A Year in Ojai

It’s hard to remember now how I stumbled upon Ojai – but that’s exactly what this small town feels like: a hidden gem nestled just inland off California’s central coast. Head an hour and a half north out of LA, veer off just south of Santa Barbara, and wind through shadowy mountains and shady oaks to find the town of Ojai, which offers plenty to do year-round.

It’s got the bountiful agriculture of places like Napa and Monterey, the New Age-y vibe of Sedona, and a small-town feel that offers a respite from Los Angeles while still being chock full of world class dining, hotels and boutiques.

I can’t go more than a few months without paying a visit to Ojai, so I figured it was time to put together my master guide of how to best experience this magical town, no matter the season.

Bart's Books / Summer Camp / Cattywampus Crats
Bart’s Books / Summer Camp / Cattywampus Crats

Shop

  • Summer Camp: This is always my first stop on the way into Ojai, and easily one of my favorite shops in town. The impeccably curated displays of rugs, ceramics, jewelry, art and more are such a visual feast, and locally made prints and clothing make for the best souvenirs from Ojai.
  • Ojai House: Ojai is a place I go to recharge my soul, and Ojai House is basically a one-stop shop for that, whether you want to stock up on an eye-popping array of crystals, candles, incense, or to pop in for a tarot or astrology chart reading from one of the shop’s spiritual advisers. Even if you don’t subscribe to any of that, the Ojai House’s staff is incredibly kind, and we could all use a little magic in our lives, right?
  • Cattywampus Crafts: You don’t have to be a knitter or crocheter to appreciate the beauty of Cattywampus Crafts: whole rainbows of yarn knit into chunky sweaters, throws, socks and more, plus books, jewelry and home goods organized by color. It’s the perfect place to window shop, buy, or browse for inspiration – with a cup of coffee from the adjoining Beacon cafe in hand.
  • Bart’s Books: If you shop anywhere in Ojai, it has to be Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookstore comprised of an eclectic labyrinth of mostly used books. If you know what you’re looking for, there are plenty of deals to be had on books in nearly-new condition – or, you can easily spend an entire afternoon perusing the shelves and maybe find a new favorite author in the process.
Summer Camp / Ojai House / Caravan Outpost
  • Bookends: Ojai’s other literary treasure trove is Bookends, an eclectic collection of books on spirituality, religion, philosophy, and poetry tucked inside the white clapboard of an old, steepled church. Hidden within the bookshelves are also “curiosities” including vintage telephones, first edition poetry collections, and a curio of vaseline glass, which glows neon green under black lights. The property also holds an Airstream trailer full of even more books, and both the shopkeeper and groundskeeper will regale you with both literary history and of the town of Ojai.
  • Pixie’s: Another must-visit for beautifully-curated local wares (especially if you have kids/kids in your life!)
Ojai Rancho Inn

Eat & Drink

  • The Nest: Easily my favorite place to eat in Ojai. This is California casual cuisine that doesn’t skimp on flavor or substance. Grab the ahi poke, perfectly crisp French fries, homemade brownie with coffee ice cream, or a glass of wine (or all of the above!) and chow down on the outdoor patio that offers a stellar view of the stunning mountains crowning Ojai.
  • Bonnie Lu’s Cafe: For a hearty breakfast accompanied by live music in a retro diner setting, look no further than Bonnie Lu’s. The portions are hearty and cheap, and the waitstaff will make you feel like a local.
  • The Farmer and the Cook: This vegetarian, farm-to-table Mexican fare is Ojai personified. Stop in for a plate of raw tacos or pop by the smoothie bar to fuel up for your exploring.
  • Topa Topa Brewing Company: Based down the road in Ventura, the Ojai location of Topa Topa Brewing Co. is one of a few breweries in town, a great place to unwind after a day of exploring the town, especially if you’re partial to lagers and IPAs.
  • Beacon Coffee: My go-to pit-stop for caffeine in town, Beacon Coffee is located adjacent to Cattywampus Crafts and offers coffees, teas, fresh pastries, and plentiful seating with a community coffeehouse vibe.
  • Topa Mountain Winery: The Ojai Valley may not be as well known for its wine as Napa, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Stop in to the Topa Mountain Winery for a generous well-balanced tasting flight of wines that you can sip out in the gorgeous vineyard on the property.
Topa Mountain Winery / Ojai Farmer’s Market

Do:

  • Caravan Outpost: This Airstream “campground” is likely the fanciest trailer park you’ll ever see, with the sleek vintage trailers, hammock sitting areas and succulent gardens perfectly curated for a ready-made Instagram op. Sadly, I have yet to stay here, but it’s absolutely worth a visit even if you’re not a guest, both for the photo ops and the gorgeous shop that perfectly embodies the easy, breezy Ojai vibe.
  • Ojai Farmer’s Market: Ojai’s lush farmer’s market is held year-round on Sundays in the center of town. Along with seasonal produce, stop in for local artisan wares including lavender, soaps, lotions, and more.
  • Rancho Ojai Inn: The Rancho Ojai Inn is another place that I’ve always dreamed about being a guest of. Guest or not, you can pop into the inn’s pool house slash bar for a glass of wine or cocktail. If the weather’s nice, kick up your feet on a hammock out in the backyard, taking in the sun setting over the mountains. On select nights, you can even catch a movie screening or live music there.
Caravan Outpost

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to explore this special town for yourself. Until next time, Ojai.

Into Alaska

I couldn’t tell you where the impulse to go to Alaska came from, but once it entered my brain and my bones, it refused to go away. I knew going there for the first time, in winter, alone, sounded crazy to everyone else – and maybe a little crazy to myself, too – but I felt a pull toward it that I couldn’t explain. Suddenly it seemed every ad and Instagram post I scrolled past was for Alaska, or skiing, or seeing the Northern Lights (ad-targeting is, of course, very real and a whole separate issue!) but I felt as though there were all of these signs and subliminal messages telling me to take the jump. So I did!

I’d hemmed and hawed for long enough that I worried I wouldn’t make it north before the snow melted and the window of opportunity to see the Northern Lights closed, and that last-minute flights would quickly make my spontaneity too expensive. But after finally deciding to do the adult thing and commit to one airline, I checked Delta’s website every day until I found an itinerary that worked for my budget and decided to take a leap of faith. Friends and family were hesitant but supportive, and once I began building out the details of my trip – and actually touched down in Alaska – I knew without a doubt that I’d made the right decision.

With many of my travels, Airbnb options often play a huge role in my choosing an itinerary – or deciding to visit a place at all. I’ve stayed in cabins and treehouses, and now, thanks to Alaska, a tiny home and a yurt! After flying into Fairbanks, I took a quick Lyft to my first Airbnb, an absolutely gorgeous wooden tiny house hidden right behind the home of a local artist and archeologist. The place was a “dry” cabin, meaning no kitchen or bathroom, but it included a mini-fridge, microwave, and French press for coffee (a lifesaver!) and I used the full guest bathroom inside the house. For a two-night stay, I was perfectly happy with the amenities, and more than content to curl up with a good book on the couch downstairs or the loft bed upstairs. In the mornings, I made myself a mug of coffee and strolled through the snow-covered neighborhood and down to the gorgeous tree-lined Chena River. At night, I even saw little white snowshoe hares hopping through the lanes of the neighborhood.

In town, I put my Yelp-ing to work scouting out the best food, coffee and drink options. My first stop was the Crepery, where I devoured a savory salmon crepe. Across the street, Venue offers locally-roasted coffee, vegan and gluten free snacks, and a darling little gift shop for unique souvenirs. Also of interest on Fairbank’s main drag is Badmother Vintage and Lavelle’s Taproom for a variety of local and other craft beers.

Speaking of, it seemed the entire town had congregated at Hoodoo Brewery that Friday night, and I waited in a line out the door to get myself a pint of Kolsch (which was delicious and SO much cheaper than at all of our breweries in LA!)

The next morning, it was back to the airport to pick up my rental car, via my Lyft driver, Jeffrey, who offered a ride “menu” and advised me not to hit any of “his moose” during my driving that day. Due to the cost of the all-wheel drive SUV I needed, I decided to rent a car for just part of my trip and use Lyft to get around the rest of the time. In retrospect, given the cost of ridesharing and the relative affordability of gas in Alaska, I would have probably chosen to rent a car for my first day in town as well, but you live and learn! And a nice bonus: the rental car agent even gave me a free can of bear spray.

Once on the road, I headed out to North Pole, Alaska to visit the famed Santa Claus House. It is, understandably, a bit of a tourist trap, and the “Antler Academy” was closed for the season, but it’s a fun stop to pick up some Christmas ornaments or send a few postcards to loved ones from the North Pole.

About an hour-and-a-half northwest you’ll find the Chena Hot Springs Resort, where natural sulfur hot springs offer steamy relief from the cold year-round. But that’s not the only attraction; in fact, I didn’t even take a dip in the hot springs, as I did not feel at all like peeling off all of my layers of winter clothing and putting them back on again. The resort also offers dog sledding, snowshoeing, an ice museum, and aurora-hunting tours around the area.

I knew I wanted to experience dog sledding, and it was a good thing I chose to do it there, as I later heard that other tour companies had canceled their tours that week due to the snow melting so rapidly. At $60 for a 15-minute ride, it’s not a cheap experience, but I was fortunate enough as the last tour of the day to have the sled to myself, and it was a really beautiful way to see Alaska. And who can resist these faces?

After refueling with a salmon burger and Alaska Brewing Co. Hefeweizen at the resort restaurant, it was time for my tour through the Ice Museum. It is, basically, exactly what it sounds like: a building made of ice and filled with breathtaking ice sculptures, an ice bar at which you can order Appletinis in ice martini glasses, and even four separate themed ice “hotel rooms.” Visitors are offered complimentary parkas, but I found that I was perfectly fine inside with my own gear, and while there isn’t a ton to see, the craftsmanship of the work is pretty breathtaking and at just $15 for the tour it’s definitely worth a visit.

