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A First-Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep


Hugging the western coast of Florida just outside of St. Petersburg is a 23-mile stretch of white sand and blue water. Welcome to the St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater area!

From Caladesi Island State Park at the northernmost point to Pass-a-Grille at the bottom, this beautiful collection of beaches and resorts has something for everyone. Whether you're visiting for the day from Tampa or downtown St. Petersburg, or you're here for a week long family vacation, you'll be dazzled by the wide, flat beaches, the stunning sunsets, and the wide variety of activities.

Plus, there's plenty of history along the way for people who want their beach vacation to have a side of culture!

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com

Although the area is often referred to as St. Pete Beach or St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater, this stretch of Gulf Coast is actually composed of a series of communities, each with their own feel.

Pass-a-Grille, in the south, is eclectic with a bit of a hippy vibe while St. Pete Beach is filled with high rises, lots of gift shops and restaurants, and a lively, happening atmosphere. Indian Shores and Indian Rocks Beach are both laid back and homey feeling; Belleair Shore and Belleair Beach have some beautiful--and gigantic--houses! Clearwater, at the top of this stretch, always has something going on, and you'll find plenty of restaurants, dancing, and gift shops.

Where to Stay

As this area is a favorite vacation spot (Clearwater Beach alone draws around 4 million visitors a year), you'll find hundreds of apartments, condos, hotel rooms, and camping spots up and down the beach. I've had the pleasure of staying at several locations during my visits; while I have personal experience with these and can recommend them, this is in no way a comprehensive list!

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Coconut Inn, Pass-a-Grille, Florida

  • The Coconut Inn, Pass-a-Grille. This adorable inn dates back to the 1920s, but it has every modern amenity a visitor could need or want. Relax in the pool, flip burgers in the outdoor kitchen, or walk across Gulf Way to get to the beach. You might also want to check out the sister properties, Havana Inn and the Sabal Palms Inn, both of which are also in Pass-a-Grille.[Read my review here.] 

  • Don CeSar Hotel, St. Pete Beach. The Pink Palace defined the beach vacation for the rich and famous for a decade--during the 1920s, the Don CeSar was the place to see and be seen. It's been completely restored, so you can now stay where F. Scott Fitzgerald rested his head. 

  • The Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach. For a kitschy experience with a throwback to the old mom and pop stops of the 1950s, the Plaza Beach Hotel is your spot. The hotel is aimed towards families and adventurous young travelers, so you'll find plenty of activities on-site, including water sports, a pool, a volleyball net, shuffleboards, a lifesized chess board, and a 9-hole miniature golf course. [Read my review here.]

  • Barefoot Beach Resort, Indian Shores. Since each of these units are personal apartments that are rented out by the management company, they feel more like home and less like a hotel room. Swim in the pool, go fishing off the docks in the Narrows, or step just across Gulf Boulevard to the gorgeous water. [Read my review here.]

  • Cay Pointe Villas, Indian Rocks Beach. These four apartment units are still run by the same family in quiet Indian Rocks Beach who built the property in the 1970s. You'll be well taken care of by the live-in property managers--so much so that you'll feel like you're part of the family by the time you leave! All of the units have huge porches that face the Gulf, and the beach is about ten steps from the back of the units. It's your own private paradise. [Read my review here.]

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
The view from our apartment at Cay Pointe Villas, Indian Rocks Beach.


Booking.com

What to Eat

One thing I love about this stretch of the Gulf Coast is that there are only a few national chains. Stop into one of the many locally owned restaurants for fresh seafood, a quick breakfast, or some evening cocktails.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Having fun at Hurricane Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille!
Hurricane Restaurant, Pass-a-Grille. I had some of the best blackened chicken alfredo I've ever tried here, and my husband loved the grouper. It's right on Gulf Way in Pass-a-Grille, so you can watch the sun go down in the evenings or do some people watching!

Shaner's Land and Sea Market, Pass-a-Grille. On our last trip to the area, my husband, my toddler, and I stopped by here at least three times. There's a delicious sandwich counter for quick lunches, and a huge selection of freshly caught seafood in the back. I loved the stuffed chicken breasts--we had those two nights in a row. The market also offers a small selection of grocery basics (fruit, veggies, beer, bread). 

