A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

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Eating the city: New York City, USA

In a city as big as New York and a stomach that can only physically expand so much, it’s impossible to eat everything. So, in order to save precious gut real estate for the good stuff, let me run you down the goodies you need to save space for when you visit.

 

1. Walnut chocolate chip cookie from Levain Bakery
Multiple locations
https://www.levainbakery.com

Not particularly cheap at USD$4.00 but they’re the size of grapefruit, FULL of melty chocolatey and nutty goodness, and can you really put a price on happiness? If you want to eat in, get there early or prepare to wait around – it’s a tiny space, so it fills up and the line ends up out the door pretty fast!
Read more here

 

2. Patrami & mustard on rye from Katz’s Deli
205 E Houston St
https://www.katzsdelicatessen.com

This is one of the classics of NYC, and there’s a good reason for that. Family run for several generations, they’ve served everyone from Harry & Sally to NYC Mayor de Blasio and Senator Bernie Sanders (I know that because they were sitting at the table next to us a few weeks ago!). And if the USD$22.00 price tag puts you off a little, remember how much you’d pay for that much meat at a BBQ place – just because its between bread doesn’t mean you’re not getting your money’s worth!
Read more here

 

3. Brisket and burnt ends from Mighty Quinn’s BBQ
Multiple locations
http://www.mightyquinnsbbq.com

Tender, juicy meat with soft, melty fat… and those perfect burnt pieces off the ends to finish it all off. Heaven! These guys know how to make meat perfect, and don’t forget some mac & cheese on the side. Prices vary depending on your order, but it’s good value for money for such high quality.
Read more here

 

4. Any and all of the pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Brooklyn
439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn
http://www.birdsblack.com

Brooklyn’s amazing, but even if it wasn’t, it’d still be worth going to just to get your pie fix from these guys. They have a sweet little pie shop on a street corner, with a chalkboard hanging over the counter announcing the day’s offerings (around USD$6.00 per slice), and REAL tea and coffee to go with it!
Read more here

 

5. A salmon & cream cheese bagel from Russ & Daughters
179 E Houston St
https://www.russanddaughters.com

This is the bagel dreams are made of, in whatever combination you decide on. I can’t go past the scallion cream cheese, and while it’s damn near impossible to narrow down the fish, I’d strongly recommend the cured Scottish salmon and the smoked sable. Prices vary depending on your fish, but they’re kind enough to slice off a bit for you to taste before you commit.
Read more here

 

6. Hot dogs from Papaya King or Nathan’s Famous
Papaya King: 179 E 86th St
http://www.papayaking.com

Nathan’s Famous: Coney Island or at a Bulls game at the United Center
https://nathansfamous.com

Two NYC stalwarts, two great dogs. From Papaya King you’ll be wanting the two hot dogs with sauerkraut & mustard and a papaya drink combo. I wasn’t sold on the papaya juice drink with a hot dog, but its actually a weirdly good combination! And at Nathan’s, you just want a dog with a little ketchup and mustard. Amazing!
Read more here and here

 

7. Tea and scones at Alice’s Tea Cup
Multiple locations
https://alicesteacup.com

I’m a big fan of Alice, so I was stoked to find this wasnt a completely tacky themed cafe. They do breakfast and lunch, too, but I was there for tea and sweets. You can get a large pot (6 cups) of tea with two scones of your choice (they have a rotating selection daily) for USD$20.00, and they’ve cleverly switched to a tip-included-in-the-price system to make things even easier. Selecting you tea is the hard part, with dozens to choose from – I like the Mauritius black tea with a hint of vanilla, and of course their signature Alice’s tea; you can also purchase any tea from their menu to take home!
Read more here

 

8. Deli sandwich near Sunset Park, Brooklyn
5th Avenue between Green-Wood Cemetery and Sunset Park

It doesn’t really matter where you get it from or what’s in it, the whole walk up 5th Avenue to Sunset Park is lined with these little delis. It’s a bit of a climb to the top of the park, so grab some sandwiches on fresh bread piled high with just-sliced deli meats for a picnic in a spot that overlooks the Manhattan skyline.

 

9. Noodles and dim sum in Chinatown

Let’s be honest; where there’s a Chinatown, there’s good food. And New York’s is no different. Get yourself over there and just start walking. It’s just like being in Asia, which means the menus are often difficult to decipher, and there are more options than you’ll know what to do with. And, it’s cheap. Enjoy!

