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5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

Whenever I travel, I try to find as many places that fit two requirements: they speak to my love of art, culture, or literature, and they appeal to my toddler. I know that many people don't think they can travel with kids because of a misconception that there just aren't that many attractions for the smaller members of the family. I want to dispel that as much as I can!

Charlotte, North Carolina, the second largest banking center in the U.S. (after New York City!), might seem less-than-kid friendly at first, but there's actually plenty to do with a family in the Queen City. Check out these five places that promise learning alongside fun. 


Recommended ages: 6-12 for the main exhibits; 0-7 for Kidscience area 
301 N. Tryon Street, Charlotte, NC

When I first started working on my trip to Charlotte, this place was the one part of the city that I remembered. For a few years in my childhood, I lived in Upstate South Carolina, which was only a quick road trip from Charlotte; as a result, I visited Discovery Place many, many times during elementary school. There was one trip where I attended a lock-in, which was basically the coolest thing that I'd done up to that point.

Even twenty years after my last visit (and here I'm showing my age!), Discovery Place loomed large in my mind: was it actually as cool as I remembered it being? Had the years inflated my memories of this place?

As soon as I walked in, I knew that my fears had been for naught. While the museum has retained some of what I remember (since some science stuff is so cool that it needs to stay forever!), there were several updated areas that I would've been delighted to experience as a kid.

Britton, who's coming up on two, adored the Kidscience area, which is geared to budding scientists ages 0-7. While her favorite part was the water table, there's also an enclosed play area, a gears exhibit, and several interactive toys that test gravity.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

Elsewhere in the museum, there's also an aquarium area, an incredibly cool exhibit on gravity (with levers that allow you to pull your entire body weight up yourself!), an interactive space to learn about building materials, and classroom space for daily demonstrations.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

While we were there, two special exhibits were included in the ticket price: one was on illusions and the other was on poison dart frogs. Of the two, the frogs were far more kid friendly with their terrariums and brightly colored information signs. The illusions exhibit was fascinating (we got to use a black light flashlight to read the info panels at each piece!), but it was much less kid-friendly: no touching, lots of strange noises, very dark, and with a big emphasis on modern art styles.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Time to head off on our next adventure!
If you're staying in the Dunhill Hotel, you're in luck, as the hotel is just across 6th street from Discovery Place.

200 East 7th Street, Charlotte, NC
Recommended ages: 2+

A museum that focuses on textiles, the economy, and the Reconstruction might not be the first place that you'd think to take a kid. Yet, the Levine Museum of the New South has plenty for visitors of all ages.
5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Replica of the local Woolworths where sit ins occurred in Charlotte to protest segregation
One of my main areas of interest is Southern history: while there are plenty of places that focus on the antebellum South, you don't hear too much about what happened after Appomattox Courthouse. When I found out that the Museum of the New South focuses on, well, the new South, I slotted it into our schedule to see what it was all about.

Winding its way through the years immediately after the Civil War, the textile boom, segregation and then integration, and finally the banking era, the museum follows the rise of Charlotte. As we explored each section, there were plenty of things to touch, hear, and see from the different textures of processed cotton to banjo music from the 1920s to a lunch counter where protesters staged sit-ins during segregation.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Britton testing out the 1980s banking gear in the NCNB-Wachovia banking exhibit

I liked the layering that the museum offered: my dad and I could read the information cards to discover more, while Britton (and the many other kids in there) were busy testing out the floors in an old farming house or trying on clothes in a 1940s Belk department store.

300 East 7th Street, Charlotte, NC
Recommended ages: 2+

Just down the street from the Levine Museum is this theatre-library-play place combo. After walking around, I was jealous that Charleston doesn't have something similar, as I could see Britton and I enjoying many afternoons here. 

We attended Britton's first play in the theatre: a children's group from Canada reimagined three of Eric Carle's stories, including that childhood staple, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Throughout the show, the kids were encouraged to participate by yelling out animal names or numbers. Even for the younger ones who couldn't keep up with the stories perfectly, the bright colors, puppets, and black lights were plenty to keep little eyes focused. 

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

There's a constantly changing line-up of fun children's shows and activities, so if you're in the area, see what's playing. 

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
All grown up and attending plays!
There's no charge to use the library or play areas, which is perfect for a rainy afternoon when you're in Uptown Charlotte. 

Recommended ages: 1+
8111 Concord Mills Boulevard, Concord Mills, NC

The moment that we walked into the Aquarium, Britton was mesmerized. She just recently figured out what a fish and a dolphin are, and ever since then, she gets super excited when she sees either. At Sea Life, she got to test out that marine life vocabulary throughout our visit--and I don't think she was too upset about that fact. 
5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

When I first saw the Aquarium was inside the Concord Mills Mall, I thought, "There's no way this will be big enough to be cool." I need to learn to quell those prejudices since the place ended up being seriously interesting. Sea Life packed 20 exhibits into the space, but it never feels crowded for the animals. 