I opted not to take one of the resort’s aurora-hunting tours, as I had already booked my own a few days later, so after sunset I grabbed a white mocha from the resort cafe and hiked up to the “aurorium,” a heated lodge with a large glass wall facing north. Despite a crystal-clear sky studded with stars and a promising forecast for auroral activity (as much as it can really be predicted, anyway,) the Northern Lights didn’t show themselves. I was a little disappointed and a lot cold, but the night was still stunningly clear and quiet, and chattering with other tourists in the aurorium and along the snowy path up to it, I felt such a sense of belonging knowing I was surrounded by like-minded people determined to seek out these kinds of experiences, despite the darkness and cold. Both of which, I’ll admit, were certainly factors in me deciding to leave the resort when I did (after slipping on some ice in the parking lot first, of course. Not to worry, the damage was just a minor bruise to my knee and little scrape to my camera.) I was nervous about driving the highway back to Fairbanks too late, as I’d been warned that patches of ice and rogue moose in the road could pose dangers even to the most alert drivers. Fortunately, the drive was uneventful, but even still I arrived back at my Airbnb after 2 a.m., feeling cold, exhausted, and utterly alive.

The next morning, I packed up my things and took a stroll with my morning coffee to say goodbye to the peaceful neighborhood, then gassed up and set out on the road to Denali National Park.

The drive is about an hour and a half south, though closer to two once my photo stops were factored in, and the road is so well-traveled even in the winter that I didn’t have any issues on my journey.

I did, however, underestimate just how much of a ghost town the area surrounding Denali was during the off-season. Not that I was expecting hustle and bustle, mind you, but if you’re visiting outside the window of Memorial Day to Labor Day, expect to find restaurants boarded up, shops vacant – even the stop lights are off. There are only a few gas stations within the area of the park, and extremely slim pickings for food options, but I was perfectly contented to pack my PB&Js and head into the national park for some much-needed nature.

The winter visitor center was open, staffed with friendly park rangers and equipped with maps, bathrooms, and a small souvenir selection (it was also the only place in the park where I got cell phone reception.) Winter visitors can also stop by the park headquarters and the sled dog kennel, where the “canine rangers” are normally stationed, but were sadly out on patrol when I paid a visit. The main park road is closed past Mile 3 in the winter, so on my first day in Denali I drove out as far as I could to Mountain Vista, parked my car, and walked the short loop that offers a sweeping view of Denali and the tundra around it.

When I returned to the park the next day, I was itching for a bit more of a trek, and decided to take advantage of the free snowshoes or boot grips included with entry to the park. There was too little snow for snowshoes to be necessary, but the grips worked perfectly in keeping me from slipping on the ice. I set out on the Triple Lakes Trail, encountering just one other hiker, but did come upon several gorgeous snowshoe hares nestled in the trees right off the trail who were kind enough to hang around until I could snap some photos.

Alone in the forest, I felt nearly giddy, breathing in the fresh air so deeply, snapping photos to my heart’s content, trekking over suspension bridges and stopping to rest near the partially-frozen river in a bed of pine needles with the sunlight on my face, listening to the sound of the snowmelt rush downstream. I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains, ponderosa pines, birds and chipmunks and all sorts of animal scat on the trails that indicated other wildlife was also afoot all around me. I felt so at peace, so unburdened, so alive. In that moment, I made a mental note to myself not to let that feeling go.

If I thought Denali was beautiful, the drive to my next stop, the small town of Cantwell, was positively otherworldly. Around every corner was a breathtaking vista of pearl-white mountains and frozen fjords that made me pull over at virtually every turnout – only to do the same thing again just a few hundred yards up the road. The scenery outdid itself with each mile I drove until I finally arrived in Cantwell, where I was staying for the night, and found myself in the closest place to Heaven on Earth I’ve ever been. There were mountains everywhere I looked, their slick white faces iridescent with pink and yellow and colors I didn’t even know mountains could be, glinting in the afternoon sun. The sky was a powdery blue and the horizon ringed with white mist. It was like the surface of the moon. Blindingly white, cold, quiet, untouched. It felt like there wasn’t another soul around.

I could have lingered out there forever, but I wanted to make it to my Airbnb for the night before it got dark, and I’m so glad I did. Following a winding, snowbanked path off the main road and then up a slight hill, I arrived at my yurt (yes, yurt!) and as I stepped out of the car and surveyed the landscape around me I was in complete awe. My Airbnb, surrounded by one other yurt and the owner’s home, overlooked a deep valley crowned on all sides with majestic mountains. The sunset was so stunning, so life-affirming, I felt myself witnessing something I was sure I’d only see once, and I couldn’t bring myself to go inside until darkness fell completely that night.

Once inside the yurt, which was surrounded by a wrap-around deck and an outhouse (!) a few yards away, I was pleasantly surprised at the set-up: there was a bunk bed, wood-burning fireplace, kitchenette, stove, and sink (although no running water.) The circular room was topped off with a little skylight, onto which I watched the snow pile up as the night wore on.

It was really magical, that night. As I trudged through knee-high snow to the outhouse (which was completely fine, I promise!) I was struck by the silence: I could hear the snow falling, the swish of my arms against my jacket. I could hear myself breathe. And there was hardly any light at all, just the faint glow (which I hoped against hope might be the Northern Lights) of a small town in the far, far distant horizon. I have never felt less lonely being alone, or more content with my own company. In fact, I lapped up the solitude, and the silence, and the beautiful emptiness surrounding me, so greedily, listening to music and podcasts and wandering through the snow and reading by candlelight as it fell softly outside.

By morning, the snow was still falling, and enough had piled up that I wondered whether I’d have trouble getting back out to the main road again. But the wife of my Airbnb host, who brought me coffee as she nonchalantly pushed her baby in a stroller through the snow, assured me it was nothing to worry about. And it wasn’t; I’d rented a car with all-wheel drive for a reason, after all.

Following my second visit to Denali, I decided to break up the drive back to Fairbanks with a quick stop in the town of Nanana. It’s the home of the Nanana Ice Classic, and served as the first checkpoint for multiple Iditarod races. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Nanana in the winter (though I did pass an artisan market that I assume will be open come summer,) but if you’re a fan of architecture or urban exploration like me, it’s worth a stop.

Minor as it might seem, this is one of the things I loved most about traveling alone. I absolutely relished in having the freedom to stop wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no one’s schedule or interests to abide by but my own.

Once back in Fairbanks, I checked in to my accommodations for the next two nights – Billie’s Backpacker Hostel – which had earned rave reviews on Airbnb and TripAdvisor. I’d decided to end my trip with a hostel partly out of budgeting concerns, and partly because I’d initially worried that after so many nights alone, I might want the company of some other travelers. As it turned out, I was perfectly happy with my own company, and in fact even ended up getting a room in the hostel to myself the first night, as the place was fairly quiet in the off-season.

For less than $40 a night, I had a comfortable and safe place to sleep and leave my luggage (although I do believe someone swiped my brand-new jar of peanut butter), access to the full kitchen and cozy lounge area, and even coffee in the mornings. I really couldn’t ask for much more! The next day, my last full day in Alaska, I was even able to arrange for my tour to pick me up at Billie’s, as I didn’t have my rental car anymore, which saved me some money and was super convenient.

There are so many things to do in Alaska in the winter, from snowmobiling to ice fishing to glacier hikes, but those activities definitely don’t come cheap, so I decided to invest in dog sledding and a bus tour up to the Arctic Circle. I had no idea that this was even something you could do until I started researching activities near Fairbanks, but I’m a sucker for a good excursion, particularly if it takes me somewhere I would absolutely never go otherwise. I booked the Arctic Circle and Northern Lights driving tour through Alaska Wildlife Guide, and couldn’t have had a better experience (even though, spoiler alert, we didn’t end up seeing the lights.)

I was one of only five tourists in my group, making for an intimate but comfortable drive, which was about 7 hours each way. Our guide, Dave, was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, and along the way we stopped see the Trans-Alaska pipeline that winds through the state, and fueled up at the Yukon River Camp, which sits along, of course, the vast, frozen Yukon River and is virtually the only stop for fuel and food between Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle.

Reaching the Arctic Circle requires driving the Dalton Highway, which has gained infamy as the Ice Road Truckers’ highway. It’s also commonly regarded as the most dangerous highway in North America, with no guard rails, steep hills and few turnouts, and is so treacherous that most rental car companies make customers agree they won’t take their vehicles up there.

On the drive, we passed “ghost trees,” so heavy with frozen snow that they look like someone draped in a white sheet, and our eagle-eyed guide even spotted a beautiful gray wolf lingering alongside the road. Finally, we reached the Arctic Circle around sunset, and spent the next half hour or so taking photos, throwing snowballs, and listening to Dave tell us all about the Northern Lights, the midnight sun, and his upbringing in the far, far northern town of Barrow, Alaska.

The other girls on the tour and I laughed hysterically as we jumped and leapt through the snow to get our Instagram photos just right. Watching the sun go down around the Arctic Circle, knowing I was in one of the few places on earth where I could experience such a thing, I was more than a little awestruck.

On our way back to Fairbanks, as darkness fell and the snow did too, we still held out hope that the aurora might make an appearance. Dave was optimistic too, despite the near-constant rain and snow we were driving through. Unfortunately, even if the aurora were to come out to play, the night sky would have to be clear enough to see stars in order to see the lights, too, and all of the clouds overhead were not looking promising. We were so anxious to see the Northern Lights, several girls in our group mistook headlights in the far distance for the aurora and rushed inside the rest stop to drag us out into the snow for a look. Dave just shook his head and laughed, and as I sat there eating freshly-made Vietnamese food, surrounded by new friends at a snowy rest stop just south of the Arctic Circle, I realized I wouldn’t be as crushed as I’d anticipated if I didn’t see them. Of course, it was something I would’ve been overjoyed to see, and it’s still at the top of my travel bucket list as I mentally prepare for a return trip to Fairbanks and/or adventures in Norway and Finland, but I knew not to plan my trip around them, or have any regrets if I didn’t get to see them.

It was after midnight as we drove the final leg of the trip, all of us tourists nodding off in the backseat, but Dave expertly balanced traversing the snowy road and keeping his eyes peeled for both the Northern Lights and wildlife. Blinking the sleep from my eyes, I awoke to catch the tail end (literally) of a baby moose slipping into the forest with its mother.

While there are things that, in hindsight, I might have done differently, I can honestly say I have no regrets about my travels through Alaska. The trip was planned with just about two weeks notice, my supplies hastily ordered from Amazon and cobbled together with friends’ ski gear, my accommodations and activities booked solely based on my faith in Airbnb and TripAdvisor reviews – but everything went off without a hitch. I felt myself being pulled, unmistakably, toward Alaska, and even without a definitive reason to go there, or anyone to go with, I knew I had to honor that instinct. And in trusting my gut, I couldn’t have been rewarded any more richly. I checked off my first truly solo trip, got to see a gorgeous part of my country and have some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences, met the friendliest people, and, maybe, inspired others to follow their travel dreams, too.

