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Have a Creole Christmas

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
December 12, 2012

As if you needed one more reason to visit New Orleans, we've got two words for you: Creole Christmas.

The reveillon, inspired by a French Christmas Eve tradition, is a luxurious meal of Creole dishes such as oysters, pork belly, duck confit, foie gras beignets, grits, grillades, gumbo, cakes, pastries, and other indulgences.

Dozens of New Orleans restaurants offer fixed-price reveillon-inspired meals throughout the holiday season, with some even serving a feast after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and after midnight on New Year's. (The word reveillon is derived from the French, meaning "awakening.") Fixed prices range from $35 to $90 per person, varying from restaurant to restaurant.

While the tradition dates back to the early days of New Orleans, three centuries ago, it gradually became overshadowed by American holiday activities and by the mid-20th century had all but disappeared except in some traditional homes. The modern-day resurgence of the feast began with French Quarter restaurants in the 1980s as a way of enticing diners during the holiday season, when restaurant business was slack. Now, the city has a committee of culinary authorities who do their best to ensure that cooks are serving traditional meals with authentic ingredients.

Here, a few of the standout New Orleans restaurants serving reveillon dinners. For a comprehensive list, visit French Quarter Festivals Inc. (fqfi.org):

Tujague's Restaurant has been serving traditional Creole food since 1856; its reveillon includes beef brisket and shrimp remoulade (823 Decatur St., 504/525-8676).

Zoe Bistro, at the W Hotel,  offers a modern riff on the traditional feast, serving filet and crab ravioli (333 Poydras Ave., 504/207-5018).

The Grill Room, at the Windsor Court Hotel, serves an authentic reveillon that includes braised pork belly with Gulf shrimp (300 Gravier St., 504/523-6000).