Britton liked the touch pool where we were able to feel hermit crabs and chocolate chip sea stars. She also loved the huge walkthrough tunnel where we were able to see sharks and manta rays gliding above us.
5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

There are behind-the-scenes tours offered as a part of your ticket; they're quick but interesting. You get to see the biggest pool from above, ask questions about the animals, and see how and what they're fed.  

Recommended ages: 3+
400 E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Charlotte, NC

Before I go any further, let me tell you that, before visiting the Hall of Fame, my racing knowledge was limited to whatever I've picked up during repeated viewings of Pixar's Cars. I love vintage cars, but I've never gotten into stock car racing. So, for me to recommend visiting this place must mean that it's pretty cool.

And it is.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

With three floors of displays, movies, interactive exhibits, it doesn't matter if you can name every Winston Cup winner. Your kids will love seeing the progression of cars on Miracle Mile (which starts with a Hudson Hornet--Doc Hudson, for fans of the Cars movie) and feeling the different road finishes on famous raceways. Practice how you'd wave the victory flag up on the fourth floor, and then see how quickly you'd be in the pit crew in the children's area on the third floor.

5 Places for Family Fun in Charlotte, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Sign her up for the pit crew!
While true race fans will automatically love this place, it's also a fantastic spot where kids can learn about a popular facet of the South's culture--and where it's okay for them to run around and touch everything!

Disclaimer: I was provided tickets to some of the above events or attractions in order to write this article. All opinions are mine.

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book through the above links, I will receive a small commission at no additional charge to you.

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The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

While we were in Charlotte, North Carolina, we made ourselves at home at the Dunhill Hotel. I hadn't been to Charlotte since I was a little kid--we used to live in upstate South Carolina when I was younger--and would visit the area occasionally back then. After a chance meeting with the hotel's (wonderful!) PR person at the Historic Hotels of America luncheon last year, I decided to head back up to the Queen City to see how it had changed in the nearly 20 years since my last visit.

It turned out that the Dunhill was a great spot from which to launch our visit, and, if you're looking for a great place to stay in Uptown Charlotte, I'd highly recommend it.

You thought you'd get by without a quick history lesson, didn't you?! I love staying in historic hotels because they come with such a rich storyline: it's an added layer of interest that you just don't get in a more recently built hotel. 

The Dunhill Hotel originally was called the Mayfair Manor and opened a month after the stock market crashed. The economic upheaval of the nation didn't seem to affect Mayfair Manor's success, which quickly found a following. During the Manor's early days, guests could stay in one of the 100 rooms: some were set aside as hotel rooms, while others were long-term rentals. 

The Manor's heyday lasted well into the 20th century; by the 1960s, it was sold and rebranded into a motor lodge. Eventually, the motor lodge shut its doors in the early 1980s, and the 10-story building was inhabited only by the homeless. After several years of neglect, the hotel was purchased and underwent a $6 million renovation in 1988. This company tried to restore the hotel to its former glory, but after only two years, the hotel was sold once again.

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com
Exploring the hotel and its history!
In the early 1990s, Summit Hospitality Group, the current owners, purchased the property and began to mold it into the distinctive location that it is today. The group was also the driving force behind the application and acceptance of the Dunhill into the Historic Hotels of America property group, a distinction that it proudly displays. 

If you're in Uptown Charlotte for a play, concert, sporting event, banking seminar, or vacation, the Dunhill couldn't be more centrally located. I went on the trip with my dad and my toddler, and we only got in the car once--and that was when we headed out of Uptown to see an attraction in a completely different part of Charlotte.

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

From the museums to the restaurants to green spaces, we were able to easily walk (even with a toddler!) to all of the attractions in Uptown Charlotte. The hotel is located at the corner of North Tryon and 6th Streets, which put us steps away from Discovery Place and the Carolina Theatre, and just a few blocks from the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Imaginon, the Levine Museum of the New South, the Bank of America building, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

We had a corner room on the third floor, and I thought it was a great location. We were high enough that the street traffic didn't bother us, but we were still able to people watch through the three large windows throughout the room. Definitely ask for a corner room since it comes with more windows!

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

The room had two queen beds (called the "Vintage Queen Queen" room on their site) and a large bathroom with a shower/tub combo. The bed was incredibly comfortable, and I looked forward to sinking into the fluffy duvet and crisp sheets each night. Sightseeing is hard work!

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

Even with the two beds, I still had plenty of room to set up Britton's pack and play in the corner; the room was large enough that the pack and play didn't interfere with our movement between the room and bathroom.

Our room also had a mini-refrigerator and Keurig. 

When I went to check in, our room wasn't available, but the desk clerks were apologetic (they didn't even need to be, as I was trying to check in at 10:15 in the morning!). They took my cell phone number and promised to call me as soon as a room became available; I ended up getting a call less than an hour later. 

Housekeeping was fantastic, and made sure to keep us stocked with bottled water (which is complimentary with any stay); that sure came in handy as we explored all over town! Housekeeping came once in the morning to tidy up, and then again at night for turndown service. After a long day of sightseeing, it was a treat to see the chocolates on our pillows. 