Just as I was never truly alone in Alaska, I wasn’t alone in my journey toward getting there, either. I consulted with women’s travel Facebook groups, close friends who had friends who’d taken similar trips, and was offered moral support from women at my work and in my writing class to take the leap of faith. I’m so beyond grateful to the people in my life who believed in me and gave me the push I needed to believe in myself, and to anyone considering something similar, my emphatic (and very cliched) advice would be to listen to what your heart is telling you. Go where you feel most alive. Go while you still have the time, the resources, the health, and the ambition to see it all. Just go! You won’t regret it.

Return to Tennessee

I’ve spent most Christmases in my life at home in Oregon. But this past year, we decided it was time for a change: a Southern holiday down south with my brother and his wife, a revisit to Nashville, and a Christmas in the Smokey Mountains.

I’d been to Mississippi and Tennessee, for my brother’s wedding several years ago, but it was a brief visit and I was excited about the opportunity to return for a longer time, with fresh eyes.

Unlike when I’d visited from the Bay Area years ago, LAX offered a direct flight to Memphis, which clocked in at an efficient four hours. My brother and sister-in-law live just over the state line in Mississippi; far enough away from the city to afford a house with a yard (what a novelty!) but close enough easily access the restaurants, shopping and music venues that Memphis has to offer.

Memphis is a complicated city with an equally complicated past. Home to world-class barbecue and the famed Beale Street and a rapidly modernizing city core, it’s at a crossroads between its rich history and a rapidly-modernizing future. Driving though much of the city, I was reminded of places like Detroit, or cities in the Rust Belt, laid bare by the Recession and industries that have fallen out of favor. Abandoned houses and businesses outnumber the people, and crime rates are generally high.

Still, there are a host of businesses breathing new life into the city. FedEx is headquartered there, electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime have been welcomed with open arms, and the city’s food and drink scene is booming. A few favorites of note were City & State Coffee for a maple latte and stroll through the adjoining gift store for souvenirs, and the Flying Saucer taproom for a truly impressive craft beer list (and veggie burger!) that included many local brews. City & State is located on the city’s revitalized Broad Avenue, home to a number of quaint shops with local wares.

Over in Memphis’ downtown you’ll find Beale Street, a sort of miniature version of Bourbon Street, overflowing with bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Like many main streets in big cities, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but there are some studios still offering tours, and it’s worth a stroll to see where so many music legends walked before.

A few blocks away from Beale Street you’ll find what was once the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Today, it’s part of the National Civil Rights Museum. And a few blocks from here, in the city’s transformed South Main Art’s District, sits the Blues Hall of Fame and local gems such as Low Fi Coffee, Bluff City Bakery, several art galleries and a Central BBQ (from which the line wrapped around the block,) and the Memphis Farmer’s Market.

A few days later, with the presents unwrapped and Christmas festivities over for another year, we set out in the rain for the six hour drive east to a rustic cabin in Pigeon Forge, home to the Great Smoky Mountains and the equally-monumental Dolly Parton. Pigeon Forge is a strange place, a sort of family-friendly Las Vegas strip, complete with eye-popping neon lights, kitschy themed restaurants, magic shows, roller coasters and larger-than-life replicas of famous landmarks.

Of course, its own most famous landmark is Dollywood, which exceeded my expectations in whimsy. It’s a small park, but nestled within it is everything from wooden roller coasters and live musical shows to a bald eagle sanctuary and farmyard petting zoo. Dollywood was also particularly charming around the holidays, covered in twinkling lights and towering Christmas trees. It’s a delight for kids and kids at heart.

For the adults, pay a visit to the Island in Pigeon Forge, where we partook in craft beer flights at Yeehaw Brewery and decidedly stronger flights at Ole Smoky Moonshine. I can’t say I remember ever having had moonshine before, and Tennessee is definitely the best place to get a first taste of it. We got to sample Blue Flame, the distillery’s strongest moonshine at 128 proof (that’s 64% alcohol!) Java moonshine, and distillery-only offers including a chocolate peppermint flavor and even pickles soaked in moonshine. It’s certainly not something I’d drink regularly, but hey, when in Rome (or Tennessee!)

The next day, we headed over to the neighboring town of Gatlinburg for a hearty brunch (and the largest cinnamon roll I’ve ever seen in my life) at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp before venturing into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park as my mom shopped up at a storm at the stores in town. Many of the roads and trails were closed for the winter (and the park itself was very nearly closed due to the government shutdown,) so we ended up keeping things simple with a moderate hike through the Laurel Falls Trail, which a little over two miles long and offers a view of the Smoky Mountains and a waterfall that was flowing in full force mid-winter. I do wish time and weather had permitted us to see more of the park (my brother had been particularly keen on the idea of driving over the state line to North Carolina to see Clingmans Dome,) but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Finally, we set out for the three hour drive west to Nashville. I’d been before, but only for a day, and I was easily the most excited about our stop here because there are so many diverse parts of the city to explore. Having previously visited the Grand Ole Opry and Gaylord Opryland Resort (which is sort of the Disney World of resorts and must be seen to be believed,) I was eager to check some other sites off my list.

We ended up parking in a trendy area of downtown Nashville known as the Gulch and setting out to explore on foot (after stopping for a pick-me-up at the highly Instagram-able Milk & Honey – its namesake latte is lightly sweet and a must-try.) Just around the corner you’ll find a line queuing up for photos at one of Nashville’s many popular murals (this one of angel wings composed of guitars, not unlike the angel wing murals we have all over Los Angeles, but I still couldn’t resist!) Follow the stairs up to Broadway, and you’ll get a sweeping view of the Nashville skyline.

Nashville is a pretty walkable city – if you’re willing to fight through the occasional throngs of people – and you can follow Broadway all the way downtown past the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Predators hockey arena to Nashville’s main drag of country music bars, cowboy boot boutiques, the Johnny Cash Museum and other local institutions. If the weather’s good (and there’s no game over at the Nissan Stadium) climb the stairs up to the pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River for another breathtaking skyline view of downtown Nashville.

Easily my favorite part of Nashville is 12 South, where old meets new. Reese Witherspoon’s store, Draper James, draws crowds, as does the iconic “I Believe In Nashville” mural, but the entire street is chock-full of must-see gems. Stop into Savant for drool-worthy vintage goods and Five Daughters Bakery to drool over some donuts. Refuel with a banana mocha at the Frothy Monkey, get buzzed at the 12 South or Mill Creek taprooms, and chow down on burgers and tacos at Urban Grub and Taqueria del Sol. Imogene + Willie and White’s Mercantile are both shops seemingly tailor-made for Instagram, and even if you don’t end up dropping the cash to take anything home, they’re well worth a visit.

Tennessee is subject to a whole lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, but its natural beauty, buzzing cities, and host of good eats and drinks have earned it a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to head back for more Southern hospitality soon.

How to Spend 17 Hours in Hong Kong

I’m the type of traveler who will often choose layovers over direct flights. I’ve never loved long plane rides, so I’ll take any opportunity to get my feet back on the ground, walk around, and eat something other than airplane food for even just an hour or two. In choosing my flight path to Bali, I had no choice but to bite the bullet and settle in for a 15-hour flight to Asia (there aren’t exactly any halfway points across the Pacific Ocean,) but this did allow me to have a bit of fun with my itinerary and even pick up a “bonus city” to add to my travels.

I had the choice between 17 hours in Hong Kong or 12 hours in Shanghai. I’d toyed with the idea of visiting Hong Kong previously, and, fully intending to embark on an overnight excursion into the city solo, I figured Hong Kong would be easier to navigate on my own. I had planned to take the train into the bustling city, spend the night walking the waterfront and the markets, maybe camp out at a hotel for drinks or tea and then return to the airport for my flight. By sheer coincidence, however, a coworker of mine was traveling to Bali at the exact time, also through Hong Kong at the exact same time, and having a travel companion helped make Hong Kong and unforgettable whirlwind of new sights, sounds and experiences.

While colorful, bustling, eye-popping and energetic, Hong Kong is still an incredibly easy city to navigate. It just takes a shuttle to get to the Airport Express – which is impeccably clean and even offers free WiFi – to get into Hong Kong Station. All signage is also in English, and from here, you can take the MTR quickly and cheaply to just about anywhere in the city.

Our first stop was a stroll through the Ladies Market, an open-air, late-night market that spans blocks and is a one-stop shop for souvenirs. There’s also the Temple Street night market for affordable jade, pottery, and other small tastes of Hong Kong to take home.

For dinner, we followed our noses to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we were instructed to choose our own fish right from the tank of the sidewalk, after which it was grilled and served in a broth with vegetables and tofu. Whether street food or a Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s virtually no wrong answer when it comes to dining in Hong Kong. 

Be sure to take a stroll down to the Central Ferry Pier for a nighttime view of the skyline, the ferris wheel, and, at 8 o’clock each evening, the Symphony of Lights that sets Victoria Harbor aglow with neon.

Hands down, the highlight of my whirlwind visit to Hong Kong was waking up at dawn to the take the train up to Victoria Peak. This overlook offers a panoramic view of the whole city; rain, shine or fog. We took a cab to the bottom of the tram, which costs about $15 for a roundtrip ticket, and arrived at the top just before the overlook opened. The climb up is steep and jungle-lush – at certain points you are nearly parallel with Hong Kong’s towering sky scrapers – and it offers a stunning preview of the just what you’ll see from the top. 

The Sky Terrace is the highest point on Hong Kong Island – about 1,800 feet – and from here, you can see a 360-degree view of the city’s skyscrapers, dense forests, unique architecture, and, of course, Victoria Harbour to one side and a bevy of bays on the other. Victoria Peak is Hong Kong’s busiest tourist attraction, so for a more serene experience, try getting there before the sky terrace opens, when the city is still sleepy and foggy, or skipping the tram altogether and hiking your way up to the top (though I probably wouldn’t advise this route if you’ve only got a layover.)

From Victoria Peak, the tram will drop you back off just across the street from the HKU station, where you can easily take the Airport Express back to catch your flight – though I wouldn’t blame you if decide you want to catch another and spend a few more unforgettable days and nights in Hong Kong.

Beautiful Bali

Where to even begin with Bali.

