A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to the Outer Banks for vacation, my sister sent me a news story about a mile-long island made of shells that appeared this year at the tip of Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We grew up shelling on Florida beaches and we have a special sisterly bond over searching for our favorite shells, whether perfect scallops or shapely corals or holey whelks. We could spend hours searching the sands. So of course we were going.
I was searching on Instagram for posts about the island, and came across some stunning drone footage on the Twitter account @loflandcody. The two brothers of Cygy Media normally film cars in Richmond, Virginia, but while in the Outer Banks they put their drone to work. They were kind enough to let me borrow their footage for use here.
How to get to Shelly Island
Shelly Island is at the southern tip of Hatteras Island, near the lighthouse. To get there drive from Buxton down the road toward the lighthouse, and follow it until the end. Look for Ramp 44, which leads to the point. If you plan to drive out to the point, you will need a beach driving permit (available ) and four wheel drive vehicle. If you don’t have a 4×4, you can park by Ramp 44 and walk to the point, but it’s not a very pleasant walk, what with all the trucks driving along the same mile-long beach.
To get to Shelly Island, from the point, you’ll need to cross a shallow channel. Time your crossing for low tide to avoid the strong currents that come with high tide. If you’re going with children, be sure they wear life vests. The channel and currents change with the weather, tides, and currents.
Please note: Islands like this can change quickly due to weather and currents. This information may be totally irrelevant by the time you read it.
Sometimes you just need an outdoor adventure. Climb some rocks. Swing from the treetops. Bike down a mountain. Kayak class 3 and 4 rapids, either natural or manmade. You might think of the American West for these things but rest assured, these outdoor adventure cities on the East Coast have you covered, too.
Richmond’s James River has been treasured for its beauty for centuries, but the current century has seen a rise in interest of a different kind.
It’s rare to find a city with class three and four rapids where you can kayak so close to the city center. In fact, you can pull your kayak out of the water and walk straight to a brewery or one of Richmond’s great restaurants in just minutes.
Named Best Town Ever by Outside magazine, Richmond’s outdoor adventures are no longer a secret.
In the middle of the river, Belle Isle offers rock climbing on its natural walls and boulders, with the city skyline in the background. The yearly Dominion Riverrock festival draws expert climbers from around the country to nearby Brown’s Island.
The James River Park system offers trails for hiking, running, and mountain biking on both sides of the river in the center of the city.
Road bikers will love the Virginia Capital Trail, which connects Virginia’s past and present capitals of Jamestown and Richmond along a scenic 52 mile paved route. Experience 400 years of history along one of the first inland routes in North America without having to dodge motor traffic.
Richmond hotels range from the basic to the luxurious. Try the Quirk Hotel for a modern boutique feel, and the greatest gift shop ever.
The mountain roads around Charlottesville are challenging, but the views of the mountains, valley, and countryside make the effort worth it. The city was designated a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, and the Rivanna Trail is a 20-mile ubran wilderness trail that circles the city.
Nearby Massanutten Resort offers skiing in winter, but summer may be even more exciting on its slopes.
Photo credit: Massanutten Resort
Opened in 2016, Massanutten Bike Park carries riders up the mountain on chairlifts fitted with easy-loading bike carriers. Beginners start on the gentle lower grades (after a safety conscious lesson), while advanced riders start at the top with steeper grades, banked turns, and jumps. Cross country bikers can explore the Western Slope of the park, offering 30 miles of trails through 3000 undeveloped acres of woodland.
Charlotte, North Carolina has a reputation as a pretty sterile city. But just 25 minutes from downtown, the U.S. National Whitewater Center hosts a variety of land and water activities for professional athletes and amateurs alike. Dedicated to promoting healthy and active lifestyles and developing environmental stewardship, the USNWC is home to the world’s largest man-made whitewater river.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center’s Deep Water Solo Climbing Complex
But don’t let the name fool you. The Center offers more than just whitewater activities. Rockclimbing walls, zipline canopy tours, controlled jumps, ropes courses, and 30+ miles of mountain biking trails cover the Center’s 1300 acres. And there are flat water activities, too. Those looking for less of an adrenaline rush can cruise the flat water by kayaking or stand up paddleboarding.
You can pay for a single activity, or buy a day pass to try them all. The Center is dedicated to outdoor education, so they offer classes and training in a variety of areas. Check their website for a current calendar.
Looking for places to stay in Charlotte? I am fond of the Aloft Hotel Ballantyne, but it’s on the far side of the city. There’s also an Aloft in the Charlotte city center. The closest hotel to the Whitewater Center is the Holiday Inn Express and Suites.
