Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Traveling while Pregnant: Expectations versus Reality

Traveling while Pregnant: Expectations versus Reality |

While I had this blog when I was pregnant with my daughter three and a half years ago, I wasn't really into the whole blogging thing.

Honestly, I was a bit of a mess blogging-wise: I would forget that I even had a blog for weeks at a time, I actively refused to make a Twitter account, and I had no cohesive theme or focus. If you look back at those posts (while I hang my head in blogger shame at how ramble-y and unreadable they are), you'll see that I sometimes talked about my pregnancy and sometimes I talked about my travels, but never together.

Over the last 900+ days, I've gotten my blogging game together a bit more, and I can now share my thoughts on what it's like to be a pregnant travel blogger. Some of it is good, and some of it is downright miserable. I know that the experience of pregnancy is vastly different from person to person, so I'll try to avoid making too many generalizations and focus instead on how I felt while out and about during this (not-so-glamorous) nine months.

First Trimester

With my past experiences being pregnant (both with my daughter back in 2012 and the little boy we lost in late 2015), I expected that the first trimester was going to be rough. I'm one of those lucky people who are prone to morning/ all-day sickness, so I very much expected to have to work around that on the travels we had planned during February, March, April, and May.

While I felt as if I was on a rolling ship at sea during a tsunami on some days, I actually had much less morning sickness with this baby than I did with either of my other two pregnancies. The days when I did feel bad were rough as my toddler really didn't care and gave me zero sympathy, but I clung to my Ritz crackers and ginger ale and did the best I could to keep going.

One thing that I wasn't expecting was the overwhelming anxiety that came with this pregnancy after a second-trimester loss last year. When we lost our son August, I was in Florida on a trip, and went through the experience by myself since my husband couldn't drive quickly enough from South Carolina. It was absolutely traumatic, and, because of it, I found myself being abnormally content at the house.

Between my doctor's reassurances and my husband's willingness to put up with my clinginess while we traveled, we managed to get in a few solid trips to different places here in the southeast including Seabrook Island for my sister's bachelorette (below).

Second Trimester

This is the sweet spot in pregnancy for most people I know. You're not too big, so you can still get around pretty easily, but you're showing, so other people tend to hold doors for you and act a bit nicer. I anticipated this being my best part of pregnancy and planned our travels accordingly.

Not only did I have lots of energy, I started becoming more confident in this little one's health (thanks to lots of extra visits with my doctor since I was considered "high risk" after that late loss). More confidence = further visits from home and more traveling!

I did the theme park thing at Walt Disney World twice during my second trimester: once with my husband and daughter in late April, and then again with my parents and daughter in late May. We also had our usual trip to Edisto Beach in July with my inlaws, which was quite relaxing.

Third Trimester

I figured that, by month 7, I would be ready to retire to the couch and live out my final days as a parent of one in misery (much as I did while pregnant with Britton!). There's really nothing glamorous about those last few weeks of pregnancy: you're huge, you're uncomfortable, and you're so over getting pummeled in the ribs.

I purposefully didn't plan much travel between August and November because I just knew I was going to be miserable to be around.

I won't lie: I am huge and generally uncomfortable and not at all my usual spry self. However (and this is a huge thing that I didn't see coming), I'm not as bad off as I expected. Yay for small victories!

I even felt good enough to go with my parents to Saluda, North Carolina, a few weeks ago, where we went to the Biltmore House and Sky Top Orchard. I made it--though a bit slower than usual--and had a blast.

We also ended up evacuating for Hurricane Matthew, but turned it into a bit of a mini-vacation. We went to Stumphouse Tunnel and Issaqueena Falls in upstate South Carolina, went fishing near my in-laws, and walked around our alma mater, Clemson University. I got plenty of stares from other people we met along the way, but I managed to motor my way around.


I'm definitely ready to get back into my regular travel mode once this little boy makes his debut in just a few weeks, and my husband and I have started planning a few easy weekend trips we can make to ease us into being a family of four. Bring it on, 2017!

For my fellow parents, have you done much traveling while pregnant? What are your best tips for enjoying your travels during this time in your life?

Traveling while Pregnant: Expectations versus Reality |

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend}

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |

I'm slowly checking off the things that I need to accomplish before I head to the hospital, which is keeping me from spazzing completely at this point. I have just over 2 weeks at most since I've already been scheduled for a repeat c-section at 39 weeks. (If you're wondering why a repeat c-section, read my daughter's birth story here. We're looking to avoid all of that this go-round!)

One of things on that very long to-do list was to show our 3.5 year old just how much we love her. I know that sounds silly because obviously we love her, but we're about to turn her life upside down.

She seems excited about the baby, but, at the same time, she's started acting out more and more as I get bigger and bigger (which is totally what I need at this point). Yes, some of it is classic toddler, but I think that a good portion steams from the fact that she has no clue what's happening.

As a way to do that, my husband and I decided to do a Big Sister Weekend that revolved around all of Britton's favorite things. At three, she's got definitive ideas about what she likes and doesn't like, so we tried to get her to help us plan her special day. She suggested "Walt Disney World" and "Ludwig's castle in Germany"--I love the way she thinks, but I wasn't quite up for a trip to a theme park or a trans-Atlantic flight, so we had to help her scale things waaaaay back. (Spoiler: she still had a blast even though we didn't leave Charleston!)

