When planning a family vacation, it can be tempting to just select those tried and true destinations that are notoriously good for kids. While these can be enjoyable in their own right, it can also be worthwhile to go off the beaten path.
Within the next month schools all across the country will be out for the summer. As a parent of school age children I’ve found there is nothing more exciting or daunting than the first few days of summer. On one hand, we turn off the Continue reading 20 Things To Do In Charlotte This Summer→
My children have a fascination with ALL things plane related. I can’t say for sure if this love started from travel at a young age, or the Disney movie Planes. But one thing is for certain, they can’t get enough. They play with planes, watch movies (and documentaries) about planes, and- of course- they want to watch real planes whenever we’re outside.
Way back in the fall I started brainstorming about my New Year’s Resolutions for 2017. I mentally listed all of the possibilities and then began to prioritize the ideas. Although I came up with a lot of really awesome Continue reading How To Pack For A Ski Trip With Kids→
Our family has had the opportunity to celebrate the Christmas season while living in 6 different states. Of course that doesn’t even count the travel we’ve done to other states during the month of December! All of them have been fun, memorable and unique.
However, North Carolina stands out as having the largest variety of activities. From the mountains to the coast, NC celebrates Christmas in style!
Here are my 10 favorite Christmas activities in North Carolina:
Billy Graham Library (Charlotte): Personally, this is our favorite Christmas event ever and one that my children look forward to all year. Experiencing Christmas at the Billy Graham Library leads to an unforgettable visit. Between the gorgeous lights, the carolers, the carriage rides and the hot chocolate you will feel transported to a magical land. The Library also offers a Live Nativity most evenings in December. For more details, visit their website.
McAdenville: Also known as “Christmas Town USA” this area celebrates Christmas right! Drive through 1.3 miles of nonstop, over the top light displays. You may also park and enjoy one of several restaurants and stops along the way. For more information, visit the official town website.
Holiday Flotilla (Wrightsville): Dubbed the “Southern coastal version of a Christmas parade” this floating light display features a gorgeous boat parade. In addition to the lineup of boats, a fireworks display kicks off the night. Visit the website for further details and to mark your calendar for next year.
Biltmore (Asheville): No house in America decorates in such a grand style as the Biltmore. The rich history of ‘America’s largest house’ began at Christmas. Therefore, there is no better time to plan a visit. Inside the Biltmore, you’ll see 62 trees including a 35-ft one in the Banquet Hall. For more information, visit my post on Christmas At The Biltmore.
Charlotte Motor Speedway: In it’s 7th year, the Speedway has quickly become a “must do” Christmas experience in the Charlotte area. Boasting over 3 million lights, a petting zoo, photos with Santa, and much more, the Speedway is a wonderful way to spend a December evening. Also, our family particularly enjoyed watching a Christmas movie on the Speedway’s 16,000 square foot TV! Features change weekly. Visit their website for more information.
Wilmington’s Holiday Train Expo: For anyone who loves trains (and really, who doesn’t?) this event is a must! Guests will be treated to track displays with villages, parks and landscapes. You will also enjoy photo opportunities with The Polar Express and Santa!
Cut Your Own Tree (Statewide): Did you know that NC is the second largest producer of Christmas trees in the country? The NC Fraser Fur is rated as the #1 Christmas tree, and they are shipped all over the country. If you’re in North Carolina (or anywhere close by), why not visit one of the many farms and cut your own? Not only does it make a fun family activity, but you’ll guarantee freshness!
Chetola’s Festival of Lights (Blowing Rock): A longstanding Christmas tradition at Chetola Resort, the Festival of Lights attracts thousands of visitors each year. In addition to typical lights, guests can look forward to seeing a display of ice skaters, a Nativity scene, and so much more.
Gingerbread Display at Ballantyne Hotel (Charlotte): As one of NC’s most notable hotels, the Ballantyne resort attracts many visitors throughout the year. However, the elaborate collection on display at Christmas take Gingerbread decorating to a whole new level! You will be amazed at the creativity and craftiness!
