Mardi Gras and New Orleans

June 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm

What you see concerning Mardi Gras on TV every year is the tip of the Carnival iceberg. And if you’re up for a wild party, mostly traveling through equally raucous crowds along Bourbon Street, there you are!

But Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans is so much more, a slice of Americana steeped in Louisiana culture.

The season of Carnival begins on Jan. 6, otherwise known as the Epiphany or Twelfth Night of Christmas, the day the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the Christ child. The “season” lasts until the day of Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In a nutshell, Carnival and Mardi Gras is living it up before giving it up.

New Orleans Street car on Canal Street

New Orleans Street car on Canal Street

“Carnival refers to the season of merriment which always begins on Jan. 6,” writes Arthur Hardy in his annual “Mardi Gras Guide,” a must for visitors. “Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the single culminating day of Carnival.”

During Carnival season, there are elaborate balls, parades, Mardi Gras Indians (as seen on the HBO series “Tremé”) and special events happening in New Orleans, ranging from the traditional to the absurd. The fun begins Jan. 6 with the Phunny Phorty Phellows traveling up St. Charles Avenue in a decorated streetcar proclaiming the start of Carnival and The Joan of Arc Project resembling something more medieval walking through the French Quarter.

King Cake with Baby and Champagne

King Cake with Baby and Champagne

Most of the fun revolves around the numerous parades that roll through city and suburb streets. Only a few walking parades happen in the French Quarter due to its narrow streets so most will follow established parade routes. Carnival is made up of dozens of “krewes,” organizations that either put on a ball or a parade — or both — and they are the ones who are standing in costumes on floats throwing beads, trinkets and doubloons (aluminum coins) to the crowds.

Mardi Gras Masks

Mardi Gras Masks

Parades routinely happen on weekends in Carnival, then offer a final 10 days of solid parades leading up to Mardi Gras. Because of the Super Bowl occurring in New Orleans this year, the parade schedule is slightly altered. Parades will be rolling the weekend of Jan. 25-27, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2 and Wednesday, Feb. 6 through Mardi Gras Tuesday, Feb. 12. There are three “super parades” featuring double- and triple-decker floats and celebrity royalty: Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus.

On Mardi Gras day in New Orleans, visitors can enjoy the traditional Zulu and Rex parades, following by an endless stream of costumed trucks. Rex is considered the king of Carnival and his meeting with his queen later that night signals the end to the season. Zulu is a predominantly African American parade created during segregation to both allow blacks to parade and mock the once all-white festivities. Other special events happening on Mardi Gras day are the Mardi Gras Indians, another African American tradition; special walking clubs like Pete Fountain; and the Gay Mardi Gras with its elaborate costume contest on Bourbon Street.

Since Carnival is a winter holiday, it’s important to dress for any kind of weather. Winter in New Orleans ranges from freezing to sunburns, so dress in layers and be prepared for anything! If you costume on Mardi Gras day, the same rule applies.

Jackson Square in the French Quarter, New Orleans

Jackson Square in the French Quarter, New Orleans

Accommodations fill up fast for Carnival, and prices tend to be higher during this time. Restaurants also pack in the crowds so make reservations if possible. Since this is a time to be on the streets having fun, staying at the finest hotel is not necessary, but if you can find one on a parade route that’s a plus, for both the convenience of walking out your door to the parade and an available bathroom.

Many people assume New Orleans Carnival and Mardi Gras to be an adults-only holiday. Obviously, it’s not advisable to bring children to the French Quarter during this time — at least not the bawdy areas such as Bourbon Street. But Carnival, with its parades featuring bands, krewe members throwing trinkets and beads and the festival atmosphere surrounding it all, is perfect for children. The trick is to enjoy the parades in the more family-friendly areas. The best spots for families include the beginnings of the parade route in New Orleans or the parades that roll in the suburb of Metairie.

 If you are interested in visiting New Orleans or the surrounding area, check out our New Orleans Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at

Day Trips From Charleston

May 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Charleston has something for everyone, so there’s always plenty to do. But if you get restless for a little more variety, the city’s central location on the South Carolina coast offers plenty of easy day trips to explore the Southeast.