Breakfast Beginnings

We woke up early, which is par for the course with our little morning person, got dressed, and headed to Britton's favorite breakfast place: Waffle House. She happily scarfed down part of a chocolate chip waffle, some bacon and sausage, hashbrowns, toast, and orange juice.

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |
Matching braided ponytails and Clemson hoodies are essential for a good breakfast!
She even got to pick out a few songs on the juke box, which delighted her to no end. Her choices were her two favorite songs: Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |
Making a very difficult decision at the juke box

A Bit of Nostalgia

After we ate our fill of our All-Star breakfasts, we waddled back out to the car and headed over to Britton's school, where they were holding a fall festival. Going to it was a lot of fun, but a bit surreal for me since I used to attend the same school--and go to the same festival! I haven't been to the annual event since about 2000, but not much has changed. Major nostalgia for me, and lots of fun for Britton.

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |

We ate snow cones (purple because those are her favorite), played a few games, watched the cheerleaders perform, had her face painted, and unsuccessfully tried to win a cake at the Cake Walk booth.

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |
Nothing says happiness to a toddler like a grape snowcone.

Time to Catch a Flick

We couldn't stick around for too long because we had somewhere to be: the movie theatre! My kid adores going to the movies and asks for a visit at least once a week. She's normally someone who cannot sit still for more than 5 minutes, but she'll happily snuggle into her big chair at the theatre for the entire movie. We saw "Storks," which is super cute and made me cry far more than it probably should (darn you, pregnancy hormones!).

We were going to do a manicure/pedicure as well, but we were all tired after our running around all day on Saturday. We headed back to the house to rest and ended up retiring early.

Work and Things Left Undone

Sunday was our catch-up day: we're in the midst of clearly our 7 acre property, so it's a constant battle to keep ahead of the weeds and to keep moving the felled trees around. Landon hopped on the tractor to do some work while Britton and I did some chores in the house, a process that goes soooo slowly now that I am roughly the size of a hot air balloon and can't bend more than 35 degrees forward.

Landon and I were supposed to get our hospital bags ready, but somehow another weekend has come and gone, and they are still sitting empty on the floor of my bedroom. We WILL conquer that by next weekend!

How was your weekend? Did you do anything fun? 

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 17 {Big Sister Weekend} |


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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |

Here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, we don't have much of a fall. And by that, I mean that the trees stubbornly hold onto their leaves well into November, only to give a great sigh around Thanksgiving and discard crumbling, brown bits on the ground around Thanksgiving without any of the colorful pomp and circumstance found elsewhere in the country.

We don't have real pumpkin patches, but rather ones where the pumpkins are shipped in and sold rapidly before they start to mold in the 80 degree weather.

We're in shorts and t-shirts long past the official start of fall. If we wear boots and sweaters in October, it's because the meteorologist called for plummeting temperatures in the mid-70s. (Go ahead, laugh. We're kind of ridiculous that way.)

So, with all of that working against me, what's a gal to do to get a little fall in her life without sweating buckets?

For many residents of North and South Carolina, the answer to that is head to Flat Rock, North Carolina, for a day out at Sky Top Orchard. Visiting there has become a bit of an annual tradition for my family, coinciding with our visits to nearby Saluda. And it's not just us: I've seen so many of my friends who live here in the Carolinas share their visits each year to the apple orchard, too!

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |

If you find yourself in the mountains of Western North Carolina between August and December, do yourself a favor and open up a few hours to spend here. It's classic fall fun for the entire family that's not too expensive (unless you really hit those apple cider doughnuts hard...which I totally wouldn't judge you for doing!).

Although Sky Top first opened its doors in the early '70s, it operated exclusively as a commercial grove for years. It wasn't until the original owners' son was in college that Sky Top began to transition towards a you-pick fall destination; now, that son, David, and his wife, oversee all of the fun that happens each year here.

When you arrive, you'll have to make a tough decision: head out into the orchard to pick your own apples or grab a few half-pecks of the pre-picked apples that are laid out under the main shed. There's something about eating a big bag of apples that you picked with your own hands, but to get those prized apples, you've got to walk quite a ways up and down several hills.

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |

Despite my obvious pregnancy waddle, we went for the you-pick option this year and slooooowly made our way to the Granny Smith rows, which were, naturally, one of the furthest available apple types.

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |
My mom and Britton leaving me and my ridiculously slow pregnant self.
Before you head out into the picking orchard, grab a basket--and a cart if you're planning on bringing back lots of apples!--and head over to the friendly employees just to the left of the sampling table. They can help you figure out what type of apple that you want to pick, and they'll hand out maps of the orchard so you'll know where to go.

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |
Look! My dad found the rare Britton apple in the orchard!
Another must-do at Sky Top is the food. You'll definitely want to come hungry, as the apple cider doughnuts are ridiculously delicious. (I apologize in advance for how much I talk about the doughnuts in this post. I'm obsessed.) They are deep fried as all good doughnuts are and then quickly dunked in a cinnamon and sugar coating. Imagine if your favorite apple fritter married a churro, and that's what these things are. YUM.