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Adventure

12 Most Extreme Places in America

The United States has always been a land of extremes. European explorers were staggered by the sheer vastness of the land, and generations of immigrants have arrived here with the biggest dreams imaginable. We decided to dig in and explore America's highest highs, lowest lows, and a number of other extremes (quick: how many people live in America's smallest town?). Here, a dozen of our favorite points that embody our nation's capacity for wonder—plus tips for actually getting to these amazing destinations, some of which can require a plane trip and a rental car. SEE THE EXTREMES! 1. HOTTEST COMMUNITY: LAKE HAVASU CITY, ARIZONA  Death Valley may be the most scorching spot in America, with temperatures that can reach 130 degrees F, but Lake Havasu City in Arizona earns the gold star for the hottest place where lots of people actually live. The town is home to more than 50,000 residents, all of whom have found a way to survive summer temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees F and can reach as high as the 120s. What keeps folks here is what also draws thousands of visitors, including 45 miles of lakefront for boating, fishing (blue gill and crappie are anglers' favorites here), and hiking amid volcanic rock, sparkling geodes, and other desert formations. Lake Havasu also boasts two unexpected attractions: It is home to more than a dozen 1/3 scale miniature lighthouses that dot the lake's shores, and London Bridge, purchased in 1968 from the City of London for more than $2 million, shipped more than 5,000 miles, and reassembled in Arizona. The bridge is now the second-most-popular tourist site in the state, after the Grand Canyon. Get there: Las Vegas is the nearest major airport, about 150 miles from Lake Havasu City; round-trip flights on Delta from New York City start at $338. London Bridge Resort offers condo-style suites, three restaurants, a beach bar, and a pool (1477 Queens Bay, Lake Havasu City, londonbridgeresort.com, doubles from $95). 2. EASTERNMOST POINT: ST. CROIX, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS  United States territories are surprisingly globe-spanning, and the nod for easternmost point goes not to the Maine coast but to tiny St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That means that, without a passport, you can immerse yourself in a culture that blends Caribbean, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, and Danish influences all in a package less than 23 miles long and eight miles wide. With all the expected to-dos you associate with an island paradise (swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, fine dining, and golf), St. Croix also offers the old-world architecture of Christiansted, with homes dating back to the 18th century, and a "rain forest" near the western shore. (It's not technically a rain forest, but private land open to visitors, with a bounty of tropical flora and colorful hummingbirds, warblers, and other birds.) Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from New York City start at $359. Hotel Caravelle is near Christiansted's historical sites and has a restaurant, bar, outdoor pool, and spa onsite (44A Queen Cross St., Christiansted, hotelcaravelle.com, doubles from $136). 3. COLDEST COMMUNITY: FAIRBANKS, ARKANSAS  With average winter temperatures below -5 and highs only in the mid-40s, you may wonder what draws visitors to Fairbanks. Sure, the city's population is warm and welcoming and its gold rush history is still tangible in sites such as the Pioneer Museum, with its dioramas and murals. But most tourists are here to see the Aurora Borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, the aurora will be at its peak in 2013 due to heavy sunspot activity at the end of an 11-year cycle, producing the appearance of crackling skies filled with bright blue, green, and red patterns for more than 200 nights over the course of the year. August through April is primetime for aurora-viewing, and if you spend three nights in Fairbanks you have about an 80 percent chance of a clear night. Ask your hotel if it offers middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to rouse you in time to see a display. Get there: Round-trip flights on Alaska Airlines from San Francisco start at $937. When you're ready to warm up in the "great indoors," the Hampton Inn and Suites offers welcome amenities like Cloud Nine beds, complimentary breakfast, and a pool and fitness center (433 Harold Bentley Ave., hamptoninn.hilton.com, doubles from $104). 4. WESTERNMOST POINT: AMERICAN SAMOA  Most of us are stunned to realize that the U.S. territories extend west of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. Easy to miss on the globe, American Samoa rewards those who are intrepid enough to make the trip with towering mountains, gentle waters, and friendly locals who will actually serenade you (and invite you to sing along) on their buses. With a population of fewer than 65,000, you'll also find elbow room on white-sand beaches such as the 2.5-mile-long Ofu Beach, the 5,000-plus-acre National Park of American Samoa and its rain forest birds, and the major town, Pago Pago. Visit during the dry season, May through October, and, because the only direct flights to American Samoa are from Samoa and Honolulu, consider making this destination just one stop on a South Pacific excursion. Get there: Round-trip flights on Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu start at $937. The Tradewinds Hotel in Pago Pago offers access to sites such as the iconic Leone Church and Mount Alava. Guests can also enjoy the onsite pool and fitness center, coffee shop, and complimentary breakfast (Main Road, Pago Pago, tradewinds.as, doubles from $140). 5. HIGHEST POINT: MOUNT MCKINLEY, DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ARKANSAS  Denali National Park would be an extraordinary destination even if weren't home to the tallest peak in North America, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The park comprises 6 million acres that most visitors navigate via 92-mile-long Park Road, which parallels the stunning Alaska Range and allows access to a number of visitors' centers and six campgrounds. The park even has its own Big Five, a North American variation on the popular African safari hit list: If you're lucky, you'll spot moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Although the park is open year-round, most people visit from mid-May to mid-September, when most visitors' centers are open, offering ranger talks and other interactive education programs.  Summer bus tours are a convenient way to experience highlights of the park, including interpretive trails, scenic overlooks, and education programs. More ambitious travelers can learn about backpacking, dogsledding, and mountaineering opportunities at nps.gov/denali. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from San Francisco to Anchorage (about 150 miles from Denali National Park) start at $540. The Denali Perch Resort is located 13 miles outside the park (for Alaskans, that's next door) and offers two restaurants, a free area shuttle service, assistance with tours and tickets, and rooms have either river or mountain views (Mile 224 George Parks Highway, 907/683-2523, doubles from $125). 