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100 Miles or Less: The Best Mardi Gras You've Never Heard Of

In Port Arthur, a Southeast Texas-style Fat Tuesday celebration enters its 23rd year.

By Katharine Shilcutt January 19, 2016

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Mardi Gras in Port Arthur draws up to 65,000 revelers a year.

Destination: Port Arthur
Distance: 92 miles
Driving time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Far be it from us to deny the awesome power of a totally unhinged Mardi Gras in New Orleans nor the awesome proximity and far chiller vibe of Mardi Gras in Galveston. We're not saying you shouldn't experience both at least once in your life, because you should. What we are saying is that there is a third option halfway between the two that you may have overlooked: Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas, a.k.a. the annual four-day Fat Tuesday festival in Port Arthur.

Galveston hosts what is, by far, the largest Mardi Gras in Texas, with over 200,000 visitors each year since its first masked ball was held in 1867. By contrast, Port Arthur's celebration could seem a little puny: 65,000 visitors since its creation in 1993 (though with 21 krewes, there's no shortage of floats or galas).

But for those who prefer the quaintness of small-town events—say, the Pasadena Strawberry Festival or the Texas Crawfish Festival in Old Town Spring or the Brazoria County Fair (okay, at 185,000 guests each year, that one's probably pushing it)—the laid-back Mardi Gras in Port Arthur is your kind of party.

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Famously family friendly, Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas features daily parades beginning Thursday, Feb. 4 and continuing until Sunday, Feb. 7 with the two of our favorites on the final day: the elaborately-costumed Munchkin Parade and the Umbrella Parade, which made its debut at last year's event and awards a prize to the best decorated umbrella (which can be tough to pick out of 500 or so entries). The big parade takes place on Saturday, of course, and winds through the streets of downtown Port Arthur, finishing with a concert by Huntsville native Cody Johnson and his band.

That same day, the annual Gumbo Cook-off gets started at 7 a.m., with the Golden Triangle's best chefs competing to see who can make the most soulful pot of gumbo. Tasting begins at 2 p.m. and is included with your admission to Mardi Gras, which costs $5 on Thursday, $15 on Friday and Saturday, and $10 on Sunday (though children under 11 get in for free).

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When you're not busy eating as much gumbo as you can fit in your belly, the eight blocks of festival grounds have plenty else on offer: pony rides and a petting zoo for the little kids, bigger rides for the larger ones, an arts and crafts arena for the shoppers, a beverage garden for the day drinkers, and even an easy entrance to the Museum of the Gulf Coast, which holds an extensive collection of memorabilia from some of the region's most famous musicians, from Janis Joplin to The Big Bopper.

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Take a break from the parades to take in a sunset over Sabine Lake.

Though there are RV grounds within the festival itself, we'd recommend staying off-site to give yourself some rest between parades and pony rides. Nearby Pleasure Island, the 18.5-mile spit of land that separates Port Arthur from Sabine Lake with a small, intracoastal waterway, is just far enough removed from the Mardi Gras hustle and bustle to be relaxing. Though the area doesn't offer much in the way of boutique lodging or B&Bs, the Cajun Cabins that abut the waterway get the job done. Each one of the 18 cabins comes with a bedroom, a living room, a kitchenette and easy access to Jep's Island Emporium next door. Here, you can get everything from groceries for your cabin to regional specialties like smoked hot links and Italian po-boys.

At the adjacent Lakefront Park on Pleasure Island, the kids can go medieval on each other at Fun Island Depot. Though originally built as a wooden replica of the old train depot in downtown Port Arthur, the public park looks more like an ancient, turreted castle landed in the area, to which the locals attached a bunch of swings and slides. Looking out over the still waters of Sabine Lake from the park, it's easy to imagine a small-town life of your own here, decorating umbrellas for the Sunday parade and finding a krewe of your own to join. But Mardi Gras, a brief period of forgetting and feasting and festivity, is, by its very nature, for visitors.

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