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Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and 6 Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida Keys

 Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and Six Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida Keys | CosmosMariners.com

What do you think when someone mentions Key West? Probably crystal clear waters, partying until the wee hours of the morning, and beaches.

You probably don't think about American literature. Key West is a place to relax and let loose, not ponder often the front-runners for the Great American Novel.

Or so you might think!

None other than that heavy-hitter of American literature himself--Ernest Hemingway--had a house in Key West (it was one of many he owned at the peak of his career) and wrote many of his best-known works here, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and Death in the Afternoon.

He arrived at the house completely by chance; he was passing through the Keys after coming from Cuba and fell in love with the place. So, he and his wife Pauline (the second of four spouses) lived there with his three children (two by Pauline and one from an earlier marriage); Hemingway often returned to the house throughout the rest of his life.

Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and Six Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida Keys | CosmosMariners.com

On first glance, Hemingway lived this life that so many people envied--he went on safari in Kenya, he lived in Paris, Cuba, Spain, and Africa for varying period, he was an excellent sportsfisherman, he was wildly famous for his writing while he was living (not an easy task for most literary contributors).

Yet, he was terribly unhappy. He had four marriages and rocky relationships with his three sons. Towards the end of his life, he was receiving treatment for alcoholism and depression, the latter of which ultimately led him to commit suicide when he was 62.

With everything that he dealt with, it's easy to see why a beautiful house on (then scarcely populated) Key West would appeal to him--he could fish each day, write each night, and relax in the hopes of escaping all that haunted him.

Even if you're not interested in Hemingway as a writer, I'd still suggest visiting the property from an architectural and historical perspective. It's the largest single-family owned property on Key West to this day--though it's not the Hemingway family who owns it, as Ernest's son sold it after his death. The woman who bought it from the Hemingway sons put it in a trust so that future generations could continue to enjoy this property.

Take the tour of the house and gardens: you'll be able to see many of the Hemingway family's belongings including prints, furniture, and decor. I was intrigued by the pool out back, as it was highly unusual to have a water feature like that in the 1930s. It was, in fact, the only pool within a hundred miles when the Hemingways lived there!

Hemingway by the pool

Oh, and about those six-toed cats--they're real, and they actually have six toes. Count them! The original six-toed cat came to Ernest Hemingway by a local ship's captain, and he gave it, and all of its descendants, a place to live. There are about 40 cats still on the property today, all of whom are related to that original kitty.

Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and Six Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida Keys | CosmosMariners.com

One final note: while Hemingway died in 1962 and left Key West as his primary residence in 1940 or so, his spirit is still very much alive and loved on the island. A local bar, Sloppy Joe's, holds a Hemingway lookalike contest every year, and the winner is always a dead ringer for the writer.

Ernest Hemingway, Key West, and Six Toed Cats: Literature Comes to the Florida Keys | CosmosMariners.com
Hemingway in his later years
Don't be surprised to see a man or two sporting a full, white beard and short sleeved button down shirt year round: it's not the ghost of Hemingway, just one of the lookalikes hanging around a favorite watering hole. Key West may be a place to party and relax, but it takes its residents very, very seriously--even when said resident hasn't been around for more than 50 years!

Visiting the Hemingway House has been the highlight of two of my Key West trips (yes, I went back for a second go-round. Once an English nerd, always an English nerd.), and I highly recommend that you take time away from your sunbathing, parasailing, and bar hopping to check it out!

I was in no way compensated for my review of the Hemingway House. I really did love it!

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com

In complete and utter opposition to my high brow love of literature, ballet, modern art, and artsy-fartsy independent movies is my devotion to creepy ghost stories--the weirder the better.

I love them so much that I wrote my graduate thesis on the modern Gothic novel, which is basically the closest I could get to actually spending a year of my life reading spooky stories.

So, it's no wonder that ghost tours are always on the agenda whenever I go to a new place. And if I can find a good ruin, I'm pretty much set for life.

Since Charleston has gone through a revitalization over the last few years, there are fewer and fewer awesome ruins to ramble around as they're all restored now.

But, fear not, visitors to the South Carolina Lowcountry--there are still three amazing places where you can see some bonafide ruins. And they're all open to the public, so you don't have to worry about getting arrested for trespassing. Plus, they're also free, which makes them even better.

