Two Orleans

Unintentionally, we adventured to both New Orleans and Orleans this year. It should come as no surprise that the OG Orleans, in Paris, was far more dignified.


Be Your Own Travel Agent

I’ve been troubled by news of the Thomas Cook Travel Company closing abruptly, by which “hundreds of thousands of vacationers were left stranded by one of the world’s oldest tour companies.” It bolsters my family’s long-standing tradition of managing our travels on our own.

When we first started traveling, around the time our son turned ten, family and friends couldn’t believe we opted to research, plan and book our own adventures. Surely we would miss out on the good stuff, or run into issues with local customs, or suffer from language barriers, or not figure out how to navigate, or … you get the idea. But I tell you: if you’re going to travel the world, or the US or even your hometown, you need to know how to do it on your own. There’s a freedom that comes from knowing how to travel. We think it’s a life skill.

We actually started testing the adventure waters when our son was eight, and the two of us hitched our wagons to my husband’s annual training weeks in DC. While the mister worked, our son and I fell in love with our nation’s capital. I picked the spots we’d visit, and because we had no timeline, he figured out how to navigate using a map and the Metro. And thus began our routine: I research and plan, our son navigates, and our husband is our enthusiastic adventurer.

A couple rules of thumb: we don’t pick countries that have scary things, like high kidnapping rates or banned travel warnings. I mean, other countries have travel warnings against the US, so keep that in perspective. When we pick a country to visit, we set Google alerts for a couple months ahead of time and watch the news cycles to make sure political upheaval isn’t happening, which brings with it its own set of traumatic issues. We try to travel using every form of transportation available (metro, subway, taxi, boat, fast train, etc.). We walk a city to really experience it. If we do tours, we charter a guide for the three of us rather than joining a big group deal. We learn about the world, and for me–a writer and a mother, and just a decent human–I’m fascinated by the things that make me the same as a woman on the other side of the world. It’s easy. I promise. Here are some resources we’ve found invaluable.

Travel documentation

  • U.S. Passport: everybody needs a passport, even if you never leave the lower 48.
  • Global Entry (GOES): if you travel with any frequency, global entry is your verb.
  • Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP): if you leave the country, you need to register with the State Department, because you never know when revolution will break out. Or a hurricane, or an earthquake. Seriously. If the shit hits the fan, I want someone from home to come looking for me … and not just my mom. Register your trip a couple months ahead of time, and if the State Department has any warnings or postings about your destination country, the system e-mails you.

Adventure planning

  • Lonely Planet: I know the Internet is vast and forever, but there’s just something unparalleled about holding a book and map in your hand. For every trip we take, I buy the corresponding Lonely Planet guide. I can highlight and dog ear pages, go back and read notes years later, use the info in stories, and share trips and itineraries with people who ask. There are a ton of guidebooks out there, so find one that speaks to you and stick with it.
  • UNESCO: because we’re interested in traveling to places where people don’t speak the same language, eat the same things, look the same as us, or look out at the same things we see everyday from the kitchen window, we seek evidence of the larger world. It’s always exciting to update our list!
  • National Geographic: I have a lifelong fascination and dedication to National Geographic. My dad got me a subscription when I was in third grade and I maintained it until about thirty years. It fueled my wanderlust and fascination with people on the other side of the world. Now NatGeo’s got all kinds of cool travel imprints, but nothing beats the monthly magazine for me.
  • Atlas Obscura: regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, weird shit finds me. It’s both a blessing and a curse, and something that has passed on to our son. We both decided long ago to go with it, knowing the universe doesn’t send anything our way we’re not prepared to deal with.

In short, be curious about the world. And find a way to experience it. Just because you don’t speak a language or look like the people you’re going to visit, don’t panic. Get a guide book, start easy with a country that speaks your language, then work your way up. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Only you know your limits, so push as far as you’re comfortable and be adventurous!

