NORMAN — Interstate travel to Lake Charles, La., is less than appealing. Driving from Norman is a nine-hour slog through gritty burgs such as Cut & Shoot, Texas, and traffic-congested Beaumont.
Resembling sentinels at Lake Charles’ swampy gateway are the tall, somber towers of a thriving petrochemical industry. Passing over the lengthy lake bridge with its crossed pirate pistol motif ironwork, an appealing, charming town waits to be discovered.
On the opposite side of the state, New Orleans is famous for good times, music and food. Its little sister, Lake Charles, shares similar, pretty attributes without the international reputation.
Both cities celebrate what the Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau calls the “Magic of Mardi Gras.”
We’d planned our visit for the main carnival weekend this year that featured five different parades, Cajun food cook-offs, a masked ball and royal gala. The spectacles, sounds and tastes both reflected a festivity and excitement that would match any in the world.
Our tour guide was friend, Jessica Hutchings, former Norman resident, OU alumnus and current assistant professor and head of reference at McNeese State University. Co-author of an Images of America series book about Lake Charles, she has lived there nine years and knows the town and its Mardi Gras highlights.
Hutchings’ diverse knowledge in everything from the location of a celebrated 300-year-old live oak tree to drive-through daiquiri stands was the key to our excellent adventure.
Our Louisiana Mardi Gras started with Friday night’s Merchant’s Parade in downtown Lake Charles. It began with a dozen of the city’s finest on loud police department motorcycles. A light rain fell, but the weather was warm and the streets were full of revelers. Immense floats went by adorned with garish green and purple alligators, comedy and tragedy masks and gold trim.