My travel list is about a mile long, but I can’t say Indonesia had ever crossed my mind. It seemed impossibly, unreachably exotic; just the thought of Bali evoked a playground for the rich and famous a half a world away. Too far, too expensive, too removed from my own life to ever become a part of it. And yet.

The majority of the travel I’ve done in my life has been of my own volition; study abroad and spring breaks and summer camps I applied to without my parents’ knowledge. But my mid-twenties has made solo travel less of a pipe dream and more of a necessity, as shifting relationships and work schedules and – most insurmountably – money means that travel partners have become scarce. As independent as I’ve always been, I’ll admit that the idea of traveling solo paralyzed me with fear for months. Could I manage as a woman in a foreign country alone, unfamiliar with the language and local customs? Would I be safe? Would I enjoy myself? As time ticked by and I felt myself growing increasingly frustrated by a lack of opportunities to travel with others, I realized it was high time to create my own, and finally settled on what promised to be a perfect compromise for my travel needs: a group tour.

I’d toyed with the idea of a group tour in the past, thanks to an acquaintance who’d visited China and Peru and other far-flung places through one of the many companies that offers guided treks with set itineraries on virtually every continent. It took some convincing: would I feel confined by set schedules, overwhelmed by sharing so much time and space with people I didn’t know? Would it be worth the money? And, on a more personal level, would I be judged or pitied for choosing to travel without friends or a significant other? I researched endlessly, consulted with friends and family, budgeted and saved, and eventually realized there was only one way to know for sure whether group travel was right for me: to go do it.

With a swath of companies, destinations and itineraries to choose from, the world was my oyster – albeit a slightly overwhelming one. I could throw a dart at a map and go anywhere. I knew I wanted to visit Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, and after the past year of my life, I was in a particularly Eat, Pray, Love state of mind, yearning for some soul-searching and detox from my daily grind. With its white sand beaches, serene rice terraces, yoga retreats and strong sense of spirituality, Bali certainly fit the bill.

Though I’d initially planned on traveling with a group my own age, I ultimately chose G Adventure’s Classic Bali tour, an all-ages option, as it most aligned with my budget and the itinerary I wanted. And so it was decided: eight days in Bali, with an extra day tacked on to the end so I could spend my 25th birthday on the island. With my flights booked, vacation days approved, carry-on suitcase stuffed to the brim with sundresses and mosquito repellant and a first aid kit that initially concerned my mother but eventually served its purpose (more on that later,) there was nothing left to do but wait for the summer to tick by. Because in September, on the other side of a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong – the longest I’ve ever endured – and another 5 hours to Denpasar, the adventure of a lifetime was waiting for me.


My first stop in Bali was the coastal city of Sanur. Having spent the past 24 hours in transit, and by now a whopping 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles, I was feeling surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I arrived at our hotel. I was the last of the group to join, and was greeted enthusiastically and instructed to quickly drop my luggage before being herded into the back of a seatbelt-less van heading into town for dinner.

In many ways, my initial observations of Bali were not so different from many other countries I’ve visited; driving can be quite treacherous. Tap water is not to be drunk. Beer is cheap, anyway. We were told by our guide that women are expected to dress conservatively, but the heat deemed this impractical, and as Bali is one of the few islands in Indonesia that is not predominantly Muslim, shorts and tank tops and the like are not culturally frowned upon (aside from at holy sites such as temples, where sarongs are required.)

Bali is home to plenty of expats, and most locals speak English, so it can easily be navigated without a guide – but it was immediately clear that having one would be invaluable. Our guide, Hans, was a local, a G Adventures veteran, and one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever met. In addition to Hans, we were provided with a driver for the entirety of the trip, and bright and early the next morning, we were whisked off by bus to our first stop: the lush Jatiluwih rice terraces.68EA5217-FC35-471D-85E3-0C05DD0A8340

We visited on one of the only days during our trip that the weather was less than ideal – September and October mark the beginning of the rainy season in Indonesia – but it suited the location perfectly. The rice terraces, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are breathtaking; vivid green against a backdrop of misty, indigo mountains. Our guide explained to us the process of growing and harvesting the rice, and also pointed out other crops, including corn and jackfruit trees. I knew Bali was famed for its coffee and rice terraces, but I was blown away by just how robust the island’s agriculture is. During my trip, we encountered locally-grown eggplants, chilis, bananas, cocoa beans, and even vineyards for wine. We lunched at a restaurant overlooking the terraces, and I was introduced to my first of many Indonesian buffets, which typically consist of rice, fried noodles, tofu, tempeh, chicken, and vegetables. Much to my relief, as a vegetarian I had no problem staying incredibly well-fed – and caffeinated – during my time in Bali.

From the rice terraces, we traveled to the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a lakefront temple that’s easily the most famous in Bali (it’s even depicted on the 50,000 rupiah bill.) The complex houses Hindu and Buddhist temples, and is also neighbored by a mosque. We were fortunate enough to visit just prior to the Islamic New Year, and so were able to witness religious ceremonies underway.

The temples, and landscape, are stunning, but bear in mind that this site is something like a holy Disneyland, with overflow parking, an admission (and even toilet) fee, and throngs of tourists absolutely everywhere you look. While some of my fellow travelers were disappointed with the crowds, I don’t think a trip to Bali would have been complete without paying a visit to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – just don’t except much in the way of peace and serenity.


From Lake Batan, we traveled north to what was ultimately the selling point for the tour itinerary I chose: Mount Batur. Hiking an active volcano at sunrise was an experience I knew I wanted to have in Bali, and in talking to a friend who had visited the island, it was the one thing he regretted not having done. Even the drive up to the mountain, which took about two hours from our last stop via a road so windy I became impossibly carsick, underscored just how invaluable having a local guide and driver in Bali ended up being to the experience. Had I been traveling solo, or even with a group of friends, getting to Mount Batur, and then actually up the mountain, would have easily seemed daunting. Even with a mountain guide – which is absolutely imperative – the trek was challenging, overwhelming and unlike anything I’d ever done before, in the best way possible.

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We arrived at our lakefront hotel as the sun was setting, allowing just enough time for showers, dinner, and attempting to turn in for the night before a 2 a.m. wake up call. After a few short hours of rest, shivering and sleep-deprived, we piled into vans that drove us through the pitch blackness to a “basecamp” for a breakfast of banana pancakes (more like a crepe, and very popular in Bali) and coffee under the stars. From there, we made another short drive to our actual basecamp, where we were introduced to our guides and offered walking sticks, flashlights, and – mercifully – warm jackets to be rented for a small fee.

Finally, there was nothing left to do but hike – for about two hours, through thick woods, in complete darkness. It was all very Blair Witch Project, but thankfully not particularly strenuous, though the trails were at times made perilous by loose rocks and crumbling dirt. Fortunately, we were accompanied by a few stellar guides, who make the trek up and down the mountain every single day. One in particular, Ratna, was close to my age and befriended me quickly. She became my biggest motivator to get up the mountain and checked on me throughout the hike, and when I told her I was visiting Bali for my birthday, even presented me with a bright purple flower plucked from the trail.

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After about an hour and a half of darkness, the sun finally began rising a blood red, silhouetting a mist-ringed Mount Agung in front of us. As we ascended, the sky shifted from black to crimson to orange and then pastel pinks and purples all bleeding into each other. Night gave way to day, and soon we could see not only the lake, but the ocean on the other side of it, emphasizing the feeling that we had somehow reached the very edge of the world. It was frigid at the top, and windy, too, the coldest cold I’d felt in quite a long time. But somehow, after a dark night of wandering through wilderness that felt untouched by civilization, at the mountain’s top there were dozens of people chattering excitedly, and huts emitting smoke, where our guides used steam from the volcano to hard boil eggs and make us piping hot cups of coffee to warm our frozen hands.

Watching the sun rise, sipping black Balinese coffee, surrounded by new friends who were just as in awe of the natural beauty this world has to offer, I was immeasurably grateful to be there, in that moment. To have a body healthy enough to carry me up that mountain, and a mind healthy enough to have made my way to Bali, to this beautiful, warm, intoxicating island, half a world away from the life I knew.

Though I returned to the hotel exhausted, but exhilarated, the hike confirmed the fact that I vastly prefer an active style of travel. While I’d enjoyed the days before Mount Batur, I was definitely growing a bit bored with eating, lounging, and being bused around, and was craving something to get my blood pumping. I’m certainly not a lay-on-the-beach-all-day kind of vacationer, and in fact, I find myself waking much earlier while traveling than I do in my everyday life, determined to make the very most of every minute I’m spending somewhere new.

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Sleep deprived, covered head to toe and dust, and aching all over from the hike, our next stop in Ubud was perfectly timed. Known as the arts and culture hub of Bali, Ubud is the closest you’ll get to a bustling city on the island, home to high-end shopping, luxe spas, ritzy restaurants and posh art galleries. We stayed in a gorgeous resort right in the heart of Ubud, just down the street from the famed Monkey Forest. It was a welcome breather after days of a set itinerary and shifting locations every night; here we had two days of relatively free time to lounge by the pools, take advantage of much-needed $8 massages, shop for souvenirs, and explore the city.

Initially, I relished the thought of some free time to myself, but soon found that I chose to spend it with others in the group anyway, going out to dinner, taking in a traditional Balinese dance, and even rafting along the Hindu carving-lined Ayung River. As an animal lover, I was particularly excited for the Monkey Forest, a sanctuary where the Balinese long-tailed monkeys roam freely; swinging from trees, snacking on mangos, and picking fights with one another – and with tourists. While adorable, the monkeys are also whip-smart and mischievous, and though visitors are instructed not to bring in any food or drinks, we still witnessed multiple people having plastic water bottles and other items snatched right from their hands.

Even outside the walls of the sanctuary, near our hotel pool or along the shop-lined streets of Monkey Forest Road, these cheeky little primates were seemingly always waiting in the wings, poised to steal scraps of food or some loosely-guarded object. I even awoke in the middle of the night to a spat between several of them outside our hotel room. Despite their cute faces and small stature, the monkeys can scratch or bite if provoked – and you should never look them in the eyes or bare your teeth – so you shouldn’t make contact with them unless it’s okay-ed by a sanctuary employee (as was the case in my photo below!)

When visiting Ubud, be sure to leave ample time for shopping, whether at the the high-end boutiques or the bustling open-air marketplace, where you can find stall after stall of locally-made jewelry, incense, wood carvings, purses and other trinkets to take home. Ubud also boasts some pretty diverse dining options, eclectic bars, and sleek coffee shops that made me feel as though I’d never left LA.