I also love getting a cup of frozen apple cider, available under the shed. There's also hot apple cider if it's a particularly chilly day. And, if you want to bring home the apple-y goodness, you can find gallons of cold cider in the refrigerator cases in the shed.

Next, head over to the hayride for a quick trip around the 100-acre property. This was a particularly hot ticket item for my three-year-old this year, though you'll see visitors of all ages on it. Tickets are sold under the shed at the long cash register counter, and the 15-ish minute hayride departs and returns to the open barn at the back of the main shed.

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |

The animals on property are another big draw for the little patrons. You can get up close and personal with peacocks, goats, chickens, and more. If you've got kids who'd rather play than pet animals, you can head over to the play yard, where there are close to a dozen treehouses, slides, swings, and playhouses.

Tips for Visiting:

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.comApple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |
(left: Britton in 2016, me back in 2010)
  • Go early! During peak season (mid-September to late October), Sky Top is PACKED. This year, we went the third Saturday in September, and, when we arrived at 9:45, the place was already crawling with people. Know that most people will either head straight to the doughnut window or out in to the orchard, so hop on the hayride or let your kids play in the massive playground when you first get there. 

  • Don't eat the apples when you're picking them. It's hard, I know. Really hard. You're holding a fresh, crisp apple in your hand, and it would be so easy to chow down on it for a quick snack. But, since the apple price is calculated by weight, eating or throwing out apples in the orchard is basically like stealing since they aren't included in the final weight. 

  • Go for the full dozen apple cider doughnuts. In all of my visits to Sky Top, I've never said, "Wow, I wish I'd gotten less of these babies." They are crazy good, and the line is usually daunting, so splurge and get the entire dozen. You won't be sorry.

  • Bring cash. There's an ATM onsite, but it's always easier to arrive prepared. The orchard does not accept any kind of plastic as payment, so it's either cash or check. Without some green in your pocket, you'll just be sadly staring at the people on the hayride, everyone buying apples, and the other patrons stuffing doughnuts in their mouths. The hayride is a few dollars, and the doughnuts are $10 for a dozen, so you could bring around $40 and do everything that's available here. 

  • Check the website for what's available. Not all varieties mature at the same rate, so you'll find different apple varieties at different times of the fall. I was sad to find that my absolute favorite apples, the Pink Ladies, weren't ready during our most recent trip, but there were plenty of Granny Smiths, Jonagolds, and Honeycrisps for the taking.
I can't wait to take our new baby next year--hopefully, I will be much, much more comfortable then than I was this year and will be able to walk around the property with a bit more ease. I'm sure our daughter will be showing him all of her favorite parts, although I bet she'll probably keep the doughnuts and cider all to herself. :)

What fall traditions do you have? Do you have a favorite apple orchard or pumpkin patch that you visit?

Apple of My Eye: Tips for Visiting Sky Top Orchard, Flat Rock, North Carolina |


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Monday, October 17, 2016

How to Come Back in a Big Way after a Blogging Break

How to Come Back in a Big Way after a Blogging Break |

Blogging breaks are essential from time to time. Sometimes, you'll have a big moment in life you want to focus on (like a wedding, honeymoon, or birth), while other times blogging breaks just happen when life speeds along faster than you can keep up.

As someone who took a much-longer-than-was-prudent blogging break earlier this year, I am in the midst of cranking my blog back up. Thanks to a combination of my daughter's preschool letting out, early pregnancy woes, and general blog burnout, I stopped working on the blog back in May and left it to its own devices until about 6 weeks ago. (Oops!)

While I've had smaller gaps in my blogging, I've never walked away from Cosmos Mariners: Destination Unknown for this long, and I've learned quite a few things about returning after such an extensive blogging break.

If you've stepped away from your blog for a while and are contemplating whether to return, or if you've made the leap back into blogging after some R+R, here are some tips to get you back on top of your blogging game in no time!

1) Keep your expectations low. 

When I decided to hop back into blogging after an absurdly long time away this summer, I wasn't sure what I would find. Would I have readers? Would everyone mock me for being such a poor blogger?

I seriously had no idea what the process would entail, so I decided to keep those expectations low. And, by "low," I mean, "I wanted someone, anyone to show me that they were still out there in blog land."

When my lovely readers did respond to my return, I was incredibly grateful. I'd left them hanging for months, and they absolutely didn't owe me anything. But what a good feeling to know that my audience is still out there!

So, take your expectations of what your blog return will look like, and lower it. And lower it again. It's not going to be the same starting back as it was when you left, so prepare yourself.

2) Center on the basics. 

Before the craziness that was my summer and mid-pregnancy, I was trucking along on my blog in a big way. I had over a dozen press trips under my belt, I was gaining new readers right and left, and looking at my Google Analytics was the best part of my day since it keep going up and up.

After returning, I decided to cut out a lot of that and just get back to the core of my blogging: good articles, steady social media posts, and lots of interaction with my readers and other bloggers.

As I've gotten further into blogging again, I've slowly added more to my daily to-do list, but it was nice to ease myself into the process. Diving back into everything (guest posts, collab posts, press trip pitching, etc.) all at once would've likely sent me fleeing back to the non-blogging world again quickly.