I can't promise that these sights will include the fog and creepy characters from the best scary movies, but you might get lucky!

While the loop isn't too far from Charleston, you'll definitely want to allot an entire day to do this road trip. There are plenty of roadside eateries along the way so support local businesses and grab something along the way.

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com

Pon Pon Chapel of Ease, Adams Run

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com

We start our road trip by going way off the beaten path. Head out of Charleston going south on Highway 17, then hang a right onto Highway 64. You'll blast through the metropolis of Round-O, South Carolina (population: 1 animal feed store). Turn right onto Jacksonboro Road, and just as you're thinking that I've lured you down here to murder you like in a bad horror movie, you'll see Parkers Ferry Road--turn right on it (it's a dirt road), and the chapel is down on your left.

Poor Pon Pon (also written as Pon-Pon). A wooden church was built here in the early 1700s, and was replaced by a brick version seventy years later. When the brick church burnt down in 1801, the congregation built another brick church in its place--only to have that second brick structure burn down again in 1832. (Blame all of those drafty rooms and uncovered candles.) As you can imagine, the congregation admitted defeat and left the ruins as they were, though they did continue to use the graveyard for new burials, which is kind of strange.

The straw that broke the back of Pon Pon wasn't a straw at all, but rather something much more powerful--a hurricane took down all but one and a half of the remaining walls in the 1950s.

There aren't any ghost stories associated with this place (at least that I know of), but the solitude of the chapel and the stunning brick ruins create the perfect atmosphere for an overactive imagination to hear things.

Old Sheldon Church, Yemassee

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com

Of the three places on this road trip, Old Sheldon Church is probably the best recognized due to its proximity to Highway 17.

To get to Old Sheldon Church once you leave Pon Pon, you'll want to retrace your steps until you get back on Highway 17. Head south again--when you see the turnoff to Beaufort, you know you're getting very close. Stay on 17 until you see Old Sheldon Church Road on your right (it will be the next road after the 21/17 interchange). Turn there and head down the road just a mile or so. The ruins will be on your right, and a parking area is across the road on your left.

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com
Thanks to my sister, who let me use this picture of Old Sheldon Church!

As soon as you get out of your car, you'll feel the stillness of this place. Even when there are other people around (and there often are--this will be the busiest of the three stops), people talk in hushed voices as they walk around the church's ruins.

Some say that you can hear a woman crying at night for her infant child. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, just being out here in the middle of the forest by yourself at night would be enough to scare the pants off of you.

St. Helena Chapel of Ease, Land's End Road, St. Helena's Island

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com

Tucked away on a lonely stretch of land past Beaufort, St. Helena's Island really can feel like the end of the world on a cold, quiet day.

From Old Sheldon Church, head back towards Highway 17, and then head north on 17 until you reach the intersection of 17 and 21. Take 21 all the way through Beaufort. After you pass Beaufort, turn right onto State Road S-7-45 (also known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard). The road will fork; bear to the right onto Land's End Road. The chapel ruins will be on your left almost immediately past the fork in the road.

Wander the ruins, which are interesting unto themselves since they're made of coquina (an oyster mortar) and see the shattered mausoleum door in the graveyard.

3 Spooky Ruins in the South Carolina Lowcountry: A Road Trip Itinerary | CosmosMariners.com
I was pretty sure that something was going to crawl out of the mausoleum and grab me with its nasty hand.

While the ruins themselves aren't haunted, the road is. The Land's End light shows up down Land's End road, and most people think its an oncoming car until they realize that there's only one light. As it gets closer, the light grows in size and will actually pass by any cars waiting on the side of the road. Unlike the other two spots on this road trip, the Land's End light is consistent--no one knows if it shows up every night, but rumor has it that, if you wait long enough, you'll see it.

But what is it--ghost or some sort of lightning ball? Legend has it that it's the spirt of a runaway slave or a Private stationed at a nearby fort who died after a scuffle. Some people have reported an electric shock when the light passes near them, which has led some to believe the light is actually St. Elmo's fire or another natural phenomenon.

A word of warning: if you go out to see the light, don't attempt to drive through it or chase after it. Land's End road is a tight two lane road through a residential area.

