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.

!Viva Mexico!

I’m trying to make traveling on my birthday something of a tradition, following last year’s adventure to Bali. This year, I convinced a dear friend of mine who was also turning 26 this September to turn an occasion we were both lightly dreading into something celebratory. She’s based in New York, so I figured a perfect halfway point for us would be Mexico City (don’t question the geography too much.)

Mexico City has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as a destination for world-class art, food and culture. I’d heard nothing but rave reviews from friends and coworkers who had been, and a short flight and an abundance of cheap, chic accommodations made it a no-brainer.

Upon telling anyone we were visiting Mexico City, we were completely inundated with recommendations for museums, restaurants, taco stands, markets and more. People have strong opinions about Mexico City, believe me. With a tight five days to pack everything in, we had to prioritize. That meant first thing first on our list was the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Before my visit, I’ll admit my knowledge of Frida Kahlo was confined to the top-line notes I was taught in art class, the bits and pieces I’ve learned as she’s been adopted as a feminist folk hero in recent years. The museum’s bright blue exterior has made it Instagram famous, too, drawing long of tourists, so you’ll want to buy your tickets online in advance. Once you arrive, you’ll also want to opt for the audio guide and the sticker that allows you to take photos inside the exhibits (I skipped this the first time through but was so enamored with the art that I went back through again after buying the pass.)

I’d heard complaints that the museum was overpriced, or overhyped, so my expectations were tempered at first – and then completely and utterly blown away. The museum is located in Coyoacán in south Mexico City, and the property is where Frida Kahlo was born, grew up, lived with her husband Diego Rivera, and, later, where she died. The grounds are eye poppingly lush, with emerald and orange birds of paradise, brightly colored pieces of Frida’s folk art, and, of course, the signature cobalt blue walls, which are so incredibly vivid that my iPhone had trouble capturing it.

The museum itself traces Frida’s life and career as an artist, from her training by her photographer father and bout of polio as a child that left her with one leg short than the other, to her tumultuous marriage(s) with Diego Rivera and the bus accident that left her unable to have the children she desperately wanted. In addition to photographs and portraits of Frida by the artist and her lovers, the museum showcases her most intimate journals and sketches, dioramas, furniture, iconic clothing and jewelry.

I found myself leaving in awe of Frida Kahlo’s innate talent, her strength in the fact of heartache and unimaginable physical pain, and her sheer will to survive.

Next up were the famed Teotihuacan pyramids, located about an hour outside of Mexico City in what was once a thriving Mesoamerican civilization. We Ubered (a whole 40 minute drive for about $4) to the Terminal Autobuses del Norte, and from there paid $6 or so for roundtrip fare to and from the pyramids – definitely the easiest and cheapest way to go. The bus ride takes about an hour, give or take traffic and pit stops to pick up food vendors and musicians (we got multiple mobile concerts for just a few pesos.)

Once you arrive, skip past the people hawking guided tours and strap on your walking shoes – seriously, there is a LOT of walking involved here – and head for The Ciudadela, which leads to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl. Allow yourself plenty of time for Teotihuacan: the Avenue of the Dead, which runs the length of the Ciudadela, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, is about four kilometers long. The Pyramid of the Sun is a staggering 248 steps tall, and one of the largest pyramids in the western hemisphere. It also gets hot out on the Avenue of the Dead – there’s almost no shade – so bring plenty of water and cash to buy more.

I’ll be honest, we opted not to climb either of the taller pyramids, and I have zero regrets about it. I’m normally a pretty physically active traveler, but heat fatigue/dehydration is something I try not to tempt when I’m far from home. Instead, we made a reservation at La Gruta, a touristy but still jaw-dropping restaurant nestled inside a cave older than Christ (you don’t get to say that about most dining establishments!)

It’s super cute and colorful and I’ll be honest, the atmosphere is what you’re paying for. The food was decent, but pricey, and a healthier spin on traditional Mexican food. My friend and I, in a spurt of bravado, also decided to try tostadas with chapulines – yup, those would be grasshoppers! Since they’re a delicacy in Mexico, we expected them to be treated like a garnish, a light sprinkling on our guacamole-smothered tostadas. This was, however, absolutely not the case. Our tostadas were completely covered with chapulines – I’d estimated about a hundred in total – and it was quite the experience. I truly didn’t mind the taste, they’re most salty and tangy and crunchy, but the visual (I’ll spare you the details of what happens when you try to cut a grasshopper with a fork and knife) was definitely off-putting to the point that we eventually asked the waiter to take the dish away. But hey, we tried!

