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Devotee shares Jazz Fest tips

By Andreas Preuss, CNN
Arrive at the stage early to find the best vantage point. Seats are first-come, first-served.
Arrive at the stage early to find the best vantage point. Seats are first-come, first-served.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bike to event for easy access; there is secure bike parking on-site
  • If a big-name group is playing, the food lines will be down
  • Po-boy sandwiches make excellent portable snacks
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(CNN) -- Time to slap on the sunscreen, print the "cubes" and head out to the fairgrounds for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Just like many things in New Orleans, the Jazz Fest is a huge party with drinking, dancing and musical camaraderie. The thing that keeps people coming back year after year is its deep connection to the soul of the local music, food and culture. This is the real deal. You can get your entire New Orleans fix in just one place.

I've attended Jazz Fest for two decades, both as a local and as a visitor. I've often remarked how it is the best place to be in the world the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Here are some of my traditions to help you enjoy the best of the fest.

Getting there

Best to take a cab, ride a shuttle, bike or walk. Just like during Mardi Gras, streets around the New Orleans Fair Grounds will be clogged with traffic and city law enforcement. There are also some for-hire shuttle buses from downtown and French Quarter locations.

The event provides free and secure bike parking, and I've been biking to the Fest in recent years. That way I can maximize my Fest time instead of looking for a legal parking spot. If you do travel by bike, remember to wear a helmet; New Orleans streets have lots of potholes, and drivers are not always bike-friendly.

Navigating the music

Check out the "cubes" on the Jazz Fest website. The time-slot stage boxes help you schedule your movements during the Fest, optimizing your music listening experience for each stage. I print one out, circle my must-do's and then hit the stages.

The New Orleans Fair Grounds becomes a city, with thousands of people navigating just about every pavement, sidewalk and grassy way. Having your plan in hand is a great way to take it all in. But also be flexible and let the happenstance music take you away. A small local act can be more inspiring than a big national touring group in many ways.

Sit and watch, or stand and dance

There is seating around the Jazz Fest. Every tent has a strictly enforced first-come, first-served seating policy. But the Gospel, Jazz and Blues tents can fill quickly, and then it's standing room only. I often find it best to show up early for a gig you really want to see. Or come during the closing moments of a previous show. There's a quick turnaround, and that can be the best time to snag a seat.

People bring blankets to camp out around a stage. You can also bring folding or collapsible chairs. My tradition is to be nomadic, never tied down to one spot. I like the ability to walk around, unencumbered, always available to dance.

Dealing with the crowd

There can be lines to get in. There can be lines to eat. There can be massive gridlock around a big stage. And, yes, there's a line for the bathroom. But here's the secret: If a big-name group is playing, the food lines will be down. If the food lines are packed, then certain stages will be wide open.

Of course, there are moments when the place is just packed and there's nowhere to go. I've found that the Jazz Fest vendors keep the lines moving pretty quickly, but sometime you'll just have to wait patiently. Spend the time making a new friend or sharing music or food secrets.

If you really want to get away from the crowds, take a break and head over to the shaded Fair Grounds Grandstand. There are plenty of seats and bathrooms, a stage, exhibits and food vendors, all off the beaten path.

What to eat?

There is a lot of exotic food at the fest, from alligator pie to crawfish bread to oysters prepared just about any way. I have to admit the first thing I do when I cross the gates at Jazz Fest is head to the cochon de lait po-boy stand. This heavenly sandwich of roast pork, remoulade slaw and soft yet crispy French bread is the perfect way to start the day.

Some of my other must-have po-boys are the soft-shell crab, Cajun duck and hot sausage. I gravitate toward the po-boys because they are portable, easy to eat while walking and then dancing at a stage.

Weather strategy

There are a few trees and little shade to protect you from the elements, besides the respite of the Grandstand. Therefore, knowing the weather forecast and dressing appropriately is the key to success. If the sun is intense, make sure to bring sunscreen and a big hat and keep on hydrating. If rain is in the forecast, grab an umbrella, rain slicker and shoes that can get dirty. But I've found time and time again, if it starts raining, the quest to keep dry becomes pointless, and tradition dictates that you surrender to the muddy elements.

After the fest

Take a long, hot shower. Wash away the grime, grease and spilled food/drink of your day, and freshen up before hitting the local music clubs. It is possible for some not to get enough music in the eight hours at the Jazz Fest. So grab some more food, check the listings and dance into the midnight hours. It's a lot of fun, but I consider this a young person's sport. I just like to settle in to comfortable surroundings and rest up for another full day of Jazz Fest.