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Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

A major draw for many people visiting Scotland are the beautiful historic spots scattered around the country. Some of them, like Eileen Donan Castle or Holyroodhouse, can get quite crowded during peak times, so I'm always on the lookout for lesser known places that allow me to immerse myself in the history without fighting hundreds of other people. 

While we were in Scotland, we wanted to visit some historic ruins near Edinburgh, and I found some beautiful ones in Melrose, Scotland. Visiting Melrose Abbey was a highlight of our adventures in the Scottish borderlands!

How to Save Money on Your Trip to Scotland

How to Save Money on Your Trip to Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

I love to travel. And I've had the opportunity to see some amazing places and meet some amazing people.

But one of my absolutely favorite trips was with my husband to Scotland in 2011. I'd wanted to visit the country way back when I was studying abroad in London in 2005; I had a weekend trip planned for Edinburgh, but the 7/7 bombings happened, and I didn't feel comfortable traveling that close to the terrorist attack. 

Landon was game to head to the UK on our first big trans-Atlantic trip, so we started planning where we'd like to go and what we had to see.

8 Reasons Why You Should Visit Scotland

8 Reasons Why You Should Visit Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

Of all of the places that I've visited, few have capture my imagination as Scotland did. From the kilts and tartans to the rolling accents, Scotland is mysterious, alluring, and breathtaking. 

With sheep innards pudding, lifestock with Beatles' haircuts, and a swimming dinosaur beckoning to you, Scotland should be on everyone's travel radar.

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

From Edinburgh to London: 11-Day Itinerary through Scotland and England | CosmosMariners.com
The ruins of St. Andrews Castle, St. Andrews, Scotland

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

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

5 Historic Southern Scottish Places You Don't Want to Miss

If you like exploring castles, wandering through ruins in the mist, or trying to solve a historical mystery or two, you need to get to Scotland. Immediately, if at all possible!

While many associate the country with Loch Ness, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, there's so much to see in the southern portion of Scotland. Don't overlook these gems, all of which are located within an hour and a half or so of the England/Scotland border.

Scotland, or Something Close to It: Highland Games 2014

Charleston Scottish Games and Highland Gathering at Boone Hall
This weekend, I didn't go to Scotland, but I got as close as I could without getting on a plane. After two long years of waiting, I made it back to the Charleston Scottish Games!

Landon and I went for the first time back in 2010 and had a blast. We skipped 2011 since we were saving up for a trip to Scotland that November. When we went in 2012, I was very early in my pregnancy with Britton, but still had a good time. We didn't make it last year since Britton was only a few months old, Landon had to be out of town for work, and everyone else was busy. 

This year, we made sure to pencil a trip to Boone Hall for the 41st Scottish Games and Highland Gathering.

Go Boil Your Silly English Bottoms, You Silly English Pig Dogs

New to the site?
Learn about our other adventures from the UK Extravaganza 2011: 

Day 4 on our UK Extravaganza took us to Stirling, Scotland, just a few minutes from our hotel in Dunblane. We had four stops: Stirling Castle, the William Wallace Monument, Doune Castle and the Dunblane Cathedral.

First off, Stirling Castle, which was an important stronghold in the Scottish Wars for Independence. At one time or another, both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce had possession of Stirling Castle, though James V probably had the biggest hand in designing the property. James VI of Scotland (also James I of England) was its last royal inhabitant.
Nothing says, "Top o' the mornin' to ye" like a little interpretive dance.

In front of James V's Royal Apartments

In the Great Hall

The Great Hall

We played dress-up in the children's section of the castle!

Next up was the William Wallace Monument, built during the Victorian period by the Scots who felt that it was horrible that one of their national heroes didn't have a permanent monument in Scotland. There are over 280 stairs to the very top (and no elevator!) and three exhibition halls on the way up: William Wallace's biography room, the Hall of Heroes (focusing on the contributions of the Scots people to the world) and a history of the monument. 

the view from the top of the monument

from the outside of the monument. See the little spiral-y thing on the left hand side? That's the staircase. The LOOOONG staircase.