Here are six popular destinations within two hours’ drive of Charleston:


Myrtle Beach with Skywheel, South Carolina

MYRTLE BEACH: The broad, sparkling sands along the “Grand Strand” provide a classic beach experience more commonly associated with Florida or the Jersey shore. Amusement parks, arcades, miniature golf, Ripley’s Aquarium, and a new 1.2-mile boardwalk anchored by the “Skywheel” Ferris wheel make this a popular destination for youngsters and their families. Myrtle Beach is known as the “Golf Capital of America” for its numerous, well-manicured courses. Nightlife includes theaters with live musical performances, fresh seafood restaurants, and clubs where you can learn the Carolina shag – a Southern style of beach dancing that originated in Myrtle Beach. For a more laid-back outing, check out nearby Murrells Inlet (the “Seafood Capital of South Carolina”); the mansions and grounds at Hopsewee Plantation, built in 1735; or the dramatic collection of outdoor figurative sculptures at Brookgreen Gardens.

Hilton Head Harbor with lighthouse

Hilton Head Harbor with lighthouse

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: Located midway between Charleston and Savannah, Hilton Head is consistently ranked as one of the “Top 10 Best U.S. Islands” by Conde Nast readers. “Golf Island” is home to more than 20 championship courses and regularly hosts the PGA Tour. The island also boasts a number of top-rated tennis facilities, with more than 350 courts in all three Grand Slam surfaces – including covered courts so play can continue during the occasional rain shower. Hilton Head has also been voted one of the Top 10 beaches for families. Explore the tidal waters by kayak or paddleboard, or sail the Atlantic Ocean. Upscale resorts, shopping at 200-plus retail and outlet stores, and more than 250 restaurants complete the picture.

COLUMBIA: The “River City” is the capital of the Palmetto State, drawing visitors to cosmopolitan restaurants, live music, theaters, public art, and historic buildings. Tour the Hampton Preston Mansion and Gardens, originally constructed in 1818. Explore Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, home to more than 2,000 animals and one of the country’s top botanical gardens. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike or canoe through the old growth bottomland forests of Congaree National Park. Or head to 50,000-acre Lake Murray for boating, fishing and picnicking.

FLORENCE:  A regional center for sports, shopping and the arts, the “Magic City” area offers diverse cultural and recreational opportunities. Hop into a pace car and challenge the Darlington Speedway — the NASCAR track billed as “Too Tough to Tame”. Or for a quieter outing, visit the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, where the self-taught artist has created a stunning collection of living sculptures.

BEAUFORT: Imagine a colonial seaport with antebellum mansions overlooking the Atlanta Ocean, and you’ll picture Beaufort – the location for such films as “The Big Chill” and “The Great Santini”. Enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride in the Landmark Historic District, or paddle down the Beaufort River on a guided kayak tour. This charming city provides a perfect quiet Lowcountry getaway.

Augusta, Georgia skyline

Augusta, Georgia skyline

 AUGUSTA, GA: The world comes to Augusta each April for the Masters Golf tournament. But there’s plenty to see and do year-round at this thriving city on the Georgia-South Carolina border. Relive the musical career of Augusta’s own James Brown at the Augusta Museum of History, which recently expanded its permanent exhibit honoring the “Godfather of Soul”. Ride a Petersburg flatboat along the historic Augusta Canal. Or look for blue heron, red-shoulder hawks, bobcats and alligators in their natural habitat at 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

Once you’ve had a taste of these nearby coastal and inland destinations, it will be time to head back to Charleston for more fun!

If you are interested in visiting Charleston, South Carolina check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Bobby L. Hickman is a freelance travel and business journalist based in Atlanta who specializes in the Southeast. His work has appeared in such publications as Southern Living, Georgia Trend, and You can contact him through

Vancouver’s Active Playgrounds

March 4, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Breathe. Just breathe.  Skulking across the Capilano Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, I tell myself not to look down, yet I have to. It is dreamily lush and woody. I must take in the rainforest splendor, but the distance between me and the Capilano River below is a nasty 230 feet. That part I, the acrophobe, do not like.