While check out was easy--I paid with a credit card that was already on file--the desk clerk that morning wasn't very personable. Since I knew I was going to write a piece about the hotel and its history, I asked if there was another copy of the laminated history that had been in our room. I didn't want to steal the room copy, so I figured that the front desk could supply me with one--or, at least, make a photocopy of an existing one. When I inquired about the history sheet, the desk clerk just looked at me and uttered a quick, "No, I don't think we have those." She didn't offer to call housekeeping, make a copy, or print out another one. It wasn't that big of a deal since I'd made a few notes, but I would've expected a bit more effort on her part to ensure that there wasn't an extra sheet to give out to someone interested in it. 

Other than that one small (and really, in the whole scheme of things, insignificant) exchange, the staff was more than helpful throughout our stay. 

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

While the hotel doesn't have a pool or gym, it does have plenty of touches to make you feel welcome during your stay. Nibble on a few of the complimentary cookies every afternoon, or mix with the other guests during the wine social every Wednesday evening. I liked that there was a complimentary shuttle available to guests; we didn't use it since I wanted to get out and walk around Uptown, but this is a great option for guests who are in a hurry!

The Asbury, the onsite restaurant, is absolutely worth a visit during your time at the Dunhill--so much so that my experience there will get its own post later. If you'd rather eat in your room, the room service comes out of the same kitchen, so you don't have to eat another of those dry burgers that usually comes off the room service menu.

The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Hotel Review | CosmosMariners.com

We didn't get to use them, but the hotel also has several meeting rooms available for corporate functions. I think the hotel would be such a pretty place to have a reception or meeting!

Final Thoughts:
I'd definitely stay here again! Not only was the location perfect, the room was incredibly nice. I also liked all of the little extras that came with my stay including the complimentary water, the turndown service, and the fluffy white robes in the bathroom.

If you're interested in my experiences in another Historic Hotel of America, check out my stay at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel on Jekyll Island, Georgia. 

Have you stayed in a historic hotel? What was your experience like? Have you been Charlotte lately?

Disclaimer: The Dunhill provided one complimentary night's stay; I paid for a second night in the same room. All opinions are my own. This post also contains affiliate links. If you use them to book a stay, I'll receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes)

Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com

I've been fascinated with the art of movie making since I was a little kid. So, it's no wonder that I get a little thrill whenever I hear that another movie is being made in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

While most people come to Charleston for the history and Southern charm that the city offers, you might also want to spend some time exploring the more recent history of the city. Here's where you can find the settings of some of your favorite movies that were filmed right here in the Holy City.


North and South miniseries (1985, 1986, and 1994): starring Patrick Swayze and Kirstie Alley
Location: Boone Hall Plantation, Mount Pleasant; Calhoun Mansion, downtown

Patrick Swayze's character lives at Mont Royal Plantation, which is actually Boone Hall Plantation, one of Mount Pleasant's biggest attractions. Remarkably, the plantation and the grounds looks almost exactly the same as it did during all three parts of the mini-series. Yay for historic preservation!

*Fun fact: my dad was an extra in the second episode of the 1985 installment mini-series and can be seen sitting in the back of a wagon pulling a horse. He's got a hat on and is going around the plantation house. 

Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com
My dad! (He's the one in the hat.)
You didn't know that your favorite travel blogger was practically film royalty, did you?!

How to relive your favorite scenes: 

  • Visit Boone Hall Plantation on Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant. It's a private residence with an admission fee, but the ticket price is well worth it. Tour the grounds, the slave quarters, and the house, and admire the stunning line of huge oaks leading up to the house.
  • Take a tour of the Calhoun Mansion downtown on 16 Meeting Street. There are two different tour options: a shorter, less expensive one ($16) and a much longer tour of the entire mansion ($75). 


The Notebook (2004): starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands, James Garner
Location: Boone Hall Plantation, Mount Pleasant; Old Village, Mount Pleasant; the corner of King and Mary Streets, downtown; Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner

Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com
Screenshot from The Notebook that was filmed at Cypress Gardens
The filming of this Nicholas Sparks adaptation took over the Lowcountry for several months and there are very few scenes that weren't filmed in or around Charleston. I was in high school at the time that the movie was being shot, and I begged my sister to accompany me on my quest to find him. Despite being incredibly close to carnival scene set, she insisted that we go home--and Ryan Gosling missed out on his chance of being my +1. (I'm sure he cries himself to sleep at night.)

How to relive your favorite scenes:
  • Visit Boone Hall on Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant. The house stood in as Allie's home in the film, and you can see several exterior shots throughout the movie. 
  • Walk down Pitt Street in Old Village, Mount Pleasant. Remember the scene where Allie and Noah smush ice cream into each other's faces on their date? That's in the middle of the adorable Old Village in Mt. P--just a few minutes drive from downtown Charleston. The inn where Allie goes back to her fiance near the end of the film is also in Old Village--only it's not an inn, but rather a personal residence. 
  • Check out the corner of King and Mary Streets in downtown Charleston. While Noah and Allie decide to dance--and then lay--in the middle of this intersection, I'd recommend checking out this very busy spot from one of the corners. Right near the intersection is the American Theatre, where they go on a double date before the dancing scene takes place. 
  • Rent a boat in Cypress Gardens. This incredible spot is where Noah and Allie go out to see hundreds of swans (picture above). While you won't find swans there normally (at least not in that quantity), you can rent a boat, learn about local species, and traverse the walking trails. 


