A couple of weeks ago, I spent a long, luxurious weekend filled with food and fun in New Orleans, where locals were gearing up for Mardi Gras. The festivities start early this year, culminating on February 5th, Fat Tuesday, the final day of Carnival.

If you can get away for a few days, there's still time to get a few last minute travel deals. Visit www.lastminutetravel.com and take a chance with one of their "off-the-record" hotels, which start as low as $102 a night this weekend and $57 midweek. The prices get steeper as Fat Tuesday approaches, but rooms are still available. Also try www.hotels.com and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which also has information on parade routes, restaurant recommendations and what else to see and do in the Big Easy. Finding a flight might prove more difficult, but try www.orbitz.com or www.expedia.com.

Tourism has been a bit slow since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August, 2005, but revelers turned out in droves for the BCS Championship game and the Sugar Bowl in the past month. Mardi Gras 2008 is also expected to draw tourists back to the Big Easy, and visitors can look forward to the same old spirit and hospitality from the city. But don't expect to see hurricane damage because the touristy areas -- especially the French Quarter -- were largely unscathed by Katrina. But if you ask any local, they'll be happy to share their storm stories and a tour of the many areas still recovering and rebuilding may be the only sobering experience of your trip.



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