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.

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.

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.