Christmas By The Sea (Carolina Beach): I’d argue that the beach is the best place to be, year round. However, Carolina Beach offers guests an extra special treat during the Christmas season. The lit-up boardwalk invites guests to come and enjoy the many activities offered. For more details, visit their official website.
I would be remiss if I didn’t preface this post with a little information about our family. We’re pretty “city.” Not that we don’t appreciate spending time outside, because we do. But our idea of outdoor activity includes sports, playgrounds, neighborhood bike rides, days on the beach and occasional yard work. Our annual camping trip involves pitching a tent in the backyard and roasting marshmallows in our fire pit.
However, in our attempt to show our kids the world we’ve realized we can’t miss the natural land. Of course, big cities have so much to offer. But then again, so do the undeveloped natural landscapes and more rural settings. To show our kids this part of the world, we’ve forced ourselves out of our comfort zone.
After visits to two National Parks this year (where we mainly just drove through), we were ready to explore off the beaten path. Our recent trip to Asheville proved the perfect time to work a hike into our schedule. I researched simple/easy hikes for families close to Asheville and came up with several options.
Our first stop on The Blue Ridge Parkway was to the visitors center. We wanted to learn all we could about the area prior to our hike. We were able to watch a wonderfully educational and entertaining video to gain insight into the mountainous culture. Also, at the Visitors Center I tossed out a few of the options I’d found online to get their opinion about the best one for our family. Best of all, we finally got to purchase a National Parks Passport (see Friday Favorite for details!)
Based on our proximity to Asheville and our skill level, we ended up at Craggy Dome. Here are the reasons Craggy Dome is the best hike for kids near Asheville:
Location: The parking lot for Craggy Dome is about 20 miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville Visitors Center. The drive is gorgeous!
Length: The hike from the parking lot, to the top, and back down is less than a mile and a half.
Difficulty: During your hike you ascend 445 feet (and then obviously descend the same.) In plain English- for non-hikers who don’t relate to that at all, like me- the length and duration of the hike make it not very steep. At times you are walking on almost level ground. For short periods of time you walk up a medium-grade hill, and only at the very end do you climb the equivalent of about 2 staircases.
Obstacles: I can walk a city street any day. If I’m going to consider a walk, a “hike” there needs to at least be the illusion that I’m doing something out of the ordinary. On your way to Craggy Dome you will follow a footpath that takes you over a few rocks and tree roots. Although you can virtually avoid them all together, the kids especially liked traversing the unfamiliar terrain.
View: What fun would a hike be if you ended up somewhere anti-climatic? The view from Craggy Dome makes every step worth it (and then some!) The 360 degree views are ridiculously gorgeous!
Is there a more magical time of year than Christmas? Our family loves EVERYTHING about the season, from a live Nativity to visiting Santa.
Always on the lookout for new traditions, I’ve had the Biltmore on our list for years. The rich history of ‘America’s largest house’ began at Christmas. And there is no house in the world that celebrates in such grand style! Therefore, I couldn’t think of a better time of year for our children to visit for the first time.
On the day of our visit, we arrived early. In fact, we actually picked up our tickets the night before so we could expedite our morning. Also, you can purchase tickets online. There are many options, and rates are discounted when purchasing in advance. Additionally, some days require an advance reservation. Visit their website for further details and to purchase tickets.
The ticket office and gate open 30 minutes prior to the house. Arriving early allowed us to avoid lines, park and shuttle to the front door. We even had time for a few quick pictures in front of the house.
Audio guides are available in both adult and children’s versions. Although originally doubtful of how much we’d enjoy them, I would say they made the experience 100% more exciting. Audio guides can be purchased at ticket office or once you arrive at the house.
I initially worried I would spend much of my time assisting our 4-year old with the device. However, after giving him a quick demonstration he remained completely independent for the rest of our tour. The children’s version features narrative by the family’s favorite dog, Cedric. Equally as informative as the adult version, the guide provided education as well as entertainment!