One foot in front of the other. I have made it across the 450-foot, undulating arm of steel supports.  It was not so bad, and I feel sense of victory, for I did it without beads of sweat breaking across my forehead.  On the way back, another tourist is not so fortunate.  An adorably tiny, young Japanese tourist is clinging onto the steel suspension cable with a grip so tight I think her fingers will not be able to unfurl.  The guide is trying to calm her down, but all she is doing is shaking her head with eyes shut tight crying, “No, no, no!”


Capilano Bridge

Taking a trip this summer with your outdoor lovin’ pals? Look no further than Vancouver where you will be mesmerized by the sheer volume of adrenalin-rushing things to do inside the city and on the outskirts. And yes, if you are like the Japanese tourist described above, you will be relieved knowing low-intensity, non-death defying activities are also in abundance.

While the Capilano Bridge in North Vancouver has been around since 1889, the bridge has become quite the tourist attraction and is now called the Capilano Bridge Park. It has evolved to become a natural adventure zone that includes, as of 2011, Cliffwalk, a series of cantilevered walkways and suspension bridges that jut out from a granite cliff. Also included in the $31 adult admission is the Treetop Adventure, seven suspension bridges that link fir tree to fir tree. While there, families can spend the day watching First Nations performances and bringing their kids to the soaring tree house made with recycled wood.

Also found in North Vancouver is Grouse Mountain, a ski and summer resort replete with a zip line, snow sports, an aerial tram, hiking trails, and casual and fine dining at The Observatory which has 360-degree views.  Both soft and hard core explorers will benefit here, for no one will go home feeling like she was not challenged. The annual Grouse Grind Mountain Run is a 1.8 mile sprint where participants zip straight up the Grouse Mountain. Locals call the incredibly steep trail “nature’s Stair Master.”

Capilano Reservoir - Whistler Mountain

Capilano Reservoir – Whistler Mountain

About two-hours outside of Vancouver are the famous communities of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain, both renown for their Olympic level ski mountains. You do remember that the Vancouver and Whistler region hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, yes? So you are in for a treat when you go skiing here. Everything was remodeled and retooled in time for those games. And the surrounding lodging consisting of condos and hotels was also spiffed up.  Around the Whistler and Blackcomb area are a number of lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming.  Like Grouse Mountain, while known mainly for skiing, the Whistler region is popular in summer as well with many, many activities to enjoy for all ages.

Gondola at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain

Gondola at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain

Need another reason to come to Vancouver? Best times to come are winter or summer, all dependent on what you love to do. Several major festivals will show you how Canadians can party with gusto.  In April, the Vancouver Sun Run features some 54,000 runners who will trod the six-mile course. Then in June, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival brings talent out to 40 venues throughout the city.  The same month, the Dragon Boat Festival celebrates with 5,000 dragon boat contenders from around the world.  In the fall, keep on the lookout for the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival.  And during the holidays, a myriad of celebrations sprout from every suburb and village.

Skiing, hiking, festival hopping.  In winter or summer, you’ve come to the right place for adventures both physical and cultural.  When you plan it right, you can partner a festival with excursions to remember.  For a family trip, multi-generatoinal reunion, guy or girlfriend getaway, Vancouver is suitable for all activity levels and all ages.

For more information about Vancouver, check out California Tours Vancouver Vacations.

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning travel journalist who has trekked the world. As founder of, she is passionate about helping people step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to try new things and visit new places. Her work can be found in National Geographic Books, Sunset Magazine, and many others.

Vancouver: Canada’s Great All-Around City

February 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm

When you think of a vacation spot that has it all, Vancouver tops the list. Great climate? Check. Easy-to-use public transit? Check. Awesome cuisine? Check. Safe and clean streets, scenic wonders, unique neighborhoods, trendy shopping outlets?  Check, check, check, check, check.



Perched on the coast of British Columbia, Vancouver is a peacock of a city: colorful, proud, beautiful, vibrant. This multi-ethnic metropolis, bordered on 3 sides by water, boasts more than 603,000 residents and was named recently as Canada’s best destination and the world’s most reputable city. Urban pleasures abound with a plethora of music and cultural experiences, balanced with outdoor adventures such as hiking, biking, and skiing. Best time to visit are in the summer months.