Lighthouse Donuts, Indian Rocks Beach. On our first morning of our first visit to the St. Pete Beach area, Landon and I discovered this place, and it quickly became a favorite. The doughnuts are freshly made each morning, and they've got a nice selection of coffees, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches as well. 

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com


Toucan's Bar and Grill, Clearwater Beach. After we'd attempted Frenchy's one night and discovered a 2 hour wait, we began to wander in search of food and came across this place. It's nothing fancy--a sports bar, really--but it's a sports bar with a great view. Try to eat outside if the weather's nice: you'll be able to people watch, and you'll have a view of the Gulf.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Frenchy's Rockaway
Frenchy's Rockaway, Clearwater Beach. This place is a Clearwater institution, and the hours-long wait is a testament to that fact. To beat the crowds, we went right as they opened one morning. After eating there, we were glad we'd found a way to try it out. The conch fritters and spicy dipping sauce were worth the entire trip. 

I've also heard amazing things about Snappers Sea Grille (St. Pete Beach), Crabby Bill's (Clearwater), and Seared 1200 Chophouse (St. Pete Beach) from my readers, but I haven't had the chance to try them out myself. Next time!


What to See

The main attraction here is, of course, the beach! Most of what's offered here revolves around that. Try stand-up paddleboarding in Pass-a-Grille, or see how long you can stay on one of those huge water trikes in St. Pete Beach. Clearwater offers multiple parasailing outfitters from which to choose. Kayak rentals are a great way to see this stretch of island from the bay side. Many hotels also offer bike and fishing rod rentals.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Standup paddleboarder near St. Pete Beach


Don't forget to do that staple of beach vacations: go putt-putting! There are plenty of courses all along this area. We had a blast one night at Smuggler's Cove in Indian Shores, where you can pause halfway through your game to feed some alligators.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com


Spend the day at Caladesi Island State Park or Honeymoon Island. Caladesi Island is only accessible by ferry, kayak or personal boat, so it's one of your last chances to see a Florida beach completely unspoiled! Honeymoon Island was Florida's most visited state park for the last six years.

Don't forget to go to Pier 60 in Clearwater at least once on your trip. There's a nightly festival held there (much like the one in Key West's Mallory Square) two hours before and two hours after the sunset. Check out the street performers and see what the local crafters have on offer.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Soaking in the arts history at the Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg
Downtown St. Petersburg is only a quick car ride away, where you can experience the Dali Museum, and the Chihuly Collection, and see glassblowing at the Morean Arts Center. Historic Fort De Soto is just south of Pass-a-Grille and makes for an easy day trip: rent a bike, surrey, or kayak, and bring a picnic.

A First Timer's Guide to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, Florida: Where to Visit, Eat, Shop, and Sleep | CosmosMariners.com
Our surrey at Fort De Soto!

What to Know

  • While the stretch of land from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater is only 23 miles long, you won't go anywhere quickly. If you have dinner or activity reservations, make sure to allot plenty of transit time. Between the busy areas of St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, stoplights, and everyone being on island time, traffic is often fairly slow. 

  • Make sure you clarify which side of the land your hotel is on. There's water on both sides of the St. Pete Beach/Clearwater area, but if you're interested in an Gulf view (and not just a "water" view), it's worth a call to your hotelier. 

  • Carefully choose where you'll stay. Because the ambiance of each area is so different, you'll want to make sure that your accommodations match your expectations. If you're looking for lots of nightlife and restaurants within walking distance, St. Pete Beach or Clearwater are safe bets. If you'd rather enjoy quiet evenings and uncrowded beaches, head to Pass-a-Grille or Indian Rocks Beach

  • There aren't many grocery stores directly on the Gulf coast. While there are a few scattered here and there, you might find that the closest grocery store is actually back towards St. Petersburg, Seminole, or Largo. Use that GPS!
Have you visited the St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater area? What did you like doing there?

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If you liked this post, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guide for each city by linking 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

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to purchase through one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.


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Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up | Vol. 3

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com

Hello, Mariners! I hope each and every one of you had a fantastic weekend. I had to pick up a few things for my upcoming trip to Germany on Saturday (the list is nearly done!), and then we took my daughter to my sister's work picnic on Sunday. Britton had her face painted, got a turtle balloon, and ate two snow cones: it was basically toddler paradise.