Although impressive any time of year, when decorated for Christmas the house hits another level of fairytale-like charm.
If I had to express one negative from the day, it’s that my children are ready for an upgrade to our Christmas decorations. The “measly” 10-foot tree in our family room doesn’t quite compare to the 35-footer! The conversations have already started about going bigger next year…ha!
Of course, in a house the size of Biltmore it’s hard to pick favorite areas. Personally, I couldn’t get past the amount of work needed to maintain each room. Obviously, Mrs. Vanderbilt had a lot of help, but still!
My favorite room was the one where Cornelia Vanderbilt was born, and subsequently had her own children.
My husband and children were partial to the lower level of the house. Brent enjoyed the kitchen, while the kids couldn’t get enough of the bowling alley and swimming pool!
The audio guides moved along at a nice pace. We all felt like we’d gained so much appreciation for the history by the end of our tour.
Upon exiting the house we strolled over to the stable to enjoy some treats.
After getting our car we headed over to the Biltmore Conservatory, and Antler Village.
On our short drive between the Biltmore House and Antler Village, we had to stop and admire the beautiful grounds. The 8,000 acre property boasts gorgeous views of the mountains and quiet forest ponds. Every inch is breathtaking!
Our children were equally as excited to visit the winery as we were once they learned there would be a grape juice tasting at the end!
We finished off our Biltmore House day at the Farmyard. The kids loved the playground and petting zoo!
It’s safe to say our family started a new Christmas tradition! We hadn’t driven off the grounds before the kids started talking about “next time.”
I can’t imagine a more perfect time to introduce our kids to the Vanderbilt legacy. The Biltmore House made quite an impression on them and they will look forward to future visits as much as I will.
For more information about the Biltmore and to plan your visit, visit their website.
Recently our family traveled to Sky Top Orchard to pick apples. Not just to pick apples, but to make memories. I mentioned in a recent post about having a fall “staycation” bucket list. My kids couldn’t wait to get started!
Personally, I don’t mind purchasing apples at our local grocery store. If I’m really feeling crazy, I drive the extra 5 miles down the road to our local produce stand. And, until recently, I’d never actually picked an apple off of a tree. By definition, I’m totally a “city-girl.” For my first apple picking experience, I decided we needed to go big.
“Going big” meant driving about 2 hours from our house to visit the best orchard in our area. While there were certainly closer places, we followed advice of friends and went the extra mile (literally.) I’m so thankful we made this decision because we made a few travel memories in addition to picking the apples!
Arriving at Sky Top Orchard we found a huge play area for kids, and a market. We opted to let our kids play for a bit (especially since they’d been riding in the car) while we indulged in the apple donuts. Nothing like a little sugar to motivate your picking!
When we were ready to enter the orchard we were handed a map, information about the seasons for each variety, and a big bucket. We were also guided on the price per pound, and the rules of the orchard.
We had the best time letting our kids pick different varieties of apples. My only disappointment is that many of the apples we picked looked a lot alike. I wish there had been a way to keep them separate so we knew which kind we were eating. Aside from that, everything about our experience was awesome!
For more information on Sky Top Orchard and their picking season, visit their website.
We wanted to try some of the local food in Flat Rock (other than the 15 donuts we ate at the orchard!) Using Yelp! we found Hubba Hubba Smokehouse. Our meal was absolutely delicious and the setting was so charming. I highly recommend grabbing some BBQ if you are in the area!
I’ve written this before, but it’s worth saying again- our family tends to be creatures of habit when it comes to beach vacations. We select our favorite beaches, eating establishments, and activities and stick to them. Lately we’re working hard to break out of our comfort zone and try some new spots. Also, we recently did something completely unconventional for us- we went to the beach without kids!
Carolina Beach was our destination of choice for this trip. Having never been to the area, we did our best to research prior to the vacation. We found a wide variety of opinions on the area. For every 5 people who agreed on a positive opinion of a place, there were 5 others who strongly disliked it. We couldn’t find a consensus on anything. So naturally, we went semi-rogue and I am writing our own “best of” review post.