 

10. New York Cheesecake from Eileen’s Special Cheesecake
17 Cleveland Place
https://www.eileenscheesecake.com

Because how can you possibly go to New York without trying the namesake cheesecake?! You can get a little personal one for yourself (USD$5.00), or a nice big one to share (or, for yourself, no judgement), and in all sorts of flavours as well as the original.
Read more here

 

11. Crack pie & birthday truffles from Momofuku Milk Bar
Multiple locations
http://milkbarstore.com/main/

We live in a time where sugar’s been proven to be more addictive than crack anyway, so may as well skip the drugs and go right for the sweet stuff! The pie is basically pure butter and sugar, and the truffles are sugar with sprinkles, but they taste so damn good you just can’t help yourself!
Read more here

 

12. Bomboloni from Sullivan Street Bakery
533 W 57th Street
http://www.sullivanstreetbakery.com

Soft, airy, pillowy balls of dough, fried to golden perfection and filed with silky smooth custard. Off you go.
Read more here

 

13. A bit of everything from the Chelsea Market
75 9th Avenue
http://chelseamarket.com

There’s a whole basement full of food here, from vegan sushi to Aussie sausage rolls, herbal teas to artisan pastries, pizza slices to microbrew beer. If you can’t find something here you like, there’s something wrong with you!
Read more here

 

14. Gyro platter from The Halal Guys
Multiple locations
https://thehalalguys.com

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and a gap in the market for halal food in NYC led to one of the city’s greatest creations in the Halal Guys. The meat (served street side from a cart) is probably better than any you’ve had in a restaurant, and starting at around USD$8.00 for a platter, you won’t even need dinner later!
Read more here

 

15. Burgers! Fancy ones from Five Napkins, simple ones from Shake Shack.
Five Napkins: multiple locations
https://5napkinburger.com

Shake Shack: multiple locations
https://www.shakeshack.com

I’m a real burger lover, and my two NYC favourites fall on both ends of the spectrum. For something a bit fancier, try the Original 5 Napkin with gruyere and caramelised onions (around USD$17.00), and for a quick and cheap option, get yourself a ShackBurger for just USD$6.00. Both amazing. Just get both.
Read more here and here

City of Chicago: 2017 Year of Public Art

Arriving back into Chicago again was exciting, and a big contributor to that excitement was a small billboard I saw on the train from the airport into the city; it was letting me know that 2017 was the Year of Public Art in Chicago = a whooole lot of street art to be found around the city!

I checked out the City of Chicago website for a little more information…

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) have designated 2017 the “Year of Public Art” with a new 50×50 Neighborhood Arts Project, the creation of a Public Art Youth Corps, a new Public Art Festival, exhibitions, performances, tours and more — representing a $1.5 million investment in artist-led community projects.

There were some incredible pieces scattered around, and I’ve added a few of my favourites below, but they’re helpfully created a few hashtags for you to follow if you’d like to see some more – follow #2017isYOPA or #ChiPublicArt for all of the art work!

 

The dining rooms of Antoine’s, New Orleans

Antoine’s
713 St Louis St, New Orleans
http://www.antoines.com

We thought we’d treat ourselves on our last day in New Orleans, and visit one of the city’s classic restaurants. Unfortunately,  it’s not an easy task to pick one… Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s, Arnaud’s, how are you meant to choose?!

We finally settled on Antoine’s not just because of the food, but because of the history. They’ve been around since 1840, when a French immigrant came to America for the chance at a better life, and have been run by the same family ever since. The food is classic French-Creole, and it is delicious! We did the Sunday jazz brunch, and enjoyed their signature fried puffed potatoes, seafood gumbo, eggs benedict, shrimp and grits, and a big rich slice of chocolate layer cake – head on over to Instagram for more on that…

They also have over a dozen magnificent dining rooms, which one of the wonderful servers offered to show us through after we finished our meal. Many of the rooms are still decked out with original floors and light fittings, and they just scream old world charm and elegance. Let me take you through a few of them…

 

The Rex Room
One of three private dining rooms named after and set aside for some of the city’s biggest Mardi Gras krewes. The walls show off photos and memorabilia from past parades, and the rooms welcome their krewes for private dining events.