It's Monday (again), so you know what that means: another awesome round-up of my favorite travel posts to help you start your week!

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com

I know that geography isn't my strong suit, but you'd think that I'd have heard of the beautiful island of Saipan over the years. Located near Guam, this tropical paradise is actually a part of America, which means that U.S. citizens can jet off to the crystal clear waters and white sands that are usually associated with Fiji and Borneo--but without the need for a passport. Go for the stunning ocean views, and stay for the hiking, windsurfing, and the annual Flame Tree Festival.

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com

In my first reader submission, Amber at Global Munchkins shares how to best prepare for traveling to a developing country. She's about to make her second trip to Ethiopia and has some great tips on how trip prep is different when traveling to these countries. I can remember when my uncle went to Africa when I was a little kid and contracted malaria: I've seen first-hand the need for immunization and proper preparation when traveling abroad.

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com

I love fall, and I love London, so this article on fall (or autumn for my British readers!) in England's capital drew me in immediately. I've done the Hampton Court Palace maze and I've visited the Royal Observatory--though never at night--but there are still several entries on this list that I need to do. Which activity would you like to do?

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via}

This hotel in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia is made completely of salt: the pillars, the floors, the celings, and the bed frames are all composed of the mineral. The Palacio del Sal is the only one of its kind in the world, and, given Bolivia's ties to the salt mining industry, is a unique marriage of hospitality and local interest. The famed Bolivian salt flats are nearby, so you can complete your salty itinerary!

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol. 3 | CosmosMariners.com

Paris: the City of Lights that's famed for its cuisine, museums, fashion, and the Eiffel Tour. If you've been to Paris several times, or if you're looking to add a bit of a quirky twist to your first visit, check out the unusual attractions of Paris. I'd love to take a tour of the ghost stations of the Metro or explore the catacombs. Which would you be interested in experiencing?


Don't forget to share your own fun, quirky, unusual, or helpful travel posts in the comments--you might see it in a future round-up! How was your weekend?
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A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street, Charleston, South Carolina

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

I'm a Charleston, South Carolina, native. I was born here and (other than my time in elementary school) I was raised here. When people find out that I live in their favorite vacation spot, their reaction is usually something like this:

"Oh, my gosh! I would looooove to live there! It's just so amazing!"

Well, it is amazing. But living here has completely jaded me to the things that draw hundreds of thousands of people here each year.

Others see the historic City Market: I see a traffic jam because hordes of cruise ship passengers can't figure out how to stand on the sidewalk and are clogging up an already very narrow street.

Others see the Battery and Rainbow Row, and I see stinky horse pee (never, ever, ever step in a puddle in Charleston--it's probably not rainwater) and cars driving very, very slowly.

Before you call me Grumps McGee, let me assure you that--on occasion--I put away my surly native hat and put on my happy, I'm-so-glad-I-live-here hat. You know, the one where I forget about all of the horse pee and traffic jams and the overabundance of one way streets on the peninsula.

I got to have one of those moments recently when Landon and I went to the Dock Street Theatre to see a production of The Producers.

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

He'd surprised me with season tickets, and I was ready to break them in! I grew up going to school performances at the Dock Street, so the fact that I'm now a season ticket holder makes me feel impossibly fancy and grown-up.

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

The Dock Street Theatre is America's oldest theatre and dates back to 1736. It was the first structure in the country to be built solely for theatrical performances, so while it isn't the site of the first play in America, it's a cornerstone in the history of arts and culture in Charleston and beyond.

Sadly, the original structure didn't last long (as they were wont to do back in the day). The city records are a little cloudy about when the original theatre was destroyed, but most think that it was a victim of the 1740 fire that took out a large portion of the city.

The Planter's Hotel was built over the ruins in the early 1800s, and the distinctive balcony and columns were added in 1835. (For those who like a bit of cocktail history, planter's punch was supposedly born at this hotel!)

Sadly, the Civil War caused the hotel to be abandoned, and it rotted for years. In 1935, concerned citizens and the mayor petitioned to have the property restored through the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and the current theatre was built inside what was left of the Planter's Hotel. With DuBose Heyward (author of Porgy, the inspiration behind George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess) as the writer-in-residence, the Dock Street Theatre was breathed back into life for the second time in 1937.