The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000): starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron
Location: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort
Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com
Screenshot of The Legend of Bagger Vance
Unsurprisingly, this golf-centric movie headed to one of the Charleston area's most popular golf resorts to film scenes. Even though Kiawah boasts 5 different golf courses, the crew decided to build a special par-5 hole; while the hole is still on the resort somewhere, it's unmarked and not on any of the official courses. 

Robert Redford and crew headed all over the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Georgia coast; one of their non-South Carolina scenes took place at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel in Georgia, where Redford repainted the Grand Dining Room. The staff has left it the same color since 2000 as an ode to the director.  

How to relive your favorite scenes:
  • Head just outside of Charleston to Kiawah Island resort. The resort is gated, so you'll need to have reservations at The Sanctuary, a confirmed tee time, or have rented a house to drive through. However, the resort is open to bicyclists if you'd like to explore on two wheels. You can play through the Ocean Course where many of the key scenes were filmed--while you on the property, look for the hidden hole created for the movie!


The Patriot (2000): starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, and Leon Rippy
Location: Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner; Randolph Hall, College of Charleston; Middleton Place Plantation
Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com
Screenshot from The Patriot with Mel Gibson and Joely Richardson in front of 69 Meeting Street
Mel Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, is based on Francis Marion (or "The Swamp Fox") who served in the American Revolution. Incidentally, the actual Francis Marion is a very distant relative of mine on my mom's side! The Patriot was filmed all over South Carolina, but there were several scenes that took place in Charleston. 

How to relive your favorite scenes: 
  • Walk the College of Charleston campus in downtown. The interior of Randolph Hall (the college's main administrative building) was used for some of the assembly meetings. 
  • Visit the Poyas-Mordecai House at 69 Meeting Street. The exterior of this private home served as Aunt Charlotte's abode (see picture above). 
  • Head to Cypress Gardens. Like the actual Swamp Fox, Gibson and his fellow actors had to endure the mosquitos, alligators, and snakes in the swamp (hence, the nickname). In the film, Cypress Gardens serves at the militia's hidden meeting spot. If Cypress Gardens sounds familiar, it's because you heard it earlier in the list. That's where Allie and Noah had their boat ride in The Notebook
  • Explore Middleton Place Plantation. One of the movie's ball scenes was filmed inside this beautiful home. It's open daily for tours if you want to take a spin around the room as well!

Dear John (2010): starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried 
Locations: Isle of Palms, Bowens Island, College of Charleston, and Charleston Air Force Base
Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com
Screenshot of Seyfried and Tatum in Dear John at the Isle of Palms Pier. How come there's never a shirtless Channing Tatum when I go visit?

Apparently, it's a requirement that Nicholas Sparks' movies come to Charleston and take over the place for months. While the majority of The Notebook was filmed in this area, the entire Dear John movie was done in and around Charleston. 

How to relive your favorite scenes: 
  • Go to the Isle of Palms pier. For their meetcute, Tatum's character retrieves Seyfried's character's purse...and the romance begins. The pier is a popular spot for sunbathers during the summer, and it's free to walk on it. Don't dive off of it though!
  • Get ready for some seafood on Bowens Island. Far off the beaten path, Bowens Island Restaurant has some of the Charleston area's freshest fish, oysters and shrimp. It's where the main characters go for their first date. It's closed Sundays and Mondays, and only serves dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
  • Head back to the College of Charleston. Randolph Hall (which was also featured in The Patriot) makes another appearance here. Savannah uses it as a backdrop to write her letters to John. 
  • The airlift mission scene was filmed on the Air Force Base here, and even used military aircraft and servicemen and women. Unfortunately, you can't just wander through the Air Force Base to check out the setting, so you'll have to be content watching the movie.


Have you seen any of these movies? Have you ever visited any filming locations?

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through the above links, I will receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. 

Movies Filmed in Charleston, South Carolina (and Where to Go to Relive Your Favorite Scenes) | CosmosMariners.com


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Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed

Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.com

Hi, fellow mariners! Today, I'm happy to introduce you to a new blogger who's doing something that I always wanted to do--study abroad at Oxford University. Sara from Sara Laughed is enjoying her year in England and blogging about all of it before she returns to her home university in Massachusetts at the end of this school year. I asked her to share what it's like to live and study at the English speaking world's oldest institute of higher learning. Enjoy!

Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.comHi friends! My name is Sara and I blog over at Sara Laughed about college life, love, and travel. I'm a current college student studying abroad at Oxford University. Since Natalie studied abroad in London while she was in college, she reached out and asked me to share with you some details of my time at Oxford. I hope this gives you the chance to live vicariously through my experience and get a little glimpse of what makes Oxford so magical!