Okay, now onto much more palatable things. Mexico City is known for its tacos, mezcal, and churros, among other things. On any given day you can enjoy the best fish taco of your life for next to nothing from a street vendor, to a 5-star meal that takes three hours, several hundred dollars, and reservations months in advance at the famed Pujol. I loved the cocktails and food (though did have a strangely hard time finding pescatarian and vegetarian options, despite an extensive list of culinary recommendations,) but easily my favorite part of Mexico City’s food scene are the cafes. Each one is unique and idiosyncratic, usually a hole-in-the-wall establishment with bar seating only, the cafes offer strong coffee and to-die-for pastries (my friend made us revisit the same cafe, Panaderia Rosetta, multiple times for the pan dulce.) They’re also usually open until 8 or 10 pm, which really enabled my penchant for drinking coffee at all times of the day or night.

A few absolute favorites: Panadería Rosetta in Roma Norte, Café Nin in Juarez, and Café Avellaneda in Coyoacán. Oh, and you must try breakfast at Lalo and the churros at El Moro. La Nacional is also a stylish and cozy little spot for dinner and some of the best mezcal cocktails in town.

Mexico City is an absolute book-lovers’ paradise. There are quirky little bookstores on virtually every street corner, and Cafebrería El Péndulo, which is part-bookstore, part-cafe with multiple locations through the city, will make your jaw drop. Most of the books are in Spanish, but each location has an English section as well – and you could always pick up a kids book to start learning Spanish, too!

After visiting the La Ciudadela market in Centro to load up on souvenirs, walk over to the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos to experience the most stunning public library you’ve almost certainly ever seen. It’s a massive, completely free space that I would work and write from in a heartbeat, and it’s houses five luscious rooms filled with the private libraries of great Mexican writers and thinkers. We unfortunately visited near closing time, and I’m dying to go back and spend a day reading, writing and wandering here.

If museums are your thing, Mexico City has got that covered, too. The Museum of Anthropology is the largest museum in Mexico, spanning virtually the entirety of human existence in the country and documenting the history of Mexico’s seemingly infinite civilizations and ethnic groups, from the Aztecs to the Maya and the people of Oaxaca. The museum is overwhelmingly comprehensive, but easily my favorite part was all the incredible craftsmanship on display: pottery, paintings, intricate beading, woven rugs and baskets and blankets, intricate headdresses, jewelry made from gold and turquoise, seashells and coral, and so much more. It’s also home to the massive Aztec “Sun stone” – which, contrary to popular belief is not the Aztec calendar, but likely a platform once used for ritual sacrifice.

Also within the Bosque de Chapultepec, a massive forest that is twice the size of Central Park, is the Chapultepec Castle. Tucked away at the very top of the park, the castle has incredible, panoramic views of Mexico City, and costs less than $10 to enter. Construction began on the castle around 1785 as a summer home for a Spanish military leader, and was completed nearly a century later as a residence for Emperor Maximilan I and Empress Carlota. Since then, it’s housed most Mexican presidents, and was turned into a museum in 1939.

The style is neo-gothic, with winding staircases, checkerboard floors, opulent chandeliers, turrets, a gold-filigreed carriage and stunning stained glass windows. The grounds are massive and immaculate, and, fun fact, the castle was a filming location for the Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes version of Romeo + Juliet! I definitely felt like a princess here.

Even though I know I could spend months in Mexico City and still not see everything, it captured my heart in such a short amount of time. The food, coffee, literature, art, museums … there’s never a dull moment, eye-popping color around every corner, folklorico dancing and music floating out down every street. And the people, the people, were so friendly, welcoming and warm. I didn’t feel like a tourist or a stranger, I felt like a newcomer in one of the world’s most fascinating cities, and I can’t wait to return.

Summer in Los Angeles

I’ve seen quite a few summers in Los Angeles at this point, so this year I decided to try getting off the beaten path to check out some restaurants, bars and experiences that might be hidden gems for a lot of people, and offer a different perspective on a city that never ceases to surprise me.

