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New Orleans hums with Super Bowl and Mardi Gras

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— In a city where even funerals turn into parties, New Orleans rarely lacks for an excuse to strike up the band, boil up some crayfish and swirl together a daiquiri.

But with the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras landing this month, New Orleans never has had such a party-intensive couple of weeks, as fans of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, athletes, corporate executives and Hollywood celebrities arrive to heed the city motto: Let the good times roll.

Ravens fan Sheri Fuller arrived Wednesday, and after checking into her hotel, headed straight to Harrah's Casino, ready to start a fun-filled march to Sunday's game. Before the main event, though, Fuller will have attended a couple of the exclusive, celebrity-attracting parties that fill this week's dance card: Mike Ditka's "Gridiron Greats" fundraiser today and Maxim magazine's fete on Saturday.

"I love the whole atmosphere of the Super Bowl, the parties, the days leading up it," said Fuller, who lives in Baltimore's Butchers Hill neighborhood and works in sales for Radio One.

She regularly attends games at M&T Bank Stadium and won the lottery to buy Super Bowl tickets, traveling here with a dozen friends. Fuller also saw the team win the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2000, but New Orleans, with its renowned food and welcoming ways, is the ideal host city, she said.

"I don't think you can come down here," she said, "and not experience it all."

Even by forgoing sleep, though, you might experience only a fraction of the festivities. Party spaces such as the Metropolitan Night Club in the Warehouse District and restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs are booked with multiple events this week as companies, sponsors, media and NFL teams buy out the places for parties.

"The hard part is I can't fit in my friends. They're really giving me a hard time," chef John Besh said with a laugh.

Besh, an award-winning chef who owns eight restaurants here, is hosting various corporate and team parties this week, as well as the Super Bowl Ultimate Tailgate in the Harrah's Casino Theater on Sunday, featuring TV personality Michael Strahan. Add visiting celebrities such as Alicia Keys, who dined at his flagship August restaurant Thursday night and supped at another one, Domenica, earlier in the week, and chefs like Besh have their hands and kitchens full.

But you won't hear many complaints, because restaurateurs, hoteliers, party planners and others in the hospitality industry say the Super Bowl represents the city's continued recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We simply couldn't be busier, but it's great," Besh said. "We've turned the corner in our re-birth, and this really highlights that."

Besh's restaurants tend to book up even without a Super Bowl in town — sometime New Orleans residents Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among his customers — and he's thrilled that the city's unique cuisine is under an even brighter spotlight this week.

"It's great for everyone, from the classics like Galatoire and Commander's Palace or the po' boy places," said Besh, a Louisiana native. "The food, the music, the hospitality of the city ... it's something identifiable with us. Other cities have lost their identities; New Orleans has really hung on to it. People come here for that."

Ravens fans like Elizabeth Mogavero of Bel Air say they've felt welcomed in the city, with some even extending their stay beyond game day.

"We decided to make a trip of it, Wednesday to Wednesday," said Mogavero, who works as an expediter for Northrop Grumman. "This is my first time here, and everyone's been really friendly. They seem to like Ravens fans."

She and her husband John, along with his parents, strolled raucous Bourbon Street and ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. on Wednesday night, then spent time Thursday at the NFL Experience, a pop-up theme park in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center filled with interactive games, a huge football memorabilia display and autograph opportunities. They saw retired Raven and potential Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden being interviewed.

More family members are due in today, and they're planning to visit Biloxi, Miss., as well.

The amount of Super Bowl-related events seems to grow every year.

"I went to the first Super Bowl in New Orleans in 1970, and maybe there was a dinner the night before, and then the game," said Mark Romig, CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the city's tourism promotion agency.

"Some say it's now a party with a football game in the middle of it," Romig said.

That the Super Bowl is coming as New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras has only heightened the festive atmosphere. Seemingly every building facade, lamppost and highway overpass is decorated with either Super Bowl XLVII signage or gold, purple and green Mardi Gras decorations — or both.