William Wallace's sword. It's pretty much as tall as I am.

Clemson spirit abounds even at the top of the Wallace Monument!

the view from the top of the monument

Third stop of the day: the on-site film location for "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," also known as Doune Castle in Doune, Scotland (thus, the post title). 

That silly Arthur King and his silly kanigets don't have anything on me!

It was very quiet at Doune Castle, too, so (again) we had the place to ourselves. We had a great time wandering around that drafty, quiet castle!

The final stop of the day was Dunblane Cathedral, which had an incredible back story. A tower was originally built on the site in the 1100s, and the cathedral was built around the tower about 100 years later. During the Scottish Wars for Independence, Edward I took the lead roof off of the cathedral to use for bullets. As the nave of the cathedral was now roofless, the congregation turned the nave into the graveyard, and walled off the choir area to use as the new, smaller church. It set up stayed this way until the Victorian period when the congregation put a new roof on the nave and opened up the entire cathedral again. They didn't move the graveyard though, so there are graves still under the nave!

The Traveler Behind the Blog

I haven't done a good introduction blog in a long while, so today you get to learn all about me. I should not be as excited as I am to talk about myself because I know that's totally self-centered--but we all have to give into our self-centered indulgences every once in a while, right?!

So, hi! I'm Natalie. I'm the captain of this travel blog. And despite what the below picture might tell you, sitting on a sand throne is not nearly as glamorous as it looks. I guess that's a hazard of the job that I'm willing to endure.

Being the supremely weird unique person that I am, I have interviewed myself so that you can get to know me a little better. Let's delve into all things Cosmos Mariners, shall we?

Interviewer Me: Hello, Natalie. I'm so excited about this interview. You're quite wonderful, aren't you?
Answerer Me: Um, yes. Yes, I think I am. 

Interviewer Me: I'm pretty great, too, but I guess that's not the point. Let's talk about your blog.
Answerer Me: I've run Cosmos Mariners: Destination Unknown for about four years now. It started out as a tiny little thing so people could read about the early years of my marriage. I'm pretty sure that my parents and my in-laws were the only people who read it then. 

There's definitely always more room to grow, but I've found an awesome community of bloggers in the years that I've been working on this site. About a year ago, I rebranded to focus more on our travels as well as our adventures here in Charleston--I've loved all of the opportunities and friends that have come out of that change. 

My sister--one of my original readers--and I at Disney World in 2008.
Interviewer Me: Where have you traveled?
Answerer Me: All over the place! I've been on every mile of I-95--it runs all along the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Besides the eastern seaboard states, I've been to Louisiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and California. I really want to see more of the U.S.! I've been to Disney World 25 or 30 times (we have a serious addiction); my first trip ever was to Disney when I was 2.

Outside of the U.S., I've been to several of the islands in the Bahamas (Andros, Grand Bahama Island, and New Providence), St. Martin/St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula), Canada (Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), Wales, England, Scotland, and France. I'm hoping to add Jamaica, Haiti, and a few European countries to that list in 2015!

Interviewer Me: Why are you wearing that intensely orange shirt in that picture if you at the top of the page?
Answerer Me: I've got to represent my alma mater, Clemson University! I graduated from there with a B.A. in Literature. (And then went on to the rival school, USC, for my M.A. in Post-WWII British Gothic Literature--but we don't talk about that.)

We took our love of Clemson all the way to the Trossachs, Scotland!
Interviewer Me: Were you indeed on the Clemson Quidditch team?
Answerer Me: Sadly, no. But I'm still waiting on my acceptance letter to Hogwarts! I'm going to be their first non-traditional (read: old person) student. While I wait for my owl to bring the letter, I've been absorbing as much as I can about the Wizarding World at Universal Studios and the Leavesden studios. 
Diagon Alley, Warner Brothers Studios, London

Zonko's, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Orlando
Interviewer Me: Where's your favorite place to travel?
Answerer Me: I'm up for anywhere once, but if I had to go one place over and over again, it would be the UK. I've been there four times: once in 2003 with my parents and sister, in 2005 to study abroad, in 2011 with my husband, and in 2012 with a family I tutored. I'm an Anglophile through and through. 