It was a snowy morning in Massachusetts when I found out I'd been accepted to Oxford for my year abroad. I was thrilled - I called my parents and danced around my room in my pajamas. On the one hand, I had wanted nothing more than to get into this program - to live abroad and to experience a new university and a new culture. On the other, I was completely terrified. I had no idea what Oxford would hold in store for me, and whether I could handle the pressure of a new university, in a new country, on another continent.

 It turns out I had nothing to worry about. I have loved almost everything about my time at Oxford, which has been about six months now. Being a Junior Year Abroad student means that I straddle the awkward line between resident and tourist - I still experience everything with fresh eyes, but I've lived here long enough to know the streets and shops and to have a regular routine.

Today, I'd like to share with you how Oxford looks through my, still new, eyes - here are 5 things I love about Oxford.

 5 // The colleges

Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.comThe Bridge of Sighs, part of Hertford College

Oxford is visually breathtaking. The university is the oldest in the English-speaking world, and because its colleges date in their origins between 1249 and 2008 (yes, really!), they features a huge variety of architectural styles. As a student, my university ID lets me into most of the colleges without trouble, meaning that I can attend Evensong services in Christ Church or go to my tutorial at Pembroke College, even though my own college is quite a walk away. I love that the college system gives students so much variety in what they can experience and explore.

4 // The libraries
Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.com
The Harris Manchester library.

The Oxford library system is absolutely incredible. The Bodleian Libraries include a total of 40 different libraries all around the city, with over 11 million books and printed items. Many of the libraries are also incredibly beautiful, internally or externally. Knowing that I have so much knowledge at my fingertips is amazing, and for a nerd like me, it's heaven!

  3 // The covered market
The Covered Market is a historic market near the center of Oxford with lots of little independent shops and cafés. The shops range from flower stores to a hat shop, and include a butcher and plenty of places to sit down for tea (or coffee, if that's your beverage of choice) or have lunch. I have a favorite café with both indoor and outdoor seating that serves warm drinks and delicious cakes!

  2 // The uniquely Oxford traditions
Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.comTorpids on the Thames.

Oxford has plenty of traditions that I would be unlikely to experience anywhere else. Punting on the Thames is a popular option in spring, as is playing croquet on your college's lawn (I'm excited to try both of these next term!). Last weekend I went to see Torpids, a special boat race in which the object is to "bump" the boat in front of you to move ahead. The race developed because the part of the Thames on which the race is held is too narrow for traditional boat racing. It was a very fun and strange experience that represented, to me, the many ways in which Oxford is unique.

 1 // The opportunities
Studying Abroad at Oxford University: a Guest Post by Sara Laughed | CosmosMariners.comThe first ball I attended.

However, if I had to choose the single thing I loved most about Oxford, it would be the incredible range of opportunities available to students. As a student, I've attended a wine tasting class, balls, college parties, formal dinners, lectures at the Oxford Union, and more. The city and university are so rich in what they have to offer that I know I'll never be able to try it all, no matter how long I stay here. All in all, I feel incredibly lucky to be spending a year in this beautiful small city. One of my parents was a fellow at Oxford, and as a result, this happens to be the city where I was born, though we moved away soon after. Maybe this year is the fates bringing me back; who knows what's in store next!

If you liked reading about Sara's Oxford experiences, follow along with her for even more on college, her life, and her travels.

Have you ever been to Oxford? If not, what's one thing you'd like to experience?

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com

I love doing off-the-beaten-path type travel. But even I will admit that there are some times that call for the tried-and-true experiences in a place. After all, you don't want to be like my husband, who went all the way to London and never saw Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, or Parliament. I was so busy focusing on the unusual stuff in London that we completely forgot to do the normal stuff. Oops.

Like London, New Orleans has some of those places and experiences that you just have to do--or risk people saying, "Wait. You went on a trip there and didn't do ________??" Lest you make the same mistakes that I do and try to skip over the most popular sites, I'm here to guide you to 8 quintessential New Orleans experiences.

Yes, pretty much everyone does at least a few of these when they go to the Big Easy, and for good reason. Not only will you avoid those "well, what did you do there?" stares when you get back home, these sites will also help you scratch the surface of the culture of this great city.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com

Visit Jackson Square. Those spires of the St. Louis Cathedral are some of the most photographed architectural elements in all of New Orleans! The Square has served many purposes over the years, including an execution area, an arsenal, a painters' hangout, and (more recently) a place to have your fortune told. Today, it's a great place to start your exploration of the French Quarter or see a few street performers.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com
My sister anxiously awaiting her first taste of deep fried deliciousness.