The mountain town of Asheville attracts outdoor lovers for its woods and rivers and trails, and everyone else for its artisan charm and the palatial Biltmore Estate nearby.
The great outdoors looms large, and adventure travelers can find many outlets for their adrenaline fix. From the peak to peak zipline at Navitat Canopy Adventures’ Blue Ridge Experience, where a nearly-mile-long course features tandem “racing-style” ziplines, to the whitewater paddleboarding at Wai Mauna, everything is just a little bit more intense in this ladi-back city.
You can also try “bellyaking,” a sport invented in Asheville that uses belly-down, face-first kayaks in the whitewater.
Photo courtesy ExploreAsheville.com
If all that doesn’t satisfy, maybe you’d like to hop on the Mountains to Sea Trail, a 1,000 mile trail from the Smokey Mountains to the North Carolina Coast. Or maybe you’d rather take a different kind of trail, hitting the many craft breweries and restaurants in the area.
Pick up a copy of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, which is based in Asheville, try not to be distracted by their acronym when you check out the BRO Events Calendar for outdoors and cultural events.
For all its automobile traffic, Washington DC is a surprisingly wonderful place for cyclists. The city encourages bike commuters to help alleviate the far too frequent gridlock. There are dedicated bike lanes throughout the city, and a vibrant bike share program. The major tourist destinations are in the flattest part of the city, and there are trails all around the National Mall that welcome cyclists.
The bike trails in and around DC have been legendary for years. Rock Creek Park is a green slash through Northwest Washington with several miles closed to auto traffic on Sundays. The George Washington Memorial trail goes all the way from Roosevelt Island in DC to Mount Vernon, the home of the first president of the United States. Going the opposite direction, the C&O Canal trail runs 185 miles north past Harper’s Ferry to Cumberland, Maryland. From there you can join the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and ride all the way to Pittsburgh!
This post is part of Trip.com’s Underdog City campaign.
We have been doing a lot of interstate driving – I-95 and I-64 to Williamsburg; the interminable I-85 to North Carolina and Atlanta; I-20 through Georgia to Alabama; I-22 from Alabama to Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, I-55 to Arkansas – and I am amazed at how fast people drive and how noisy it is in the van with the windows rolled down. Of course, I’ve been more aware of how fast everyone else is going because everyone else is going faster than us. Wesley at full throttle is closer to`the minimum speed limit than the maximum so it might be that folks are going as fast as the law allows. What I shake my fist at as they fly past us though is the way they change lanes at the last second nearly clipping our tail, try to pass on the right when the blinker is on signalling we are trying to move right to get out of the way, and how they look so damn smug in their cars with the automatic transmissions and the windows rolled up and air conditioning blasting. We’ve gotten a few honks and waves from folks who either feel some nostalgia for seeing one of these VW Westphalia dinosaurs still stomping the earth or can’t believe some idiot would take the thing on a public highway, but for the most part, people just want us in the rear view mirror.
The stretch of State Route 78 that we drove out of Birmingham, Alabama, may have been most unpleasant bit of driving I’ve ever done, and I cut my teeth behind the wheel in North Jersey and currently live in Northern Virginia, where drivers are notoriously unable to merge, thus turning twenty mile trips into day long ventures. It was hot. There were red traffic lights every hundred yards, narrow lanes and big trucks on all sides, and the only businesses that seemed to exist in the otherwise empty strip malls were pawn shops, Dollar stores, garages, fast food joints, and adult novelty superstores. And then we saw a WalMart and that explained why the other retail businesses – including a grocery store – had failed. The highlight of this part of our trip, by a longshot, was seeing a dead armadillo by the side of the road.
Another highlight – sunset in Mississippi
We’ve been on the interstate so much rather than the more time-consuming but interesting and scenic country roads because we are still on a schedule. We committed to meet R’s parents in Atlanta and my cousin in Arkansas on certain dates so we aren’t able to linger another day at camps that we like. We also want to get to Mexico, so pushing on day after day isn’t all bad, but it does change the dynamic from take your time to hurry up – which is opposite of how we envision life once we leave the United States in about ten days.
As R pointed out, the places we’ve been in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and now Arkansas, may turn out to be just as foreign to us as Mexico will be – maybe even more foreign because in Mexico we expect things to be different but in the States we expect things a certain way. It would have been nice to be able to spend some more time getting to know these places. Most of the Alabama that we drove through was flying the confederate flag from a ramshackle home that had several abandoned cars with weeds growing up through the engine block permanently docked in the front yard. Bet you don’t now how many used appliances you can discard by the side of a barn: a lot.