6. LOWEST PLACE: DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA AND NEVADA  Death Valley is not only the lowest point in the United States—its Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level—but also the hottest and the driest. This stretch of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in California and Nevada is known for temperatures in the 100s for five months out of the year (the record high was 134 degrees, in 1913), unexpected deluges that bring fields of wildflowers, and, in winter, snow that can be seen dusting the higher peaks surrounding the valley. That's not to say it isn't a popular tourist destination. On the contrary, unique (and wildly diverse) attractions such as hikers' mecca Golden Canyon and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes make Death Valley a one-of-a-kind destination that's totally worth the trek. Explore Death Valley National Park via nps.gov/deva before you arrive—it's an excellent site that will help you choose among the varied offerings of this forbidding but beautiful place. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Las Vegas, about 130 miles from Death Valley, start at $338. Stovepipe Wells Village offers basic rooms with air-conditioning (vital here!) and an onsite restaurant (Highway 190, Death Valley National Park, escapetodeathvalley.com, doubles from $95). 7. OLDEST COMMUNITY: ACOMA, NEW MEXICO Here in the U.S., we run the risk of applying the word tradition to institutions, such as the Super Bowl, that are less than 50 years old. So Acoma, NM, comes as a surprise to many. This community, which was originally settled by Native Americans, dates back to 1150, placing it squarely in the company of some of the oldest of old-world sites, such as medieval European cathedrals. About an hour's drive from Albuquerque, visit the Sky City Cultural Center for guided tours of an ancient pueblo on a sandstone bluff, explore the Acoma Pueblo Indian Museum, shop for traditional Native American crafts at the tribal-operated Gaits'I Gallery, and if gaming is your thing drop by the Sky City Casino Hotel for slots and table games. Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from Chicago to Albuquerque start at $450. Sky City Casino and Hotel has an onsite restaurant, fitness facility, and spa (Acoma Village, skycitycasino.com, doubles from $84). 8. BIGGEST CITY: NEW YORK CITY  New York has been the most populous city in the U.S. since the first census was taken in 1790, but it wasn't until the inauguration of the Erie Canal in 1825 that its numbers really took off, nearly tripling by 1840. By connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the waterway ushered in a new era in trade that rocketed the city to the economic preeminence it enjoys to this day. For visitors, that prosperity translates into unparalleled art collections, theater, music, and cuisine. And while world-class museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim can come with a hefty suggested donation, New York also offers some of the choicest low-cost—or free— attractions anywhere in the world, including holiday department-store displays, the immense Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and public skating rinks in several locations, including cozy Bryant Park, right in Midtown. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from Atlanta start at $254. The Jane Hotel is right on the Hudson River in the bustling, vibrant West Village; its bunk-bed "cabin" room is incredibly reasonable by NYC standards (113 Jane St., thejanenyc.com, doubles from $125). 9. SMALLEST TOWN: BUFORD, WYOMING  It doesn't get any smaller than Buford. Why? Because the town has only one resident, Don Simmons, the proprietor of The Buford Trading Post, a gas station and convenience store. If you're making a cross-country road trip on Interstate 80, it's worth stopping in Buford (between Cheyenne and Laramie) just to say hi, and to tell the folks back home that you've seen it. And since the town was purchased in an auction in September, it's not clear how long it will hold its title. Looking to do more than just pass through Buford? Nearby Vedauwoo State Park offers a breathtaking mountain landscape that flatlanders back east would die for. Get there: Well, you're not going to fly to Wyoming just to see little Buford, but round-trip flights on Frontier from San Francisco to Cheyenne, about 30 miles away, start at $478. Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites Cheyenne has an indoor pool, complimentary breakfast, and is near the historic Wyoming State Capitol (1741 Fleischli Parkway, hiexpress.com, doubles from $109). 10. BIRTHPLACE OF MOST PRESIDENTS: VIRGINIA  While most grade-school students know that four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were born in Virginia, the list goes on: Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson also entered the world in the Old Dominion. That historical density is reflected in the variety of amazing attractions you can find in Virginia, including historic downtown Richmond, the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg, Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, the home Jefferson designed for himself at Monticello, the National Cemetery at Arlington (on the grounds of what was once Confederate General Robert E. Lee's estate), and such Civil War battlefields as Manassas and Fredericksburg. Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from St. Louis to Norfolk (near Colonial Williamsburg) start at $491. Crowne Plaza Williamsburg was built on the Fort Magruder battleground and is walking distance to Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Settlement; indoor and outdoor pools provide a welcome break from theme-park and historic-site frenzy (6945 Pocahontas Trail, crowneplaza.com, doubles from $99). 11. BIGGEST LAKE: LAKE SUPERIOR  With an area of nearly 32,000 square miles, Lake Superior is not only the largest lake in the United States but also the largest freshwater lake in the world. Bounded by Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, this northernmost and westernmost of the Great Lakes was carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago and is so big (roughly the size of South Carolina) that it has its own climate, more akin to a coastal region than one so far inland. Among many beautiful parks and beaches along the lake's shores, Isle Royale National Park is perhaps the standout, with world-class canoe and kayak routes, hiking, and even scuba diving the lake's depths. Visit nps.gov/isro to start planning your visit. Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Detroit, start at $288. Rock Island Lodge is a bit of a splurge, but it's inside the Isle Royale National Park and offers unparalleled access to the park's activities (Isle Royale, reachable by ferry from Houghton, MI, rockharborlodge.com, cottages from $223). 12. BIGGEST RIVER: MISSISSIPPI RIVER At 2,320 miles long, the Mississippi flows from Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through or bordering 10 states and draining water from 31 between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Range. While there are a number of major cities along the river, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Memphis, if you have to choose just one Mississippi River destination, head down to the river's mouth, to New Orleans, for authentic jazz at Preservation Hall, a ride on one of the city's historic streetcars, the unique cuisine and party scene in the French Quarter, and, this winter, the Super Bowl. Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from Los Angeles start at $423. The French Market Inn is walking distance from Bourbon Street and includes an onsite coffee shop (501 Decatur St., frenchmarketinn.com, doubles from $132).