Do you like going to ruins? Do you love or hate ghost stories?

What to Know Before You Go to Puerto Rico

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

Other than a few mentions in history class, I'd never given Puerto Rico much thought before I headed that way with my family. It was an island that the U.S. sort-of-kind-of-not-really owns, and it was in the Caribbean.

Thus ends my pre-trip knowledge of Puerto Rico. (I promise that I do a much better job of researching travel locales these days.)


When I got there, I was amazed to find that the island was not really like any of the other Caribbean islands I'd visited: it had this unusual flavor that made it hard to place as American or Hispanic. It's just it's own carefree, history-packed, insanely gorgeous self. 

If you're headed to PR for the first time, here are a few things that you should know to make your taste of island life easy and fun:

Pretty much everyone in the tourism industry is bilingual (English and Spanish), so if you're staying in San Juan, Condado Beach, or Fajardo, you'll find it easy communicate. Even though most natives' first language is Spanish, the majority of Puerto Ricans know enough English to help you with whatever you need. Most television programing is also in English, though you will run into commercials in Spanish and English.

Viejo San Juan (the historic district) is compact enough that you can walk to all of the major sites including the Catedral de San Juan Bautista and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. If you're not up to walking, there is a free trolley that will take you around the area. If you're going to San Juan, a leisurely jaunt through the streets of the historic area is a must.
What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
From L to R: My mom and dad near the waterfront; a pedestrians only area downtown; and me pretending to be a monkey (note: hanging from a tree is ill-advised, as I fell out of said tree two seconds after the photo was taken.)

Condado Beach is a popular spot for accommodations and entertainment. Only a short taxi drive (less than ten minutes) away from the heart of historic San Juan, Condado Beach has multiple high rise hotels like the Caribe Hilton where I stayed [read my review here], casinos, and spas. If you're interested in seeing more of Puerto Rico than just San Juan, Condado Beach is a great base for exploring the northeastern side of the island.

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Condado Beach area as seen from the Caribe Hilton

Make sure to try the local food. The fried plantains (including the delicious fried plantain dish mofongos) and asopao are delicious and can be found all over the island!

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Ensalada y pollo con arroz at a local cafe. Yum.

Puerto Rico isn't very big. Don't feel like you need to stay confined to the area just around San Juan--if you head straight south across the island from San Juan, you'll hit Ponce in just about 2 hours. And if you head west from San Juan to Mayaguez, you'll reach the western most tip of the island also in about two hours. So, rent a car and take a leisurely road trip around PR!

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Get away from San Juan, and you can see one of the two rainforests in the U.S.!

The residents have strong opinions on their relationship with the continental U.S. If you want to hear some interesting perspectives on American policy and government, ask a Puerto Rican what he or she thinks about becoming the 51st state. Some are strongly opposed, while some would invite the move, but the reasoning behind both sides can jump start a heated discussion across the island.

There aren't any all-inclusive properties on the island. Unlike most of the other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico currently does not have an all-inclusive property (like a Sandals or a Beaches). There are certainly large facilities (like El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo), but they're just big hotels with on-site spas, restaurants, and activities. You'll pay a la carte for the parts you use.


If you're interested in laying by the beach during your Puerto Rican vacation, make sure to do your research before you book a hotel. Because of the currents near San Juan, many of the hotels only have pools--and no ocean access. Even the famed El Conquistador Resort has to boat their guests over to a private island and beach. There are many unspoiled beaches over on the island of Vieques, and there are some beautiful beaches on the southern and western parts of Puerto Rico. Or, you could do as the locals do, and rent a boat to explore the hundreds of tiny uninhabited islands that ring Puerto Rico.

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
My sister and I enjoying the beautiful Caribbean water on our boat outing.
Have you ever visited Puerto Rico? What was your favorite part?

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book through the above links, I will receive a small percentage with no added cost to you.

5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World

5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com

Books and travel. 

For this literature-loving traveler, the sweet spot is finding where those two things intersect. 

I asked some travel blogger friends to weigh in on their favorite travel destinations that had a literary component, and I got responses that spanned the globe. Check out these amazing sites that will inspire and teach you!