Speaking of coffee, you may have heard of one of Indonesia’s most headline-grabbing exports; Luwak coffee, colloquially known as cat poo coffee. To be clear, there’s no cat poo in the coffee itself. Rather, the berries are eaten by the civet cat, then digested and, well, pooed out, at which point the berries are cleaned and the coffee beans harvested and roasted. And voila – cat poo coffee! It’s something of a delicacy, and in other parts of the world can be quite expensive. Locally, it’s expensive by Bali standards; about $5 per cup, and around $15 for a package to take home. Our guide took us to a coffee plantation specializing in Luwak coffee, where we were able to see how the beans were roasted, try a flight of their various coffee and teas, and, of course, sample the famed cat-poo coffee. It’s traditionally served “Bali style,” that is, pitch black – exactly how I like my hot coffee.

Said to be the best coffee in Bali, the Luwak beans produce a very rich and very bitter taste, and while it’s a damn good cup of coffee, I have to admit that it’s nothing life-changing. It is, ultimately, a bit of a gimmick (albeit a fascinating one,) but to that end, be sure that any Luwak coffee you drink or coffee plantation you visit is an ethical one. When the Luwak coffee first gained international attention, many producers kept the civet cats in cages, where they were treated inhumanely, so do your research and pay a visit to a plantation (as we did) where the civet cats are cared for and able to roam freely.


Our final stop on the tour was the sleepy beach town of Candidasa. At first glance, it’s not exactly a destination, and in fact seemed to have been chosen as our end point solely because it is normally also the starting point of the Lombok week of the tour (which was canceled due to the recent devastating earthquake there.) There’s just one main road lined with souvenir shops, spas, and restaurants, and while Candidasa still hums with traffic and tourism, in many ways the east side of Bali felt … wilder. The sunlight seemed to sizzle on my skin, glistening in the humid air. Clusters of mysterious bites formed on my arms, and my legs were scratched bloody and raw from coral after a snorkeling expedition. The local alcohol – arak – can kill you if made incorrectly. We took our lives in our hands darting across traffic, and traveling by car felt just as treacherous. The sunsets burned, burned, burned; purple and indigo and streaks of orange and red painting the sky for as far as the eye could see.

On our last night as a group, we practically took over the dive bar across the road, downing mojitos spiked with arak and an endless supply of Bintang beer as our guide plied us with savory, vegetable-filled martabak, a fried bread treat that’s common street food in Indonesia and is sublime paired with sweet-and-hot chili sauce.

As the night wound down, we found ourselves spilling outside the bar, chatting beneath a crescent moon about what had brought us here, half a world away from the mundanity of our everyday lives, most of us having traveled alone, to share with strangers in a life-affirming experience that would never be done justice by photos and words for the people back home.

The moon was a sickle that night, and Mars burned orange in the endless black sky, studded like a string of diamonds with Venus and Jupiter, too. It was impossible to forget in that moment that I was on the underside of the world as I’d always known it, looking up at a different sky, a different hemisphere. I was not running from my problems, but I was not taking them with me, either. I was simple existing here; breathing, tasting, talking, learning, living.

As we headed back to the hotel for one last moonlit dip in the pool, nursing our beers and trading stories about our travels, about scuba diving in the Maldives and river rafting in Costa Rica and how to survive a long layover in the Singapore airport, I found myself startled by the thought that I would likely never see these people again. Already melancholy over an experience that hadn’t yet ended – always the double-edged sword of being elsewhere, like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

On my last full day in Bali, the rest of the group departed early for sailing and scuba diving and further treks around Southeast Asia, save for a girl from England who was my age and also traveling alone. Free to choose our own activity, we decided to take advantage of the hotel’s offer to hire us a driver who would take us around the island for the day. We were able to visit Tenganan, one of the oldest traditional Balinese villages, where people still live and produce handmade goods, including the beautiful ikat weaving. From there, we paid a visit to Pura Lempuyang, or the “Gates of Heaven,” a highly Instagram-able temple at the top of a hill. The photo was breathtaking, but be prepared for a scene that is less than serene; after paying for a shuttle, a mandatory sarong, and admission, you have to hike up even further and wait in line in order to take a photo in front of the Gates of Heaven. Our wait ended up clocking in at about an hour, on a very humid day, but it was quite honestly the first line I’d encountered during my entire trip in Bali, and as with many tourists traps, a bit of patience is the price you pay for a once-in-a-lifetime photo.

After the wait, my travel companion and I decided we’d had our fill of waiting in lines and battling crowds and decided to make a break for the white sand shores of the Virgin Beach. While it’s not how I’d choose to spend an entire vacation, an afternoon of lounging at a cabana, sipping a beer, and staring out at the turquoise Bali sea was the perfect way to end my whirlwind adventure.


More than its white sand beaches and ornate temples, the Balinese people are the island’s main draw. I have never felt so at home so quickly anywhere. I have never experienced the kind of warmth and generosity from total strangers that I did in Bali. I have never laughed so hard.

Ultimately, I loved traveling with people of all ages, from all countries and walks of life. There was always someone interesting to talk to, eat with, or buddy up with for an activity, and by the end of the tour we felt a lot like a family. I never felt as though I was alone in a foreign country, because I wasn’t. While I had planned to escape for my 25th birthday, fully embracing the notion that it would be solo, I found myself surrounded by new friends and overwhelming warmth from people I didn’t even know at every turn. All around me were signs that I belonged, and reminders that I mattered.

There was a moment during my trip, walking along one of those beaches in Bali alone, that I felt freer than I have ever felt in my life. The stresses of my daily life, worries about money, fruitless concerns about the opinions of others, they melted away like sand being pulled out with the tide. Suddenly it dawned on me that everything I had viewed as an obstacle to getting here didn’t matter at all. That I was finally free to choose my own adventure.

 

A Weekend In Astoria

Like clockwork, when summer rolls around and Los Angeles becomes a sticky mess of tourists and smog, I start yearning for towering trees, sea breezes, and golden twilights that last all night. There’s nowhere quite like Oregon in the summer, when the days are warm and the sun stays high in the sky until 10 p.m. and the stars cut the black like broken glass; when wind rustles through wheat and evergreens and you realize with each inhale just how much more room you need to breathe.

Oregon is familiarity, but this summer I was determined to explore new experiences in my home state. I’d never been to Astoria, a tiny seaside town that straddles the Oregon-Washington border and is best known as the filming location for the ’80s cult-classic The Goonies. These days, it’s matured into an idyllic coastal oasis of cozy coffee shops, craft breweries, and cute shops offering surprisingly sophisticated wares. Thankfully, much of Astoria’s history and traditions have been dutifully preserved during its modern makeover.

For our stay, I knew the minute I saw it on Airbnb that the stained glass-adorned, hilltop Victorian mansion listed on the Astoria’s historic register had to be our home base, and it provided the perfect atmosphere for our time in this little crown jewel of a city. It was reminiscent of the Flavel House, an opulent, 11,000 square-foot mansion built in 1885 that sprawls an entire city block and featured indoor plumbing and hot water at the time of its construction by an Astoria millionaire.

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For an in-depth introduction to the story of Astoria, make your first stop the historic riverfront trolley that runs along the Columbia River. In the summer, you can take the refurbished trolley – originally built in 1913 – from one end of town to the other for just $1, with narration provided by the knowledgable trolley conductors.

Astoria is a foodie (and boozy) paradise. We were fortunate enough to arrive on a Sunday just in time for the weekly farmer’s market, which tumbles down 12th Street toward the riverfront from May to October, and hosts food vendors along with booths of jewelry, art, flowers and plants, and more.

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Options for locally-brewed beer abound: Buoy Beer is a bustling restaurant offering interesting brews, fresh seafood, and a stunning waterfront view. Fort George Brewery has a diverse beer list, rooftop seating, and salmon fish and chips to die for. And I particularly enjoyed an afternoon sipping sour beers at Reach Break, an airy, industrial-style brewery flanked by food trucks to pair with your beer flight.

You don’t have to look far in Astoria for charming cafes. Break up your shopping sprees on Main Street by popping into Astoria Coffee House & Bistro for an afternoon coffee and dessert, and start your morning with brunch and killer Stumptown coffee at the impossibly atmospheric Street Fourteen Cafe. Astoria Coffee Co. doubles as a Goonies gift shop, and Coffee Girl offers strong espresso with the coziest coastal backdrop imaginable. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, be sure to check out Frite & Scoop for the perfect summer treat.

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For a change of scenery (and perhaps a bit of exercise to burn off all the food and drinks,) head across state lines to view Astoria from the Washington side of the Columbia, where historic churches, Fort Columbia State Park, and pebbly beaches offer a more rugged Northwestern experience.

You can also go a little higher for a different perspective on the area: $5 per car will gain you entrance to the Astoria Column, a dizzying, seemingly-endless spiral staircase that feels most like climbing a lighthouse, and offers a 360-degree view of Astoria and the Columbia completely worth the vertigo.

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In summary, Astoria is a drizzly, cozy, delicious, slightly mysterious coastal escape from reality abundant with history and strong coffee and fresh air – and I can’t wait to go back.

Desert Niland Dreams

I can’t say for sure what had drawn me to Salvation Mountain for as long as I’d lived in California. I’m not religious, but I’ve always had an affinity for the desert, offbeat attractions, and, admittedly, Instagrammable spots. The cherry on top of its appeal, of course, is that I share my last name with the town where Salvation Mountain sits – Niland, California. Despite its powerful lure, it took me five years, and a chance encounter with two travelers passing through Los Angeles by way of Canada and France, to finally visit the utterly surreal, technicolor desert wonderland that is Salvation Mountain.

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When you pass through Slab City, a post-war, unincorporated community that draws wintering snowbirds and those looking to escape society alike, one of its namesake concrete slab structures welcomes you to “The Last Free Place On Earth,” just past which lies Salvation Mountain. Built in the 1980s and ’90s by Leonard Knight, the rainbow-hued mountain lies to the west of Slab City and south of East Jesus in the vast Sonoran Desert. It’s a true feat of construction, slapped together with adobe, straw and vibrant paint over the course of several decades after its creator found a spiritual calling. Leonard’s first two efforts at evangelizing that “God is Love” – through a giant hot air balloon and a first, structurally unstable attempt at Salvation Mountain – were both unsuccessful. But his final vision ultimately became the mammoth that still towers like a technicolor oasis today, withstanding the blistering desert heat and outlasting even Leonard himself, who died in 2014.