So here are a few of the most interesting experiences I got to have this summer (and you can see a whole video about them below, too!)

  • Shakespeare in the Park

I had no idea that Los Angeles had its own Shakespeare in the park production (as I’ve since learned, there’s more than one!) , so I was really excited to discover that the Independent Shakespeare Company puts on shows almost every night during the summer. This year’s plays were Pericles and Twelfth Night; we saw the latter, and it was delightful and funny and a great way to spend a Friday night. The plays are free (but be sure to get there early for the best seating and parking!), and you can bring your blanket, food and wine (discretely!) for a pretty magical night of Shakespeare under the stars.

  • Dine LA

Dine LA happens twice a year across the city, during which participating restaurants offer a set menu (usually an appetizer, entree and dessert) for a fixed price at lunch and dinner. I got to do Dine LA twice this summer, and each time was reminded of how nice it is to splurge on a menu – and venue – that I wouldn’t normally. Viviane in Beverly Hills offered an all-vegetarian menu including corn fritters and mushroom risotto that was to die for, all served poolside.

Mrs. Fish in Downtown LA felt like dining underwater – the whole restaurant is basically designed around a giant aquarium – and the sushi tastes just as fresh. The whole menu is an array of unexpected flavors and pairings, including the cocktails: the Kiri is a whiskey-based cherry drink served under a glass dome of smoke (it’s really hard to explain so watch the video! Just know that it smells like a campfire and was delicious.)

  • High Tide

High Tide has been on my list since it opened months ago, but I only just recently had the chance to attend for a college alumni mixer. It’s hot pink and highly-Instagrammable, but easily the coolest part is the glass-blowing that happens right out on the patio.

Speaking of Instagrammable, here are a few more of my favorite restaurants, bars and coffee shops that didn’t make the video:

  • Barnsdall Art Park

Aside from Griffith Park, most public green spaces in LA tend to be hidden gems, and Barnsdall is the epitome of this. It’s tucked away up on a hill off Sunset Boulevard, and offers a laidback place to eat and drink with friends (or pack a book for a solo picnic) as well as an art gallery, the Hollyhock House – which also offers wine tastings on Friday nights during the summer – and a panoramic view of the Hollywood sign and city below.

  • Echo Park Lotus Festival

This is my third (!) summer living in Echo Park, and I’ve made a bit of a tradition out of attending the annual Lotus Festival each July. It’s timed to celebrate the lotuses blooming on the lake, and this year attendees could make paper lanterns to float out on the water, too.

  • Outdoor movies

This is more of a general recommendation, but it definitely doesn’t feel like the official start of summer in LA until I’ve been to an outdoor movie. There are a variety of companies that host these events throughout the city – Eat, See, Hear; Street Food Cinema, and of course the famed Cinespia in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Check out the video below to see more of these places!

Oh, Canada!

The downside to making friends who live Elsewhere is that you don’t get to see them as often. The upside: new travel destinations! My good friend Kristin, who I met through sheer serendipity in a Facebook group and traveled with to Salvation Mountain last year, lives about an hour outside of Toronto, Ontario, and had extended an open invitation for me to visit any time. There’s a narrow window between the harsh Canadian winters and sweltering summers, and that window seemed to be early June, so I hopped on a redeye for my very first visit to Canada in years (literally since I was a just a toddler at my aunt’s wedding in British Columbia.)

As luck would have it, it was raining as I touched down in Toronto, and when the free upgrade Enterprise offered turned out to be a boat of a sedan with an odometer that only clocked in kilometers, I’ll admit I was a little nervous about heading out on the road. Thankfully, the car’s built-in navigation made getting to my friend’s hometown of Barrie a breeze, and the rain eventually stopped and the sun came out to highlight all the little villages and quaint countryside I drove through on the way there.

There are literally lakes everywhere in Canada, meaning that most of my time in Barrie and surrounding areas was spent on the water: boating and inner-tubing, and winding up to the Muskoka region, “cottage country” to the locals. Up there, the water is crystal-clear, the towns darling, and Muskoka chairs (Adirondack chairs, to us Americans) abound. I’ll admit my planning for this particular excursion was rather lackadaisical, meaning we missed the water taxi that takes tourists out to the islands of Georgian Bay. However, we realized this probably would’ve been quite expensive anyway, and were instead able to have the truly unique experience of visiting a local cranberry bog/winery. As in, the wine was made from cranberries. And blueberries! It was a bit sweet for my taste, but I was living in the lap of luxury with a seven wine tasting an cheese splatter split between the two of us for about $13 US, and sitting back and sipping cranberry wine spritzer on a Muskoka chair, I felt myself slipping in to full-on vacation mode.