Melrose Abbey, Scotland
Interviewer Me: Why don't you travel all of the time?
Answerer Me: If I could, I would! However, my husband works in a very location-based job (retail banking), so we try to travel as much as we can together when his work schedule suits. I'm not above traveling with my toddler, my parents, or my sister if there's somewhere I just have to go. I could totally be one of those nomadic travelers, but my other half would hate that, so we've found a good travel compromise. 

Indian Shores, Florida
Interviewer Me: What in the world makes you think you're qualified to blog about traveling?
Answerer Me: I love it! I really and truly love going to a new place, meeting new people, and trying new foods. I hope that passion comes across in my blog. Beyond that, I talk A LOT about the literature and history of the places that I visit, and that's where all of that college and grad school work come in handy!

Rodin Museum and Gardens, Paris
Interviewer Me: Where's home?
Answerer Me: Charleston, South Carolina. I tried for a very long time to get away because I wanted to live somewhere else after growing up here. Fate intervened and the only job offer I got was right back here in Charleston. I've been back for about four years, and I'm very excited to raise my daughter here in between our other adventures. 

Tradd Street, Charleston, South Carolina


Hopefully, you know a little bit more about me than you did! Want to know something else? Ask away!

5 Must-See Castles in the UK {Guest Post by Jamie from Gunters Abroad}

Today's guest poster, Jamie from Gunters Abroad, is a woman after my own heart! I live vicariously through her blog as she shares her new life overseas. Her guest post has me ready to jump on a plane and go see all of these beautiful sites. Read on, and don't forget to show some love to Jamie on her social media channels (found at the bottom of the post)!

Hello Cosmos Mariners readers! I am super happy to be filling in for Natalie while she is away on her adventures! 

My name is Jamie and I blog at Gunters Abroad. I recently moved to the UK with my husband and pets and we are absolutely loving our lives as expats. 

Over in my little corner of the world, “castleing” has become a normal term for my husband and I. We love traveling throughout the UK and finding castles or castle ruins to explore. So today I am sharing with you our top 5 castles to explore while in the UK. 

Edinburgh: the Adventure Begins!

After traveling for almost 24 hours (we left Charleston around 3:30 PM, and finally got to Scotland 8:30 local time), we FINALLY got to our hotel in Old Town Edinburgh on our second day in the UK (we spent the first day traveling).

The traveling wouldn't have been so bad if our flight hadn't been delayed from Atlanta to London, which shrunk the time we had to get from Heathrow Airport to Euston Station in London. (I also couldn't get to sleep on the transatlantic flight, so I was HURTING by the time we finally went to sleep on Saturday.) And to make the airport to train station transition even worse, the Tube station in Heathrow was closed, so we were re-routed via bus to a Tube station about 15 stops from Euston. Eek! We made it with about 30 minutes to spare--just enough time to grab some lunch in the train station and get onto the train. 

Our train from London to Edinburgh took another 4 hours; luckily, our hotel in Edinburgh was about 500 feet from the train station. I have never been so happy to see a bed in my life!

the view from our hotel. That's Arthur's Seat in the left hand corner of the photo.

We spent all day Sunday sightseeing in Old Town Edinburgh. The Old Town was first grew up around 1200. The New Town was created in the 1700s after the gentry decided they needed a cleaner place to live. I think it's really funny that the New Town is older than 99% of the buildings/ settlements in the U.S.!
Just outside of the hotel. The buildings in the background are part of the New Town. The bridge is right over the train station.

We had breakfast at the Elephant Cafe, which was an adorable cafe on George IV Bridge. J.K. Rowling finished writing the first Harry Potter book here!