Eat a beignet (or ten) at Cafe du Monde. If you choose the latter, don't worry--I won't judge. They're just that good. If you like coffee, try a cup of their brew; it's mixed with chicory in a throwback to when the French Revolution occurred. Coffee was scarce, so people mixed in chicory to make it go further. Turns out, it adds a unique taste to the coffee, and French settlers loved it so much that they continued to make the blend well after they'd made their home in New Orleans.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com
Stay classy, Bourbon Street!
Wander down Bourbon Street. Despite popular opinion, you don't have to drink your way down Bourbon Street to have a great time. I could've spent days just people watching on this boulevard of bars, shops, restaurants, and hotels (but mostly bars). While you'd be mistaken to think that Bourbon Street is all that New Orleans has to offer, skipping this part of town all together would leave your trip with a serious gap.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Explore the mausoleums at one of the cemeteries. While many people think that the mausoleums are used because of New Orleans' high water table, they're more likely used because of tradition and space issues. Above ground burials date back to the Old World and the idea came to Louisiana with the first French and Spanish settlers. Interestingly enough, the first burials in New Orleans were in-ground, but a huge fire in 1788 that left so many people dead that burials had to take place in a swamp. This lack of space led city officials to build the St. Louis cemeteries--and the mausoleums which we now associate with New Orleans. Entire families could be buried in a space just larger than an in-ground grave. What was once old was new again!

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com
Benjamin's house/ the nursing home his mom runs from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie. Sadly, Brad Pitt didn't show up while I was there.

Take a Garden District Tour. While the French Quarter has intricate metal work and romantic balconies, the Garden District has charming columned homes set amid centuries-old oak trees. Hop on the streetcar (below) and make the short trek from the French Quarter to wander these streets. Take an organized tour if you want to see where sports stars (Eli and Peyton Manning), authors (Anne Rice's former house), and movie stars live. While I was there, I saw John Goodman at his house there, and he waved at our group.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com
Muffaletta action shot. Also, I have no clue what my mom is doing to my wrist--keep me from my beloved sandwich?

Try a muffaletta or (if you're not allergic to shellfish) a po' boy. Before visiting New Orleans, I'd never tried a muffaletta (also spelled muffuletta)--or even heard of it. But then I read a small line in our guidebook about the tastiness that awaited me at the Corner Grocery, and I was a fan for life. This cold sandwich has an olive tapenade, salami, Provolone, mozzarella, mortadella, and prosciutto piled high on a crispy piece of french bread. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

I'm horribly allergic to shrimp, so I had to skip that time-honored New Orleans favorite, the shrimp po' boy. However, I have it on good authority (my sister) that they are delicious.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com

Ride the St. Charles streetcar. Need a little inspiration? Then, jump on the St. Charles line, and you'll be screaming, "STELLA!" before you know it. This streetcar is identical to the one that used to run on the now-defunct Desire line--which was the inspiration behind Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. If you want more literary fun in New Orleans, I've got some great suggestions.

8 Quintessential New Orleans Experiences | CosmosMariners.com

Take a ghost tour. There's just something about New Orleans that makes you think about the darker side of life--and not in a bad way. There's an incredible atmosphere throughout the city that makes you think anything could be possible, which is probably why we have shows like The Originals and books like Interview with the Vampire set here.

The city definitely capitalizes on this spooky side, and several tour companies offer jaunts around the French Quarter at night. There are some seriously creepy tales and legends associated with that area from Marie Leveau (an actual Voodoo priestess) to Delphine LaLaurie (a high society woman who supposedly performed horrible experiments on her slaves). You'll also learn fun tidbits like the fact that Nicholas Cage used to own the LaLaurie mansion, but spent exactly one night in it before he sold it (purportedly because he was terrified).

Honorable mentions: shopping on Royal Street, attending a jazz concert, visiting the Voodoo Museum, eating at Commander's Palace, and, of course, going to Mardi Gras. I stuck Mardi Gras down here because it doesn't happen year round, and thus, is a part of New Orleans culture that can't be experienced continually. Still, if you happen to be in the Crescent City when the hoopla starts, dive right in with the best of them! And if you want some Mardi Gras when it's not going on, you can take a tour of Mardi Gras World to get a small taste of the floats, costuming, and traditions.

What do you think is a quintessential New Orleans activity?

How to Win at the 4 Parks/ 1 Day Challenge at Walt Disney World

How to Win at the 4 Parks/ 1 Day Challenge at Walt Disney World | CosmosMariners.com

Back in June 2013, my sister and I attempted something that we'd never done before: we headed to all four parks at Walt Disney World in one day. (You can see our efforts here: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)

Yes, I know. It seems completely crazy. And I'm here to tell you that it is--but it's also a lot of fun!

When we decided to embark on our 4 Parks/ 1 Day Challenge, I did a little research, but didn't find too much on the best way to approach it. So, here I am now, on the other side of the challenge, to share my tips with you in the hopes that you'll try out this awesome way to experience one of the world's most famous theme parks.


In our room at Pop Century before we head out on the challenge

Leave nothing to chance. Before you set foot in the parks, you'll want to outline where you want to go, what rides you want to experience, and where you'll eat. This may seem like overkill, but it helped us immensely when it came to budgeting time in the parks. We had a printed out schedule with arrival and departure times, transportation information, and notes on what we wanted to accomplish in each park.

If you're not familiar with the parks, outline everything on a map. (The concierge at the Disney hotels should have copies to give you.) You don't want to use your precious time searching for the next ride.