North Carolina: Southern Pines

We had another great photo adventure this week, keeping it fairly close to home (though we did venture into the abutting region) since our adventurous son sprained his ankle bouldering. We didn’t want to drive all the way into the mountains and not be able to hike, or head the other way to the coast and get caught up in anything Hurricane Dorian may have churned up. So we settled on Sanford, Pinehurst and Southern Pines.

One of our favorite places was the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens, on the campus of the Sandhills Community College. We ambled through the ten different garden spaces for about an hour and a half. Whoever goes through their landscape gardening program can only be successful, that’s for sure. While you’re there, swing by Betsey’s Crepes … I had a scrambled egg bowl with sausage and spinach, and the Marie Antoinette crepe (strawberries and Nutella). Because, #Adventuretime!

North Carolina: Seagrove

My mother-in-law has talked about Seagrove for years, so our adventurous son and I added it to the itinerary this week. It’s not an easily-traversed town because there are no sidewalks and there are about 80 potters spread over 15 or 16 miles. So, walking a town the way we typically try to travel was not possible. But it was interesting, all the same.

Because NC pottery is famous, and nearly every art gallery and specialty art shop in the region has a relationship with a potter and sells it, I didn’t feel the need to try and hit all 80 studios. Plus, Mark Hewitt lives in town with us and we save newspapers for his kiln openings. But we stopped at two places that were notable. First, Seagrove Stoneware Gallery. I got a couple dinner plates from potter Alexa Modderno, a vase and a little bowl for doo-dads. We had a nice conversation with her husband, David Fernandez, who happens to be the Mayor of Seagrove. What a nice, personable guy. He told us Seagrove had recently completed a study with the NC DOT and hoped to move forward with sidewalks in the coming future. That would make the town usable, for me, and worth going back to. The other spot to discuss is the Carolina Bronze Sculpture Garden. We were following the map we’d gotten at the pottery visitor center and museum, and I think the distances were eyeballed. We had to do two U-turns on our journey from downtown Seagrove to the foundry off Maple Spring Road, but we were happy we found it. Mayor Fernandez really chatted it up, and told us the foundry was famous for its large-scale bronze sculptures. I think by the time we found it and walked around the “pond,” we were just done with the day. But check out Seagrove, particularly if you don’t have pottery at your fingertips. There is amazing creativity in that handful of miles.

Avery Island

One of my favorite adventures during our week in New Orleans was a day trip to Avery Island, the century-and-a-half home of Tabasco. Our fascination with its tasty history stems from a story we heard 17 years ago on NPR, and it’s been on our mental bucket list ever since. I mean, hot weather isn’t the only thing we southerners have a penchant for. The two-hour drive was enjoyable, and took us through several bayous and beautiful southern Louisiana landscape. We even stopped in Houma to check out the giant shrimping boots. Hello, Forrest Gump, right? Admission was only $5 per person, but we bumped it up to the $12 fee so we could also drive through the Jungle Gardens (totally worth it — we saw several alligators, and even came up on one eating a huge fish).

New Orleans

We finally made our way to New Orleans, and had a great time. I read that there were something like 72 neighborhoods in NOLA, and each has its own personality. No truer description has been written of places we’ve traveled. I encourage you to go beyond the French Quarter … it was so not our favorite part of the city. We ate all the requisite foods, like beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, muffuletta, catfish, jambalaya, Creole, gumbo, and pralines. My favorite city adventures were at NOMA, where we saw a beautiful traveling exhibit from Timothy Duffy and the Music Maker Relief Foundation, along with pieces from its permanent collection like el Greco, Warhol, Picasso, and Pollock. Louis Armstrong Park was lovely, though our favorite park was Audobon Park. The St. Charles trolley was relaxing, and afforded a great amount of people-watching time. My heart goes out to the residents of our most recent adventuring as they brace for flooding and a potential forthcoming hurricane. We’re in North Carolina, and are no stranger to hurricanes and tropical storms.