Would you bare your breasts for a strand of plastic beads?

most of you, this wouldn’t be a predicament taken seriously, let alone
given much thought.  Lengths you would go to for the pleasure of
owning some cheap plastic jewellery probably isn’t one of life’s big
issues.  In New Orleans however, things are different. Breast
baringly different.

In this bustling American city you’ll pay
ridiculous amounts of money, steal, drop your trousers or bare your
breasts for them. “Not a chance” you say? Trust me, I
too was a sceptic – but after a night out on Bourbon Street I awoke the
next morning in my hotel with a trail of indentations winding their way
across my glitter encrusted face. After bewilderment passed me by
I realised that the marks were caused by the mass of beads hanging
around my neck. Now… memories of the night are few and far
between, but I know for certain that I did not pay a cent for them – so
it seems that even for a modest cynic, it is near impossible to avoid
the phenomenon that is, ‘baring one’s breasts’ for the shiny novelty

The logic behind the bead madness surely has something
to do with the tourist-driven party scene of Bourbon Street, the
flashing neon lights, kitschy novelty stores and the copious amounts of
alcohol consumed by revellers.  Where else can you buy frozen
daiquiris from vendors on the side of the road?  They rise from
the pavement like multi-coloured metallic towers – rainbows of liquid
heaven and major contributors to the reckless displays of flesh from
the balconies above.  Men swagger along the sidewalks, beads
grasped firmly in their hands… only to be parted with in return for
an ‘eyeful’.

The party atmosphere in the ‘city of jazz and blues’
most certainly stems from the Mardi-Gras festival – a free party of
mass proportions. Glitz, glitter and feathers can be seen
throughout the city at all times of the year but twelve days before Ash
Wednesday, the parades and festivals of Mardi Gras are at their
peak. If dancing with gay abandon is your thing (mind the pun),
then Mardi Gras is worth the plane ticket.

In New Orleans, three
things seem to be of utmost importance.  Good food, good drink,
fantastic music and lots of it!  What better way to enjoy life
than with a hearty meal, a glass or four of wine, a frozen daiquiri for
good measure and an earful of jazz?  The plethora of restaurants,
cafes, clubs and jazz bars leave no excuse for a boring night in… and
if your bank balance is suffering, the buskers on the street provide
entertainment for all.  Never in my life have I found myself so
entranced by the sights and sounds of a city.  It must be noted
that one does not ‘walk’ through New Orleans – rather, ‘bopping’ down
the street with rear end twisting to the beats is inevitable. 
Limbs become possessed by the pulsation of live music and dodging
tourists overcome by the impromptu urge to dance is an art worth

The French Quarter marks the centre of the action and
hosts a majority of the entertainment, restaurants, art galleries and
clubs.  Unfortunately, a never-ending throng of tourists comes
with it.  The best piece of advice here is to embrace the touristy
nature of the French Quarter… and do it with arms wide open. 
The friendly locals with their infectious smiles and “How are y-alls?”
will take care of the rest.  Spend a day or two guzzling shrimp at
the ‘Bubba-Gump Restaurant’, feast on the traditional goulash-like
gumbo in the cheap but oh-so quaint and fulfilling ‘Gumbo Shop’ (go
early and be prepared for a long wait – worth every minute), slurp down
the potent Hurricane cocktails at Pat O’Briens pub (two hands are
needed for these monster rum-based beverages) and dance it all off atop
the bar in the ‘Coyote Ugly’ club.  The French Quarter will also
delight the senses with its eclectic mix of architecture. A devastating
fire burnt down a major part of the city on Good Friday in 1788 and
being a ‘holy day’ the priests at the nearby St Louis Cathedral refused
to ring the warning bells.  Very few buildings remained intact and
a second fire in 1794 destroyed a further 200. These were then rebuilt
by the Spanish immigrants who adopted a fire-resistant design of brick
structures covered in stucco.  The result? – A distinct lack of
French influence – despite a name which suggests otherwise.

you have the corny, touristy but equally essential activities out of
the way, it’s time to delve deeper into the real spirit of New
Orleans.  We took a bus tour of the entire city and spent the rest
of the trip advising others to do the same.  Most tours are run by
the locals themselves and stray well beyond the streets of the French
Quarter.  For $24.00 we spent two hours winding our way through
the outskirts of the city… along the Mississippi River, through the
elaborate and celebrity studded Garden District, through the lop-sided
suburbs (New Orleans was built on swamplands and uneven pavements and
driveways tell the tale) and past the charming Caribbean inspired
houses.  Marvel at homes as colourful as the aforementioned wall
of daiquiris in Bourbon Street.  The tour takes you to the ‘Cities
of the Dead’ – cemeteries full of towering white grave-sites so big
they put a majority of London flats to shame.  Many elaborate
gravesites are equipped with gardens, street signs and sidewalks. The
elaborate gravestones however, are not just there to look pretty. 
The city sits below sea level and history has it that shifting swamp
land and flooding meant that coffins and the bodies within them rose to
the surface and floated down the streets. The problem of floating dead
and disgusted residents was tackled with the massive constructions
built seen today.