After a few days out in the country, soaking up the lakes and sunsets and clear night skies full of stars, we heading back into Toronto for a girls’ weekend in the city. I normally opt for Airbnbs when I travel, but after a headache of an experience far too long and annoying to recount here, we ended up at the Hilton Toronto, which offered what was basically our only requirement for the weekend: a rooftop pool. It ended up being quite hot that first day, and as I floated on my back, taking in a view of the CN Tower and Toronto skyline and acknowledging the irony of leaving California to suntan in Canada, I felt pretty content with our accommodations, all things considered.

Toronto is a walkable, but very sizeable, city, and the easiest way to get around, by far, is by bike. The city’s bike share program offers various rental lengths, and if you’re going to be in the city for more than a day, I’d recommend getting the three day pass (though keep in mind that, annoyingly, you still have to “dock” the bike every 30 minutes, or incur an overage fees. Hey, even Canada isn’t perfect!)

There are nearly countless little pockets of the city, including the bustling shopping stretch that is Queen Street West, and the Fashion and Entertainment Districts, where there are swanky bars and restaurants, fun murals, and boutiques galore.

A few of my recommendations for eating and drinking throughout the city: Dark Horse Espresso, La Carnita, El Catrin Destileria (who knew there was so much good Mexican food in Canada?), Le Petit Déjeuner for a Belgian brunch, and Blood Brothers Brewing, which boasts an impressive list of in-house sours. St. Lawrence Market is a massive food hall not to be missed, and Kensington Market is an eclectic little neighborhood full of cool galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Be sure to pay a visit to the Distillery District for breweries and whiskey, and a little trip back in time complete with cobblestone streets.

Strolling and biking through the pale blue, softly warm Toronto summer evenings, winding along Lake Ontario and through lush parks beneath the shadow of the CN Tower was pure bliss. It reminded me of a cleaner, greener, less hectic New York City, and by the end of my visit I was ready to up and relocate for the quality of life (not to mention free healthcare.)

Another thing I never would’ve guessed Toronto boasted: a white sand beach, complete with Muskoka chairs. Bike down to Sugar Beach for gorgeous views of Lake Ontario and even more interesting people watching. And maybe you’ll catch the ice cream man, too.

Easily one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip was one not on my original itinerary. In fact, it was something I decided I wanted to do a good 12 hours or so beforehand. On the last day of my trip, I woke up early, biked 30 minutes down to the Queen’s Quay Ferry Docks, and paid about $10 roundtrip to hitch a ride over to the Toronto Islands. They’re 15 interconnected islands situated just about a 10 minute’s boat ride from the city center, and are home to beaches, a theme park, and even residents.

You can rent a bike to get around the islands (which is recommended, as there’s quite a bit of ground to cover.) In my case, much of the island was flooded thanks to high waters from this year’s snowmelt, and getting around by bike would’ve been quite soggy. So I sprung for the slight more expensive but infinitely more practical option of renting a kayak for an hour. I haven’t been kayaking in years, but it was pretty simple to get the hang of, and I was able to just tool around the marinas and get a better view of the islands and the city from the water. It was an unexpected adventure, to be sure, but that’s the best kind.

Falling in Love With Santa Fe

New Mexico is a rainbow. Red and green chiles doused on every meal, copper and coral and turquoise melded into Navajo jewelry, cerulean skies stretching over terra cotta cliffs and cornflower-blue mountains capped with the purest white snow.

It’s strong margaritas, crisp air inflating your lungs, rich drinking chocolate spiked with chili powder. It’s a way of life that is both slower and fuller, isolated and elevated (literally.) I can’t quite recall why anymore, but Santa Fe had always occupied a place in my mind as magical, mythical, an oasis operating on a different frequency than the rest of us. I suppose the desert has always had that allure. And it was all of that and more.