Landon at Holyroodhouse, the Queen's residence in Edinburgh (during the summer months). 

Holyroodhouse: the interior courtyard

Holyroodhouse Abbey. It is the oldest part of the palace, and was built by David I after he saw a stag with a cross (or "rood") between its antlers while he was out hunting. 

Holyroodhouse Abbey

Landon on the Royal Mile, which is actually over a mile, and is filled with cafes and shops. It's touristy, but fun.

Edinburgh Castle, at the other end of the Royal Mile

The view from Edinburgh Castle towards the New Town and the Firth of Forth

What we learned in Edinburgh: Kilts are alive and well in Scotland! We saw several men walking, driving or riding their bikes with their kilts on. Here's to hoping they they do wear something under them. I didn't volunteer to check!

Stay tuned for our Scotland driving adventures!

A New Tradition: 8 Reasons to Take a Family Holiday Instead of Exchanging Gifts

About this time each year, I start thinking about what I'm going to give my family for Christmas. Lists are made, budgets are created, and I spend hours scouring the internet for gift ideas.

More often than not, I'm usually panicking come December 20th since I either can't come up with a decent present or I've remembered even more people who need gifts.  On more than one occasion, I've thought, "I wish we could just forget the gifts and spend more time together!"

Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland
Best 28th birthday present ever!
In fact, my husband and I have nearly done away with gifts all together for our anniversary and birthdays, as we both love to give new travel opportunities or experiences to one another. For my 28th birthday, we went to Scotland. For our fifth anniversary, we went on a Caribbean cruise. And, for my birthday this year, I got season tickets to the Dock Street Theatre here in Charleston.

We'll probably continue to do gifts for the next year or so for my daughter, but I would love to make a tradition of giving a family holiday to her once she's older. Here's why:

1) It's unexpected. 

Giving gifts during the holiday season is what you do. I'm all for contributing to the office gift exchange or continuing to do the present thing with grandparents and cousins. At least within your insular family, you can go countercultural and give experiences instead of more stuff.

2) Your kids will never forget it. 
Traveling with my parents and sister was (and still is!) one of my favorite parts of childhood. My sister and I still sit around the table at my parents' house and laugh about stuff we saw and did on some of those trips.

I'm a huge proponent of family travel, as it gives you a chance to bond and step out of the ordinary. Plus, imagine your kids' eyes when they come down on Christmas morning to see their bags packed and a big sign that says, "We're going to (insert destination of your choice)!" Even as an adult, I would flip out about that!

3) Your kids already have enough toys. 

Between friends, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, I promise that your child will not feel neglected if you substitute a family holiday for 20 boxes of the hottest new toys. Chances are, those toys will all be broken and/or stuffed under the bed by February 1st anyway.

4) It will give you more time together. 

If you ask most parents what they want, you're likely to hear "more time with my kids." You can't exactly wrap up more time in shiny ribbon, but you can budget for a vacation--and the end result is the same. Unwind, leave the phones and tablets at home, and experience what you love about your family for a few days. It will be much better than hearing your kids argue about which toys are theirs.

5) It could be less expensive than giving gifts (depending on where you go). 

A family holiday doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg--unless you want it to. There's something out there for every family's budget from all-inclusive family friendly resorts to cabins in a nearby state park.

If you're used to splashing out on extravagant electronics and toys, your Christmas budget could easily be exchanged for a few days elsewhere.

If you're more budget minded during the holidays, you could plan a staycation in a local hotel and finally go see a few of those sites you've been meaning to visit with your family.

6) You don't have to clean up all of that wrapping paper.

Unwrapping presents is fun. Cleaning up all of the tape, wrapping paper, and boxing isn't.

7) Traveling is an incredible educational experience. 

A family holiday isn't just about enjoying one another's company. It's also about discovering new things about each other and the places around you. Going on a trip together changes the dynamics of your family, so your kids can see their family group in a new light. They might learn that Dad can hula with the best of them or that Mom can't get enough of the hotel's water park!