 

The Proteus Room
Another krewe room, with more photos of the queens of Mardi Gras gracing the walls.

 

The Mystery Room
Located right at the end of this corridor, the Mystery Room served the locals well in the era of prohibition. The floors were covered in saw dust, so when the authorities came bursting in, the revellers would pour their drinks onto the floor and kick up the dust. And the name?

The protocol phrase at table when asked from whence it came was: “It’s a mystery to me.”

 

The Maison Verte Room
This beautiful room was presumably green at some stage, what with it’s name. Today, it’s a stunning white and cream, with a big regal chandelier and enormous framed mirror. The enormous windows let in a heap of natural light, and also open up onto a balcony overlooking the street below.

 

You can read more about the history of Antoine’s here, otherwise if you’re visiting the city, book a table for a delicious meal and take a tour of the place yourself!

6 Stops To Make On The Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is a beautiful park, and the big drawcard sights are every bit as impressive as you think they’ll be. The Half Dome and El Capitan are imposingly gorgeous, and the little museum and cemetery are well worth the look, too, and I’ll certainly get to those.

But everyone goes to the Yosemite Valley to see those, so after a day there, we thought we’d take the path less travelled and drive the Tioga Pass Road and see what the other side of the park had to offer.

With a bit of help from my beloved Sygic Travel app, I plotted out our path from our accommodation at the Yosemite Westgate Lodge to the Tuolumne Meadows, and saved the spots we liked as we went… here’s the map we ended up with (not quite to scale, but the approximate distances between each stop are marked in there!):

It’s a truly delightful drive, and so easy to do by yourself. We did this drive, with all our stops, in about 5 hours – if you’re a hiker, though, leave more time than that!

 

Stop 1: Buy your pass
This was the entrance closest to our accommodation, so if you’re planning to stay in the same spot, just roll on up, pay your USD$30 for a week’s visit, take your pass, and roll on through! Keep your receipt, because you’ll need to show it again on your way out.

 

Stop 2: The sheer rocks
This really took us by surprise; we pulled over so I could take a photo, and ended up scrambling up the rocks a way, just because we could! Fantastic view, several squirrels, and fun to be crawling around out there! Be careful pulling over because there isn’t a carpark, just a little space on the side of the road.

 

Stop 3: The little lake
I don’t know what it’s called, but this adorable little lake just comes out of nowhere, and there was no one else around so we had it all to ourselves! There’s a little inlet to pull your car in, then take the faint path leading down to the water.

Top left: the sheer rocks
Bottom left: Olmsted Point
Right: the little lake

Stop 4: Olmsted Point
Holy wow this place was incredible! Plenty of space to park your car, and a few trails if you want to hike! Take the path marked about 300m to the viewpoint, and find yourself basically at the top of the world, surrounded by granite and pines.

 

Stop 5: Tenaya Lake
This place is perfection.. the water is so clear you can see straight to the bottom, and the rocks are high and flat enough to picnic on, which we did. There were a few cars about, but still few enough that we could pick a spot on the water to relax on our own.

Top: Tenaya Lake
Bottom: Tuolumne Meadow

Stop 6: Tuolumne Meadow
This was the highest point of our day trip, at an elevation of just over 8500 feet. A big, flat, wide open meadow, with the river running through it. Again, lots of parking available, but such a big area that we didn’t see anyone else around until we were walking back to the car.

From my travel journal: USA trip, 2014 (2)

 This trip is testing me in a lot of ways. It’s testing my patience, obviously, which is a difficult necessity. I’m not a patient person. I am insanely introverted by nature. But travelling forces me to connect, to talk to strangers, to put on a happy & friendly front, even when I just can’t be f—-d with anyone. It’s also testing my ability to adapt. I hate change, I struggle being away from a routine, so again, I’m learning and growing, I guess. I need to learn and grow more.

From my travel journal: San Francisco, 2014

Just a quick one today, because I’ve been sick with the flu, and re-reading On The Road while I’ve been couch bound… Also just finished Wish You Were Here, and have a book review, interview with Sheridan and book giveaway coming next week!

From there, I quickly spotted the Beat Museum, then Jack Kerouac Alley in the other direction; Vesuvio Cafe, one of Kerouac’s favourite haunts, lives on the corner. Down the alley and welcome to Chinatown! Like all Chinatowns, it’s manic, full of smells, illegible signs, all that jazz.