3) Be prepared for a blow to your social media channels.

This is probably the most surprising thing that I've found over the last two months of returning to blogging. Between May and mid-August, I didn't do much on any of my social media channels other than send out the occasional tweet or re-pin a few things that interested me. Yet, my followers on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and Instagram continued to grow.

Yes, they were growing at a slower pace than they were when I was posting consistently, but there was still forward movement.

Now, flash forward to late August when I decided to get back into the swing of things. I started posting daily on all of my social media accounts--just as I had been prior to my blogging break--and followers started leaving in droves.

While the worst was on my Instagram account (something that has driven me INSANE over the last 6 weeks), this trend occurred on all of my channels. Perhaps in posting again, I reminded some followers who were on the fence about my blogging that they'd been meaning to unfollow me. Perhaps they forgot why they were following me in the first place.

I have no idea why, but it is incredibly, incredibly frustrating to see that 40 people have started following me one day on Instagram only to wake up with a net loss of 60 people. So, even though I was gaining at a good clip, my total number of followers were going down to the number of people unfollowing me. Ugh.

My advice: just keep your head down, stay focused, and get past this. Remember that you're gaining better followers!

4) Don't cry when you look at Google Analytics. (Well, don't cry too much.)

I have always been one to put too much stock in blog numerics. I know this is a major weakness of mine, but I love seeing those little numbers climb and climb and climb.

This past summer, I knew that my analytics numbers were down--after all, they had to be after three and a half months of inactivity. However, when I checked the black and white numbers, I actually did well: numbers had dropped by about 8%, but overall, my stats were holding steady.

However, when I started back in earnest--regularly posting, commenting on social media, and doing lots and lots of blog promotion--my numbers plummeted. I got about half of the pageviews last month as I did back in the January-April period even though I was doing everything I'd been doing during that period.

I don't know why this boomerang effect happens, but it's done it every time I've taken a blogging break of more than a few weeks. Just like the mass exodus from social media channels, watching those Analytics numbers plummet feels as if I'm hitting my head on a wall.

In good news, the numbers always come back up. And, in my experience, after that initial heart-wrenching dip, the pageviews and users usually shoot back up past where they were at their previous high. It just takes perseverance and time to get back there!

5) Schedule. Then, schedule. And schedule some more.

I've always been a planner, but I knew that it was going to take a different kind of discipline to overcome everything awaiting me on my blog.

This time around, I've structured everything: when blog posts should be written and scheduled, when certain posts should be shared on my social media channels, and how to approach my social media promotion. Because I have limited time (both due to my freelance writing commitments and my preschooler's inability to let me work when we're together), I've had to streamline this process and make a list for even the most mundane of details.

Doing so has made this transition infinitely more easy and has given me hope that I will be fully back in the swing of things very soon.


Have you taken a blogging break before (either on purpose or by accident)? What challenges did you face when starting back? What's your best tip for jump starting your writing after being away for a while?

How to Come Back in a Big Way after a Blogging Break |


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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |

One of the first major trips that my husband and I took together after we were married was to the UK. I was (and still am!) an Anglophile through and through, having been to the country multiple times before this trip, including a study abroad stint in London during college.

My husband, on the other hand, had only been out of the country once--on our honeymoon cruise to the Caribbean--and had no idea of what awaited him on this trip.

Even though we've been on many adventures together since this one, our Edinburgh/London trip remains one of our favorites. We're hoping to take our daughter on a similar trip in 2017, which will be so amazing that I can't even wrap my head around it.

Anyway, if you're headed to England and Scotland and want to see how much you can accomplish in less than 2 weeks, read on. I've tried to include what we did, where we ate, and where we stayed whenever possible for plenty of travel inspiration!

Day 1: Flight to London

Since we wanted to spend time in both England and Scotland, our airfare was cheaper from Charleston, South Carolina, if we flew into London. If you're just planning to do the Scotland half of this itinerary, I'd recommend flying directly into Edinburgh if possible or changing planes in London since it's so much quicker than the train we ended up taking.

Day 2: Getting to Scotland

Once we were on the ground, we took the Tube from Heathrow to King's Cross, then transferred to Euston. There was an incredible amount of traffic due to construction going on in the Tube system, and we made it to Euston train station with less then 20 minutes to spare before our train left.

Learn from me and give yourself plenty of time for Tube/train transfers (we allotted 2 hours and that still wasn't enough time between getting off the plane and getting onto our train).

We grabbed a couple of pasties from The Pasty Shop (cheddar and onion for the win!) in the train station, boarded our train, and then spent the next 4.5 hours trying not to pass out from exhaustion. Unfortunately, since we were traveling in the off-season, the sun went down around 5 PM, so we didn't even have anything good to see out of the window.

Once we arrived in Edinburgh's Waverley Station (which is very conveniently located to the New and Old Town), we grabbed our suitcases and headed to our hotel. We stayed in the Jurys Inn Edinburgh, which is only a few hundred feet from the train station and less than a block off the Royal Mile. It's got clean but basic rooms, a restaurant and a bar onsite, and the location can't be beat.