These days, Salvation Mountain is a sprawling, living work of art truly unlike anywhere else on Earth. It is entirely donation based, run by a non-profit organization, live-in caretaker and cadre of volunteers who will bellow through airhorns from the base of the mountain at visitors who stray from the designated path, labeled “The Yellow Brick Road.” Still, decades after Leonard’s first rendering of Salvation Mountain, the paint remains as vibrant and the foundation as sturdy as ever, and despite the remoteness of its locations, draws a steady stream of visitors from around the world to the mountain, even with skin-blistering heat of the summer already in full swing.

Perched upon the mountain’s top, you can see for miles and miles across the desert, out to Slab City and the deep blue mountains and the horizon meeting the Salton Sea, so vast and shimmering in a barren land seemingly devoid of life that it could easily be mistaken for a glittering mirage. Surveying the seemingly endless, almost Martian landscape, blanketed in the stillness of the afternoon heat, I felt utterly calm. Time seemed to melt; my traveling companions and I might have lounged there a few minutes, or an hour. It was impossible to say. My time there was less a religious experience and more the kind of peace that pervades when you step away from a city awhile and its din and hum fades to a silence that settles into your soul. Lost in the desert, communing with nature, hundreds of miles from civilization and obligation. It might truly be the last free place on earth. And that’s some sort of salvation.

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When (or if) you decide to leave Salvation Mountain, the Salton Sea is not to be missed – and in fact, as the largest lake in California it would be impossible to do so. You may have heard tall tales about its smell or inhospitable ecosystem, but I assure you that the Salton Sea is more than compatible with life. It feels a bit like being on the moon; it’s an otherworldly sort of place, a shoreline rising like a mirage to meet the desert horizon, ringed by a white beach made of a million fish bones that crackle beneath your feet. Dusk feels like watching the sun evaporate on another planet, sinking behind purple lunar mountains over an accidental lake stretching as far as the eye can see. It is remote and eerie, magical and mythical. The sunset seems to take twice as long out there, and the climate takes on a comfortable humidity as the light lingers, the sky strobing from fire orange to petal pink and lavender. Wild brown hares with cotton tails dart through the brush as night falls, a sliver of moon and smattering of stars appear. The Salton Sea Recreation Area allows for picnicking, camping, or simply gaping in awe at its idiosyncratic beauty.

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The Salton Sea, as a concept, tends to dredge up the cynics. It is symbolic of the inherent desire – and failure – of mankind to insert himself where he does not belong. Imagine, making the journey to a caustic desert environment, vacationing along the shores of a  toxic body of water that nature never intended to exist. It is as incongruous with life as the smog and sprawl of Los Angeles, in an acute and opposite way. Decades after it was a resort town, the Salton Sea still calls to those looking to get lost, to slip between the cracks of reality for a while, not into the lap of luxury, but into an alternate existence of dilapidation and grit that reminds us that we are temporary, while these other things remain.

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Like the Salton Sea, nearby Bombay Beach is located below sea level – in fact, it’s the lowest-elevation community in the United States. Originally established as a resort town – which even boasted its own yacht club – it fell victim to the Salton Sea’s fickle rising waters, which have at points flooded the trailer community that has existed there since its heyday. There are just a couple hundred residents of Bombay Beach still, and it’s also home to a bar, some abandoned structures, and enough nuclear fallout-paraphernalia to make you just a little uneasy. It is post-apocalyptic to a tee, some sort of post-war alternate reality in which the war had gone the other way. It is eerie and impenetrable and inexplicably beautiful, its purpose and endurance and very existence make no sense and perfect sense all at once. Bombay Beach feels as though you’ve slipped through the wormhole somewhere in the timeline, where you are free to be either a stranger passing through with wonder or a local born and bred in this alien wasteland where the weight of your own reality has somehow ceased to matter.

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And if you still need more incentive to go get lost out in the desert for a day, the drive winds directly through Palm Springs, where you can stop for a refreshing cocktail and bite to eat. Most importantly, you’ll also pass right by the International Banana Museum, the world’s largest, and kitschiest, collection of all things banana that costs just $1 to enter and is the perfect accompaniment to the offbeat, nowhere-else-like-it spirit of the desert all around it.

Springing Into The South

Some time around March of this year, I grew exceedingly tired of Los Angeles’ grueling winter weather (only partly joking here) and decided I needed to usher in spring as soon as possible. Having spent months reading travel books and blogs daydreaming about which far-off country I might visit next, my mind drifted to the bubblegum-pink cherry blossoms that bloom each April in Japan, drawing tens of thousands of tourists from around the globe to take in their splendor. I immediately logged on to frantically search last-minute flights (the only way I know how to travel, really,) but, predictably, they were prohibitively expensive just a month or so before the predicted peak bloom. Still, my mind was made up; I was going to see cherry blossoms, and while Japan would have to wait until another year, I took it as a sign to finally return to one of my favorite cities: Washington, DC.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetThe first — and last — time I’d visited DC, I was a freshman in college (already five years ago now!) I had visited a friend I met at a summer camp in South Carolina years before, who was from Richmond, Virginia (more on that city later,) and it was this same friend that I visited again. When I’d toured the city before, it had been in the middle of a predictably hot, muggy DC summer. This time, the weather was bitingly cold, verging on potential snow on certain days, and surprisingly windy, offering a very different experience of the city. The frigid temperatures and threat of snow made me fear for the fate of the cherry blossoms (the main attraction, after all!) but I arrived to find that we were very much in luck: the city was positively blooming. From the Capitol steps to the National Mall to the Tidal Basin and virtually as far as the eye could see there were cherry blossom trees puffed up like cotton candy, petals littering the ground like confetti, illuminated pink and gold by the setting sun. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined Japan’s blooms to be, and DC’s trees were, after all, a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo a century ago. How fitting!

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We visited about a week before the formal National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrations, but DC was still in full-on cherry blossom mode, from cherry blossoms on the Metro cards and t-shirts in gift shops to small cherry blossom stickers hidden on doors and lamp posts and various places throughout the city. We even happened to stumble upon a cherry blossom pop-up bar, which operates only while the trees are in bloom, and is actually adorned with cherry blossoms hanging from the ceiling, creating a completely magical secret garden atmosphere as you sip your Japanese (think matcha and gin) inspired cocktail beneath the warm glow of lanterns. While the temperatures were cold to frigid at virtually all times (I was bundled up in a long winter coat, scarf, beanie, etc.) visiting DC to see the cherry blossoms was an incredible experience, and somehow enamored me of the city even more than I had when I’d visited in the summer.

Though I’d already visited many of the monuments and museums most people flock to on visits to DC, there were a few things on my list still — namely, the Newseum. As a journalist, its appeal was initially more academic; I’ll take any opportunity I can to learn about the history of my career field. But the Newseum definitely offers an experience that can be enjoyed even by those who don’t consider themselves news junkies. The 9/11 exhibit, featuring a multi-story wall plastered with newspaper front pages from around the world the day after the attack, is harrowing, and the lower floor of the museum houses an actual portion of the Berlin Wall. As a true crime buff, I was particularly intrigued by the FBI exhibit, which featured the Unabomber’s cabin and other paraphernalia from other high-profile killings and terror attacks. Also not to be missed is the Pictures of the Year exhibit, featuring photos from 75 years of history, from WWII to Charlottesville and everything in between, an all-absorbing and a viscerally visual representation of history. Also worth a visit in the area is the US Botanic Garden, which offered a beautiful (and free!) respite from the cold and wind and felt like stepping into a lush tropical garden.

One of the reasons I’d initially fallen so hard for Washington, DC, in addition to the cleanliness, the parks and waterways, and the great food, was Georgetown. Not the university (though it’s also lovely,) but the neighborhood for which it’s named. Georgetown almost feels like a Disney-fied version of a college town: its main street is positively packed with every shop and restaurant you could ever possibly want — including numerous cupcake bakeries — and the neighborhoods are lined with rainbow-hued row homes and cobblestone streets. Its modern amenities (okay, namely designer stores) are drool-worthy, and its historic elements are delightfully charming (fancy a stroll across a wooden footbridge?) I was grateful to find that Georgetown was every bit as delightful as I remembered.

Untitled collage (2)Georgetown was our last stop in DC before making the two-hour drive south to Richmond, where the weather was thankfully much more pleasant. Like DC, I’d visited Richmond once, five years before, with my friend, and had fond memories of Virginia’s capitol. But I definitely underestimated just how much I’d enjoy the city upon my return. There are a lot of preconceived notions about the south, and many of them are based in facts, especially in Virginia, but Richmond is a far cry from what most people have in mind. I’d liken it more to cities like Portland or Austin: it’s decidedly young and aggressively hip, sprinkled with more vintage stores, tattoo shops, craft breweries and organic coffee roasters than one could possibly see in a single visit. There are also more traditional attractions like museums, a botanical garden, a zoo, and numerous historic markers designating outposts of the Revolutionary War and just about every other turning point in American history. One can’t-miss attraction for lovers of literature, horror or history (I happen to be all of the above) is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Though Poe did not live on the property where the museum is located, it is the oldest structure in the city, and Poe spent more of his life in Richmond than in any other city. The exhibits include letters to his lovers, first editions of his works, and speculation about his mysterious death, while the grounds are inhabited by two black cats and the gift shop is stocked with rather adorable plush Poes and other souvenirs.

Untitled collage (3)Richmond is very progressive, very diverse, and very cute. Carytown is its shopping and dining core: blocks upon blocks of gift shops, book stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, and restaurants boasting just about every type of cuisine imaginable. A few recommendations here include Chop Suey Books (home to the utterly adorable “blind date with a book” featured above,) and Mongrel, for any kind of souvenir or gift you could ever dream of. Food and drink was a huge component of my time in Richmond (as is the case with most of my travels,) so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite recommendations: swing by Lamplighter Coffee Roasters for a strong latte to start your day, Mean Bird for a super satisfying vegetarian fried chicken sandwich, Proper Pie Co. for hearty sweet and savor pies, Sugar Shack for fluffy, fresh-baked donuts in eye-popping colors and mouth-watering flavors, Triple Crossing Beer for the Waxing Poetic Pink Guava sour beer (trust me on this one) and Charm School Social Club for unique ice cream flavors like Thai Iced Tea and lavender topped with a blow-torch roasted marshmallow.