Is Jet Lag Always Worse Coming Home?

Jet lag can be a real bummer. I just got back from a ten-day trip to Spain, and right on cue, i'm jet lagged: tired by mid-day, waking up at odd and early hours, hungry at random times. Feeling these symptoms isn't surprising, per se, but what always gets me is how one-sided my jet lag experience is. Every time I travel abroad to Europe, my body adjusts perfectly—and rapidly—on the way there. But on the way home, I'm totally destroyed by jet lag for days. My question: Is jet lag always worse from east to west? Is it always worse from your vacation spot to home? Or am I alone in my one-sided jet lag experience?According to an August article in the New York Times, your body clock makes it more difficult to travel east. Steven W. Lockley, of NASA's fatigue management team, estimates that three-quarters of the population experience more jet lag when traveling eastward. The article also cites a study by neurologist Lawrence D. Recht, who found that Major League Baseball teams who had just completed eastward travel across a few time zones would give up more runs than usual—proof that you don't need a trans-Atlantic flight to feel the pressure of jet lag. And according to an article in Forbes, jet lag is worse when you're traveling eastward, because you feel like you're losing time instead of gaining time. Simple enough explanation. The studies directly contradict my own experiences, but perhaps it comes down to adrenaline and excitement. Who has time to feel jet lagged when you're starting a European vacation? Then again, when you get home and work and chores are looming, it's very easy to blame your lethargy on travel.What do you think? Do you find yourself more jet lagged going east to west, west to east, or the same in both directions?

Theme Parks

Fantasyland Opens at the Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom just got more magical. The newest section, Fantasyland, opened today and it's the largest expansion since the park opened in 1971. The Enchanted Forest is made up of attractions inspired by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (watch a send-up on House Hunters as Belle and the Beast pick their new home below). This is also where you'll find the Be Our Guest restaurant, the first at the Magic Kingdom to serve alcohol. Fantasyland is a work in progress and won't be completed for a couple years. Coming up next year will be a Princess Fairytale Hall for meet-and-greets with the princesses, followed by a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in 2014.

Inspiration

A Gourmet Meal for $20

There's no fancy silverware, no tablecloth, and no dress code. In fact, most diners, fresh from a hike, show up at this low-key lodge's dining room in flip-flops and shorts. Based on the setting, you might not guess that you're about to eat one of the most complex meals in all of Colombia, or, more importantly, that Chef Joseph Romero was sous chef at Spain's now-closed El Bulli, often called the world's best restaurant. But the real question on diners' minds, as they start their 10-course tasting menu with an appetizer like free-range hen salad with coconut biscuits and kefir is, "How can this all possibly cost $20?" After 25 years at upscale restaurants in his native Barcelona and elsewhere, Romero tired of typical fine dining—instead, he wanted to share with the world his so-called "gastronomic revolution." "Our scheme is to demystify 'luxury' and still create luxurious, local food at a reasonable price," he says. He traveled extensively before setting up camp at Dapa Hostel, a rustic ecolodge 30 minutes from Cali in the mountains of the Valle del Cauca. He found the area to be the ideal spot for his culinary coup—its natural diversity means a bounty of fresh ingredients, all sourced from farms and markets within a 50-mile radius. The result is a firsthand education in the region's distinct tropical fare. You'll find papaya in the béchamel sauce, or tropical fruit steamed with sage, thyme, and rosemary on a blackberry coulis for dessert. His trio of ceviches—based on the recipes of El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià and top Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio—come with a local twist, courtesy of his 23-year-old son and sous chef Mikhail: passion fruit vinaigrette and citrusy lulo fruit foam. You don't have to be a guest at the lodge to enjoy Romero's meals, but book early: Dinners are kept to 25 or under so Romero can interact with his guests, often sitting down to explain the dish's subtle flavors or local origins. After the delectable 10 courses—from French bean soup with an orange and purple basil sherbet "floating island" to yuca and corvina fish stew to potato and plantain waffles—it's pretty hard to believe that the check is so low. "Ferran Adrià says every product has the same gastronomical importance regardless of its market value," Romero says. "A potato and caviar don't have to be different in gastronomical value. If a potato has been grown properly and is well cooked, it can be as good as lobster." Dapa Hostel, Valle del Cauca, dapahostel.wix.com/dapahostel, for reservations call 011/57-318-349-9710 or email dapahostel@gmail.com, 10-course tasting menu $20.

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