Overnight: Jurys Inn Edinburgh

Day 3: Edinburgh Explorations

Not ones to sleep in on vacation, we were up with the sun and ready to see all that Edinburgh could offer us in one day.

Our day was anchored around what we could see on the Royal Mile. We started out with coffee and tea at the Elephant House, a location I chose wholly by the fact that it was a favorite haunt of J.K. Rowling when she was writing the early Harry Potter novels. Luckily, they have a great breakfast served with a side of literary inspiration.

Over the course of the day, we wandered from one end of the Royal Mile to the other, taking in Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse, and a free choral concert at St. Giles' Church. We shopped for kilts and souvenirs, shared a baked brie and a few pints at a pub, and ended the day with a cheap, filling meal at Yocoko Noodle Bar.

Looking back, I wish we'd been able to stay more than 24 hours in Edinburgh--it is an incredible city and we were only able to see a tiny portion of it.

Overnight: Jurys Inn Edinburgh

Day 4: Heading out of the city

One thing that I absolutely had to do on this trip was go to Rosslyn Chapel. I'd read about it back in high school and had been fascinated by the intricate stonework and mysterious history of the place. It's a quick trip outside of Edinburgh, so it was our first destination after we picked up our rental car at Waverley Station.

Because we were visiting so early in the morning and because it was the off-season we had a completely private tour of the place, which exceeded every expectation I had about visiting. It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip!

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
Beautiful Rosslyn Chapel
Next, we headed down to tiny Melrose to see the ruins of Melrose Abbey. I'm really, really into ruins (the older, the better), so I tried to pack as many into our Scotland travels as possible. Even though it was a bit out of the way, being able to walk around the ruins and climb high into the remaining buidlings was well worth the detour. We ate at this little tea house that was next to the parking lot at the Abbey, but for the life of me, I can't remember the name of it.

After filling up our stomachs with sandwiches and tea, we hopped back in our rental car and headed to Dunblane, where we were to spend the next few nights. It was a short trip (only about an hour and a half), and we were glad to check into the Dunblane Hydro Hotel. It's a massive complex in a refurbished sanatorium where TB patients would come to relax and take the supposedly healing waters.

Overnight: Dunblane Hydro Hotel

Day 5: Trossachs

In one of those it's-meant-to-be moments, we ran into one of the hotel's workers who liked talking as much as my husband and I do. This man convinced us to change our Day 5 plans from going to Aviemore to the Trossachs: not only were the Trossachs closer, but they were like a mini-Highlands.

In a fit of spontaneity, we completely changed our plans--and I'm so glad that we did. I'm sure that Aviemore and the Cairngorms would've been spectacular, but we had the best time driving around the Trossachs on our new friend's suggestions. We didn't do anything major: we just wandered and took the road where it led us. We did stumble on a few incredible moments like finding the grave of Rob Roy McGregor in tiny Balquidder (much to the delight of my husband, who loves the movie of the same name).

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
Bonding with a new friend on our road trip
To top off the trip, I was able to visit the place where my ancestors (the Buchanan clan) hailed from. There's not much there to see in the way of a castle or anything, but driving around the Loch Lomond region knowing that my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (seriously--we were early to jump on the America bandwagon back in the day) once wandered there too was a fun experience!

Overnight: Dunblane Hydro Hotel

Day 6: Stirling and Dunblane

On our last full day in Dunblane, we decided to stick closer to the hotel. We had another very early morning and ended up opening Stirling Castle. I hate getting up early, but I love having a place to myself to slowly sightsee. We spent about 2 hours with our audio tour, weaving in and out of the multiple buildings of Stirling Castle before heading over to the William Wallace Museum on the other side of Stirling (you can see it from the Castle, which makes for a great picture opp!).

Besides Rob Roy, my husband is also obsessed with Braveheart and the myth that is William Wallace, so he was really into this site. I liked seeing Wallace's gigantic sword, but there wasn't a lot other than that elaborated on the man's life. I also enjoyed going to the Hall of Heroes and taking some pictures with the busts of my favorite Scottish authors (including Rabbie Burns, for whom I hold a soft spot).

If you go, make sure to note that there are no elevators if you cannot walk up the 246 steps. It's quite a hike up the entire monument, but you do get to stop at the various levels to help break up the journey.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
At Doune Castle
We then had to go to Doune Castle, another must-visit for me. Doune Castle is where the vast majority of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed, and the audio tour is even narrated by Terry Jones. More recently, it's been one of the filming locations for Outlander and Game of Thrones (it's the Winterfell location), but the Monty Python connection will always be near and dear to my heart. (Plus, where else can you  clap coconuts together in lieu of having an actual horse and not get stared at?!)

Again, traveling in the off-season is AWESOME since we had the place to ourselves. There's nothing like rambling 'round a 14th century castle with only the howling wind to accompany you.

Finally, we decided to dunk into Dunblane Cathedral before calling it a day. (As an aside, I cannot believe we managed to do this much in one day!!) We were the sole visitors here as well, and the docent took us around this incredible structure, explaining bits and pieces of the cathedral's history. My favorite part? When the town fell on hard times and couldn't keep up with the work needed, they let the roof cave in towards the back and just used the seats near to the front of the cathedral. Eventually, they were able to raise enough money to restore the place to its former glory, thankfully.