Untitled collage (4)And one last tip for making the most of your Richmond visit: you can barely walk a block without spotting a gorgeous mural by a local artist, so you can be sure to find that perfect Instagram backdrop to commemorate your time in one of the most charming cities in the South.

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Nice to Meet You, New York

New York City, and pretty much the entire East Coast, is currently being besieged by a brutal winter storm dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” so I suppose there’s no better time than now to look back on (or look forward to, if you’d prefer,) warmer, happier times: my first-ever trip to NYC during a sublime spring week last May.

Whether I’d like New York — the Emerald City of digital media, a place I’d for years been told I’d inevitably have to try at some point in my life — always seemed like something of a crap shoot. On the one hand, I was enamored by the energy of cities; it’s the reason I’ve found Los Angeles such a hard habit to kick. On the other, even the thought of an East Coast winter sent a shiver down my spine, and the logistics of life in New York City – unreliable public transportation! A cutthroat competitive atmosphere! Housing so expensive and elusive I’d have to shell out a year’s worth of rent in Los Angeles just to find it! – always seemed daunting to me. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for New York City. But maybe no one really is, not until they’re actually there. 36423062253_bebb2abd7b_o

There’s something about the nature of this place that seems to hyper-charge your ability to adapt; kickstarts resourcefulness, sharpens survival skills. I was visiting for a week for work, but was mostly solo in my hours off the clock, outside of visits with a couple of close college friends. Almost instantly, from touching down at JFK and being mistaken for a local by my Uber driver to learning to navigate the Subway the next morning, a city that had always seemed so out-of-reach on paper, so foreign in photos and movies, a world belonging to everyone other than myself, became as familiar a place as I’d ever been. The streets became my own daily routes, the parks my hidden spots, cafes my usual haunts. I quickly came to understand that New York is as user-friendly as you make it to be, it is a city that beckons you to experience it, in its entirety.

There is so much of New York that reminds me of Europe, specifically London, a home I’d loved with all my heart. The streets, the parks, the markets, the sidewalk cafes. The hum of daily life. The unspoken assurance that we all, dearly beloved and strangers alike, are gathered here today for the express purpose of living. This is both the end and the beginning, the very center of the universe as we know it.

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Stumbling out from a sterile office into the late-spring twilight of a city I’d known for less than 24 hours, somehow it felt as if my feet knew just where to take me. I forewent the Subway for a brisk walk through the balmy evening, with no particular destination in mind. From Union Square, the city’s pulsing digital publishing heart, south toward Washington Square Park, where people were gathered in couplets and groups to revel in the good luck of such glorious weather.

A golden glow was burnishing the park, crowning rooftops and skylines and seeping through tree branches. So much life, and everyone around me a stranger. But something about it felt so familiar. The college students calling to one another as they trekked from classes at NYU, the couples locked in embraces on sunkissed benches drenched in warmth, the children tottering around as their parents followed. I had been them once, and I would be them again. New York City is hardly shy about its central thesis; that life is a full circle, that everything and everyone is connected somehow.

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While a powder-blue night fell around me, I pushed further south, past my hotel in TriBeCa, all the way down to One World Trade Center. I had seen its spire rising above the city skyline, beckoning me to see this piece of history for myself.

I have no doubt that its reverence is not lost during the daytime, but there was something about seeing the World Trade Center Site illuminated at night that quite literally took my breath away. I was seven years old when 9/11 happened; like many in my generation, it’s the first news event I have any memory of, towers falling on a TV screen, and it quite literally changed the world I grew up in.

What was once Ground Zero is now a sunken pool ringed with golden light, the depths of which seem endless, as if you are standing at the edge of a portal to the very center of the Earth, or perhaps to another world. Maybe Heaven, maybe an alternate version of this life where such tragedies never occur, but certainly an existence that is not this one, a place that is beyond the pain and suffering of here. And yet, for somewhere quite literally built upon sadness and grief, I was not overcome with a sense of despair, the likes of which I’d felt visiting Holocaust museums and war memorials in Europe. Rather, I was enveloped by a calm like I’d never felt, a sense of peace bathed in this blue and gold half-light that fell after the darkest day of so many peoples’ lives, at this shrine to those who were once a part of this resilient city, and would now live on in it forever more.

In a city seeped with such history, both celebratory and sad, one of the newer attractions New York has to offer is the High Line, less than a decade old and completed just a few years ago. It’s a sort of urban boardwalk flanked by greenery and stunning skyline views, and from here, one can see straight down avenues for miles in one direction, and the Statue of Liberty towering out in the harbor in another. Cotton candy sunsets are truly spectacular in New York, and I could hardly drag myself away from the twilight down to the Chelsea Market just below, though it’s really a can’t-miss. There are dozens of food vendors offering up just about every cuisine imaginable, as well as delectable desserts, beer and wine, and shops filled with trendy trinkets and souvenirs. It reminded me again of one of my favorite parts of London — the markets — and offers this communal space through which tourists and locals, friends and strangers alike can call this city their own.

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I found it rather remarkable how, within the span of a week, I’d gone from being ambivalent about New York City to falling head over heels in love, becoming hopelessly entangled in its glimmering, golden embrace. I had these wild thoughts of dropping everything on the West Coast and fulfilling my millennial destiny, doing the damn thing and trying my hand at New York. I saw the entire course of my life shifting, ran through scenarios of just how I might make it work. Was I prepared for a cross-country move, for East Coast winters, for starting all over, again? I fretted and frantically attempted to recharter the rest of my life in a hotel room, until over drinks with a friend, I received just the talking-down I needed to soothe my mind. “New York will always be here,” she assured me.

And now, I know when the time comes that I’ll be ready for it.

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Pura Vida en Costa Rica

While stuck toiling away in a sunless office and daydreaming of traveling—somewhere, anywhere, really—the idea of just throwing a dart at a map and hopping on a plane with little more than a passport and a healthy dose of adventure sounds like little more than a daydream, but that’s more or less what I had the chance to do this past spring.

Through a little happenstance and a lot of generosity, I’d come into possession of a pair of airline vouchers, and after a year of working full time—and having been bound to only domestic flights for even longer—my boyfriend and I decided to go big or go home and choose the furthest place our roundtrip tickets would take us. As we were flying JetBlue, that narrowed our search to the Caribbean and Central America—still a vast enough region that I hardly knew where to begin. After a lot of research and a good deal of hemming and hawing about which of the seemingly endless Caribbean islands were a fit for us, we finally decided on a place that seemed to boast the best of both worlds—offering a tropical climate and beautiful beaches, but enough adventure to keep us busy—and settled on Costa Rica. I’ll admit that the swoon-worthy (and unbelievably affordable) Airbnbs Costa Rica offers were one of the initial factors in its favor, but after extensive research, it seemed to be a country about which few people had anything bad to say—and I now wholeheartedly count myself among them.

Inevitably, my restless feet had me pushing for a vacation sooner rather than later, and somehow, the universe worked in our favor and the stars aligned enough for us to scrape our trip together on just three weeks notice. After weeks of research, we took a leap of faith and booked our flights and rental car, nailed down an itinerary, and secured stays at two Airbnbs and a hot spring resort within the same night. Due to blackout dates associated with our vouchers, we ended up allotting just six full days in Costa Rica, which was certainly on the shorter side of the timeline other travelers had suggested online. Initially, I was a little nervous about the swiftness of both our planning and our actual vacation, but in the end, things could not have worked out more perfectly.

It was a Friday night in late April (the beginning of the country’s rainy season, initially another cause for concern,) when we hopped a plane from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then jetted two hours down to San Jose. Costa Rica’s bustling, smog-layered capital is likely what you’d envision of a Central American metropolis, but beyond its traffic and oppressive heat (and waiting an hour in line to clear customs) is a land of absolute paradise. We rented a four wheel drive SUV for the entirety of our stay (an absolute necessity for getting around the country if not traveling with a tour group,) and were soon on our way. A word of warning: driving in Costa Rica requires nerves of steel at times—narrow lanes, hairpin turns, few sidewalks, and windy rural roads with no street lights, stray animals and motorcycles zipping by, just to name a few obstacles—but our experience was nothing like the horror stories we’d read about online, in which tourists recounted being run off the road or having their tires slashed in order for thieves to rob and extort them. Costa Rica offers many of the rental car companies with which you’re probably already familiar (we used Enterprise, which was completely painless,) and I while I would absolutely recommend purchasing the highest level of insurance offered, unless your regular car insurance already covers international rentals, our experience was overwhelmingly positive. That said, some of the windy, guard rail-less mountain roads, narrow bridges, and inclement weather make the experience of driving in Costa Rica not one for the faint of heart.

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From San Jose, we spent out first night driving about three hours (through near-torrential rain) to one of Costa Rica’s most stunning and most visited areas: Lake Arenal, which lies at the foot of a dormant volcano and is surrounded by natural hot springs. There were few Airbnbs available in the relatively remote area, and so we opted for a two-night stay at the Tabacon Thermal Hot Springs Resort, which was an absolute dream come true. Since April is the beginning of the rainy/off-season in Costa Rica, we were able to find a reasonable rate for a room at the five-star resort, and spent two days soaking up the lush natural hot springs, which boast health-boosting properties and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, complete with views of the volcano, a swim-up pool bar, a guests-only garden with cabanas, and other perks. While many resorts in the area boast their own private hot springs access, some, including the Tabacon, offer day passes for non-guests to enjoy the springs, and there are even points of access to the hot springs that are completely free.

On our way to the Tabacon, after hours spent driving through pitch-black rain, we stumbled across a warm, well-lit roadside restaurant that offered us our first taste of Costa Rican hospitality—and its amazing food. One of the things I noticed right away about Costa Rica is that there are few chains of any kind, but especially few food chains. Fast food franchises are almost non-existent (yep, even McDonalds,) but who needs them when mom-and-pop bars and restaurants line almost every roadside? Though we were nervous about having to use our Spanish skills at first, we quickly found that most people in Costa Rica also speak English, and are more than gracious should you attempt to dust off your high school Spanish to order ceviche. Many restaurants are family owned, and we were immediately greeted with a warm welcome from the owner (and his wife and son,) and offered a round of the country’s national beer, Imperial, which we sipped blissfully while listening to the ribbit of frogs and chirping of bugs in the humid, inky Costa Rican night.