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com


Even though it's only a few blocks from East Bay and Meeting Streets, the theatre feels tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the usual downtown chaos. The French Quarter, where the theatre's located, is a residential area that's slowly becoming more commercial, so you've got a great mixture of old churches, art galleries, and stately homes surrounding the Dock Street.

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com

You can find it on the corner of Church Street (so named for the imposing St. Philips just down the way) and Queen Street. You might wonder what's up with the name since the Dock Street Theatre isn't on Dock Street. Well, the answer to that is that it used to be. Queen Street was once called Dock Street!

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com


One of my favorite parts of going to the Dock Street when I was little was sitting in the balcony seats. The railing is impossibly low for adults, but it's perfect when you're 8! The theatre was built as close as possible to the original 18th century design, so the seats all over the theatre are fairly small and the aisle are quite tight.

A Night Out at America's Oldest Theatre: The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, South Carolina | CosmosMariners.com


In true Charleston fashion, the Dock Street is supposedly haunted. A young woman named Nettie, who fell from her once predominant position in the town to become a prostitute, is often seen gliding around the theatre in her bright red gown. Strangely, sightings of her only include her body from the knees upwards. I've heard people explain this away by saying that the Planter's Hotel floor (on which she would've walked in life) was a good foot lower than the present day Dock Street Theatre floor--I guess she hasn't gotten the memo that some renovations have occurred in the last century and a half.

When you're in town, check out Charleston Stage's calendar of events for the Dock Street Theatre. For even more suggestions on what to do in my hometown, check out my first-timer's guide to Charleston.

Do you like going to the theatre? What are some of your favorite plays and theatres?
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Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes

Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes | CosmosMariners.com

While I'm not exactly a shoe fiend, I do like having a variety of cute footwear from which to choose--you know, on those occasions when I'm not just schlepping around in my sweatpants all day.

Especially when I'm traveling, I try to pack as much cuteness and functionality in my shoe selections as I can. Usually, I only take a carry-on, so space is valuable, and my selected shoes really have to work overtime to be included in the final packing list.

These shoes are all ones that are practical enough to put up with the demands of traveling while still being fun enough that you'd want to actually wear them.

Alterre

Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via alterre.com}
As someone who only owns two pairs of high heels, I can appreciate the versatility of this new brand. Why buy ten pairs of shoes when you can make your one pair do many different things? You purchase a base (there are two styles: the higher heel shown here or a sandal with a very short heel), then add different straps onto the shoe for new looks.

Tieks
Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via tieks.com}

Everyone I know who has a pair of these ballet flats swears by them. I love that they're comfortable while still remaining pretty and stylish. Plus, the flats come in all different solid colors, patterns, and metallics. The shoes fold flat for storage--this makes them easy to toss in your purse for a party when you want to get out of your heels, and perfect for saving a little space in your suitcase when you're traveling.

Sseko
Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via Amazon.com}
I was blown away when I first saw these sandals: there are about a million ways you can tie them with the coordinating ribbons (see here for a few ideas). Instead of taking a gladiator sandal and a pair of thong sandals and a Teva-style sandal, you can do all of them with this one shoe.

In addition to having one of the coolest concepts for sandals ever, the Sseko brand is committed to the education and financial well-being of Ugandan women: the company started with the goal of providing women the opportunity to earn money for college. Based in Uganda, the company makes all of its products in its Ugandan workshop.

Mohops
Wanderlust Wishlist: Shoes | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via Mohops.com}
Following a similar loop and ribbon concept at Sseko, the Mohops brand offers style and convenience in a variety of sandals. I love that the Mohops brand has different sandal heights for those who want something other than a flat foot bed--the Moped Mid Walnut sandal (shown above) has a bit of height, but not so much that you wouldn't be able to walk in them.

If you've got some money burning a hole in your pocket, you can also spring for some of the company's bespoke sandals. Pretty, but pricey!

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through any of the Amazon.com links, I'll receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

What are your go to shoes when you're traveling? Which of these would you like to add to your wardrobe?
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Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up | Vol. 2

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com

We had a bit of a rough weekend around here. My toddler, Britton, has come down some some really awful virus, which meant that we spent most of the weekend at her pediatrics office and the children's hospital. She's doing much better today, and I expect that she'll be back to her usual spunky self in another few days.