About this time, we realized we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and wandered into town to find some dinner. One pub didn't serve dinner, and another wasn't ready to start dinner service for us. At the third, the man who saw us loitering outside looking hungry took pity on us, brought us in and opened the kitchen early for us. That was the best meal I'd had in a long time because I was so hungry!

Overnight: Dunblane Hydro Hotel

Day 7: St. Andrews

We said farewell to Dunblane and Stirling and headed off to St. Andrews for a day trip. We mostly wanted to soak up the town's atmosphere since I hold ridiculous dreams of being a Ph.D. student there one day, so we did a self-guided tour from one of my guide books.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
With my trusty guidebook at the St. Andrews Cathedral ruins
We wandered the ruins and graveyard of St. Andrews Cathedral, explored the claustrophobia-inducing tunnels under St. Andrews Cathedral, did a Chariots of Fire run along the beach, and watched a few cold golfers tee off. We warmed up at North Point Cafe, which is one of Will and Kate's old haunts during their university days.

Sadly, we couldn't linger in St. Andrews for too long, as we had to return the rental car that night back in Edinburgh. We did take the scenic route, winding around East Neuk as we headed into the city.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
Onboard the Caledonian Sleeper. Spacious, isn't it?
After dumping the rental car at Waverley Station, we took our suitcases to the train portion of the station and waited...and waited...and waited. We were taking the Caledonian Sleeper back to London (something I was ridiculously excited about, having never been on a sleeper train before), and it didn't start boarding until around 10:30. We spent two very long hours people watching and drinking wine out of plastic containers we got at the onsite convenience store. We are some classy party animals!

Overnight: Caledonian Sleeper to London

Day 8: London

After a bumpy night on the train, we awoke in London, ready to conquer my most beloved city in the world. My husband hadn't ever been before this trip, so I was ready to show him all of my favorite things. We left our luggage in a locker in the train station and headed to the Tower of London for the morning. The Tower is one of those places that you can spend hours, and we ended up staying for a good portion of the day.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
At the Tower of London
We then headed over to the British Museum for tea and a glimpse at the Egyptian exhibit and the Elgin marbles. This is another place that you need to pace yourself! There's no way to see everything it has to offer on one trip (or ten!), so choose a few highlights each time you go.

We were tired after a long day of sightseeing, so we retrieved our luggage, found our hotel in Chelsea, and called it a night.

Overnight: Avni Kensington Hotel, Chelsea, London (near Gloucester Road tube stop)

Day 9: London

I'd planned our trip purposefully so we could have a Saturday in London: this meant that our first stop was the Portobello Road Market where we stuffed ourselves with gigantic fresh doughnuts, went antiquing (and found the coolest owl bookends), and people watched.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
Fresh doughnuts at the Portobello Road Market!
Next, we darted over to the TKTS booth to grab tickets for an evening performance since I can't go to London without seeing at least one play.

I made my husband go on a bit of a Natalie-history tour, as we went sightseeing in Chelsea, where I had studied abroad in college. After he got tired of hearing "and this is where I liked to get tea and this is where I did my grocery shopping and this is where I saw Brittany Murphy," we walked to Sloane Square, hung a left and went to Harrod's for a snack and some shopping.

We ended the day in the theatre district and took in a performance of The Woman in Black, the longest running play on the West End. IT. WAS. AWESOME. I didn't know how only two actors would be able to pull off all of the characters, but they were talented beyond belief. Just see it.

Overnight: Avni Kensington Hotel, Chelsea, London

Day 10: London

By the last day in London, we were starting to feel the constant overexertion of sightseeing, so we did the low key route and went shopping in Leicester Square and Covent Gardens.

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |
My husband in Covent Gardens
After getting home, I realized that my husband hadn't seen the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, or any of the South Kensington museums on our trip. London guide fail! If you plan on recreating this itinerary, I'd highly recommend taking in one or more of those attractions in your final day in London.

Overnight: Avni Kensington Hotel, Chelsea, London

Day 11: Heading home

Well, that's all she wrote. We spent the better part of the morning getting ourselves back to the airport and through security before heading back to Charleston. Until next time, Scotland and England!

Have you been to the UK? What attractions were on your must-see list?

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England |


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Monday, October 10, 2016

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition}

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |

The end of last week and this past weekend didn't quite turn out as I'd planned. You might have noticed that there was no post last Wednesday or Friday, but I was so busy with packing that I just didn't get around to it.

Having lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for the last three decades, I know there's always the chance that we might have to evacuate during hurricane season. Thankfully, we've only had to evacuate twice since I moved back in 1996: once for Hurricane Floyd, and then this past weekend.

If you read my weekend update a few weeks ago, you'll know that I purposefully didn't plan any travel after our trip to Asheville in mid-September. Life had other plans, as we got to evacuate to the upper part of the state last Wednesday. So much for staying at home and resting before tiny Mariner #2 makes his arrival in early November!