5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com
Photo credit: Anekdotique.com

Location: Tomb of Hafez, Musalla Gardens, Iran
Literature Tie-in: Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī, Iranian poet
Ever heard of Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī? You should! Because Hafez is one the finest lyric poets of Persia and one of the most romantic poets of all time. The writer himself hardly ever travelled outside Shiraz, the city of poets and gardens. That is why most of his poems and love stories are set in the capital of Fars Province in the southwest of Iran and in its surroundings. And that is probably also the reason why you might have the feeling that his words of love come to life when walking though the picturesque city, that is full of ancient citadels, oldest mosques and gorgeous gardens. 

Furthermore, one of the towns most important sights is the Tomb of Hafez, a memorial hall situated in the beautiful Musalla Gardens. In can absolutely recommend taking a stroll in these beautiful green area. Why not even take one of Hafez’ books with you, sit down at a bench and enjoy some of his poetry. I guess this is exactly what the author wanted his readers to do: find love in his words and then live it inside the most beautiful nature. It is just a perfect fit. No wonder that his works can be found in the homes of most Iranian people.  
Clemens, Anekdotique.com
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5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com
Photo Credit: SantaFeTravelers.com

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Literature Tie-in: Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop

In 1925, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather came to New Mexico to visit with socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan (renowned for hosting a who’s who of artistic, literary and intellectual names of that time) and D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda who were living on a ranch outside Taos Luhan that once belonged to Luhan. When Cather left Taos, she checked into La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe. While there she discovered the legendary Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Santa Fe’s first bishop and later archbishop in the mid-19th century. Intrigued by the life of this humble man, she was inspired to fictionalize it. 
Death Comes to the Archbishop, published in 1927, is still an American classic. The fictional Archbishop Father Jean Marie Latour’s life closely parallels that of the real-life clergyman. It also vividly conveys the history and culture of the New Mexico Territory including pueblo life. Many of these places that Cather takes her readers to remain and visitors to The City Different can take a literary tour based on the book. Start in Santa Fe at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi which Bishop Lamy had built; visit his country estate which is now Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa (his original chapel is open to visitors) and even go further afield to some of the pueblos he visited included Acoma, Laguna and Pecos. Coming to Santa Fe? Read Death Comes for the Archbishop before you leave home. You’ll get a great perspective about life in New Mexico during the Territorial Period before it became the 47th state.
Billie, Santa Fe Travelers
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5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com
Photo credit: Adventures of a Carry-on

Location: Tarrytown, New York
Literature Tie-in: Washington Irving
Literature fans in America will want to make the pilgrimage to Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, New York. Sunnyside was the home of America's first internationally acclaimed author, Washington Irving. Irving is best know for his short stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleep Hollow, though he wrote many other noted books.  Both of these stories were inspired by Irving's travels in the Hudson River Valley. Sleepy Hollow, a hamlet just ten minutes from Tarrytown is the setting for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and home of his creepy character, The Headless Horseman. 
Irving was a well - traveled man and didn't purchase his own home until he was close to fifty years old. He purchased Sunnyside with the intention of staying there. The original house was extensively remodeled in the Mediterranean Romantic style. Located on the Hudson River the location is very romantic indeed with beautiful gardens and small waterfall that feeds into a stream on the property. Sunnyside hosted many important writers and politicians during Irving's time there. There are an amazing number of the original furnishings and artworks in the house and it is one of best surviving examples of life in the 19th century.    
Pilgrims will want to make the trek to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to pay their respects at Irving's graveside. Be aware that the cemetery is huge. Get your map first and be sure to allow time if you arrive close to sunset. The cemetery closes at 4:30 except during the summertime.
Penny, Adventures of a Carry-on
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5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com
Photo credit: The Tourist of Life
Location: Dublin
Literature Tie-in: The Book of Kells, James Joyce
A lot of famous writers are originally from Dublin, wrote and published their first books or screenplays in Dublin and went to the famous Trinity College, which some say is the Harvard of Europe. For those who like literature, Dublin is the place to be. For example you could start your visit in Dublin at the Dublin Writer’s Museum, or you could visit one of the most famous libraries of Dublin: the Trinity College Library. 
Now, I guarantee you that visiting Trinity College Library won’t be a disappointment, as it is the biggest library of Ireland and home to the Book of Kells!  You can visit the Trinity College Library by simply paying the entrance fee of €10,00 or you can get the entrance ticket for free after following the Trinity College tour, given by students, who will also show you the buildings of Trinity College and the spots where famous writers wrote their masterworks. 
Another tour you could take in Dublin is the Dublin Literary Walking Tour, which will take you to the Dublin Writer’s Museum, the James Joyce Cultural Centre, the Abbey Theatre, the General Post Office and of course: Trinity College.
Yvonne, The Tourist of Life
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5 Must See Literary Sites from Around the World | CosmosMariners.com
Photo credit: CosmosMariners.com

