I like to tuck in when I travel alone, to disappear as far away as possible, even as I branch out. Perhaps you’ve experienced this too, how solo exploration encourages our extroverted-introverted selves. Much as we might love exploring with a friend or partner, it’s a blast to go down one side street after another like you’ve stepped into an Escher lithograph, take way too long to photograph beads of morning dew on an iris petal, or pull up a seat without reservation and greet your one-night BFFs at adjacent bar stools.
I know I am hardly alone in my recent solo travel cravings. Forbes declares 2024 will be “The Year of the Solo Traveler.” Travel Weekly notes tour operators in 2023 saw as much as a 200 percent increase in solo bookings.
I recently learned that New Orleans is the perfect city for just-you travel. Yes, it’s famously a city of the masses who stream in for major events like the Sugar Bowl or weekend posse getaways in the French Quarter. But when I visited on my own, I discovered a destination ideally suited to a few days haunting barstools, catching music, and tripping about swamps and sculpture gardens.
You make every decision when traveling solo, an exciting and sometimes daunting responsibility. I always strive to stay active, but the lure to just crash in the hotel is always there—especially with such a soft landing pad as the Maison Orleans, the new hotel-within-a-hotel at the Ritz-Carlton. I could have spent the entire weekend reclining in the wood-paneled, overstuffed-chaired sitting room, noshing on mini quiche in the morning and sipping consommé for lunch, but the French Quarter out my window called.
New Orleans entices us into decisions we don’t normally make. Consider the beignet, that precious piece of fried dough with a blizzard of confectioners’ sugar. I breakfasted at Café Beignet and Café du Monde twice in four days, not including the final snack at the airport.
I assume other visitors embrace the same decadence with near-lethal libations such as the Hurricane and Hand Grenade. However, French Quarter drinking is a team sport; stumbling solo home from Bourbon Street isn’t my idea of fun. If you’re on your own, I recommend the studious approach with a trip to the historic Sazerac House to learn about the city’s official drink and the local booze scene. It’s no surprise that the French Quarter contained more than seventy speakeasies during Prohibition.
My own cocktail research started at Bacchanal Wine in the Ninth Ward, which stands on a corner adjacent to a freight rail yard and industrial buildings. I entered through the wine shop, passed a band playing in the courtyard, and ascended creaky wooden stairs to an amber-lit bistro and bar. Later, I returned to the wine shop for a cheese board served with warm, house-made breads. I asked Ken the bartender for something tart with vodka, with the caveat to avoid froufrou concoctions. Ken is a graduate of Turning Tables, a wildly successful local program that trains and places people of color in the hospitality industry. He mixed Grasovka vodka, Italicus liqueur, Aveze liqueur, Berto aperitivo, and lemon into the perfect sophisticated sipper.
I used to carry a book with me when dining for one, but several years ago I took a cue from a late, great friend and traveling companion who always sat at the bar. Now, from Stockholm to Tokyo, the bar scene often makes up my favorite social memories on a trip. The Bacchanal bar patrons, NOLA transplants all, became fast friends. We spent the next two hours discussing, among other topics, why their biannual weeklong visits to the city proved unfulfilling. This was hardly the only time I’d hear this sentiment, as so many locals described how the alchemy here of friendliness, funky culture, and personal freedom produces residential gold.
The next morning, I jumped on a four-hour Cajun Encounters tour in search of alligators, local vegetation, and birds. It was a chilly early winter day, the time when the large alligators brumate—a sort of reptilian hibernation, when mature gators descend to river bottoms, heartbeats slowed to once per minute. I was rewarded with baby gators, unusually large great blue herons, and diminutive raccoons nourished by swamp scavenging instead of those beastly ones patrolling my urban garbage cans.
But you don’t have to travel far to experience nature, as I discovered when I visited the Besthoff Sculpture Garden at City Park, where more than ninety sculptures sit beneath live oaks dripping in Spanish moss. Whether I was admiring Henry Moore’s Reclining Mother and Child or contemplating abstract works like the stalagmitic Dumna by Ursula von Rydingsvard, magic was afoot as I traversed the paths surrounding the lagoon. I photographed for as long as I pleased, my pace as unharried as my subjects. Naturally, my cultural sojourn included (yet another) beignet at City Park’s Café du Monde.
In my home city, I never stop by Seattle’s Pike Place Market during “cruise ship season,” but I understand why visitors love it. Tourist haunts are touristy for good reason; they offer a singular insight into the city where they reside. Nowhere is this truer in the Crescent City than my final two stops, the Garden District and Preservation Hall. The Garden District unfurled pages of ideas I plan to take home with me, like massive baskets of Boston ferns or strategically planted winter camellias latticed across a cast-iron fence. Preservation Hall left me similarly inspired. The snug room offers a musical immersion with revival-tent intimacy, and the All Stars’ incredible talent was the crowning memory of my party for one.
The trip got me thinking about…
Southern Solo Travel Goals for ’24
Some golf trips are supposed to include one dozen pals playing a Ryder Cup–style format, but every golfer knows that the game is really played between you and yourself. Playing these layouts by the deans of natural golf architecture—Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Gil Hanse, and Tom Doak—resides at the top of my list.
The pull of Knoxville starts with proximity to the Smokies and ends with the reputedly very cool indie-arts scene. There’s also this great little aperitivo bar, and I’d wager it’s a charming place for a solo drink and bite.
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Compton Gardens and Arboretum would combine into a day of adventure-bliss.
If you’re into birds like I am, catching the fabled spring migration “fallout,” when scores of species arrive en masse on the Texas Gulf Coast from the Yucatán Peninsula, is akin to a psychedelic experience.
I researched Oak Spring for my greenhouse story in a recent G&G issue. When I learned about the Residencies program, I began obsessing over my own worthiness because I want to go and study gardens where Bunny Mellon—truly an independent spirit—laid out a fantastic plot.