businesses and continues going through neighborhoods with the horses following behind. The captain blows his whistle at participating homes for the krewes to get down and dance to zydeco music, which is played with an accordion and scrub board. If the families approve the dancing skills, they donate ingredients to the gumbo, and a chicken is thrown into the air. Sometimes the captain will throw multiple chickens in the air several times or more for the children to catch. After the last and final donation to the gumbo is collected, all head back to the KC Hall. The ingredients are then put into a pot with the chickens, and gumbo is served to the riders while the children play from 2-4 p.m. The chicken run concludes with a zydeco dance. In 1978, Willie Bushnell, his son Willis Bushnell, Griffin Victorian, Rogers Bellard, BooZoo Chavis and their families started the Iowa Run to keep their heritage and cultural traditions alive for their children and future generations to come. When Mr. Bushnell passed away, his youngest daughter, Helen Bushnell Morris, and his oldest grandsons and granddaughters continued the tradition until 2009. The last three years, the eldest grandsons, Rodney Louis Victorian, Kimmy Bellard and their families, have preserved the event. Adults $10; children 12 and under $5. For more information, Rodney Victorian at 337-842-1875 or Kimmy Bellard at 337-884-1403.