I hope your weekend was better than mine! Here to kick off another week is a round-up of some of the fun, interesting, and exciting things that I ran across last week.

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com
{Photo via Flickr user Opticoverload}

Caves are pretty cool, but a glowing cave wins at life. According to Savored Journeys blog, Boating in Waitomo Glowworm Cave in New Zealand provides a surreal and gorgeous trip inside the earth. I will definitely be doing this whenever I make it to New Zealand.  Seeing this would be well worth me dealing with my claustrophobia!

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com
{photo via DollyDowsie.com}

Ireland is high on the places that I'm hoping to visit in 2016. Thanks to this adorable post over at Dolly Dowsie, I need to add the colorful and picturesque town of Cobh to my itinerary. The brightly colored homes all over this town are a major draw for visitors, but there's also a historical tie to the Titanic, as this was the last stop for the ocean liner before its fateful trip across the Atlantic.

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I can't resist any building that's old, crumbling, or derelict. When I came across this article on American Ghost Towns, I was transfixed. America might not have the centuries-old castles that Europe boasts, but it does have plenty of sort-of old buildings to explore. From the first permanent settlement in Alabama to a former mining town in the midst of an Alaskan national park, you're sure to find something awesome near you.

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com

This list of nerdy vacation spots had me at Platform 9 3/4. What can I say? I will love Harry Potter until the day I die. There are also destinations for fans of The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Doctor Who. Don't forget your deerslayer hat when you go to 221B Baker Street! What movie set would you like to visit?

Odds + (Week) Ends: A Weekly Travel Round-up, Vol 2. | CosmosMariners.com

A few years ago, Landon and I took an overnight train from Edinburgh to London, and I fell in love with this mode of travel. This National Geographic article about train travel across U.S. has given me several more items to add to my travel bucket list. I'd love to take Britton on a few of these to see parts of the country when she's a little bit older. Where have you traveled via train?
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How was your weekend? Don't forget to submit your favorite travel articles for possible inclusion in future volumes!
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Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com

While Fall doesn't arrive in earnest here in the South until late October or early November (I've sweated in my Halloween costume on more than one occasion!), it's never too early to think about heading to the mountains. One of my favorite things to do in the cooler months is head to the adorable towns that dot the North Carolina mountains.

They're an hour and a half from Charlotte, and just under 4 hours from Raleigh. From Charleston, South Carolina, most of these are only about a 3 hour drive, all of which are completely doable for a weekend getaway.

I went to school at Clemson University, which is situated in the top corner of South Carolina, and perfectly located for quick Saturday trips to the NC mountains. I also lived just a few miles from the SC/NC border in that same corner for several years when I was in elementary school. Between my time living in those areas, and my desire to explore as much of the surrounding states as I can, I've had the chance to ramble many of the areas of the North Carolina mountains.

Check these out, and start planning your fall getaway immediately.

Landon and I had the pleasure of visiting tiny Balsam when we stayed at the Balsam Mountain Inn a few years back. The Inn is the only thing really in Balsam, but it's worth a side trip to see the completely restored 1908 inn and its 100 foot porches. We loved this place so much that we gave my parents a weekend away there for their anniversary this year!

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com
The porches at the Balsam Mountain Inn
If you're in the mood for tubing (and you're willing to brave the chilly mountain water!), nearby Sylva offers tubes for rent along the Tuckasegee River.

About 15 minutes from Balsam is Waynesville, a small town with a walkable main street. On our most recent trip, we loved the coffee and sandwiches at the City Bakery at 18 North Main. Check the calendar before you go because Waynesville has many different festivals and street parties during the fall months.

Asheville has made a million must-see lists lately--and for good reason. Not only is it super quirky and artsy, the main street area is filled with craft breweries, small bakeries, and unique shops. Wandering downtown can easily last a day, so make sure to allot plenty of time to soak in the ambiance. Book lovers shouldn't miss a tour of Thomas Wolfe's house, where you can see just how much of his novel Look Homeward, Angel came from his real-life experiences.