Landon and I had been keeping an eye on the Hurricane Matthew updates on Monday and Tuesday, and ultimately, we made the decision to evacuate. I don't think either of us wanted to take any chances of riding out a potential category 3 or 4 hurricane with a three-year-old and being 36 weeks pregnant.

Where we live, just north of downtown Charleston, was where Hurricane Hugo made landfall back in 1989--and where Hurricane Matthew also made landfall on Saturday. I definitely didn't want to get stuck without water or power or the ability to get to the hospital if things went south!

We headed to my in-laws in the Upstate and spent several days exploring the area. We tried to stay busy in order to keep our minds off the potential devastation heading towards our house back in Charleston...and to keep our preschooler from worrying about all of the thunder and lightening that she was sure was coming to get her. (She hates storms!)

It was a taking-lemons-and-making-lemonades thing, and we ended up having a tiny mountain vacation in the midst of all of the stress and worry.

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |

Our hurricane-vacay itinerary had some pretty fun activities:

Visiting Stumphouse Tunnel and Issaqueena Falls in Walhalla, South Carolina,

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |

Taking our daughter fishing,

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |

Returning to our alma mater for some ice cream on Clemson University's campus,


Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |
Clemson, which has one of the few dairy science programs in the country, has its agriculture students make their own ice cream. The result is some crazy delicious ice cream that is sold right on campus! Britton chose orange ice cream because "Mama, we are at Clemson. Tigers are orange!"

Best of all, when we got home around lunchtime yesterday, we found our house standing and without much damage. A few pieces of siding came off, and a bit of our roof is on the ground, but everything stayed watertight. We also lost a few of our smaller trees, but overall, the damage was minimal. So many others (both here in South Carolina and in the Caribbean) didn't fare as well, and my heart goes out to them as they face the recovery process.

I hope all of my readers in the path of Hurricane Matthew are able to quickly put their lives back together. For those of you lucky enough not to have to deal with a hurricane this past weekend, I hope you had a wonderful and relaxing time!

Odds + (Week) Ends: Volume 16 {Hurricane Matthew Edition} |


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Monday, October 3, 2016

Monthly Blog Goals: October 2016

Monthly Blog Goals: October 2016 |

While the months-long blog break that I inadvertently took this summer was nice, I'm now remembering why it's often a good thing to push through those times when you want to quit blogging. 

Over the last month that I've been at blogging again, I've felt as if I'm running in slow motion as I try to get this thing (and all of its associated social media) going again. Although my blog was on autopilot for a while, I can see where my pageviews and reader interaction dropped (and understandably!), and it's tough not to obsess over the numbers. I know they're going to go back up, but I have to restrain myself from checking Google Analytics multiple times a day. 

As a way to get my rear in gear, I've decided to start sharing my monthly blogging goals out in the open instead of squirreling them away in the blogging notebook I carry around. It's too easy to ignore those goals when I can quickly flip past that notebook page: here, I can see exactly how much I've done over the last 30 or so days. 

I won't lie: this is also my last full month of blogging before I will be forced to take a break (newborns don't seem to care about blogs or schedules!), so this new series is also a way to make sure I don't give up on life before it's time. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I definitely gave up on everything about a week before she was born and laid uncomfortably on the couch begging her to show up. 

I don't really have that luxury this time around, as preschoolers, much like newborns, don't have much sympathy for my personal comforts or schedules. My three-year-old is sure to keep me on the go until the last minute before this baby comes, so I'm going to try and stay as close to the usual schedule as possible as a way to psyche myself up on those days that I just want to lay on the couch and cry. 

So, what do I want to accomplish this month blog-wise? A lot!
  • Rehab 4 older posts and share on my social media channels. I have SO many posts that I kind of cobbled together before I figured out the whole blogging thing. They've got great content, but I wrote them without considering SEO keywords. I also need to go back and make more Pinterest friendly headers and enlarge some of the images since I was going through a tiny pictures phase on the blog for some reason. I seriously have over a hundred old posts to rehab, so this is s very small start to that project. 

  • Write 6-8 new posts. I need to get some great new content on the blog, too, of course!

  • Lay out all post through December. I'm a huge planner, and it makes me happy when I know exactly when I need to have things written and scheduled. 

  • Get guest posts lined up for maternity leave. I plan on taking off about 6 weeks after the baby is here since I'm not sure how coherent my writing will be on a newborn sleep schedule. If you're a blogger and you're interested in being one of my guest posters, email me at I'm open to anything travel related that's fun, interesting and/or quirky!

  • Get my Facebook page followers up to 2500. While Pinterest and Twitter are my jams when it comes to social media, I've long struggled in building my Facebook following. I'm really cheap and have resisted paying for any kind of ads on Facebook, but it's nearly impossible to grow on FB without paying these days (which is really a shame). Any advice from fellow bloggers here is much appreciated!

  • Get Instagram up to 8350 followers. I try to take time with each of my social media channels and work hard at them for a focused period of time. I've neglected Instagram for a while, and I think it needs some TLC!

  • Get my sponsored travel e-course revamped and ready to launch! I had great success earlier this year running an e-course on how to add sponsored travel to blogs, but the way I had the course set up put a lot of extra work on my shoulders. I'm reworking the course to make it completely self-guided, which will help my work load out a lot while still providing a ton of information to my course members. (Interested in taking the course? Sign up here!)