Use the Magic Hours to your advantage. Research which parks are opening early and closing late so you'll have the maximum amount of time to complete your challenge. These are only available to Disney property guests, so this is one time that staying onside might be worth it.

Lay out your clothes the night before. Since this is an intense way to tour the parks, you'll want to get as much sleep as you can. Don't waste another five or so minutes in the morning picking out your clothes when you can rest instead!

If you're super cool like I am, your comfy outfit can include a monogrammed Minnie Mouse decal. And you can match your sister. 
Wear the most comfortable clothes possible. Even though I'm a huge proponent of dressing semi-decently while you're in the parks (see that post here), this is one day that I give you a pass to put on those exercise shorts and extra soft t-shirt and just go for it. By the end of the day, you will be sweaty, exhausted, and probably crabby, and you don't want your wardrobe to cause you to feel even worse.

Getting through the Day

Start early. Very early. No sleeping in today! If you're going to conquer all four parks in one day, you're going to need every minute. Plus, crowds are much lighter in the mornings, so you'll be able to blast through a few more rides before you have to move onto the next park.

Pack a small backpack with a water bottle. It's easy to get dehydrated when you're outside all day in the Florida sun, so quick pit stops at the water fountains to refill your water bottle will keep you going. I don't care for the taste of the plain water at Disney World, so I always pack something to flavor it. These are both lightweight items and won't get in your way while you're running from park to park.

See that green backpack my sister is carrying? It was a lifesaver! (Not literally. That would be no fancy backpack.)
Go easy on the meals. I'm all for eating that yummy Disney food, but this is one day that your gastronomic exploration will have to take a backseat. My sister and I did include plenty of snack stops along the way, but we made sure to eat smaller portions than we usually would and stay away from big, carby meals. We didn't want to risk getting super sleepy post-meal time!

Be prepared to skip rides on your itinerary, if necessary. Occasionally, rides will be shut down for awhile for repairs or because of the weather. Don't try to wait around until it's back up, or you'll lose momentum. Find a replacement ride, and then check often to see if your preferred ride is back up and running. If it is, quickly go on it. If not, keep moving on. You've got a lot of park to see!
Don't lose valuable time waiting around for rides to re-open. Test Track, I'm looking at you.
Know that you will hit a wall. It will not be fun when it happens, so take a minute to sit down, drink something, and then get back up and go some more. I nearly called the entire challenge at about 4:30 PM on the day we attempted it because, all of a sudden, I was exhausted, hot, and a little dehydrated. My sister convinced me to stay, and she ushered me into a nearby restaurant. By the time I ate and cooled down, I was ready to go for a few more hours.

I look happy going into the Animal Kingdom, but my meltdown was just an hour or two away.

Pace yourself. You'll be in the parks continually for 12+ hours (our challenge took 15!), so don't run yourself ragged in the first few moments. Identify two or three rides per park, and do those first. If you've got time before you need to move on, go on another one or two.

Where we went wrong: 

  • We attempted the challenge in June. This is not recommended! Not only was it blazing by 10 AM, but there were so many people there. Fighting the heat and the crowds at the same time was a major factor to why I got so burnt out mid-afternoon. 
  • We waited around when Test Track was closed down for a summer thunderstorm. Instead of just leaving and trying something else, we waited around for over 30 minutes. Not only did we get sleepy in the cool building, but we also wasted a good chunk of time that could've been spent somewhere else. Thankfully, we learned our lesson by the time we got to our third park of the day (Animal Kingdom) and skipped waiting around when we found that Dinosaur was closed.
  • We weren't well rested. Instead of getting a full night's sleep before attempting the challenge, we'd only slept a few hours. We'd driven to Florida from South Carolina the night before, leaving Charleston at 5 when my sister got off from work. We arrived in Orlando around midnight, and then got back up for the challenge at 5:45 AM or so. We both would've felt better by the end of the challenge if we'd had a restful night's sleep!
Even though it was intense, the 4 parks/ 1 Day Challenge was a lot of fun for both my sister and I. We're huge fans of Walt Disney World, and we've been dozens of times, so it was exciting to see the property from a new perspective. 

Would you attempt the 4 Parks/ 1 Day Challenge? How would you go about organizing your day?

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com

Just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is a long, winding two lane road flanked by centuries-old live oaks. While the drive down State Road S-10-20 (Bohicket Road and then Betsy Kerrison Parkway) is destination enough, the golf and resort community at the end of it will make the trip even sweeter.

The road ends in a roundabout. Take the first road to your right, and you'll go to Seabrook Island. The second road leads to Freshfields Village, a shopping and dining area that services the area. We're headed to Kiawah, so we're going to take the last exit off of the roundabout, skirting Freshfields Village, and continuing on Kiawah Island Parkway further into the marsh.

Where to Stay
When choosing a spot to stay in Kiawah, you'll want to decide if you'd rather have the amenities of a hotel or the comforts of home.

If you go the hotel route inside the gates, Kiawah has exactly one option: The Sanctuary. This gorgeous hotel is within the first gate of the resort and has a highly rated spa, two outdoor pools, an indoor pool, a small shopping area, and an onsite restaurant. I've never stayed there, but I have walked through it multiple times to browse in the shops and smell the very nice (very expensive) air.