Location: Stratford-upon-Avon
Literature Tie-in: Shakespeare's hometown
If you run under the assumption that the playwright William Shakespeare was just one person and was the same guy who was born and died in this English town, then Stratford-upon-Avon is a dream for the Bard's followers. (For the uninitiated, there are dozens of theories surrounding Shakespeare's identity with Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere coming out as the front runners.) You can start your day by visiting his birthplace, a rambling, drafty place where actors will showcase different elements of life from the late 1500s. 
Next, head over to the New Place and Nash's House, which shows just how far good ol' Willie Shakes came during the course of his career--just down the road is the Church of the Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare was baptized and later buried. End the day with a show performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the local theatre or with a visit to the house where Anne Hathaway (William's wife, not the actress) was raised.
Natalie (aka yours truly), Cosmos Mariners: Destination Unknown
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What literary sites have you visited?  

3 Hidden Experiences in and around London

3 Hidden Experiences in and around London | CosmosMariners.com

London is, in my opinion, one of the greatest cities in the world. As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." One of the wonderful things about London is that there's always something new to see or do, another restaurant to try, another alleyway to explore.

There's this great novel by Geoff Nicholson, Bleeding London, in which one of the characters tries (and fails) to walk every street in the A to Zed. No matter how long you've lived there or how many times you've visited, London still has mysteries to discover. 

During my time in London (a decade-long love affair that includes four glorious trips and a study abroad stint), I've tried to crack some of the city's secrets. If you've seen the usual sites--Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and the like--here are three experiences that will help you deepen your understanding of London and the surrounding area

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com

1) The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. 

Pretty much everyone in the world recognizes the Tower of London; it has, after all, been around since William the Conqueror's early reign almost a millennium ago. Most people don't know about the ceremony that takes place each night as a symbolic way to secure the property. Tickets are free, but since a very small number of people are allowed each night, you'll need to book way in advance. 

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com
Yes, I was THAT close to Stonehenge!

2) Getting up close and personal at Stonehenge. 
The first time I visited, I was disappointed. The regular visitor path keeps you from getting too close to the stones, and there wasn't much context for the site other than what you learned on the audio guide. 

However, on a more recent trip, I went on a sunset tour of the property with one of the archeologists studying Stonehenge, and whoa, what a difference the guide makes. We drove around the entire property (which is much larger than you'd think), looked at the burial grounds located across the roadway from the main site, and then got to see the stones up close (really close: I could have touched them if I hadn't been worried about toppling something over!) 

Multiple outlets offer similar expeditions, and they don't come cheap--but if you're interested in learning more about this UK landmark, it's money well spent.

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com
Hello, all of you sad souls that stood out in the rain for three hours. I, too, know what it's like to be on the other side of the gate.

3) Changing of the Guard from behind the gates of Buckingham Palace. 

If you've ever been to London, chances are you've squeezed into the giant crowd that forms each morning to watch the Queen's guard. I had the chance to see the ceremony from a unique perspective: from inside the gates! 

While I had to stand off to one side up against the building, I had an unparalleled vantage viewpoint for the ceremony--when the Irish Guard (with their mascot, the Irish greyhound) came by, I could almost reach out and pet the dog. (N.B.: not a great idea.) This is, unfortunately, one of those events where you have to know somebody that knows somebody (as was the case when I visited--one of my travel companions knew of someone who knew Prince Philip's secretary), but I supposed you could just write the royal secretaries and beg. The worst they can do is say no!

Would you be interested in doing any of these? What lesser known attractions or experiences have you done in London?