J and Coconut sleeping on the top bunk of Wesley after an evening downpour washed out the tent Coconut planned to sleep in
To be fair, our camp on Monday night on Clear Creek in Alabama, part of the vast Lewis Smith Lake, was pretty. And the drive west towards Mississippi on Country Road 278 was a nice change from interstate driving and revealed a few nice homes in seemingly otherwise forsaken towns. Maybe there is more to these towns than we could see – I don’t know – but at least our experience was a bit more organic because we drove through at about 45 m.p.h. and with the windows down. We did spend about 20 minutes chatting with a park ranger who had come to take a water sample near our camp in Fulton Campground on the Tennessee River-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi. He was enthused about our trip and may follow through on some of his own wanderlust – which would be great if we inspired him to do that. This is to say that anyone we’ve talked to has been nice.
This is the view we woke to at our Clear Creek camp in Alabama on Tuesday
Natural Bridge near the Mississippi – Alabama border. We stopped while driving along State Route 195 for a short hike and picnic lunch
For the most part, Coconut and J look at their screens while we drive and R navigates from the passenger seat or orders things on our friend’s Amazon Prime account that we forgot or have already lost. We are expecting R’s new swim shorts (three pair; they were on sale), her old lady face cream, a VW repair manual, and our replacement credit cards to be shipped to our next known address in Tulsa, which belongs to my cousin, who will host us next Sunday. Coconut is also hoping some of her friends will respond to the letters she sent.
The kids reading, doing other worthy things, or even playing some games on their screens while we drive is fine. Once in a while we can get them to look up at something interesting like a ride-on mower parked on a front porch and sometimes Coconut will ride shotgun so R can sit back with J and play cards. J spends a lot of time playing games on his Kindle and we need to help him download some books once we get to free Wifi.
Coconut reading a book after taking a swim in the lake
We haven’t spent much time living out of the van yet to establish a routine, but we have started to engage Coconut and J in helping set up camp when we arrive and doing some chores around camp while we are there. I’ve taught J how to scrounge unused or partially charred firewood from the unoccupied campsites and he’ll take off doing that and report back on the burned ones that are still good but that he doesn’t want to carry because he will get his hands dirty. Coconut will set up the chairs and her tent. They both do the dinner dishes. They’ve been receptive if less than enthusiastic about doing these things but we’re hoping that we can help our children succeed not by doing for them, but by showing them what they can do for themselves. This slower pace of life on the road is new to them, and we realize enthusiasm may go up as the temperatures go down. So far all any of us have wanted to do once we get to camp is put on our swimsuits and hit the water.
Rated America’s fastest growing city by Forbes, Raleigh increasingly is spreading out. Keeping in mind that Raleigh is part of the even bigger (and growing) Research Triangle that encompasses nearby Chapel Hill and Durham, the distances become even greater. To get a feel of what Raleigh has to offer, and enjoy some time outside of your car, consider booking a downtown hotel.
Raleigh has a surprisingly good (and green) transportation system, and the Capital Area Transit system will take you just about anywhere you need to go in the downtown area. Here are our top picks for downtown area hotels, depending on your preferences.
Originally built in 1969, this recently remodeled hotel has an exterior that definitely exudes a retro flavor. The huge, round tower is a dead ringer for Los Angeles’ iconic Capitol Studios. Rooms have a reasonable price. Try to get a room on one of the top floors for a spectacular view of downtown Raleigh and beyond.
If you’re looking for that southern charm, you can’t go wrong with the Carolina Inn. Built in 1924, it sits near North Carolina State University, and you will see many of the students’ relatives there on parent weekends. The hotel has a decidedly traditional style, filled with antique furniture and artwork. The property is part of the Five Star Alliance.
A recent renovation has freshened up this convenient hotel. It has everything you expect from a business hotel, including convenience to the convention center, and a lovely heated indoor pool and fitness center.
If you’re traveling with kids and you’re not a fan of retiring to bed at 8 p.m., having a suite can make or break your hotel stay. The Hampton Inn is a great option since it not only offers the space you need, but has an indoor pool to tire the little ones out before bedtime.
A recent renovation has put some modern flair into the DoubleTree’s design with an expanded lobby and bright furnishings. Their junior suites are a great option for families or groups of friends traveling together. Each suite has a private balcony. But really, with free cookies at check-in, none of that matters.
Although Raleigh spreads out, it is possible to stay in the middle of the action and get around using public transportation and the occasional taxi. You won’t want to miss some of the outstanding cultural offering, including the North Carolina Museum of Art and outstanding local theaters such as the Raleigh Little Theatre, one of the oldest in the country.
This post is part of the #HipmunkCityLove campaign by Hipmunk.
Recently rated the fastest growing city in the U.S. by Forbes, Raleigh is known mostly for new construction, urban sprawl, and general lack of personality. But scratch below the newly-built surface and you’ll find a city with a vibrant arts scene, live music, and homegrown brews.