If you choose to go somewhere with museums or a historical focus, your kids can learn so much. I remember going to Paris the semester after I'd studied the French Revolution--seeing the Conciergerie after hearing about the Reign of Terror made what I'd learned real. Learning isn't just for school, and it's always better in the company of the people you love.

8) It puts the focus of the holiday on people instead of things. 

Joy. Love. New beginnings.

We hear those same themes over and over again throughout the holiday season. What better way to spend the holiday than focusing on the most important people in your life?

If foregoing presents completely seems a too extreme for you, commit to a family holiday, but also include a small gift component, too. You can put a very limited budget on the gifts (say, $5 for each person) or you can tell everyone to get creative and only give handmade gifts. You'll retain the fun factor of gift giving while retaining the majority of your budget for your family holiday.

You could also start by doing smaller trips for birthdays and other special times for your family before changing your Christmas traditions. It might make for an easier tradition for kids who aren't too sure about the idea.

What's your favorite part of the holiday season? Would you consider swapping out gifts for a family vacation?

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The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from London to Edinburgh in (Cramped) Style

The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from Edinburgh to London in (Cramped) Style | CosmosMariners.com

When traveling between London and Edinburgh (two of the UK's best cities in my opinion!), you have a couple of transportation options: driving and flying are popular choices, but you could always go the hitchhiking or running options. I would not recommend the latter two, as the chances that you would be found in a ditch are fairly high on both.

And then there's my favorite option: the train.

Why I Travel

The first trip that I ever went on was to Disney World. My grandparents, parents, and I all piled into the family motorhome and made the (what should have been) seven hour trip down to Orlando from South Carolina.

According to family lore, from the moment I was buckled into my child seat to the moment that we stopped in Orlando, I yelled, "Out! Out!"

Clearly, I hadn't learned road trip etiquette yet. I was two. 

An' I'll Be in Scotland Before Ye

New to the site?
Learn about our other adventures from the UK Extravaganza 2011: 

On our third day of sightseeing (catch up with our earlier adventures in Edinburgh, Roslin and Melrose), we went into the Trossachs, an area of woodlands east of Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond. On our original itinerary, we were going pony trekking and clay pigeon shooting on an estate about 2.5 hours from our hotel in Dunblane.

However, Landon went down to check his email in the business center and started talking to one of the hotel's employees, this super nice man named Ian. After hearing about the five-hour roundtrip we had planned, Ian suggested that we take a drive around the nearby Trossachs. I'd done a little research on our genealogy before the trip, and it turns out that my family is from the southern tip of Loch Lomond, which is  in the Trossachs. I knew my grandparents would be happy to hear that we were switching up our plans to include a visit to the "home place" (which, let's face it, was only true about 400 years ago since we sort of jumped on that immigration-to-America thing as soon as it became a viable option).

And boy, I, for one, was really happy that Landon had that chance encounter with Ian because the Trossachs were GORGEOUS.

We first stopped in the tiny speck of a town called Kilamahog (yes, seriously):
There, we met Hamish, Heather and Honey, Highland cows (which are called "shaggy coos" by the locals). 

Then, we passed the first of several beautiful lochs: 

On the way to our next stop, we happened upon Rob Roy's grave in the town of Balquhidder.

We stopped for lunch at Killan, near the Falls of Dochart.
Landon and his traditional Scottish Breakfast

It was indeed wee.

After lunch, we headed to Tyndrum, and stopped for a quick photo shoot at Loch Dochart.
Traveler Natalie: Conquering rocks is all in a day's work

Then, we had a quick sing-a-long on the way to Loch Lomond. Our car was obviously the cool one to ride in. 

Loch Lomond was huge!

I was super glad we agreed to switch from pony trekking to our Trossachs trek--it was probably one of my favorite days on the trip!

Fact: Scotland has some WEIRD street signs. Our favorites included the following:
WHAT?? Why are the cars not in their lane??

Because old people are obviously walking around in the forest.