A First-timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

After my First-Timer's Guide to Savannah, Georgia, made some waves, I figured that the time was right for me to impart my knowledge about my beloved hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. I was born here, and other than an eight-year-gap when I lived elsewhere in South Carolina, I've called Charleston my home my entire life.

From school field trips to my own wanderings, I've seen most of what the Holy City has to offer. If you're heading this way on a trip, here are a few ways to make the most of your stay.

Where to Stay

If you're staying in downtown Charleston (aka the Peninsula), there are plenty of options for every budget.


What to Eat

Charleston has so many great places that I don't think you can really go wrong no matter your budget, tastes, or style. I've broken down some of my favorite restaurants into a few different categories, and then suggested favorite dishes at each (since I'm allergic to shellfish, any recommendations for seafood have come from family and friends). Note that not all of these are in the historic district!

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Fuel Restaurant

  • The Ordinary (downtown): oysters on the half shell
  • O-ku (downtown): sushi, chicken teriyaki
  • Red's Ice House (Mt. Pleasant and Seabrook Island): fish and chips
  • Husk (downtown): the menu rotates seasonally since all of the ingredients are locally sourced
  • Fuel (downtown): braised pork tacos, hoe cakes
  • Poe's (Sullivans Island): blue cheese coldslaw, any of their burgers
Classically Southern 
  • Poogan's Porch (downtown): fried green tomato BLT, crab cakes, ham macaroni and cheese
  • Jestine's (downtown): pecan fried chicken, fried okra, sweet tea
  • Sewee Restaurant (Awendaw): fried flounder, potato salad, any dessert
  • Virginia's on King (downtown): pecan fried chicken, macaroni and cheese
  • Groucho's (downtown and West Ashley): mushroom cheese melt or the Pink Moose
  • Fire Grill (downtown): chicken teriyaki
  • Tzakiki's (downtown and Mt. Pleasant): traditional gyro
  • Andolini's (Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, North Charleston): standard cheese pizza or calzone
  • Eli's Table (downtown): filet mignon, pimento cheese and tomato appetizer
  • Peninsula Grill (downtown): the coconut cake
  •  Hominy Grill (downtown): omelet, biscuits
  • Acme Cantina (Isle of Palms): the Southerner (sweet tea fried chicken on a biscuit)
  • Charleston Cafe (Mt. Pleasant): waffles, Amber's Choice (egg-topped crab cake)
What to See

Charleston has some tried and true attractions--I'm a firm believer that some things are popular because they're good. So, while you're here, try out a few of the big attractions, but don't forget to mix in a few hidden favorites as well!

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Hampton Plantation, McClellanville

Plantations are a part of Charleston's history, so if you'd like to learn more, you need to head out to see the Ashley River Road plantation district. The big three are Middleton Plantation, Drayton Hall, and Magnolia Plantation. Of the three, Magnolia is my favorite since there's a great petting zoo, extensive gardens, a butterfly house, and restored slave quarters in addition to a tour of the main house. If you're willing to drive further away from downtown, Hampton Plantation in McClellanville is never crowded and, with its wide front porch and classical architecture, looks more like a stereotypical antebellum plantation.

Many of the rich planters also had fashionable "city" homes in downtown Charleston, so you can get the full story by visiting both the plantations and the houses in the historic district. The Edmonston-Alston House, the Nathaniel Russell House, and the Aiken-Rhett House are all within easy walking distance of the rest of the historic district.
A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
My husband and our dog on Isle of Palms

If you'd like to see more of the Charleston area, I highly recommend renting a car or taking a cab out to one of the beaches. Isle of Palms, Sullivans Island, and Folly Beach are all barrier islands just off the coast of Charleston, and each has its individual charms.

Visiting Fort Sumter circa 1994. I'm the cool kid in the middle, while my sister's rocking her rainbow bike shorts.

There's a lot of military history in the Charleston area as well. Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, is located in the middle of the Charleston harbor; you can get a ferry over to this national monument from Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant or from the pier near the South Carolina Aquarium downtown. Patriots Point is more than just a ferry departure point--it houses the U.S.S. Yorktown, the U.S.S. Clamagore submarine, military aircraft and much more.