Albuquerque is only a two-hour flight from Los Angeles, and a relatively inexpensive one at that. From there, the easiest route to Santa Fe is an hour drive by rental car through blinding sun and snow-dusted mountains. We visited in November, a time frame that offered an off-season tranquility and just the right amount of winter chill for us brittle-boned Southern Californians.

There’s no shortage of lodging options once in the historic city: Santa Fe is home to a bevy of Instagram-worthy restored motels, charming bed-and-breakfasts, and minimalist Airbnbs impeccably flavored with Southwestern style. After a little research, we decided on Casa Culinaria, a bed-and-breakfast a stone’s throw from the center of town that offers charming bungalow-style rooms within the cozy arts and crafts style property.

The bed and breakfast was refurbished by a husband and wife duo, Manuel and Carolina, and guests are pampered each morning with a breakfast hand-prepared by classically-trained chef Carolina in the gorgeous, sunlit dining room, as well as coffee, tea and baked goods in the common area throughout the day.

Each room at Casa Culinaria is slightly different in its layout and decor, and we chose the Colorado room, which provided two twin beds, our own porch, and even a cast iron fireplace that made it the perfect cozy base camp for all of our adventures. Our stay at the bed and breakfast felt like a truly luxurious five-star experience (while still being affordable enough for two twenty-somethings.)

We hit the ground running our first night in Santa Fe, making a beeline for the much-buzzed-about Meow Wolf. If you, like me, have paid a visit to any of the pop-up Instagram experiences that have boomed in popularity in recent years – The Museum of Ice Cream, the Color Factory, etc. – then Meow Wolf won’t be an unfamiliar concept to you. Still, comparing Meow Wolf to those exhibits would be underselling the place.

A $25 ticket offers admission into the labyrinthian space, in which dozens upon dozens of rooms, hallways, secret passages, and weird and wonderful nooks and crannies are hidden like Russian nesting dolls. We spent hours exploring the place, clambering up and down winding staircases, through tree houses, Airstream trailers – even sliding through a washing machine. I don’t want to spoil too much – it’s best to go into Meow Wolf with an open mind and as few preconceived notions as possible – but it is without a doubt entirely unlike anywhere you’ve been before.

Bright and early the next morning, after fueling up with a three-course vegetarian breakfast prepared by Carolina, we started out on the hour drive north to Abiquiú. Ever since I’d chosen Georgia O’Keefe as my historical figure for a school project when I was a kid, I’d been fascinated by the artists; both her work and her life, so visiting Ghost Ranch, the home where she lived, painted, and hosted fellow artists and other visionaries for decades, was a must-do in New Mexico. And being able to take in the stunning vistas that served as a lifelong inspiration for many of O’Keefe’s most iconic works on horseback only made the experience all the more unforgettable.

I had been horseback riding before, with varying levels of comfort during the experiences, but to my delight, I felt instantly at ease during our trail ride. I was paired with a beautiful chestnut boy named Sancho who listened to my every direction, and was able to spend the 90-minute trail ride utterly in awe of the stunning vistas around us. We wound our way out to Ghost Ranch (which unfortunately is not yet open to the public,) as our guide pointed out various landmarks that Georgia O’Keefe immortalized in her work. This included the imposing Pedernal Mountain, where O’Keefe’s ashes are scattered, and about which she famously said; “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Though certainly pricey at a little more than $100 per person, the O’Keefe landscape trail ride was worth every penny. Tours are offered twice a day, but spots are limited, so be sure to reserve one well in advance if you’re interested. The ranch also offers walking tours and other less expensive options for visitors looking to explore the grounds, as well as a museum and gift shop on the property.

Back in Santa Fe, we made sure to also pay a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, which is home to many of her most iconic paintings, as well as early works and photographs by and of the artist that I’d never seen before. We were told that Santa Fe boasts the most art museums in the country after New York and Los Angeles, and it isn’t hard to believe: from the Museum of International Folk Art to the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and seemingly dozens more, we could’ve stayed weeks and still not seen them all.

Of course, Santa Fe is also chock-full of world-class dining, drinking and shopping. Whether you’re searching for a cowboy hat that you can watch being crafted right in front of your eyes, or copper and turquoise jewelry bent and etched by Navajo tribe members, you’re sure to leave Santa Fe with a suitcase full of souvenirs. Be sure to also pay a visit to Shiprock Santa Fe, a gallery filled with vibrant Native American rugs and art contrasted against a gorgeous, modern space that’ll make you want to move right in and never leave.