While you're there, don't forget to stop by America's largest private home, the Biltmore House. I've been several times, and I never fail to be amazed at the sheer size and opulence of the place. The Grove Park Inn is great for a dinner with a view of Asheville and the surrounding mountains. Don't forget to curl up by the 14-foot fireplaces in the lobby!

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com
The view from the Grove Park Inn's back porch


With just over 1600 residents, Tryon is a classic North Carolina mountain town. Browse the gift shops, linger over your lunch at one of the main cafes, and then spend all afternoon browsing through the four seriously good bookstores. Landon and my parents had to pull me out of The Village Book Shoppe during our last visit.

In what has become a family tradition, we head to Saluda once each fall for the crisp air, gorgeous views, and a little bit of relaxation. Although I use the term "downtown" loosely to describe the main area of Saluda, the handful of shops and restaurants are precious. Antique lovers will love the handful of shops that are just begging to be explored. Stop by the Green River Barbeque for lunch, and then take your special someone for live music and creative dishes at the Purple Onion.

A visit to Flat Rock is a must-stop on any tour through the North Carolina mountains. The Flat Rock Playhouse consistently puts on productions that draw viewers from Asheville, Hendersonville, and the surrounding areas. Browse through the clothes and housewares at The Wrinkled Egg, then order some of the super thin crust pizza at the Flat Rock Village Bakery in the back.

Another fall favorite in the Flat Rock area is the Sky Top Orchard. Take a spin on the hayride, get an apple cider (frozen or hot), and select a few bags of fresh apples to take home (the Pink Lady variety is my favorite). Whatever you do, you must try the cinnamon apple cider doughnuts.

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com

Fourteen miles out of Flat Rock is the Carl Sandburg House, another book lover's paradise. Check out his floor-to-ceiling bookcases, purchase some of his poetry collections in the gift shop, and say hello to the on-site goats. (Just be careful, as they will try to eat the books that you just bought. True story.)

Head over to Lake Lure for the Dirty Dancing Festival (usually held in mid- to late August) and gorgeous mountain views. There's plenty of hiking in the area, a zip line, and boating rentals. Just up the road is the not-to-be-missed Chimney Rock State Park and Chimney Rock Village.

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com
Lake Lure from the top of Chimney Rock


Many Carolinians (both North and South) consider the start of Fall to be when Hendersonville hosts its annual North Carolina Apple Festival. You can load up on caramel apples, shop at the arts and crafts tents, and listen to local bands. If you can't make the festival, the town's charm is still evident every other day. There are lots of antique shops: make sure to explore all three floors of the Village Green Antique Mall--there are some incredible stained glass pieces and home decor fixtures (salvaged from local homes) in the basement. Stop for a snack at the McFarlan Bakery, whose expansive offerings will keep your sweet tooth happy.

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com
Downtown Hendersonville
If you're looking for somewhere that combines a historic railroad, black diamond skiing, and stunning back road drives, Boone is your spot. I can remember visiting Grandfather Mountain as a very small child and loving it. There are also places to cut your own Christmas trees during the winter. Take in a football game at Appalachian State or go antiquing.

On one of my first ever school field trips, I went to Cherokee. I remember touring the Cherokee Museum and really loving all of the history. (I was totally that kid.) The Museum is still there, as is the Oconaluftee Indian Village for those who are interested in learning more about the Native Americans who call this gorgeous part of the world home. Take a picnic to Mingo Falls before hiking through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Highlands was a favorite little getaway of mine and my sister's when we were at Clemson. Snack on some fudge from Kilwin's as you browse the gift and antique shops in downtown. You can find your own gems at the Jackson Hole Gem Mine, or see the mountains from a different perspective on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Nearby Cashiers is also worth a stop.

All of these locations are easily accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, which cannot be missed on any trip to the North Carolina Mountains. Drive a short stretch, or organize your entire trip around the 469-mile route.

Visiting the North Carolina Mountains: Your Guide on What to See and Where to Go | CosmosMariners.com
The Blue Ridge Parkway near Balsam, North Carolina


It goes without saying that all of these places are gorgeous year-round, so if you can't make it during the autumn, keep a few on the calendar for next year's travels!

Have you visited the North Carolina mountains? What were your favorite spots?
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