The next morning, our first full day in Costa Rica kicked off bright and early (being so close to the equator, the sun rises around 6 a.m. and sets around 6 p.m. year round) with a hike at the Arenal National Park, where you’re offered one of two routes up to a scenic viewpoint of the volcano. There wasn’t much in the way of large wildlife to see here, but you are surrounded at all times by some pretty incredible flora and fauna—birds, frogs, insects, and the general sounds of the rain forest. After a night of rain, we ended up lucking out with the weather; it was a warm, sunny day, and the volcano’s peak was completely visible, an apparently rather rare sighting due to the usually misty rainforest climate. Park entry is $10 per person, and the admission for most national parks, tours and attractions we visited ranged from about $10 to $50. Costa Rica is generally not an expensive country, and it’s very doable without the assistance of a group if you’re feeling adventurous, so the admission prices were, in my opinion, quite reasonable (many places even offer student discounts, so be sure to bring a student ID if you’ve got one.)

Just a few kilometers down the road from the park was a butterfly conservatory where, immediately upon entering, we were fortunate enough to be ushered over to see a group of howler monkeys perched in the trees outside. From there, we paid $15 for a self-guided tour of the sanctuary, which is helping to reestablish the rainforest and its precious native species. The first greenhouse we entered was home to the national butterfly of Costa Rica, the beautiful Blue Morpho, which has gorgeous iridescent blue wings on top, and a spotted brown pattern underneath. The Blue Morpho is a creature in constant motion, and there were dozens fluttering all around us as soon as we entered. The following greenhouses were home to other species of butterfly, moths, and a whole atrium for amphibians, where we saw turtles and several of Costa Rica’s most poisonous frog species. The final leg of the tour offers a shorter or longer walk along the river, where sloths, howler monkeys, and other creatures—as well as the volcano—can often be viewed.

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Later that afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant (and, as I said, they’re all local in Costa Rica) for a delicious burrito, quesadilla, and “natural drink,” which is fresh-squeezed fruit juice—pineapple, strawberry and guava were the most common—and is absolutely delicious and highly refreshing on a humid day. As someone whose diet is at times restricted by the fact that I don’t eat meat and can be a bit of an obsessive germaphobe, the availability of food I could eat in Costa Rica was initially a concern, but was quickly abated. It’s hard to drive more than a few hundred meters through the country without coming across a family-owned restaurant, coffee shop, or fruit stand, most often boasting about vegetarian or vegan options, fresh seafood, local fruit and vegetables, natural drinks, and menus that truly align with Costa Rica’s famed “pure vida” (pure life) way of living. I’m a pescatarian, and had no trouble finding meatless burritos, tacos, rice and beans, ceviche, and other options everywhere we went. Because most establishments are family-owned, there’s a lot of pride taken in the art of hospitality and in the quality of the food served, and we felt profusely welcomed and well-fed everywhere we ate. Food safety was never an issue in our experience, but the quality of tap water can at times be a real concern in Costa Rica (the reason a Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended, though not required, for travelers,) so we stuck to drinking bottled water and beer just to be safe.

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After two days of enjoying the Arenal region’s hot springs, waterfalls (the La Fortuna waterfall, pictured above, is 400 steps each way and absolutely worth every one,) butterfly sanctuaries and stunning volcano views, we drove from there to the mountainous region of Atenas, stopping first at the Mistico Hanging Bridges.

I’ve certainly never been a fan of heights, and so the idea of walking across eight entire bridges suspended high above the Costa Rican rainforest (which, by the way, have grated bottoms you can see through and swing as you walk upon them) was not exactly a thrilling idea. But hanging bridges are an absolute must-do when visiting the country, and trust me, after the first bridge, the experience only gets easier from there. The park offers gorgeous views, as well as another waterfall, and some really beautiful wildlife (though still no sighting of the elusive sloths I’d been dying to see!) From there, the drive to Atenas took us through about three hours of winding mountainous roads, and we arrived at our next Airbnb, an actual tree house, after nightfall. The house was totally open air and incredibly rustic, complete with a stone shower, wooden tub, and bug net for the bed—a good thing since we encountered all sorts of beetles, mosquitoes, frogs and even a bat in our bedroom. As much as I wanted to be one with nature, the sounds of the cicadas and the rainforest were so deafening I could barely sleep, and I awoke with a startle each time a bug or bat smacked against the flaps covering the windows or the bug net draping the bed, but it was an unforgettable experience, to say the least.

The following day, we drove about two hours to the luscious, emerald green Monteverde region for a tour of the National Cloud Forest Reserve, which was only $10 with a student discount, and offered a stunning two hour hike through the rainforest. After this came one of our most-anticipated activities, and one of the highlights of a trip that already boasted so many: zip lining. If you’re planning to visit Costa Rica (and I hope I’ve convinced you to do so!) you’ll come to find that popular activities like zip lining and hanging bridge tours are offered in a lot of places across the country, but trust me when I say there’s a reason why Monteverde is famous for it. If I thought the hanging bridges were scary, I had to completely abandon all fears in order to go through with zip lining; even the cable car that took us up to the first platform made me break into a nervous sweat and had me desperately wishing to be back on solid ground. Alas, as I ascended the metal steps leading up to that first zip lining platform, there was no turning back; the only way down was by zip line, and so I let myself be hooked in, leaned back, placed my knees up against my chest—and away I went. Though we were all made to do a practice zip line at first, I still had no idea quite what to expect from the first real run, suspended hundreds of meters above the dense green rainforest—and the actual experience was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.

Zip lining is truly an adrenaline rush, and after that first real line I was absolutely hooked, and from then on was frequently the first one to step up at each following platform. There were eight lines in total, the longest of which was a half mile (!) long, and our pace was ultimately a quick one thanks to an impending storm that sent rain droplets smacking into our faces as we whizzed across the zip lines. The entire experience was absolutely incredible; surreal, invigorating, yet utterly calming, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to survey so much natural beauty from such a unique vantage point, to feel the wind whipping your face as you sail through the sky, to feel so truly in control of your own body and so powerful and strong that you can practically fly.

I couldn’t stop smiling. Or at least, I couldn’t until we finished the last zip line, descended steps to the last platform, and realized with a sinking horror that we’d have to rappel—or jump—in order to get safely back to solid ground. I was already incredibly proud of myself for accomplishing zip lining, but let me tell you, after being made to jump backward off a platform some fifty feet high and free falling for several seconds as my screams caught in my throat before the bungee cord did, I truly felt like I could do anything. It was absolutely terrifying—I truly felt my heart jump up into my throat—but it was incredible. I felt like Wonder Woman at the end. It was such a rush, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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From there, we spent one more night in our Airbnb treehouse before heading out bright and early for a three hour drive to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, stopping along the way in the quaint, colorful surf town of Jaco, which offered cute souvenir shops, a surprisingly hipster cafe very reminiscent of California, and the absolute freshest smoothies we’d ever had. From there, we made a necessary stop at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary just south of the Dominical, which is a nonprofit animal rescue perched high atop the Pacific Ocean. It’s home to all kinds of beautiful wild animals that require rehabilitation and other special care, including toucans, vivid scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and, of course, two-toed and three-toed sloths. Sloths are a sort of unofficial mascot for Costa Rica and easily the country’s most famous and most adorable residents. They’re also masters of disguise, however, hiding high up in the rainforest canopy with fur that’s designed to mimic the look of moss, which makes them difficult to spot outside of a sanctuary or without the help of a trained guide. We learned this the hard way after several hikes through national forests without any sloth sightings, a truly disappointing endeavor, so I’d highly recommend taking at least one guided wildlife tour in order to get a glimpse at all of the incredible creatures Costa Rica has to offer. Fortunately for us, Manuel Antonio National Park is the country’s most famous, and was just about 45 minutes from our Airbnb in Dominical. Guided tours run about $50, but they’re worth every penny as your guide points out not only the adorable sloths sleeping high up in the trees, but the smallest lizards, tree frogs, and even butterflies and other insects so fleeting and small that their beauty would never be visible otherwise. You can even view (and photograph) the wildlife through telescopic lenses, and while you’re not supposed to feed the animals, you might just get lucky by having a member of your tour group accidentally smuggle in a banana that sends the capuchin monkeys scurrying right up to you.

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Our whirlwind of a trip through Costa Rica concluded with afternoons on secluded beaches and humid evenings high up in the misty rainforest, dodging the rain and side-stepping neon-bright poison frogs, and then in the mornings watching the golden sun rise over the crescent-shaped coastline and bright blue Pacific. It’s almost futile to attempt to capture a place as rich and warm as Costa Rica in writing; it’s a cliche to say it must be experienced, but it’s true. The only way to know pura vida is to live it, and should you ever find yourself presented with the opportunity to escape to this beautiful land of rainforests and friendly people and creatures beyond your wildest imagination, trust me when I say you must go as far as your feet and your money will take you, and strongly consider never coming back.

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A few travel tips for Costa Rica: Brushing up on high school Spanish is absolutely useful and travel is a great opportunity to practice, but most people in Costa Rica speak both Spanish and English, and most signage is written in both languages. There’s no need to exchange currency before traveling, either: dollars are accepted everywhere, and you’ll get change in the national currency, colones. The exchange rate is posted everywhere, and most places will also do the conversion right in front of you so you know you’re getting a fair return. Bug spray and sunscreen are absolute musts. In the off-season, beginning in April, the country is much, much less crowded and less expensive. Most parks and tours will allow you to either drop by or make reservations just a day or so in advance, so there’s not a whole lot of planning required. Don’t try to do too much: the country is manageable by car if you budget your time wisely, but know your limits. Also know that Costa Rica is a very early country: people are out and about at 5 a.m., as its proximity to the equator means the sun rises around 5:30 a.m., and sets around 5:30 p.m., so don’t plan to be hiking, zip lining or doing anything active after dark (unless you’re signing up for a night tour somewhere to spot wildlife.) There also isn’t much that we experienced in the way of night life, but places do stay open fairly late, though know that Monday is essentially the country’s unofficial “off day,” and many parks and attractions are closed that day. Know which experiences are worth paying a premium for and which are not: read TripAdvisor (there’s no Yelp in Costa Rica.) I would absolutely recommend a guided tour of at least one national park, specifically Manuel Antonio. You may think your binoculars and guidebooks will make you a wildlife-spotting expert, but our guide could spot a sloth’s tuft of fur high up in a mossy tree, or the smallest of spiders crawling around a leaf. Paying for a tour from someone who lives and breathes Costa Rica’s nature and wildlife is absolute must—trust me, you won’t quite experience the country the same way on your own.