A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
King Street when it's closed to vehicles during the seasonal 2nd Sundays on King

If you're into shopping, King Street will be your best friend. Start just above Marion Square and work your way towards Lower King, where you'll pass all sorts of shops: Urban Outfitters, Lush, Louis Vuitton, the Body Shop, and Forever 21 are just the start! If you'd rather take home a painting, head over to East Bay and Broad Streets to the art district.

For kids, a trip to the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry and to the fountain at Waterfront Park are great breaks between historical tours.
Britton on one of our many trips to the kids' museum.
Want even more suggestions? See my 101 Things to Do in Charleston post!

What to Know
A First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com
Residences on lower King Street

  • The horse and buggy tours are actually a pretty good way to get to know the city. As a resident, I detest these things because they clog up traffic downtown (which isn't the greatest to begin with) and make the streets smell like horse pee. While they are kind of hokey, the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable (all Charleston guides have to take a ridiculously rigorous test before leading a solo tour), and you'll be able to cover more ground than a walking tour. 

  • The City Market never sold slaves. This is one of the biggest mix-ups I hear about Charleston attractions. While slaves did sell their wares here, and they did shop here for their masters, there wasn't any human trafficking going on at this location. That sordid portion of our history did occur elsewhere in our city (in private auctions,  near the Exchange Building, and in the actual slave market), and you can learn more about it at the Old Slave Mart Museum. While the Slave Mart Museum provides a detailed look at this horrific chapter in Charleston, the City Market sells souvenirs, t-shirts, pictures, and sweetgrass basket. Yes, they sound alike, but they are very different places. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Upper King has been undergoing a revitalization over the last 15 years. While this area (up to Ann and Mary Streets) is safe during the day, be cautious about venturing away from the main thoroughfares at night. The areas around America Street (just a few blocks away from Upper King) can be violent when it's dark, and tourists are easy targets for muggings. Lower King, East Bay, and Meeting Streets are all safe no matter the time of day, so strap on those walking shoes, grab your guidebook, and head out the door! 

  • Get great views of Charleston from the top of the Ravenel Bridge. The bridge has an awesome biking and walking path, and you can access it from downtown or Mount Pleasant. Make sure to lock your car and stow valuables from sight (especially on the downtown side) when you leave to walk up the bridge. 

  • Make time to meander. From the Battery and Rainbow Row to Queen Street, Charleston is best enjoyed on foot. Take your camera, wander the streets, and explore down the residential alleys. While the South of Broad area houses the most expensive houses, you can find gorgeous architecture on everything from St. Phillip's Church to the houses on Tradd Street. 

  • Explore even further with my 101 Things to Do in Charleston post! There's always something new to learn, do, or see in the Holy City. 


This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book a hotel through the above links, I will receive a small percentage with no added cost to you.

Have you visited Charleston? Tell me what you loved and what you'd rather have skipped!

If you liked this post, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guide the each city by clicking on the image below:

First-Timer Travel Guides First-Timer's Guide to St. Augustine, Florida First-Timer's Guide to Savannah, Georgia First-Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach, Florida First-Timer's Guide to Charleston, South Carolina
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A Mountain Getaway, 1910s-style: Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

Back in June 2012, I came back from a three-week trip to the United Kingdom with the family whom I was homeschooling at the time. I saw some incredible things, but spending 21 days straight (including sharing a bathroom with them!) with four kids ranging in age from 5 to 11 wore me out.

After returning to America, I proceeded to flop on our couch and stare blankly up to the ceiling for several days. Alarmed, my husband decided that I needed to get away from Charleston for a few days for some quiet and recuperation after my action-packed kid time. (Note: this was looong before my daughter made her arrival, so I was completely unused to the constant dull roar that accompanies small humans.)

I perked up when he mentioned that there was a sweet deal on Groupon Getaways for this little mountain hideaway in North Carolina. I couldn't think of anything better at that moment than relaxing among the cool, peaceful trees on a wide porch, so I told him to book it. 

And just two days later, we were on our way to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. You've got to love an impromptu road trip!

After we ooohed and aaaahhhed over the beautiful views on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we made our way to Balsam, where our hotel room awaited. When the GPS told us to turn since we were nearly at our destination, we looked around and wondered if the GPS even knew what it was talking about since all we saw was a railroad track and a general store that hadn't sold anything since at least the 1950s.