Santa Fe is also famed for Canyon Road, a world-class avenue of art galleries and shops boasting unique (though pricey) artisan wares. Wander into any gallery for an impromptu art history lesson from the owner, or simply get lost inside rooms of cowboy boots and handwoven rugs in stores like Nathalie Home, where the displays are so enchanting you’ll be glad you can only afford to browse.

You’ll also leave with a full belly after stops at local institutions like Cafe Pasqual’s and the Shed, where you can feast on tamales, enchiladas, and red and green chili until your heart’s content (the blood orange frozen margarita at the Shed is also a must.) Speaking of, Santa Fe even offers a “margarita passport” that’s worth taking advantage of if your stay is a bit longer, so you can sip your way through the city and even earn some freebies along the way. Other watering holes worth your time are the adorable bar at the El Rey Inn, the Cowgirl for a dive-y Southwestern experience and live music, and Julia, the bar at the sumptuous (and supposedly haunted) La Posada hotel.

Be sure to satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit to the Kakawa Chocolate House, where you can sample rich New Mexican drinking chocolate and feast on pastries and truffles made with chili, corn, lavender and other unique ingredients.

When it’s time to burn off the margaritas and get your blood pumping, there are plenty of options for hiking in the area, including the La Tierra Trails, and Bandelier and Tent Rocks national monuments. We made a stop at Bandelier on our drive back from Ghost Ranch, and though admission is a bit steep at $25 per car, it felt good knowing that money was going to preserve the park, which is home to dwellings and petroglyphs made by the Ancestral Pueblo people that are thought to be some 11,000 years old.

The monument offers moderate hiking trails and a map that guides visitors through dozens of historic dwellings, artwork and alcove homes carved right out of the rock face, which require wooden ladders to reach. At the end of the Alcove House trail, visitors can climb wooden ladders and stone steps about 140 feet up to a large alcove that once housed the Ancestral Pueblo people. In addition to being an awe-inspiring piece of history, the Alcove House definitely pushed me to conquer my fear of heights, and the view from the top of the snow-covered valleys and peaks of Bandelier was absolutely worth the climb.

In addition to Old Town Santa Fe, where you’ll find a charming historic town square decked out in dried chili peppers and lined with rustic shops and restaurants, you can try a change of pace and get a glimpse of Santa Fe’s sleeker future out at the Railyards, an industrial area dotted with modern coffee shops, street art and stores.

If you’re looking for one last adventure, pay a visit to the Los Poblanos Ranch, a lavender farm that’s a quick detour on the way out of Albuquerque. Though the fields only bloom in the summer, the farm doubles as a hotel, and offers an array of artisan lavender products – soaps, lotions, even lavender-infused food and drinks – year round, as well as an intimate bar and restaurant.

It’s a particularly magical sight in the evening; all twinkling string lights in the lavender winter twilight. I couldn’t help thinking how stunning the farm would be as a wedding venue, and its modern earthiness reminded me of Ojai and the south-central California coast, which holds a special place in my heart.

I’d always had the feeling that I’d like New Mexico, and as it turns out, I was far from wrong. Santa Fe was a spontaneous, soul-soothing getaway, and we were fortunate that the entire whirlwind of a trip went off without a hitch; from our rental car to our accommodations, to checking off everything on our to-do list, to being welcomed to the Land of Enchantment by the warmest of people, heartiest of meals, and strongest of drinks. New Mexico has already rooted a special place in my heart, and I have a feeling it won’t be long at all before I journey back to it again.

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.

 

Meet Me In New Orleans

It took me a solid ten years to make my way to New Orleans. Longer, really. It was a clock that began running up from the moment I chose Louisiana for an elementary school state research project. And so the city became this mythical place in my mind, all draped in Spanish moss and centuries of rich, often sad, sometimes lurid history. A place laid bare by disaster, but resilient to a fault.