Throughout your chosen tour, take the time to
ask your guide any questions you have… from historic information to
where to go for a cheap haircut. Our guide was a walking minefield of
trivial information – all fascinating.  Well worth the money and
invaluable in understanding the city on a level beyond the bars,
seafood and parties. Swamp tours are also available and involve boats,
alligators, wildlife and surprise, surprise – swamps.  The warmer
months are definitely the time to catch a glimpse of the larger toothy
beasts but when the weather kept the ‘gators at bay, a friendly family
of marshmallow-loving raccoons show up like clock-work to please the

For the shoppers of the world, the French Markets will
quell all retail urges.  This is the place to find souvenirs at
prices much more reasonable than those in the stores.  Take the
time to barter with the stall owners and you will save even more. 
Fresh fruit and vegetables are sold all day and all night – a handy
piece of information when heading home after a night on the town. 
When the urge for a midnight banana calls, who’s to say no? 
T-shirts emblazoned with the smiling faces of jazz musicians, hand
crafts, more small porcelain clowns than you’ll ever need and an
endless supply of tongue burning chilli sauces tempt even the best of
souvenir hunters.  Well worth a visit and only a short walk from
French Quarter.

The best way to immerse yourself in the real
culture of New Orleans is to find the hidden secrets yourself. Wind
your way through the cobblestone streets uncovers dusty old book stores
filled with treasures galore.  Second-hand music stores are packed
full of records and passionate owners with a deep seated knowledge of
the jazz and blues lining the walls – an ancient piece of history

A brief chat with any local will unveil an endless
supply of ‘inside information’ – where to go, where not to go, what to
eat (everything!) and maybe even an invitation back to their place for
some good ol’ fashioned Cajun cooking.  Yes, the locals are as
endearing as their bustling city.  One word of warning however,
(and most residents will vouch for this) – the streets are safe enough
during the day but keep a tight grip on your wallet and once night
falls, stick to the tourist trails.  Straying too far from the
outskirts of the French Quarter is not advisable and although the Louis
Armstrong statue in his park is too good to miss, give it a wide birth
at night time.  Many-a-seedy character loiters in the shadows
after dark.  Let’s face it; crowds of bustling, cashed-up tourists
are a temptation too strong for thieves in any city.  A bit of
common sense never goes astray.  My friend and I found out the
hard way that tummies full of frozen daiquiris, paired with buzzing
nightclubs and bead swapping can lead to limited observational skills
and one stolen bag!  In a matter of seconds we made the transition
from enjoying the Bourbon Street blues to HAVING the Bourbon Street

The ups however, more than outweigh the downs and after
purchasing one of the many tacky voodoo dolls sold in the street we
pinned the little wooden man to our hearts’ content – wishing years of
bad luck on the character who stole our cash.  £200 poorer but
with anger sufficiently vented we then headed to ‘Johnny’s Po-Boy Cafe’
for the world famous a colossal sized New Orleans delicacy – the
Po-Boy.  Whoever came up with the simple but oh-so tasty
combination of seafood between two slices of thick French bread was a
genius.  Light on the pockets and heavy on the stomach, between us
we each managed to consume a sandwich the size of our heads… and
still had plenty left over for later.  One thing’s for sure, small
portions are unheard of in this city.  Food is for eating and
living is for food… as often and as much as possible.  Withering
waist lines are a sure sign that one is not living life to the full…
and big smiles are paired with hands rubbing satisfied bellies.  A
week in New Orleans is plenty of time to fill your soul with tastes and
sounds… and allows you to make a swift getaway before the scales show
the tell-tale signs of over-consumption in every possible way.

Orleans is indeed unique… a gem nestled within the swamps and
guaranteed to please the senses.  Sleep before you go – and be
ready to party the whole time you are there.  The sights and
sounds are endless, the music entrancing and the beads
enticing.   Go once and explore the sights… then go back
again – specifically to soak up the Mardi-Gras fever.  Leave your
partner at home though… I have it on good authority that the
shenanigans that go on at Mardi Gras are a recipe for divorce. 
With that in mind, jazz it up and be ready to bare all!