The Visual Art Scene
The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) is the one of the leading art museums in the American south. Its collection spans over 5,000 years of world art. The museum’s 160-acre outdoor Museum Park is a great place to see some unusual oversized sculptures and enjoy a picnic, especially nice if you’re traveling with kids. The museum offers free admission to its permanent collections.
If smaller art galleries are more your speed, make sure you visit ArtSpace at City Market, a gallery space with a chic industrial look. In addition to the six or so changing gallery exhibits, there are activities for every age group, from art classes to special events.
Chatting with folks over a pint of home-town brew is a great way to get to know the locals while you travel. Raleigh has lots to choose from. A good option is a visit to the taproom at Raleigh Brewing Company, North Carolina’s first female-owned brewery. If you’re looking for more danger in your beer, try the Lonerider, which serves up some tasty brews with names like Shotgun Betty, Peacemaker, and Most Wanted.
Maybe you’d like a gourmet burger with that ale? Take a short drive to nearby Durham, and Bull City Burger and Brewery will hook you up. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, including the pickles, the buns, and even the hot dogs.
You can catch a traveling Broadway show at the gleaming North Carolina Theatre, but if you want to see local talent in a more intimate setting, try one of Raleigh’s smaller live theater venues. Raleigh Little Theatre is one of the oldest community theaters in the country and stages about a dozen shows a year. If you’re there in the spring or summer, make sure to visit their enchanting rose garden.
A bit on the edgier side, the acclaimed Burning Coal Theatre Co tends to perform modern plays or overlooked classics. Located in a former armory building on the edge of Pullen Park, the Theatre in the Park performs a mix of original productions and beloved classics.
North Carolina has a rich bluegrass tradition, and Raleigh is no exception. From days-long festivals to intimate shows, you will most likely be able to catch a show during your visit. Irregardless Café has live music and dinner service nightly, including lots of bluegrass shows. The city is also host to a number of bluegrass festivals, including the mammoth international Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, which draws over 140,000 people annually. If you’re traveling during the Festival, make sure you book your hotel room far in advance.
“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain
What seemed like a good idea at the time: going up to San Francisco from our home in L.A. to spend a weekend with my husband’s high-school friend and his new girlfriend, turned into a mortifying nightmare in practice. Part of the appeal of this trip was that the girlfriend in question worked for the Ritz Carlton and had gotten us a room (notice the singular article) for a fraction of the normal price. For struggling students, this seemed like a fantastic plan.
As it turned out, the girlfriend’s main hobby was to sit at restaurants and coffee shops while loudly mimicking the accents of the people seated at surrounding tables as we stared in shock. She also astounded an entire street of Chinatown tourists and locals when she donned a straw hat, pulled her eyes taut, and spun in circles on a crowded sidewalk with an improvised “Chinese” song. The charm continued later that night in “our” room when she spent half an hour on the phone with the Ritz pastry chef describing what she wanted him to “create” for her as a late-night snack. We hightailed it out of there and vowed to think twice before we traveled with other people again.
After years of therapy, I’m happy to say that we eventually were able to resume traveling with others. And then we had kids and found that travel compatibility matters even more when you’re traveling with another family.
Luckily for us, we have had great experiences traveling with other families. We have spent several summers vacationing in the Outer Banks with good friends and their two boys. This summer, we are traveling to Costa Rica with the same family we traveled to France with last summer.
We have found that asking yourself some thoughtful questions before the trip will help determine if you make good travel partners.
Do you have similar discipline styles? When we travel, we assume responsibility over all the children. This means, occasionally, that we will discipline the other family’s kids, and we expect the same from their parents. This approach may make some people uncomfortable but we find it necessary, especially when the kids outnumber the adults.
Do you have similar expectations from the trip? Do you expect to sit around the pool all day, spend days seeing the sights, go for long hikes, or a little of both? It helps to set out your expectations with the other family before you get there.
Do you all want to be the chief planners? We’ve found it best to split up planning tasks from the get-go or on a day-by-day basis. For example, in the Outer Banks, couples took turns with planning menus, grocery shopping, and cooking.
Do you expect to spend every minute together? Some people need more down time than others. Personally, I’m not very pleasant if I don’t get at least half an hour all to myself every day. It’s nice to know what to expect from your traveling companions so no one feels suffocated or shut out.
Have you spent time with each other’s families doing an unfamiliar activity? Try going hiking or visiting a museum a couple of times with the family before you go. If these short outings don’t go well, it may not bode well for your trip.
Traveling with other families isn’t for everybody and, as we learned, a trip’s success depends entirely on how compatible you are with your travel partners.