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not just one long weekend but an entire season, Carnival, that begins on the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, and runs through to Fat Tuesday — a span running from Jan. 6 to Feb. 12 this year. There are elaborate, float-filled parades and fancy balls, costumes and marching bands, beads and king cake — one long celebration before Ash Wednesday ushers in the more sober 40 days of Lent that end with Easter.

"Technically, we don't start our new year until Mardi Gras," Besh said. "You don't work on your resolutions until after Mardi Gras because what would be the point?"

This year, the parades took a break in New Orleans during the week leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, although they're still scheduled in smaller towns. They'll start up again in the city on the Wednesday after the game, and continue daily through the big finale of Mardi Gras.

Having a Super Bowl, and all its attendant parties, in the middle of all this may seem a daunting proposition. But this is New Orleans, where partying is one of the things the city does best.

"We're known as a town that knows how to celebrate," Romig said with some understatement.

The dual celebrations will help the city continue its return to pre-Katrina tourism levels, he said. The city had 10.5 million annual visitors before the hurricane, "and then we only had insurance and emergency responders coming for a while," Romig said. Now, the numbers are headed upward, with 8.75 million visitors in 2011, the most recent statistics available, and projections of more than 9 million in 2012, he said.

Those who arrive this week at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International will step right into a party atmosphere. Officials arranged for bands, parades and other entertainment for visitors "right when they get off the plane," said Michelle Wilcut, an airport spokeswoman.

It's all hands on deck at the airport, she said, to accommodate what is about double the usual traffic. On Monday, the most popular day to leave town, more than 29,000 passengers are expected to pass through the gates, compared to the normal 15,000 to 16,000.

"And that doesn't include charter flights," Wilcut said.

Nor does it account for any incoming traffic to New Orleans' next big event.

"Right as the big exodus of Super Bowl happens," Wilcut said, "the big influx of Mardi Gras starts."

Many, no doubt, are tempted to just stay.

"This is my second home," Baltimore chef Nancy Longo said shortly after arriving Thursday afternoon to participate in the Taste of the NFL party Saturday night. "I love this place."

The party, which brings in chefs from every NFL city, has been held for 22 years. Longo, who owns Pierpoint in Fells Point, has represented Baltimore as long as the Ravens have, since the 1996 season. The sold-out event is a fundraiser that supports food banks in the NFL cities, and Longo, with her culinary counterpart from San Francisco, will have pride of place in the front of the room.

Elsewhere in town, parties and concerts will feature everyone from Lil Wayne to Justin Timberlake to Paul McCartney, and the paparazzi will be on the lookout for the likes of Owen Wilson and Stacy Keibler, the former Ravens cheerleader and current George Clooney squeeze.

Also filling VIP rooms at the parties will be NFL players and coaches, especially those whose seasons are over. But for some here, the most coveted "gets" are their own New Orleans Saints.

"Sean Payton," said Keith Abboud, a manager of Metropolitan Night Club, naming the Saints coach as a favorite guest. "He's a rock star in this town."

The club is normally open to the public on Saturdays but mainly hosts private events. This week, it has parties for the 49ers, CBS and Rolling Stone magazine, Abboud said. On Wednesday, Moves magazine, which covers pro athletes, held a party hosted by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, with a guest list heavy on current and former NFL players. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome walked the red carpet leading to the party with Saints counterpart Mickey Loomis. The public was invited, with tickets ranging from $50 to $150.

"It gets bigger and bigger every year," Abboud said of the Super Bowl-related festivities. "The parties are getting more sophisticated.

"Eleven years ago, it was, 'Hey, the players might show up,'" he said of the last time New Orleans hosted the Super Bowl. "Now it's more sponsored, more organized. You know before who will come. There are exclusive guest lists. It's somewhere to see and be seen."

Abboud was particularly excited about a party at Metropolitan today featuring celebrity DJ Steve Aoki, whom he's traveled to Las Vegas to see. He's expecting such a crunch of people, parties and congestion as the week progresses that he booked a room in an adjacent hotel to make sure he didn't get stuck in traffic between his home in nearby Metairie and the club.

But it's a good problem to have.

"We closed for more than a year" after Hurricane Katrina, Abboud said. "We didn't know if we were going to re-open. We've been doing very well. The city has really bounced back."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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