Living in South Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, means that we have festivals and other such celebrations year-round. Mardi Gras leads into St. Patrick’s Day, and so on, and so on. But the month that seems to be the height of festival madness is April, which includes the Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival, French Quarter Festival, Festival International de Louisiane and Jazz Fest (more formally known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). Of course, that’s not all the festivals in Louisiana this month (you also have your choice of Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in New Iberia, Washington Catfish Festival in Washington, or the Bayou Teche Bear Festival in Franklin.) But for the sake of your wallet and waistline, we’ve pared it down to the first four listed above for this article.
If you have a smartphone, three of the four fesitvals (not Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival) have free apps. It is a great way to schedule your day as well as festivals, as they overlap in some ways. They also have maps, so you can quickly navigate through the crowds. Also, each of the festivals have a varying degree of presence in the social media world: Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival, French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest are on Facebook and Twitter; and Festival International is plugged into Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Flickr and My Space.
Now that you’re up-to-date in the social media world, let’s get down to business. As an experienced festivalgoer, I have helpful hints (and pet peeves), a few of which I will impart below with information about each festival. Also, leave your ice chests at home: these festivals and many of the smaller ones rely on food and beverage sales to support them.
FRENCH QUARTER FESTIVAL
What isn’t to like about French Quarter Festival (FQF)? It is set along the Mississippi Riverfront and amongst historic buildings in one of the most historic cities in the United States. The music, food and atmosphere makes it like no other festival – in New Orleans, the state or the country.
Founded in 1984, it was a way to bring locals back to the French Quarter, and to celebrate Louisiana music. This is one of the most eagerly anticipated local festivals and one with the largest amount of Louisiana musicians performing in one place.
• Admission is free
• 21 stages of music. 20 focus on Louisiana musicians; the International Stage features jazz bands from around the world.
• Explore the French Quarter. While the stages along the Riverfront often have the more popular acts, walking along there is difficult. I prefer to stay in the French Quarter and go from stage to stage. You can get up close to the musicians – some will even entertain requests – and you can see more musical variety.
• New! I am really excited about the new Cabaret stage in the recently renovated Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
• Do not park or drive into the french quarter. I always park in the Warehouse District or CBD, which I prefer over the Marigny or Tremé. There are more parking lots in these areas, easing the driving around in circles to find a free spot. Trust me, it’s worth it (plus you don’t get caught in traffic). Biking is another great option.
• Map out your food choices. While this applies to all festivals, for FQF, I seem to have to do this. Well, billing itself as serving the world’s largest jazz brunch does make the choices seem endless!
• Fireworks over the Mississippi River! Mark your calendar: Sat., April 14, at 9 p.m.
• Locals lagniappe day. Last year, FQF added Thursday as a convenience to locals. Not all the stages are set up (the ones along the riverfront and Jackson Square will be ready), and the hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. – but it’s just enough enticement to ensure that you can go during your lunch break or after work – or, just call in sick.
For information: 522-5730; Fqfi.org; email@example.com
PONTCHATOULA STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL
Ever want to go to a festival with a genuine small-town appeal? Then the Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival is for you. Plus, you can sample strawberries in an almost infinite varieties: plain, in desserts, in drinks and more. The first festival, in 1972, was organized to support the area’s strawberry farmers, and as a fan of Louisiana strawberries, I wholeheartedly support that idea!
• Admission is free.
• Louisiana strawberries! Do not forget to buy a flat (or two) before you go home.
• How cool is this? A parade down Ponchatoula’s main street, festival royalty, carnival rides, game booths, sack races, a strawberry eating contest, an egg toss and two-stages of music. I told you it had a small-town appeal.
• Going, Going, Gone! The Strawberry Farmers Berry Auction One of the most hotly anticipated events of the festival is the strawberry auction. A panel of three judges, each representing the agricultural industry in some capacity, judges the berries for appearance, size and placement in the flats. After the champion berries have been awarded, all berries submitted for judging are auctioned off on stage on Saturday. Local business owners and nonprofit organizations bid on the flats. All proceeds from the berry auction go directly to the farmer whose berries were bid on – which is a good deal, because bids have been known to go as high as $2,000.
• Support Louisiana nonprofits. When you buy beverages and food at the festival, you are supporting a nonprofit from Louisiana. Who doesn’t want to help the state’s arts and cultural groups?
• A real emphasis on family. There is Lil’ Farmers Row: a kids’ zone of fun with a petting zoo and games – where everyone is a winner! The first night of the festival, Fri., April 13, is Family Night and there’s no alcohol served.
• Park in an outlying lot; don’t try to park close to the festival. If you’re coming from the Southshore, get off on Highway 51 (the first Pontchatoula exit) and park in one of the outlying lots, then take a shuttle in. I was told not to get off on Highway 22, nor to try to get down Ponchatoula’s main street.
For information: LaStrawberryFestival.com
FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DE LOUISIANE
Where else can you get a mashup of Cajun, zydeco, African, Caribbean, gospel, funk, soul, rock, punk, ska, world, Tex-Mex, brass and Balkan – all in five days and on six stages? No place other than Festival International de Louisiane, which takes place in downtown Lafayette. Founded in 1986 as a music and arts festival to celebrate the culture of southwest Louisiana – a mélange of French, Latin, African and Afro-Caribbean influences – it has grown to include workshops, dance and theater offerings; and, of course, local arts and crafts.