Its embrace enveloped me in warmth from the minute I landed in Louisiana. I always forgot how comforting I found humidity until I inevitably returned to the South every few years. I had criss-crossed my way from North and South Carolina to Virginia and Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi for various reasons as a teenager and young adult. Family weddings, summer camps, a few weeks spent visiting a good friend made at said summer camp. New Orleans, though, was the first Southern city that felt like an intentional destination; my brother and his wife would be meeting me there, having driven down from Mississippi. But I had no obligations there, I knew no one there, I had no reason to be there other than the fact that it was a dream I’d had once and never shaken.

And New Orleans certainly felt like a dream, another world. From the minute I exited the airport, took an Uber along the interstate, saw the Superdome and the city skyline come into view, everything was awash in a sort of half-light haze I’ve come to associate with the South, an aura that always makes me feel both right at home, and like I’ve been transported into some other life entirely.

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Our Airbnb was located in the Treme district, bordering the French Quarter (our host explained that Airbnbs are not technically allowed in the French Quarter.) It was a historic and impossibly charming shotgun style house, a common architectural style in New Orleans, named for the fact that if a shotgun were fired from the front door of the home, it would sail right through to the back without hitting a wall. The house was sort of an elongated studio, with the bedroom in front (no living room,) then the kitchen, and a hallway leading to the bathroom, with that technically being the only room in the home. In the front of the house, a large veranda and steps led down to the tree-lined street, from which we could easily walk to Louis Armstrong Park and down Dumaine Street into the French Quarter.

The crown jewel of New Orleans, the French Quarter certainly lives up to its formidable reputation. It is so picturesque and charming it feels more like a theme park attraction than a real city, a living, breathing museum, with culture and history seeping from every brick and cobblestone. We made our first stop at the French Market on Decatur Street, in the heart of the French Quarter. Here, you can stock up on souvenirs, chow down on fried alligator and beat the heat with shaved ice. It’s crowded, colorful, quirky, and a complete sensory overload – the perfect introduction to New Orleans.

From here, stroll down to Jackson Square for an iconic New Orleans photo op in front of St. Louis Cathedral, with its triple spires reaching toward the heavens as horse-drawn carriages make their way past. The cathedral is open to the public for both mass and self-guided tours, and its breathtaking architecture and storied past (it’s the oldest cathedral in North America) make it well worth a visit, whether you’re religious or not.

Other daytime attractions include the New Orleans Musical Legends Park for live jazz and cold drinks, Secondline Arts and Antiques for vintage goods and unique, handmade artisan wares, the utterly adorable revolving Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, and Bourbon and Magazine streets for shopping. Oh, and there’s never a wrong time for beignets at Cafe du Monde.

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Of course, when the sun goes down, New Orleans is something different entirely. You’ve seen the beads flung on Bourbon Street and the debauchery of Mardi Gras, but there’s so much more to the city than that. Stroll Bourbon Street after dark (with a daiquiri grenade or fishbowl of rum in hand) and you’ll see stilt walkers, jazz players, and if you’re lucky – as we were – maybe spot a second line wedding parade flooding the streets, a truly life-affirming experience that’ll instantly remind you New Orleans is like nowhere else on earth.

There’s really no wrong place to drink in New Orleans, but a few highlights include Broussard’s for drinks under twinkling patio lights, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar – which exists in a dimly-lit wood building dating to the 1700s and is rumored to be haunted – and Potions Lounge, a “vampire speakeasy” located above Fritzel’s European Jazz Club which specializes in absinthe cocktails and requires a password (which can be obtained by visiting the Boutique du Vampyre) to enter.

For historic New Orleans by night, pay a visit to the Voodoo Museum, take a tour of some local haunts, and drop in for an authentic live music performance at Preservation Hall, where renditions of local classics and a no-phones-allowed policy will transport you back to another time.

If the spooky and supernatural is your thing (and if you’re visiting New Orleans, it really should be,) there are a whole range of tours to choose from, whether your interest is vampires, voodoo, very old houses, or all of the above. We opted for a tour that took us through Saint Louis Cemetery No. 2, which is home to above-ground mausoleums, including one that legend has it is the final resting place of Voodoo priestess Madame Laveau (and future resting place of Nic Cage.)

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New Orleans is everything you’ve heard – and a whole lot of things you haven’t. It’s a drizzly, sticky, atmospheric, spooky jewel box of a city situated on the Mississippi where everything is both vibrant and ancient. It took me ten years to get there, but it was well worth the wait, and I’m counting down the days in my mind until I can go back again.

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.