NEW ORLEANS - The average high temperature here in June is 90 degrees. The 60 to 70 percent humidity covers your skin with a thin sheen of sweat the moment you walk outside. The tropical atmosphere intensifies in July and August. Conventional wisdom insists that The Big Easy is just too hot and humid for a summertime vacation.
But listen to the natives. They say the languid summer off-season is the best time to bask in the real New Orleans and discover the best deals on hotels, art, antiques and jewelry.
"Perhaps we are more motivated to sell in the summer months," acknowledged Neil K. Shapiro, proprietor of Royal Antiques Ltd. in the French Quarter.
A quick look at the numbers tells the story of hotels and shops chasing far fewer visitors in the summer. New Orleans hosted 195,699 conventioneers in November. Only 77,343 are expected in June, according to the convention and visitors bureau.
This means bargains for the intrepid traveler.
The Chateau LeMoyne, a quality hotel in the French Quarter, rents a room in May for $175 a night. The hotel's "August special" advertises the same room for $79.
Mr. Shapiro, whose family has owned Royal Antiques for 101 years, advises summer visitors to hit town between the big conventions that clog the French Quarter with revelers wearing name tags.
"Everything is easier in the down times," he said. "Restaurant reservations and getting into places like Preservation Hall to listen to a little jazz are no problem." John D'Addario, manager of A Gallery for Fine Photography, said a summer vacation is great for those who consider themselves travelers, not tourists.
"The people who like it here in the summer know there's much more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street," he said. "And they know better than to wear Mardi Gras beads when it's not Mardi Gras."
Mr. D'Addario recommends seeing New Orleans on a bicycle. Most travelers will spend their time exploring a 3-mile-long area along the Mississippi River beginning on the east with Faubourg-Marigny, a funky neighborhood filled with eateries and shops. Moving west, you come to the French Quarter, the Central Business District, the Arts District and the Garden District.
The terrain is flat, and light summer traffic makes it easy to get around on two wheels.
"Just wear as little as possible, and drink a lot of water," Mr. D'Addario said.
Or you could find a bar or restaurant you like and stay there all day. Or sleep all day and come out only at night. But there are better ideas for those who require air conditioning to have a good time.
All of the riverboats that leave from the Canal Street dock and the Toulouse Street wharf are air- conditioned. The tours provide panoramic views of the French Quarter from the middle of the Mississippi River.
Museum enthusiasts will enjoy the new D-Day Museum, which opens this week in the Arts District. The Confederate Museum and Louisiana Children's Museum sit a stone's throw away. If you bring children with you to New Orleans, remember that the French Quarter is chock full of sexually oriented shows featuring female impersonators and topless dancers.
Merchandise in the ubiquitous T-shirt shops deal playfully with sex, drunkenness and drug use.
New Orleans is one of the few places in the nation where merchants would dress a window display with a gimme cap adorned with a plastic representation of the male genitals.
Lucky Cheng's, an Asian food cafe in the Quarter, features drag queens as waitresses.
"If you are a very uptight type, you might not feel comfortable there," Mr. D'Addario said.
No matter what the season, tourism officials warn visitors to be careful when visiting New Orleans. Hustlers of all stripes are running scams to separate visitors from their money.
C.C. Miller, a veteran police officer in the French Quarter, says young criminals with a gift for gab ingratiate themselves to tourists who appear to be lost, or lost and drunk.
"They'll pretend to be helpful by suggesting they take you to a good place to eat or a place with cheap drinks, and then they'll rob you," Officer Miller said.
"Don't befriend them," he added.
Visitors who prefer to sightsee on their own rather than take guided tours should plan carefully, according to tourism officials.
St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, the burial place of the infamous voodoo queen Marie Laveau, is a famous attraction. High walls limit vision from the outside. Inside, monuments and above-ground burial vaults provide hiding places for muggers.
A tour provides safety in numbers.
New Orleans is a checkerboard of good, bad, historic and fascinating neighborhoods. It's easy to cross from one block in a good neighborhood and enter a bad neighborhood before you know it.
"You can get lost in the fascinating sights," said Leslie Rosenbloom, an art gallery manager. "You have to stay really sensitive to your surroundings."
New Orleans Street Smart, a brochure published by the Downtown Development District, advises, "Avoid isolated areas and cutting through parks, vacant lots and deserted areas. Always use well-lit passageways with street and pedestrian traffic."
Dorothy "Dottie" Nelson, a self- described civic activist, has a balanced view of her native New Orleans. She acknowledges that large pockets of poverty pockmark the city and that parts of it could be cleaner.
At the same time, her eyes light up with excitement as she recites a seemingly endless list of her favorite things to do: Ride a riverboat. Ride the streetcars. Visit the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas. See the Garden District's lovely homes.
"You could never have enough time to see everything," she said. "With New Orleans, just bring your common sense and your sense of humor, and you'll do great."
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-672-6124; www.neworleanscvb.com
WHERE TO STAY
Good places are too numerous to list. Generally, you'll pay more for a room in the French Quarter than for a comparable room elsewhere in the city.
If you don't like walking, consider taking streetcars, buses, ferries or taxis to nearby destinations. Leave your rental car in the hotel garage. Metered parking spaces in the French Quarter, if you can find one, cost a quarter for 12 minutes.
Bicycle rentals are available at French Quarter Bicycles (1-504-529-3136) or Bicycle Michael's (1-504-945-9505).
Call the Downtown Development District at 1-504-561-8927 for a copy of the New Orleans Street Smart brochure on personal safety.
You can't beat Royal Street in the French Quarter for fascinating antiques, fine art and photographs, jewelry. For souvenirs, prowl the shops on Decatur Street.