How to get around? Newcomers can rent a car, but they don’t have to. Some tourists may recoil at the thought of going into a major city without the use of an auto, but in Vancouver, a sky tram and bus system works hand-in-hand to get visitors and locals to the places they need to go.

Vancouver, Canada, Granville Island Market istock

Granville Island Market – Fresh produce

For the first timer, several  key attractions are must-sees.  First, pedestrian-only Granville Island is a foodie’s and shopper’s paradise. This hopping farmers’ market surrounded by eateries and charming stores filled with handmade items provides a sensory explosion, topped off with outdoor music around its many courtyards and public spaces. Jugglers, minstrels, mimes, you name it, are here to entertain, not harass, although tipping is highly encouraged.  In September, the island will again host the Vancouver Fringe Festival, an event that promotes 400 independent plays in 11 days. The acts  range from comedy to drama and everything in between. For theater junkies, this buffet of theater is an ideal reason to come to Vancouver while supporting the work of playwrights and thespians.

For families, one of the best place to take kids (and anyone for that matter) is the uncomprable Stanley Park. The 1,000 acres in beloved Stanley Park is comprised of rose gardens, serene trails, lakes and lagoons, trails, playgrounds, and herculean cedar trees. Of note are the myriad of artists who come out of hiding from their studio enclaves to paint, sketch, and sell their wares which adds for wonderful people watching on a sun ripened afternoon.  Another blessed gem here is the Vancouver Aquarium, The giant tank famous for its beluga whale, tropical forest, and regional and international aquatic life.

Stanley park3 resized

Totem Poles at Stanley Park

While walking and picnicking at Stanley Park is highly recommended, visitors can bike or leisurely admire the park via vintage car, double decker bus, or horse drawn carriage.

Meanwhile, Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood established in 1886, gives all a lesson in urban revival. Now honored as a National Historic Site since 2009, the cobblestone streets of Gastown will give goosebumps to those enamored by Victorian architecture and history. Here you have quaintness juxtaposed with a hipster verve where creativity seems to merge with the molecules of the air.

Gastown is the newest restored enclave where writers, artists of every ilk, architects, and interior designers live and breathe. This tony village has become quite the high-tech hub for entrepeneurs wanting to establish digs. Explorers will find eateries and fine dining by the monikers of Chronic Tacos, Judas Goat Taberna, and Nelson the Seagull. At last count, Gastown officials counted 180 shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and restaurants, a subset of the 550 businesses in this hood of 100 antique buildings.

Be sure to take a photo of the signature icon, a restored, whistling steam clock, a popular meet-me-there corner for locals. Don’t rush through Gastown. The Inuit and fine art galleries, gourmet food hops, and fashion-forward boutiques with colorful window displays must be savored. Gastown is one of the venues for the annual Vancouver International Jazz Festival held every June.

Gastown Steam clock istock

Gastown Steam Clock

And no trip to Vancouver can be complete without trekking to the 55-acre Buchart Gardens, which draws visitors around the globe for its abundance of waterfalls, manicured flower beds and trees. A full-day visit always leaves tourists flabbergasted and flummoxed at the variety of the flora and fauna.  These are all kept in tip top shape by 50 gardeners who will practically sterilize the walking paths, keeping them leaf and blossom free. And it’s not just a place for grandma and her garden club. The place is plenty kid-friendly with an enormous gift shop with stuff for all ages.  And for kids, there is a carousel at only $2 a ride. Families can also book children’s parties in the dedicated party room.

How long to spend in Vancouver? You can never spend too long in this B.C. city that never seems to sleep. However, if you spend time at Granville Island, Gastown, Stanley Park, and Buchart Gardens, you’ll have enjoyed the tip of the city’s tourist iceburg. After tasting the pleasures of Vancouver, you will be back for a second helping.

If you need assistance planning your vacation, check out California Tours Vancouver Vacations.

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning travel journalist who has trekked the world. As founder of, she is passionate about helping people step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to try new things and visit new places. Her work can be found in National Geographic Books, Sunset Magazine, and many others.