The Big Easy, they call it. From the air, New Orleans offers a dreamy vision of the magnificent many-fingered Mississippi, its languorous waters glistening in the sunlight and paddle-wheelers slow-floating along its banks. The city that care forgot, they say. And never more than now, when people dream of fabulous parades, sequined costumes and exotic masks.
Laissez les bons temps rouler! So they say in New Orleans: Let the good times roll! But for Mardi Gras the phrase becomes a trumpet call to revelry. The 1994 carnival season started with a Twelfth Night masked ball Jan. 6. The excitement will continue to mount until it bursts into a frenzy of merrymaking on Mardi Gras, which falls on Feb. 15 this year.
Carnival means . . . farewell to the flesh. And Mardi Gras translates literally as Fat Tuesday. This New Orleans party for millions is pleasure's final fling before the penance of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season.
Nobody knows how far back Mardi Gras goes, but surely it pre-dates Christianity. Scholars trace it to ancient tribal rites celebrating the coming of spring. The orgies that the Romans indulged in during mid-February may have been an ancestor of all the Mardi Gras in the world today.
The French brought Mardi Gras to New Orleans in 1718, throwing lavish private masked balls while the poor danced in the streets. When the Spanish governors arrived, they banned carnival, as did the Americans in 1803. The French Quarter Creoles persuaded the city to permit balls again in 1823 and street parades a few years later.
Over the years, the revelry got out of hand, with such wild abandon in the streets that there was a general outcry against violence. Another ban seemed inevitable.
But a new Mardi Gras tradition rose out of that protest. In 1857, a group of men met in a French Quarter bar on Royal Street. Coining the word "krewe," they formed a secret society, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, named after the Greek god of revelry and dedicated to preserving carnival. They set the pattern for the future: a torchlight parade built around a central theme, followed by an elaborate tableau and fancy ball.
More than 60 parades are scheduled this year, each with its reigning king and queen, and each with its own romantic, exotic, fantastic theme: "Perseus," "Zeus," "Cleopatra," "Pandora," "Pegasus," "Aphrodite," "Amor," "Bacchus," "Orpheus," "Poseidon," "Sinbad," "Endymion," "Isis" and more.
The many "krewes" or carnival clubs compete to create extravagant, gigantic papier-mache figures, from gorillas and dragons to castles and celebrities past and present.
Mardi Gras fever runs high in the French Quarter, which retains its Creole character. A walker's paradise, it has 12 square blocks packed with shops. In Jackson Square, hub of its street life, clowns cavort and youngsters with taps attached to their sneakers dance, while fiddlers and trumpeters sound out Dixieland tunes.
King cakes -- wreath-shaped coffee cakes frosted in Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green -- are displayed in bakery windows along with French pastry, pralines and St. Tropez cremes. Restaurant menus tempt visitors with tired feet to stop and feast on chicken gumbo, crawfish, shrimp Clemenceau, jambalaya or maybe a muffuletta pizza.
On Bourbon Street, jazz combos, country-western singers and rock bands blare into the streets, where people stroll, drinks in hand, in larger crowds every night.
Mask shops abound. Serendipitous (831 Decatur St.) sells custom-made masks, such as Rita Hayworth black feather opera masks. Little Shop of Fantasy (523 Dumaine) sells fabulous feather masks and handmade parade caps of satin and velvet. At Rumors (513 Royal St.) masks run from $20 to $3,000, including authentic papier-mache carnival masks from Florence, Italy, and traditional masks that go back to the medieval commedia dell'arte.
As Fat Tuesday approaches, major parades are scheduled every day. The crowds surging along the sidelines on Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue shout to the masked revelers on the floats, "Throw me somethin', Mister!" And the masked krewe members toss out "throws" -- inexpensive beads, doubloons, trinkets with such magical appeal that revelers risk life and limb to catch a bauble. The chant is irresistible: "Throw me somethin', Mister!"
Madness erupts in the final days. A performance tent in the French Market's Dutch Alley features live jazz bands playing continously. Thirty artisans from around the country set up a Mask Market nearby.
On Feb. 12, a black-tie masked ball will be sponsored at the Louisiana Superdome by the 1,100-member Krewe Endymion. The public may buy tickets to this bring-your-own-food affair; 11,000 people are expected.
Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday, on Feb. 14 will bring in the Gold Nugget Festival at Woldenberg Riverfront Park. The free celebration, with food and crafts, will last from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., highlighted by the arrival of the King and Queen of Zulu. That same evening a free outdoor masked ball will take place at Riverwalk's Spanish Plaza from 6 p.m. to midnight. Rex, the king of carnival, will sail to the scene and alight from his boat to great fanfare, followed by fireworks and live music.
When Feb. 15 dawns, New Orleans will explode. No school that day; no business, either. People pour into the streets. The floats are on the move from 7 a.m. and the carnival will go on all over town, through the day and into the night, as long as revelers have energy to sing, dance and make merry. For the next day, it will be farewell to the flesh!
IF YOU GO
Getting to New Orleans: USAir is the only major airline that flies direct nonstop between BWI and New Orleans, in less than three hours. Telephone (410) 727-0825. An airport shuttle bus in New Orleans takes passengers to their hotels for $10 per person.
Attending Mardi Gras: Billed as the greatest free show in the world, this six-week festival reaches its peak Feb. 11-15 in 1994. Hotel tour booths supply information on Mardi Gras events and New Orleans sights. A 120-page Mardi Gras Guide costs $2.99 at newsstands.
Where to Stay: Dozens of hotels in the moderate to expensive range are available, with most major chains represented. Ask about packages and discounts.
The Sheraton New Orleans at 500 Canal Street, telephone (504) 525-2500, is located near the French Quarter on a major Mardi Gras parade route. It offers well-appointed rooms with excellent amenities and services.
For more information: Greater New Orleans Tourist anConvention Commission, 1520 Sugar Bowl Drive, New Orleans, La. 70112, telephone (504) 566-5011.