• Admission is free.
• Practice your French. The website can be read in English or French. Time to brush up on your French!
• Don’t know the musician? Go to the website. What I really like about their website is that you can go to the festival lineup, click on a musician and find out a little more information as well as video. Want to know who Seun Kuti & Egypt are? Ceux Qui Marchent Debout? Slavic Soul Party? Enlightenment is only a click away. The page also says what day, time and stage they are performing.
• Food courtesy of local restaurants and food purveyors! The 26 food purveyors are from Louisiana, including: Poupart’s shrimp étouffée in a puff pastry; Fezzo’s fried catfish (I’m no a fan of catfish, but my spies tell me it’s good!); Antler’s jambalaya; Bon Creole’s red beans and rice; poor boys; and much more. And yes, if your child will only eat pizza, there’s pizza.
• Are you ready to dance? I don’t think there’s any other festival where there are more people on their feet dancing. Well, maybe Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, which is coincidentally also in Lafayette, but in October.
• Buy a pin. Like other festivals, it has an official, commemorative poster, but what I find interesting is that it also sells pins. Some just collect them, others wear them – as many as they can – at the festival.
• Make it a long weekend – explore the rest of the area. Do one or two days at the festival, then use the other day to be a tourist: visit Acadian Village – a recreation of a 19th-century bayou settlement; Avery Island where Tabasco sauce has its origins; and buy some boudin (if you haven’t sampled it already at the festival –but then again there’s no such thing as too much boudin) at Poche’s in Breaux Bridge or Don’s, just outside of Lafayette.
For information: (337) 232-8086; FestivalInternational.com
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ AND HERITAGE FESTIVAL
April 27-29; May 3-6
I still feel that crazy first-day-of-spring excitement as the first Jazz Fest weekend approaches. It is like Mardi Gras to me – the sights and sounds are like no other festival and while I gripe about it (The crowds! Ticket prices! Why don’t they sell hard liquor!), if I miss it, I feel like I’ve been left out of the parade.
Jazz Fest, founded in 1970, was originally held at Congo Square in Armstrong Park. Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and the Eureka Jazz Band were just a few of the musicians to play that year, and approximately 350 people attended the four-day festival. In ’72, it moved to its current home, the New Orleans Fair Grounds, and today there are more than 12 stages, 500 bands and hundreds of craftspeople (who change each weekend) to entertain and thrill jazz festers.
• Consider buying a pass. Many people like the Brass Pass, of which a portion of proceeds benefit the city’s local music station WWOZ (wwoz.org/support/join-wwoz/brass-pass-details). They are good every day of the festival, allow you to come and go from the festival (which you can’t do with a single-day ticket), there’s a hospitality tent (which is awesome for the shade) and you’re a member of ’OZ. For one person at $450, it’s a good deal – if you go all seven days at the individual ticket price of $65, it will cost $455, without any of the above benefits.
• Food, food and more food. I always go to Patton’s Caterers for its crawfish sack, oyster patty and crawfish beignets; the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s, based in Lafayette, La., has a dark, smoky roux that you can’t get locally, and their enchilada is good, too. Crawfish strudel from Coffee Cottage is delicious. Alas, I will say I have stayed away from the crawfish bread as it lately seems more like cheesy bread with one crawfish in it.
This year I’m going to try Miss Linda’s fried pork chop sandwich, as I’m already a fan of her Ya Ka Mein (she’s known as the “Ya Ka Mein Lady”) – a beef noodle soup that’s rumored to cure hangovers, which is why it can be referred to as “Old Sober.” Also, can you save me a Cajun duck poor boy from Troncoso and handmade ice cream sandwiches from La Divina?
• Tip your beer/water/soda server. A local nonprofit mans each of the beverage booths, many of them small church groups or schools. These tips go to funding their programs.
And, while you’re at it, if there’s a tip bucket at one of the food vendors, tip them as well. They are spending long days in the heat so you can get your fill of delicious cuisine.
• Check out the Heritage tents and crafts. The Jazz Fest also organizes two Heritage tents, as well as an amazing lineup of crafts. Take some time to visit the Louisiana Folklife Village, where there are usually demonstrations of indigenous craft traditions; and the Native American Village, where area tribes – Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Chitimacha, United Houma Nation, Louisiana Band of Choctaw and the Jena Band of Choctaw – demonstrate the art of basket weaving, wood carving and beadwork; and the United Houma Nation will be serving fry bread, maque choux and other dishes.
Craft booths are located throughout the festival grounds, each area focusing on a different genre: Contemporary (artisans from Louisiana and around the country); African/African-Caribbean imports or inspired; and Louisiana heritage (Louisiana artisans only).
For information: (800) 745-3000; NoJazzFest.com
Admission: Advance adult ticket starting March 1: $50 (ends the day before each weekend); gate price: $65 (each ticket valid for any single day of the weekend) ; child’s ticket: $5 (available at the gate only, ages 2 through 10, adult must be present with child. See website for VIP packages.