(Seriously, that's all that there is to Balsam. If you want quaint, this should be your first stop.)

And then we both looked back over the railroad tracks and up the hill to see this (only without Landon posing on it, of course):

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

When we arrived, we wandered in awe around the lobby and grounds since our room wasn't quite ready. I couldn't believe that I'd never heard of this place before then--it was beautiful and gigantic. Having lived in South Carolina my entire life (including nearly a decade in the upstate), I've heard of most of the quaint inns and hotels. But somehow, Balsam Mountain Inn hadn't hit my radar, which was a complete shame. 

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

I found out later that the Inn had undergone a complete restoration after it had slowly deteriorated for a decade in between owners. Originally opened in 1908, the inn was carefully placed near the railroad station (fun fact: Balsam's station was the highest in the eastern U.S.).
The inn and some of its summer residents, 1910

The owners built the hallways larger than usual to provide ample space for visitors' bulky trunks.

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

After struggling for some time, the inn finally closed its doors in the 1980s. But then, it found a second life when current owner Merrily Teasley had a chance encounter with the crumbling hotel in the early 1990s. She and a team of dedicated workers refinished the entire 42,000 square foot inn--sometimes by hand!

She also added the left wing which now houses the dining area. And let's talk about that dining area, shall we?

All you need to know is that you should go. Immediately. As a part of our Groupon, we had breakfast tickets for the two mornings we were staying there. I'm not a morning person, but after digging into the breakfast offerings here, I was glad I'd managed to rouse myself.

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

It's a set price breakfast with one rotating daily item (so on Mondays, they might serve french toast, while on Tuesdays, you can have pancakes), fresh fruit, toast, cereal, and other yummy stuff. We both stuffed ourselves so much that we basically skipped lunch and didn't eat again either day until mid-afternoon. Because of our funky eating schedule, we never did make it to Balsam's dinner, but I've also heard amazing things about that, too. I loved that they use locally sourced food whenever possible!

Although we had other fun things on our trip (including a tubing trip, an afternoon by the river, and some mountain shopping), we most enjoyed our time around the inn, just sitting on the wide porches and enjoying the views.

Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

Being the chatty folk that we are, Landon and I made some new friends one night when we were all sitting outside reading. There was a nice couple staying there, and they were killing some time before dinner. Balsam's just that kind of place, where you can sit in the rockers, chat with other visitors, and take in the mountain air. 
Balsam Mountain Inn, Balsam, North Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

One final thing that I loved about the inn was that there are no televisions or phones in the rooms. They've got a free lending library, board games, and plenty of places to chat with fellow guests, so you're pretty much guaranteed some serious one-on-one time with whomever you're traveling. 

Know before you go
  • When booking, make sure to request a shower or tub room. Because of the way that the modern plumbing had to be installed in the inn, rooms don't have both.  
  • There's no air condition. Don't panic, though! We were there at the end of June, and we didn't have a need for it. Because the inn is located so high up in Blue Ridge mountains, there's this gorgeous breeze all summer. All you've got to do is lower the glass divider at the top of your door for some bona fide throwback A/C, and let the breezes from the hallways cool your room. 
  • If you've got kids, choose the first floor. The second and third floors are made of creaky old hardwood, so if you stay on either of those with a kid that likes to run and jump, the entire hotel will know. 
  • You can't book through Expedia, Travelocity, or even the hotel's website. It's a phone call or nothing!

What's the best place that you've ever stayed? Have you been on a mountain retreat lately?

I was in no way compensated for my stay at Balsam Mountain Inn or Groupon or anything else I mentioned in this article. We just loved our visit!

Anne of Green Gables Road Trip, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Anne of Green Gables Road Trip, Prince Edward Island, Canada | CosmosMariners.com

Anne with an "e." 

Gilbert calling Anne "carrots." 

Poor Diana and the cooking sherry. 

Matthew's gift of a dress with puffed sleeves. 

Anne being accepted to Queens College. 

Even though it's been at least 18 years since I last read the Anne of Green Gables series, it seems as if all of the details are still pressed into my brain. My remembrance of the series has less to do with a stellar recognizance abilities and more to do with the fact that red-headed Anne and her adventures were in high rotation in my elementary school reading--right up there with the Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and Dinotopia series.