Although we barely scratched the surface of options in the area, I do have some thoughts based on our quick visit. I look forward to testing the area out more in the future so I can do a more comparative and comprehensive review!
So here goes…the best of Carolina Beach (so far):
Courtyard Marriott Carolina Beach: Although this was the only place we stayed, I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. This hotel is beachfront with awesome access to the boardwalk and many of the shops/restaurants. The hotel design allows each room an oceanfront balcony. Yes, you read that right. Every room. Meaning, you don’t pay extra for that luxury. The hotel also features 2 pools (indoor and outdoor), a shell washing station, and a nice fitness center.
The Island Ice Factory: This is the 1 item I never knew that I always missed. Refreshing, sugary Italian ice delivered to your beach chair. Umm, yes please! Not only is the Italian Ice delicious, but it’s also affordable. Be sure to have cash, and purchase the Koozie. The initial cost is a bit more expensive ($6), but then you can refill it throughout your vacation for $1 per scoop. I will not publicly admit how many additional scoops I purchased, but I assure you that I got my money’s worth.
Bridge Tender: There are absolutely no adequate words to describe this meal. Not only was the food ridiculous, but the setting and service rounded out our incredible experience. This restaurant is located in Wilmington which is just a short drive from Carolina Beach.
Starbucks: Any diehard Starbucks coffee fan struggles in a small town. Unfortunately, they aren’t on every corner and not every local coffee shop cuts it. Rest easy because hidden inside the Courtyard Marriott is the most Starbucks-like non-Starbucks ever. It’s pretty much Starbucks- they have the same cups (although you just order small, medium or large), the same beans, and the same drink choices. Really, the only thing I found missing was the option to use the App.
Fish Bites Fish Market and Restaurant: If this place hadn’t been our final hurrah on our get-away I never would have agreed to go. We pulled up and it was in a strip center next to an Urgent Care. I could almost see the germs seeping through the wall and into my food. But my husband really, really wanted to go (thanks, Yelp!) I say all of this to make it clear- I had no intention of liking this restaurant. I don’t even like clam chowder (Brent made me try his), and now all I can think about is driving back for another bowl. Similarly, I will remember their shrimp and grits dish forever as the best ever. So, for the record, I’m thankful my initial judgement did not stop us from eating at Fish Bites. I will crave this food until we return to the area for more.
We plan to return to Carolina Beach sometime this winter (with the kids!) Please help us with our next “Best of Carolina Beach” list.
Located in the heart of downtown Raleigh (adjacent to the NC State University campus), Pullen Park offers a family oasis of fun. From a serene walk around the lake, to a train ride- there is something for everyone!
Pullen Park boasts an impressive history! Not only was it the first park in North Carolina, but it’s also the 5th oldest operating amusement park in the US (and the 16th oldest in the world!)
The park opens year-round and charges nothing for admission. However, the handful of rides operate on a ticket system. Tickets cost $1 apiece and most of the rides cost 1 ticket per person.
The park offers a very nice, well kept playground area. Signs mark the different sections with recommended age guidelines.
Children can run, jump, climb, slide and swing on a very safe surface. The playground equipment offers fun obstacles and a variety of challenges for children. Many of the features can not be found on other playgrounds!
Ticketed rides include: a train, a carousel, paddleboat, and a smaller boat ride. Children 12 months and younger ride free with a paying adult.
The park also boasts an aquatic center, and art center/theatre. There are several picnic areas available and even a cafe where you can purchase food.
Although Pullen Park operates year-round, the amusement and cafe hours are seasonal and may close in inclement weather. I recommend visiting their website prior to your visit to find out current times. I also recommend arriving before the official opening. We played on the playground prior to riding the rides and before the park got crowded.
Pullen Park must be added to your Raleigh travel itinerary! Our family absolutely loved it and we regretted that we didn’t allow more time during our visit to Raleigh to spend at Pullen Park.