  • Figure out PayPal button. After Passionfruit Ads went belly up a few months ago, I needed a new way for e-course subscribers to pay. Who doesn't love PayPal!? I've glanced at a few tutorials, and the process seems pretty easy, but I just need to sit down and make time for the coding and placement.

  • Comment 3x weekly on other blogs. I LOVE reading other bloggers--it's a great source of inspiration for me, and I've gotten to meet some awesome people that way. I just get so busy sometimes that commenting on other blogs falls by the wayside, which is such a shame. Time to make this a priority!
Whew. I think that if I accomplish all of that, I can say that I went out with a bang before my maternity leave!

What are you hoping to accomplish this month on your blog?

Monthly Blog Goals: October 2016 |


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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |

Visiting Jamaica can feel as if you've fallen into an advertisement for the good life: palm trees sway in the Caribbean breeze while reggae music plays in the background. With a year 'round average temperature of 80° and more than 250 days of sunshine, a visit to Jamaica is meant to be spent outdoors.

Aside from the incredible snorkeling, hiking, and scuba diving that can be done all around the island, there are several outdoor attractions of note in Jamaica, many of which focus on the beautiful rivers and waterfalls that dot the island.

So, when you're planning your next time to the Land of Wood and Water, add a few of these outdoor activities into your itinerary.

Dunn's River Falls

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |

When we visited Jamaica last year, this was one of the places that my husband and I visited. We were a bit wary since it's the largest tourist attraction in Jamaica, and we usually shy away from places like that. Now that I've gone and climbed the falls, I'm really glad I did! It was busy, but not super crowded even in late May, and there were more locals than tourists climbing the falls with us. Dunn's River Falls are a fun challenge, but even kids can make the climb, so it's not super strenuous.

YS Falls

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |
{via flickr user Alberto Bondoni | creative commons}
This attraction is another favorite among visitors and Jamaicans alike. Although the falls aren't quite as steep as those at Dunn's River, the experience is still a fun one for all ages. There are also natural pools to splash about in, a zipline tour through the lush canopy, and picnic tables in the well-maintained gardens for a mid-day break.

Martha Brae River

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |
{via flickr user Cesar | creative commons}
There aren't many times in your life when you have the opportunity to be pushed down a river on a bamboo raft, but this is one of them! There are dozens of guides available for hire, and each will be happy to push you downriver using a sturdy bamboo pole: it's a gondola ride Jamaica-style!

You can also rent tubes along the river for a relaxing, scenic ride through the heart of Falmouth. This is a popular stop for visitors since it's so close to the cruise port in Falmouth.

Mayfield Falls

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |
{via flickr user Gerald Azenaro | creative commons}
Located in Montego Bay, Mayfield Falls offer nearly two dozen small cascades along the Mayfield River. These smaller falls might be less dramatic than the other waterfalls on this list, but the slower currents and gentle pools are fantastic for families with younger kids or people who aren't up to climbing Dunn's River Falls or YS Falls.

Green Grotto Caves

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |

Another favorite from our trip last year, the Green Grotto Caves are both a peek into the geological history of Jamaica and a great way to learn about the colonial history of Ocho Rios and the surrounding area. You'll don a stylish hard hat for your tour as you weave in and out the multiple cave structures on property. The Grotto, one of the highlights of the tour, is where the Bond film Live and Let Die (1973) filmed a pivotal scene.

Reach Falls

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |
{via flickr user Tach_RedGold&Green | creative commons}
Although the waterfall often takes center stage, there are many other reasons to visit Reach Falls. Keep a look out for a glimpse of the wild pigs that call the surrounding forest home, take a hike up the river to go into the underwater cave, or relax in the naturally heart-shaped jacuzzi for a refreshing end to your visit.

Cave Valley

Located in the very heart of Jamaica, Cave Valley centers around a series of limestone caves. Although the caves are the focus of the area, Cave Valley historically has been a meeting spot for animal traders and sellers, a function that remains (in a smaller iteration) today. Explore the historic village of Vera Ma Hollis Savannah, where freed slaves based while fighting the English during the colonial period. Then, head out to take a peek at the bats inside Rat Bat Cave or hike to nearby Noisy Water Cave.

Cliff diving

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |
{via flickr user Chris Ford | creative commons}
Not for the faint of heart, cliff diving at Rick's Cafe on the West End Cliffs is a heart-racing experience of a lifetime. There are multiple platforms from which to jump, the highest of which tops out at 35 feet. Some daredevil locals will often climb to the tops of nearby trees to showcase their most dramatic jumps--definitely not something that's recommend for the first-timer! Cliff jumping is free, but it's always nice to buy a drink or burger (that's overpriced) from the cafe.


When you're done exploring the island's best outdoor activities, head to one of Jamaica's stunning beaches for the perfect end to a busy day. With over 50 public beaches on the island, you'll be sure to find one nearby!

Which of these outdoor activities would you like to try on your next trip to Jamaica? Which have you already done on past visits?

Jamaica's Great Outdoors: 8 Experiences You Don't Want to Miss |

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