There's one additional option if you expand your hotel search to outside of the gates: Andell Inn. It's located inside Freshfields Village, just a short bike ride from the beach. It has its own amenities, so if you want to play golf or tennis at Kiawah, you'll have to book that separately.

If you go the homestay route, you've got plenty of options: you can rent a villa or apartment through Kiawah Resort, or you can rent from a third party. Wyndham Vacation Rentals, Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), Homeaway, and the local real estate companies all offer rental properties within the resort gates.

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com
The living area of the house we rented on a recent trip to Kiawah
My family has been to Kiawah multiple times, and we've always gone through a third party for our rentals. When you go this route, make sure to clarify if you'll have access to the neighborhood's pool(s) and amenities: some rentals include this, bike rental vouchers, and/or beach chairs, but it varies by property.

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com
Our rental house in 2012--just inside the first gate

Also note: there are actually two gates within the Kiawah Resort. The first one is the one that most people go through: you'll only need to go through this gate if you're staying at the Sanctuary. The second gate marks a more exclusive area of the resort with the gigantic celebrity homes. While you can't drive through either of the gates if you're not staying there, you can freely bicycle anywhere in the resort, no matter where your home away from home is located.

What to Do
Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com
The Ocean Course

Since Kiawah is a golf resort (and was the location of the 2012 PGA Championship), there are obviously plenty of golf courses to keep you busy during your stay (five, to be exact). It's also a great place to stay if you're into tennis, and it offers two different tennis complexes, private coaching, and group lessons.

However, if you're completely uncoordinated like me and people tend to laugh and point whenever you do anything more rigorous than walk in a straight line, you're probably thinking, "Why in the world would I vacation here? I'll be that pasty weird person in a line-up of fit, tanned people in plaid and polo shirts."

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com

I'm happy to tell you that there's much more to Kiawah than just golfing and tennis. There are multiple pools for the different subsections of the property, Heron Park Wildlife Center (where you can get up close and personal with native snake species--yuck), a Junior Naturalist Program, summer movies under the stars, fishing tours, kayaking tours, and 30 miles of bike paths.

Some of my favorite times on Kiawah have been meandering on the bike paths, gawking at the houses that cost more than I'll make in my life combined.

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com

To be a resort, there's a surprising amount of wildlife, so have your camera and the ready when you see a gorgeous heron or intimidating gator!

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com

And if all of that still seems like too much, there's 10 miles of beach on which to relax and read. (I'll let you guess my favorite things to do on Kiawah!)

Vacationing on Kiawah Island, South Carolina: A Complete Guide | CosmosMariners.com

Where to Eat
Within the gates of Kiawah resort, you've got many, many options on where to dine. The resort has everything from an ice cream shop (Beaches and Cream in the Sanctuary) to make-your-own pizza (The Market at Town Center) to a formal seafood restaurant (The Atlantic Room at the Ocean Course Clubhouse).

Just outside the gates at Freshfields Village, you've got even more options: a cute sandwich shop at the gas station (seriously! There are freshly made paninis and wraps each day at lunch), a local coffee shop, and a hot lunch counter at the Harris Teeter. There's even a Starbucks inside the Harris Teeter if you can't find what you need at the local coffee place.

How to Get There
Head south out of Charleston on Highway 17. Approximately 3 miles past the 526-17 intersection, you'll see a stoplight at Main Road and Highway 17. Turn left onto Main Road. Main Road will cross over 700 and will become Bohicket Road. Continue on this route (State Road S-10-20): it will turn into Betsy Kerrison Parkway. When you reach the roundabout, take the third exit onto Kiawah Island Parkway. Stop at the first gate to get your pass and map.

Know before You Go:

  • Freshfields Village has a grocery store and lots of shopping if you want to find a souvenir.
  • If you're renting a house, and you've forgotten a gallon of milk or some bread, don't go to the convenience stores within the resort. You will pay (no joke) at least twice what the price is at the Harris Teeter grocery store in Freshfields Village, so drive the extra five minutes outside of the resort for your sundries. 
  • There are also several places within the resort that sell Kiawah Resort-branded shirts, polos, tees, and hats. Check the Sanctuary, the golf clubhouses, and the nature center, and the small convenience stores around the resort. 
  • If you're just visiting Kiawah for the day, you can rent bikes in Freshfields Village and tour the resort on your own. It doesn't matter if you're staying at the resort--if you're on a bike, you can skip stopping at both gates! 
  • There's a county-run beach just outside the first gate. If you want to see the unspoiled beaches of Kiawah without renting a house or staying at the Sanctuary, this is a great way to spend the day. 

If you're looking for more awesome vacation and spring break spots along the Southern Atlantic coast, check out my 20 favorite islands in the area (spoiler alert: Kiawah Island is one of them)!

Have you been to Kiawah Island? If so, what did you do or see?

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book through one of the above links, I will receive a small commission at no charge to you. Other than that, I received no compensation for this post. I just love Kiawah!